The insurmountable problem with intelligent design
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight argues that the theory of intelligent design is philosphically mistaken.
The theory of Intelligent Design (ID) is huge, particularly in America, and its proponents have attempted to take over from where the much discredited creationism fell off. Intelligent Design proponents describe the theory as:
"Evidence that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent Divine creator, not an undirected process such as natural selection”
There are literally tens of thousands of papers, websites, blogs, books and articles in which ID is defended by its proponents and derided by its detractors. But despite the wealth of material, I have never seen anybody conclusively defend ID or rebut it. That is to say, as far as I know, nobody has demonstrated that ID is correct and nobody has demonstrated that it is incorrect. This surprises me greatly, because I think it is possible (and not very difficult) to show why ID is philosophically mistaken.
Note one thing, ID may be true or it may be false - but that misses the point, which is to say; under the rules and procedures of philosophy on which we have based our epistemology, ID cannot be shown to be either true or false. Lots of people want to prove or, more realistically, cite evidence for Intelligent Design in the universe, and they spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to build formal credentials in an attempt to fuse theology and science. We don't need pages of text to show that what they are trying to do is unachievable – we need only what I’m now going to say in the rest of this article to show it is unsound. I should say first off, though, there may be conditions under which an individual experience - a miraculous healing, a feeling of prognostication, or something of that kind - goes on to provide the personal conviction of evidence that some people are looking for, but although that's fine at an individual level, such evidence is only anecdotal, it cannot be universally established.
Here is the reason why I think inference of Intelligent Design is wrong, and why it fails the most important philosophical test. Quite simply, we only have our universe with which to interface; therefore, if the universe is the result of a deliberate design strategy from on high, then it stands to reason that the things which we try to explain are merely self-referential within that realm, just as when we try to describe what the human mind is we are analysing something that is contained within itself.
Some physicists look for design in the fine-tuning argument, and some biologists look for design in the complexity of DNA, but I think they are making a mistake. The universe and DNA (as we see them, not as they are actually) are human constructions formulated in the human mind to express the mind's interpretation of its own interfacing with external reality. So the recognition of 'design intentionality' would merely be the mental artefact describing its expressions in terms of its own mental artefact, which is entirely self-referential, and thereby fails to qualify as philosophical knowledge. In other words, we say the universe looks fine-tuned because our conceptualisation of fine-tuning has been attributed to the patterns we observe in nature. But don't forget concepts of fine-tuning didn't begin as cosmological observations; they began with concepts related to the adjustment of parameter models within the electromagnetic spectrum, with low-end frequencies of things like radio waves, and the high-end frequencies of gamma rays. Fine-tuning is a human conception, and to call the universe fine-tuned for life is rather like claiming that our legs are designed for trousers because they fit in so well.
The same problem arises in our biological examinations - we don't have the wherewithal to identify intentionality (observable design) in nature because, like fine-tuning, intentionality is a human construction that began as a reference to our observed models of human action and causation long before we knew about the constituencies of evolutionary biology.
That in a nutshell is why Intelligent Design cannot be successful, and why belief in God must be taken on a rationally based faith. However, that doesn't mean the subject is brought to a close. Perhaps the only recognition we have of Intelligent Design is not in the constituent parts of the universe (physics, chemistry, biology) but in the fundamental truths that underwrite creation – the truths that are intrinsically part of God’s Mind. Of course, we are not going to qualify that as scientific evidence – but I wouldn’t expect to, because science is only one of those subset edifices on which those truths depend.
To ask for scientific evidence that those primary tenets of reality exhibit design is a bit like expecting that judiciary systems were instigated to create a thing called justice. Courts emerged precisely because humans identified a concept called justice, just as science emerged because humans identified that there is a world of mathematics and logic and truth that supports our epistemological endeavours by providing rational consistency in nature. It might be the case that exhibitions of God are found in exhibitions of that rational consistency that acts as a foundation for faith.
What knocks the ID proponent from under his feet is that humans do not have any way to distinguish between a universe that is designed and one that is natural. Science is a descriptive tool that facilitates the study of patterns imposed on nature’s mathematical canvas – and those patterns do not give us evidence of design. As soon as you tell me what you mean by ‘design’ you will be forced into anthropocentric pockets of description that are based on your own conception of human design. Nature is not amenable to those modes of description, because, as I say, there is no method by which a human being can delineate between a divinely designed mathematical pattern and a naturalistic one. In order to show evidence of design you would need to demonstrate how humans could know the difference. And that just cannot be done – which is why Intelligent Design fails as a theory.
It was important to show the infelicity of the Intelligent Design - but we can still acknowledge that there are, in fact, genotypic and phenotypic commonalities running through all life. However, given that all life is built on the same (bio)chemical substrate this isn't in the least bit surprising. But it is a mistake to say that 'intelligence' must therefore be running throughout nature, or by some classification based on human intelligence in designing things. The human ability to design material artefacts is qualitatively different from any embroidered use of the word in relation to the biological stimulus of movement, reproduction, excretion, nutrition, growth, and respiration.
Finally, to use another method of showing where ID falls down, what the ID proponents are trying to tell us is that there are two or more premises that can lead to the conclusion 'Therefore, all life is designed'. I want to say that I do not think there are any examples of two premises that could lead to such a conclusion The reason I'm so sure of this is because the philosophical trick is not to keep looking for premises in the hope of finding two that logically entail your conclusion - but rather to start with the putative conclusion and work backwards, asking if 'anything' at all could precede the conclusion in the form of logical entailment. The answer is, no, nothing could qualify.
Here's why; the physical substrate of the universe is a vast object of study that we humans delineate into three conceptual parts - biology, chemistry and physics (actually it's more than three, but I'll keep it at three for simplicity's sake). This process involves refining objects of study with what's called componential analysis (which is a form of reductionism) where the constituent parts of a biological artefact can be reduced to chemical study, and then reduced further into the simpler proprietary parts of physics.
I won't even bring to bear the complication that the tem 'life' is a human construct, upon which we have created a descriptive term for the purposes of classification. The emergence of life is referred to as abiogenesis - which is the point at which the earth's chemistry evolved into a self-replicating system. The point at which chemistry becomes biology is not an instantaneous moment (and even if it were, it would be an arbitrarily defined human classification). But let's pretend there is one single point in history when we can say that life began - an A to B event of causation. The putative conclusion begins with 'Therefore, all life is designed' - and from what I've said it is self-evidentially obvious that there are no philosophical conditions under which one can identify a particular point in history as being the beginning of the design of life. All one is doing is looking for the transition from chemistry to biology, but they overlap, and they give no exhibition to any kind of process of divine choreography, because they can be reduced to particles that simulate mere possibility as fluctuations in a quantum field.
Even if God did have to start the process by some kind of intervention that took place as a radical break from chemical normalcy - abiogenesis isn't an object of empirical study for us, and the power of identifying just what the appearance of initial design looks like in the chemical world eludes us further. That's how I know we can never elicit two premises that will yield the conclusion 'Therefore, all life is designed'.
One more point of clarification, I have not said all this in the hope of showing ID is false. I don’t know if it is true or false – but neither does anyone else. What I am saying is, I think ID should be rejected, not because the theories are wrong, but because they cannot be shown to be right – which is rather the point of ID in the first place; to show there is “Evidence that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent Divine creator”. Ironically that is the one thing it cannot do.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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