Sunday, September 25, 2005


Two Questions to ask of ID: Part One

Boiled down to the essentials, there are really only two questions one needs to ask about intelligent design.
The first is this: 'is ID right when it claims that intelligent causation can be reliably infered from physical evidence in certain circumstances?'
Since several sciences (archaeology, cryptography, forensic science, SETI) already depend upon making such design inferences, it seems hard to argue that there are no circumstances under which it is reasonable to infer design from physical evidence.
ID theorists have suggested a number of different design detection criteria which they think clearly define the type of evidence one needs in order to make a rational design inference.
For example, mathematician and philosopher William A. Dembski proposes 'specified complexity', or 'complex specified information' (CSI) as a reliable marker of intelligent design.
Something exhibits CSI if it matches a non ad hoc, independent specification at sufficiently low probability. A simple illustration: a long string of tiles picked at random from a bag of scrabble letters would be complex (it would take a lot of information to convey how to reproduce that precise sequence of titles) but it would not be specified. A short sequence of tiles such as 'This' or 'That', would be specified (by the independent pattern of the English language), but not very complex. However, a string of scrabble tiles which spelt out a whole sentence in English would be both complex and specified. Whenever we know the cause of things that exhibit CSI (e.g. books, musical scores, computer programmes) we know that they are the product of intelligence. Hence, we have good inductive grounds for holding that any object or event which exhibit CSI, like our third string of scrabble tiles, is the product of intelligent design.
Now, if one rejects the ID claim that intelligent design can be reliably infered from physical evidence under certain circumstances, there is a price to pay. It would seem that one cannot reject ID on this account whilst accepting any science which makes the same assumption. That is, one could not hold with SETI, forensic science, cryptography, etc.
In point of fact, many people reject ID on the basis of an assumption which might be summarised either thus - 'All scientific explanations must be ultimately reducible to non-teleological, naturalistic explanations' (Methodological Naturalism) or - 'All true explanations must be ultimately reducible to non-teleological, naturalistic explanations' (Metaphysical Naturalism). Atheists often conflate these two 'rules', much to the annoyance of theists who accept the first rule but not the second. Either way, the adoption of either of these rules is supposed to draw a line between infering intelligent design from physical evidence in fields like archaeology and in fields like cosmology, because the former inference can be regarded as a scientific placeholder for an explanation ultimately reducible to non-teleological explanations (which the theists who accept Methodological Naturalism re-introduce at a philosophical level and the atheists do not), while the latter inference is harder to regarded in this way.
Note that these rules are philosophical assertions open to philosophical assessment, and that they would come as news to scientists from Aristotle to Newton.
In point of fact, such rules suffer from a number of defects, including being too vague to do the intended job. One could accept either rule and still accept design inferences from the texture of nature by postulating ultimately non-teleological explanations. Such a move might be philosophically cumbersome, but it is possible because ID doesn't have anything to say about the metaphysical nature of the infered intelligence/s. If a naturalist wanted to accept a design inference from nature but posit that the intelligence inquestion must have an ultimately naturalistic explanation, I might think he had his philosophical work cut out for him, but the resulting debate would be essentially philosophical.
Moreover, if it is logically possible that the texture of nature includes anything that is the result of intelligent design, and if it is also logically possible that intelligent design is empirically detectable in the right circumstances, then any rule which sucessfully outlawed infering design from nature in the right circumstances would be a rule that subverted the fundamental goal of science: to seek the truth.

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