Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Creation: Design or Construction?

David over as Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex has a fairly decent piece up this evening dealing with some important distinctions in the ID debate.

One that I had been meaning to dive more deeply into is addressed (and, indeed, the problem demonstrated) by his point #3:

Someone limiting himself to modern science is very limited in what he can say about the existence or non-existence of a design in nature because of what he means by design. He limits himself, by method, to speaking about the identification (by proof or hypothesis) of a secondary efficient (natural) cause.
A further distinction which may help in defining what science addresses under the title of "design" as opposed to what philosophers and theologians (or in the ID debate, more often apologists) occurred to me, so here it goes...

The word "design" can, of course, mean very different things to different people in different circumstances.

Design may indicate a purpose or intent, "It was his design to seize the throne, and the queen's gaffe in picking her nose in public gave him just the chance he needed."

Design may also refer to a pattern, "He stood, staring at the intricate design of squirrel skulls laid out upon the driveway."

Or "design" might be used in the sense of schematic or blue print, "When building the out-house, he carefully followed the designs given to him by his feng shui consultant."

I think one of the difficulties in the "Intelligent Design" debate is that different parties are often using different definitions of "design".

In the physical world, we are used to finding design in the sense that I would like to term "construction" and then working backward to find design in the senses of "plan", "purpose", "intent" and "orderliness". Say you come upon a table. You discern it to have been constructed by a carpenter, in that it is made out of a material which you know to be a good construction material (wood) and shows signs of having been put together using tools with which you are familiar (saw, plane, sander, screwdriver, wood glue). You know that people are known to use these tools to construct items similar to the table. And so you take it as a given that the table was constructed, and may go on to think about why it was constructed, how well it was constructed and suchforth.

Now, let us say that you come across a sphere, exactly roughly one inch in diameter. It is a mathematically perfect sphere, so far as any instruments can detect. It is made of a pinkish substance of harness similar to diamond that conducts electricity as well as a super conductor. It behaves as if it has mass but no inertia and is repelled by both poles of a magnet. Is it, you are asked, a constructed artifact or a natural occurrence? Well, it's rather hard to say, isn't it. Certainly, no natural process you know of could have constructed it -- indeed, it seems to defy the laws of nature. And yet, you have no idea how anyone could have constructed it -- that too is to the best of your knowledge impossible. Certainly, God could have created it ex nihilo, but that's merely because according to the very definition of God He could create anything. With any degree of seriousness, all that a scientist could say about it is that he has no idea how it could have come to be, and all that a theologian could say about it is that clearly God must will its existence, since God wills the existence of all things that exist. Science fiction fans everywhere would declare that aliens must have made it.

The difficulty in addressing the question of "design" in living things is that although living things demonstrate several characteristics we often associate with constructed things, we have no idea how one might go about constructing a living organism, or a part of one. The only way that we know of for getting a living creature is: from another living creature.

I think this is why people thinking in a scientific mode tend to react so negatively to discussions of animals or cell structures being "designed". Thinking in terms of construction, the scientist thinks "we have no idea how to construct a bacterial flagellum, so where do these people get off suggesting it was designed?" The scientist may not have a very good idea of how the flagellum developed via evolution, but he does at least know how one bacteria can split into two bacteria, with occasional mutations in the line of descent. So he's willing to take a flyer on it since he has no idea what another form of "design" would look like.

The design theorist is in some senses no better off. He feels that a feature such as the flagellum could not have evolved via "random chance" and yet aside from positing that a designer was involved, he has no idea what the answer to the scientist's construction question is. Perhaps God created the first flagellum equipped bacteria ex nihilo. But then, perhaps the flagellum did indeed result from a series of gradual modifications over time -- and the "design" part is found in the proper working out of an unlikely series of events. What the design proponent is most set on (in most cases, at any rate) is that the development of the flagellum was intended. However, in this conviction he is not necessarily disagreeing with the scientist strictly speaking, since science doesn't have to tool to answer questions about intent anyway.


Julie D. said...

Thinking in terms of construction, the scientist thinks "we have no idea how to construct a bacterial flagellum, so where do these people get off suggesting it was designed?"

I understand that scientists have a better technical grasp of how all these things work ... but the above statement really suggests sheer ego at work. Perhaps if the scientists had been able to better prove any "sheer chance" at work then the ID people would be forced to better define their stance.

Again, as far as I can tell neither scientists insisting on mutation and sheer chance nor ID believers are much different from each other. Both are advancing an ideology that is thus far unproven.

David said...


Very helpful additional distinctions. Thanks! I would like to offer that ID folks would probably prefer a less affective adjective than "feel" when it comes to their logical deduction of a design. The statistical improbability, calculated from the complexity and specificity of the flagellum, in effect rules out random mutation as a mechanism. Where their deduction might fall short is not in not considering some other mechanism...I am thinking here of the very unattractive Lamarkian theory.

Darwin said...


"Feel" was poorly chosen, I'll concede, but at that same time I think it's important not to get too carried away with Dembski's methods of calculating the specified complexity of the flagellum. I haven't read his last couple books, but I spent a lot of time over his original Intelligent Design and (at least based on that) I'm really not sure he's on to much. He successfully proves that if you assume that something like the flagellum could only have developed in large jumps (which Behe implies but most evolutionary biologists do not accept) then assuming that evolution was the product of single random mutations (which against is dubious, so far as I know) then the statistical likelihood of such a single jump taking place was too high to be possible. Which is self consistent, but doesn't necessarily seem to prove anything.


I agree that trumpetting the powers of "sheer chance" when you don't actually know how things worked out smacks of plenty of ego. (And goodness knows there is plenty of ego in the science community.)

The point I was trying to drive at (reminder to self not to drive at abstract point when writing at 1am...), however, was perhaps a little different. Science generally is in the business of making a best-guess explanation (based on currently available) of how things work. And thus, there's a tendency to go with an explanation that has a mechanism over an explanation that doesn't have a mechanism. Miracles (by definition) cannot be explained by science. (When they bring in a scientist to investigate a miracle for the canonization process, a "positive" result is "I can find no natural explanation for what happened" not "It seems that a miracle occurred".) In a sense, it wouldn't surprise me if what creation "looks like" from a scientific point of view is essential the "anthropic coincidence" showing up again and again and again resulting in (from a materialistic point of view) people saying, "Boy, it is just insanely unlikely that the world would have produced us, and yet here we are looking around."