I’ve addressed the absurdity of Denyse O’Leary’s analogy between arson investigations and biology before, but she can’t seem to stop. Here is how she proposes to address why invoking design doesn’t stop research:

Suppose we say: If the fire marshall?s office (FMO) concludes that a fatal fire has been set deliberately, then they are just taking the easy way out, and they won?t be able to find out anything more about it.

As she’s stated it, yes. If the arson unit concludes that the fire was set deliberately, and then refuses to address who set the fire, indeed dismisses that as a problem of theology or philosophy that has no place in a courtroom, classroom or scientific investigation, we would indeed say that they are taking the easy way out and hindering real research.

Denyse disagrees, indeed finds this deeply unlikely.

What?s wrong with this picture? Clearly, the question of whether the fire was set deliberately must first be addressed as a question of fact. There is no other way to determine the origin of the fire than to address it first as a question of fact.

Perhaps the origin cannot be determined at all. But only an intensive investigation can demonstrate that.

If so, does the arson investigator simply attribute the fire to “intelligent design,” or is the default assumption that the arson investigator makes that the fire is a result of natural processes? I think you know the answer. I think you also know that an issue of fact an arson investigator has to address is not just whether the fire was set deliberately, but by whom.

If the FMO concludes that the fire is arson, far from losing the ability to find out anything more, it is in a position to focus on key details (Where was the fire started? What accelerant and how much? What was the pattern and timing of spread?).*

(*Many other questions can later be asked by the police – for example, were the charred victims intended to die in the fire? Or was their presence unforeseen and accidental? Or were they unlucky arsonists engulfed by flames?)

Do you notice an important missing question? More on that in a moment.

Why does the arson investigator care about where the fire started, what accelerants were used, and the pattern of spread? Not just for fun, but because fires work according to natural laws, and we know something about how intentionally set fires work. Understanding what accelerant was used can tell us a great deal about who, if anyone, set the fire. Because fires obey various natural laws, their behavior under different circumstances is predictable. Fires set by arsonists exhibit certain patterns, and observing those known patterns in a fire can lead the investigators to the arsonist (the “designer” as it were).

The question which is still missing from O’Leary’s analysis is the central one in any criminal investigation: Who set the fire and what was their intention in doing so? Did the “designer” intend to set the fire, or simply set in motion a series of accidental events?

These omitted questions of O’Leary’s are significant, because they are exactly the sorts of questions IDolators insist should not be asked regarding “intelligent design.”

Eventually, of course, she must contend with the fact that in a court of law, one must produce not just evidence that a crime occurred, but that a particular person had motive, means and opportunity to commit that crime, and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that person actually did commit that crime.

If the police investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire and lay charges, the FMO must defend its verdict against the lawyer for the accused, who will attempt, as one strategy among many, to cast doubt on the FMO findings, imply that the FMO routinely bungles cases or – in a pinch – that virtually any pattern of accelerants can be accounted for by random events or that it is never possible to determine the cause of a fire with certainty. (The analogies to the intelligent design controversy require no unpacking.)

Indeed not. The arson investigator will present a series of scientific experiments showing how natural laws require a particular pattern of evidence to have originated with some natural event at the beginning. This does not make the investigator some sort of metaphysical materialist, just that it would not fly in court to simply say “This here evidence is complex in a way that, having seen it, I can specify. Even if I can’t explain how this fire happened, or who did it, I know a crime happened.” This sort of pragmatic naturalism is how we all manage not to walk off of cliffs, and why we call the AAA rather than an exorcist when our cars won’t start.

A Dembskiite arson investigator would be laughed out of court as soon as he quoted Of Panda’s and People, saying “what kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.”

Similarly, were the investigator to say (quoting Dembski’s Design Revolution) “design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy,” his conclusions would not be given much weight.

He might well be accused of making a mockery of the court, even jailed for contempt, if he were to quote Michael Behe’s comment in Philosophia Christi that “the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo [I feign no hypothesis].”

Judges and juries want the prosecution to offer some hypotheses, and are quite happy to exclude angels (fallen or otherwise), space aliens and mystical unknown beings. There’s a reason OJ didn’t offer a “Bigfoot made me do it!” defense.

In short, the analogy to IDC is quite clear, but not at all favorable to the IDolators. Why does Denyse persist in such an unflattering analogy? We may never know, though it seems to offer her a chance to engage in cheap stereotypes:

If her client?s case looks pretty bad, the defense lawyer may even try arguing that arson is a natural cause because people are, well, ?just natural animals?. (This defense will work better if her client has looked and acted, throughout the proceedings, like a large rodent crammed into a dress suit, and appears truly unable to grasp the moral significance of the accusations against him.)

No matter what, fire is a natural process in the same sense that evolution is a natural process. We can investigate both using experimentation and deduction from available evidence. The hypothetico-deductive scientific method is a powerful tool, but only when investigating natural phenomena, it fails with the supernatural.

That is why an IDoltatrous defense lawyer would do better to try to ask whether an invisible, intangible, omnipotent, omniscient being could have started a fire and left evidence behind in such a way as to exactly simulate the evidence that would exist if the defendant had intentionally set a fire. Alas, I think that lawyer would find jurors, however religious, would not consider a defense of “God framed me” to offer much reasonable doubt.


  1. #1 mark
    March 28, 2007

    When you actually bother to argue with their silly analogies you’ve already lost. Argument from analogy is not argument no matter how much the IDers would like to think it is. I wouldn’t engage the arguments as if they’re even worthy of consideration.

    I chose to instead just point in laugh at what this IDer thinks is an argument.

  2. #2 Coin
    March 28, 2007

    The problem with O’Leary’s nonsense to me is that we don’t ever infer “Intelligent Design” in the case of fires– what we infer is human design. When we ask “was the fire set deliberately?”, we are indeed looking for design, but a particular, known designer for the fire is in mind– a human designer. We do not posit Gods, demons, or super time travelers to explain the fire, nor would we accept an explanation for the fire that relied on any of these things.

    Meanwhile, even when human design is inferred, we strictly keep to naturalistic explanations of how the human would have set the fire– because humans are naturalistic entities, subject to the laws of nature and physics and with specific known capabilities and expected modes of behavior. Because we know something about humans, we can make assumptions that lead us to identify human design in the case of a fire.

    By contrast, we know nothing specific about the mysterious “intelligent designer”, except for the implication that he/she/it is not subject to natural law. If the “intelligent designer” set a fire somewhere, we would be entirely unable to identify this, as unlike with humans we would have no basis of comparison for how “intelligences” set fires or even what constraints or methods (since not even natural law is certain to apply) the fire might have been set under.

  3. #3 Randy
    March 29, 2007

    You lost me when you said “Even if I can’t explain how this fire happened, or who did it, I know a crime happened.” When in Denyse O’Leary’s example there was an individual charged with a crime of arson and a defense attorney is there representing the accused.
    I understand what Denyse is saying but I don’t understand your response. Why would an individual be charged with a crime of arson by the (FMO) if they (the FMO) does not know “who did it” as you seem to be claiming in your response? The very fact the there is a defense attorney present representing the accused seems to be contradicting your very statement that the (FMO) does not know “who did it” as you claim in your response.

  4. #4 vikas
    March 29, 2007

    good comment

  5. #5 Josh
    March 29, 2007

    Randy, my point is that IDolators are strict in their refusal to identify “who did it.” They insist that such questions lie beyond their methods and indeed beyond science. Yes, in O’Leary’s example they’ve charged someone, but a fire marshal applying ID’s approach would have to make the statement I wrote. As Dembski writes “design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy.”

    That’s one of many reasons why ID is bad science and does block research. A real fire marshal would have no problem identifying a suspect in many cases, and describing the motive, means and opportunity which point to that suspect. That’s because fire marshals don’t use the ID approach. It doesn’t work.

  6. #6 Randy
    March 30, 2007

    I believe that you are wrong here. The (FMO) first block of research or step is to determine whether or not an arson did indeed is involved in this fire. Than they can move on to their next block of research or step of “who did it”. Can you provide me with an example where the (FMO) know “who did it” and charged that individual of arson with out the first step or block of research of evidence that this was indeed caused by arson. And I would like you to explain to me why the (FMO) deliberately avoid step one (since they don’t use the ID approach since it doesn’t work) according to you and is bad science.

  7. #7 Josh
    March 31, 2007

    Randy, you seem to be moving the goalposts here. Can you show me an FMO who would “recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy.”

    I’m not an arson investigator, and I don’t know how their process works in detail. I do know that they don’t feel any need to consider the possible involvement of angels or space aliens.

    My understanding is that what you treat as two steps is actually a continuous process. The investigator knows that certain evidence is characteristic of arson, other evidence is characteristic of accidental or natural fires, and other evidence is ambiguous. The process of determining arson or not is laced into the process of identifying who did it and how. Determining that gasoline was spread around may or may not indicate arson, depending on whether anyone with motive to start the fire could have put that gasoline at the scene. An electrical spark lighting oily rags can be arson or not, depending on a lot of factors. A homeowner who just took out a large insurance policy will look different to an arson investigator than one without insurance, and a garage tinkerer will look different as a suspect than someone who doesn’t know what a carburetor looks like. The former has an excuse to have oily rags around, the latter wouldn’t.

    Knowing something about the suspected arsonist tells something about the potential arson. Serial arsonists tend to have signatures, and identifying that signature leads to both the arsonist and the conclusion of arson. Similarly, we can rule out arson when a fire breaks out without any one around.

    ID’s refusal to consider anything about the designer’s capabilities or even existence makes it meaningless. If the designer doesn’t exist, or can’t be shown to exist, we can eliminate that claim without proceeding further. Life exists on earth, something that exists (or existed) must be invoked to explain that. Invoking something that cannot be shown to exist simply begs the question.

    The way that arson investigators operate is the same way archaeologists, SETI researchers and other scientists work. They pose hypotheses and try to falsify them. Knowing something about what arsonists can do, they pose a hypothesis about how a fire could have been intentionally set. That hypothesis offers predictions. Something should be present if the fire was arson (eg, evidence of a trail of accelerant). They make hypotheses about what should be present if the fire were accidental (eg, aging and frayed wiring). As they test more predictions of each hypothesis, they they narrow in on what could be true. Throughout, they rely heavily on knowledge about what arsonists actually do, just as archaeologists rely on knowledge about what humans at a given site and given era actually did.

    Without that specific knowledge, it’s impossible to make any positive prediction. And without such predictions, you haven’t got science. Which is why ID isn’t science.

    Here’s the analog to arson investigation. An arson investigator examining the pattern of burns would have to show that the chance of a given set of evidence existing through known natural processes would have to be astronomically small before the investigator would even suggest arson, and even then there would be no suspect named (that’s for religion or philosophy). Of course, eliminating every possible natural explanation would take lifetimes, so it really wouldn’t matter. So long as any possible scenario exists by which natural processes could have produced that evidence, there would be no arson. Given the complexities of fire, there’s probably always some remote scenario by which a given fire could be accidental. Because ID restricts investigators from considering the existence, let alone capabilities, of a “designer,” it cannot make predictions, and cannot demonstrate anything positive or useful.

  8. #8 Randy
    March 31, 2007

    I recommend that you watch the DVD called Unlocking the Mysteries of Life and get your information straight from the ID people. The information that you write concerning them is just not accurate or true.
    Your own example contradicts yourself. For example, in the second paragraph you mention that if it involves space aliens than it is not scientific. Than a few paragraphs later you mention SETI research. Do you know what SETI research is all about? SETI research is all about space aliens and you have just contradicted yourself with your own example.

  9. #9 Josh
    March 31, 2007

    I’ve read their books and their arguments, I don’t need to watch a DVD to learn about it.

    As for SETI versus alien arsonists, I fail to see how there’s an equivalence. The unscientific thing is not the claim that aliens exist, but the claim that we can’t attribute causes to anything at all. Behe wrote “Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science.”

    Some explanations are more plausible than others for reasons well within science. Things that exist are more likely than things that don’t, or than things that may or may not exist.

    We know that human arsonists exist, we don’t know if space aliens exist, we have no evidence that they have reached earth (EM signals should have gotten here faster than a spacecraft), and if they were here, we have no way of knowing what they would be able to do. Treating that claim as scientifically equivalent to a claim of human arson is nonsensical. But that’s what IDolators do.

  10. #10 Randy
    April 1, 2007

    What I was trying to point out is that you can not logically say in the second paragraph that the idea of space alien committing arson is nonsensical because “they do not exist” and than later on say that the study of these “non existing space alien” are scientific.
    Another if there is no scientific proof that “A” exists which is the logic that you use in the second paragraph (which I am with you there) and therefore could not have committed the arson, than how can you say several paragraphs later that the study of “A” is scientific “if” your argument in the second paragraph is that “they do not exist” and therefore we can rule them out as possible suspects.
    Don’t you see the contradiction in your line of argument.

  11. #11 Josh
    April 1, 2007

    There is a difference between saying that aliens don’t exist on earth (to be arsonists) and saying that they don’t exist anywhere.

    I’m curious where I said that space aliens were nonexistent. Indeed, I’m curious why you keep putting “they do not exist” in quotation marks when that phrase doesn’t occur before you use it?

    In the second paragraph I simply pointed out that arson investigators don’t consider space aliens as potential causes of fires. I didn’t say they didn’t exist anywhere, let alone that any consideration of them was unscientific.

    What the ID movement says is that any attempt to attribute causation to a particular agent is unscientific, that it’s unscientific to consider whether humans, aliens or angels caused something. The example of arson investigators shows pretty clearly why that is nonsense. Science does that all the time. IDolators’ refusal to engage that issue is one of many reasons that ID is a science stopper.

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