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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Brian - #7113

March 18th 2010

Mike at 7106:

Without independent evidence of the designers, science has no method to evaluate and determine whether or not something was designed.  …Meaning that if life and/or evolution was designed, science could not detect it.

I know it’s a long-standing analogy from the ID camp, but how would your principle be applied to SETI?  Namely, must we also say that:

Without independent evidence of the designers, science has no method to evaluate and determine whether or not something was designed.  …Meaning that if [a signal beamed across the universe] was designed, science could not detect it.

Therefore, the whole SETI enterprise is philosophy, or perhaps religion—but absolutely not science.  Agree?


Bilbo - #7118

March 18th 2010

Hi Brian,

Mike and I thrashed this out at great length at his blog.  We both agreed that SETI is in a better epistemic position than ID.  You can check it out at

designmatrix.wordpress.com

I think it was about a month ago.


Gordon J. Glover - #7119

March 18th 2010

Bilbo - #7100

“Now suppose, as a thought experiment, that before Darwin came along we had already discovered the inner workings of the cell—a world of carbon-based nanotechnology, where complex systems of complex molecular machines—guided by a complex storage and translational coded information system—worked in coordination to keep the cell functioning and reproducing.  How many think that teleology would have been discarded from biology?”

And prior to Newton and Galileo, people thought that angels pushed and pulled the heavenly orbs around the earth.  Yes, teleological explanations have always been a part of science, but history shows that they only last as long as our ignorance on the subject.  Even so, I don’t really have any problem positing teleological explanations as placeholders for a scientific explanations when descernable mechanisms are unknown.  The problem with the IDM is that they have fenced off certain areas of research as not just unknown, but *unknowable*.  And they do this because they think the theistic worldview hangs in the balance.  But for the rest of us, material explanations of natural phenomena are in competition with teleology.


Gordon J. Glover - #7120

March 18th 2010

Hi Brian - #7113

I’m afriad that your SETI analogy is flawed.  SETI researchers are not looking for “designed” things for the exact reasons you cited—how would we know what an alien radio transmission should look like apart from any information about the aliens?  We simply have nothing to match it with.

SETI researchers are concerned with electromagnetic transmissions that do not conform to those known to be produced by natural means.  For instance, a transmission across a narrow spectral band, regardless of the “content” of the message, would get their attention.  Not because it is what anybody would expect, but because such a signal would not be consistent with what is known to occur naturally.  But it’s still possible that there is some unknown stellar processes capable of focusing EM energy onto very narrow bands.

A skeptic would say that the odds of us not fully understanding how EM radiation is generated are greater than the odds of intercepting an alien transmission.  Just as the odds of us not fully appreciating the novelty that might emerge from biochemical necessity is greater than having a disembodied mind stringing together nucleic acids from his terrestrial laboratory 3.8 billion years ago.


Gordon J. Glover - #7121

March 18th 2010

Major correction to #7119

“But for the rest of us, material explanations of natural phenomena are in *NOT* competition with teleology.”

Totally blew it by leaving out the NOT.


Glen Davidson - #7127

March 18th 2010

How many think that teleology would have been discarded from biology?

Suppose you were right.  How much could biology (esp. taxonomy and other branches concerned with life’s relationships) have progressed without its acknowledging the lack of purpose and thought in “wild type” life? 

Glen D
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Gregory Arago - #7132

March 18th 2010

Glad you caught that one Gordon, as I was thinking that looked like a pitch into my sweet zone. = )

My question to you is: how do *you* go about ‘measuring’ teleology?

Most people agree that measurement (il faut compter) is part of what we call ‘modern natural science’ or even just ‘science’ in general. I know that you are not a ‘scientist’ but an engineer, which means you *are* dealing with teleologic in your work, without a doubt. But in case (hypothetically) this discussion were *limited to natural-physical sciences only,* do you propose that fields or disciplines under this heading could actually measure the teleological ‘causes/effects’ that you are affirming in your reply to Bilbo?

I’m curious to hear your response also because the ‘theistic evolution’ and ‘evolutionary creationism’ positions generally hold to notions such as ‘guidance’ or ‘directedness.’ Yet the view that teleology is hidden or kenotic is often raised. By your speaking of how one may or may not ‘measure’ teleologic causes/effects, this might give more bite to TEs and ECs than they currently possess. And it might assist BioLogos’ self-understanding too!


Bilbo - #7135

March 18th 2010

First, so far nobody has answered my question:  If we had known about the inner workings of the cell before Darwin, do you think that teleology would have been discarded from biology?

Second,  I noticed that the comments for all four of the Stephen Meyer and Darrel Falk blogs are inaccessible.  It couldn’t be censorship, could it?

At Falk’s last blog I posted links to Richard Sternberg’s responses, where he is building a case that most DNA is functional.  I wonder if there is a connection between my doing that and not being able to access those thread now.

As an experiment, I will post link to Sternberg’s latest, and see what happens:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/beginning_to_decipher_the_sine.html#more


Mike Gene - #7137

March 18th 2010

Hi Brian,

I do not consider SETI to be science.  I explore SETI, ID, and Science in detail here.

BTW, there are many forms of human inquiry that are neither science, philosophy, or religion.  Think of a police detective as just one example.


Gordon J. Glover - #7138

March 18th 2010

Bilbo,

I did answer you—indirecly.  But here I’ll be more direct.  NO - teleology would not have been discarded if our knowledge of the cell prior to Darwin was on par with what it is today.  But so what?  Newton thought that orbital stability of the solar system could only be achieved by occasional intervention by the creator—becasue the mutual gravitation interaction between the sun and planets was too “complex”.  What is the point you are trying to make?


Tayo Rockson - #7140

March 18th 2010

As a creationist, I do not think that this ideology is useless or is going nowhere. For one to truly understand how intelligent design works, he/she has to incorporate the Bible in his/her thinking because only then will the person be able to get an idea of whom the intelligent designer is. I obviously believe the intelligent designer is God.  in order to understand why the world is so complex, one has to accept that there is a supernatural being.

I believe that the reason scientists have a hard time of grasping the concept of an intelligent designer is because they are too naturalistic in their thinking. A lot of them fail to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a supernatural. However, when it all comes down to it, it does not make sense that the world has a certain order to it without a designer. How else would humans and animals have an organ system and a circulatory system that works only in a certain way? How else is it that we have seasons that occur without fail at certain periods of the year annually? These kind of things don’t just randomly happen, they had to have been designed by a designer and that designer I believe is God.


Gordon J. Glover - #7142

March 18th 2010

“How else is it that we have seasons that occur without fail at certain periods of the year annually?”

Apparently, God sent a massive asteroid to collide with earth and take out a large chunk of it.  The ejected debris coalesced into what ‘s known as the “moon” and the earth now has about a 22 degree tilt—causing the seasons to change as we orbit the sun.

But whether you believe this was by pure luck or by design, the material sequence of events do not change.  The same logic can be extended to anything we find in nature, which is why one’s view of teleology is usually determined by their faith commitments.


Gregory Arago - #7143

March 18th 2010

I appreciate you breaking the mould, Mike! When people think of ‘design theorists’ as – you know, “Those type of people!” (Wink, not again!) – they are probably not thinking of a person like you : ) For this I certainly give you credit & for blazing some kind of new (rabbit) trail.

Would it be possible to describe what you mean by ‘design investigation’ without using the word ‘design’? In other words, constructing, making, creating, building, tinkering (I know you like this one), are these things part of the telic ‘investigations’ you are doing?

Let me add to your statement (#7101), “science cannot determine whether or not design is in play,” that is, *unless* the ‘science’ involves ‘designers/makers’ that we know. Is this acceptable?

#7103 - ‘mutual understanding’ I like!

Are you suggesting that ‘scientists’ (e.g. chemists, ecologists, biologists, geographers, etc.) actually *should* look ‘outside of science’ to provide answers they may be missing ‘from inside’? This is what it sounds to me you’re saying, though I imagine you still do scientific work & highly respect it also.


Gregory Arago - #7144

March 18th 2010

“How else is it that we have seasons that occur without fail at certain periods of the year annually?”

“Apparently, God sent a massive asteroid to collide with earth and take out a large chunk of it.  The ejected debris coalesced into what ‘s known as the “moon” and the earth now has about a 22 degree tilt—causing the seasons to change as we orbit the sun.” - GJG

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” – Mark Twain

The general (non-scientific, but nevertheless valid) ‘argument to/from’ design that Tayo makes, I’m assuming that you as a TE/EC/BL are fully in agreement with, Gordon, that is, except for the science part. Am I correctly understanding you? An ‘argument to/from design’ is simply *not* (part of) science and that is the end of the story for ‘design’.

~
n.b. I am surely *not* suggesting anyone is a *savage,* *civilized* or a *saint* in this post, just citing Twain.

p.s. @Tayo, I’m not a ‘creationist’, for what I think are very good reasons, but I believe in creation and creativity too…


Bob - #7145

March 18th 2010

It seems like Giberson is saying that having questions about a claim means that one is puzzled about that claim.  Being puzzled is the same as being confused, but there are many occasions when people ask questions based on curiosity and not confusion.  If Giberson is confused and wants some questions answered to reduce that confusion, then here are the answers to his questions:

Why did our intelligent agent produce an information-rich string and sandwich it between two pieces of nonsense?

Answer: If a function for any sequence of genes is sought using all possible methods and no function is discovered, then we need not infer that that particular sequence is designed.  However, this does not mean that the information-rich string beside that non-functioning sequence is due to a non-intelligent process.


Bilbo - #7146

March 18th 2010

Gordon: I did answer you—indirecly.  But here I’ll be more direct.  NO - teleology would not have been discarded if our knowledge of the cell prior to Darwin was on par with what it is today.

Thank you for answering, Gordon.  The only one, so far.  Not even Mike.  Sigh.

But so what? ...  What is the point you are trying to make?

1)  The only reason teleology is not a part of biology today may be an accident of history—Darwin proposed a non-teleological explanation before we had detailed knowledge of the cell.

2)  That means there is no inherent reason why teleology cannot be a part of biology.

Newton thought that orbital stability of the solar system could only be achieved by occasional intervention by the creator—becasue the mutual gravitation interaction between the sun and planets was too “complex”.

That sounds like a fairly weak argument:  N is like C.  N is not D.  Therefore C is not D. 

By the way, can anybody else here get access to the comment sections of the Meyer/Falk threads?


Bob - #7147

March 18th 2010

Why do so many pieces of DNA look “broken” like our gene for making Vitamin C?

Answer: The broken-appearance of the gene making Vitamin C might be just an illusion.  If it serves a function there is no reason to infer non-intelligent causation for the gene.  The symbol “-” may look like a broken version of the symbol “E”, but upon discovering its function (ex., “non-intelligent”) we can consider it evidence, but not proof, of intelligent design.

And, how exactly, did our agent produce the strings in question?

Answer: That is a great research question.  I don’t know why this question is based on puzzlement, however. Some day science will be able to answer this question.  We can’t just throw up our arms and say, “We don’t know, therefore evolution”.


Bob - #7148

March 18th 2010

Giberson stated that ID has not reduced puzzlement within the scientific community and used this as a criticism of ID.  He must be informed that the reason ID has not accomplished this is because scientists have refused to apply it to their work.  No explanation will reduce puzzlement if scientists refuse to test it.  Giberson and others are the reason why ID has not led to new discoveries.  If I refuse to test natural selection, should I lack acceptance of it due to the fact that it never helped me discover anything useful?

ID is a great theory for DNA.  It predicts that any part of DNA that is designed should have a function.  Large amounts of research can be conducted searching for function within any parts of DNA.  It is not a science-stopper and it can promote research.  Viewing DNA as containing a language, an ID perspective will lead us to search for rules of grammar within the genetic code.  This, too, means lots of research.

Given the puzzling nature of Giberson’s blog, and if inferring intelligence never explains anything, should we refuse to explain the existence of this blog by reference to an intelligence?


Bilbo - #7150

March 18th 2010

Since I still can’t get access to the comments of the last three Meyer/Falk threads, I will post Sternberg’s threads here.  They are topical, since Giberson wonders about all the DNA that looks like gibberish:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/ayala_and_falk_miss_the_signs.html

If the comment section gets closed down, we may know why.


Gregory Arago - #7151

March 18th 2010

Bob wrote: “Viewing DNA as containing a language, an ID perspective will lead us to search for rules of grammar within the genetic code.”

Let me first admit that I am not a geneticist or a biologist or even a natural-physical scientist.

Nevertheless, when the topic of ‘language’ comes up I’m interested, serious and scholarly because communication is more my thing than biology.

Bob says: “ID is a great theory for DNA.”

I imagine a collective groan by BioLogos people because BioLogos people think BioLogos is a great theory for DNA! Is this correct?

After F. Collins’ “The Language of God”, BioLogos is saying that “a BioLogos perspective will lead us to search for rules of grammar within the genetic code.” BioLogos promotes doing good science.

This is where I see room for cooperation, rather than competition or antagonism btw two camps.

HOWEVER, Bob is not speaking *at all* about the ‘culture war’ dimension of two words infamous now by their connection with the IDM. Perhaps he doesn’t imagine how damaged ID’s reputation has become (e.g) when William Dembki put a Darwin doll in a vice-grip and ‘screwed it’ shut?


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