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Jumping to Design Conclusions

An archaeologist has been studying stone spheres in Costa Rica and has concluded they were designed. According to PhysOrg, he doesn’t know who made the spheres, when they were made, or why they were made. Why is he jumping to a conclusion of intelligent design? He should be considering natural explanations. There are plenty of natural forces that can make a sphere and even simulate hammer marks.  By concluding design, he has brought the scientific investigation of these stones to a standstill.

To be a scientist, you can’t take the easy way out and assume design every time you see something you can’t explain. Some designer, too; some of the stones are up to two inches out of round.  Who is the designer?  And who designed the designer?  Science is supposed to be about natural explanations for natural phenomena.  This stones are perfectly natural; they are not made up of some angelic material or something.  If this professor doesn’t have a good enough imagination to make up a naturalistic story, he doesn’t belong in science.

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30 Responses to Jumping to Design Conclusions

  1. I asked a friend what principles that scientists use to tell if Stonehenge is designed and why we can’t use those principles to tell if life is designed. He told me that it is just common sense that Stonehenge was designed and that ID is not science.

    Sigh.

  2. It is my guess that he believes pretty strongly they were made by homo sapiens in the last 5000 years. He also has some evidence of how they were made.If it could be demonstrated that they could not have been made then by homo sapiens (e.g. they were more than 100,000 years old) then I think he would be unsure they were designed or natural and the reasonable thing to do would be to look for hypotheses of either type “designed” and “natural” being far too vague to count as hypotheses.

    I admit he is missing a motive.

  3. The very fact that they appear to have been designed means we must heroically resist any inference of design and press on toward a purely naturalistic explanation, glancing neither right nor left in our quest for true science.

    Oh, wait—that rule only applies to living things.

  4. Mark Frank,

    I admit that what you say makes sense. But what if we found those artifacts on Mars? Does science have nothing to say about whether they were designed or not? Is it outside the purview of science?

  5. #4

    Does science have nothing to say about whether they were designed or not? Is it outside the purview of science?

    Science can indeed assess the evidence for a specific design hypothesis – but not for DESIGN where nothing else is hypothesised. This makes as much sense as hypothesising NATURAL without specifying anything about how or why.

  6. Mark Frank,

    Science can indeed assess the evidence for a specific design hypothesis – but not for DESIGN where nothing else is hypothesised. This makes as much sense as hypothesising NATURAL without specifying anything about how or why.

    Welcome to the difficulty of naturalism. You can make the same argument about nature having nothing else hypothesized by comparison.

  7. You can make the same argument about nature having nothing else hypothesized by comparison.

    Sorry Clive but I don’t understand this sentence. Can you expand on it a bit?

  8. Off-topic

    New human ancestor discovered

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/201.....n_ancestor

  9. Mark Frank,

    What about this hypo: We discover faster-than-light travel and go to a far away planet. We find animals and plants but apparently no intelligent beings. But then we see paintings on the walls of caves that look like various animals and plants on that planet. Can we not make the inferrence of design without saying specifically what put the paintings there, what kind of pigment they used, the identify of the painters etc.?

  10. David ,
    Your argument is based on the premise that there’s a dichotomy between humans and nature, and that human design is somehow non natural. This is false.

  11. Lastyearon,

    The dichotomy comes more from naturalists than from David. Naturalists dismiss design out of hand because it might imply God. I don’t think that ID-ers would care that much what design is labeled as (natural or non-natural) as long as it is accepted as a legitimate thing we can find in life. Whether you want to call evidence of design in life natural or non-natural, I don’t care, personally.

  12. re Collin #8 off topic:

    Human Evolution? – The Compelling Genetic & Fossil Evidence For Adam and Eve – Dr. Fazale Rana – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4284482

  13. Bornagain,

    Thanks for the link. That’s very interesting. I don’t quite see how Adam and Eve could have been real if they lived in time periods tens of thousands of years away from each other though.

  14. Collin if you noticed Dr. Rana alluded to the age discrepancy between the genetic dating of the male and female lineages, and said he would pick it up in the question and answer if anyone was interested. The short of it is that heteroplasmy effects the dating of mtDNA lineage, as explained here by Dr. Hugh Ross:

    Human Evolution – Genetic Adam And Eve – Hugh Ross – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4036776

  15. In NZ there are some very designed looking round rocks called the Moeraki boulders. Initially people thought they were made by earlier people. That hypothesis turned out to be false. Other hypotheses were generated. The one that turned out to be true was that they were produced by volcanic activity (I think, from memory). I guess a similar process occurred with the boulders in the OP, except that the hypothesis that turned out to be true was that they were made by people. Don’t really see the relevance of the OP to ID.

  16. Mr Coppedge,

    By concluding design, he has brought the scientific investigation of these stones to a standstill.

    It seems that by being a bit more specific, “designed by humans”, science has not rolled to a stop. Perhaps if he concluded “designed, with no clue whether by chameleons or kumquats” it might have been harder to continue.

  17. #9

    We discover faster-than-light travel and go to a far away planet. We find animals and plants but apparently no intelligent beings. But then we see paintings on the walls of caves that look like various animals and plants on that planet. Can we not make the inferrence of design without saying specifically what put the paintings there, what kind of pigment they used, the identify of the painters etc.

    I don’t think so. I seem to have played this game hundreds of times on UD – but let’s do it again.

    First to be fair I think you should replace the word “paintings” above with “images” as painting implies a painter.

    Now think how a scientific investigation would proceed. A scientist would make hypotheses as to how those images got there. One possibility is that some intelligent being created them. That would be a prime contender on our planet where we know of such beings and their propensity to produce images. A lot less likely on planet X in the absence of any such creatures.

    Another one might be some kind of process similar to the way a fossil is an image of animal or plant. After all this is a strange planet all sorts of weird processes might take place.

    And of course there is always the position of saying “right now we don’t know how they got there”

    But in either case the scientist cannot proceed to investigate without a specific hypothesis.

  18. Mark Frank,

    I think you are wrong. I think that scientists would be dashing madly to be the first xenologists to study the newfound evidence of an intelligent race. The government grant competition would be fierce. And of course the new xenologists would be taken from the ranks of anthropologists (who make design inferences all the time).

    I think a good analogy is to refer to the cave paintings done by cro-magnon man. We don’t have direct evidence that cro-magnon man makes abstract art, but somehow scientists can make the design inference anyway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_paintings

    I guess those scientists are really just religious nuts.

    And what about the scientists who infer that the tools found near neanderthal remains were designed? No one has seen a neanderthal make a spear or an axe and yet the design inference keeps being made.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal#Tools

    And let’s not even get into government funded SETI.

  19. #18

    We don’t have “direct” evidence that cro-magnon man makes art but this is a specific hypothesis about who made the art which we can and do assess by considering when, how and why. We know such people existed and we can easily see a number of mechanisms by which they might have created the images. Imagine that it was discovered that the images were the result of a very high temperature process (> 10,000K). Does this not change the plausibility of the cro-magnon hypothesis? What would your reaction be if archaeologists defended this by saying that maybe they were not cro-magnon but they were the result of a “design” process of unknown origin, power or motivation including possibly supernatural. How would anyone proceed to refute them?

    Suppose someone else counters by saying they are the result of a natural process of unknown origin and power? How do you refute that?

    Nothing has been achieved while the proposed explanations are that level.

    I have nothing against design hypotheses but they have to be specific enough to be subject to same kind of criticism as a natural hypothesis.

    I can’t speak to the behaviour of future of scientists – they may indeed declare themselves xenologists or become hermits. All I can say is that if they want to pursue the hypothesis that it was an alien race then the next step is to conjecture who, when, and how. Otherwise there is no way of working on that hypothesis. They would be very blinkered not to also consider natural explanations in such an unfamiliare environment – but again anyone looking at natural alternatives would need to look at how and when.

  20. lastyearon:

    David ,
    Your argument is based on the premise that there’s a dichotomy between humans and nature, and that human design is somehow non natural. This is false.

    Is this based on the belief that consciousness is an illusion, we are really chemical/electrical computers which are reducible to the laws of physics? Do you not believe intelligence truly exists? If so, this is like debating cosmological models with one who believes in a flat Earth (and still believes it after orbiting Earth from a space station).

    Human design IS non natural in that it is not reducible to chance or law. The design and assembly of the LHC is certainly not explainable by reference to chance (tornado + junkyard = Boeing 747) or law (repetitive information) or a combination of the two. It is INTELLIGENCE. It is not of supernatural origin, but it is not “natural” as in without intelligence. There is a middle ground between supernatural and blind processes of nature. If you disagree with this you are denying the very thoughts in your head right now.

  21. Human design IS non natural in that it is not reducible to chance or law.

    and

    [..] that human design is somehow non natural. This is false.

    I like that two assertions — whose veracity has been debated for eons by scientists, philosophers, and laymen alike — can be stated here as simple facts, completely without any supporting or dissenting evidence.

  22. The scientist is from Kansas. What do you expect? :-)

    Franck
    Kansas City

  23. In all seriousness we make inferences to the best explanation all the time. The rocks being designed by intelligence in this case is self-evident without any science.

    The professor was brought in to figure out the why?

    We all are curious about the why.

    I come home and the table is set, candles burning, smell of my favorite food, a fire in the fireplace but no one is home, I can infer my wife set this all up without needing a bit of evidence. I can also time it and say she was here very recently due to the food still being hot and the fire still burning. There are things we just know without having to know how we know them.

    In order to know the answer to why however we need intelligent agents either directly or indirectly by witness accounts, folktale, history, … information.

    My wife jumps out of the shadows, “Honey, did you forget our anniversary?”

  24. Re #23: You may not know how you know things, but that does not mean that you don’t need a bit of evidence. In fact, there are enormous heaps of evidence you are simply not recognizing or omitting.

  25. #19 Mark Frank:

    What would your reaction be if archaeologists defended this by saying that maybe they were not cro-magnon but they were the result of a “design” process of unknown origin, power or motivation including possibly supernatural. How would anyone proceed to refute them?

    Suppose someone else counters by saying they are the result of a natural process of unknown origin and power? How do you refute that?

    Nothing has been achieved while the proposed explanations are that level.

    I have nothing against design hypotheses but they have to be specific enough to be subject to same kind of criticism as a natural hypothesis.

    I see your argument but I disagree. I believe in some cases, intelligent design could be too generic of a hypothesis, especially when natural processes are shown to be capable of producing the same thing or something similar. Take round boulders. At first glance they appear to be intelligently designed, but volcanic processes have been shown to be able to produce similar artifacts. The design hypothesis would need further evidence to have an appropriate scientific thesis, like ancient tools that could have been used on it buried nearby or other signs of an ancient human civilization.

    But I don’t think this is a perfect analogy to what is being debated in evolutionary biology. Regardless of what some say, random errors + selection has shown no realistic capability of producing the complex, specified information found throughout biology (which seems to get more complex each and every year of discovery). Chance and law, the pillars of methodological naturalism, simply don’t produce these kinds of things! We are not talking about searching for a natural mechanism to produce a crude sphere; we’re talking about machinery and information that is far beyong anything humans have engineered.

    Let’s say this argument was about an artifact that fell from space. Let’s say it’s a cube, 10 m on a side, slightly imperfect and it is made from a material that is harder than anything humans have ever discovered. Design would be a possibility. But a cube is not very complex, so perhaps it is possible that some unknown lawlike process could have generated this. Ending here, it would be a fruitless standstill.

    But let’s say that the artifact had some kind of control mechanism embedded in it and it performed some kind of wonderous function. At this point, design should have a decided advantage over law and chance. We’re no longer debating the origin of a simple structure (an imperfect cube) or an unspecified structure (a mangled meteorite of unknown material). We are again talking about complex, specified information which law and chance simply do not produce on a level anywhere near this technology. But the design theorists still must start out by proposing it was “the result of a ‘design’ proccess of unknown origin, power or motivation including possibly supernatural”.

    You ask “how would anyone proceed to refute them’? It can be refuted by showing that law and chance (alone; no intelligent front-loading) can produce complex specified information. It still would not necessarily disprove the fact that it could have had intelligent origins, but at least there would be a non-intelligent possibility. As it stands now (in the alien artifact example and in biology), intelligence is the only demonstarted explanation for producing complex, specified information.

  26. #21 hrun

    Human design IS non natural in that it is not reducible to chance or law.

    and

    [..] that human design is somehow non natural. This is false.

    I like that two assertions — whose veracity has been debated for eons by scientists, philosophers, and laymen alike — can be stated here as simple facts, completely without any supporting or dissenting evidence.

    Okay, how about it appears that my thoughts are not operating based on chance and law. That better?

    I’m talking about intelligence. Do you believe intelligence exists, even as an illusion? Are you saying there is absolutely no difference between a pile of rocks and the large haldron collider? I assume you believe our consciousnesses can be traced back to physical laws (i.e., if we were able to model each and every atom in the bodies of each of the scientists and engineers who designed the LHC, as well as the environments they lived in while they designed it, the LHC would necessarily be produced by this model).

    But even so, if we happened across something like the LHC on another planet, I doubt you would say it was not produced by an intelligent origin (even if you believe that intelligent origin could eventually be fundamentally explained on the molecular level). This is what I was debating when the original poster (#10) said there was no difference between nature and human design:

    David,
    Your argument is based on the premise that there’s a dichotomy between humans and nature, and that human design is somehow non natural. This is false.

    There IS a dichotomy. Whether you believe human intelligence is reducible to law or not, you are in tremendous denial to not believe that there is a difference between human intelligence and, for example, volcanic activity. At the very least you should believe that law and chance have evolved some material (human brains, for example) that appears to operate at a level that is not explicable by law or chance. Volcanoes do not appear to operate in this way. So there is a dichotomy, even if you believe humans are mindless chemical computers.

  27. #25 uoflcard

    We are again talking about complex, specified information which law and chance simply do not produce on a level anywhere near this technology.

    How do you know that there is no natural process which might produce this cube (or life)? You may not be aware of such a process but you also say this is far beyond what humans could produce. So you don’t know a design process that could produce it either. So why do you assume that the unknown process requires design?

  28. Mark Frank,

    But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. How could we argue against your claim of “How do you know that there is no natural process which might produce this cube.” If ID-er’s bear their burden of proof, then naturalists must also bear their’s.

    At this point it is beneficial to proceed upon the most logical assumption we can make. A cube with a control panel that gives commands to a mechanism, I suppose, could possibly be the result of some natural process. But I will place my bet on design. I know that I don’t know everything, but that is how I’d bet and I bet you would bet that way too, if forced to.

  29. I just wrote a long response to you, Mark, and it did not go through. Everytime I dont write a long post in a separate program, it comes back to bite me!

    How do I know there is not a natural process that can produce a complex alien technology? I don’t because I am not omnipotent. But following the current evidence where it leads, intelligence is the only known way to produce such things. Not knowing the design process, manufacturing process or the identity oft he designer is not the same as not knowing of a potenial natural process. We wouldn’t know how the inelligent being(s) made it, but we should believe, based on current evidence, that they were intelligent.

    If a team of leading scientists were given a multi-billion dollar grant from countries around the world to study the origins of the device, I would be furious if they spent the resources on trying to find a natural explanation. A naturalism-of-the-gaps argument wouldn’t ease my tension.

  30. #29

    uoflcard

    I think we need to be a bit more specific about this thought experiment and the wonderous function.

    Consider two examples:

    1) The wonderous function is emit bursts of radiation that give the prime numbers in binary.

    2) The wonderous function is to make a perfect cup of tea.

    In both cases we have no idea of a natural process that could produce the result. However, I see no reason not to explore both natural causes and causes involving some kind of intelligence – alien life forms or people from the future or something equally bizarre. This is the kind of thing I was thinking of when I said – “how do you know there is no natural explanation”.

    In the second case I would dismiss natural causes. The result is so closely tied to our own culture that any explanation which incorporates homo sapiens or something very similar to homo sapiens would be vastly more likely to produce the result than any other explanation.

    It is very easy to confuse the generic term “designed” with “made by a process that is similar to homo sapiens”. When we talk of cubes and control systems we are talking not of design in general (whatever that means) but of the kind of things that people produce. To seize on one aspect of that process and turn into a generic explanation of everything we cannot explain any other way seems to me a fallacy.

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