Saturday, November 7, 2015

Part 9: Unintelligent Design

There's a reason why science and religion don't get along well with each other.  They just can’t help it.  The two institutions are diametrically opposed in every philosophical respect.  While science is an investigative process designed to foster a pragmatic understanding of reality, religions are cultural memes that seek only to propagate themselves from one generation to the next.  Science recognizes our basic psychological weaknesses and even takes active measures to expunge them from our thinking.  Religions, however, openly exploit our cognitive biases as a means of deliberately engineering conformity in their membership.  Science presumes human fallibility, meaning that any conclusions we may ever reach, no matter how confident they may make us feel, must always remain open to questioning, testing, revision, and even possible dismissal.  Yet many religious organizations will happily declare an unwavering conviction to their sacred dogma, even to the point of admitting outright that no amount of evidence or logic will ever change their minds, no matter what [1].

This is exactly why religious apologists are always so awkwardly antagonistic whenever it comes to matters of science and scientific method---the very rules which govern them are completely antithetical to their entire sense of epistemology.  Yet the conflict can only grow worse over time, because scientific discoveries are always directly challenging core theological claims.  For instance, if the Bible is interpreted literally as the true and inerrant word of God, then it necessarily follows that the Earth is barely six-thousand years old, with all of its inhabitants having been specially created in the present forms we see today [2].  The first human male was forged out of literal dust from the Earth, followed by the first human female out of the first man's rib.  This single human couple incestuously spawned the entire human race, which expanded rapidly from its ancestral origins somewhere in the vicinity of the Euphrates river valley.  Then, at some point along the way, a talking snake came along and convinced the first woman to eat forbidden fruit from a magic tree, thereby corrupting the entire natural world with a sudden outburst of sin and death.  Finally, the only way to rectify matters is, naturally, through a ritual blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the entire world and redeem our species from an eternity of spiritual separation from our timeless, immaterial creator [3].

Now compare this view with our modern understanding of geology and evolutionary biology.  The Earth is not 6,000 years old but well-over four-and-a-half billion.  Life is not the special creation of any cosmic, immaterial agents, but most likely an emergent property of rote organic chemistry operating on self-replicating nucleic acids.  Human beings are not the product of some top-down organization, but rather a long chain of inherited allele variations, gradually molded by genetic mutation and natural selection.  Humanity did not descend through a genetic bottleneck of only two individuals, but instead branched off from earlier hominid populations distributed throughout Africa.  There was nothing close to any mystical Garden of Eden, and therefore no original sin, no global flood, no Fall of Man, and no point in dragging out a savior to redeem us from it all in the first place.

This is a huge discrepancy that Christian apologists cannot ignore, and it goes a long way toward explaining the massive bone they have to pick against the theory of evolution.  If the modern scientific paradigm is correct, then the Bible is wrong, plain and simple.  Not merely erroneous, mind you, but grossly, inexcusably, and embarrassingly bungled at every conceivable level.  Apologists therefore have no choice but to oppose evolution at every turn, because it represents such a direct existential threat to their spiritual and cultural identity.  However, they can’t just imprison heretics like they did the good old days, because fortunately most of us are now protected by secular, constitutional governments.  Nor can they just flatly reject science out-of-hand, either, because it obviously works so well at improving all of our daily lives.  So they have to resort to roundabout cultural and political initiatives, instead, like creationism, creation science, and of course, intelligent design.

"The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe, and of living things, are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." [4]

Notice how right out of the gate, design theory has effectively declared its own bias in advance by explicitly defining itself in terms of an implied rejection of evolution.  It's a classic hallmark that underscores one of the deepest philosophical failures of the entire creationism movement.  When it comes to the theory of evolution through natural selection, creationists don't just see yet another scientific explanation for some natural phenomenon.  They see a literal "war of the worldviews" between the righteous forces of special creation and the evil onslaught of materialistic evolution [5].  It's an absurdly tribal mentality that just ignores the infinite space of logically viable alternatives, opting instead for a distinct us-versus-them presumption in the search for the truth.  Consequently, they make no testable, empirical predictions on behalf of the design hypothesis, but instead spend all of their time bashing against evolution---as if the mere virtue of some other theory being wrong or incomplete automatically guarantees that their theory gets to be right.  It’s a textbook example of our favorite logical fallacy known as the false dichotomy, and again, guys with actual PhDs will continually fail to recognize it to this very day.

To demonstrate, simply consider the famous watchmaker argument of William Paley [7].  It's a classic go-to thought experiment that represents the principle line of reasoning behind virtually all intelligent design arguments.  Basically, all it tries to show is that intelligent agents tend to imprint some form of empirically detectable signature on the material objects they create [8].  Consequently, if we can only learn to detect this signature in living organisms, then we can presumably use it to prove that life on Earth must be the product of an intelligent agency.  Thus, as a demonstration case, we are most commonly asked to imagine a granite rock placed in our left hand followed by a gold-plated pocket watch placed in the right.  If we are then asked to determine which object is the product of intelligent agency, as opposed to blind geological forces, which object should we pick?

Obviously, the immediate intuition is that the pocket watch was designed by intelligent agents while the granite rock was not.  Therefore, as the argument goes, there must have been some empirical evidence that led us to this conclusion.  Furthermore, since this was an almost trivial distinction that we can render upon rote, visual inspection, it immediately stands to reason that we can likewise trust in that same perception when investigating complex biological structures.

For example, take the bacterial flagellum, which is an almost universal favorite among proponents of this argument.  Upon close inspection, it certainly does appear to resemble a kind of outboard motor on the nano scale.  It’s a spectacular biological machine, composed of a brilliant arrangement of complex, interrelated parts.  How on Earth could any material process like evolution ever hope to produce such a structure?  After all, it’s not like everything just fell together by random happenstance; nor can I personally imagine any particular line of decent by which natural selection could put it together.  Therefore, evolution cannot possibly be responsible for the bacterial flagellum, leaving us only with an intelligent, supernatural, immaterial agent, who just so happens to be Yahweh, the omnipotent God of the Bible.

That may sound like an obtuse parody of a sophisticated philosophical position, but it really is the basic train of thought behind all intelligent design arguments.  If it looks designed, then it must be designed, and heaven forbid that any natural process ever hope to mimic such an appearance.  Sometimes they’ll even try to dress it up with pseudo technical-sounding jargon like specified complexity or irreducible complexity.  But no matter what they call it, the end result is still always the same classic fallacy of arguing from ignorance. Human scientists cannot yet explain some biological thingy to my satisfaction in every last conceivable detail, so therefore a magic wizard in the sky must have done it. 

But hey, let’s suppose we’re feeling generous and immediately grant the contention that evolutionary biology is nothing but giant hoax, spawned by the devil himself.  Barring any alternative theories to distract us, what exactly can we learn from the watchmaker argument, in and of itself?  Because for all the social bias and political motivation at work here, there really is an interesting philosophical question worth exploring.  Namely, how does one “detect” design?  That is to say, how do we differentiate between an object of purely natural happenstance, as opposed to the deliberate fabrication of some motivated agent?

This is not an easy question to answer, but we can at least begin the discussion by asking ourselves a basic, philosophical question: Is it really all that impressive to “detect” the presence of design within a pocket watch?  After all, it's not exactly a difficult thing to do when the manufacturer openly announces that fact in the form of recognizable markings scribbled all over the casing.  Or if that’s not convincing enough, we can even visit the factories where they’re made and shake hands with the actual designers in person.  We also know, with a great deal of confidence, that we will never encounter a single, natural source of pocket watches anywhere on planet Earth.  There are no geysers, no rivers, no caves, and no fields where pocket watches just burst out of the ground or fall from the sky, fully formed. 

So of course we easily recognize the apparent design in pocket watches because we already know beforehand that they’re designed!  The core premise of the whole watchmaker analogy is nothing but a blatant philosophical cheat.  It’s like giving you the answers to a test before administering the actual test.  If the idea of design detection really is as valid of a concept as proponents claim it to be, then in principle we must be able to demonstrate it under controlled, laboratory conditions.

For example, consider the two material objects shown above.  As you can see, they appear to be nothing more than a couple of rocks that I randomly grabbed off the side of a mountain.  However, one of these rocks is special, in that it’s been hand-crafted with deliberate intention for an express purpose.  What that purpose is, or how it was crafted, I'm not going to say.  All you know is that one of these objects is perfectly natural in its origins while the other has been specifically “designed” by an intelligent agent.  Your job is to identify which is which, and do so with statistical reliability.

Notice how it's not nearly so simple of a distinction anymore, is it?  And when you stop and think about it, why would it be?  Rocks are just arbitrary arrangements of material stuff, and the mere virtue of being tampered with by some agent does not magically endow them with any empirically detectable “essence of design."  It therefore doesn't matter what methodology you think you have, because the very idea itself is logically incoherent.  The only meaningful distinction that exists between an object of nature versus an object of design is, ultimately, the designers themselves.  Who were they?  What tools did they use?  What processes did they follow?  What goals did they serve?  How can I replicate them?  What tangible, empirical manifestations can we expect to observe and test accordingly, depending on the competing theories?  These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered in order to logically defend any design inference and not some cheap appeal to rhetorical intuition.

But of course, creationists have no compelling answers to any of these questions other than a very strong insistence that biological systems just really-really look designed, and that no natural process could ever be the reason why.  Sometimes they’ll even admit openly that intelligent design theory cannot actually comment on either the identity or the methodology of their alleged designer [9]; only that somewhere, somehow, for some reason, He just did it anyway.  Yet then, when speaking behind closed doors to their fellow Christians, they just take it for granted that of course the designer was absolutely the God of Christianity, and thank goodness science has finally proven His existence [10].

But hey, let’s ignore all of that again and summarily grant the entire contention that human beings really can empirically measure the presence of “design” in material objects.  Given that, would it not also stand to reason that we likewise possess the capacity to differentiate between “good” design and “poor” design?  After all, biological structures must have been designed for a reason, right?  So what's stopping us from objectively measuring their capacity to meet certain goals?  If they just so happen to fail outright, then what does that imply about the competency of this alleged designer?

For example, consider the blind cave tetra of Central America. It certainly appears to be a perfectly normal fish at first glance, except for this strange, bulbous mass of tissue growing out of its head.  It’s weird, because it looks an awful lot like a kind of pseudo-eyeball, yet doesn’t actually provide any functional vision for the fish.  So ask yourself, what good is a broken visual receptor on an organism that spends its entire life cycle in perfect darkness?  Is that a good design or a bad design?

Or better yet, consider the human vermiform appendix attached to your very own colon.  It's a little, dangling sac that apparently performs no significant role in human biological function, as evidenced by the fact that people remove them all the time without ever suffering any tangible side-effects.  Yet every year, hundreds of thousands of these things will spontaneously erupt into painful infections, usually bursting open in a septic mess when left untreated [11].  You really therefore have to wonder, what kind of idiot designer deliberately installs a ticking time bomb of misery and death into His supposedly “special” creations?

Or my personal favorite: smallpox!  Everything about this virus is suitable only for the infection and mutilation of human hosts on a global scale.  More people have been scarred and killed by smallpox than from all the combined wars and natural disasters in human history.  If such a thing were truly "designed" by an intelligent agent, then it could only be described as the greatest biological weapon of mass destruction ever created.

We can do this all day.  There are thousands more examples of this stuff scattered all throughout the scientific literature.  Biomechanical structures are rarely, if ever, optimal in their apparent functions, and often times serve no other purpose than the continual propagation of pain and suffering.  Intelligent design is therefore more than just bad logic and bad science, but also ridiculously bad theology. The argument itself is an argument for a weak, incompetent, and vindictive deity!

Notice how we’ve mostly ignored the actual science of evolutionary biology itself, and intelligent design is still objectively wrong on every philosophical level there is.  It makes no testable predictions, it builds a false dichotomy, it argues from ignorance, it strawmans the opposition, it attempts to prove a negative, it makes incoherent presumptions, and it ultimately argues for a deity that can only be described as a malicious idiot.  The only reason why anyone would ever find this garbage compelling in the first place is because we can't help but intuitively perceive the world in terms of deliberate actions being exercised by consciously motivated agents.  It therefore doesn’t matter how awful or fallacious intelligent design may be, because the end conclusion is always going to feel intuitively satisfying to a naïve, unskeptical audience.

It's important to understand that whenever we compare things like pocket watches against things like bacterial flagella, there's a very critical distinction that apologists always overlook.  Namely, bacteria are alive while pocket watches are not.  That means a self-replicating biological organism subject to billions of years of inherited allele variations and environmental selection in reproduction.  It's a perfectly natural and unguided process, physically guaranteed to produce complex, interrelated structures, even to the point of directly mimicking the apparent foresight of human engineers.  It's also a terribly sloppy, inefficient process, that has no regard for the well-being of sentient creatures and also no choice but to make do with every bad decision handed down to it from previous iterations.  It’s perfectly self-consistent, it makes testable empirical predictions, it can be demonstrated on demand, and it has countless practical applications with real, economic value.  It explains everything that intelligent design doesn't, which is why evolution is the only theory of biodiversity with any pragmatic merit.  

But let’s face facts.  None of this matters to the true believers because truth is simply not their ultimate goal with these arguments; it's self-defense!  They despise the idea of empirically predictive modeling within a rational, scientific framework because they know perfectly well that Christianity would never be able to survive under such scrutiny.  Proponents even admit openly in their own internal documents and public lectures that the very existence of intelligent design is little more than a glorified "wedge"---a purely political initiative intended solely for undermining American science education, thus paving the way for Christian dogma to dominate popular culture [12].  This is not just some wild conspiracy theory, either, but a matter of public record already proven decisively in a court of law [13,14].  So let's stop deluding ourselves under the naive pretense that this is some kind of rational debate against honest, intellectual opponents.  Christian apologists hate science, because science is philosophically incompatible with faith.  They have to destroy or subjugate science by any means necessary, because failure to do so can only mean a complete sacrifice of all cultural relevance in the 21st century.  Intelligent design is nothing but an instrument in that goal, motivated entirely by petty religious intolerance, and not by any sincere regard for objective reality.

  1. See, for example 
  2. Answers in Genesis - Why Shouldn’t Christians Accept Millions of Years?
  3. Genesis, Chapters 1-3
  4. See the following references:
  5. Some sources:
  6. Some references on agenticity:
    • Heider, F. and Simmel, M., "An experimental study of apparent behavior," The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp 243 -- 259 (1944)
    • Heberlein, A. S. and Adolphs, R. "Impaired spontaneous anthropomorphizing  despite intact perception and social knowledge,"  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Vol 101, No 19, pp 7487 - 7491 (2004)
    • Shermer, M. "Agenticity: Why people believe that invisible agents control the world,"  Scientific American, Vol 300, No 6, pp 36 (2009)
    • Kelemen, D., "The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children," Cognition, Vol 70, No 3, pp. 241 - 272 (1999)
  7. William Paley, Natural Theology (1802) - "In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer.  But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation." 
  8. Dembsky and Wells, The Design of Life - page 165: "Often, when an intelligent agent acts, it leaves behind an identifying mark that clearly signals its intelligence.  This mark of intelligence is known as specified complexity.  Think of specified complexity as a fingerprint or signature that positively identifies that activity of an intelligence.  Unlike irreducible complexity, which is a qualitative notion, specified complexity can be quantified and falls within the mathematical theory of probability and information."
  9. Casey Luskin - Straw Men Aside, What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design, Really? - "ID is not focused on studying the actual intelligent cause responsible for life, but rather studies natural objects to determine whether they bear an informational signature indicating an intelligent cause. All ID does is infer an intelligent cause behind the origins of life and of the cosmos. It does not seek to determine the nature or identity of that cause."
  10. Stephen Meyer - Intelligent Design - Stephen C. Meyer, PhD  
  11. Acute Appendicitis Statistics by Country (link).  US rates are about 1/400
  12. Wedge Strategy - "Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."
  13. Kitzmiller v. Dover
  14. Judge John E. Jones III - "It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

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