Home » The Design of Life » Motive vs. Intent, and detecting design

Motive vs. Intent, and detecting design

There is an interesting discussion going on about “How do you prove purpose”, led by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, blogger, at Overwhelming Evidence.

Here was my contribution:

One question that commonly arises when people discuss design in the universe is “how can you tell it is design if you do not know the motive of the designer?” Or perhaps the “purpose” of the designer?

Actually you can. The police do it every day in criminal investigations.

For one thing, there is a difference between motive and intent. Confusion on that subject can sometimes result in confusion about detecting design.

Legal cases typically turn on intent, not motive.

Here is an example: Harry and Jack are having a somewhat tense conversation over a beer and steak at the local pub.

Harry seizes a steak knife and tries to plunge it into Jack’s ribs.

Pub regulars overpower him and the police are called. He is charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

That’s intent.

No one knows Harry’s motive, but no one needs to know his motive. What he intended was obvious. And it is a crime.

A later investigation may turn up a motive – perhaps Jack had informed Harry that …

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Also, why do people ignore lessons from human evolution when it suits us?

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5 Responses to Motive vs. Intent, and detecting design

  1. Denyse: You make an excellent point. Clearly, intent is analogous to design, and motive is analogous to purpose. I wonder if Fr. Oakes, who obsesses over ID’s alleged failure to differentiate between “finality” and “design,” would like to be a part of this thread. .

    I would love to ask him a few delicately contrived questions about his thesis. After pointing out that your opening comments ALMOST refute his argument, I would follow up with something like this: “Inasmuch as St. Thomas Aquinas clearly argued for design in nature, why do you twist him like a pretzel and attribute to him the opposite meaning?” Or, would that violate the standards of civil dialogue?

  2. StephenB, I am sure we’d be honoured if Fr. Oakes would join us, but no doubt he has much business to occupy him.

    The distinction I offer is a commonplace of the criminal courts.

    They must distinguish design from motive because if they don’t, they will never get anywhere.

    Indeed, claims about motive can be misleading.

    We all have motives we never act on. That is WHY the law deals first with intent, and with motive only when it becmes available for review.

    Yes, a motive gives us a holistic background for an intent. So of course we want a motive whenever we can get it. We want the story to make sense.

    But motive is not essential for inferring design. What is essential is a pattern that is not likely due to mere chance or natural law.

    I am thinking here of the pub diner who, in the middle of a dispute, suddenly rises and shouts “You #$%$##@#$!!!” and aims a steak knife at the ribs of the diner across the table …

    If that IS due to either chance or natural law, we would – of course – require a detailed explanation. Otherwise, we must assume design.

    It’s possible, but it is not likely.

    Note: The insanity verdict (if applicable, which it probably ISN’T here) means that the act was indeed designed, but the designer is mentally impaired and should not suffer the usual penalties.

  3. O’Leary: “What is essential is a pattern that is not likely due to mere chance or natural law.”

    Exactly spot on.

    Anytime something could reasonably be accounted for by undirected processes, it is appropriate to give them priority over directed explanations. Otherwise, one could invoke “design” indiscriminately for anything at all.

    It is just when we have reasons to believe an effect is outside the reach of undirected natural causes that we are justified to infer the contribution of directed/intelligent causes.

  4. Eric: I like the way you use the phrase, “giving priority over undirected causes.” To me, it is that very point that protects the integrity of the design inference.

    By the way, my earlier comments refer to Fr. Edward Oakes, a Catholic theologian, who claims that ID “confuses the philsophical notion of ‘final cause’ with design.” I am convinced that the charge is unfair. He is one of those anti-ID theistic evolutionists, who just can’t bring himself to believe that design is perceptible. I am amazed at the creativity of these people.

  5. Last night on the History Channel I was watching their rendition of “10,000 BC”.

    One archaeologist was talking about Clovis and looking for artifacts.

    He said they were looking for things- signs- of what nature could not produce.

    IOW they were looking for what Del Ratzsch calls counterflow.

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