Monday, July 09, 2012

At Last, What Intelligent Design Theory Advocates!

Over at the Intelligent Design site Uncommon Descent, a commenter called Jerad has been asking what ID theory advocates for the origin of life and development of species.

His requests are often polite and specific:
I am not asking you for the designer’s name or address, just your idea about the methods and timing. We know quite a lot about the people who built Stonehenge: what they ate, some of their rituals, stuff you can’t get from just studying Stonehenge itself. There are lots of good books about prehistoric Britain if you’re interested. AND we do ask: why did they build Stonehenge? When? In stages or all at once? Why? Always WHY?? It’s what science does. Asks questions.

You asked me a few weeks ago about finding Stonehenge on Mars and I said: you bet I’d think it was designed. And then I’d immediately start asking those questions and looking for answers and more evidence. I couldn’t just let the deign inference sit there and be happy. I’d start digging. Quite literally in that instance in fact. I’d do some archaeology and look for the designer’s trash heap. I’d ramp up SETI trying to find a signal. I’d try and date the structure. I’d hypothesise (based on careful examination of the thing) about construction techniques. If someone left a Stonehenge on Mars I’d bet they left some other traces and evidence.
Here's a second statement clarifying what Jerad wants to know about ID:
I won’t ask about the designer but, surely, a core part of ID is when; when did the designer intervene. That at least should be answerable. That is the core difference isn’t it: Darwinism says: the ‘gaps’ were bridged by natural, observable processes. ID says: the designer bridged those gaps with knowledge and abilities we extrapolate from our own currently inadequate abilities. BUT, you haven’t said which gaps or when.
Although in that thread none of the ID proponents sketches out the narrative for origin of life and development of species, the comments give enough for a reconstruction. Here, then, is my summary of ID's theory of life:

Intelligent Design is a theory of common design. At some point in the distant past, an intelligent being released one or more organismic "seeds" on earth. Each seed presumably had been designed by this being--although I am not sure we can assume this--and introduced to earth for the purpose of living here. Although each seed is crafted to give rise to organisms with common features--such as teeth, eyes, brains, and so forth--they all represent different life forms. Some seeds are for plants or plant types. Some are for humans, some are for ostriches, some are for bears, some are for ants, some are for salamanders, some are for swordfish. And so on. 

The evidence of design is found at the microbiological level, where cells and cell processes indicate that they should have resulted only from a prior engineering and manufacturing process. The cells and processes of living organisms must have been planned by a being, then assembled and finished into an integrated whole. These integrated wholes were used to seed the earth with life. Without these seeds, earth would have remained forever a lifeless planet of water and rock.

Following the initial seeding, the organisms reproduced. Generation after generation, they grew in number and established various ecological balances in diverging populations across the planet. These balances shifted according to climate changes, as well as according to the dynamics of different populations growing, strengthening, migrating in or out, or contracting disease. Today, many of these populations are identified as species and subspecies, and various relationships among the species can be shown scientifically.

Current biology mistakenly views the relationships between species as the result of (1) common descent and (2) evolution via natural selection. Current biology errs because the level of microbiological complexity required for life to appear on earth could not have happened without an intelligent being placing seeds here. Therefore, common design better explains all of the evidence.

I hope the account above accurately reflects the theory. I expect I have the broad outlines but am off in particulars. I appreciate correction. Nevertheless, it's important to have an articulated ID theory because I, for one, am not satisfied with the following:
When we see a known adequate process that leads to reliable signs, we have every good reason to infer that like causes like, and to hold that in the teeth of any and all contrary metaphysical speculations and doctrines that do not have that sort of empirical warrant. In other worlds [sic], we are well within our scientific rights to insist on the credibility of inductive generalisation on signs that reliably point to known adequate cause.

That is what design theory is about, and it is why in the end, once people realise what is at stake in rejecting it — driving the proverbial stake through the heart of scientific methods and empirical reasoning — it will prevail.
The above defends ID, claiming it makes reasonable extrapolations from observed reality. It also attacks modern science for being driven by unsupported assumptions about reality. For all I know, these arguments have merit; unfortunately, they do not answer the questions people want science to address: What actually happened way back then? How did it occur? What were the conditions and how else might things have turned out?

It is not enough to claim only "I infer design" because to infer design is to invoke a narrative. If X is the result of design, then some designer made X and brought X into being at a certain point in time. What's more, design implies intent: to some degree, X fulfills the designer's intentions both for what X is and what X does. It's not enough, then, to conclude design without also articulating the designer, the designer's purposes, and the historical conditions under which the design first appeared. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that design cannot be offered or accepted as a serious hypothesis unless it affirms a designer, argues purposes, and establishes historical conditions and parameters.

Because ID proponents tend not to provide the sorts of details that Jerad asks for, ID continually comes across as incomplete and pallid criticism. From the thread I link to, anyone might question how much experience Jerad has with the biological data. Nevertheless, one clearly sees that his position is one that encompasses a totality of known data. ID rests on almost pure induction and seeks--seemingly--to keep design from being entirely ruled out.

*  *  *  *  *

Years ago, as a theist starting to buy into the arguments for atheism, I looked to Intelligent Design for a reasonable alternative to atheism. I thought ID might give good reasons to think our world was not without God or gods.

But Intelligent Design failed right away. I realized quickly that it would not give me what I wanted, which was a plausible, clear, evidence-based explanation of the world--including reasons for keeping the idea of God/gods. After all, if there were a good reason to think intentional design was part of life's origins, then there was also good reason to think God could have been the designer.

Unfortunately, ID's proponents, sites, and books provided no scientific development of the theory. Few people, least of all biologists, were applying ID to a full range of data from fossils, genetics, biogeography, morpohology, and so on. One could not enroll in a biology program at a university and study with an ID theorist. One could not open an academic biological journal and read about current findings in ID.

I saw, then, that ID was marginal and almost completely static. In its efforts not to identify explicitly with religion and creationism, it offered no definite theory of anything. It argued that "Darwinism" had failed and that "materialism" had thoroughly corrupted the practice of modern science. But it gave no explanation or narrative of the first design processes and subsequent processes.

Well, now we have an explanation and narrative. Once it's properly tweaked by ID advocates, we can have a real basis for assessing which accounts of life on earth best fit all the data. One final takeaway, then, is that ID postulates not a simple creationism. In the end, it is creationism and an argument that creationism can be rationally and scientifically warranted.

I suspect that people who buy into ID do so because they want to hold onto creationism. Sure, I suppose there is reason to dislike or be unimpressed with evolutionary science, but I find it hard to believe that one accepts ID simply because one is anti-evolution. No, I think one accepts ID out of rational necessity: these are people who know the Bible falls short of truth, who despise the middling ground of agnosticism, and who are repulsed by atheism.

These are, I imagine, some very conflicted conservatives--people whose intellects are at war with their values.


  1. LT:

    Since you asked me to comment by email, I will comment here with the same that I emailed.

    Kindly, note that say a Behe believes in common descent, just not by unintelligent mechanisms. So did Wallace, co-founder of modern evolutionary theory, from 1869 on.

    I think there is an error of projection, expecting design thought to be substantially parallel to rather than overlap with the grand evolutionary narrative. When, in fact, it is far narrower in this context, a reasoned and empirically validated account of how certain commonly observed phenomena are best explained on intelligence. That is a modest claim, but it is enough to prune back overly optimistic claims on the powers of blind chance and mechanical necessity to originate life and to elaborate it into the diverse body plans we see. Design theory is really a theory about technology detection and linked technological evolution; seeking objective, empirically warranted criteria to recognise technology at work from its traces! (It also has implications for codes, and forensics, etc. That twerdun is prior to whodunit, how and why.)

    If you want a design centred elaboration on how the world of life may have come to be, go look at the front-loaded hypothesis championed by Mike Gene et al or something like that. This sort of thing incorporates the design inference, but goes far beyond it.

    My wider comment is:


    >> I have a moment now, at a library.

    Design theory, sensu strictu, is a study of signs of intelligence per empirical warrant and related analysis.

    This is the context of the parallel discussion that happened at UD with Sal C. The context of statistical thermodynamics allows us to analyse configuration spaces (strictly, phase spaces, but here we do not need to think about motion), and how information and/or organisation is expressed in such a space. (Organisation can be reduced to in effect a list of components, orientations, connexions and resulting nodes and arcs, similar to how say Auto Cad or a printed circuit routing program work.)

    Once we have a certain degree of complexity and specificity to achieve function, the implication of isolation of such zones of function as islands in the sea of possible but overwhelmingly non-functional configs, arises. As a consequence, the number of Planck-time states searchable by the 10^80 or so atoms of our observed cosmos, would only search about 1 in 10^150 of the possibilities for 1,000 bits. A supertask.

    That is why we see the reduction to the simplified expression:

    Chi_500 = I*S - 500, bits beyond the solar system threshold.

    That is, within our solar system (the effective universe for chemical level interactions -- the fastest of which take up about 10^30 Planck-times) once we see something with information that is functionally specific, and complex beyond 500 bits, the best basic causal explanation is design. 501 coins tossed in no particular order would not lead to an inference of design, but if they encoded the first 72 or so characters of this post, that would strongly point to design.

    Intelligence does not blindly search per blind chance plus necessity, it composes functional configs on heuristics and creative imagination, as we experience and observe routinely.

    For the world of life this supertask issue becomes most easily relevant at OOL, the root of the tree of life.

    There is no pre-existing reproductive ability to cloud the waters.

    We have to get to a code based von Neumann kinematic self replicator that replicates a metabolising system that has in it a constructor and of course mechanisms for controlled energy and materials flows etc. So, as with Paley's thought exercise in Ch 2 of his Nat Theol, the reasonable inference to explain this is design, given the limited powers of chance based blind searches rewarded by trial and error success on the gamut of our observed cosmos and an empirically reliable inference on observed sign to signified.

    [ . . . ]

  2. Cont'd:

    If you want to overturn it, show us a good counter-example, the equivalent of: to overturn thermodynamics, show us a real perpetual-motion machine.

    What that means is that from the root of the supposed tree of life, design is involved; with 100,000 bits or more of info involved, just from D/RNA. That is going to shift our estimate of whether design could be involved at following levels.

    Beyond that, major body plans require increments of 10 - 100 mn, per comparisons of genome size. This makes design again the best candidate to explain the origin of such plans.

    As to mechanisms, there are always many ways to skin a cat-fish.

    That is, design is a generic mechanism, and the specific implementation can and does vary.

    For instance, front loading has been discussed, with probably an initial population having sufficient diversity to get a head start on adaptation to niches, not just dependence on lucky mutations. That way, there is robustness and adapatability built in, similar to how much of the range of dogs is due to specialisation and selective pressures, not so much to novelties introduced by mutations. Though of course some mutations are involved.

    That is just a suggestion for illustration, not a theory.

    The fundamental issue design theory is putting on the table is, in effect, an audit. Some pretty grandiose claims have been made concerning the information and function-creating powers of chance variations and differential reproductive success. Do those claims hold good on empirical and analytical examination per the observed or analytically credible powers of such?

    The answer is, no.

    And since the only empirically warranted and analytically credible source of FSCO/I is design (this is a summary of massive experience and sufficient analysis to back it up), it is reasonable to infer that it is in fact a reliable sign of design. In particular, the only known source of languages, digital codes, algorithms and organised executing machines, is design. Which are what we see in the heart of the living cell per the work since 1948 - 53.

    Beyond that, we should be willing to acknowledge when our theorising has outrun our evidence.

    And, be willing to back-track on excessive claims.

    For just one instance, there is an estimate that some 50,000 step changes would be required to turn a cow-like animal into a whale-like one. Where are the incremental, functional, niche dominating steps to do that, where are the populations big enough to propagate and fix the steps in succession, and then to do so in the available time on the conventional timeline? Especially, when we see the very modest results obtained with Malaria parasites under drastic selection pressure and with vastly more reproductive events than would be available for the sort of transition we are talking about, etc.

    In short, it looks like time to prune back some excessively luxuriant kudzu-growth of empirically ungrounded hypotheses on the imagined powers of suggested chance and necessity mechanisms!

    For sure, we have no warrant to impose a priori materialism by the back door, infer it's logical consequent then present it with exaggerations of what we do observe -- minor adaptations -- as a final, practically certain answer.

    And certainly, not as a "fact." >>

    Finally, the very Creationists themselves will be the first to tell you that creationism and design thought are quite different. Many of the creationists are not happy with the difference, as they reject reasoning on anything that looks like uniformitarianism -- though Newton's uniformity principle in his rules of reason is not quite the same.


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