Detecting the difference between an accident and a purposeful design


#1

Way back in his first book, Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe put forward the following example: We come to a scene where it appears that there has been a car accident, with a smashed up car or two, and victims lying on the ground. We stop and get out to help, only to find out that the whole scene had been staged as a sociological experiment. The cars had been smashed on purpose, and there were no real victims, just actors.

The point is that it is possible that there are no real accidents. It could be that God has purposely arranged each and every event in the world. Thus, it could be every breaking and blunting of genes that seems to be the result of merely random, unguided events was actually arranged by God. If a whale’s fin was produced by the breaking and blunting of genes that had originally served to produce paws of land mammals, it is possible that God arranged the breaking and blunting of those genes. And if our theology does not allow for random, unguided events in God’s creation, it seems we would have to say that yes, indeed, the breaking and blunting of those genes was arranged by God.

But let’s go back to the car “accident.” We may not know whether the accident really is an accident or a purposely designed sociology experiment. However, we do know that the cars involved were not merely the result of accidents. Someone purposely designed them and produced them.

When it comes to Michael Behe’s point about biological organisms, we may not know whether God purposely arranged the breaking and blunting of genes, but, Behe argues, we know that somebody purposely designed certain aspects of the biological organism. And for the theist, that somebody is most likely God.

Is Behe correct in saying that we can know, in an empirical sense of knowing* (as opposed to a theological sense of knowing**), that certain aspects of biological organisms were purposely designed? It looks like it to me. But I’m certainly no expert.

*knowing in the same way that the characters in the movie “Contact” knew that the radio signal was purposely designed.

**knowing in the same way that we know that God is good, despite all the evil we see in the world.


(Stephen Matheson) #2

In my opinion, he is obviously correct as long as the word ‘purposely’ is removed. Without that word, the claim is ancient and straightforward: there is such a thing as design, and it can in principle be detected by humans. I think the added term ‘purposely’ is either unnecessary (like a round circle) or is an attempt to push the reader’s mind in a particular direction. If that word stays, then the question is no longer empirical, since it’s about motivations and intentions of an unknown and unknowable designer. If Behe (or you) insists on its inclusion, then the claim is false. We can’t know purpose (like that) empirically.

Plus, I’m not sure why we would talk about Behe here. The question of design is centuries old and has been tackled by much more accomplished minds for centuries. Paley and Hume centuries ago. Ratzsch today. Dennett today.


#3

I’m curious if you saw the movie “Contact.” Assuming that you did, would you say that the astronomers were correct in believing that the radio signal had been purposely designed? If so, do you think they reached their conclusion based on empirical evidence?


(Stephen Matheson) #4

We don’t need that movie or any other example. When I get an email, I assume purposeful design of its contents. I do this not by clear empirical means but by a human superpower that we might call mind-reading. I infer the purpose behind the email because I detect a mind like mine. The better analogy is probably a message written in English-ish into a genome. But it’s a clear non sequitur that therefore all design arises from a mind or a purpose.

If you want “design” to equal “purposeful design from a mind like mine,” that’s your choice but then I think you will struggle to call that “empirical.” My opinion, which I think that Dennett and others want to show to the world, is that design does not require a designer.


#5

We don’t need that movie or any other example. When I get an email, I assume purposeful design of its contents. I do this not by clear empirical means but by a human superpower that we might call mind-reading. I infer the purpose behind the email because I detect a mind like mine. The better analogy is probably a message written in English-ish into a genome. But it’s a clear non sequitur that therefore all design arises from a mind or a purpose.

I assume you’re using the word “design” in the sense of “pattern.” But Behe certainly isn’t trying to argue that all patterns are purposely designed. For example, though snowflakes exhibit a certain pattern, he isn’t trying to argue that snowflakes are purposely designed.

He does think that we can detect purpose, based on the experience of our own minds. And this is why we could be confident not only that emails but also the radio signal in “Contact” were purposely designed.

If you want “design” to equal “purposeful design from a mind like mine,” that’s your choice but then I think you will struggle to call that “empirical.” My opinion, which I think that Dennett and others want to show to the world, is that design does not require a designer.

Would you say that SETI is involved in an empirical search for purposeful designs?


(Stephen Matheson) #6

Nope. Read Dennett, Ratzsch, maybe Hume.

No one said he did. Please spare me the red herrings.

Yeah and so do I and everyone else. Why, again, are we talking about what Behe thinks?

Probably not. They are searching for design.


#7

Instead of my reading Dennett, Ratzsch, and Hume, how about you just give me a brief definition of how you are using the word “design”?


(Stephen Matheson) #8

The conversation so far is Behe 1996, Contact, and a baited question about the detectability of design, which is something disputed by no one I know. So… to what end will I grant you Behe, which I’ve read in depth, but ignore the basic thought that underlies the whole topic, by Hume and his descendants? Why would I think it interesting to discuss a topic that you don’t intend to read about? This doesn’t sound promising to me, especially since these tired questions about SETI and Contact and design have been around (including between you and I) for years and years.

If you don’t yet understand how one can talk of design without a designer, then you either haven’t tried or you don’t intend to.


#9

I have other things I have to do, now. I’ll check back later to see if you changed your mind and explained how you are using the word “design.” Take care.


(Stephen Matheson) #10

No thanks. Your question about design detection has been asked hundreds of times, by you and others, here and elsewhere. The tired reference to Contact is now a cliche; the persistent focus on Behe is now just silly. If, after more than a decade of interaction with me and others interested in this topic, you still haven’t read (for example) Ratzsch’s 12-page lay-level piece in PSCF, then you are either not interested in a meaningful discussion or are unprepared for one.

I’ve already answered your question, if in fact you were here to ask a question. We can’t empirically demonstrate the intent behind an action. We can infer such things, and that is the basis of much of our human cognition. We can say we “know” that the purpose of an email was to provide information, or that the purpose of a book was to mislead a religious readership. We can interview the authors of these things and attempt to gather evidence that we have correctly judged their intent. I don’t personally consider this to be “empirical” but YMMV. The simple point, which will now end our conversation, is that design is something we detect, easily and all the time and usually (but not always) reliably. Tracing design back to a particular designer, or even a particular kind of designer, or more problematically to a motivation, is not something that can be defensibly called “empirical.” Now, that’s my opinion, based on what I understand “empirical” to mean, and I think I’ve made all of that clear.


#11

Thanks for Ratzsch’s article, which I just finished reading. It offers a very friendly view of ID as a possible science. Regarding what Ratzsch means by “design,” he has this to say on the top of page 20, second column:

“Genuine design—with or without gaps—would imply the existence of a designer(s).33”

I don’t think that supports whatever it is you were trying to say about design.


(Mark D.) #12

But can you distinguish between the design of a beaver, of a bee or a human? Would God’s creation be distinct from these? How?


#13

But can you distinguish between the design of a beaver, of a bee or a human? Would God’s creation be distinct from these? How?

I’m pretty sure beavers and bees can’t design cars. Can humans design dams and honeycombs? I wouldn’t know. I’m pretty sure beavers and bees can’t design molecular machines. I think we humans can do that. Can we design multi-protein molecular machines? If we can’t do it yet, then I suspect we will be able to do so in the not too distant future. I imagine God can design molecular machines.

Could unguided natural processes (if indeed there are such things) design multi-protein molecular machines? Behe would say no. Is he right? I think he’s made a reasonable case for being skeptical that they can. And maybe a healthy dose of skepticism is all we should ask for at this point in our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution.

[Edited] I realized I didn’t address your second question. So if humans designed cars, does that mean God also designed cars? Or not? Good question. I’m open to suggestions.


#14

If God did design cars they would be a totally different design from ours. Perhaps He designed horses to function like a car? Since we can’t know the mind of God how are we supposed to decide exactly how He would design anything?


#15

If God did design cars they would be a totally different design from ours.

I guess I should discuss what I see as the problem: If we reject Deism, then God is causally connected to every event that occurs in creation. That would seem to include our minds and thoughts and actions. So we think and design and create things, only because God is enabling our thinking, designing, and creating. An analogy might be our holding the hand of our child as she draws shapes with her crayon on the paper. She draws because we draw. So if we design cars, is it because God is “holding our hand,” so to speak, in a similar way?

Since we can’t know the mind of God how are we supposed to decide exactly how He would design anything?

Good question. This is one of the reasons ID does not insist that the designer is God. It says that there is reasonable evidence that somebody designed certains things in living organisms. It does not insist that God did it. However, we can make hypotheses about the designer. For example, if God designed the vertebrate eye, then it seems there should be a good explanation for the “backward” wiring of the retina. https://crev.info/2015/02/backward-wiring-of-eye-retina-confirmed-as-optimal/


(Daniel Fisher) #16

Have you ever read Stephen Meyer’s “signature in the Cell”? He addresses the question you”re speaking of pretty focused in the discussion, as I recall.

He takes a look at the raw information content necessary in the first organisms’ database (in particular, in the first life).

The question he addresses there involves the sheer magnitude of very specific data that must be arranged in a particular order in order to get a functioning, reproducing system, and also examines competing hypotheses to weigh if any blind or mechanistic process could as adequately explain the design and specific information necessary to originate life.

It is somewhat analogous to how SETI could detect purposeful, intelligent design in radio waves (such as in Contact, hence why I mention it).


#17

I read Signature when it first came out. I’m trying to remember if Meyer tried to argue that the designer had to be God.


(Daniel Fisher) #18

He emphatically did not. And this because his examination asked only what is empirically detectable. Just like in SETI, we can examine radio signals and determine that there is intelligence rather than being the result of natural processes, but from the signals themselves, we could not make any supposition about the specific identity or qualities of the transmitters - only that they possessed some level of purposeful intelligence.

I think he has gone so far as to say that the intelligent design hypothesis is clearly consistent with Christian theism, But he did not and would not say that intelligent design in nature proves the Christian God.


#19

As I have already said:

When you look at what the designer has accomplished the only options are God or aliens. If you want to say ID is only response for first life and then evolution took over from there that would make the aliens a little more likely.


#20

I think he has gone so far as to say that the intelligent design hypothesis is clearly consistent with Christian theism, But he did not and would not say that intelligent design in nature proves the Christian God.

That’s kinda how I remember his book.