Does Intelligent Design Really Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

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March 15, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Does Intelligent Design Really Explain a Complex and Puzzling World?

Science seeks to explain the world. While philosophers have developed elaborate criteria for what constitutes an explanation without coming to a consensus, it has always seemed to me that a good scientific explanation has two primary characteristics:

  1. Complicated things are explained in terms of simpler things that are easier to understand or, more commonly, are already understood.
  2. Psychological puzzlement is reduced when an explanation is provided. There may still be puzzlement, but it should be either reduced, or relocated to some other unrelated phenomena.

These general considerations may explain why so few scientists are attracted to the explanations provided by the intelligent design movement. When an intelligent cause is offered as the “explanation” for certain phenomena, the explanation is more complicated than the phenomena. For example, if certain information-rich strings of DNA were assembled by an intelligence intervening from “outside,” that intelligent agent would be way more complicated than the string of DNA. We have greatly complicated our “system” by adding this designer to the mix of things that have to be organized into an explanation. We are trying to explain something relatively simple in terms of something very complicated.

The oft-used example of Mount Rushmore being the product of an intelligent agency is misleading. We can certainly detect that it is designed and we know that we must invoke intelligent—in this case human—designers to account for it. But our understanding of human behavior has been developed and refined over millennia. We take for granted that the patterns that make up the faces on Mount Rushmore pre-exist in the minds of the artists who did the work. Our “explanation” is really nothing more than a statement that a pattern has been transferred from the minds of the designers to the side of the mountain.

It seems to me that this winsome example conflates cause with explanation. Very little is truly “explained” by saying that a pattern has moved from one place to another.

A different example makes this point clearer. Suppose you find your friend with a bullet hole in his head and you wonder if this was a stray bullet or an assassination. You find a video recording and discover that there clearly was an assassin. So the death was “intelligently designed.” But is the assassin on the video the “explanation” for the death or simply the “cause”? Unlike the Mount Rushmore example, we lack a ready-made explanation for why an assassin would kill your friend. The identification of intelligent cause does not explain the phenomena at all.

The problem of puzzlement is similar. If we say that an intelligent agent has produced certain strings of DNA, are we more or less puzzled by the problem of DNA when we are all done? Frankly, I am more puzzled after hearing this claim. This “explanation” generates a set of questions even more troubling than our original query about how information-rich strings of DNA came to be. For example, what about DNA strings that look like gibberish? Why did our intelligent agent produce an information-rich string and sandwich it between two pieces of nonsense? Why do so many pieces of DNA look “broken” like our gene for making Vitamin C? And, how exactly, did our agent produce the strings in question? Dozens of additional questions arise.

Puzzlement is increased, not decreased by invoking an intelligent agent to explain natural phenomena. Scientists will thus not feel like they are making progress with this line of investigation.

Neither of these two key points can be formulated into a rigorous demarcation argument that neatly divides good scientific explanations from bad ones. French physicists, following Descartes, opposed Newton’s theory of gravity for decades. They thought the claim that bodies could reach across empty space and pull on each other so ridiculous—so puzzling—that they championed an alternative theory. In 1700 it would have been hard to resolve this question to everyone’s satisfaction. But the Newtonian effort had a vitality that carried it steadily forward until eventually the French alternative passed into the dustbin of history.

Complexity and simplicity are not as simple as they appear, however, so applying such criteria is far from trivial. Complexity does not, for example, have anything to do with how hard an explanation is to understand. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is harder to understand than the ideas of Newton that it replaced, but this is not because it is more elaborate or more complex. The challenges of understanding relativity come entirely from the associated mathematical equations that are harder to solve. There is a useful comparison with language here.

Imagine that all recipes for making cookies were written in Chinese and all recipes for making cakes were written in English. English speakers would find cookie recipes hard to understand; Chinese speakers would find cake recipes harder to understand, although their enthusiasm for bilingualism would certainly be helpful. The complexity of an explanation has to do with its “moving parts.” How many different components? How many time intervals have to be measured? How many subtle interactions have to be tracked? Is the history of the system relevant? How many interlocking phenomena have to be noted and related to each other? Regardless of the languages in which they were written, we would all agree that recipes for cake are more complex than recipes for chocolate milk.

The question of puzzlement is also complicated. What does it mean to say that “puzzlement is reduced” and how large a reduction is required for that process to be considered meaningful? One of the most puzzling features of the natural world, that perplexed astronomers for 2000 years, was the observation that the planets occasionally moved “backward” in the sky, executing what looked like loop-de-loops. Various complicated explanations were provided, the last one being that of Copernicus in his landmark book in 1543. Copernicus solved the problem by suggesting that the earth moved around the sun and the apparent backward motion of the planets was just an optical illusion created when the earth passed other planets in its orbit about the sun.

Copernicus’s breakthrough was not immediately hailed as a great explanation, however, because so many questions were raised by his claim that the earth moves. Many people were quite troubled by the claim that the earth was hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds without so much as a breeze or wobble. This seemed far more puzzling than the loop-de-loop motions of the planets. It was not until Galileo worked out the physics of a moving earth, and Newton showed how gravity could keep the earth in a stable orbit, that the new Copernican system seemed less puzzling.

Concepts like complexity and puzzlement are imprecise—clear in a general sense, but foggy around the edges. There is room for disagreement. And this is why it is so important to appreciate that science is a communal enterprise. A group of experts needs to brainstorm, argue, and even quarrel about explanations to make sure they are adequate. One of the greatest strengths of science is the way that skeptical critique has been built into the process. Many scientific ideas are stillborn because skeptics make demands that cannot be met and the futility of those ideas is quickly exposed.

Scientific progress has a certain “feel” to it and anyone who has spent time in a research group knows that feeling. There is a shared intuition that explanations are “drilling down” to ever more fundamental levels of reality. DNA is explained in terms of molecules; molecules are explained in terms of atoms; atoms are explained in terms of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are explained in terms of quarks. Puzzlement drives the enterprise but it seems to gradually and steadily reduce over time. Astronomers no longer fret over the many things that puzzled Copernicus.

Intelligent design does not “feel” scientific. It may not be the “science stopper” that some of its critics claim, but it seems to lack explanatory momentum. After nearly two decades of energetic exploration it seems to me that it should be going somewhere. We should be able to see how the initial ideas led to explanations that identified new questions and how those questions provoked investigations that uncovered ever more adequate explanations. The world should seem less puzzling now than it did.

But none of these things have happened, which explains why the initial goals of the Intelligent Design Movement have not been met, why the scientific community is paying no attention, and why Christians looking to understand the Creation should be skeptical.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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gangesa - #6937

March 16th 2010

Mike,

Scientists stopped considering “design” for several reasons.  Analogy illustrates, nothing else.  I did not say that, Gangesa in his magisterial Tattvacintamani “Thought-Jewel of Reality” in the 13th century, in the Upamana (Inference section).  Next, design isn’t a conclusion, science being endless, would investigate the how, where, when etc., of design.  You are too smart, Mike, not to know how much of a hair-raisingly daunting enterprise that is when you consider biology.  Anything can be a hypotheses and it is true that some hypotheses are easier to fund than others.


gangesa - #6943

March 16th 2010

There is a good reason why the “design hypothesis” doesn’t attract funding.  For one thing the “designmeisters” seem to have already made up their mind that “it is designed” so where is the hypothesis to be investigated or disproved?  Two, if; indeed “it is designed”, I am forking out a million quid or a billion, I want an experimental report written in the active voice not the passive.  We humans (Adi Sankara went further to insist so too all animals) are empirical by nature.  So let’s say we have learned over the years that some hypotheses are unproductive and some projects hold no prospects of generating knowledge.  Ignoring the design hypothesis is unscientific, and so is ignoring the demon theory of friction.


Nick Matzke - #6948

March 16th 2010

“Let’s get this thread back to the topic of Karl’s posting, as you seem to be in some serious conflict with his argument above.  If “all science really needs is a testable, constrained hypothesis” that “could be derived from prior knowledge of the designer, but it could also be pulled from thin air or from some intuition based on observed data,” then how does that square with Karl’s objections?”

Ah, it’s very simple.  Karl’s posting was talking about unconstrained design hypotheses, which do have the untestability problem.  A sufficiently constrained design hypothesis is a different beast and is testable.

Regarding the DI etc., of course they are also pushing an unconstrained design hypothesis.  There are several motives to avoid constraints—the constraints are typically theological notions about God, these typically aren’t constraints that produce much in the way of empirical expectations anyway (e.g. “God is good”), introducing theology nukes their public policy strategy for public schools, possibly obvious constraints like “optimal design” etc. turn out to be easily falsified, etc.


Nick Matzke - #6949

March 16th 2010

But it is possible that, say, in the early 1800s, that something like the special creationist’s model, where species were specially created in their geographical regions specifically to suit their local environment and nothing else, could have turned out to be supported by the data.  The data didn’t turn out that way (e.g. oceanic islands, ecological misfits, nonadaptive homologies, etc.), of course, and that’s always been the rub.  No one’s been able to come up with a constrained design hypothesis that survives the data of biology.


Nick Matzke - #6951

March 16th 2010

“Whoa.  So after all these years, it turns out you agree with my criticisms of designer-centrism?  In fact, you go further than me and get closer to the DI position than me in arguing that science does not require independent knowledge of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design.  Yes, I know you part company with the DI on the constraint thing, but let’s first pause to consider places of agreement.”

Heh, close, but you’re not quite there yet.  Science doesn’t require independent *knowledge* of the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives in order to infer design—but it does require *decently-constrained hypotheses* about the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives.  Oh, and it should go without saying (but people for some reason often get confused) that it’s not enough to just have a testable hypothesis to be “scientific”, the hypothesis should pass some tests and/or have some initial plausibility based on the known data.


Nick Matzke - #6952

March 16th 2010

So my position on this is still designer-centric—and frankly, the whole idea of an intelligent *design* explanation that is not designer-centric is fundamentally silly.  It’s like having a natural selection explanation that’s not selection-centric.  Deep down “ID without designer-centrism” is IMHO basically an attempt to dodge the hard problem of coming up with a testable, constrained ID hypothesis that is plausible on known data.


yes - #6972

March 16th 2010

Nick Matzke wrote:

“Science ... does require *decently-constrained hypotheses* about the designer’s identity, motives, methods, and objectives.”

Why it should require hypotheses about designer’s identity etc.? They are nice things to know, if possible. But are they obligatory… except, if the case is hypothesis about designer. But if it is hypothesis about design (and not hypothesis about designer; compare hypothesis about gravitation and hypothesis about explanation for gravitation), then I agree with you when you said well:

“All science really needs is a testable, constrained hypothesis. This could be derived from prior knowledge of the designer, but it could also be pulled from thin air or from some intuition based on observed data.  The hypothesis, wherever it came from, would then be tested against further data. This kind of method is how science learns new things, we don’t always start with knowledge, sometimes we just make a guess and test it. “


gangesa - #6978

March 16th 2010

yes,

A hypothesis about design is a hypothesis about the designer.  The folks at Seattle don’t want to give the game away that’s why they don’t wan to talk about the designer hypothesis, and that is why it is an unconstrained hypothesis.


Glen Davidson - #6981

March 16th 2010

Is it really shocking that science is about causation?  Yes, oddly enough, to hypothesize about design requires knowledge of the (specificied) cause of said design.

Because ID has no evidence for design, its proponents wish for “evidence of design” to involve anything but evidence relating to its cause.  That’s how we get amorphous and non-entailed “predictions” of complexity (IC, SC, etc.), when they don’t even have evidence of a designer operating 4 billion years ago which was capable of such a feat—let alone of normal aspects of design, like rational planning and purpose.

Rather than adding to our knowledge by demonstrating how a previously unknown cause explains aspects of life, they try to detract from our knowledge by claiming a “design” which is indistinguishable from expectations of non-teleological evolution, and which has neither the constraints of human designers and designs, nor, oddly, even the ability to go beyond evolutionary constraints like humans do.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Gregory Arago - #6984

March 16th 2010

RJS wrote:

“‘Information age’ is a cultural statement, not a biological one on any meaningful level.”

Well, I’d say it’s more than ‘just cultural.’ It is political, economic, social, technological and other realms as well.

I fault the IDM for its ‘biology-first’ approach. This doesn’t seem necessary. We can study ‘design’ and ‘intelligence’ legitmately outside of biology. So why force these terms into a container that doesn’t seem fit to hold them?

As I wrote to Karl: “The ID people are exploiting the power of the term ‘information,’ just as is BioLogos, by focussing on the ‘language’ of God.”

Where does the information and/or the language come from?

Karl wrote: “ID has produced no such new theory about information.”

Has BioLogos produced an ‘equation’ for how biosphere *is* ‘the language of God’?

I don’t mind criticizing ID either. But let’s play fairly.


Gregory Arago - #6986

March 16th 2010

Nick #6905-10

“...or stop complaining that mainstream, day-to-day science is horribly infected with “materialist”, “atheist” bias, and instead admit that day-to-day science, like history, law, mining, etc., is appropriately excluding the supernatural” - Nick

Some sciences are ‘infected’ with ideologies that obscure them from discovering truths about both the natural and the non-natural worlds.

I’m glad you list ‘history and law,’ Nick, as ‘science,’ because neither of those is based on ‘naturalism’ as an ideological principle. One thus cannot foist such a false dichotomy as ‘natural’ either/or ‘supernatural’ on those respective fields.

If one discounted the power of religion or even spirituality in historical sciences, one would touch only the surface of human existence. Likewise, to speak of the ‘spirit of the law’ gets us beyond ‘naturalistic,’ ‘positivistic’ or ‘empiricistic’ assumptions.

Such assumptions may serve one well in a natural-physical science (e.g biology), while in other fields they are dispiriting or disenchanting to human reality.

“there is no way for us to tell if some divine action has occurred.” – Nick

What then is your solution to this? Presupposition?


Gregory Arago - #6987

March 16th 2010

Question: “How does one get from non-information to information (ORIGINS) without mind/Mind?” - Gregory

Answer: “By producing small amounts of information through chance, and saving the useful information through selection.  Next question.” - Nick

Isn’t there something logical you’re forgetting here, Nick? I’m not calling you illogical, because I’m sure you’re a very logical guy (and I’ve read this already in your posts). But there is a philosophical hole in your answer. Will you openly address it?

One simply cannot ‘produce small amounts of information’ if there *IS* no pre-existing information in the first place.

Biological evolutionary theories are not primarily about ‘origins,’ but rather about ‘processes’ of change in pre-existing materials-nature.

Darwin didn’t offer an ‘origins of life’ scenario, nor does ‘evolutionary biology.’

But I don’t need to offer a definition of ‘information’ to make this argument. Gradualism doesn’t get the job done here.


gangesa - #6988

March 16th 2010

Gregory,

Information is everywhere all the time.  You make the mistake of conflating (confusing) a description of information with the information itself.  Information that is useful to you and me may not be useful to someone else, and information that cannot be gleaned from an event or an entity exists all the same.  Shannon, K-C or anything else are limited to their respective contexts.  Even within those contexts the actual flow of information is a continuum.


Nick Matzke - #7003

March 16th 2010

“Some sciences are ‘infected’ with ideologies that obscure them from discovering truths about both the natural and the non-natural worlds.

I’m glad you list ‘history and law,’ Nick, as ‘science,’ because neither of those is based on ‘naturalism’ as an ideological principle. One thus cannot foist such a false dichotomy as ‘natural’ either/or ‘supernatural’ on those respective fields.

If one discounted the power of religion or even spirituality in historical sciences, one would touch only the surface of human existence. Likewise, to speak of the ‘spirit of the law’ gets us beyond ‘naturalistic,’ ‘positivistic’ or ‘empiricistic’ assumptions.”

Religion and spirituality are fine, they are obviously phenomena that occur in human societies, like sports or whatever.  But we were talking about miracles.  Try inserting those into history and law and see how far you get…


Nick Matzke - #7005

March 16th 2010

“Such assumptions may serve one well in a natural-physical science (e.g biology), while in other fields they are dispiriting or disenchanting to human reality.

“there is no way for us to tell if some divine action has occurred.” – Nick

What then is your solution to this? Presupposition?”

Eh, well, if experience shows that miracles are not scientifically useful, and if we can’t find a methodology to identify miracles anyway, well then it just doesn’t matter very much scientifically.  Miracles will be ignored in science (and law, history, etc.), but individuals can make up their own minds as they do on any religious question.


Steve Hammer - #7008

March 16th 2010

Gregory states (rather confidently):
One simply cannot ‘produce small amounts of information’ if there *IS* no pre-existing information in the first place.

Yet I am reminded of Gordon’s (or was it Glen’s) story of the snowflake, which, while being formed in the atmosphere, encodes the history of the conditions in which it was formed.  Surely this is functional information, by any of the proposed definitions.
  Does the existence of this information depend in any way on having a sentient being to interpret it?
  Is the pre-existing information (that of the environment which formed the snowflake) any different in principle from that recorded in the genome or for that matter in the biochemistry responsible for its formation?


hmm - #7014

March 16th 2010

Nick Matzke,

Gregory has a point.

Evolution is guided by God (at least partly) or it is not. And you know that “there is no way for us to tell if some divine action has occurred.” For example natural selection may be “supernatural” explanation (if it is process God uses) or then it is “natural” explanation (if God doesn’t involve). But you cannot know, which of these alternatives is correct one, because “here is no way for us to tell if some divine action has occurred. It is possible that the process of natural selection is just a serie of continuous miracles.


Nick Matzke - #7024

March 17th 2010

It’s possible that geological erosion is just a series of continuous miracles, too, but (a) you can’t empirically test such vague, unconstrained ideas (what does “continuous series of miracles *even mean*, anyway??), therefore (b) they are irrelevant in science.

This is why even a great many Christians who are scientists are happy to say that science is about natural processes, and that it is not anti-religious or atheistic to exclude miraculous explanations from science.


hmm - #7044

March 17th 2010

Both Christians who are scientists and atheist scientists can say that science is about natural processes, but the meaning of “natural” in the sentence is often different in their sentences. For christian “natural” means the way how God normally acts. And from atheist’s view that is “supernatural”. For example a christian can see evolution as a front loaded and guided process.

Personally for me it is difficult to know, what ““supernatural” is/means (can we know anything that is surely non-supernatural?). According my dictionary miracle is “an event that is attributed to a supernatural cause”. From atheist’s perspective all the God’s actions are supernatural. But from my perspective there wouldn’t be any actions in our world without God’s permission and guide. So from my view science is full of “supernatural” explanations (if used normal definition of “supernatural”). If God is “supernatural” by definition, and when I see nothing to happen without God, then our world is just miracles. Of course there are rules and laws how things normally happen.


hmm - #7045

March 17th 2010

In science there are lot of things and explanations, that are named or presupposed as “natural”, but which may be in fact “supernatural”.

““Science began as an outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists…..accept an essentially theological worldview.”  -Paul Davies


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