Home » Intelligent Design » Materialist: If You Can’t Win, Obfuscate

Materialist: If You Can’t Win, Obfuscate

The point of UD’s contest (“UD Puts up $1,000 Prize“) is to demonstrate in a practical way that design theory does not depend upon a suspension of natural law (i.e., supernatural miracles). Once again, here is the contest: “UD hereby offers a $1,000 prize to anyone who is able to demonstrate that the design of a living thing by an intelligent agent necessarily requires a supernatural act (i.e., the suspension of the laws of nature).”

Now it should be obvious that a materialist cannot win the contest. Materialists believe that living things “appear” to be designed. As Richard Dawkins wrote, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” However, materialists believe that this appearance of design is an illusion that can be explained by purely natural means. “[Natural selection theory] is so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of adaptation, the design of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention.” Ernst Mayr

I am now going to make an “a fortiori” argument, i.e. arguing from the greater to the lesser proposition: If a materialist believes that blind unguided natural forces can account for the “design” of living things, how could he ever argue that, in principle, it would require a miracle for an intelligent agent to replicate that “design.” Indeed, the whole point of experiments like the famous Miller-Urey experiment is to show “how nature did it.” The ultimate goal of these experiments is for intelligent agents (i.e., the experimenters) to replicate the natural process by which life began. It would be logically incoherent for a materialist to point to the (very) limited success of these experiments as evidence that natural processes can produce living things and at the same time claim that the design of a living thing by an intelligent agent requires a miracle.

 But facts and logic rarely stop our materialist opponents. Faced with an unanswerable argument, they usually resort to obfuscation tactics such as “I just can’t understand what the words you are using mean.” I am reminded of the old legal chestnut: “If the law is on  your side, pound on the law; if the facts are on your side, pound on the facts; if neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound on the table.” 

Markf pounds on the table when he writes:

 This [i.e., the contest] is unclear in at last three respects:

* What counts as “supernatural”

 * What counts as “necessarily” – logically necessary, physically necessary?

 * Whether the act has to be part of the design process or just be necessary for the design process to happen (in whatever sense of “necessary” is intended)

 Kairosfocus answers: The uncertainties are plainly manufactured:

a: unless otherwise notified, the supernatural is used in the ordinary sense — any special one needs to be justified

 b: the issue is causal process, so the issue is whether design and implementation of life requires a miracle or could in reasonable principle be done by engineering — which was of course shown long since.

c: If a causal process is a design process, the miracle would obviously have to be part of that process, not in some vague background.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

46 Responses to Materialist: If You Can’t Win, Obfuscate

  1. The learned fool writes his nonsense in better language than the unlearned, but still ’tis nonsense. ~ Benjamin Franklin

    God condescended to argue with Job, but the last Darwinian will not condescend to argue with you. He will inform you of your ignorance; he will not enlighten your ignorance.

    And I will add this point of merely personal experience of humanity: when men have a real explanation they explain it, eagerly and copiously and in common speech, as Huxley freely gave it when he thought he had it. When they have no explanation to offer, they give short dignified replies, disdainful of the ignorance of the multitude. ~ GK Chesterton

  2. If a materialist believes that blind unguided natural forces can account for the “design” of living things, how could he ever argue that, in principle, it would require a miracle for an intelligent agent to replicate that “design.”

    What does “unguided natural forces” mean here?

    Is a heat seeking air to air missile to be considered unguided? There is no human or other intelligent being guiding it. But we usually think of it as being guided by the feedback system that was built into the missile.

    There are lots of naturally occurring feedback systems. Biology is rich with them. But even weather systems and ocean tides are guided by naturally occurring feedback systems.

    On the “replicate that design” issue, suppose that I shuffle a deck of cards and deal out a hand at bridge. If you then shuffle the deck and deal out another hand, it would take a miracle (or sophisticated cheating) to replicate the hand that I had previously dealt. Your use of “replicate” here is misleading.

  3. it would require a miracle for an intelligent agent to replicate that “design.”

    I’d like to know how a materialist would define “miracle” in the first place as it’s usually used in a theistic context, well 9/10 times anyway.

    Perhaps ‘Impossible according to the laws of physics’ covers it, but that must presuppose a complete knowledge of those laws in order to be able to make that claim?

  4. “What does ‘unguided natural forces’ mean here?”

    See! There they go again. It beggars belief.

  5. Objection! Witness failed to answer the question.

  6. No, the witness refused to rise to the obfuscation bait.

  7. how could he ever argue that, in principle, it would require a miracle for an intelligent agent to replicate that “design.”

    One reasons from premises, and for the sake of argument, one can reason from someone else’s premises.

    I brought up the issue of whether this contest has implications for the larger ID hypothesis, and you affirmed it does. You appear to be separating the ID hypothesis from the necessity of supernatural intervention, trying not to make the larger ID hypothesis entirely moot.

    You insert into your contest a given, the existence of human designers (or intelligent agents), with the hidden assumption that humans (or the intelligent agents) are entirely natural.

    But ID supporters deny that humans or intelligent agents can be undesigned and therefore natural. They would not exist unless designed.

    At some point in the chain of design there must be a first designer that is the result of intervention or the result of natural processes.

    If the overall design hypothesis is true, the chain of design requires an initial intervention.

    So if intelligent agents capable of designing living things can be natural, than ID is an unnecessary hypothesis. If they cannot be entirely the product of natural processes, then their products cannot exist without an intervention in the chain of causation.

    It is unsatisfactory merely to assert that this has been refuted innumerable times. This and the contest threads are matters of record. Either the refutation must be posted here, or links to refutations must be posted.

  8. Hmm, now you’re confusing me.

    I think by any reasonable definition, there is nothing Mankind can ever do – individually or collectively – that can be claimed to be truly miraculous. Thus if it can be shown that Mankind can create even one life form, then the creation of life in general does not necessarily require a miracle. So far, so good, but in regards to Creation, here’s where it gets murky:

    Amongst recent Catholic theologians there is a practically uniform tendency to interpret the traditional and Scriptural data as postulating the creative act to account for the origin of unembodied spirits (the angels), of the primordial matter of the universe, and of the human soul. The development of the universe, the introduction of plant and animal life, the formation of the first human bodies can be explained by the administrative or formative activity of God, an activity which is sometimes called second creation (secunda creatio), and does not demand the creative act as such.

    So a Catholic scientist can say that “blind unguided natural forces [as understood by science] can account for the ‘design’ of living things” whilst believing that these same forces are the activity of God [as understood by theology]. Thus, like the materialist, the Catholic scientist who is a Theistic Evolutionary proponent can not win the contest. And this is supposed to prove something meaningful?

  9. So if intelligent agents capable of designing living things can be natural, than ID is an unnecessary hypothesis.

    Unless the hypothesis is explicitly limited with regard a causal chain, for example inferring murder, or examining an archaeological site. In these instances the ‘by design’, or perhaps more appropriately ‘intentional’ hypothesis is intertwined with prior knowledge of the intentional agent (or perhaps ‘the suspect!’ )

  10. But the word “supernatural” is not clear, Barry.

    What you are calling “obfuscation” is the problem we run into all the time in these discussions. The scientists ask for operational definitions, because without operational definitions, you have no objective criteria by which to decide whether or not the claim or challenge has been met.

    So: what do you mean by “supernatural”?

  11. Casey Luskin has recently argued that God can cause things using natural means.

    I’m not sure how this works unless he is referring to things embodied in the original creation event. That is Michael Denton’s current position.

    In such a scenario, design by humans still derives from an initial supernatural intervention.

    ID seems to encompass a wide spectrum of interpretations, ranging from the “Nature’s Destiny” position, to continuous creation.

    Some ID proponents seem willing to accept the possibility that common descent is true, and that the history of change can be the result of known kinds of genomic events.

    Some, Like Behe, appear to believe that can account for some, but not all of historical change.

    Some seem to believe it can account for common descent, but not for origin of life.

    I would be curious to know if there is anything common to all ID advocates that would suggest a way to resolve these differences.

    Some avenue of research.

  12. If a supernatural intervention were required to prevent an infinite regression of natural designers, then why wouldn’t it also be required to prevent an infinite regression of natural non-design causes? In other words, what does design or non-design have to do with it?

  13. I think several posters suggested a satisfactory operational definition of natural, as opposed to supernatural.

    That would involve humans or agents equivalent to humans designing a living thing, for the purpose of the contest.

    It does not have the common ambiguity of “natural vs artificial” that pops up in discussions of products. It clearly implies divine intervention or intervention by a non-material agent.

    The problem is not ambiguity, but scope.

    If the existence of the intelligent agent requires a supernatural intervention, then everything produced by the agent could not exist without that intervention.

  14. Interesting question. It spawns a plethora of sub-questions.

    Most biologists would argue that life is contingent. Restart the universe and the history would be quite different. There is no “destiny” shaping the direction of physical or biological evolution.

    I personally don’t think this line of thinking can be resolved by reason or by research. To me it will remain a mystery.

    But I think nearly all biologists assert that nearly all the history of live did not involve multi-celled organisms, that about 80 percent of protein coding genes evolved in this period, and that early organisms exchanged genes rather freely.

    These are the kinds of questions that can be addressed by research. Maybe never proved, but certainly affirmed or contradicted.

    The question of whether any of this history was the result of intervention does not, I believe, suggest any line of research that could confirm or disconfirm an hypothesis.

  15. If no reward were offered with the original post, would it have generated as much discussion about the meanings of words? I doubt it. When rewards are offered, it provides motivation to participate, even if the proposition is not logically consistent with the participant viewpoint.

    So what is the benefit and purpose of the argument?

  16. I did ask if the contest was limited in scope, or whether it addressed the larger ID hypothesis. The answer was it included the question of whether ID requires at least one intervention.

  17. It is a feature of discussions on UD that whenever I  try to clarify what the question is or seek to define terms more precisely then someone responds with  something like “obfuscation” or “hyperscepticism”.  Yet I cannot see why either of these steps should do any harm to a sound case.  Why this fear of being precise?

    I raised the three ambiguities because it seems to me that they make the competition unsatisfactory, especially when Barry himself is the sole judge.  I didn’t raise them because I think ID is creationism in a cheap tuxedo (in fact this claim itself needs clarification).  I cannot see why Barry is so concerned that anyone should have the temerity to ask for greater clarity on the rules of his competition. Barry himself found it necessary to add a clarification on the term “supernatural” which was longer than the OP and which linked to another post by him which is even longer!

  18. Well, “obfuscation” seems to be another way of saying “you are missing the point”.

    But that’s rather the point! So often these discussions bog down because both “sides” are talking past each other, both assuming the other is being obtuse or “hyperskeptical”.

    I’d love to nail the real difference.

  19. …an then there are the other times when ‘the scientist’ is given an appropriate operational methodology, but very occasionally fails to recognize it.

    ps – I am glad to see that you are still posting here Dr Liddle, and I hope all is well with you and yours.

  20. Pretty busy right now, UBP, but nice to see you too :)

    I think we got there in the end.

    Not sure when I’m going to get to the project though!

  21. Ah, I missed the earlier thread. Thanks.

  22. Since you think ID = Creationism, I will ask you to take your own medicine: Define “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.”

  23. Oops, I notice that you didn’t make the claim ID = Creationism. Sorry.

  24. @ 11 is not meant to be a response to #10.

  25. Do you think that is what Barry means by “obfuscate”? In my dictionary it means “To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand”. Which is why it is very strange to be accused of obfuscation for asking for a clearer definition :-)

  26. Well, I think that’s what Barry means by it (Barry?) and yes, it is possible to obfuscate by lawyering away at definitions (I’ve accused Mung of similar), so I think it’s very easy to conjugate:

    I ask for a clearer definition
    You obfuscate
    She completely misses the point.

    People who “believe in the supernatural” know what they mean, and think scientists, in general, ignore it as a potential explanation for phenomena, out of an “a priori commitment to materialism”.

    Scientists, on the other hand, don’t know what it means, because all it seems to mean is “something science can’t explain” which means that “supernatural explanation” is an oxymoron.

    Probably both “sides” are equivocating with the word “explain”, come to think of it. Science, ultimately, doesn’t “explain” anything, it just provides models that reliably predict events from other events.

    When scientists come to the back end of a causal chain they tend to assume they have reached a fundamental law of existence; “supernaturalists” tend to assume they have reached God.

    All if which is irrelevant to the issue of a) whether the postulated God is good, and b) design.

    In my view.

    So perhaps an even more basic difference is that supernaturalists assume that minds, and intentional agents, can be immaterial, and scientists (well, some scientists, me for instance) don’t.

    Perhaps that’s the most fundamental disagreement.

    (just musing here).

    So perhaps the fundamental question that separates us is: are minds independent of matter?

  27. Hello Mr. Arrington,

    In my posts on your previous article I clearly defined the two ways we commonly use the term supernatural: 1) referring to a disembodied agent and 2) referring to actions contrary to the laws of physics. Based on both definitions I clearly lay out sound arguments that ID necessitates both usages of “supernatural.”

    Neither yourself nor KairoFocus have demonstrated that my arguments miss the point or are unsound. I plan to write out the arguments again as a UD article, and you can respond more in depth there if you wish. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll have to call BS on your challenge.

    Regards,
    Eric

  28. 28

    Mr. Arrington explained what he meant by both natural and supernatural in the O.P.:

    “Once again, here is the contest: “UD hereby offers a $1,000 prize to anyone who is able to demonstrate that the design of a living thing by an intelligent agent necessarily requires a supernatural act (i.e., the suspension of the laws of nature).

    Natural = according to natural laws; supernatural = suspension of natural laws.

    Whether the putative intelligent agent is supernatural or not is irrelevant; the question is if the agent, in order to design life, has to suspend any laws of nature. Obviously, since materialists believe the laws of nature by themselves acting on natural materials designed life, an intelligent agency of any sort (supernatural or not) could certainly work within those same laws of nature, on the same materials, to design life.

    This shows that design theory – which is about the design, not the designer – doesn’t refer to any necessarily supernatural event in the design process under ID.

  29. Eric:

    In my posts on your previous article I clearly defined the two ways we commonly use the term supernatural: 1) referring to a disembodied agent

    Who is “we”? I know I do not refer to the supernatural as a disembodoed agent.

    2) referring to actions contrary to the laws of physics.

    And how does the origin of a living organisms or the origin of the universe require that?

  30. Elizabeth:]

    Scientists, on the other hand, don’t know what it means, because all it seems to mean is “something science can’t explain” which means that “supernatural explanation” is an oxymoron.

    Unfortunately you cannot support anything in that quote. Can you please reference all scientists who say that the supernatural means “something science cannot explain”?

  31. Neil:

    What does “unguided natural forces” mean here?

    The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity- Nobel Laureates Iinitiative

    September 9, 2005

    Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.

  32. Whether the putative intelligent agent is supernatural or not is irrelevant; the question is if the agent, in order to design life, has to suspend any laws of nature.

    But I specifically put that question to Barry. If the ID hypothesis requires an intelligent agent(at some link in the causal chain) to be supernatural, then the ID hypothesis requires intervention of a supernatural agency.

    It is somewhat disingenuous to assert that a supernatural agent uses natural causes. What does that even mean?

    In Michael Denton’s “Nature’s Destiny,” he asserts that OOL and evolution are inevitable products of a designed material universe. I have no way of arguing against that worldview, but it does mean that everything that follows would not follow except for the initial supernatural intervention.

  33. NR:

    Pardon, but you just reduced yourself to self-contracictory absurdity:

    Is a heat seeking air to air missile to be considered unguided? There is no human or other intelligent being guiding it. But we usually think of it as being guided by the feedback system that was built into the missile.

    The fine-tuned, functionally specific complex organisation and associated information “built into” a guided missile — ever had to “tune” [that's the term in use . . . ] a control loop to get it to work under real world conditions? — is a known case of design.

    There IS an intelligent being guiding the missile to its target. Just because you do not directly SEE a designer at work [but see telling signs of his work from the objects, phenomena and phenomena under observation], does not mean that work of design is not real.

    The FSCO/I in a functional control loop is eloquent testimony to the presence of a designer.

    GEM of TKI

    F/N: For interest, read the story of the Sidewinder missile here. (Wiki is always so helpful when it is compelled by the sheer weight of facts to testify inadvertently against its interest! Try this for size: “The missile was designed to be simple to upgrade.[2] It has been said that the design goals for the original Sidewinder were to produce a reliable and effective missile with the “electronic complexity of a table model radio and the mechanical complexity of a washing machine”—goals which were well accomplished in the early missiles.”)

  34. ouch, contradictory

  35. I repeat:

    since when is a straightforward engineering design process regarded as a “miracle”?

    (Remember, at 13 in the previous thread, I have long since put on the table how Venter et al have provided proof of concept that a sufficiently sophisticated molecular nanotech lab can credibly account for a living cell. Case closed. All else beyond that point is fluff and squid ink to disguise how the “natural vs supernatural” talking point of the NCSE has been shot down in flames, probably by one of those sidewinder missiles that are miraculously guided to their targets by a designed control system.)

    GEM of TKI

  36. PS: Cf 2.3 above.

  37. It finally struck me that what is supernatural is dependent upon one’s vantage point. I am sure an eternal God would not see himself as supernatural.

  38. In common parlance “supernatural” often refers to entities such as God, angels, ghosts, spirits, etc. that are generally not considered to have corporeal bodies.

    I’ll reiterate my argument for #2 in brief: physics is another term for everything describable by chance and necessity. Therefore, if any event is not describable by chance and necessity, it does not abide by the laws of physics. Every instance of ID, without exception, is such an event. Personally, I would say this is contrary to the laws of physics, but perhaps you have another way of describing it. At any rate, it is definitely beyond nature as defined by physics, so it is valid to call such events “super” (beyond, more than, above) natural.

    If Mr. Arrington claims such usage of the term “supernatural” is not common parlance, then I’m really at a loss as to what he means by “supernatural.” Perhaps Mr. Arrington can give some examples of what he would consider “supernatural?”

  39. Refer to my argument in Mr. Arrington’s other thread to see why this doesn’t hold up logically. If you disagree with my argument then refute it.

  40. *All* ID is supernatural since it is beyond the laws of chance of necessity, i.e. physics, i.e. nature. Mr. Arrington himself says a supernatural act suspends the laws of physics, so I have met his challenge.

  41. 41

    Stop it Eric.

  42. Evolution is a finely tuned feedback system, so whatever the source of the feedback system, once in place, it is self steering.

    We’ve been having a debate about whether intelligent agents (which include evolution) require at least one supernatural intervention.

  43. But that means that there is no way of know whether, if something fails to “obey” the “laws” of nature, it is because a “supernatural” agent has intervened, or a “natural” agent in the form of a law, or some other factor we don’t yet know about.

    That was my point – that to a scientist, when something doesn’t “obey the laws of nature”, the response is “that’s odd” not “that’s supernatural”.

  44. 44

    Then you’ve answered the question, Elizabeth: there’s no way to establish (or currently claim) that the design of a living organism by an intelligent agency requires anything supernatural. There’s no way to collect the $1000.00. Thus, any claim that ID theory requires some supernatural event and so is not a scientific theory is bogus.

    We aren’t debating what scientists say when they find something odd; we’re talking about the claim many make that ID theory requires or postulates a supernatural event in the design of living forms.

  45. Ah. OK, I didn’t realise that was the point of the question.

    OK, well, I for one don’t think that ID “is not a scientific theory”.

    I just think it’s an unsupported one :)

  46. After reading this it seems that “supernatural” is simply a useless term. For one thing it’s had a religious connotation for over 500 years. And it’s vague. If there’s so much dispute over the meaning of the word, why not just eliminate it from the discussion? Whatever a person means by “supernatural,” why not just say that instead?

Leave a Reply