The endless clouds of hot, toxic gas emitted by the Discovery Institute can have a confusing effect, but every now and then they make an attempt to clear something up for us. Such is the case today, regarding their uncanny ability to detect intelligent design in nature. We’ve written about it before: The Discoveroids and Their Magic Filter, but it’s far too complicated for your humble Curmudgeon.
There are Wikipedia articles on Irreducible complexity and Specified complexity; nevertheless, your Curmudgeon confesses that he has never been able to grasp the essence of either. But the Discoveroids use them as unfailing indicators that their intelligent designer — blessed be he! — is responsible for seemingly natural phenomena possessing those characteristics. See William Dembski’s Design Inference
In our uncomprehending way, all that we know is that it’s something about the presence of large amounts of both complexity and improbability, but somehow those factors are never quantified. Our lack of understanding isn’t the Discoveroids’ fault — they keep trying to explain it. Three years ago Casey Luskin, our favorite creationist, answered a correspondent’s question about how the Discoveroids can determine if a complex event is specified. We wrote about it here: Casey Defines “Complex and Specified Information” — but we didn’t understand it.
Today Casey is answering another question. He just wrote this for the Discoveroids’ creationist blog: Can We Detect Design Without Knowing the Identity of the Designer? He says, with bold font added by us:
Recently an atheist student emailed me to ask how it’s reasonable to claim that an “unobserved designer” is responsible for complex features of nature, like high CSI (complex specified information) and irreducibly complex structures.
It must be exhilarating for Casey to live at such an exalted intellectual level that people are constantly emailing him in the hope of receiving a few words of wisdom. He tells us:
I explained that first we must ask the question “What does it mean to ‘observe’ or ‘detect’ something?”
So let’s say now that we’re taking a morning stroll and come upon a circle of blackened stones, charred wood, ash, and soot. There’s a little smoke rising from the center, and it’s slightly warm. We didn’t see a fire directly with our eyes. But our senses tell us that there is evidence that a fire was there. In this case, the most reasonable inference to make is that there was a campfire, even though we can’t directly observe it.
We understand that! Perhaps there’s hope after all. Let’s read on:
Thus, just because something is “unobservable” by our eyes at this exact moment, doesn’t mean we can’t find compelling evidence that it exists, or that it was present. We must not toss out the word “unobservable” as if it somehow blocks the design inference. We regularly make inferences to unobserved objects and events (like a campfire) by using our senses to detect evidence that reliably indicates that a particular object or event was present (like finding a circle of blackened stones, charred wood, soot, and smoke).
We appreciate Casey’s willingness to provide such a patient explanation. He continues:
We can use exactly the same method of reasoning to detect design at the heart of biology. In all of our experience, high CSI and irreducible complexity ONLY come from intelligent agents. Thus, based upon our experience of the cause-and-effect structure of the world we observe around us, we are justified in inferring that a mind was at work.
Aaaargh!! That’s where we get lost. We tried to figure it out when we wrote Rethinking Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy, but in our materialist simplicity, we asked:
When we stumble upon a genuinely designed artifact, like Paley’s watch, we see the unmistakable indications of human workmanship in the wheels, the screws, and the springs. We know that people make such things, so it’s reasonable to assume that someone made the watch. Fair enough, but how do we get from that to various biological phenomena?
Casey never discusses the purpose of the alleged designs. For Casey, and for all of the Discoveroids, merely detecting complexity — which can be seen everywhere — is sufficient for them to invoke their designer as the cause. But what was the designer attempting to accomplish with his supposed design? What’s the purpose of Saturn’s rings? Of the Andromeda galaxy? Of the termite? These things have no human purpose. To imagine that the designer has his own incomprehensible purposes — or that he does such things to express his artistic impulses — is a bit of a stretch.
We really struggled to understand. We said:
But let’s be fair here. We don’t have to limit our thinking to only human purposes. If we found something like a mechanical watch on Mars, and it was constructed to keep time according to the motion of that planet, we could reasonably infer that it was designed by someone — Martian or otherwise — to serve a useful purpose on Mars. We could conclude from such a device that there was an alien designer. But again — that’s because the design would be seen to fulfill a purpose for its designer. Thus, the Antikythera mechanism was intelligently designed, even if the designer is unknown.
Now ask yourself: What kind of designer would construct a flagellum for a bacterium? For what purpose? Is the designer an intelligent and benevolent bacterium who wants to help his immobile brethren? No human would concoct such a contrivance. So what justifies the inference of an intelligent designer for the flagellum? It’s complexity only, but that’s woefully insufficient — especially when evolution is an alternative explanation.
That’s how confused we were. Therefore, we eagerly return to Casey’s new essay, because it promises to answer our questions. He tells us:
[W]hen we find high CSI entities like language-based digital codes or irreducibly complex molecular machines, we are justified in inferring that an intelligent agent was at work. Why? Because, in our experience, these things always trace back to a mind. We might not directly see that mind, but we can infer that a mind was present to create the known observed effects.
Aaaargh!! We still don’t get it. Casey concludes by saying:
This is the positive argument for intelligent design, quite independent of negative critiques of Darwinian evolution, and it is just like inferring that a campfire was present based on remaining physical evidence. One need not directly see the fire, or know who tended it, or why he or she or they did so, to draw a reasonable inference that a fire was present.
It seems that your Curmudgeon is destined to remain in spiritual darkness, because we’re still left with the skepticism with which we ended our post about the Watchmaker Analogy:
Inherent in Paley’s analogy is that the designed artifact is designed for the benefit of the designer. A biological system that benefits only that organism (who can’t be his own designer) therefore falls outside of Paley’s perspective. In other words, merely finding something that appears to be complicated is not sufficient to infer design. Thus we present the Curmudgeon’s dictum: A design must be useful to the designer.
But we’re not giving up. We shall continue to read the Discoveroids’ blog, in the hope that one day it will all become clear to us.
See also: Casey’s Positive Case for ID, #2.
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