ID Undermines Itself?

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I've got one more post coming out of the conversation at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

One common complaint I hear about design arguments that involve laws at the outset of the universe being designed is that they simultaneously make two things true. Design arguments generally take some surprising fact in nature, and then they appeal to a designer to explain why the surprising fact makes more sense than it would otherwise. The fine-tuning argument, for instance, takes the extremely small range of cosmological constants that would allow rational life as a reason for thinking there must have been a designer who intended rational life to be possibile and formed the laws accordingly.

The objection then comes in. The anti-ID move is to say that there's a contradiction between two things. (1) The natural laws are such that the origin of rational life is unlikely (otherwise there would be no reason to appeal to a designer). (2) The natural laws are such that the origin of rational life is highly likely (otherwise there designer hypothesis has done no work, and we're right back where we started).

This argument is a classic equivocation. It says something that is true when you use your terms in one sense, and then it considers something else alongside it that is true if you use your terms in a different sense. When it puts them together, it gets a false conclusion because it doesn't account for the fact that these two things are not true in the same sense and thus can't combine in this way. A classic example of equivocation is saying (1) you put your money in the bank and (2) that the flooding in the river is overflowing all the banks, concluding (3) you better take your money out of the bank for fear that it will get waterlogged. It isn't the financial institutions that are being covered with water, and that's where your money is.

To see how this problem comes up in this anti-ID argument, I think it will be helpful to look to the general form of a design argument. Design arguments are inductive arguments that take one surprising piece of evidence and then try to explain why such a surprising thing would be true. Other examples of this form of argument abound. We should be surprised to see the coincidental murder, in a very distinctive manner, of five different people simultaneously in five different places. We shouldn't expect five people to do something so similar all at the same time. What are the chances of that? At least we shouldn't expect that unlikely result if there wasn't some sort of collusion between them. This is actually a very good inductive argument for a theory that takes these people to be involved in some sort of conspiracy together. If the collusion theory is true, then the result we've observed becomes very likely. When people conspire to do (at least) five similar acts of murder all at the same time, it's fairly likely that those acts of murder could happen all at once in a very similar manner. This is how this kind of inductive explanation works.

Now let's apply the anti-ID argument. This inductive argument for a conspiracy theory behind these criminal acts leads to an interesting contradiction. It implies both that the murders are very unlikely (otherwise there's nothing to be surprised at) and that the murders are very likely (otherwise the conspiracy hypothesis doesn't help us at all). So if this is a good objection to ID, then it applies to any inductive argument that seeks to explain a surprising event by hypothesizing something that would lower the surprise factor considerably. But obviously these are not bad arguments. It really is reasonable to conclude that there's a conspiracy behind such an amazing coincidence. So something must have gone wrong in the criticism.

The problem is that the objection slips between different senses of probability. It's very unlikely, given the information we have at the outset, that five such murders would take place simultaneously and with such great similarity in five different places. That's the sense in which it's unlikely, the sense in which we're calculating probability in terms of what we should expect given our initial information. But there's also a sense in which the five murders become very probable. Given the hypothesis that there is a conspiracy to commit these five murders, the fact that they all occur becomes highly probably in comparison to its unlikeliness without assuming the hypothesis. But these are just very different probability claims. They're perfectly consistent with each other, and thus there's no contradiction.

Now apply this to intelligent design. We see a surprising result, something that (according to the ID argument) appears to be irreducibly complex, the sort of thing that possibly could arise with unguided natural causes but shouldn't be expected. It's highly unlikely. It cries out for explanation, and the explanation is that an intelligent mind is behind it. So something unlikely according to one set of data (our original information) is made likely by the hypothesis of a designer. The hypothesis makes it very likely, but that doesn't invalidate its unlikelihood given the assumption that all causes are unguided. There's no contradiction at all here.

Postscript on front-loading ID: In the discussion at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, this general argument was applied to a particular view I was sketching. I was arguing that someone could hold to the legitimacy of ID arguments while believing the universe to be a closed system, so long as the designer designed the universe at the outset to exhibit signs of design. Out of all the possible systems of natural laws, the designer chose one that would lead to the sorts of signs of design that ID people generally believe there to be. This view is sometimes called the front-loading ID hypothesis. All the design is worked into the closed system of the universe from the outset rather than the more standard miraculous intervention model of ID that most ID advocates accept. It's not the usual ID view, but it's perfectly consistent with accepting ID arguments as pretty good arguments.

The argument then resurfaces. Before we posit a designer, it seems really unlikely that these features of irreducible complexity would occur in nature. So we appeal to a designer. But if we were to take that designer to have front-loaded all the design into the very laws of nature, don't we then have a system of natural laws that would guarantee the results we have? But if the laws of nature would guarantee these examples of so-called irreducible complexity, then those examples were inevitable. If they were inevitable, then there's really no need to posit a designer, because they would have happened without the designer.

The objection sounds a little better in this case, but it really is just the same mistake. The event looks very unlikely given unguided natural causes, and that's why you appeal to a designer. Once you have the front-loading ID hypothesis with design, then you do have an inevitable event that appears designed. But that doesn't invalidate the argument, because the argument isn't claiming that the event isn't inevitable. It isn't claiming that the event really is unlikely either. It's simply claiming that the event is unlikely given just unguided natural causes. If there aren't just unguided natural causes, then the event is likely after all. But the argument doesn't rely on whether it's actually likely or unlikely. The argument is against there being only unguided natural causes, and just having those makes this result seem very unlikely, so it must be that something besides just unguided natural laws must be behind this event. Once it's clear what the argument is saying, the objection just makes no sense.

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4 Comments

Good post - bad logic is bad logic, however you cut it!

But I'd take issue with one point where you, I think, mis-speak yourself.

"We see a surprising result, something that (according to the ID argument) appears to be irreducibly complex, the sort of thing that possibly could arise with unguided natural causes but shouldn't be expected"

Irreducible complexity isn't about probability, it's an abolute thing. If a complex system is irreducible, it's irreducible. It can't be slightly irreducible. By contrast, an observation can be improbable. So, we might accurately say that the values of various physical constants are improbable, but they're not "irreducibly complex". After all, they're not even complex, let alone irreducibly so!

It's very interesting, though, to read the same arguments about physical constants that were rehearsed within the scientific community a decade or more ago about the anthropic principle. Many of the arguments from physics for ID are identical to those old ones. And, indeed, there is a real question about the values of these physical constants. However, the same criticism applies: yes, we are in an improbable Universe (one whose properties lie within the very narrow range required to produce intelligent life); however, if the Universe wasn't like that, there would be no intelligent observer to notice; therefore our own existence proves only that the Universe is how it is.

When applied to ID arguments, we have the same problem - we could argue that the values of these physical constants shows that there is a Designer. However, we have a sample of just one Universe, which happens to contain intelligent life (us). Thus, the more parsimonious deduction is simply that, yes, the Universe is unlikely, but that if it were otherwise there would be no one to notice. That is, the science doesn't really support the notion of a Designer here - the simplest explanation isn't design.

The real problem, though, is that we have no idea at all how probable the Universe really is. We know that these constants have particular values, and we know of no reason why they shouldn't have radically different values. However, to say that any value of alpha (for example) would be equally probable is incorrect - we can only say that we don't know why it has the value it does. The probability of any particular value might be equal, or it might be a bell curve, or a linear (or non-linear) positive or negative curve, or anything else. We simply don't know.

And staking our theology on a statement of ignorance is dangerous.

pax et bonum

No, that's just not true. The ID argument from irreducible complexity is an inductive argument, and thus it's not an absolute thing. It's a probabilistic thing. How else would they be able to bring in probability theorists like Dembski? Behe says:

An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. (Darwin's Black Box, p.39)

What he's saying is that little bitty modifications wouldn't do it. You'd need the chance occurrence of all these changes coming together all at once, and that's extremely unlikely unless some guiding force worked things out so they would all appear at once together.

As for cosmological constants, the issue is about whether the constants being in the range they are in rather than being otherwise is likely, given all the possibly values they could have had. That's a probabilistic question.

The cosmological ID argument is just the anthropic principle sort of argument. It shouldn't be surprising that that ID argument is the same argument as that ID argument. It's not a new entity.

Your objection to the cosmological constant argument misses the point of the argument. It doesn't matter that we wouldn't be here to notice if the constants were otherwise. I wouldn't be there to notice if a mean, angry, and skilled firing squad tries to kill me point blank and completely misses. It would be stupid to say that I wouldn't be there to notice and thus I have an explanation of why they missed. I still can ask for an explanation. Either they had blanks, they were told to miss and obeyed their orders, or there was some intelligent force preventing them some other way (a force field around me, a miracle from God, etc.). Similarly, the fact that we're here means that the constants are what they are. It offers no explanation for why they're what they are. That's a separate issue, and that's what the teleological argument from cosmological constants relies on.

The only alternative explanation is the many-universes scenario, according to which it's not surprising that in the universes with these constants there would be rational life. But it's not clear that such a scenario is really more parsimonious, since it involves all these extra universes that we have no further evidence for, and we would also need an account of a mechanism that would produce all these universes. Compare the designer hypothesis, and I don't think we have an easy decision as to which is more parsimonious. One involves lots and lots of examples of things of a kind we already know about, and one involves one thing of a very different sort. Should we care about parsimony regarding kinds or parsimony regarding numbers? Both are legitimate kinds of parsimony, and I'm not sure we can weigh one as more important than the other.

I agree in large part with your last paragraph, but the argument isn't framed in terms of what's actually possible or probable. It's framed in terms of what, as far as we know, is probable. It's an argument about what's reasonable for us to believe. I don't think any other notion of probability really makes much sense anyway, since I don't believe in chances as real things in the world, just statistical frequencies (which requires of lots of cases when we know of just one) or epistemic likelihood (how likely it should seem to a rational observer), and I think the latter is the only way to make sense of this argument. For all we know, these are possible, and it's worth seeking an explanation of why it's this way than another given that the other options seem as if they could have occurred.

I don't think anyone is staking theology on a statement of ignorance. The ID people who are Christians get their theology from the Bible or from philosophical theology, not from design arguments. There's nothing in the design argument that guarantees any theological statement except that God is a designer, and Christians already believe that from scripture. It doesn't tell us which metaphysical picture of God's role in creation is correct, just that intelligence is behind whatever metaphysical relation God has to creation.

Sorry, I obviously wasn't clear enough. The question of whether an irreducibly complex system could occur or not is probabilistic (although its definition is that the probability is too low to be chance). But the question of whether the system actually is irreducibly complex is a simple yes-no choice.

One thing to add is that we needn't require a many-Universes picture to have lots of different values of the physical constants. One other picture that's gaining currency is that this single Universe that we inhabit contains regions with different values for these constants - and we occupy one that happens to fall in the "right" range. This follows from inflation theory, which posits that regions of the early Universe very soon lost contact with one another and followed independent paths. As far as we know, there's no reason to suppose that two regions outside each other's cone of influence should adopt the same values for these constants when the constants crystallised.

Anyhow, enough physics :-) I think that your article above is excellent, it was just a small mis-statement about complexity that I wanted to bring to your attention.

pax et bonum

I guess there is a yes or no answer to whether something is irreducibly complex, but I don't see how that affects the inductive nature of the argument as I've presented it.

I'm including your scenario as one way of conceiving of the many-universes strategy. It could be many sequential universes, or it could be many universes that are in some sense simultaneous but not causally connected. It could also, as you suggest, be many simultaneous universes that are connected in spacetime in a way that our current physics wouldn't capture yet.

I think it amounts to the same thing in terms of the philosophical import, unless we've got good reason for holding one of the independently. I can't tell if that's what inflation theory is or if that's just a continuation of the anthropic arugment for many universes. All I've heard so far is that the main reason for believing in any of these many-universes views is from cosmological fine-tuning.

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