Category Archives: Intelligent Design

Why Do We See Causality All Around Us?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes the concept of intentional causality. According to Kahneman,

Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities. Here again, the evidence is that we are born prepared to make intentional attributions: infants under one year old identify bullies and victims, and expect a pursuer to follow the most direct path in attempting to catch whatever it is chasing.

Intentional causality is contrasted with physical causality. Physical causality is perceived when we see physical objects interacting with each other, such as one billiard ball hitting another and causing it to move.

Kahneman assigns the ability of human beings to see both kinds of causality to System 1 and believes there might be an evolutionary reason for why System 1 is so ready and adept at seeing both intentional and physical causality in the world around us.

The experience of freely willed action is quite separate from physical causality. Although it is your hand that picks up the salt , you do not think of the event in terms of a chain of physical causation. You experience it as caused by a decision that a disembodied you made, because you wanted to add salt to your food. Many people find it natural to describe their soul as the source and the cause of their actions.

The psychologist Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, presented the provocative claim that our inborn readiness to separate physical and intentional causality explains the near universality of religious beliefs. He observes that “we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls.”

The two modes of causation that we are set to perceive make it natural for us to accept the two central beliefs of many religions: an immaterial divinity is the ultimate cause of the physical world, and immortal souls temporarily control our bodies while we live and leave them behind as we die. In Bloom’s view, the two concepts of causality were shaped separately by evolutionary forces, building the origins of religion into the structure of System 1.

These two kinds of causality are important to understand, for they stand in the center of the battle between two major worldviews: atheism and theism. Atheists affirm physical causality, but deny intentional causality (they claim it is just an illusion and that only physical causality is really operating). Theists affirm both physical and intentional causality.

Almost every debate about the origin of the universe, or the fine-tuning of the physical constants in the universe, or the design of biological organisms, comes down to whether you believe that intentional causality is real or illusory. There is no doubt that most human beings believe that both are real, and that this belief is hard-wired into us, but that doesn’t settle the debate.

For those who want to claim that the concept of intentional causality is not real because it is produced by evolution, that argument doesn’t fly. Where the ability to see intentional causality came from is not directly relevant to whether there really are intentional causes.  Pressing this claim would be a case of the genetic fallacy. The source of an idea cannot tell you whether an idea is true or false.

And besides, if you believe evolution caused human beings to see intentional causality, then you must also believe that evolution caused human beings to see physical causality, and almost nobody wants to say that physical causality is unreal.

What Questions about Evolution Have Really Been Answered?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Microbiologist James Shapiro, in his book Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, makes some common sense statements about the controversy over evolution. Remember that Shapiro is no young earth creationist. He is firmly entrenched as an important figure in the world of evolutionary science. Here is what Shapiro says:

General discussions of evolution, especially in the context of the “Intelligent Design” controversy, suffer from an unfortunate conflation in the minds of the lay public (and also of scientists) of three distinct questions:

• The origin of life

• The evidentiary basis for an evolutionary process

• The nature of evolutionary change

Almost universally, the term Darwinism is assumed to be synonymous with a scientific approach that has provided satisfactory answers to all three questions. It is to be hoped that, by now, you realize that these three questions are individually complex and that two of them are quite far from having coherent scientific explanations.

We have little solid science on the origin of life, in large part because there is virtually no physical record, but also because we still have gaps in our understanding of what constitute the fundamental principles of life.

As to the actual nature of evolutionary change processes, you have seen in Parts II and III [of his book] that cytogenetic observations, laboratory experiments, and, above all, molecular evidence about genome sequence changes tell us that the simplifying assumptions made in the 19th and early 20th Centuries are plainly wrong. They fail to account for the variety of cellular and genomic events we now know to have occurred. It should be emphasized that many change events have been quite rapid and have involved the whole genome—notably, symbiosis, interspecific hybridization, and whole genome doubling.

Shapiro goes on to say that he does believe that the second question has been answered.

The one issue that has effectively been settled in a convincing way is the evidence for a process of evolutionary change over the past three billion years. The reason the answer to this question is so solid is that every new technological development in biological investigation—from the earliest days of paleontology through light microscopy and cytogenetics up to our current molecular sequence methodologies—has told the same story: living organisms, past and present, are related to each other, share evolutionary inventions, and have changed dramatically over the history of the Earth.

However, little evidence fits unequivocally with the theory that evolution occurs through the gradual accumulation of “numerous, successive, slight modifications.” On the contrary, clear evidence exists for abrupt events of specific kinds at all levels of genome organization. These sudden changes range from horizontal transfers and the movement of transposable elements through chromosome rearrangements to whole genome duplications and cell fusions.

I can agree with Shapiro, on this last question, to a point. I don’t think we are clear on how all organisms are related, but we certainly understand how some organisms are related. We can also see that life forms have changed dramatically over the history of the earth. I would also agree that the second question is immensely more settled than the first and third questions.

Unfortunately, as Shapiro remarks, scientists tend to conflate all three of these questions as if they are one and the same. I am thankful that a biologist of Shapiro’s stature  has attempted to clear up this confusion.

Why Is the Argument from Poor Design Simply Atheism of the Gaps?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

The other day I heard an atheist say that the fact that he sees poor design in the natural world leads him to the conclusion that the Christian God does not exist. Here is the argument:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator God would create organisms that have optimal design.
  2. Organisms have features that are sub-optimal.
  3. Therefore, God either did not create these organisms or is not omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

There are several things wrong with this argument, but I want to focus on premise 2 – organisms have features that are sub-optimal.

I am an electrical engineer who has been designing integrated circuits (IC) for 20 years, either personally or through managing other engineers. I am extremely familiar with IC design. Over the years, I have often heard young engineers, who did not design a particular IC, criticize the design of that IC by saying it is sub-optimal, that they could do a better job. I have then seen these same engineers eat crow when they finally talk to the original designer and discover the constraints that original engineer was under when he designed the IC and the purposes for which he designed the IC.

It is impossible to judge a design as optimal or sub-optimal without knowing the purposes of the designer and without knowing the constraints the designer faced during the design. Young engineers just assume that they know both when they look at somebody else’s design. After being embarrassed a few times, they usually drop this approach and gain some humility.

I see the atheist who uses the argument from poor design in the same light. Biological organisms are incredibly complex and they operate in an environment that is massively complex. Our current knowledge of biological organisms and of all the earth’s diverse ecosystems is in its infancy. Every year, scientists realize how much more there is to learn. However, science marches onward and we do indeed learn more each year.

Here is the problem for the atheist. Like the young IC designer, they are in a very poor position to judge whether biological organisms are optimally designed or not. Each year, scientists discover new purposes, or functions, for biological organisms, and each year scientists discover more constraints within which biological organisms must function.

This means that every year the atheist making the argument from poor design will have to retract examples of poor design, and it will always be that way. The overall trajectory of scientific discovery is that the world we live in is more complex than we ever imagined, not less. Science is going in the wrong direction for the atheists making the argument from poor design.

Because of that, this argument is simply atheism of the gaps. Atheists fill in their biological knowledge gaps by claiming that certain organisms are designed poorly, only to have to abandon each example of alleged poor design as science advances. This argument, then, is a loser for atheists, and should be dropped. They are literally swimming against the tide of scientific progress when they make this argument. Their “poor design” gaps will continue to be filled in year after year.

How Do We Get From DNA to Design?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I recently wrote a series of three blog posts discussing the argument to design from analogy.  I concluded that this approach to arguing that life is designed is a live option, but that it falls short of the kind of certainty we would like the argument to have.

Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, in his book Signature in the Cell, points out the weakness in any design argument from analogy:

The status of such design arguments inevitably turns on the degree of similarity betwee the systems in question.  If the two effects are very similar, then inferring a similar cause will seem more warranted than if the two effects are less similar.  Since, however, even advocates of these classic design arguments admit there are dissimilarities as well as similarities between living things and human artifacts, the status of the analogical design argument has always been uncertain.  Advocates argued that similarities between organisms and machines outweighed dissimilarities.  Critics claimed the opposite.

Do modern intelligent design proponents rely solely on design arguments from analogy?  No.  Meyer’s approach is to argue from DNA to design by inference to the best explanation, or abduction.  This is the dominant method used in the historical sciences such as forensic science, evolutionary biology, paleontology, geology, archaeology, and cosmology. 

Meyer explains the difference between argument from analogy and inference to the best explanation with regard to DNA and design:

But the DNA-to-design argument does not have an analogical form.  Instead, it constitutes an inference to the best explanation.  Such arguments do not compare degrees of similarity between different effects, but instead compare the explanatory power of competing causes with respect to a single kind of effect.

So what is the single effect that needs explaining?

As noted, biological information, such as we find in DNA and proteins, comprises two features: complexity and functional specificity.  Computer codes and linguistic texts also manifest this pair of properties (“complexity” and “specificity”), what I have referred to . . . as specified information.  Although a computer program may be similar to DNA in many respects and dissimilar in others, it exhibits a precise identity to DNA insofar as both contain specified complexity or specified information.

Accordingly, the design argument developed here does not rely on a comparison of similar effects, but upon the presence of a single kind of effect – specified information – and an assessment of the ability of competing causes to produce that effect.  The argument does not depend upon the similarity of DNA to a computer program or human language, but upon the presence of an identical feature in both DNA and intelligently designed codes, languages, and artifacts. 

Meyer continues his argument:

Because we know intelligent agents can (and do) produce complex and functionally specified sequences of symbols and arrangements of matter, intelligent agency qualifies as an adequate causal explanation for the origin of this effect.  Since, in addition, materialistic theories have proven universally inadequate for explaining the origin of such information, intelligent design now stands as the only entity with the causal power known to produce this feature of living systems.  Therefore, the presence of this feature in living systems points to intelligent design as the best explanation of it, whether such systems resemble human artifacts in other ways or not.

To summarize, there is specified information in DNA, and the only cause of specified information we know of is intelligent agency.  Therefore the cause of DNA is intelligent agency or design.  To refute this argument, you must demonstrate that there is not specified information in DNA, or that specified information can be caused by non-intelligent processes.  Neither of these has been done, to my knowledge, so this argument to design seems to remain valid.

Is Life Designed? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the first two parts of this series, I presented Mark Isaak’s arguments from his 2003 article.  In this article, his central contention was that human design and life are not analogous; there are at least six important differences that make the analogy break down.

Analogies imply that there are similarities and differences between two things.  An analogy works if the similarities outweigh the differences, or if the similarities are in the essential properties of the two things and the differences are in the accidental properties of the two things. I recap below each point Isaak made:

1. Human design includes blueprints, tools, and other evidence of the design process.  Life shows no evidence of a design process.

I argued that actually possessing evidence of a design process is not an essential property of making an inference to human design.  Additionally, since Isaak wrote his article, we do see the design process in labs that are designing artificial life forms, which weakens Isaak’s point further.

2. Human designs display simple organization.  Life displays complex organization and intermodular interdependence.

I argued that simple organization is not an essential property of human design.  In fact, the more complex human designs are, the more likely we are to attribute design.

3. Human designs are manufactured.  Life is characterized by reproduction, growth, and development.

I argued that manufacturing which excludes self-replication is not an essential property of human design.  After all, we have examples of human designers combining self-replication and manufacturing processes.

4. Human designs are generally repaired from the outside.  Life is self-healing, at least in part.

I argued that human designs are not always repaired from the outside, and that this is therefore not an essential atrribute of human design.

5. In human design form follows function.  In life, forms follow nested hierarchy.

I argued that human design does not always have form following function, and therefore this attribute of human design is not essential.

6. In human design, there is rapid change.  In life, there is slow change.

I argued that human designs change both rapidly and slowly, so rapid change cannot be an essential attribute of human design.

After examining all of Isaak’s differences between human design and life, it seems to me that he has not made the case that life does not look designed.  He has identified accidental or secondary attributes of some human designs, but claimed that these are essential or primary attributes of all human design.

Where does this leave us?  It convinces me that the design argument from analogy is a live option.  Arguments from analogy are never certain, but as scientists continue to make technological advances of the kind Craig Venter’s team is making, I see the design argument from analogy only getting stronger.

Is Life Designed? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this series, I introduced Mark Isaak’s 2003 article which argued that human designs are not analogous to life, and that an argument to design using the analogical method fails.  Mark Isaak listed six attributes of human design that are not found in life, and now we take up attribute number three from his list, which I’ve copied again below. 

  1. Human design includes blueprints, tools, and other evidence of the design process.  Life shows no evidence of a design process.
  2. Human designs display simple organization.  Life displays complex organization and intermodular interdependence.
  3. Human designs are manufactured.  Life is characterized by reproduction, growth, and development.
  4. Human designs are generally repaired from the outside.  Life is self-healing, at least in part.
  5. In human design form follows function.  In life, forms follow nested hierarchy.
  6. In human design, there is rapid change.  In life, there is slow change.

Difference number three:  Isaak notes that human designs are manufactured in some way, whereas life reproduces, grows, and develops.  My first reaction is to ask: Why does reproduction preclude design?  And are there not numerous examples of human scientists manufacturing life through cloning processes?  What about Craig Venter’s team manufacturing synthetic life forms?  Add to this that one of the express purposes of some forms of nanotechnology is self-replication, the very thing that Isaak claims only life can do.  This alleged difference between human design and life simply collapses under inspection.

Difference number four:  Isaak claims that human designs are repaired from the outside, whereas life is capable of partial self-healing.  Again, the distinction falls apart.  There are self-healing materials that scientists are developing to prevent cracking in structures; I’m sure other examples of self-healing technologies could be found.  Humans consider self-healing to be a property of design that is highly beneficial and are making rapid progress in its development.  Why does Isaak assume that human designs are incapable of reaching this goal?

Difference number five:  According to Isaak, in human design form follows function, but in life forms follow nested hierarchy.  Isaak argues that a “human hand, a bat’s wing, a mole’s paw, a dog’s paw, and a whale’s flipper all have the same basic bone structure, despite their different functions of grasping, flying, digging, running, and swimming.”  In other words, the singular form of the bone is used in different animals to perform many different functions.  This idea of a singular form being used for many different functions, he argues, is not seen in human designs.

But that is just not true.  Take the field I work in: semiconductors.  For any integrated circuit, there are a limited number of forms that are employed (e.g., resistors, capacitors, transistors).  These very few forms are put to use in a multitude of different functions: amplifiers, receivers, timers, filters, switches, just to name a few.  The whole semiconductor industry is built on the idea that a handful of forms can be used to design millions of different functions.  This is identical to what Isaak sees in life, so he has failed to find a true difference between human design and life.

Difference number six:  Isaak argues that human designs change rapidly, whereas life changes slowly.   I think we can all agree that life has clearly changed over its history.  After all, isn’t that the whole point of evolution, a theory which Isaak defends? 

According to evolution, modern human designers have only been around for tens of thousands of years.  Some of the tools that humans designed in their early history have changed slowly (e.g., knives and wheels), and some of the tools have changed rapidly (e.g., communication technology). 

But this is exactly the same case in life.  Some animals have changed slowly over their evolutionary history (e.g., sharks), but some have changed rapidly (e.g., primates).  Isaak’s argument struggles because slowness and rapidity are relative terms.  Rapid compared to what? 

I can’t see any way for Isaak to differentiate successfully between human design and life with regard to the rapidity of change unless he merely says that life has been changing for billions of years and human designs have been changing for thousands of years.  Yes, that’s a difference, but what of it?

In part 3 of this series, I will draw together some conclusions about Mark Isaak’s argument that life and human design are not analogous.

Is Life Designed? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In an article written in 2003, Mark Isaak explored “What Design Looks Like.”  The central argument of the article was simple.  According to Isaak, creationists who claim that life is designed are using an argument from analogy –  the analogy is between human design and biological life.  In his article, Isaak lists 11 attributes of human design and then looks at life to see if it shares these same 11 attributes.

Isaak agrees that human design and life share 5 attributes: 1) intermediate level of structural complexity, 2) modular structure, 3) evidence of careless modification (jury-rigging, vestigial parts), 4) change over time; new forms are modifications of previous forms and 5) functional integration.  If we stopped here, Isaak thinks that the argument from analogy would work, that life would compare favorably to human design.

But, Isaak then goes on to list 6 attributes of human design that life does not possess.

  1. Human design includes blueprints, tools, and other evidence of the design process.  Life shows no evidence of a design process.
  2. Human designs display simple organization.  Life displays complex organization and intermodular interdependence.
  3. Human designs are manufactured.  Life is characterized by reproduction, growth, and development.
  4. Human designs are generally repaired from the outside.  Life is self-healing, at least in part.
  5. In human design form follows function.  In life, forms follow nested hierarchy.
  6. In human design, there is rapid change.  In life, there is slow change.

Isaak’s conclusion: the design argument from analogy fails.  There are too many differences between human design and life for the analogy to hold.  Isaak explains: “In particular, life’s growth and reproduction alone are enough, it seems to me, to place life and design in quite separate categories. Life’s complexity and its nested hierarchy of traits are also highly significant differences. The overall conclusion is clear: life looks undesigned.”

If you are like me, you are scratching your head.  Something seems very odd about what Isaak says counts against life being designed.  Let me slow it down a little bit.

First, he argues that life can’t be designed because we don’t have blueprints, or tools, or any other evidence of a life design process.  But surely we, standing here today, don’t have direct experience of every design process ever used.  Don’t we routinely discover objects of antiquity where we do not understand immediately how they were designed?

Take the example of the ancient Egyptian pyramids.  Haven’t modern scientists struggled for decades trying to figure out how the giant Egyptian pyramids were designed and constructed?  There have been numerous theories about what the actual processes were.  Does the fact that we don’t have blueprints for the ancient pyramids mean they weren’t designed?  If those blueprints were found, would anyone seriously suggest that it is only after the blueprints were found we could conclude that the pyramids were designed?

But it gets worse for Isaak.  With regard to life, there are labs designing artificial life forms as we speak (Craig Venter).  Granted, they are a long ways off from designing all the kinds of life we see around us, but there certainly are life design processes developing.  So Isaak’s argument fails twice.

Second, Isaak argues that because life displays complex organization with intermodular interdependence, it cannot be designed.  This strikes me as completely bizarre.  What he is saying is that because biologists have not been able to reduce life down to simple, independent subsystems that do not interact with each other, life cannot be designed.

But it is the amazing complexity and interdependence of biological systems that cause most scientists to react in awe to the genious of life.  The complexity should count toward design, not against.  Somehow Isaak argues just the opposite – because we can’t break life down into simple non-interacting parts, it can’t be designed.  That strikes me as a complete non sequitur

In the next post of this series, I will address more of Mark Isaak’s 6 alleged differences between human design and life.  Stay tuned.

Is “Who Designed the Designer?” a Good Argument?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The intelligent design movement claims that when we look at certain features of the natural world, we are justified in inferring that these features were designed by an intelligent agent or designer.  The exact arguments are hashed out elsewhere on this blog and in numerous books and websites.

One of the most common responses to the inference that a feature of the natural world is designed is the question: “Well then, who designed the designer?”  The point of this question seems to be that merely positing a designer is useless unless we can say what caused the designer.

In a recent post written by Barry Arrington on the Uncommon Descent blog, he refutes the idea that we must know the cause of a designer before we can infer that a designer exists.  Here is his  short, but clear refutation:

Step 1:  Assume that Craig Venter succeeds in developing an artificial life form and releases it into the wild.

Step 2:  Assume that a researcher (let’s call him John) later finds one of Venter’s life forms, examines it, and concludes that it was designed by an intelligent designer.

Step 3:  John’s design inference is obviously correct.  Note that John’s design inference is not any less correct if he (a) does not know who Craig Venter is; and (b) is unable to say who designed Craig Venter.

Craig Venter is , of course, a famous scientist who is doing research on synthetic life forms, so he serves Arrington’s refutation well.  I hope you can see why the demand to say who designed Craig Venter is completely irrelevant to the inference that Venter designed the artificial life form.  The fact that John discovered that this life form was designed is an important scientific finding, in and of itself.

The goal of asking “Who designed the designer?” as a way of derailing design inferences just does not work.

Top Ten Intelligent Design and Evolution Science News Stories of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This post is a few months belated, but better late than never.  Every year, Access Research Network does a phenomenal job collecting science news that bears on the intelligent design and evolution debate.  For 2010, they have again assembled a great list.  If you are at all interested in this debate, please go read the article where they have compiled the stories.

Which Part of Evolution Are We Talking About?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have followed the intelligent design (ID) movement for several years now and there is an error that I’ve seen opponents of ID make over and over.

The error is confusing the idea of common descent with the idea of random mutation and natural selection.

Common descent refers to the idea that all animal life is related, that if we trace back each living animal’s ancestry, we would find common ancestors.  If every animal could trace back its family history through, we would all find that we came from the same great, great, great (insert great thousands or millions of times) grandparents.  Some of us are closer relatives than others but we are all related if we go back far enough in history.  The idea of common descent can be supported by evidence from the fossil record and by comparing the DNA sequences of different kinds of animals.

The idea of random mutation and natural selection attempts to explain how animals have changed over time into all the diverse species we see today and in the fossil record.  Every time an animal reproduces, there is a chance for a genetic mutation occurring in the process.  If the mutation that the offspring inherits is helpful to its survival until it, too, can reproduce, well then the mutation is passed on to the next generation, and so on.

In this way, the genetic code is altered, and if enough of these mutations occur over time, you get a new species of animal.  The empirical evidence for this mechanism only demonstrates very small, and in many ways, trivial instances of change (e.g., finch beaks, peppered moths, antibiotic resistance, fruit fly mutations).  There is no empirical evidence of large scale evolution due to random mutation and natural selection (see Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution and my recent post on this topic).

Which idea does ID challenge?  Common descent or the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection?

ID theory almost exclusively addresses the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, not common descent.  ID challenges the idea that complex, specified biological systems can develop through random mutation and natural selection.  Regardless of this fact, time and again, opponents of ID throw evidence of common descent at ID proponents, only revealing their ignorance of ID.  Just recently on this blog, as I was discussing the lack of empirical evidence for random mutation and natural selection, I was treated to commenters’ arguments again for common descent; the error seems pervasive.

It is time that we understand the difference between these two ideas.  I would love to hear good arguments against ID theory, but first ID opponents actually need to do some reading and try to understand what they are opposing.  Almost 9 times out 10, when I read opponents of ID, they badly  misunderstand the theory.  If anyone can point me to actual ID opponents who understand ID, I would much appreciate it.