Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Intelligent Design/Justin Bieber Connection

Okay, so this blog title is a bit misleading. My aim here, really, is to critically assess a proposal offered by Randal Rauser on his blog. Randal’s blog is one I like to check in on occasionally, since Randal is a philosophically-trained theologian who is consistently thoughtful, clear, and witty. While he self-identifies as an apologist in a way that I do not, his brand of apologetics is far more appealing to me than, say, William Lane Craig’s.

That’s not to say I always agree with him. About a month ago he put up a post, "In Search of an Arsonist," that I would likely have commented on—in critical terms—if I hadn’t been grieving my father’s death. The post had to do with the method by which we determine whether something is the product of intelligent design. Randal’s thesis is that we decide that something is the product of intelligent design by ruling out other causes until intelligent agency is all we’re left with.

Sometimes, of course, this is exactly how we proceed. Randal offers the example of forensic investigators who conclude that a fire was arson (and hence the result of intelligent agency) by ruling out other causes. But can we generalize from such cases? Is it always or even usually true that we infer intelligent agency by a kind of process of elimination? More significantly, can we or should we rely on such a process in the effort to infer an intelligent designer behind natural phenomena?

Before tackling these questions, I want to take a slight digression. Specifically, Randal’s arson investigation case is precisely the kind of case commonly invoked by members of the so-called “ID movement” to support their claim that what they are doing is science—that it is methodologically in line with established scientific procedures and so should qualify as science. Is this right?

I’m not sure Randal wants to draw this conclusion. After all, if intelligent agency is best inferred by ruling out other kinds of explanations, then the quest to decide whether phenomena in the natural world are the product of intelligent design might best be pursued by dedicating a discipline to the task of uncovering and testing these other kinds of explanations. In short, we might use Randal’s point as a basis for arguing that science should be “methodologically naturalistic” in something like the way that opponents of ID movement insist it should be.

But let’s set this concern aside for now. To determine whether the ID movement is pursuing an approach that qualifies as scientific, we need to know how ID theorists actually defend their views. As I understand it, the modern ID movement (as opposed to believers in design or defenders of philosophical arguments from design) grew out of "creation science," and it shares with its predecessor the political aim of getting the God hypothesis into the public school science classroom. But ID's approach is much more sophisticated than what one finds in creation science, setting aside pseudo-scientific arguments for the literal inerrancy of Genesis in favor of modern updates of William Paley’s version of the argument from design. Where the modern updates differ from Paley is not in the basic logical structure of the argument, but rather in their choice of examples of things-that-are-best-explained-by-positing-a-God.

Contemporary ID theorists typically rely on examples taken from two sources: molecular biology and physics. The first version of the modern argument, which might be called the Argument from Irreducible Complexity, relies primarily on the views of biologist Michael Behe. Put simply, the argument runs as follows: Certain complex biological systems on which organisms rely are said to possess the property of “irreducible complexity”—that is, they are such that, were they to be rendered any simpler by having any of their components removed, they would cease to function altogether and so would confer no adaptive advantage on organisms possessing them. Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, it is argued, cannot account for the emergence of such irreducibly complex systems, since evolution explains complex systems in terms of incremental increases in complexity, where each such increase is preserved by the adaptive advantage it supposedly confers. Intelligent design, by contrast, can account for such systems. There is, supposedly, no credible third alternative. Therefore, these systems are best explained by positing an intelligent designer.

Second, we have what’s sometimes called the Fine-Tuning Argument. A set of physical constants are said to possess the property of being “fine-tuned” for the emergence of organized complexity (and hence life). No purely physical theory, it is argued, can adequately account for such fortuitous fine-tuning. Intelligent design can. There is no credible third alternative. Therefore, the fine-tuning of the universe is best explained by positing an intelligent designer.

In each of these cases, what the ID movement offers is an argument, some of whose premises are susceptible to assessment in the light of established scientific methods. But notice what it doesn’t offer: a strategy for positively testing the “intelligent design hypothesis” itself. Instead, what we have is a disjunctive argument in which ID theory is endorsed based on a process of elimination—which is, of course, precisely the mechanism that Randal endorses as the proper one for inferring intelligent agency.

One question we can ask is whether reliance on such a disjunctive argument alone can ever justify one in saying that the conclusion reached was arrived at scientifically. Clearly, scientists can and do make use of this sort of disjunctive reasoning—ruling out known causes for a phenomenon as a way of concluding that some unknown cause is at work. But this is typically a kind of prelude to further scientific work, involving speculation about what the unknown causes might be, and then conducting experimental tests (in some sense repeatable) to determine whether one’s guesses have any merit.

But maybe invocations of intelligent design just can’t work like that, because intelligent design brings things about through agency, and agency is subject to will rather than uniform laws. The argument might go as follows: When a hypothesized cause is mechanistic (to use Hermann Lotze’s language), we can test it—by, paradigmatically, making predictions and seeking to falsify them. But freedom isn’t law-like and so doesn’t allow for that kind of testing. And intelligent design inevitably involves an exercise of freedom. Thus, intelligent design can’t be tested for scientifically, and so can only be rationally embraced in some other way. Perhaps this “other way” is the process-of-elimination approach Randal endorses: If nothing else can explain it, we are left with intelligent agency by default.

If so, we might well ask whether this process-of-elimination approach qualifies as science (i) always, (ii) sometimes (and if so, when and why?), or (iii) never. If it isn’t science, then this just goes to show that intellectual inquiry can and does proceed beyond the boundaries of scientific inquiry, invoking a palette of resources that are still available when science has hit the limits of what it can do with its methods. At stake here is not just the credibility of other methods of inquiry, but the political agenda of the ID movement. If this sort of thing isn’t science, then it shouldn’t be in a science classroom—although it arguably should be part of high school education even so, as part of the philosophy curriculum that high schools shamefully lack.

But the question of whether the process-of-elimination approach to inferring intelligent agency is science needs to be assessed in the light of a deeper question: Is it generally true that we can and do infer intelligent design by elimination of other causes?

I think that, in fact, the situation is much more complex. Consider again the case of the forensic scientists investigating a fire. In this case, we have a certain kind of event (a fire) about which we have considerable experience. On the basis of this experience we have derived a list of “known culprits”—that is, kinds of causes (lightning strike, untended campfire, discarded cigarette, deliberate arson, etc.) which are typically responsible for an event of this kind.

In a situation of this sort, we can systematically rule out the various kinds of causes until we are left with only one—and thus, by process of elimination, arrive at the conclusion that, most probably, the cause was of the remaining kind. I say “most probably” because, even though a rich body of experience tells us that events of this kind are ordinarily produced by causes within this list, there might be unusual kinds of causes that don’t appear on the list. The list is fairly exhaustive, but not completely so.

Some contexts aren’t like this, however. Suppose I’m a space explorer who has recently landed on Planet X. The terrain is uniformly flat in most places, but on my third day I come across a big mound of dirt. After investigating the mound, the ground beneath, and other bits of evidence, I’m able to ascertain that what I’m witnessing is the result of a kind of “dirt-geyser” phenomenon produced when trapped gas pushed up through a silt-filled fissure.

Now I come across another mound of dirt. Upon investigating, I conclude that it is not the effect of a dirt-geyser. But, being new to the planet, I have very little experience with such mounds, and hence very little experience with what might cause them. My list of “known culprits” has one member, and I’ve eliminated it. Presumably, in this case, we can’t reasonably infer intelligent agency on the basis of eliminating all the other known culprits.

What we might say is that the explorer is in the process of creating a known-culprits list for dirt mounds. At that stage of the game, the negative method of determining causes through a process of elimination is unavailable, or in any event untenable. There is just too little that is known about how things work on the planet, and hence no reason to suppose that the list of “known culprits” for dirt mounds even approaches being exhaustive.

Furthermore, there is no reason as of yet for the explorer to suppose that intelligent agency should be included in the list of causes for dirt-mounds on Planet X. The explorer has seen no intelligent denizens on the planet, let alone any who were busy making dirt mounds. This distinguishes our explorer from forensic scientists on Earth who are exploring an unexplained fire, insofar as these scientists know there to be intelligent agents running around and also know that these agents have the means to start fires and sometimes do so.

Of course, this may not be quite right. Suppose our explorer is exploring the planet with a colleague, who is a known practical joker. In that case, the explorer would be well advised to investigate the theory that his colleague created the dirt mound as a joke.

But there’s a difference between appealing to a known sort of intelligent agent—an intelligent agent of a kind known to exist and known to be capable of producing the effect observed—and using observed phenomena as the basis for concluding that a new kind of intelligent agent, one not otherwise observed to exist, in fact does exist. If, after years of study, the Planet X explorer has produced a fairly exhaustive list of causes for dirt mounds—but has never observed any intelligent denizens of the planet—can this explorer really deduce that there must be such denizens if he encounters a dirt mound that cannot be explained by any of the known culprits on his list?

It doesn’t seem so. In fact, it seems that were the explorer to reason in this way, he’d be guilty of a kind of question-begging. What running out of known culprits warrants is the conclusion that there is a heretofore unknown culprit. To assume that the new culprit is an intelligent agent is, in effect, to operate as if the “gap” in one’s list is in fact not a gap at all but is filled by precisely the new kind of intelligent agent one is seeking to establish. The explorer has, in effect, treated the hypothesized new sort of intelligent agent as a member of the known culprits list in order to reach the conclusion that a new sort of intelligent agent should be included in the know culprits list.

But now suppose I’m exploring Planet X and come across an enormous rock in the shape of Justin Bieber’s head. I mean the resemblance is perfect. Of course, I scream in utter terror. Not only are there intelligent beings here, but they clearly wish me ill.

In this case, unlike the dirt-mound case, I immediately infer intelligent agency. I don’t infer this because I have eliminated all non-agent causes from my list of things-that-can produce-perfect-stone-replicas-of-Justin-Bieber’s-head. Rather, I infer it immediately from the nature of the phenomenon that stands in need of explanation. And I infer it (rightly, I would say) without having ever observed any intelligent agents at work on this planet, without having any idea of what those intelligent agents are like, how they produced the stone head, etc.

The reason I justifiably make this inference is because a sculpture of someone’s head is the kind of thing that, in my experience (and not just mine), is only produced by intelligent agents. Once I rule out my practical-joker colleague as the cause, I might now reasonably add a new kind of intelligent agent to my list of known culprits for things observed on Planet X.

In effect, then, from the above we can identify two distinct ways of arriving at the view that intelligent agency is responsible for some phenomenon of type P: (1) A body of experience teaches us that P’s are typically caused by a range of causes, one of which is intelligent agency; the phenomenon at issue is a P; and all causes other than intelligent agency have been eliminated; (2) A body of experience teaches us that P’s are caused only by intelligent agency, and the phenomenon at issue is a P.

(1) and (2) may not be exhaustive. They wouldn’t be if, for example, we could ever immediately intuit, without a body of experience, that certain phenomena require intelligent agency. I'm inclined to suspect that, in fact, we can do exactly this. But I won't pursue that case here. Instead, I simply want to summarize what I take to be the lessons of the above analysis:

(a) Inferring intelligent agency by a process-of-elimination is an acceptable approach (arguably a scientific one) in cases where there is a known set of culprits for a given phenomenon, intelligent agency is among the known culprits, and there is reason to suppose that the set of culprits is fairly exhaustive (that is, most phenomena of the given sort are explained by one of the known culprits).

(b) In cases where we have no firm reason to suppose that our set of “known culprits” is fairly exhaustive, the process-of-elimination approach is not acceptable for inferring intelligent agency or any other cause.

(c) If we are asking whether there exists a new kind of intelligent agency that we haven’t seen before, the process-of-elimination approach is question-begging—unless the phenomenon we are seeking to explain is the sort that we justifiably believe on other grounds could only be produced by an intelligent agent. In that case the process-of-elimination approach would operate on known intelligent agents who might have caused the phenomenon, with the inference to an unknown intelligent agent reached when all known intelligent agents have been eliminated.
In place of Randal Rauser’s process-of-elimination strategy for inferring intelligent design, I would therefore offer up (a)-(c). And given (a)-(c), it would take more work than Randal has done to say that the fine-tuning case should be approached in the same way that forensic scientists investigate a possible arson.

Anyway, that a first run at articulating my thinking about this. Thoughts?


  1. Hello Eric

    Thanks for this, delightful to have these insightful posts back.

    I see this slightly differently. Evolutionary theory stands as perhaps our cautionary example in the Beiber case. For most of our history, natural complexity was a Beiber type example, we just intuitively knew some intelligent designer was at work. Now, we have an alternative.

    The arson analogy may have one slight difference, in that the investigator doesn't conclude this was arson because of the absence of alternatives, although in this case they may say arson is a possibility worth investigating. Further positive evidence, (a confession, eye witness report, fingerprints on a discarded can) is required in a court of law. All the investigator is doing is say 'let's think about looking in this direction.'

    Science tends to say, in the absence of positive evidence, let's keep an open mind. In the Behe case, our minds have closed off because as yet no examples of irreducible complexity have stood, but it has provided fertile ground for further exploration which is always good. (You'll realise, I guess, that selection can both add and subtract along the way, making the irreducible a misnomer.)

    I'm never sure what the fine tuning argument is attempting to establish. Certainly it may be true that the circumstances required to produce our sort of universe are extremely unlikely to have been produced by chance alone. But this seems to lead to a number of alternatives. Perhaps this is because it was a driven process, directed by a creator. Perhaps, given that any creation circumstance, successful or otherwise, would have been extremely unlikely (like when you roll thirty die, the outcome is certain to be vanishingly unlikely) we should not be surprised by this appearance of odds. Or perhaps we are one of a mindbogglingly large number of universe trials, such that all outcomes, including ours, became all but inevitable (there is a natural selection of universes hypothesis out there, I believe). Or perhaps the physical mechanism by which universes come into being requires such tuning in ways we don't yet understand.

    And so we are not yet anywhere near the stage where a reliable investigator would say alternatives have been ruled out. Ours is the far more exciting position where there is so much left to discover.


  2. Great post. However, two things. First, I would not include proponents of the second argument, the "fine-tuning" argument (and only that one) in the category of "ID proponents," insofar as, at least in your description, ID describes a movement that want what they are proposing to be taught in schools. Plenty of philosophers (and I am one) find the fine-tuning argument interesting without proposing that it be taught as an alternative to neo-Darwinian theory.

    Second, I wonder if perhaps the fine-tuning argument describes a chain of reasoning similar to the argument for intelligent design of the Justin Bieber head... it would go something like

    1) Something is "fine-tuned" (is an F) if it requires closely synchronized individual parts or elements to be perfectly in tune in such a way that if the balance was altered at all, the object would not have the function that it does, or be able to fulfill it

    2) We normally posit that Fs are the work of some kind of intelligent design by an agent, since such finely-synchronized collections of processes are unlikely to have come about by chance

    3) The universe is an F.

    4) Therefore the universe displays strong evidence of intelligent design.

    I don't know if this argument works, and it is probably unclear since I'm bashing it out rather quickly, but it is, at any rate, an example of how the fine-tuning argument might be phrased in terms of the second kind of reasoning towards intelligent design that you suggest.

  3. Hi Evan

    Hope you don't mind me commenting on this. Premise two seems to be the one that is at least controversial. Most of our examples of closely synchronised systems occur in the biological world (many many billions of them) and so in the majority of our cases we posit no intelligent design, as a mechanism of chance mutation and subsequent differences in survival rates does the trick.

    Hence evolution stands as a cautionary tale for those who would like to move from fine tuning to design, I think.

    Better perhaps, using Darwin as our example, to remain agnostic while doing what we can to improve our model.

    What do you think?


  4. Bernard: that's a fair point. I hadn't considered biological examples when I wrote it (that'll teach me to try and be intelligent in the middle of finals week).

    The argument may or not be convincing, but that is at least how I read the most typical formulations of the fine-tuning argument.

    One way to revise premise 2 would be to say that we normally posit intelligent design for any given F if we do not have some other factor that could plausibly explain such finely honed processes working in tandem (such as Darwinian evolution).

  5. Hi Evan

    I wonder if there's a way of constructing this that isn't question begging? Sometimes, when we see complexity, we assume a random process created it (a butterfly, for instance) and sometimes we assume an intelligent designer (a car). I'm not sure the distinction is biological/non-biological however, isn't it more, as Eric suggests, to do with our prior knowledge. Do children, for instance, intuitively distinguish between the mechanical and biological, or do they need to learn this distinction? I suspect the latter.

    The question then becomes, is the universe more like a butterfly or a car, and as we have no precedent, nor any sufficient understanding of the mechanism of creation, we're probably just guessing. I am tempted to guess it's like a butterfly, but this is little more than pure prejudice on my part. Better perhaps to be alert to both possibilities and dismissive of neither, at least until our cosmological understanding firms.


  6. Evan,

    A quick clarifying comment from amidst a sea of final exams and term papers, relating to the following:

    "I would not include proponents of the second argument, the "fine-tuning" argument (and only that one) in the category of "ID proponents," insofar as, at least in your description, ID describes a movement that want what they are proposing to be taught in schools."

    I meant to indicate that those belonging to the ID movement are in general proponents of the fine-tuning argument. I did not mean to imply that proponents of the fine-tuning argument are necessarily or even usually part of the ID movement.

    Likewise, I think it is VERY important to distinguish between those who are fans of one or another version of the philosophical argument from design and those who belong to the ID movement. The former is a much broader category, and includes many who have no sympathy for the political aims of ID theory.

  7. Bernard:

    With respect to the following: "Evolutionary theory stands as perhaps our cautionary example in the Beiber case. For most of our history, natural complexity was a Beiber type example, we just intuitively knew some intelligent designer was at work. Now, we have an alternative."

    My inclination with respect to the Bieber case is this: We are warranted in positing intelligent design in the absence of some "defeater"--that is, some reason not to trust the design inference in this case.

    It seems to me that Dawkins himself actually adopts a similar position with respect to the oganized complexity of organic systems, when he claims that the design hypothesis was a reasonable one prior to Darwin. His view seems to be that Darwin offered a defeater for an otherwise plausible inference. (The nature of that inference is worth exploring, by the way, since it isn't clearly a case of induction from experience, but may be a kind of "direct intuiting" of design).

    In any event, I wouldn't be inclined to regard Darwin as offering a "global defeater" for all design inferences. "Cautionary example" might then prove to be an apt phrase--cautioning us not to be too confident and to be open to defeaters. Still, were I the explorer, I'd be pretty sure intelligence was behind the Bieber head in the absence of a defeater.

  8. Eric: Thanks for the clarification. I was pretty sure that was what you meant, but I wasn't sure.

    Bernard: You wrote that

    "The question then becomes, is the universe more like a butterfly or a car, and as we have no precedent, nor any sufficient understanding of the mechanism of creation, we're probably just guessing. I am tempted to guess it's like a butterfly, but this is little more than pure prejudice on my part. Better perhaps to be alert to both possibilities and dismissive of neither, at least until our cosmological understanding firms."

    I agree that this is the critical question. Indeed, I wonder whether it can really be answered, since the answer one gives to it would seem to be based largely on intuitions of any given person. The universe can be looked at either like a butterfly or like a car. And of course, the role of "intuitions" in arguments like this is highly controversial.

    I'm not sure the argument I outlined above can be made non-question-begging. I think what it shows most of all is the importance of Eric's comments concerning when we have exhausted all our options for the "causes" of any given phenomena.

  9. Hi Eric

    Interesting. I tend to agree with Dawkins on this. Given what we then knew about design, assuming a designer was reasonable. I think though that Darwin introduced something more than just a biological defeater. He showed that in principle unguided nature is capable of producing sophisticated design. And this immediately undermined the case for designer by intuition. Intuition, it turned out, was a lousy guide.

    Hence, when confronted with a design, we can always ask, is this the work of an intelligent designer or a natural process? If we possess no positive evidence, then a defeater doesn't exist for either of the hypotheses, and hence it is prejudging to jump into the design camp simply because we can find no design defeater.

    Obviously the next step is to ask what constitutes positive evidence. In the Bieber case, we have seen something very similar, sculpted heads, produced by intelligent designers, and this may reasonably sway us, I think. In the case of the universe, no such precedent exists and so, as always, what's wrong with just admitting we don't know, and using this as a motivation for trying to discover more?


  10. Hi Eric,

    It's good to read you again.

    I don't think the arson case helps very much. In the case referred to by Randal we have to consider that the investigators have a prior body of knowledge about the possible causes of such a fire. Among these possible causes (again, known from experience) are no doubt things like lightning but, also, arson. What Randal relates is simply that, of all possible known causes, all but one have been eliminated – in this case arson. There is nothing special at all about this – in other situations, perhaps all causes except lighting would have been eliminated.

    This is a simple process of elimination based on a known set of possibilities, all previously observed and well understood. I think we are overreaching quite a bit if we see the arson solution as similar to what the ID folk are proposing.

  11. Darwin gave us a process that explains design without intelligence. Not only does this process offer a plausible mechanism for the observed gradient of increased organized complexity, it is also the plausible mechanism for the arrival of intelligence itself. The only tangible examples of intelligence we can point to today are found in the animal kingdom, especially in humans. If our only version of intelligence arrives through the process of natural selection, how can we look to intelligence as an alternative to natural selection? When we talk about intelligence, aren’t we actually implicitly referring to evolved intelligence?

  12. Hi Eric,

    I have been looking up Michael Behe (not a biologist, but a biochemist) and I think your mention of him in your post presents his ideas about IC in a much better light than they deserve.

    From what I gather, he's published his ideas essentially in popular books and articles and they have been (almost?) unanimously rejected, his examples of IC shown to be erroneous.

    Now, it is always possible that fringe ideas like this turn out to be valid but there is a good reason why it is so difficult for them to make it into mainstream science: they are almost always wrong. But good ideas eventually make it – with patience and a lot of work.

    As it stands now, as a non-biologist looking at this from the outside, IC appears to have no scientific credibility at all.

  13. JP--

    I agree. In the post I was simply summarizing the ID argument based on Behe, not evaluating that argument (which is why I qualified the various premises of the argument with terms like "supposedly").

    You are right that the scientific community as a whole has looked at all of Behe's supposed examples of irreducibly complex systems and either (a) demonstrated that they are not irreducibly complex, or (b) shown how the irreducibly complex system could have emerged through gradual evolutionary changes by way of reappropriation of elements originally used for different purposes or the gradual removal of redundant systems (like the removal of the inner support system for an arch once the final stone in the arch has been set in place).

    For a good, accessible assessment from a scientist without an atheist axe to grind, you can look at either of Brown biologist Kenneth Miller's books, Finding Darwin's God or Only a Theory.