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Intelligent Design: Discussion

By Terri Murray, a documentary film maker and Lecturer of Film Studies & Critical Thinking, Hampstead College of Fine Arts, London:

The following assessment of Intelligent Design Network's (IDN) philosophy and rhetoric is based on their free available information on the internet. The information available at no cost is, however, limited. The summary below does not begin to address the teleological arguments (from analogy and from the 'anthropic principle'). These arguments are readily available in Gerald Jones' book and in many philosophy of religion books. A particularly good one is 'Philosophy of Religion' from the Teach Yourself Series (Hodder & Stoughton), by Mel Thompson. Another very good one is The Puzzle of God by Peter Vardy.

It seems to me that Intelligent Design Network's central arguments focus around the following basic ideas:

OBJECTIVITY - described by IDN as follows: Objectivity results from the use of the scientific method without philosophic or religious assumptions in seeking answers to the question: Where do we come from? This is an accurate definition, and it is important that we make the IDN's spokespersons stick to it! It is curious that they put 'philosophic assumptions' before 'religious assumptions'. This will give us a clue as to how they will attack evolution's defenders - evolutionists will be accused of deploying 'philosophical assumptions'. Moreover, there is no mention here of 'evidence'. This is rather curious, as scientific method involves rational empiricism - the rational examination of evidence.

CONSTITUTIONAL BIAS - the IDN describes the evolutionary theorists and educators as 'biased,' which is just another way of stating that they are not objective. (See above.) When arguing with IDN spokespeople don't go on the defensive about your objectivity, the burden of proof is not on you to show that you're objective, but on them to show that they are.

A PARTICULAR DEFINITION of 'DESIGN' -- As soon as someone mentions 'design' in relation to the world, or particular features of it, then you're in trouble. That is what they (creationists, believers, the IDN) should be trying to PROVE - and not a premise! ' Design' in IDN parlance means ' a particular set of features/mechanisms serving a recognizable purpose. ' Intelligent scientists can discern what that purpose is. This does not mean that we have to transfer the intelligence we use to discern a thing's function to the intelligence of a designer . By 'purpose,' we mean 'function,' such as the way a cog in a clock can be seen to serve the purpose of interlocking with another to move the connecting wheel. The question remains whether everything that exhibits a use/function is necessarily 'designed' (implying a designer).

A PARTICULAR DEFINITION OF 'DESIGN DETECTION' - in IDN parlance, 'design detection' means a method of recognizing patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose. The key phrase here is "by an intelligent cause". This is where scientists disagree with creationist assumptions. Notice that is it the religious assumption that is being smuggled in with this phrase. Opponents should seize on this and remind IDN's proponents of their own definition of 'objectivity' (above). Design is what they (creationists, believers, the IDN) should be trying to PROVE - not a premise/assumption! DING DING - circular argument alert. The so-called 'argument from design' should really, therefore, be called the argument TO design. So straight off the IDN will have to show why they refer to certain regularities etc. of the universe as 'designed'. You won't find any careful-thinking atheists (scientists or philosophers) referring to hearts, eyes, eco-systems as 'designed' - not since the demise of Aristotelian science at any rate!

'The science of design detection' - what is this? The examples they give (at least the ones that work) - anthropology, forensics - are all about determining the precise cause of events that we already know were the actions of intelligent (well, human) beings. If a scientist were to investigate the causes of some other event (say the existence of the iridium layer - which in geological terms coincides with the extinction of dinosaurs) then they would not call it 'design detection' - as if some intelligent being had been sending meteors to the earth to wipe out the dinosaurs. So 'design detection' is also question begging - it assumes there is design to be detected.

A PARTICULAR DEFINITION OF 'INTELLIGENCE' - as used by IDN's proponents, 'intelligence' is interchangeable with 'purposeful'. Therefore, if we look again at the definition of 'design detection' (above) we find that our smuggled phrase is redundant, since what intelligence really means is just "patterns arranged for a purpose." So the definitions given beg the question. The question is whether "patterns arranged for a purpose" must be attributed to a separate, intelligent, cause? But the definitions as they appear take the 'intelligent cause' as a premise, not as a conclusion from the evidence.

Darwin 's theory of natural selection provided an explanation for design, and one that did not require the aid of any external designer. His theory offered a mechanical explanation for what had previously been thought of as possible only through the agency of mind (in this case, the mind of God).

Defenders of science/educational standards ought to familiarize themselves with the following basic fallacies in reasoning:

BEGGING THE QUESTION/CIRCULAR ARGUMENTS - a circular argument is one that assumes what it is trying to prove. We sometimes call this question begging because it begs (assumes) the very thing it is trying to prove. The whole controversy thus depends upon the definition. If I did not already believe in a designer, I would hardly accept as evidence the definition that a thing that has a detectable purpose is 'designed'.

STRAW MAN FALLACY - this involves misrepresenting the opponent's viewpoint, usually by misinterpreting a feature of their beliefs, and then attacking this misinterpretation of their views, rather than the stronger view they actually hold.

NATURALISTIC FALLACY - this fallacy is also known as the " is-ought" fallacy, because it moves from factual premises ('is' statements) to moral conclusions ('ought' statements/value judgements). For example, one could argue: "Silver backed gorillas always eat more bananas than the other gorillas, therefore communities of gorillas should ('ought' to) give silver backed gorillas the most bananas." The argument begins with observed facts and then moves, with no further reasoning, to a value judgement. The problem is that there is no automatic link between observations about the way the world is and judgements about the way the world ought to be. The link needs to be explained with further argument.

BUZZ WORDS/RHETORIC - such words are intended to elicit an emotional response, and appeal to emotion rather than to reason.

OCKHAM'S RAZOR - this is a principle for evaluating arguments, also sometimes called a 'law of economy.' Formulated by William of Ockham, the principle states that entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. If I have two competing theories given to explain the same phenomenon, I should prefer the one that is simpler. Isaac Newton stated the rule: " We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. " The advantage of evolution theory versus creationism is that the latter demands the existence of metaphysical entities whereas the former can explain organized complexity by natural selection (observable data). Evolution is a neat theory because it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity. This is exactly what creationist theories do not do - they do not explain organized complexity at all.

As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, if we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well just postulate the existence of life as we know it. Dawkins's point is that creationist theories cannot be disproved, since they do not make claims about the phenomena that might turn out to be wrong. You could never give a scientific refutation of them. The merits of Darwinism, by contrast, can be tested by appeal to the evidence.

LIEBNITZ'S PRINCIPLE of SUFFICIENT REASON - in his Theodicy (1710) Leibnitz argued that "nothing takes place without a sufficient reason." A "sufficient reason" is a complete explanation. For example, to give a reason for your existence by pointing to your parents is really only a partial explanation, since that leads to the further question, "what is the reason for your parent's existence?" And so on. What he means by sufficient reason is a reason that does not depend on anything else. When arguing with creationists, you may as well accept this principle, since you can then ask them, by the same rationale, 'what caused God'?

IDN's advocates argue: "Positive evidence of design in living systems consists of the semantic, meaningful or functional nature of biological information, the lack of any known law that can explain the sequence of symbols that carry the "messages," and statistical and experimental evidence that tends to rule out chance as a plausible explanation." This statement does not give us enough information to be meaningful. However, I suspect this is an argument about genetics, intended to undermine Richard Dawkins's illustrations of the way in which random changes can lead to an amazing variety of apparently 'designed' forms. In recent years, there has been a considerable interest in the ability of 'open' complex systems to self-arrange. The most determined exploration of this is found in Dawkins's book, The Blind Watchmaker (Longman, 1986). The issue of random change and its implications has been hotly debated ever since Jacques Monod published Chance and Necessity in 1970. Monod sees creative developments becoming possible through random chance. Within living things, damage occurs in a random way to the genetic information coded on DNA molecules, causing random mutations. Where such a mutant is beneficial, in the sense that it adapts better than those without the mutation, then the opportunity is there for a new form of life to develop. Life progresses because what is randomly produced subsequently takes advantage of its situation. This would be a more modern way of expressing Darwin 's argument - but the whole structure of change is now based on random genetic damage.

These notes are no substitute for arguments against the 'telelogical' and 'anthropic principle'. Such arguments need to be sought in books on Philosophy of Religion, of which there are many available.

Last updated: <ay- 2005