Home » Self-Org. Theory » Dembski replies to Shapiro: “Natural genetic engineering” is just magic, by another name. Can you make it science?

Dembski replies to Shapiro: “Natural genetic engineering” is just magic, by another name. Can you make it science?

In the ongoing discussion between the ID theorists, including Dembski, and self-organization theorist James Shapiro, Dembski asks “Is James Shapiro a Darwinist After All?” (Evolution News & Views January 25, 2012):

Neo-Darwinism essentially localizes the creative potential of evolution in genetic mutations. Shapiro rightly sees that this can’t be the main source of evolutionary variation. So he expands it to include “horizontal DNA transfer, interspecific hybridization, genome doubling and symbiogenesis.” Fine, now you’ve got a richer source of variation. But what is coordinating these variations to bring about the increasing complexity we find in biological systems? Shapiro’s answer is “natural genetic engineering.” Cells, according to Shapiro, are intelligent in that they do their own natural genetic engineering, taking existing structures through horizontal DNA transfer or symbiogenesis, say, and reworking them in new contexts for new uses.

But in making such a claim, has Shapiro really solved anything? Has he truly understood the evolution of any complex biological structures? For instance, does his third way now provide some real insights into protein evolution? I’m hammering on these words “solution” and “understanding” because they are easily misused to suggest greater knowledge and conceptual progress than exists.

Natural genetic engineering would actually mean something, providing genuine understanding of and solutions for the origin of novel biological structures, if Shapiro could point to actual, identifiable mechanisms and show how they take existing structures and then refashion them into new ones. But Shapiro doesn’t do this. For him, natural genetic engineering is a magic phrase, a label, that he attaches to hypothesized processes that are opaque to him and yet that he claims result in evolutionary novelty. Note that I’m not talking here about the mechanisms he regularly cites, such as lateral gene transfer or symbiogenesis, which are mechanisms for generating evolutionary variation. Rather, I’m talking about deeper mechanisms that must exist if natural genetic engineering is to be real and take advantage of more obvious mechanisms such as symbiogenesis.

More.

Comment here.

Note: Is “natural genetic engineering” another example of attributing intelligence to a nature that is supposed to be devoid of intelligence? If not, what?

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42 Responses to Dembski replies to Shapiro: “Natural genetic engineering” is just magic, by another name. Can you make it science?

  1. 1
    material.infantacy

    If we just attribute the astoundingly sophisticated, and quite apparently purposeful operation of cellular systems to “evolution,” then we can readily reconstruct the entire enterprise, without missing a beat when promoting that life is the established result of blind processes.

    If we’re going to continue to keep poisonous ideas out of the classroom, the equivocal power of the term, “evolution,” must be retained. That way anything we observe, no matter how non-random, no matter how marvelous and sophisticated, can be attributed to evolution, the cover word which removes all doubt, that everyone and everything is the result of blind, pitiless indifference.
    _______

    As a side note, in my elementary school cafeteria, directly opposite the lunch line, which lead a stream of children through an expansive room filled with tables and chairs and finally up to the serving area, there was a gigantic banner spanning over half the length of the wall. It was a graphic depicting the “evolution of man” scenario. Every day while we waited in line for lunch, that banner was the predominate feature of the entire room, directly opposite the wall that guided the lunch line onward. There were no other graphics, plaques, or depictions of scientific ideas, theories, or visionaries. Just the one, expansive, “evolution of man” image.

  2. So, can I as a Creationist claim “SUPER”-Natural genetic engineering as my scientific explanation for life? If Shapiro can make claims based on faith in materialism and without having to produce evidence for his claims, why can’t I make the argument for a Creator or designer? Especially when the evidence, logical deduction and scientific principles point to one???

    Materialists and atheists haven’t rejected God, they just call Him ‘blind, random chance’ because apparently it can do anything!

  3. Natural genetic engineering would actually mean something, providing genuine understanding of and solutions for the origin of novel biological structures, if Shapiro could point to actual, identifiable mechanisms and show how they take existing structures and then refashion them into new ones. But Shapiro doesn’t do this. For him, natural genetic engineering is a magic phrase, a label, that he attaches to hypothesized processes that are opaque to him and yet that he claims result in evolutionary novelty.

    I agree with this.

    I would also say that in ID, the magic label “intelligence” functions the same way. It is utterly opaque, and nobody has any clue how it is supposed to operate. We don’t understand how human beings use their brains to make sense of sensory data, store and retrieve memories, solve problems, generate plans, and so forth. One thing we do know is that we do use our brains (and other parts of our bodies too, such as the enteric nervous system in our GI tract) in order to think.

    So if ID claims to refer to a known cause for life, it must be referring to a complex physical organism with mental/physical abilities similar to human beings – that is, an extra-terrestrial life form of some sort. But there is no evidence that such things exist, and if they did, it would be more likely that we were their descendents rather than the products of their engineering efforst.

    Otherwise, ID’s claim must refer to an unknown type of cause, which would be something that is not a complex physical organism but still somehow has the mental/physical abilities of human beings (and then some). We have no idea how anything without a complex nervous system could possible be able to perceive, store and retrieve information, generate plans, and so forth.

    So, just like Shapiro uses “natural genetic engineering” as a magic phrase that actually doesn’t say anything about what is going on, ID uses the phrase “intelligent design” in the very same way.

  4. It seems like just moments ago this site was officially endorsing Shapiro’s book. When the book came out I read it and pointed out that Shapiro provided a naturalistic view of evolution.

    I was accused of not reading the book.

    Within the last few days Shapiro was defended on this site against charges that he was an evolutionist and not ID friendly.

    The winds change suddenly around here.

  5. Dembski:

    But what is coordinating these variations to bring about the increasing complexity we find in biological systems?

    The natural homeostasis found in biological systems would seem to provide sufficient coordination.

  6. Why should you be surprised, Petrushka, that different ID proponents have different estimations of a writer? Do all Darwinians (Coyne, Dawkins, Scott, Miller, Collins, Ayala, Shermer, Ruse, etc.) agree on everything?

    ID is a big tent. Not everyone here will agree with every word that Dembski has written about Shapiro.

    Where has “this site” endorsed Shapiro? Certain columnists and commenters here have praised Shapiro for his criticism of Darwinian thinking, and for his suggestion of a model of evolution which is potentially teleological, even if Shapiro does not construe it that way himself. By no means does this imply that all the other columnists here, or the management here, would take such a positive view of Shapiro.

    ID people are individualists; they think for themselves. Just as they disagree over theology (being everything from agnostics through fundamentalists to Catholics to Hindus), and just as they disagree over macroevolution (some rejecting it, some endorsing it, and some reserving judgment), so they can disagree about the scientific value and/or the design implications of Shapiro’s views.

    In fact, I’d argue that ID people, taken as a whole, are more individualistic than either the atheist Darwinists, taken as a group, or the Christian Darwinists (theistic evolutionists), taken as a group. There is a wider range of views tolerated within ID than in either of those other camps, and therefore individuality and critical thinking, as opposed to groupthink, is more encouraged.

    Anyhow, regarding your specific points:

    1. Everyone here would agree that Shapiro is an evolutionist, but that does not make him anti-ID, since ID is compatible with evolution.

    2. Yes, Shapiro does intend to offer a purely naturalistic explanation of evolution. However, even a purely naturalistic explanation of the evolutionary process is not incompatible with design. Denton offers a purely naturalistic explanation that is explicitly a vehicle for design.

    3. The issue that Dembski is raising concerning Shapiro is whether Shapiro’s self-engineering organisms won’t eventually force Shapiro (whether he likes it or not) to adopt a design position. It’s a reasonable question. How did living things come to have the capacity for self-engineering? By chance?

    T.

  7. Here’s some help, Petrushka:

    This site doesn’t officially endorse books.

    Some of us are interested in some books.

    Shapiro especially,as he appears to be a non-Darwinist.

    Authors have differing opinions in a general range.

  8. NR:

    Homeostasis is a control system issue, which means it requires set point targets, feedback sensors, and controllers driving actuators to keep things in the right ballpark. (Matter of fact, homeostasis was one of the conceptual examples I saw in my very first control systems course.)

    Setting up and controlling such a loop is a major design challenge and points directly to purposefulness.

    KF

  9. which means it requires set point targets, feedback sensors, and controllers driving actuators to keep things in the right ballpark.

    Pardon, but you need to improve your simplistic understanding of the concept, and the variety of things that can exhibit homeostasis. To start with it doesn’t require targets, not does it require sensors or actuators in the engineering sense, all it requires is a system whose behavior in response to a variable stimuli is to compensate – an example would be temperature stability under sunlight achieved with a coating that alters color – it gets whiter when it is hot, and blacker when cold – this is an example of a minimal homeostatic system, but one that is just due to a simple physical property rather than complex engineering.

    Evolution is another example of where homeostasis can be OBSERVED.

    WHEN you have self replicators with variation and differential survival rates, in a variable environment, you OBSERVE homeostasis.

  10. I think there’s more to it than that as far as the cell is concerned. KF is absolutely right, IMO. Homeostasis is just one of characteristic properties of the living cell integrated into a single whole, for which one needs formal control. I think it is impossible to circumvent this problem without choice causation.

  11. Whether or not Shapiro’s ideas eventually turn out to have merit, it doesn’t help ID with the problem that “intelligence” remains as scientifically vacuous an explanation as “natural genetic engineering” is now. (please see my post above, which was held for moderation).

  12. aiguy,

    You remain in the perpetual delusion that we must define your favorite term to the ultimate satisfaction of every critic on Earth in order to move forward. Like a silly connoisseur demanding that we must speak French in order to discuss champagne.

    We don’t. Get over it.

    (back later)

  13. For examples of documented natural genetic engineering mechanisms, see http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.ed.....ring.shtml .

    For illustrations of the roles of natural genetic engineering in evolution, see http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.ed.....tion.shtml , http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.....58228.html , and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.....92507.html

  14. UB,

    You remain in the perpetual delusion that we must define your favorite term to the ultimate satisfaction of every critic on Earth in order to move forward.

    Hi there. You seem to want to speak for me, but I would suggest that you read what I say instead. That way we can discuss ideas instead of you just arguing with yourself :-)

    I didn’t ask for a definition of “intelligence”; I assume you are using the term to mean the ability to “make sense of sensory data, store and retrieve memories, solve problems, generate plans, and so forth”.

    Shapiro uses the term “natural genetic engineering” to refer to the cells ability to collect functional modules of genetic material in various ways, assemble these modules to produce adaptive phenotypic traits, and so forth.

    Dembski pointed out that since nobody knows how “natural genetic engineering” operates, or how it came to exist in the first place, it doesn’t qualify as a meaningful scientific explanation; instead it is just a “magic label”. I agreed, and pointed out that the same thing is true of “intelligent design”.

  15. Yet “intelligence” just refers to agency and agency is not a scientifically vacuous explanation.

  16. OK, right- we have been down this road before.

    The label “intelligence” just refers to agency, as in some agency designed and built Stonehenge. Then we study it to figure out the how, why, who, etc.

    Ya see it matters to an investigation whether or not some agency was involved. So we make that determination first.

  17. Yet we know how agencies operate and what agencies can do that nature, operating freely cannot do.

    Cause and effect relationships…

  18. 18

    Hi AI, hope all is well.

    LOL, its always the same with you.

    You began your post with: “I would also say that in ID, the magic label “intelligence” functions the same way. It is utterly opaque, and nobody has any clue how it is supposed to operate. We don’t understand how human beings use their brains to make sense of sensory data, store and retrieve memories, solve problems, generate plans, and so forth.”

    I have watched you go for days over an unassailable definiton of intelligence; one which cannot be peppered with yet another question. I have done it with you myself.

    - – - – - –

    What I am saying to you is that an unassailable definiton of “intelligence” is not necessary to the ID project – as you stated in your opening comment.

  19. 19

    ….must go. Cath lab is waiting…

    cheers

  20. Choice contingency is a sound notion.

  21. Hi Joe,

    Yet we know how agencies operate and what agencies can do that nature, operating freely cannot do.

    You use the term “agency” (a term usually associated with philosophy of mind and moral philosophy rather than science). In fact, though, our experience is with human beings (and other animals). “Intelligent agency”, then, refers to a hypothetical class of things that have mental and physical abilities similar to human beings, but the class necessarily includes members that are not human beings, right? Since we only have one type of agent that we can observe, we cannot generalize to a class (without committing a fallacy of composition).

    What we do know about human beings is that we are conscious, and that we can design complex machinery, and that in order to do so we need to use our brains – the most highly complex, CSI-packed machinery we know of. What we do not know is how consciousness arises (what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for it to exist), if consciousness per se is causal or perceptual, how we make sense of sensory data, store and retrieve memories, solve problems, generate plans, and so forth. This is not to say that cognitive science has not learned a tremendous amount over the past few decades, but for the most part “intelligence” is still a magical label referring to abilities that we can’t explain – much like “natural genetic engineering”.

    Hi UB,

    I have watched you go for days over an unassailable definiton of intelligence; one which cannot be peppered with yet another question. I have done it with you myself.

    Again, I would suggest reading and responding to what I am arguing, rather than trying to predict what I will do. If you don’t like the way I have defined intelligence here, could you tell me what is wrong with it?

    What I am saying to you is that an unassailable definiton of “intelligence” is not necessary to the ID project – as you stated in your opening comment.

    I am not asking for an “unassailable definition” of intelligence any more than Dembski is asking for an “unassailable definition” of natural genetic engineering. The problem in both cases is, as Dembski says, that these terms don’t provide “genuine understanding of and solutions for the origin of novel biological structures”.

    Here is Dembski’s quote about Shapiro, with bolded terms changed to reflect on ID instead:

    Intelligent Design would actually mean something, providing genuine understanding of and solutions for the origin of novel biological structures, if Dembski could point to actual, identifiable processes and show how they take existing structures and then refashion them into new ones. But Dembski doesn’t do this. For him, intelligent causation is a magic phrase, a label, that he attaches to hypothesized processes that are opaque to him and yet that he claims result in evolutionary novelty.

    Dembski rejects Shapiro’s work because Shapiro doesn’t explain how natural genetic engineering specifically operates, nor how it arose in the first place. I reject Dembski’s work because Dembski doesn’t explain how the Intelligent Designer specifically operated, nor how it arose in the first place, quid pro quo.

  22. Shapiro doesn’t touch on the origins question, but he is pretty clear on the how it operates.

    What Shapiro claims is similar to the claims that evolvability has evolved (except Shapiro is agnostic on how the capability got there).

    What Shapiro claims is that living things do not depend on “mistakes.” They have regular processes for making the kinds of variation that could prove useful.

    I’d call it micro-saltion sans foresight. The production of chunky mutations as opposed to relying on smooth mutations.

  23. Petrushka:

    ‘What Shapiro claims is that living things do not depend on “mistakes.”’

    Right. And that’s what makes him a critic of neo-Darwinism, which presumes the magical ability of natural selection to make dazzling new coherent systems out of the blind blunders of random mutation.

    ‘They have regular processes for making the kinds of variation that could prove useful.’

    Right again. And where do those regular processes come from? Were they present in the very first cell? If so, how did they get there? Or, if there was nothing like them in the first cell, how did they arise? By the same sort of random mutations that Shapiro elsewhere finds incredible as an explanation of novel biological form? If organisms require not chance, but self-engineering, to evolve constructively, then why does it not follow that the very self-engineering powers that they possess would require not chance, but some engineering, in order to exist in the first place?

    I’m not objecting to Shapiro’s model of evolution. It makes more sense than the ones proposed by Darwin, Mayr, Gould, Dawkins, Kimura, or Margulis. The problem is that it gives to life a system of self-recreation whose origin is inexplicable.

    If Shapiro wants to put off the question of the origin to concentrate on what happens once the system exists, I have no problem with that; one can do good science without raising questions of origins. But no one with a rational mind, reading Shapiro, can avoid asking the question: OK, but where did this self-engineering, self-reconstructing system, with its inbuilt “intelligence” — its adaptive and feedback and self-reorganizing features — come from? It is the incarnation of the engineer’s dream of self-reproducing automata, and then some, because it is not only self-reproducing but self-improving. Why should such a thing exist? What could bring it into being?

    This is where the New Atheists appear to be brain-dead. They either don’t see the significance of the question, or they just blithely suppose, without a shred of proof, that the first such systems arose by lucky accident. That’s why the New Atheism is deeply anti-intellectual and fundamentally irrational.

    By the way, see my reply to you at 4.1 above.

    T.

  24. where did this self-engineering, self-reconstructing system, with its inbuilt “intelligence” — its adaptive and feedback and self-reorganizing features — come from? It is the incarnation of the engineer’s dream of self-reproducing automata, and then some, because it is not only self-reproducing but self-improving. Why should such a thing exist? What could bring it into being?

    Clearly you believe it came from a super intelligent engineer. But whatever complexities that the engineer input into this system that allows you to determine it was designed must be present to an even greater extent in the engineer. So where did the complexity inherent in this super intelligent engineer come from?

  25. Hi Timaeus,

    Why should such a thing exist? What could bring it into being? This is where the New Atheists appear to be brain-dead. They either don’t see the significance of the question, or they just blithely suppose, without a shred of proof, that the first such systems arose by lucky accident. That’s why the New Atheism is deeply anti-intellectual and fundamentally irrational.

    I am not a New Atheist, but I’m a pretty old one :-)

    (actually I identify myself as a theological non-cognitivist rather than an atheist).

    In any event, it is not only atheists who are “brain-dead” when it comes to comprehending the origin of first life – it is all of us. I certainly see the significance of the question, and I certainly do not blithely suppose that “lucky accident” constitutes any sort of good explanation, nor do I blithely suppose that “intelligent causation” or “multiverses” or “front-loading” or any of these other magic labels are meaningful solutions that enable understanding.

    I think that my position is the only intellectually and rationally justified one at this juncture, and that anyone who claims to know the answer (whether it be “chance and necessity” or “intelligent design” or “God”) is deeply anti-intellectual and fundamentally irrational.

    (actually I think that is way too harsh, but I was just turning your point around :-))

  26. aiguy:

    You use the term “agency” (a term usually associated with philosophy of mind and moral philosophy rather than science).

    Archaeology and forensics use it.

    In fact, though, our experience is with human beings (and other animals).

    Yes it is. So what?

    “Intelligent agency”, then, refers to a hypothetical class of things that have mental and physical abilities similar to human beings, but the class necessarily includes members that are not human beings, right? Since we only have one type of agent that we can observe, we cannot generalize to a class (without committing a fallacy of composition).

    Who are you to make such a claim?

    What we do know about human beings is that we are conscious, and that we can design complex machinery, and that in order to do so we need to use our brains – the most highly complex, CSI-packed machinery we know of. What we do not know is how consciousness arises (what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for it to exist), if consciousness per se is causal or perceptual, how we make sense of sensory data, store and retrieve memories, solve problems, generate plans, and so forth. This is not to say that cognitive science has not learned a tremendous amount over the past few decades, but for the most part “intelligence” is still a magical label referring to abilities that we can’t explain – much like “natural genetic engineering”.

    We don’t need to explain the abilities. We are just trying to account for what we are observing. And one of the three basic questions science asks is “how did it come to be this way?”

    If we cannot inquire into that then why even have science?

  27. Right. And that’s what makes him a critic of neo-Darwinism, which presumes the magical ability of natural selection to make dazzling new coherent systems out of the blind blunders of random mutation.

    I’m not sure what you are saying here. The mutations are certainly not biased toward usefulness. Shapiro categorically denies that.

    The part about not being mistakes simply means the editing machinery is loose enough to allow certain kinds of chunky mutations to occur. This enhances the ability to jump across the dreaded functional voids.

    This is not a particularly unique idea, It isn’t original with Shapiro. Some biologists believe the looseness itself evolved because organisms that allow chunky mutations are more likely to adapt to changing conditions.

  28. Earlier I posted a comment indicating where examples of documented natural genetic engineering mechanisms can be found. Unfortunately I didn’t pay sufficient attention to the structure of the ‘comment’ section and my comment ended up at 4.1.1. It really should have been here. Please accept my apologies for my carelessness.

  29. Hi Joe,

    Archaeology and forensics use it [the term "agency"].

    Not that I’m aware of, no. Do you have a reference? It would be odd, since those disciplines are not philosophical, and both deal exclusively and invariably with the artifacts and actions of human beings.

    AIGUY: In fact, though, our experience is with human beings (and other animals).
    JOE: Yes it is. So what?

    So, since it is illogical to claim that human beings (or other life forms) created the first living cells, ID cannot claim that a “known cause” (in the words of Meyer, Dembski, and other ID advocates) is being offered as the cause of first life.

    AIGUY: “Intelligent agency”, then, refers to a hypothetical class of things that have mental and physical abilities similar to human beings, but the class necessarily includes members that are not human beings, right? Since we only have one type of agent that we can observe, we cannot generalize to a class (without committing a fallacy of composition).
    JOE: Who are you to make such a claim?

    The person making the claim is not the issue, of course (argument from authority is a fallacy). If you think that I have made an error in this statement, please point it out.
    What I’m saying is that this class of “intelligent agents” has only one type of member that is known to us, which is human beings (or other animals). Therefore, we cannot rightly claim that other members of this class exist which share some specific traits of human beings (viz our ability to build complex machinery) but not others (viz nervous systems, sense organs, huge amounts of CSI, etc). That is just a hypothesis, not something known to us. Intelligent life forms may exist elsewhere, but we have no evidence of these (as either our inventors or our ancestors). And ghosts, spirits, gods, and other non-living beings with mental and physical abilities similar to humans may also exist, but we have no good evidence that they do.

    We don’t need to explain the abilities. We are just trying to account for what we are observing. And one of the three basic questions science asks is “how did it come to be this way?” If we cannot inquire into that then why even have science?

    We can all inquire of course, and science is the best way we know of to look for answers! But obviously we do need to describe what it is we’re offering to account for what we observe. We can’t just say “intelligent agency” or “natural processes” or some other magical label (as Dembski says) – we need to actually explain what it is we’re talking about so we can go about seeing if our explanation is true or not.

    So Dembski’s complaint that Shapiro’s explanation didn’t actually describe how biological systems come to exist applies equally well to my complaint about “intelligent agency”.

  30. lastyearon:

    The “who designed the designer” argument has been refuted a thousand times, on this site and elsewhere. In fact, back when Bill Dembski was running this site, it was one of the forbidden arguments (not because it could not be refuted, but because it was sophomoric and had been refuted many times) which could potentially cause a poster to be banned. Even the most elementary knowledge of logic suffices to show that the inability to specify the origin of the designer of X (or of any of the properties of the designer of X) has no effect whatsoever on the validity of the inference that X was designed.

    Thus, your argument is a non-starter. If you knew this when you made it, you were merely cavilling and wasting everyone’s time. And if you didn’t, well, Logic 101 beckons.

    T.

  31. aiguy:

    I’m glad you agree that “lucky accident” doesn’t constitute a good explanation. But look at the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne, etc. Given their theological a priori commitments — God does not exist, and if he did exist, he would be evil, so it’s just as well that he doesn’t — there is no other possible explanation than “lucky accident” (or multiverse). Barring the multiverse solution, there would have to be (based on our current knowledge, anyway, which is all we can go on when considering the “best explanation”) massive luck, either in the contingent events that produced the first self-engineering organism, or in the set of fundamental properties nature has, which (in the absence of a creator, could have been any of a million property sets, most of which wouldn’t or couldn’t have produced such organisms). So once one is committed to atheism as an unshakeable truth, one must ascribe biological origins to luck (or the multiverse). (“Aliens” would do for earth, but not for the first life in the universe.)

    Now it sounds as if you are not a doctrinaire atheist, but a sort of agnostic atheist — a guy who doesn’t believe in God but doesn’t claim to be able to demonstrate his position and is not militant about it. Well, that’s OK by me.

    If you are saying, “No one knows how life got its properties” — I’m 100% in agreement with you. No one, theist or atheist, in fact knows that. Where I disagree with you is in your claim that design does not “enable understanding.” It does enable understanding, to an extent. That is why Fred Hoyle, as far as I know, not a religious believer but at most an agnostic, thought the universe looked suspiciously “set up” for life. Another atheist/agnostic scientist who appears to have shared this view was Robert Jastrow.

    Are such suggestions proofs? No. But they are more reasonable than “it all happened by chance.” They are “the best explanation” that we have available. Tentative, to be sure. But more rational than anything written on the subject by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc. Given what we know at the moment, it is more reasonable to believe that there was some intelligence involved in giving life its properties than to believe that those properties came from blind contingencies.

    When speaking of the new atheists as “brain-dead” I was of course speaking not of the fact that they rejected intelligent design, but of the fact that they don’t even seem to see the problem that intelligent design tries to solve, or, if they see it, wish it away with multiverses or just plain dumb luck. It is possible to doubt intelligent design and be oneself intelligent; it is not possible to fail to see the problem that ID addresses, or to dismiss it, without being either unintelligent or ideological.

    I think Shapiro sees the problem but simply refuses to comment on it. That’s his privilege. I don’t attack him for being cautious. It’s some of his scientific confreres that I find irrational, not himself.

    T.

  32. Petrushka:

    You seem to be missing the thrust of my presentation. We can get to it faster in this way:

    Shapiro thinks that evolution works, not primarily by Darwinian mechanisms, but through the self-engineering capacities of organisms. He is agnostic about how organisms first acquired these self-engineering capacities. (See his exchange with Dembski on the Discovery site, where he is explicit about this.)

    So, we know that Shapiro is agnostic. What about Petrushka? Where does Petrushka think that life got its self-engineering capacities? Accidental collisions of molecules in a primordial soup?

    T.

  33. I am also agnostic about the origin of life, but I support efforts to unravel the possibilities. Forced to bet, I’d put money that someone like Szostak will be accepting a Nobel prizefighter on the subject within 30 years.

    The ID movement will remain unconvinced.

  34. As usual, Dembski has it perfectly right.

    There is no third way. And Shapiro’s “explanations” are simply not explanations.

    Just to quote Berlinski, I would say that Shapiro is simply “identifying nothing with something”.

  35. Hi Timaeus,

    Barring the multiverse solution, there would have to be (based on our current knowledge, anyway, which is all we can go on when considering the “best explanation”) …

    My strongly held position is that based on our current knowledge, nobody knows how to explain life or the universe, and should not pretend otherwise.

    …massive luck, either in the contingent events that produced the first self-engineering organism, or in the set of fundamental properties nature has, which (in the absence of a creator, could have been any of a million property sets, most of which wouldn’t or couldn’t have produced such organisms).

    I’m sure you’ve been through this, but I find these sorts of probability arguments incoherent. We have no idea how these fundamental properties came to exist, or what other ways it might have happened, or how many ways could support intelligent beings (obviously it isn’t the odds of human beings just like us coming into existence that is the salient mystery; that is like marvelling that a particular lottery number was chosen). So we have no way of estimating probabilities of these things.

    So once one is committed to atheism as an unshakeable truth,…

    I think this is the wrong way to think about it. Athesism isn’t a well-defined position unless you carefully define the god(s) that atheists reject. It is much more reasonable to put forward either a well-specified hypothesis (like “the creator is a conscious, rational agent without a material body who can create matter and energy by thinking about them”), or saying “We do not know”. My own personal position is the latter, “We do not know”.

    …one must ascribe biological origins to luck (or the multiverse). (“Aliens” would do for earth, but not for the first life in the universe.)

    Again, one is not forced to ascribe biological origins to luck, or the multiverse, or gods. The correct answer is “I do not know how to explain biological origins”.

    If you are saying, “No one knows how life got its properties” — I’m 100% in agreement with you. No one, theist or atheist, in fact knows that.

    That is exactly what I am saying, yes.

    Where I disagree with you is in your claim that design does not “enable understanding.” It does enable understanding, to an extent.

    Yes we disagree here. The word “design” is too vague. I would say known evolutionary processes design some adaptations, but unconsciously and without using foresight. So just offering that word all by itself doesn’t explain anything.

    Of course most people mean “designed by conscious deliberation” when they talk about design. That is specific, and if we had evidence that conscious prior to first life, this would be a VERY meaningful (and wonderful) explanation indeed! But of course we have no evidence that anything that be conscious except things with complex nervous systems, which could not have existed before first life.

    That is why Fred Hoyle, as far as I know, not a religious believer but at most an agnostic, thought the universe looked suspiciously “set up” for life. Another atheist/agnostic scientist who appears to have shared this view was Robert Jastrow.

    Me too. I think biology is somehow built into physics. I’m sure we don’t understand how currently, and there’s some reason to believe we might not be able to understand it (as we may never understand consciousness itself).

    They are “the best explanation” that we have available. Tentative, to be sure. But more rational than anything written on the subject by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc.

    Your position is tu quoque: If you atheists hold to unjustified explanations, so will we theists!! I’m frankly tired of this kind of polarization in politics and philosophy. We should all find the humility to say “Beats me! I have no idea what the answer is! Let’s muddle along the best we can without pretending that any of these hypotheses are supported by current knowledge, and keep hammering away at meaningful hypotheses that we can test!”

    Given what we know at the moment, it is more reasonable to believe that there was some intelligence involved in giving life its properties than to believe that those properties came from blind contingencies.

    It is not reasonable to believe that we have evidential warrant for either position. Moreover, these are not the only two positions possible (there could be non-conscious processes or characteristics of reality that we have no understanding of but are also not “blind contingencies”).

  36. aiguy:

    I agree with a number of points that you have made. I’ll mention some of those in the context of our disagreements.

    1. My position is not *tu quoque*. I am not at all saying that if atheists are entitled to unjustified explanations, then theists are too. My position is that the inference of design is more reasonable, given current knowledge, than the inference of non-design. (And of course “given current knowledge” implies that my view could change. If someone produces a cell by unguided chemical interactions at a lab at Stanford next week, obviously my view is in trouble.)

    2. Note that I said “more reasonable,” not “more scientific.” Rationality is not exhausted by the methods of modern science. Thus, your language of testable hypotheses, drawn from modern science, unduly prejudices the case, as it implicitly brings in (for most readers) so-called “methodological naturalism” and excludes not only supernatural causes but even genuine teleology of any kind; but it is precisely both naturalism and anti-teleology that are in doubt in the case that we are talking about (origin of life). So, when you speak, with apparently humble intention, of “muddling along the best we can,” I would be inclined to agree, but in practice, that always means: “Let’s muddle along the best we can, trying to find the best explanations, but making damned sure we exclude teleological explanations from the outset.” So the vaunted humility of the mainstream scientist conceals a deeper arrogance, in that a whole set of possibilities is ruled out in advance. This is neither intellectually humble nor intellectually honest. I’m not accusing you personally of anything, but you seem to be alert enough to know examples of the sort of “humble” dogmatists of whom I speak, so perhaps you can see why I am suspicious of this sort of selective “humility.”

    3. I don’t see how you can read Dawkins’s *The God Delusion*, or anything by Dennett or Stenger or P. Z. Myers or Shallit or many others, and with a straight face accuse *me* of polarization. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid polarization, indicating sympathy for combinations of evolution *and* design (unlike many fundamentalists and atheists who insist that the two could never be put together). I’ve pointed to people like Denton, who combines naturalism, evolution and design, only to find that the atheist Darwinists hate him just as much as they hate young earth creationists; meeting in the middle is impossible with the atheists. You can concede common descent, old earth, the whole bit, but unless you also renounce design, you will be declared (by the blogosphere as well as the NCSE) to be scientifically benighted, a closet fundamentalist, a secret theocrat, etc. So who is the polarizer here, people like myself who are interested in cross-pollination between the camps, or the groupies who post anti-design venom on Panda’s Thumb, Pharyngula, Coyne’s site, Dawkins’s site, etc.?

    4. Atheism is a well-enough defined position if we are talking about militant atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. It’s pretty clear what kind of God such people reject. Any God who designs, whether via intervention or via front-loading, is rejected.

    5. We can’t calculate probabilities about some of these things with precision, I grant, but this is a bookish, academic objection, not a serious one. The number of ways to build a submarine that will not sink or a helicopter that will not crash is a million times smaller than the number of ways of doing the opposite. There might be a number — maybe two, or three, or a dozen, or a hundred, of sets of imaginable fundamental particles that could allow for the development of complex, intelligent life. But there are tight constraints, as set forth clearly in Michael Denton’s second book, and acknowledged by a wide variety of impressively qualified physicists, astronomers, chemists, etc., and one can imagine millions of “dud” sets of particles which would produce only endless collisions or an infinite sea of sludge, not life or mind. So I don’t find the probablistic arguments as vacuous as you do.

    6. I quite agree with you that there are possible explanations that involve general characteristics that are not “blind contingencies” — these would be necessities of a lawlike nature, of the sort discussed by Denton. But I would argue, with Denton, that for these necessities to add up to the kind of world that we know, one where intelligent beings exist (and no, I don’t insist on human beings exactly as we know them, nor does Denton), there would have to be either design, or luck. There is no reason to assume that natural laws, if they simply “existed” and were not generated by an intelligent mind, would in most imaginable universes lead to the formation of intelligent beings. On general grounds we would expect the opposite, and should be surprised if a random set of natural laws produced intelligent beings, or even life. On general grounds we would expect only a small subset of possible “laws of physics” to naturally produce life and mind as an outcome. (Of course, I am assuming for the sake of argument that laws of any kind could even exist without a generative mind of some kind, and that may be a generous assumption.)

    Remember, I am not claiming that the design explanation has been proved, or even that it is “scientific” in some narrow sense. I’m claiming only that, given what we know today about living systems, if we had to choose either a design or non-design origin — and I grant you we can remain agnostic — the design origin is a more rational explanation, in the sense of “the best available explanation.” But Dawkins & Co. would have us believe that the design origin is less rational.

    There is no proof either way, and no one has to go to the casino and bet on it; but if one *does* bet on it, some involvement of design (which does not exclude the involvement of elements of contingency and necessity) is the more rational bet — at the moment. That’s all I’m contending for. (And while I shouldn’t have to say this, note that at no point does my argument depend on the Bible or any special revelation; nor is it motivated by any such factors. At one point in my life, I thought that Carl Sagan’s view of things was the best explanation, and that design was utterly superfluous; now I think otherwise. And it was science and philosophy, not revelation or any conversion experience, that made me change my mind.)

    T.


  37. Archaeology and forensics use it [the term "agency"].

    Not that I’m aware of, no.

    Who made all the artifacts? Who did the crimes? Hint- an agency

    Reference- Artifact

    So, since it is illogical to claim that human beings (or other life forms) created the first living cells, ID cannot claim that a “known cause” (in the words of Meyer, Dembski, and other ID advocates) is being offered as the cause of first life.

    It’s called “extrapolation”, look it up. If humans couldn’t have done it that would mean some other agency did and the evidence for taht other agency is the thing we are investigating.

    That said we have direct observations of what designing agencies can do, and we have direct observations of what nature, operating freely can do. And with that we do not observe any “natural genetic engineering”. That is why Dembski said what he did.

  38. Hi Timaeus,

    My position is that the inference of design is more reasonable, given current knowledge, than the inference of non-design.

    My position is that neither “design” nor “non-design” constitute an explanation of anything. You have to actually say what it was that caused something in order to explain it. The word “design” doesn’t say anything about the cause. If some unknown, unconscious process that was incapable of learning or solving novel problems in a different domain caused life, would that be “design” or “non design”?

    Unspecified causes are just that – unspecified. You have to say something specific about the cause you are suggesting so that we can decide if there is any truth to it. Saying the word “design” doesn’t add to our knowledge, because nothing follows from it. Same with “natural processes”.

    Note that I said “more reasonable,” not “more scientific.” Rationality is not exhausted by the methods of modern science.

    That’s fine; my main complaint is when folks co-opt the certainty that science brings to certain areas in order to support their particular metaphysics (theological or material).

    Thus, your language of testable hypotheses, drawn from modern science, unduly prejudices the case, as it implicitly brings in (for most readers) so-called “methodological naturalism” and excludes not only supernatural causes but even genuine teleology of any kind; but it is precisely both naturalism and anti-teleology that are in doubt in the case that we are talking about (origin of life). So, when you speak, with apparently humble intention, of “muddling along the best we can,” I would be inclined to agree, but in practice, that always means: “Let’s muddle along the best we can, trying to find the best explanations, but making damned sure we exclude teleological explanations from the outset.”

    I have a different take on this methodological naturalism business. I don’t understand the difference between natural and supernatural, and I don’t understand why people think that intelligence is somehow outside of nature, and so I don’t think that the issue is excluding supernatural or intelligent action from scientific explanations. I think the issue is that we are looking for answers that can be inferred from our “uniform and repeated experience” (as both Darwin and Stephen Meyer are wont to say). We have no uniform and repeated experience of conscious beings except for living humans (and perhaps other animals), so theories that invoke hypothetical conscious beings to account for mysterious phenomena need to provide evidence that they exist. Otherwise we get the god/gaps thing going and all bets are off.

    So the vaunted humility of the mainstream scientist conceals a deeper arrogance, in that a whole set of possibilities is ruled out in advance.

    The possibilities that should be ruled out are just those that appeal to things we know nothing about. Darwinism appeals to things we know a tremendous amount about – heritability, variation, differential reproduction, and so on. Unfortunately I don’t think that these familiar things account for biological complexity, but the reason I can say that is because I know what is being talked about and can decide that these things can’t result in flagella and blood clotting cascades. As for some hypothetical being that can think up and implement anything It wants to, well I can’t assess that because I don’t know anything about any such thing. If you posit some theoretical construct, you have to characterize it in such a way that we can go about seeing if it exists or not. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t help us understand anything.

    I don’t see how you can read Dawkins’s *The God Delusion*, or anything by Dennett or Stenger or P. Z. Myers or Shallit or many others, and with a straight face accuse *me* of polarization.

    Whoa! I’m an equal opportunity accuser! I can’t stand when these guys you mention go off like that! My own main interest is consciousness, and when Dennett published “Consciousness Explained” I wrote him a letter upbraiding his arrogant nonsense for four pages. (I did not receive a reply).

    I’ve gone out of my way to avoid polarization, indicating sympathy for combinations of evolution *and* design (unlike many fundamentalists and atheists who insist that the two could never be put together).

    I insist that these two do not comprise an exhaustive (or even coherent) set of possbilities.

    I’ve pointed to people like Denton, who combines naturalism, evolution and design, only to find that the atheist Darwinists hate him just as much as they hate young earth creationists; meeting in the middle is impossible with the atheists.

    Meeting in the middle is not the objective. Nor is holding to one idea or another without good reason. The objective is to decide what we have warrant to believe, and to admit that we don’t understand the rest.

    Atheism is a well-enough defined position if we are talking about militant atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. It’s pretty clear what kind of God such people reject. Any God who designs, whether via intervention or via front-loading, is rejected.

    When you say “A God who designs” I don’t know what you mean. Do you mean a disembodied, conscious, sentient (e.g. able to see, touch, etc) being? If that is what you mean, then yes, the position that we do not have warrant to believe in such a thing is a well-defined position (it is my position). But this is different from just saying “I believe that there is no God”.

    We can’t calculate probabilities about some of these things with precision, I grant, but this is a bookish, academic objection, not a serious one.

    I disagree. We can’t even fathom how these parameters came to exist, and they are unrepeatable phenomena, so we can’t begin to compute how likely or unlikely they are to be what they are.

    The number of ways to build a submarine that will not sink or a helicopter that will not crash is a million times smaller than the number of ways of doing the opposite.

    We know all sorts of things about building submarines and helicopters obviously. This is completely unrelated to the question of how matter/energy and time/space and fundamental constants came to exist.

    There might be a number — maybe two, or three, or a dozen, or a hundred, of sets of imaginable fundamental particles that could allow for the development of complex, intelligent life.

    Actually, nobody can imagine fundamental particles at all, because they are not really “particles”. Electrons and photons and so forth are not “things” that we can imagine. We can only describe their behavior (very well!) in mathematics, but we can’t understand what they are.

    But there are tight constraints, as set forth clearly in Michael Denton’s second book, and acknowledged by a wide variety of impressively qualified physicists, astronomers, chemists, etc., and one can imagine millions of “dud” sets of particles which would produce only endless collisions or an infinite sea of sludge, not life or mind. So I don’t find the probablistic arguments as vacuous as you do.

    Let me put it this way. It appears you believe in an intelligent, conscious being that exists outside of time and space – is that right? Well, if conscious beings can exist outside of time and space, how is it that you can say only certain configurations of fundamental constants could possibly support intelligent beings? I would think you would argue that intelligence could exist in any circumstance! So no matter what the universe was like, there could be intelligent beings reflecting on it.

    Again, my point is that neither of us, nor these “impressively qualified physicists” (who are usually lousy philosophers!), have any idea how the universe came to exist and have the properties we observe.

    There is no proof either way, and no one has to go to the casino and bet on it; but if one *does* bet on it, some involvement of design (which does not exclude the involvement of elements of contingency and necessity) is the more rational bet — at the moment. That’s all I’m contending for.

    I very much like what you say here. We all have our favored hunches. The reason I argue on these forums sometimes is because I want everybody to admit what you have just said here, and quit pretending that scientific discoveries have supported one idea or another about how known physical processes or disembodied conscious spirits must have been responsible.

    Anyway, Timaeus, I like your sensibilities.

  39. aiguy:

    Apparently we agree on much more than I thought at first appearance.

    I agree with you that we should all be careful about saying we “know” something or have “proved” something about origins. And I’m glad that you agree with me that it is not just “creationists” (a term usually inadequately defined, and usually used polemically) and ID people who reveal a tendency to claim more than they can prove. I think you would probably agree with me that much that is said on sites like Panda’s Thumb, TalkOrigins, and Pharyngula goes well beyond what the posters can know or prove, and that their cocksure confidence is in many cases unwarranted. (I praise you for challenging Dennett, who strikes me as more dogmatist than philosopher.)

    I take your point about the ambiguous status of fundamental “particles,” but if we are going to insist on Ph.D.-level epistemological discussions for every term we use, the discussions will be interminable. I was using the term in the sense that a vast number of scientists, philosophers and scholars have used it, and it’s serviceable for the purpose. If, for example, the only “elements” which existed were iron and sulfur, we wouldn’t have the possibility of complex chemical bonds which are necessary for the physical expression of life as we know it. But the universe is laid out in such a way that many more elements not only do exist but must exist. For amplification of the point, please read *Nature’s Destiny* by Michael Denton. You don’t have to agree with his evolutionary scheme in order to acknowledge the many excellent points he makes about “fine tuning.”

    As someone who has spent a few decades reading, studying, and sometimes teaching the writings of philosophers, I agree with you that scientists often make lousy philosophers. The scientists over at Biologos are particularly lousy philosophers. They make Einstein’s amateurish ventures into philosophical speculation seem profound. Still, I don’t think it takes the most profound philosopher to make observations such as Hoyle and others have made about the apparent “fine tuning” of the universe. And I wasn’t claiming that because Hoyle said it, it was Gospel truth. I was merely saying that some scientists who are not only good in their fields but seem to be generally fairly literate and intelligent have noticed certain things about nature and drawn non-stupid inferences from those things.

    I think that for ID people the point should not be to prove that God exists, but that design exists, and that therefore some sort of intelligence (divine or not) is operative in, through, under, behind (choose your spatial metaphor) nature.

    I think that, though I and others have often spoken casually as if “design” is a cause, that to be more precise we should think of design as an effect and intelligence as the cause. Of course, there is sometimes ambiguity about effects; for example, a crystal structure might seem designed; but the sort of design ID proponents look for is not that kind of geometrical regularity (which might easily be explained by the lawlike behavior of atoms, without mentioning intelligence), but the kind that involves the complex interaction of heterogeneous parts.

    My point about evolution and design was not that those two notions exhausted all the possibilities, but only that many people have set them up in polar opposition, and that my position was non-polarizing in that I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I also agree that meeting in the middle, as such, is not an intellectual goal, but there you are seizing on my bare words and ignoring the context. I was not suggesting that the halfway position between two competing arguments is always the correct one; I was merely pointing out that the hardcore atheist Darwinists aren’t going to budge on the question of design in nature; thus, there can be no intellectual exchange with them. A whole set of possibilities regarded origins is simply ruled out of court. Thus, they will take Carl Sagan’s view of origins as good science and rational and wise, while rejecting Denton’s view of origins as bad science and closet creationism, not because Sagan’s view is better empirically grounded (indeed, Denton’s *Nature’s Destiny* is more scientifically informed and precise about the relationship between biological and physical systems than is Sagan’s *Intelligent Life in the Universe*, one of the Bibles of my youth), but because they personally dislike the conclusion of design. As a philosopher, I don’t think our likes and dislikes regarding subjects such as God, soul, free will, design, etc. should be governing how we assess arguments. We should learn to grant points to positions we don’t agree with. But the Dawkinses and Coynes and Dennetts do the opposite; they dig in their heels.

    I think that one point we will continue to disagree on, and which we cannot settle here, is your insistence that we must have some prior knowledge of a putative agent before inferring design. I think this is simply not the case. When archaeologists find some new structure in some mound in Turkey, they often have no clue who built it, or even what means were used to build it. That does not prevent them from legitimately inferring that the structure was designed, and not simply the product of natural forces that somehow generated a whole set of 10-ton stones with a regularity never found in nature, and arranged them together in carefully spaced circles, triangles, etc., that line up perfectly with certain portions of the heavens, etc.

    And if you say, well, we know there are human agents, so it’s plausible to posit them as the cause, this is not a satisfactory answer, because if we found a similar structure on another planet, but no sign of habitation on that planet, we would still infer design, despite having zero knowledge of the designer. We infer design whenever we see what looks like a purposeful arrangement of parts. And while it is always possible to make an error about what is purposeful, clearly there are cases where no error occurs, e.g., if we found something like a watch on Mars. Metal parts aren’t smelted, alloyed, cut, welded, etc. by unguided natural forces.

    Of course, you have the right to resist the analogy between artifacts and biological systems. You can say that the inference isn’t solid. Well, I’m not claiming the inference has the certainty of conclusions in Euclidean geometry, where the conclusions are (on Euclidean axioms) inescapable. But the inference is plausible, and based on measurable empirical characteristics of the biological systems in question. My remarks about fine tuning were meant to be of that sort — plausible inferences, not knock-down, drag-out proofs.

    As for intelligent beings, there might well be intelligent beings that are not composed of matter. Intelligence may have ways of working other than through matter. Obviously Thomas Aquinas thought so when he wrote thousands of words about angels. But if we are talking about the intelligent beings we normally encounter, and the non-intelligent beings we normally encounter (flies, dandelions, bacteria, etc.), their bodies are built out of matter, and it still may be the case that the material existence of such beings would only be possible given a set of laws and constants and elements that constitutes only the merest fraction of all the logically possible sets of laws and constants and elements. And if that is the case, then either the universe just got lucky in producing life, or the constants were selected. I cannot disprove the former, but I think the latter is a more likely explanation. And keep in mind that what I mean by “explanation” is not limited to the efficient-cause explanations of modern science, which appears to be what you have in mind by the word. I mean something broader.

    All of that said, I think I like your sensibility as well. I can do business with a man like you, in a way that I cannot with the materialist ideologues and religion-haters who populate the blogosphere and fill it with personal venom whenever the word “design” is even put up for discussion.

    T.

  40. Hi Timaeus,

    Yes we agree on a lot.

    Still, I don’t think it takes the most profound philosopher to make observations such as Hoyle and others have made about the apparent “fine tuning” of the universe. And I wasn’t claiming that because Hoyle said it, it was Gospel truth. I was merely saying that some scientists who are not only good in their fields but seem to be generally fairly literate and intelligent have noticed certain things about nature and drawn non-stupid inferences from those things.

    Fine tuning: We have no way of knowing the odds of our cosmos vs. other possible universes, because we have no idea how our universe came to exist. Here are analogies:

    Imagine we had no understanding of laws of gravity and motion, but we had data that indicated apples always accelerated directly toward the ground whenever they came off the tree. Until we figured out why, somebody might compute that apples could indeed go in any of hundreds of different directions, and the odds that every single apple fell only toward the Earth meant that astronomically improbable events were going on! Finally when the regularities of gravitation and laws of motion were figured out, we’d realize it was not improbable at all, given these laws.

    (Or imagine people computed astronomical probabilities that particular proteins would form if each amino acid was equally likely to mutute, and so concluded that something external determined the sequences in advance. But then we learned that mutations don’t happen that way, so these probabilities were completely meaningless).

    Since we don’t know how strength of the physical various forces, etc. were determined in the first place, we have no way of knowing how improbable it was that the parameters came out as they did.

    And more importantly, even if we never figure out how these parameters have the settings they do, all that means is we do not know. It does not make it more likely that a conscious being somehow twiddled the settings to His liking.

    I think that for ID people the point should not be to prove that God exists, but that design exists,…

    It doesn’t mean anything at all to say “design exists”. What you mean, I believe, is that “one or more conscious beings caused these things to exist”, right? To say “design exists” could mean that random mutation and natural selection designed something, or that some unknown, unconscious force or physical property designed something (caused it to exist), etc.

    …and that therefore some sort of intelligence (divine or not) is operative in, through, under, behind (choose your spatial metaphor) nature.

    Likewise, “some sort of intelligence” doesn’t mean anything. You could be talking about random mutation and natural selection (which is a type of intelligence that utilizes memory and learning through trial and error, but not simulation and planning). Or you could be talking about a completely deterministic process that is capable of generating biological CSI but incapable of solving problems in other domains. Our limited imaginations equate “an intelligence” with “having a mind like a person”, but we have no way of knowing how similar or different the “mind” of the Designer might be. It might be so different from what humans do/experience that it should not be called “intelligence” or a “mind” at all.

    I think that, though I and others have often spoken casually as if “design” is a cause, that to be more precise we should think of design as an effect and intelligence as the cause.

    Thanks for acknowledging one of the huge terminological problems with ID. When people say “ID is about the design, not the designer”, what that means is actually “ID doesn’t try to explain anything, it just marvels at how amazing everything is”.

    I think that one point we will continue to disagree on, and which we cannot settle here, is your insistence that we must have some prior knowledge of a putative agent before inferring design.

    Not exactly my position. More exactly, here is what I think:

    First, simply using the words “design” or even “intelligence” is vacuous – it says nothing at all about the cause ID is offering for life and the universe. However, saying (as Stephen Meyer does) that a “conscious, rational agent” is responsible is not vacuous – we all know what a conscious agent is because of our subjective experience of consciousness, so that is a meaningful hypothesis.

    But our empirical experience confirms that all conscious beings are complex life forms, so it is a priori unlikely that original cause of life forms would be conscious. It is of course possible that consciousness could exist without a complex physical biological substrate, and if ID wants to press its research agenda, that is what it ought to be researching.

    Oddly, though, nobody in ID does any research at all in any discipline having to do with this critical claim! The relevant discipline is usually called parapsychology, but that word never appears in ID literature. Moreover, ID researchers should join in the fascinating neuroscience being done to illuminate ancient questions of mind, including the existence of free will and the causal powers of consciousness. Many (even most) neuroscientists believe on the basis of this research that contra-causal free will is illusory, and that consciousness is not causal.

    I myself think these questions remain completely open, but they are absolutely fundamental to the central claims of ID (i.e. that intelligence is distinct from chance and necessity), and the fact that ID researchers completely ignore these questions makes me discount their sincerity in finding the truth of their claims.

    When archaeologists find some new structure in some mound in Turkey, they often have no clue who built it, or even what means were used to build it. That does not prevent them from legitimately inferring that the structure was designed, and not simply the product of natural forces that somehow generated a whole set of 10-ton stones with a regularity never found in nature, and arranged them together in carefully spaced circles, triangles, etc., that line up perfectly with certain portions of the heavens, etc.

    These sorts of arguments I find entirely specious. Archeologists don’t infer that fossilized trees are archeological artifacts – why not? You believe they exhibit signs of “design”, right? So why don’t archeologists write about finding ancient trees and flowers and figure out where the builders of those artifacts lived, what tools they used, and so on? Well, obviously it’s because people don’t build trees – trees grow on their own – so archeologists don’t go looking for who built them. When the find stone structures and pottery and tools that look like humans made them, they don’t infer “intelligent agency”, they don’t infer that baboons or octopi made these things… they conclude that human beings made them. When they find a termite mound with complex chambers and ventilation so forth, they don’t infer that humans built it, they conclude that termites did!

    Archeology and forensics are exclusively in the business of studying human artifacts, and their explanations are believable because we know that humans exist.

    And if you say, well, we know there are human agents, so it’s plausible to posit them as the cause, this is not a satisfactory answer, because if we found a similar structure on another planet, but no sign of habitation on that planet, we would still infer design, despite having zero knowledge of the designer.

    I think this is specious too. If we found a spaceship on another planet, with portholes and control panels and radios, we would infer that some life form that could see through portholes and could manipulate controls and talk on radios were responsible. If we found something that looked like nothing we had ever seen before, we would have no idea what caused it to exist.

    We infer design whenever we see what looks like a purposeful arrangement of parts. And while it is always possible to make an error about what is purposeful, clearly there are cases where no error occurs, e.g., if we found something like a watch on Mars. Metal parts aren’t smelted, alloyed, cut, welded, etc. by unguided natural forces.

    No, we infer human activity when it looks like a human built it, and we infer animal activity when it looks like an another sort of animal built it, and we infer weather activity when it looks like weather did it, and so on.

    The typical response here is “What about the monolith in 2001 A Space Odessy? In that story we didn’t know where it came from, but inferred design!”. But of course the monolith did not appear to be a complex functional machine at all – it was perfectly regular and simple, like a crystal. It was just a weird thing to find on the moon.

    My remarks about fine tuning were meant to be of that sort — plausible inferences, not knock-down, drag-out proofs.

    I know, and that’s fine. At this point after going after all these ID arguments, I’ll admit to you that I have strong intuitions that consciousness is involved in the formation of reality. I won’t explain here, but suffice it to say my basic feeling is that it is all much too removed from human experience to capture with our anthropocentric notions of mind. Trying to understand the cause of the universe by calling it “intelligent” or a “mind” is as wrong-headed as trying to understand what a photon is by thinking about it like a “particle” – a little round ball of stuff.

    So that’s what I think. Now, if all ID proponents were as thoughtful and well-considered as you, I probably wouldn’t spend time trying to disabuse folks of the idea that ID arguments provide empirical support for a personal God. I love that people make up plausible scenarios to account for the mysteries of life. Philosophy is great, and reflected lives are those worth living. I just want people to know that our deepest mysteries about life and mind remain deeply mysterious, and that ID really hasn’t brought anything new to these ancient mysteries at all.

  41. aiguy:

    I’ll divide my reply into two posts, the first one exclusively on design arguments, the second one partly on design arguments and partly on more general philosophical and theological questions.

    *****

    aiguy: “Imagine we had no understanding of laws of gravity and motion, but we had data that indicated apples always accelerated directly toward the ground whenever they came off the tree. Until we figured out why, somebody might compute that apples could indeed go in any of hundreds of different directions, and the odds that every single apple fell only toward the Earth meant that astronomically improbable events were going on! Finally when the regularities of gravitation and laws of motion were figured out, we’d realize it was not improbable at all, given these laws.”

    Timaeus: True. But when you change your example so that the “law” is one that says, for example, “given an earthlike planet, humanoid forms must eventually evolve,” the whole game changes. No single “law” (e.g., an inverse square law) could guarantee such a thing; only an elaborate complex of laws, constants, and basic elementary particles could do so. And then we are back to the question: out of all the imaginable sets of laws, constants, and basic elementary particles (and I would suggest that the number of such sets is infinite, or, if not infinite, very large), how many sets contain the right relationships to produce life of any kind (even if we include silicon-based life, etc.)? You can of course insist that we have no precise and reliable numbers for this, and I agree, but we have essentially a small number in the numerator against a very large or possibly infinite quantity in the denominator. The percentage of “sets that work” is going to be small, even if we can’t produce exact quantities. Again, read Denton. I don’t think most people realize how narrow the engineering constraints for carbon-based life are, and how unlikely it is that life could be based on anything else, even silicon.

    aiguy: “Or imagine people computed astronomical probabilities that particular proteins would form if each amino acid was equally likely to mutute, and so concluded that something external determined the sequences in advance. But then we learned that mutations don’t happen that way, so these probabilities were completely meaningless.”

    Timaeus: Yes, but of course, the ID critique is directed against the neo-Darwinian contention, which was precisely that each amino acid (or rather, each nucleotide base that contributes to the formation of that amino acid) was equally likely to mutate. If one agrees with what Shapiro is saying — that organisms can self-engineer rather than wait for random mutations — then all mutations are not equally likely, and the ID critique of neo-Darwinism doesn’t apply. But if Shapiro is right, neo-Darwinism is dead anyway. I’m the first to say that ID’s response to Shapiro should be quite different from its response to neo-Darwinism. The response to Shapiro from ID should be one of guarded opennness.

    aiguy: “Since we don’t know how strength of the physical various forces, etc. were determined in the first place, we have no way of knowing how improbable it was that the parameters came out as they did.”

    Timaeus: I think I see the communications problem. We are not envisioning the same hypothetical “original situation.” The hypothetical original situation I am envisioning is: The universe just IS a certain way. The laws, constants, and basic particles just ARE what they are. There is no reason for it; it’s just the way things are. Now, if the universe just is the way it is, then it might have been some way other than what it is. It might have had different laws, different constants, different fundamental particles. It might have had no laws at all, or a chaotic back-and-forth between law and non-law. It might have been made entirely of green cheese. It might have been turtles all the way down. Given the number of imaginable possibilities of this sort, which I would say are infinite, how many would make possible the coherent, interlocking reality necessary to generate and sustain life, let alone thinking organic beings? I would guess a very small number, but even it were a very large number, say, a million, what is a million to infinity? So it would be like winning the lottery if life appeared.

    But let’s restrict the type of universe, to improve the odds. Let’s get rid of green cheese and turtles all the way down, and let’s consider only universes that have a set of fundamental laws, fundamental particles, fundamental constants and so on. If we don’t restrict these universes by the arbitrary requirement that all their parameters have to be well-coordinated, how many such universes might there be? Well, possibly still an infinite number. If not, my second guess would be: a very large number.

    We can imagine an inverse cube law for gravity, for example. Or how about an inverse fourth-power law? Or how about a universe with no gravity at all? Maybe only a universal repulsive force? We can imagine a set of elemental particles much smaller than the one we have, or much larger, or one without very great bonding possibilities, making the production of complex compounds impossible. We can imagine constants varying by any amount we please, thus producing very different universes, maybe some in which all matter just congeals in a big blob and then nothing happens for all eternity, or some in which matter flies apart eternally, never being close enough together to form the combinations necessary for life. Etc. If things just are the way they are — if no mind or intention produced them — there is no reason why the laws, particles, etc. should be nicely co-ordinatable to produce life. So let’s say a billion law-bound universes might exist, and only ten would have the right combination of basics to produce the kind of complexity that we see. It would therefore be one in a hundred million that the cause of these original properties was merely brute fact. Make it a thousand good combinations rather than ten, and the chances would still rise to only one in a million.
    Granted, we can’t rule chance out; as I say, life might have just been lucky that the brute facts of reality made it possible. But I would suspect that luck is not the reason. (And you may even agree with me on that, from what you are saying.)

    aiguy: “And more importantly, even if we never figure out how these parameters have the settings they do, all that means is we do not know. It does not make it more likely that a conscious being somehow twiddled the settings to His liking.”

    Timaeus: I agree that we do not know. I do think, however, that it makes a conscious source (defined broadly) more likely, for the reason I have given above. Of course I realize that this depends on the number ranges which I have supplied, which are based on reason and intuition rather than measurement. If you contest my ballpark estimates, I cannot press the point. Unlike some people, I’m not saying that anyone who resists my argument is ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked. :-) But I think my argument, though not demonstrative, is rational.

    aiguy: “It doesn’t mean anything at all to say “design exists”. What you mean, I believe, is that “one or more conscious beings caused these things to exist”, right? To say “design exists” could mean that random mutation and natural selection designed something, or that some unknown, unconscious force or physical property designed something (caused it to exist), etc.”

    Timaeus: Because I am distinguishing “apparent design” from “real design,” i.e., conscious design, I have to admit that you are right here. When I use the word “design,” I’m implying that I have successfully filtered out non-intelligent causes. Of course, in my filtering process I may commit an error. I might mistakenly infer from a diamond-shaped pattern of frost on my window that a conscious mind is responsible for producing it. Inferences are never guaranteed to be true, except within purely formal systems like Euclidean geometry where axioms are nailed down. But if natural science is not going to take risks in inferring things beyond the certainties of Euclidean geometry, natural science will never be able to say anything. To venture a hypothesis is to risk being wrong. If I see a watch-like contraption on Mars, and infer design, I risk being wrong. It *might* be that volcanic heat could have smelted the metal, and it *might* be that a sandstorm then blew all the parts together, and lightning fused them at the right joints. But I doubt it, and so I rule out thatpossibility, and say that I have in front of me a designed object. It’s a risk, of course, but I’m willing to take that risk, and be red-faced and embarrassed if someone later produces a wholly non-intelligent cause for the contraption. As the old song goes, “Everybody has the right to be wrong.” It seems to me that fine-tuning arguments take an analogous risk. I’m not asking you to take that risk yourself, but many highly intelligent people (Denton, Collins, Hoyle, Polkinghorne, etc.) think it’s a reasonable one.

    (Continued in next post)

    T.

  42. Part II, continued from above –

    aiguy: “Likewise, “some sort of intelligence” doesn’t mean anything. You could be talking about random mutation and natural selection (which is a type of intelligence that utilizes memory and learning through trial and error, but not simulation and planning).”

    Timaeus: No, I would deny the label “intelligence” to the process you are describing. It introduces massive confusion. By intelligence I mean something that we human beings perceive as existing inside of ourselves. No neo-Darwinian supposes that anything like that is going on inside of random mutations or natural selection. The most that could be said is that such unintelligent processes can simulate the results of intelligence. And of course ID people find that dubious.

    aiguy: “Our limited imaginations equate “an intelligence” with “having a mind like a person”, but we have no way of knowing how similar or different the “mind” of the Designer might be. It might be so different from what humans do/experience that it should not be called “intelligence” or a “mind” at all.”

    Timaeus: Any trained theologian or philosopher knows that analogical language in reference to a Creator or God can be problematic. On the other hand, I would stick to my guns and say that intelligence or something like intelligence is the only thing capable of producing the effects I am talking about. At least, that is the ID contention. So yes, the cosmic Whatever behind all this may be vastly different from our human intelligence, but it will have *something* in common with human intelligence.

    aiguy: “Thanks for acknowledging one of the huge terminological problems with ID. When people say “ID is about the design, not the designer”, what that means is actually “ID doesn’t try to explain anything, it just marvels at how amazing everything is”.”

    Timaeus: I disagree. If I say that the building of Stonehenge required matter, energy, and the design of an intelligent mind, I am definitely trying to “explain” the building of Stonehenge. If I say that the cardiovascular system required matter, energy, and the design of an intelligent mind, I am trying to “explain” the origin of the cardiovascular system. My explanation may be incorrect, because possibly intelligent design was not required. But my explanation does not cease to be classified as an explanation merely because it may one day be proved wrong. If offers a causal account. It says that in the absence of X, Y would not occur. Not an efficient-cause account, to be sure, but as Aristotle taught us, efficient causes are not the only causes and explanation can — and sometimes must — include other than efficient causes.

    aiguy: “It is of course possible that consciousness could exist without a complex physical biological substrate, and if ID wants to press its research agenda, that is what it ought to be researching.”

    Timaeus: An interesting suggestion, and one I’ve not heard before. I rather like it.

    “Oddly, though, nobody in ID does any research at all in any discipline having to do with this critical claim! The relevant discipline is usually called parapsychology, but that word never appears in ID literature.”

    Timaeus: A good observation. I will do some thinking about this, because it may prove useful.

    aiguy: “Moreover, ID researchers should join in the fascinating neuroscience being done to illuminate ancient questions of mind, including the existence of free will and the causal powers of consciousness. Many (even most) neuroscientists believe on the basis of this research that contra-causal free will is illusory, and that consciousness is not causal.”

    Timaeus: I don’t know the basis for “most neuroscientists” — a survey? Anyhow, ID has at least one person who knows something about these issues — pediatric neurosurgeon Michael Egnor. And, while I don’t know if he is an ID proponent, Dr. Mario Beauregard (who co-wrote The Spiritual Brain) also has some thoughts that differ from “most” neuroscientists. And given the premise of “methodological naturalism,” what could we expect neuroscientists to find *other than* non-intelligent natural causes for all human choices and decisions? Their science, by its very tools and assumptions, could never identify or perceive any other kind of cause. Any apparent residue of intelligent causation would be further squeezed until some more non-intelligent causes appeared. In fact, it would be further squeezed even if it appeared very implausible that any more non-intelligent causes would be found, because, as Lewontin said, scientists cannot allow a divine foot (in this case, an intelligent foot) in the door.

    aiguy: “I myself think these questions remain completely open”

    Timaeus: I agree.

    aiguy: “I think this is specious too. If we found a spaceship on another planet, with portholes and control panels and radios, we would infer that some life form that could see through portholes and could manipulate controls and talk on radios were responsible.”

    Timaeus: Yes, we would. But by these words you are agreeing that *it is legitimate to infer the existence of beings of which we have no prior knowledge, based exclusively on the apparently end-driven arrangement of heterogeneous parts in something that we deem (with no external corroboration) an artifact*. So you are granting the legitimacy of the ID orientation, and can be disagreeing at most with the application (e.g., to biological systems). Many of the New Atheists and TEs, on the other hand, do not even grant the fundamental legitimacy of the orientation. I have never seen one grant what you have just granted. They wiggle and squirm and equivocate when asked if the inference to design in such a case would be legitimate.

    aiguy: “If we found something that looked like nothing we had ever seen before, we would have no idea what caused it to exist.”

    Timaeus: “Nothing like” is not clear to me. If you mean utterly alien — that we could not even tell if the thing was made of matter or energy, and could not discern its color or shape — obviously you are right. But we might well find a machine without an understanding of the details of its working or without understanding what use it was put to, yet still recognize is as a machine, i.e., as designed, and requiring an intelligent mind as its cause. Suppose we found a series of gears and cogs on Mars which made a blade spin around. We might have no idea what the blade was for. Maybe it measured time; maybe it was an alien child’s toy; maybe it sliced alien enemies to pieces; maybe it was a fan. But we would be sure that an intelligence designed the thing so that the blade would spin around. Yet foes of ID will dig in their heels to resist this conclusion.

    The reason they dig in their heels is that they are afraid, if even once it is granted that design can be inferred without having any prior knowledge of the designer, that the application to biological systems might then be justifiable. In other words, their stubbornness is not rational, but a tactical move, a preventative strike. I am not saying this is your motivation, but after arguing with hundreds of hard-core Darwinists, I feel certain that this is the motive in many cases.

    Timaeus (from a previous post): “We infer design whenever we see what looks like a purposeful arrangement of parts.”

    aiguy: “No, we infer human activity when it looks like a human built it, and we infer animal activity when it looks like an another sort of animal built it, and we infer weather activity when it looks like weather did it, and so on.”

    Timaeus: Yes, but what of things which appear to be beyond the capacity of weather or animals or even humans to build, but which appear to exhibit a purposeful arrangement of parts?

    aiguy: “I know, and that’s fine. At this point after going after all these ID arguments, I’ll admit to you that I have strong intuitions that consciousness is involved in the formation of reality. I won’t explain here, but suffice it to say my basic feeling is that it is all much too removed from human experience to capture with our anthropocentric notions of mind.”

    Timaeus: If by “capture” you mean “completely grasp,” I agree. But look at what ID is opposing. It is opposing a view — Dawkins, Wilson, Sagan, Dennett, Provine, etc. — which says there is no consciousness *of any kind* — not even of the rarefied or mysterious kind you speak of — behind the arrangements of things. One might (in principle) be able to show that *that* view is false, even if, when it came to showing what sort of consciousness is behind nature, one found oneself somewhat tongue-tied by the inadequacy of human understanding and human language. I see ID as the antidote to the stupid kind of reductionism that I was taught as a child, teenager and young man by dozens of popular science writers — many of whom had Ph.D.s and were famous scientists. ID says that is it not “against science” or “irrational” or “fundamentalist” or “creationist” (implying Genesis literalism or the like) to infer that there is intelligence behind what we see. ID negates ideological uses of science by exposing the fact that Dennett etc. do not *know* what they claim to know, and by showing that there are facts about the universe that are at least as compatible with the existence of a cosmic intellect as with its nonexistence. I think, that after several decades of materialist-reductionist propaganda by most popular science writers (and implicit propaganda of the same sort from most science fiction writers), this is a salutary re-balancing.

    aiguy: “So that’s what I think. Now, if all ID proponents were as thoughtful and well-considered as you”

    Timaeus: Aww, shucks, now you’re embarrassing me with all these compliments.

    aiguy: “I probably wouldn’t spend time trying to disabuse folks of the idea that ID arguments provide empirical support for a personal God.”

    Timaeus: I don’t know about “personal God,” unless “conscious” implies “personal.” It may or may not. In humans it appears to. In any case, I certainly don’t think ID arguments should be tied to Christianity or any given religion. I think that all they do is provide plausibility for certain religious claims; i.e., if a designer exists, the designer might be a personal God, and if a personal God exists, maybe Christian revelation is true. By refuting Dawkins etc. ID makes Christianity possible, but does not come anywhere near proving its truth. Nor should ID try to do so. Why should Jews and Hindus and Muslims support ID if all they are doing is serving as errand-boys for Christians? This is where I differ from some contributors here and many ID supporters. I really think a rigorous separation should be made. I think it is logically possible (and I’m not indicating my own religious view here, but merely making a conceptual clarification) that ID inferences about a designer are entirely sound, but that Christianity is complete hokum. And when I “signed up” to defend ID (though I haven’t yet received any rank, uniform, office space, company car, or salary, and I’m wondering when any of these tangible benefits are going to appear), I signed up on those terms –that ID be strictly separated from Christian apologetics.

    aiguy: “I love that people make up plausible scenarios to account for the mysteries of life. Philosophy is great, and reflected lives are those worth living. I just want people to know that our deepest mysteries about life and mind remain deeply mysterious, and that ID really hasn’t brought anything new to these ancient mysteries at all.”

    Timaeus: I don’t claim that it has brought anything fundamentally new — the design insight is as old as philosophy itself. But ID has brought something new in detail: old Paley could never have dreamed just how deep the design in living things runs. It goes well beyond muscles and bones working like levers and so on. It goes right down to the molecular level. That is ID’s new contribution. And whereas neo-Darwinism claims that our new knowledge of genes and DNA and proteins etc. dispenses with the need for Paley-like explanations, ID claims that exactly that new knowledge makes them more persuasive than ever. And I agree with ID on this, though I would never use the word “proof” to express my estimation of the strength of the argument.

    And note that we could, applying your argument, say that Dawkins, Sagan, Dennett, Provine, etc. have not brought anything new to the ancient mysteries, either, since their argument — boiled down to fundamental philosophical points, as opposed to the modern scientific details — is the same as that set forth by the Epicureans and Charvakas of the ancient world.

    What I am trying to get people to see is that what we have in this debate is two very old philosophical positions squaring off against each other. The idea that somehow Dawkins, Dennett, and Partners represent “neutral, objective science” and that ID people represent “biased, subjective religion” is a complete misconstruction of the debate. What we have is Plato vs. Lucretius in modern dress. And as anyone well-versed in the history of philosophy knows, there have always been plausible arguments based on reason and empirical evidence for both the Platonist and the Lucretian inferences. I certainly make no apologies for being a Platonist. And it sounds to me as if your form of “atheism” is not atheism as most people in the last 150 years have understood the term, and may not be far from certain forms of Platonism. If we abstract from the surface-level conflicts, the culture-war context which has pitted us momentarily against one another, we may be within a stone’s throw of each other’s position.

    I think I should spend no more time on this thread, but I respect your contributions.

    Best wishes,

    T.

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