Sunday, September 6, 2009

Thoughts on Intelligent Design - part three

Now let’s assume that there is a supernatural explanation for the universe and that it is the traditional Western God. Here are some implications of using natural holes in our knowledge to prove this:

God has obviously created a universe of causal relationships. Natural laws could be described as “God’s language.” It’s ironic to look for proof of Him in spots where this language does not work - where causal relationships allegedly break down. ID seems to suggest that the natural, “created” order did not work well enough to create first life, so supernatural interventions were necessarily inserted into the universe. In this case I see at least three options for interpretation:

1. God made mistakes in His initial creation.

2. God created the world with no thoughts of life and later changed His mind.

3. God intentionally left humans hard-to-find clues billions of years ago to induce His existence. However God seems to have failed since many, many scientists, philosophers and others who study these things do not view these alleged breakdowns as evidence of His existence. Plus why would God choose this route instead of direct, unmistakable revelation to each individual person? A non-believer might ask, “Where is my road to Damascus?”

A proponent of ID might say in response, “I don’t know think it is our place to draw conclusions about God’s plan. We cannot know His mind. This is human hubris.”

I agree. This is the exact reason why we cannot logically establish that intelligent design has occurred. To do so is to claim to know the mind of God. It is seeing a gap and plugging in God’s intentions and actions from our own limited knowledge. Once again, to claim that a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, infinite source left behind finite, temporal evidence for us is to claim to know and understand God’s intentions and actions. I believe that this is the true human hubris. What I am trying to do here is use the same thinking that a believer in ID uses to view God’s “footprints” to view the implications of these footprints.

Another proponent of ID might say, “But God’s direct creation of first life explains the evidence in an easier way than chance.”

1. “God did it” will always seem more parsimonious than any natural explanation. Just like Harry Potter waving his wand to pack his trunk is easier than actually packing it by hand - except of course, that there is no explanation for magic - like God. To quote a friend, “It’s explaining the unexplainable without explanation.”

2. It seems difficult to claim parsimony when proposing a being who is more powerful and complex than the entire universe to “explain” one, tiny event inside the universe (or even the universe itself).

These are just some of the philosophical problems I see with attempting to make reason-based arguments for ID. I do not consider these posts as arguments against God at all. They are arguments against using natural, logical processes to argue for a supernatural cause for first life or for the universe as a whole. As Robert T. Pennock wrote recently, “
One may, of course, retain religious faith in a designer who transcends natural processes, but there is no way to dust for his fingerprints.”

If there is an infinite God, we finite creatures of limited ability are completely at His mercy. Perhaps an attitude of openness and trust towards the unknown is more useful than intellectual submission to a dogma whose justification is problematic. Isn’t this respecting the gap in our knowledge, being open to possibilities and acknowledging human limitations, rather than using the gap as an opportunity to plug in our pre-existing dogma, hence attempting to close the gap?

I say the gap itself is a beautiful thing. And the more we refine it through our growing knowledge, the more beautiful it becomes.


  1. It seems to me that a historical look at find the evidence for god(s) in the gap ought to be enough to give one pause. The gaps, or areas where there is only a foggy window into the unknown – or little or no insight available, were once much closer to us. Currently, the favored gaps lay in molecular actions occurring several billion years ago and universal origins occurring many more billions of years earlier than that. Of course there are countless other gaps, but these favored instances of divine action enjoy a sufficient buffer from conclusive inquiry.

    A question that I have never heard a satisfying response to is: “why are gods only found in areas that are understandably difficult for humans reconstruct or comprehend?” The non-magical explanations make good sense of this, but I am not sure how a theistic worldview accounts for it. Appeals to not knowing the mind of a god do nothing in the way of explanation, and in any case, an explanation that can work equally well for any observed phenomenon is no explanation at all.

    The concept of intelligent design implies purpose. Looking at artifacts we can safely say are the result of intelligent design, we can see how the question of “what is this for” or “why was this intelligently designed” jump out at us. An airplane, a saw, bifocals; all of these represent intelligently designed artifacts. One important aspect of how we decide these are the result of intelligent design is the reverse engineerability of the artifact.

    Operating on the assumption that the universe and/or life were intelligently designed, it follows that the design has a purpose. I am interested to understand what this purpose might be, if there is any purpose to be gathered through a reverse engineering of what was allegedly designed through intelligence.

    Of course there is always the fail-safe of not knowing the mind of a god. But this is no answer at all. For if we do not know what is in the mind of the intelligent designer, this is the same as saying we do not know.

    As I type this, I cannot come up with a good answer to what the purpose of the universe might be. This may be due to my inability to reverse engineer such a massive thing, my lack of imagination, or it might be that the universe has no purpose. As for life, if a purpose was to be found, I would suspect it would have something to do with replication. But I am not so sure we can find purpose in all of this, especially purpose commensurate with that which is most reasonable to place one’s belief.

  2. "For if we do not know what is in the mind of the intelligent designer, this is the same as saying we do not know. "

    Too true.

    Purpose - most scientists/philosphers I have read say that we create our own purpose. Of course this shows, in my opinion, that we all believe in a sort of "naturalism +" when we value things. Of course it's paradoxical - nature has created those values in me, but I still have to consciously choose to value things, etc.

    but the "+" need not violate naturalism - it just means we have to rely on our imaginations, and a certain sort of faith, to create axiomatic premises of value upon which to act. The universe marches on no matter what we choose or believe - it all fits into the naturalistic story, but we have choices in front of us - not just actions, but beliefs to choose, which help us to find value in life.

    I want to study more compatibilism, to understand how thinkers harmonize free will and naturalistic determinism. It does seem that they both exist.

  3. When you talk about creating our own purpose, I think we are talking about differing sides of the purpose coin. In the way I intend to bring it up, purpose is a preconceived goal of a designer, not something that an artifact creates for itself. (maybe it is the same thing and I am just trying to view one aspect of it, I am sure we can flesh it out over time).

    So we can create narratives about our own purpose, but is this the same thing as the purpose an alleged designer might have had when intelligently designing? The distinction I am trying to get at here is one way we can tell if something was intelligently designed is by understanding the purpose that thing has for the designer.

    Your average stone does not convey design but a cache of stones shaped with barbed points does. The reason why the barbed points indicate design is the inferred purpose, to puncture and to stay put. If we were to imagine that the arrowheads could weave narratives, no post hoc story it could tell would alter their purpose in the sense I am talking about.

    Let me try it this way; what I am interested in here is our inferred value of the designer that motives designing, not the self perceived value of the designed. We can infer value from suspected designed objects through reverse engineering, thus strengthening our suspicion of intelligent design. So can we use this method to test suspicions relating to the alleged intelligent design of life and/or the universe?

  4. aha! I was thinking too much in an ultimate sense. But I suppose when contemplating the "designed" purpose of humans, that would be pretty ultimate to a human!

    Assuming an intelligent designer for a moment:

    Typically, Christians theologians state that God created us to have fellowship with Him. This implies that God had a desire or a need, which is inconsistent with being perfect. I have also heard that God created us for our own benefit, since he had no needs. This is weird too though, because it suggests that something that did not exist could attain a benefit by existing. We might ask what things there "are" that God has not created, that are not receiving the benefit of existence.

    Of course, as you said, we can say we can't know the mind of God - we don't know. That's fair enough to me. We can't see the forest for the trees. But then we should be quite humble when making any speculations about God's ultimate "purpose". We should admit we probably don't know.

    Another interesting way to think though, is that we are all one. We are all a part of God. Creation was the act of everything fragmenting apart, creating the illusion of separate beings. Our purpose would be to ultimately realize our oneness - that our individual parts make up the whole. Of course, in this situation, creation is a problem that needs to be fixed, not an act of purpose.

    Fun stuff to think about.

  5. Since we are just assuming an intelligent designer, I don’t see a requirement for it being perfect (or should it be It, haha, theistic belief makes people behave funny with it comes to English…). If fellowship is the driving purpose to the creation, what might one expect to find? Or better yet, what might one expect to not find? I know that if I were to create something for fellowship, at the very least, it would be able to engage in two way communication with me – with certainty! This also brings up the classic question involving the fact that only small minorities believe in “the same” god while most of the creation strongly disagree with any given god – some fellowship, huh?

    We can’t know the mind of an intelligent designer… or can we? Doesn’t the process of reverse engineering tell us something about the mind of the designer? I say it does. Coming across the arrowheads mentioned in the previous comment vaguely tells us about the needs of the artificer. If we are to grant additional clues, such as animal hides with arrowhead shaped holes in them, then I think we can cover some good ground into the mind of the designer. So it seems that we ought to be able to determine something about the designer, if in fact there was a designer and it possessed intelligence.

    Of course the possibility remains that there is no intelligent designer and all we have are narratives we tell born out of tradition, biological accident, and just because.