Posted by: Calum Miller | February 2, 2012

Why I don’t advocate Intelligent Design

At recent request, I’m just going to give a brief  outline of my reasons why I don’t advocate ID. I’m not particularly anti-ID, and I am well aware that it has been unfairly maligned since the movement began. It is not creationism in disguise, and it is at least putatively scientific. That said, I do not advocate it. I have not thought or read in huge depth about it, so these are at best preliminary thoughts.

The first, boring answer is that I haven’t seen the logical argument spelled out anywhere. This is probably my own fault, and I should probably have made more of an effort, but the literature seems to focus very much on enormous improbabilities within evolution, which I don’t think tells us very much on its own. I’m aware that attempts have been made to solve this, and Dembski in particular has done some work on the logic of Intelligent Design. But I haven’t, so far, seen anything with concrete premises advanced, even once we’ve added in things like “specified” complexity. I am very open to someone providing an argument, though: feel free to comment!

But what I think is more difficult is that it doesn’t seem to make sense why God would bother fine tuning the universe to give parameters “necessary” for life if he had to carry on intervening to create life. Or, put another way, any parameters would be life-permitting if you had an omnipotent God prone to tinkering with molecules to aid abiogenesis.

Of course, this will be of no consequence to an ID proponent who doesn’t use the fine tuning argument for God, but most do, in my experience. And, in any case, I think fine tuning is much stronger – we can have more of an idea of possible comparison ranges for the values of constants, and we lack the probabilistic resources which are so abundant for the biological arguments (viz. multiverse and different planets, respectively). If one is making an argument that it is extremely unlikely that any planets would have the required conditions for life, then we seem to be making a fine tuning argument, not an argument from irreducible complexity (or whatever other datum is used as the explanans).

In terms of Bayes’ Theorem – which is the way I generally look at natural theology – my argument would be that I cannot identify any datum from the Intelligent Design movement which increases the probability of theism, once we have already put fine tuning into the equation. For something to constitute evidence for God, it must be such that P(E|T&k) > P(E|~T&k), where E is the evidence in question, T is theism, and k is our background information (which includes fine tuning). If ID proponents can suggest some E which satisfy this criterion – and can demonstrate that it does indeed satisfy this criterion – I will be very willing to hear.

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Responses

  1. Hi Calum,

    I find your thoughts on ID, and reasons for demurring interesting and just wanted to respond briefly. I’m curious to know what ID literature you have read?

    With regard to your first objection ‘I haven’t seen the logical argument spelt out anywhere.’, I would say that this is quite a sensible thing to ask for. I have seldom seen ID theory put into a form of a logical argument, but it has been in several context and in several different ways. One could formulate a logical argument for merely a broad design inference or one could be more specific and formulate a logical argument for a certain type of design argument. One possible way to lay out a broad argument could be this:

    P1. Specified complexity reliably points toward ID
    P2. At least one aspect of nature exhibits specified complexity
    Conclusion: At least one aspect of nature reliably points to ID.

    Your second point ‘it doesn’t seem to make sense why God would bother fine tuning the universe to give parameters “necessary” for life if he had to carry on intervening to create life.’, is obviously a theological objection to ID and not a criticism of the science itself. It’s important to realise that this is not an objection to ID theory per se, but an objection to a Christian/theistic interpretation of ID. If, as a Christian, you happened to accept the science of ID but then struggled to square it with your concept of God then you’d either have to reject the science, or live with the theological uncertainty. Objections like ‘it doesn’t seem to make sense why God would do X’ seem to be dubious. God may have sufficient reasons that are unknowable to us. Accepting ID does not commit one to believing God had to keep intervening in the history of biological development. As Dembski points out:

    “ID is not an interventionist theory. It is not about how, when, and where a designer intervened. It is about finding evidence of design regardless of how it got there. Within ID, God can act as much through ordinary events as through extraordinary events, through events that appear to us undesigned as through events that appear to us designed.”

    One could entertain ideas such as front loading, where the necessary information is put in by God at the very beginning of the universe. Just because the parameters are necessary for life to exist doesn’t mean that those parameters are sufficient for life to create itself in the first place.

    With regard to your comments on fine tuning and probabalistic resources, here are a couple of articles on uncommon descent that discuss the implications of not just abundant probabalistic resources but infinite probabalistic resources:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-effect-of-infinite-probabilistic-resources-on-id/

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/philosophy/the-effect-of-infinite-probabilistic-resources-on-id-and-science-part-2/

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/how-id-saves-science-from-infinite-probabilistic-resources-part-3/

    I’m afraid I cannot comment on Bayes’ theorem purely because of the fact that I don’t understand a thing about it. I’m sure there are plenty of ID proponents who would be competent to respond to your concerns.

    Best,

    Joshua

  2. Hey Joshua, thanks for the gracious response.

    Re: ID literature, pretty much none – though I did make the disclaimer that I hadn’t really read much on it! (That is, unless fine tuning counts as ID – if that’s the case, then plenty). I read Behe and Dembski in Manson’s editorial volume a while ago, but can’t remember much of it.

    At the heart of my problem is that the argument from fine tuning and the biological argument from design don’t seem to be compatible. If one accepts that the universe is fine tuned such that the constants and initial conditions are sufficient for the natural evolution of life, then the biological argument has no obvious force. If one doesn’t accept that the universe is fine tuned such that the constants are sufficient for life, then the fine tuning argument will have no force. And so, since I usually begin with my case with the fine tuning argument, I do not see that there is evidence that can be adduced from the fact of life. It’s quite hard to explain without Bayes, but it’s more than just a theological quibble: if some piece of evidence adduced in support a hypothesis is no more probable given a hypothesis (plus background information) than given the negation of the hypothesis (plus background information), then it does not constitute evidence towards the hypothesis at all.

    If it were demonstrated that it is extremely improbable that any life could originate anywhere in the observable universe, I think the biological argument *would* plausibly have force – but I’m not convinced that this has been demonstrated. Feel free to correct me though!

    Re: the logical argument, what justification would you give for P1? And could you define specified complexity so I’m sure we’re on the same wavelength?

    You make an interesting point about it not necessarily requiring intervention: are you saying, then, that the biological argument from ID is compatible with life being accounted for purely by naturalistic processes (so long as those naturalistic processes were put in motion by God)? If not, then how does it not rely on intervention – what other options are there?

  3. Calum,

    Interesting post here! I would like to respond to a couple points. You wrote:

    “But what I think is more difficult is that it doesn’t seem to make sense why God would bother fine tuning the universe to give parameters “necessary” for life if he had to carry on intervening to create life.”

    I think this could be answered simply: God loves to create. The process of creation isn’t just a demonstration of God’s power, but an actualization of God’s love for beauty. God is a divine artist, weaving the tapestry of our universe, and then delighting in the emergence of life and its diversity, adding artist’s strokes along the way.

    Maybe this is to metaphorical for some, and it used to be for me, but on reflection I can’t help but love this vision of God working in and through the universe not just as a deity bringing about certain ends but also as an artist, enjoying the process.

    Then you wrote,

    “Or, put another way, any parameters would be life-permitting if you had an omnipotent God prone to tinkering with molecules to aid abiogenesis.”

    I admit I’m not sure what this objection means. I’m not sure what all literature you’ve read on the origins of life, but we do have a very clear idea of what is required for life to emerge as far as the chemicals and other parameters which would be involved. The life-permitting range is not a sliding scale. Even many secular scientists (Iris Fry for one) agree that we know what is required for life and that it must be very fine-tuned within that range (Fry argues that life is naturalistically necessary).

    So I have to say I just don’t know what the quote is supposed to mean. The parameters don’t change on God’s whim–life just needs certain things to be in certain ranges or it won’t arise.

    Finally, you wrote, “For something to constitute evidence for God, it must be such that P(E|T&k) > P(E|~T&k), where E is the evidence in question, T is theism, and k is our background information (which includes fine tuning). If ID proponents can suggest some E which satisfy this criterion – and can demonstrate that it does indeed satisfy this criterion – I will be very willing to hear.”

    I believe this begs the question against the ID theorist. Fine tuning is not in our background knowledge, but being presented as the evidence. One could even grant that fine tuning is background knowledge and then argue, given the extent of fine-tuning needed, that life counts as evidence for God.

    You wrote in a response to a comment on the topic that you haven’t read much at all on ID. I think that may be the source of some of your skepticism. I mean Dembski himself does a great deal of work systematizing the theory. The Design Inference, for example, provides a huge amount of mathematical background for talking about ID. Then in his book Intelligent Design he lays out much of the evidence–though in easier to understand terms than in The Design Inference. Given the objections you raise in this post, I can’t help but think you should just read on the topic before passing judgment.

  4. Hey JW,

    Sorry I don’t really have time to offer a full response, but I’d just note for now that I probably didn’t make my position clear enough. I *do* advocate the fine tuning argument (e.g. http://dovetheology.com/apologetics/arguments-for-gods-existence/finetuning/), which is part of the whole reason I don’t accept biological ID – that is, it doesn’t seem to me that one can use fine tuning *and* biological ID arguments as two separate arguments for theism. And, since I find fine tuning to be more rigorously formed, that means that biological ID will have no additional power. It’s quite similar to the reasons Swinburne gives in his ‘The Existence of God’, in the 2nd additional note at the end of the book. Let me know if you don’t have a copy, and I’ll try to copy out his response.

  5. I’m somewhat confused by your suggestion that ID undermines the fine tuning argument. ID proponents would argue that God fine tunes the universe for life, just not necessarily for life to develop on its own. After all if the proton-neutron mass ratio were a little off or the Earth a little closer to the sun (or insert your favourite fine tuning example) it wouldn’t just be impossible for life as we know it to develop, it would be quickly eradicated even if inserted intact. Obviously an omnipotent God could constantly intervene to protect life from his own design flaws, but I certainly don’t know of any ID proponent who argues that.

    Meanwhile arguments along the lines of irreducible complexity go beyond the basic fine tuning argument. Whether created over millions of years through guided evolution or made in place ~6K years ago, irreducibly complex systems need an intelligent mind to create. Only intelligence can look at what it has, conceptualize what it wants, and devise a system it would need to get there. Pure natural selection can’t see whether it’s getting warmer, only whether it’s found a working improvement.

  6. Nothing about ID sorry, but I was just surprised by the coincidence that I’d just told you Calum on Facebook that I prefer to do natural theology in Bayesian terms -something I’ve never heard anyone else say- and then immediately afterward I stumble upon this post where you say just the same thing 🙂


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