Home » Intelligent Design » Thinking about ID as a Theory of Causation

Thinking about ID as a Theory of Causation

I think one of the biggest confusions about Intelligent Design is that it is a theory of origins. This has caused a tremendous amount of confusion on both sides of the fence. If Intelligent Design was a theory of origins, many of ID’s criticisms of ID would make much more sense. But I think that ID is really a theory of causation.

Think about it this way — in order to do a design inference, it requires that there be three types of causes — law, chance, and agency. Note that in this, agency is a distinct type of cause from law (not that they don’t interact and co-depend on each other at times, but they are conceptually independent items). In the typical Darwinist view, mind is simply a complex product of material events. The design inference wouldn’t even make sense if chance and necessity were the only types of causes, since excluding chance and necessity wouldn’t leave any other types of causes.

Now, of the three types of causes, only necessity is fully predictable, but that does not mean that the other types are not amenable to investigation. It just means that the investigation is of a different character. One of the means of investigation is descriptive. And, if you can describe the distinct/unique characteristics of a phenomena, you can often test for it.

Intelligent Design is simply an investigation into a different mode of causation that had not been examined scientifically before. Some people mistakenly think that ID is all about design detection. But that’s merely one aspect. The goal is to examine intelligent causation in its fullest. Whether design detection succeeds or fails is not the entire issue. It is merely a first step into examining the range of phenomena which are distinctive of agency.

So why are its proponents and opponents so focused on origins issues? The primary reason is that most Darwinists assume that mind is a product of matter. If agency is a distinct causitive force, then the Darwinist origins story is lacking one of the most important causal factors in two ways — the origin of agency in humans (and perhaps other organisms), and how agency influences change over time. Likewise, if the Darwinist origins story is true, then this means that agency is not a distinctive force.

Therefore, ID relates to origins issues only in two ways. The firsts iss asking the question of whether or not a given origins story has in place sufficient causitive force to produce the effects claimed. This includes:

  • If there is an element which fits the distinctive marks of agency, is one of the causes proposed an intelligent one?
  • Is there an adequate explanation for the origin of agency itself?

The second is that for each instance of an intelligent cause identified (whether empirically or as the result of the origins story proposed), there is a set of further questions to ask of the phenomena which are unique to intelligent causes. This includes at minimum the list of questions identified by Dr. Dembski previously.

I think that the main issue of disagreement between Darwinists and ID’ers is the causation issue. I think that overall we have been talking past each other becauses this fundamental difference is not always explicitly recognized in the conversations.

To begin the conversation, Albert Voie has a very interesting argument that Godel incompleteness requires that agency (“mind” as he calls it) be distinct from necessity.

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

32 Responses to Thinking about ID as a Theory of Causation

  1. Propose: ID is a metatheory to model and detect causation in current, historical, and origin systems.

    Modeling and detecting causation in current & historical systems provides the basis for modeling and detecting causation in origin systems.

  2. Could you provide a working definition of agency for the challenged lurkers out here? How Darwinists and ID theorists “talk past” each other is a keen interest of mine. Your essay adds a wrinkle to my own thoughts (I think), but I’m afraid I need a clarity on how you define agency.

  3. Interesting post, johnnyb. I am interested in this paragraph:

    “Intelligent Design is simply an investigation into a different mode of causation that had not been examined scientifically before. Some people mistakenly think that ID is all about design detection. But that’s merely one aspect. The goal is to examine intelligent causation in its fullest. Whether design detection succeeds or fails is not the entire issue. It is merely a first step into examining the range of phenomena which are distinctive of agency.”

    Many ID proponenst claim that design detection is in fact all ID is about, and that any further investigation into the nature of the designing agent/agency is what ID is about. I have argued elsewhere, including on ISCID, that such as definition of what ID is doesn’t work, because any genuinely substantiated instance of design will inevitably give some evidence concerning the nature of the designing agent/agency.

    Thus I find it refreshing to read your paragraph above.

  4. JohnnyB, I agree with you that ID is/should be a theory of causation, rather than of origin. Alas, this echoes back to the question of ID v. ID Evolutionist, v. IE. If we accept common descent, then what is being saught is a theory of causation.

    I am, however, quite enchanted by the strong antropic principal. The strong anthropic principal, in effect, says that the universe is precisely tuned, that the laws of nature are precisely derived so that what is playing out is what must play out. If any of a dozen values were modified ever so slightly, well, there just wouldn’t be a universe that is in any way capable of supporting life as we could conceive of it.

    However, at some point all of these precise laws begs for a highly advanced lawmaker. Science itself, as is its nature, can never quite get to the lawmaker, but cosmologists everywhere have made the leap because they only have to leap about three feet. Bottom line, I see the strong anthropic principal to be a strong case for intelligent design.

    That said, I have seriously considered the possibility that all that will be found as ID is explored is more antropic precision. What if the laws of nature are such that life, life as we know it, is inevitable within the framework of those laws? I know that this position gets painfully close to a theistic evolution position, however, it is not a neo-Darwinian position.

    Neo-Darwinism requires chance and chance alone! Ultimately it is only chance that can allow Dawkins to suggest that it is respectable to be an athiest and a scientist. Whether by law or by agency, if not chance alone, then ID.

    Now, there certainly is not a sufficient understanding of law to allow life as we know it to be inevitable. Therefore we can hardly yet say that law accounts for all that is. However, both law and agency are ID positions. Alas, if both law and agency are ID positions, then there are twice as many fields for IDers to plow in their hunt for proof of ID. If agency can be established, great! If law is established instead, I am just as content as an IDer.

  5. Hi johnnyb,

    I’d like to echo Barrett1′s request for a precise definition of what you mean by the word ‘agency’.

    The dictionary definition seems to allow purely material systems to possess agency. Merriam-Webster says that agency is “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.” By that definition, the Mars rovers would seem to possess agency, for example. They have the power to choose a course over the Martian landscape, and they act in response to obstacles along the way, all without intervention from the ground. I think we would all agree that there is nothing immaterial about their operation. They are complicated combinations of hardware and software, sure, but given their design and their environment, there is nothing they do which cannot ultimately be explained in terms of the laws of physics.

    I conclude that you must mean something more by ‘agency’ which is not encompassed by Merriam-Webster’s definition. Could you explain what that is?

    Regards,
    zapatero

  6. By “agency” I mean essentially “choice” or “will”. Some would say “mind”. I don’t, not because I disagree with it necessarily, but because brain is involved w/ many people’s conceptions of mind, and it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins, or if “mind” is actually a complex amalgamation of both.

    If you look at “choice”, you have two options. Is it a real concept? If it is, then it can’t be explained by law or chance. Deterministic outcomes are not part of anyone’s definition of choice. Determinism is the opposite of choice. Likewise, while adding chance into the mix may randomize something so that it looks like “choice” to an outsider, it really isn’t helping at all. Haphazardness is not choice, either, nor is any combination of determinism and haphazardness. In order to get “choice” into play, you _must_ add additional forms of causation. The other option is that “choice” is a false concept. This is the position of many Darwinists, though I and others think that such a thing is the abandonment of reason altogether.

    Haldane put the dillemma best:

    “Nor did I see how, on a materialist basis, knowledge or thought was possible. The light which reaches my eyes causes nervous impulses in about half-a-million fibres running to my brain, and there gives rise to sensation. But how can the sensation be anything like a reality composed of atoms! And, even if it is so, what guarantee have I that my thoughts are logical! They depend on physical and chemical processes going on in my brain, and doubtless obey physical and chemical laws, if materialism is true.”

    Haldane proposed a solution to this problem, but I found it wholly inadequate (I think the problem may have been that he was stuck in an idealist-only conception of mind).

    Now, all of this has huge consequences that go far beyond science. In fact, this is the reason why the ID movement often times includes political elements — the notion that agency is a distinct form of causation has major implications, especially in law. A good read (if I remember correctly) on the subject is Johnson’s Reason in the Balance.

    Plantiga also has a great talk on a similar topic (mp3 link).

    bFast –

    Regarding the strong anthropic principle, I think that while it is true it is still missing something. You need to get agency in from _somewhere_. One possibility could be that all atoms contain agency as a property. I’ve known “atheists” to hold this position, but the truth is that this is more of a pantheistic notion than an atheistic one. The Plantiga lecture above lists most of the possibilities available (or at least that I know of — I’d be interested in knowing if someone has more).

  7. JohnnyB, let me suggest that law is simply agency which was instantiated prior to the big bang.

    Let me also suggest a law-based hypothetical which could reasonably account for all of the complexity of life as it is. There are a number of infinite numbers – pi comes to mind. What if it were discovered that this number pi has encoded in it all of the details necessary to produce the complexity of life.

    I know its a bit of a far fetched and mystical suggestion. I am hardly suggesting that it is correct, I am only suggesting that a universe could be conceived where law, without agency, would produce all of the complexity of life that we see. The resultant law set would, by its very nature, require an intelligent cause.

  8. bFast –

    The problem is not just the complexity, it is the existance of agency in the current world. Agency cannot be explained through law. Therefore, the existance of choice in modern humans means that we cannot just have been the product of chance and necessity, even if Denton’s hypothesis (or one like it) turns out to be true.

  9. It is my impression that sophisticated people must pretend that they don’t know what agency is.

    Linguists who don’t so pretend have come to realize that we cannot even speak without a theory of agency. Noam Chomsky set linguistics on to a formal theory of syntax that put this “Creative Aspect of Language Use (CALU)”—as mentioned in another thread (http://www.uncommondescent.com.....4#comments)—outside the field. But it turns out that precious little can be said about syntax when agency and consciousness are shoved aside. In mathematics a function f(x) defines a variable such that it has a precise or possible range of numerical values. In language a clause, defined as the minimal unit of information (with truth value over against some context), construes its argument (variable) in a certain relationship with respect to an event or state. Normally this relationship cannot be assigned a numerical value. This is because in human language the core semantic relationships are Agent, Dative (=participant where consciousness but not agency is relevant), and Patient/Theme (where neither agency nor consciousness are relevant). After a brief explanation college students can readily label the semantic case role in propositions such as: work (John); be hungry (Bill); fall (Mary); break (window); look (John, Mary); see (John, Mary); give (John, Mary, Money).

    Grammar is functional in that it mediates between semantics and pragmatic considerations like reference and coherence. Notice what the variant word order does to “the top of Mount Everest” in (2) below.

    1) The university sent an expedition to the top of Mount Everest.
    2) The university sent the top of Mount Everest an expedition.

    Descriptivists tend to find functional theories more fruitful than the purely formalist, for example Case Grammar (http://www.ethnologue.com/show.....p?code=CAG) and Relational Grammar (http://www.ethnologue.com/show.....p?code=RLG) at SIL. Interestingly Relational Grammar, developed by Paul Postal and David Perlmutter, labeled our Agent, Dative, and Patient/Theme as 1, 2, and 3. They made no effort to define these beyond saying that they were primitives of the theory.

  10. johnnyb, thank you for the response. I can dig it. I always feel blessed to still have posting privileges after asking a question. It’s a precarious existence here in the peanut gallery. Thanks again.

  11. Anytime the discussion gets philosophical, I get uneasy because the terms used are very general and that to me means vague. I am sure they have precision but the precision is not in the lexicon we commonly use. Given that, I have a few comments.

    Is there really such a thing as chance? Or when we say chance do we mean that we do not understand all the forces or complexities that underline a situation and what appears or happens because of our insufficient knowledge is then described as random or by chance. If all the laws are working and there is nothing but atoms, quarks, mesons, etc, are not the existence, characteristics and motion of each really determined by some basic physical laws. Now I understand that there is something called the uncertainty principle and that Quantum Mechanics causes some unusual results but does this mean that some of these particles are not following some basic set of laws. I understand that we may not know just what some of these laws and forces might be but that does not mean these basic laws are not operating and causing these particles to behave in a specific manner. I also understand that the complexity of the particles and forces involved may be beyond any calculations we are capable of but that also does not mean that basic laws are not behind everything.

    So is what we mean by chance really just a subset of law?

    Isn’t the term “agency” just the introduction of free will of some intelligence into the equation? This intelligence exerts some new force into the physical world, thus moving the basic particles either here or there depending upon the nature of the force created by the intelligence. In other words the forces that would ordinarily be operating based on laws are modified somewhat by a new force caused by a freely thought out action of an intelligence. If it is not freely thought out then we have to assume the “so called” intelligence is determined by some other laws we may not be aware of.

    I know that chance has been discussed in detail elsewhere on this blog but I am just trying to put the framework offered here in this post into some other framework that I can understand and possibly discuss with a typical person who doesn’t have a background in philosophy. And to also understand it better myself.

    In other words we have laws and then we have free will. And I understand that philosophers have been discussing this topic for a few thousand years with no consensus.

  12. jerry: “So is what we mean by chance really just a subset of law?”
    Einstein: “God does not throw dice.”
    ——————
    zapatero @5: “the Mars rovers would seem to possess agency, for example. They have the power to choose a course over the Martian landscape, and they act in response to obstacles along the way, all without intervention from the ground. I think we would all agree that there is nothing immaterial about their operation. They are complicated combinations of hardware and software, sure, but given their design and their environment, there is nothing they do which cannot ultimately be explained in terms of the laws of physics.”

    Bad example. The rovers were designed and programmed by intelligent agents! Begs the question.
    ——————
    Rem viderunt, causam non viderunt. (“They have seen the thing; they have not seen the cause.”) — St. Augustine, Contra Pelagium, iv.

  13. johnnyb said:
    “By “agency” I mean essentially “choice” or “will”. Some would say “mind”. I don’t, not because I disagree with it necessarily, but because brain is involved w/ many people’s conceptions of mind, and it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins, or if “mind” is actually a complex amalgamation of both.”

    Jerry said:
    “Isn’t the term “agency” just the introduction of free will of some intelligence into the equation? This intelligence exerts some new force into the physical world, thus moving the basic particles either here or there depending upon the nature of the force created by the intelligence. In other words the forces that would ordinarily be operating based on laws are modified somewhat by a new force caused by a freely thought out action of an intelligence. If it is not freely thought out then we have to assume the “so called” intelligence is determined by some other laws we may not be aware of.”

    Agency has to involve something besides “mind” or “free will.” Bacteria do not possess either and yet act as agents in that they affect their environment as they react to their environment. Those reactions are programmed! Where is the program? In their DNA, of course. Whence DNA? The omniscient, omnipotent creator, of course. Humans, having free will, make conscious choices in their capacity as agents. Bacteria do not, but they are still agents.

  14. garyj,

    As I said in my first post, a lot of philosophical discussion will depend upon definitions and sometimes they are vague. But I gave my take on what agency means and others can certainly chip in but it is johnnyb’s framework so he is the decision maker on this.

    Every particle in the universe exerts a force on every other particle and is intern affected by every other particle. For example, gravity is one such force. You could argue that the bacteria are also like particles, affecting and being affected by their surroundings. The forces operating within the bacteria are also originating from the various laws of the universe and while they affect other elements in the universe they are not necessarily agents just because they are a life form. The calculations to predict the behavior of each organism as simple as a bacteria would be immense and essentially not solvable but still every movement of the bacteria theoretically would be the result of the laws of physics and nothing else. These laws govern how the nucleotides in the DNA play out to produce RNA and proteins which then affect other molecules by their chemical properties and are affected by the properties of surrounding molecules. These proteins sense molecules or forces originating outside the organism through chemical reactions and this affects internal re-alignments that cause movement. As you move up the complexity chain the calculations would increase geometrically and again would be even more incalculable but the same laws would apply.

    It is when an intelligence has the power to modify these laws using free will that I believe the concept of agency applies. But again, that is only my understanding of this framework.

    I am not sure what this approach buys us because the average person on the street or even in the classroom will be moved by much simpler explanations such as this must have been designed or that couldn’t possibly happen by chance. However, I find it interesting.

  15. JohnnyB, “if Denton’s hypothesis (or one like it) turns out to be true.” If Denton’s hypothesis (if I understand it correctly, I am currently in the middle of his book) is correct then, then, ID. That be my point. To put it another way, the ID tent is well big enough to hold “the biological antropic principal”.

    I do expect agency as you do, however. I expect agency because I experience the agency of God on a frequent basis.

  16. (try again: I posted this yesterday, but it seems to have been rejected)

    Some people mistakenly think that ID is all about design detection. But that’s merely one aspect. The goal is to examine intelligent causation in its fullest.

    One would hope that this would be true, but if it were then one of the first questions that would have to be addressed is “Who is the designer?”. But we don’t see this problem being tackled: it seems to be quietly ignored instead.

    Bob

    Dunno what happened to the first comment you left. For argument’s sake let’s say that the genetic code and the minimal set of genes (estimated to be around 200 protein products) for the simplest free living bacteria are designed and appeared on this planet about 3 billion years ago. What can be reliably inferred about the designer from only that information? Hardly anything IMO. -ds

  17. “but if it were then one of the first questions that would have to be addressed is “Who is the designer?”.”

    The problem is that this is nearly impossible, though it may be possible to characterize the designer. Meyer, for instance, says that identity is a second-order philosophical question. I don’t know if this is necessarily so, but this is a reasonable statement given the commonly allowed evidence.

    What is the name of the designer of Stonehenge? We may be able to characterize the designer from the evidence, but identify the designer wse cannot.

    Now, I believe in revelation. So the answer of who the designer is Yahweh. But most scientists do not consider revelation to be a valid form of evidence, so the designer remains unknown. However, I think that revelation is valid within a scientific context, and I defend the idea here:

    http://crevobits.blogspot.com/.....s-and.html

    If you woulds like to see scientific work done from the perspective that revelation is a valid form of evidence, see here:

    http://www.bryancore.org/bsg/opbsg/008.pdf

  18. In a comment, DaveScot writes,

    “For argument’s sake let’s say that the genetic code and the minimal set of genes (estimated to be around 200 protein products) for the simplest free living bacteria are designed and appeared on this planet about 3 billion years ago. What can be reliably inferred about the designer from only that information? Hardly anything IMO.”

    We could infer the following:

    1. The designer has the physical ability to manipulate reality at the molecular level, and

    So do the bacteria. They have been waging chemical warfare at the molecular level for (ostensibly) 3 billion years and they’re still fighting. -ds

    2. The designer has the cognitive ability to understand all the complexities of the chemical relationships involved in the gene, and

    If by that you mean the designer knows the physical laws of nature that seems to be a fair inferral. I would however point out that this is entirely rules-based. A computer can be programmed with the rules of chemistry and physics and while it doesn’t “understand” these rules it can still apply them and predict the results. -ds

    3. The computational ability to figure out to some extent how the genes will play out when released into an environment that will change in unknowable ways (unless the designer can foretell the future),

    Yes. So what have we inferred – the designer could be anything from a nanoscale computer/assembler as described in the book Engines of Creation to an omnipotent, omniscient entity that can create universes out of nothing. A pretty wide range of possibilities there, ain’t it? -ds

    Also, if the genetic code was what was designed so that subsequent information was front-loaded, then we can infer that the designer not only does not exist anymore (or at least isn’t here around earth), and in fact hasn’t been here for along time. That is, the designer made a one-stop visit to earth 3 billion years ago.

    Nope. There’s no logical support for that. Non sequitur. -ds

    Therefore, either the designer is “mortal” in the sense that it has existed and then doesn’t anymore, or the designer can travel through the universe.

    Therefore nothing. You reached well beyond what can be inferred from the givens. -ds

  19. Agency in this context seems to entail some sense of intentionality, which in turn seems to require both personality and intelligence, coupled with the ability characteristics already given in the M-W definition.

  20. Bob, “one of the first questions that would have to be addressed is “Who is the designer?” I see this as an attempt to make catch 22 where none is needed. Archaeologists ask the question the other way around all of the time. They see an object, the first question they ask is, “is it natural or is it an artifact.” (They often don’t ask that question for very long.) Only once they know that it is not natural, do they ask the question of who made it.

    If we can get past the first question in biology of “is it designed?” (Many of us, of course are already well past that question.) then we can begin to examine the design to find out what we can tell about the designer.

    Alas, when we slip into cosmology we see how this works. Cosmology has (for the most part) accepted that a big bang happened, and that there are many aspects of the resulting universe that are precisely tuned to make the whole thing work. If one big bang happened, however, than the s can be removed from designer(s). If multiple designers did it, it is sure that those designers worked together as a very tight team, to the point that they are in a real way “one”. The precision of the designer’s work is also evident. Hense we can imperically determine some knowledge about the designer based upon the data. Yet before we know anything about the designer, we first conclude that we are looking at design.

  21. It is the genius and beauty of Intelligent Design to recognize that identifying design is a SEPARATE question from the personal identity of the designer, the age of the cosmos, why is there evil in the world, or what religion is the true religion. That, however, does not mean that we are demarcationists. Though we know that empirical science and philosophy/religion tend toward opposite ends of a continuum, we also recognize that there is no independent criterion whereby we can demarcate a boundary between the two. As honest seekers we concede what we do not know but we never demarcate precisely what it is that we cannot know.

    Our disengenuous adversaries constantly want us to tie ID to a multitude of other issues that they think they can shoot down. But science is not mysticism, for whereas mysticism comprehends everything in an instant, science—just like human language—understands the world in manageable chunks.

  22. Rude, I like your “we are not demarcationists” concept. I think that in mainstream science there has been a strong attempt to establish demarcationism. I fully agree with you that strong demarcation is unwise.

  23. Did anyone catch the latest IDUpdate news about Frances Collins? Director National Human Genome Research. New book sure to cause Dawkins heart palpitations, “scientific discovery can bring one closer to God”…

    hattip: Tom M., IDUpdate @ ARN,
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2220484,00.html

    Another scientist at the highest level recognizes “agency”.

    “One of the great tragedies of our time is this impression that has been created that science and religion have to be at war, said Collins, 56.”

    “I don’t see that as necessary at all and I think it is deeply disappointing that the shrill voices that occupy the extremes of this spectrum have dominated the stage for the past 20 years.”

    “For Collins, unravelling the human genome did not create a conflict in his mind. Instead, it allowed him to “glimpse at the workings of God”.”

  24. Alas Michaels7, according to your link, Dr. Collins seems to be a thiestic evolutionist. He seems to see natural selection (and I presume its sidekick random mutation) as “the tool God used”. I do not see any evidence from the article that he sees “agency”.

  25. Why does the position of “theistic evoltion” exclude agency. Standard Christian theology is that all that happens – every instant, expresses the Will of God. I don’t think theistic evolution and agency are incompatible concepts.

    I’ve always thought theistic evolution and ID have no quarrel. Ken Millier is a confused IDist. AFAIK (but I’m not very well informed on Christian theology and don’t believe there’s only one school of CT in any case) Christian theology can’t possibly stipulate that God can never be detected otherwise the Catholic church would have to automatically disavow all miracles. -ds

  26. I love it. God “uses” a tool without actually having any control over or contact with that tool.

  27. According to Christian theology, God has His hands on all that happens – His “control over and contact with” evolution is no different than His “control over and contact with” the daily lives of His followers, and the events of the everyday world. All believers accept that events which look fortunate to us can be, and indeed in the big picture, are part of God’s plan and design for the world. What is chance to us in not chance to God, rather that be a mutation that appears random in the eyes of science or a fortunate event that changes one’s life.

  28. … oops: I meant “whether that be a …”, not “rather.” It’s too bad we can’t edit our posts here.

  29. ds: “I’ve always thought theistic evolution and ID have no quarrel. Ken Millier is a confused IDist.” I actually think that theistic evolution and ID are pretty close. The big difference seems to be that ID does not accept chance alone as the provider of information, where theistic evolutionists can be quite adimant that chance alone explains biological novelty.

    DS: “I’m not very well informed on Christian theology and don’t believe there’s only one school of CT in any case.” As one with a bachelor’s degree in theology (evangelical) I assure you that there is not only one school of Christian Theology. Alas, that is the bottom line reason why there is no danger of a theocracy.

  30. [...] called Old-Earth Creationism), others seeing it as being equivalent to Young-Earth Creationism. I have argued before that the core of ID is not about a specific theory of origins. In fact, many ID’ers hold a variety of views including Progressive Creationism and [...]

  31. [...] called Old-Earth Creationism), others seeing it as being equivalent to Young-Earth Creationism. Ihave argued before that the core of ID is not about a specific theory of origins. In fact, many ID’ers hold a variety of views including Progressive Creationism and Young-Earth [...]

  32. [...] ID is not primarily about origins (though it does have things to say about origins), but rather it is about the nature of reality. If nature is only physics, and legitimate reasoning can only include scientific reasoning, then [...]

Leave a Reply