At Billy Dembski’s place, GilDodgen quotes Denyse O’Leary:

Bear with a simple lay hack here a moment: Why must we know a designer?s intentions in order to detect design?

If the fire marshall?s office suspects arson, do the investigators worry much about WHY?

Surely they investigate, confirm their finding, and turn the information over to other authorities and interested parties, without having the least idea why someone torched the joint.

ALL they need to be sure of is that the joint did not torch itself, via natural causes.

Let’s say, first of all, that we are not talking about a bush that burns without being consumed. That is, even arson is a natural cause, in the sense that methodological naturalism allows us to test hypotheses about this fire, unlike the one which spoke to Moses. The IDolators’ constant equivocation about the meaning of “natural” is one out of my many annoyances with them.

More importantly, this is actually not all that an arson investigator needs to determine.

It’s one thing if I fill a pan with oil, light it on fire and toss it around in order to collect my insurance money. It’s another if my frying pan accidentally catches fire, and while I’m trying to extinguish the fire I accidentally toss flaming oil all over, and accidentally burn the joint down.

In both cases, “the joint did not torch itself.” A human being (a natural cause) acted in both cases, but the issue of intentionality is central to the problem. Was the pile of oily rags placed too close to the furnace on purpose? If so, it’s arson, if not, it’s an accident.

The claim that the flagellum, for instance, was designed requires us to assume that the designer had some reason to care whether bacteria could swim. Not only that, but it requires us to assume that the designer would want them to swim by using something moderately similar to an outboard motor. There are other means of propulsion in fluids, a squid’s jets being one of many examples that are easy to envision.

Why does this matter? For reasons that Billy Dembski himself explained. His concept of specified complexity requires not just that an arrangement is complex, but that it is specified. Specification, Dembski writes, is “the pattern that signifies intelligence” (PDF link). What specification means is that there is some template that our complex object matches. This is the purpose Behe refers to when he talks about “purposeful arrangement of parts.” It is the goal (telos) towards which the teleologist is pointing.

If the designer wanted bacteria to have jet propulsion, but they wound up with a flagellum, can we call it designed? If the designer wanted the jet propulsion, specified that particular complexity, and then we wound up with a rotary flagellum, then the object is not specified, and therefore not designed by Dembski’s own criteria.

This is why intent matters. If we just assume that everything is exactly as the designer intended, where does that get us? Everything is therefore designed. And that leads us squarely and unavoidably to serious theological issues. Wouldn’t humans be better off if bacteria were less efficient swimmers? Why would the Designer want to design bacterial flagella more efficiently than protistan flagella?

Dembski, et al. refer to these questions dismissively as “dysteleology,” but that is a misnomer. Dysteleology is “the philosophical view that existence has no telos, or final cause.” They argue that the inefficiencies of the human back or knees, like the flaws in the vertebrate eye, are instances of dysteleology, but offer no justification for saying that the flagellum is directed towards some telos while the reversed retina is not.

This is why intent matters. Without it, Intelligent Design is an exercise in badly derived math and circular reasoning.

The issue of arson remains informative. Arson investigators do not follow anything resembling Dembski’s Explanatory Filter. They do not begin by demonstrating that the fire is unlikely to have happened due to random chance, and then that it did not proceed according to some natural law. First of all, it did proceed according to natural laws, and there was undoubtedly some random component to the behavior of a chaotic system like a fire.

But even were an investigator to somehow exclude law and chance, that would not suffice to get a conviction in court. A court would need to be shown that the accused arsonist had the means to commit the crime, had motive, and had the opportunity. Arson investigators and crime scene technicians do this not just by exclusion, but by forming positive hypotheses about who could be guilty. Assessing motives may require inquiring about a person’s enemies, and checking their home’s insurance status and financial wellbeing. A knowledge of how other arsons were committed, and lab experiments with common arsonists’ tools, will give the investigator a good sense of what signs are to be expected from an arson. Those positive indicators are more useful than excluding all natural causes. Knowledge of the particular physical abilities of witnesses would allow the investigator to determine whether a suspect was capable of producing a given set of evidence.

How could we apply this methodology to intelligent design? Assuming arguendo that a Designer exists, it would have to be shown that the Designer is capable of actually influencing the creation and subsequent form of life on earth. Without that, it lacks means, and the designer gets off the hook. If our hypothetical Designer is omnipresent, the issue of opportunity only requires us to demonstrate that the Designer exists, no mean task.

But showing motive requires our ability to assess that Designer’s intent. However much we dance around that issue, the question of motive is central to any assessment of design.

If an archaeologist finds a funky rock, she doesn’t just assume it’s designed. The investigation won’t start with geology texts, looking to eliminate natural causes. The search for explanations will start with archaeological discoveries from the same area. Is the object like others which are known to be associated with human settlement? Is some purpose attributed to it? Does the latest find match the pattern of known archaeological data for the area.

And even this technique can lead to false positives. Before he came to Scienceblogs as Aardvarchaeology, Martin had a post about the Runes of Runamo, which were long believed to be uninterpretable runes of some Viking stonemason. Later archaeologists got dubious of attempts to force these runes to tell tales of Viking kings, and after consulting with geologists, determined that they were a natural result of prehistoric geological forces. In this instance, the apparent specification of the pseudo-runes was an illusion. Any similarity to “long interesting readings about ancient kings and battles” was purely coincidence.


  1. #1 Douglas Watts
    January 21, 2007

    Joshua — here is an interesting illustration of this conundrum that i encounter along the banks of the Kennebec River in Maine, which is abundant with pre-historic lithic tools:

    You find along the river bank a cylindrical, highly polished rock (usually of fine-grained mica schist). You often find these near and far from flint arrowheads and flakes of known human manufacture and age.

    The cylinder of rock looks amazingly like a pestle for grinding. It is the right shape, right size and fits well in the hand. A perfect pestle.

    What this pestle specifically designed and made by someone 3,000 years ago?

    Archaeologists say no, because the pestle-like objects are far too numerous on the river bank. Plus, the natural cleavage of the rock and the polishing of the river tends to create these objects on their own.

    But here’s the catch — it is quite possible a person 3,000 years ago used these stones as pestles because they work perfectly for the desired job. But looking at them today, it’s impossible to tell — unless they are found in a grave site or with a mortar.

    This real example, to me, illustrates the total slipperiness of looking for “design” in living creatures. Once we observe that a non-conscious process (the erosion and polishing of a river rock) can produce a rock that looks amazingly identical to a consciously “designed” rock tool — and does the “job” just as effectively as a specifically designed rock tool …

    then … well …

  2. #2 Douglas Watts
    January 21, 2007

    The illustration above shows why looking for “signs of design” is an illusory dead end. What Mr. Dembski needs to do is find evidence of a Designer, not within the Designer’s products, but direct, actual evidence of the dude himself. Like, where does “he” live, how old is he, where did he come from, how did “he” make this all this stuff, etc. ?

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