A Brief Philosophical Critique of Intelligent Design

A Brief Philosophical Critique of Intelligent Design

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Metanexus:Views 2001.09.17 2989 words

Today’s columnist, Michael Lotti, asks us to think about intelligent designby first picturing the following uncomplicated image:

“I am walking on the beach when I see a watch lying on the sand. Uponseeing the watch, I can, say the ID theorists, infer that it isintelligently designed. This is, of course, true. The interestingquestion, however, is why it is true. Some ID theorists claim that it isbecause of the watch’s complexity. This surely cannot be the case, however,for if I find something uncomplicated on the beach like a paper clip or atire tube, I can also infer “intelligent design.” How can I infer this?The answer is fairly simple: I know that the watch, the paper clip, and thetire tube are all man-made. They are all, in other words, manufactured orassembled according to a design, for a human being or a group of humanbeings made them. Complexity has nothing to do with it, but humanity haseverything to do with it.”

Humanity has everything to do with it. It would seem so, as we are onceagain thrown back upon the question of whether the perception of design innature is merely an artifact of human experience. Namely, is intelligentdesign simply a kind of anthropomorphosizing of the natural world? Or is itsomething more? Kindly read today’s essay to explore just these issues. Andplease send your comments to me, Stacey Ake, at <ake@Metanexus.net> or clickon the comment button at the bottom of the webpage to share your views.

Michael Lotti currently teaches humanities at Trinity School at River Ridgein Bloomington, MN. He received his doctorate in Philosophy from theUniversity of Wales, Swansea. His main interests are the philosophy ofscience, the philosophy of religion, and the teaching of the “Great Books”.

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: A Brief Philosophical Critique of Intelligent DesignFrom: Michael LottiEmail: mlotti@hotmail.com


Intelligent design theorist William Dembski does not like the accusationthat he is offering, in the guise of science, a new attempt at naturaltheology. Thus, he has asked that the arguments for intelligent designtheory (hereafter, ID theory) be taken simply as arguments. They should, inother words, be criticized or praised on their own merits and not because ofwhat they may or may not be leading to.

Dembski’s request is a reasonable one, and this article an attempt tohonor it. To be specific, this article attempts to avoid wandering intotheology’s yard or science’s domain while carrying out a purelyphilosophical criticism – call it a conceptual criticism if you will – ofthe two central claims of ID theory. The first claim that I criticize isthe idea that we can find, in nature, something “intelligently designed;”
the second is that there is positive substance behind the claim thatsomething is “intelligently designed.”

Intelligently Designed vs. Naturally Developed

Here is a bold assertion: the distinction between “intelligentlydesigned” and “naturally developed” is only sensible insofar as it directlycorresponds to the distinction between “man-made” and “natural.” If this iscorrect, it severely undermines the project to create a viable ID theory.But to that in a bit. Let me first explain why I make this assertion.

Start with an uncomplicated image: I am walking on the beach when I see awatch lying on the sand. Upon seeing the watch, I can, say the IDtheorists, infer that it is intelligently designed. This is, of course,true. The interesting question, however, is why it is true. Some IDtheorists claim that it is because of the watch’s complexity. This surelycannot be the case, however, for if I find something uncomplicated on thebeach like a paper clip or a tire tube, I can also infer “intelligentdesign.” How can I infer this? The answer is fairly simple: I know thatthe watch, the paper clip, and the tire tube are all man-made. They areall, in other words, manufactured or assembled according to a design, for ahuman being or a group of human beings made them. Complexity has nothing todo with it, but humanity has everything to do with it.

If this is right, then it is misleading to talk about “inferring” design atall. I know that something is designed if it is man-made. Indeed, if Ifound a watch on a beach and truly wondered if it was “intelligentlydesigned,” one would have the right to think that I am either abysmallystupid or more primitive than the most primitive tribe in existence today.It would seem, then, that the act of “inferring” design can be meaningful inonly two settings: 1) Discerning whether animals display something like thehuman capacity to reflect, consider, learn, and conceptualize via the thingsthey manipulate, and 2) Discerning whether or not something – anarrowhead-shaped rock, for instance – is man-made. The questionssurrounding 1) are fascinating but irrelevant to the discussion of IDtheory. The fact that 2) exists only underlies the irreducible connectionbetween “intelligently designed” and “man-made.” It makes perfect sense towonder if this rock was an arrowhead or if these stones formed a fire ring,for people can (or would) at one time have uses for arrowheads and containedfires, and people can (or would) manipulate the natural world – conceivably,according to a pre-conceived design – to make them. It makes no sense tosay that a starfish or some seaweed on the beach is intelligently designed,for we know that no human made them. Starfish and seaweed occur naturally,which is the same thing as saying that they are not man-made.

This is why the search for causes in the man-made world and the naturalworld are so completely different. If I want to know how a watch came to be(however strange that sounds), I can either ask the designer or, if thedesigner is not available, find some books on watch design. If I want toknow how a starfish or some seaweed came to be, I of course have no accessto such design-data. I must, then, look to the natural world and itsvariety of causes and effects for an explanation. I can use books andarticles, but ultimately, the information gathered in such publicationsdepends upon observation of the natural world and not upon consulting adesign or a designer. This means that no appeal to “intelligent design” ispossible when attempting to explain why the natural world – or, to speakmore strictly, why this one, small part of the natural world – is the way itis.

This seems clear enough to me, but ID theorists would accuse me of beggingthe question. Even if one grants that “design” implies human intelligence,they could say, one cannot necessarily rule out a non-human intelligencewhich intervened here and there in the history of the cosmos. The problemwith this move, however, is that by removing the human component fromdesign, one also removes the possibility of discerning design at all. We donot naturally know what a non-human intelligence would be like, so we haveno idea how it would design anything at all, nor do we know anything aboutits “purposes” in the sense that we know about the purpose of an arrowheadand a fire-ring. Let me put this another way. To say that “signs ofintelligent design” might be everywhere, but detectable nowhere inparticular, is to concede that no detail points to an intelligent designer.One can say, for example, that “God the Father created all that is, seen andunseen,” but the word “everything” leaves no room for discriminating God’shand in any particular thing. The thrust of the claim, indeed, is thatwhatever exists is God’s, which means that it is a general, not a specific,claim. As Hume noted so long ago: if God exists, the way he creates anddesigns is qualitatively different from the way human beings create anddesign. More recently, Wittgenstein said, “what is hidden is of no interestto us,” which means, in this case, that because God is not discernible inthe details of the natural world (i.e. God is hidden), then He is of no helpor interest to us when we try to account for details of the natural world.Thus ID theory, which claims to be about the particular details of thecosmos and not the broad claims of natural theology, can never get off theground.

At this point, ID theorists are prone to object by pointing to SETI; i.e.the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. They make this appealbecause SETI is, indeed, a search for intelligent design in the natural(albeit extra-terrestrial) world. The hope of this enterprise is thatextra-terrestrial intelligence will someday be evident, probably in the formof an electro-magnetic transmission. This appeal to SETI, however, onlystrengthens my point about the necessary human connection to intelligence,for the only thing we could recognize as intelligent is something that ahuman being could also produce. The classic example is the sequence ofprime numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, etc. If a human being were to utterthese, we would say that they know the prime numbers (or, perhaps, wereimitating someone who did – either way, it counts as intelligence). If wereceived such a transmission from outer space, we would conclude thatsomething out there has intelligence – not primarily because the odds areagainst it happening randomly, but because it is simply something thatperfectly aligns with a sign of human intelligence. In this example, we canalso note the human qualities of manipulating the natural world for apurpose; i.e. creating a transmission of electromagnetic impulses for thepurpose of communication.

Once I have granted the possibility of discerning non-human (orextra-terrestrial) intelligence, I need to modify an earlier claim. I saidthat inferring design can only be meaningful in the case of deciding ifanimals have intelligence or if an artifact is man-made. I now have to saythat one can infer non-animal, non-human intelligent design, but with oneimportant qualification: we can only discern non-human design insofar as thething in question corresponds, in some way, to something that a human woulddesign. In this way, the starfish and seaweed (and just about everythingliving) still cannot count as possibly designed by a non-human intelligence,for there is no correspondence in these things with anything a human woulddesign, and there is no obvious purpose behind the existence of starfish orseaweed that would lead a human being to make one.

Please note again that it would do no good to say that whatever produced thestarfish or seaweed may possess a “higher” intelligence, for we have noconcrete idea of what such an intelligence would be like. We can onlyrelate to and conclude about intelligence insofar as it is human-like. Thisdoes not mean, of course, that an alien intelligence would have to have afully human or mostly human intelligence to be grasped as an intelligence atall. It simply means that to recognize something non-human as havingintelligence, there must be some direct correspondence with humanintelligence.

The Empty Claim

Some ID theorists have admitted that positing a possible butindiscernible divine or alien intelligence is of no help in establishing IDas a workable scientific theory. They offer an alternative version of IDtheory, however, and this brings me to my second philosophical critique.

The alternative version goes like this: where no natural explanationsare forthcoming, ID is a plausible option. Focusing on biology, MichaelBehe points to two things: the existence of things that are “irreduciblycomplex” and the brute fact that no even remotely plausible (and testable)mechanism has been developed to account for the development of life frominert molecules. Taking a mathematical approach, William Dembski argues,essentially, that the odds of certain things occurring by chance are sogreat that it is only reasonable to suppose (or hypothesize) that theyoccurred by design.

I want to say that claiming “intelligent design” as an explanation (oras a possible explanation) in such cases is vacuous. It is, in other words,no more than an acknowledgement of the lack of a naturalistic explanation.

Consider the following limited analogy – and I will explain why it islimited in a bit. A murder occurred in City X on January 1. Now while CityX is unfortunately normal in that it has murders, it was unusual in that ithad three distinct crime organizations that, up until January 1, had beencommitting all the murders in the city. Even more unusual was that eachcrime organization had its own “murder signature.” Crime Organization Aalways used knives, Crime Organization B always used revolvers, and CrimeOrganization C always used rifles. So, when the Police Chief of City X wentto investigate the crime scene, he was surprised to find the cause of death”poisoning.” He inspected the body and, sure enough, there were noknife-wounds on the body, nor were there any signs of bullets. Word of thestrange murder got to the media, and when they asked the Police Chief aboutit, all he could say is, “we don’t know who committed this murder. We onlyknow that someone did it.”

This statement – “We only know that someone did it” – is not a positivestatement. It does not point to Crime Organization A, B, or C, but onlyaway from them. To put it another way, it is not a statement backed up byknowledge that leads to a particular conclusion, but by knowledge that leadsaway from particular conclusions. One could say, if one qualified itcorrectly, that it is essentially a statement of ignorance.

The Police Chief’s situation is not helpless, of course. He simplyneeds to expand his list of possible causes and perpetrators of murder inCity X, even though, up to that day, there had never been any other causesor perpetrators. Someone from outside of City X may have committed themurder, the Chief might speculate, or perhaps a new crime organization hasbeen started. It might even be the case, he may think, that one of theexisting crime organizations has developed this new modus operandi for itsdirty work. Until he has conclusive evidence for one of thesepossibilities, however, he has to repeat his original statement of ignoranceif he wants to be honest. In other words, he is ignorant of the identity ofthe murderer, for nothing that has counted for knowing the identity of amurderer in City X has been fulfilled. If the Police Chief says, forexample, that “someone from City Y must have done it” because “that is theonly possible explanation,” anyone would be right to accuse him of claimingto know more than he knows unless he comes up with some specific evidencefor singling out City Y.

This is a very close analogy to someone saying that, in lieu of a lackof natural explanations, something is (or could be) “intelligentlydesigned.” Note first that any explanation of natural phenomena will befull of unknowns or “gaps.” Start wherever you like – with starfish orseaweed or blood vessels or magnesium or quarks or whatever – and thenatural world quickly reveals itself as a puzzling or even mysterious place.When natural explanations come to an end and someone says that an”intelligent designer” must be responsible, this is the same as the PoliceChief saying that the murderer must be from City Y. This is not a validexplanation because it does not address, except in an arbitrary way, thedetails of the murder. Likewise, a claim about intelligent design, becauseit is, as described earlier, inherently indeterminate, is similarlyarbitrary and useless. Thus, there is no positive substance behind eitherclaim; there is only the knowledge that no existing explanation can do thejob and thus another explanation is needed. What the other explanation mustlook like or even might look like, however, is unknown, other than that itmust fit the relevant facts.

The disanalogy between the Police Chief and the ID theorist should beobvious. The Police chief can, indeed, say that “we only know that someonedid it,” for murder is an act which by definition requires a “someone.” Toput it somewhat strangely, we know that murder is “intelligently designed,”for we know that it is something that a human being does for distinctlyhuman purposes. When looking at the natural world, however, there is no”someone” to appeal to when natural explanations fail. As discussed before,there is no discernible human design or human purpose in natural processes.The claim, then, is empty.

It can also be noted that without a discernible “someone” behind unexplainednatural phenomena, ID theory adds nothing to our knowledge of the phenomenain question, even if it seems to add something. It would be much morehonest, in the face of something inexplicable, to say that “we don’t knowwhy X is the way it is.” One could either leave it at that or, possibly,consider avenues of natural explanation that have not been consideredbefore.

If all that I have said is correct, then ID theory is not simply vacuous,but also a mistake in the quest for knowledge and understanding. And ifthat is true – and here I admit that I am taking off my philosophical shoes- then it should be suspect in any religion where knowledge is valued eitherfor the sake of itself or for the sake of improving the world. But that, ofcourse, is the subject of another essay, one that I hope will appear soon inMetanexus.

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