Thursday, April 05, 2007

If this is design, I recommend you sue God for malpractice

Aside: One Romanian prisoner actually did try to sue God over how his life turned out. His case was dismissed because God was neither "an individual or corporation." He probably should have limited his case to just suing The Father, rather than taking on all three at once.

A friendly neighborhood troll brought this article to my attention yesterday. Since it claims to rebut an argument I've used myself on a couple of occasions (Who designed the designer?), I felt obligated to address it.

The article starts off with the old ID favorite false analogy of design: Mt. Rushmore.

Suppose someone says: “X is designed,” or “Intelligent design is the best explanation for X.” Make X any event or structure you like. Think, for instance, of Mt. Rushmore. It clearly gives evidence that it was designed—sculpted, to be exact. Would it make any sense for someone to protest, “Well then who sculpted the sculptor? Who designed the designer? Ha! Q.E.D.”

That objection is ludicrous. We know Mount Rushmore was designed regardless of the identity or causal history of the sculptors, and we know it based on what we observe.

Let's list some of the evidence that Mt. Rushmore was intelligently designed, just for kicks:
  • We have first-hand accounts from people alive at the time of its design and construction
  • The mountain clearly depicts the faces of four human beings. The chances of this occuring from non-intelligent causes (erosion, etc.) and happening on the same planet where this species exists are astronomical.
  • The four humans depicted are important historical figures from the same country in which Mt. Rushmore is located.
That's pretty damning evidence. For comparison, let's see what evidence of intelligent design creationists use for the universe:
  • It's complicated. And in a "specified" way, whatever that means.
(Sound of crickets chirping.) Hmm, doesn't seem to add up to as much as the Mt. Rushmore evidence, if I do say so myself. You know what else is a problem between the two? In the case of Mt. Rushmore, we know that the designer was human, just like us. This gives us a ton more we can predict about him, and all this fits in with what we see.

Oh wait, they've got a non-human example as well:

This is true even in those cases where the designer is (probably) not human. (I’ll speak of a designer in the singular because, all things being equal, Ockham’s Razor reminds us not to multiply entities unnecessarily). In principle, SETI researchers could discern intelligent signals if any such signals are ever detected by their equipment. Presumably these would come from an extraterrestrial source.

This one was covered quite well by Skeptico a while back, so I'll just quote his response to this:

Of course, that explanation doesn’t apply to SETI – they are not looking for humans. But even so, it’s not so different – SETI are still looking for intelligence that lives in the same universe and obeys the same laws of physics that we do. That means we do know something about the putative ET and can make assumptions and predictions about how they would try to communicate with us. For example, we know that:

… the microwave band contains a naturally-produced emission line, a narrow-band "broadcast", at 1,420 MHz due to interstellar hydrogen. Every radio astronomer (including extraterrestrial ones) will know about this hydrogen emission. It may serve as a universal "marker" on the radio dial. Consequently, it makes sense to use nearby frequencies for interstellar "hailing" signals.

SETI use these assumptions to predict where to look for ET signals. IDists have no such assumption to guide their search.

Secondly, unlike ID which looks for complexity, SETI is looking for artificiality:

In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. [,,,] A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure, although if it originates on a planet, we should see periodic Doppler effects as the world bearing the transmitter rotates and orbits.


… the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity. If SETI were to announce that we’re not alone because it had detected a signal, it would be on the basis of artificiality. An endless, sinusoidal signal – adead simple tone – is not complex; it’s artificial. Such a tone just doesn’t seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes. In addition, and unlike other radio emissions produced by the cosmos, such a signal is devoid of the appendages and inefficiencies nature always seems to add – for example, DNA’s junk and redundancy.

IDists are looking for complexity, because they think complexity must have been designed. SETI are looking for an artificial signal – a simple tone that does not appear in nature – because they know what an artificial signal looks like.

Hey, anyone else notice that this article, which is supposedly a rebuttal to a specific argument, hasn't even gotten to it yet? Instead, it's using an opportunity to spout out their old canards. Let's just skip down to where they get to the point:

Now someone from the Skeptical Inquirer will quickly ask: “Ah, but who designed the designer?” The satisfaction induced in the inquirer is immediate. But how exactly does this refute the truth or “assertability” of (ID)? It not only fails to refute (ID), it doesn’t even address it. It just changes the subject. By itself, the question has no more logical force against (ID) than any question someone might ask, such as: “Who designed the designer’s mother-in-law?” or “Ah, but what was the price of pork futures yesterday?” Non sequiturs aren’t refutations. They’re fallacies. The fact that someone can form new words with their mouths and string them together into an interrogative sentence in the wake of (ID) does not bear on, let alone refute (ID).

Wait a second, did he say "pork futures"? Excuse me for a minute, while I call up Terry Pratchett and inform him that he's being referenced by the enemy (yes, he believes in evolution). ...Alright, he knows, now back to the article.

When someone uses the "Who designed the designer?" argument, what they're actually trying to do is point out that the arguments used in ID lead to a logical absurdity. Pointing something like this out is quite valid argumentative practice.

Here's how it works: IDists use a measure of complexity to infer that the universe must have been designed. The skeptic then points out that God is either less complex than the universe, or at least as complex as it (that covers all logical possibilities). If he's less complex, then it's possible for complexity to arise out of a less complexity, so there's no reason that couldn't have happened right in our universe, so ID arguments are invalid.

On the other hand, if God is at least as complex as the universe, then ID's own arguments can be applied to God as well, implying that God must have been designed as well. This leads us to either an infinite regression of gods, or some point at which one arises from less complexity. The former case is an absurdity, while the latter case involves ID's arguments being invalid.

So, we're left with two possibilities: Either ID's arguments are invalid, or they're valid but lead to an absurdity. What's a non sequitur about pointing out that your opponent's argument leads to an absurdity? The article continues:

For instance, the skeptic may argue that Ockham’s Razor (the regulatory principle that we not multiply entities without need) should stop the regress of explanation at the object itself, rather than pointing beyond itself to a designer.

Personally, I've never heard of a skeptic using Ockham's Razor in this manner. Sounds like a straw man to me, but I'll admit it's possible some skeptics have tried this tactic. If they did, I'll leave it to them to defend themselves.

Sometimes the question takes a slightly richer form. Recall that design arguments usually proceed by trying to explain some property of X in terms of intelligent design—say, specified complexity in the coding regions of DNA (as William Dembski and Stephen Meyer have argued) or the “fine-tuning” of physical constants (e.g., gravity or electromagnetism). Let’s call whatever property on which the design theorist argues for design a “design property.” But any designer of that design property, the objection goes, will have to have at least as much if not more of the design property. So the ultimate origin of the design property has not been explained. It’s just been moved, like dust swept under a rug. Design inferences, therefore, have no explanatory virtue. (Richard Dawkins has been a leading exponent of this form of the argument.) It’s better, this argument goes, to stop the regress of explanation with X itself.

This form of the argument combines Ockham’s Razor with a worry about an infinite regress. We’ve already seen that only a truncated and simplistic form of Ockham’s Razor makes any trouble for intelligent design by outlawing all design inferences, which is absurd. But what about the infinite regress worry? Let’s assume, for a moment, that any designer of X (any designed object) must have at least as much specified complexity or fine-tuning (or whatever design property to be explained) as X—the designed object. How does this undercut (ID)? It doesn’t. (ID) could still be justified, well supported by the evidence, and true, even if there is a real regress.

As long as we’re simply asking: “Is X designed?,” and can infer design on the basis of some property of X, such as specified complexity, then the fact that the designer must also “contain” at least as much specified complexity as X is not material. This is because the design theorist need make no pretense of answering the question: “Where does specified complexity (or fine tuning) ultimately come from?” He can address, in fact he usually is addressing, much more modest questions, such as: “Where did the specified complexity in X come from?, “Is specified complexity in X a reliable marker of intelligent design?,” “Is specified complexity generally a reliable indicator of intelligent design?” and so forth. (ID) here is a proximate explanation, not an ultimate explanation.

He goes on with this, but I'll stop here to spare your sanity. Notice how he isn't answering the meat of the accusation (that such an infinite regress of more and more complicated gods is absurd), but instead just argues that it isn't his job to explain where God came from. However, something tells me that if you ran into this guy on the street and asked him if he'd admit the possibility of God having been created by some greater god, he'll adamantly deny it. This seems to be how they always work, acting somewhat moderate and open to ideas while in a formal debate, then switching back to extreme, absolute views once the debate's over.

You see? That's what a non sequitur looks like. My argument about the absurdity of an infinite regress of designers addresses the issue directly, while here, I'm just accusing my opponent of being disingenuous about his beliefs (note though that I still suspect it's true).

The IDiot rambles on for a while longer, and I'll spare you from it. Instead, let me point out what differentiates ID claims about design of nature from examples such as Mt. Rushmore: The methods used to determine design. For the latter case, we look at what we know about humans and what we expect from them, in the former, it all boils down to "It's complicated."

So, what happens if we apply the "Who designed the designer?" argument to the designer of Mt. Rushmore? Well, we're asking who "designed" a human. Well, it's not quite design, but we know where humans come from: Their parents. Trace it back far enough, and we go back through simpler species, maybe a few jumps more complicated species in places where the simpler species had a survival advantage, so evolution pushed it down. Eventually, we'll get back to the point of abiogenesis, which we have some good scientific data to believe is possible. Everything's logical along the way, and we don't run into any absurdities by extending it backwards, quite different from when we look at the "design" of the universe.

So there's your answer to why we don't ask who designed the designer for mundane events: We get mundane answers. However, if you postulate a designer for the universe based on abstract concepts like "complexity" or "fine-tuning," asking the question reveals that using these measures as an implication for design results in a logical absurdity, and this is why it's such a popular argument.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I am missing something here but I think using Mt. Rushmore as an analogy for intelligent design works against the ID argument.
IDists claim to intuit design from complexity but compared to a natural rock face Mt. Rushmore is very simple. At least, if I were to write down a full set of instructions for duplicating Mt. Rushmore I would expect them to be far shorter than a set of instructions for a natural rock face of the same size, because of Rushmore's large areas of relatively smooth rock, compared to the large numbers of cracks and flaws on the natural face. Complexity just doesn't give a reliable indicator of design.

Take Paley for example. Suppose instead of a watch, he finds a perfect stone sphere on the heath. It is just about the most simple object imaginable but it would still be reasonable to claim it was designed because we have an a posteriori knowledge of the natural forces at work on the heath, and know that they do not produce perfect spheres. We have very little knowledge of the forces that produce universes (if such a thing even makes sense) so it is at best premature to claim we can intuit design in the universe as a whole. As for lifeforms, planets etc. we have excellent reasons to think that natural forces alone are sufficient to explain their existence.

Infophile said...

I think Akusai made much the same argument there; great simplicity could be just as good a reliable indicator of design as great complexity. Just goes to show how full of crap IDiots are that they've gone so far this complexity road when they can't even justify taking it in the first place.

Akusai said...

I think Akusai made much the same argument there

I did? Damn my faulty memory.

I'll take your word for it, and the credit that goes along with it.

I rule!

Lifewish said...

As long as we’re simply asking: “Is X designed?,” and can infer design on the basis of some property of X, such as specified complexity, then the fact that the designer must also “contain” at least as much specified complexity as X is not material.

Except that the reductio ad absurdum indicates that one of their assumptions is faulty, and therefore that their conclusion is invalid. For example, if it turns out that the faulty assumption is "complexity cannot arise from simplicity", they're shafted because there would then be no theoretical barrier to evolution producing complexity.