Thursday, October 21, 2010

Does Intelligent Design Require An Interventionist View?

Picture of William Albert Dembski taken at lec...                                Image via Wikipedia
A common assumption among both defenders and detractors of Intelligent Design (ID) is that the hypothesis demands an interventionist view of the designer. While I think given the evidence associated with origins of life and biological evolution (e.g., the Cambrian explosion)  that this is in fact most likely the case, I also believe that it is not essential to the hypothesis. It simply needs to show that there are clear marks of intelligent agency in the outcomes achieved. I recently discovered to my chagrin how some defenders of ID react with belligerence when a more nuanced point of view is presented crossed on this issue.

So, I went and did a bit of digging.  And struck gold. With this 2003 article by William Dembski, a leading spokesman in the ID movement. The relevant section is section 2, Interventionism, beginning on page three. I can't copy/paste/quote directly because this is a pdf file, but with a bit more digging I found a similar passage online:
For a designing intelligence to make a discernible difference in the emergence of some organism, however, seems to Miller to require that an intelligence intervened at specific times and places to bring about that organism and thus again seems to require some form of special creation. This in turn raises the question: How often and at what places did a designing intelligence intervene in the course of natural history to produce those biological structures that are beyond the power of material mechanisms? Thus, according to Miller, intelligent design draws an unreasonable distinction between material mechanisms and designing intelligences, claiming that material mechanisms are fine most of the time but then on rare (or perhaps not so rare) occasions a designing intelligence is required to get over some hump that material mechanisms can't quite manage. Hence Miller's reference to "an outside designer violat[ing] the very laws of nature he had fashioned."
As I've pointed out to Miller on more than one occasion, this criticism is misconceived. The proper question is not how often or at what places a designing intelligence intervenes but rather at what points do signs of intelligence first become evident. Intelligent design therefore makes an epistemological rather than ontological point. To understand the difference, imagine a computer program that outputs alphanumeric characters on a computer screen. The program runs for a long time and throughout that time outputs what look like random characters. Then abruptly the output changes and the program outputs the most sublime poetry. Now, at what point did a designing intelligence intervene in the output of the program? Clearly, this question misses the mark because the program is deterministic and simply outputs whatever the program dictates.
There was no intervention at all that changed the output of the program from random gibberish to sublime poetry. And yet, the point at which the program starts to output sublime poetry is the point at which we realize that the output is designed and not random. Moreover, it is at that point that we realize that the program itself is designed. But when and where was design introduced into the program? Although this is an interesting question, it is ultimately irrelevant to the more fundamental question whether there was design in the program and its output in the first place. We can tell whether there was design (this is ID's epistemological point) without introducing any doctrine of intervention (ID refuses to speculate about the ontology of design)
Intelligent design is not a theory about the frequency or locality at which a designing intelligence intervenes in the material world. It is not an interventionist theory at all. Indeed, intelligent design is perfectly compatible with all the design in the world being front-loaded in the sense that all design was introduced at the beginning (say at the Big Bang) and then came to expression subsequently over the course of natural history much as a computer program's output becomes evident only when the program is run. This actually is an old idea, and one that Charles Babbage, the inventor of the digital computer, explored in the 1830s in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (thus predating Darwin's Origin of Species by twenty years).
This is similar to an idea that I was expressing. I used the example of a signature on a document. Does a signature indicate a signator, an intelligent agent. Yes. Does it "prove" that the signator signed the document at the moment it appeared on the document? No, it does not. The signator may have designed a signature-writing machine and programmed the machine to write the signature under certain conditions. Can we tell if the signature was directly signed, or signed by the machine? Maybe. Either way, a signature is evidence of an intelligent agent.

Dembski then goes on to raise another point I had made -- that what is really at stake is the materialistic-mechanical view of the universe assumed by darwinism.
Let's be clear, however, that such preprogrammed evolution would be very different from evolution as it is now conceived. Evolution, as currently presented in biology textbooks, is blind -- nonpurposive material mechanisms run the show. Within this naturalistic conception of evolution, the origin of any species gives no evidence of actual design because mindless material mechanisms do all the work. Within a preprogrammed conception of evolution, by contrast, the origin of some species and biological structures would give evidence of actual design and demonstrate the inadequacy of material mechanisms to do such design work. Thus naturalistic evolution and preprogrammed evolution would have different empirical content and be distinct scientific theories.
The terms naturalistic vs. preprogrammed evolution are perhaps imprecise. It depends on one's view of nature. But this was 2003. He may have evolved since then.

Having established his point, he then rounds things out to show the broader picture:
Of course, such preprogrammed evolution or front-loaded design is not the only option for the theory of intelligent design. Intelligent design is also compatible with discrete interventions at intermittent times and diverse places. Intelligent design is even compatible with what philosophers call an occasionalist view in which everything that occurs in the world is the intended outcome of a designing intelligence but only some of those outcomes show clear signs of being designed. In that case the distinction between natural causes and intelligent causes would concern the way we make sense of the world rather than how the world actually is (another case of epistemology and ontology diverging). 
He concludes by commenting on the epistemological limits to science.
 We may never be able to tell how often or at what places a designing intelligence intervened in the world or even whether there was any intervention in Miller's sense of violating natural laws. But that's okay. What's crucial for the theory of intelligent design is the ability to identify signs of intelligence in the world -- and in the biological world in particular -- and therewith conclude that a designing intelligence played an indispensable role in the formation of some object or the occurrence of some event. That is the start. Often in biology there will be clear times and locations where we can say that design first became evident. But whether that means a designing intelligence actually intervened at those points will require further investigation and may indeed not be answerable. As the computer analogy above indicates, the place and time at which design first becomes evident need have no connection with the place and time at which design was actually introduced.
 In the context of biological evolution, this means that design can be real and discernible in evolutionary change without requiring an explicit "design event," like a special creation, miracle, or supernatural intervention. At the same time, however, for evolutionary change to exhibit actual design would mean that material mechanisms were inadequate by themselves to produce that change. The question, then, that requires investigation is not simply what are the limits of evolutionary change, but what are the limits of evolutionary change when that change is limited to material mechanisms. This in turn requires examining the material factors within organisms and in their environments capable of effecting evolutionary change. The best evidence to date indicates that these factors are inadequate to drive full-scale macroevolution. Something else is required -- intelligence.
I found it very satisfying to find this article which mapped to my thoughts so closely. Will I be sharing it with the ID-friendly site in question? No. If I want to open myself to intemperate smack-downs characterized by a failure to even listen to and try to understand the point I am trying to make, there are lots of atheist sites I can visit.
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Joe said...

But what if 'evolution' is actually part of said intelligent design? Kind of a bad design if it can't adapt and change don'cha think?

Alex said...


There is a key point missing in both of your thought experiments and that is the element of replication and mutation.

The program that displays random characters does in fact exist already. Listen to a waterfall. White noise can be recorded digitally and you would get all the random notes (and characters) in the waterfall's audio spectrum. These notes will never arrange into music by chance because there is no connection to the waterfall's creation and sound. The circumstance that creates the conditions for the waterfall to exist have nothing whatsoever to do with the sound it makes. There is no method whatsoever to bias the creation of waterfall's on pleasant sounds over the plain noisy waterfall's.

Your man is correct is say that the random character program will ever create poetry. Not in a million times the age of the universe would that ever happen.

HOWEVER if that same program wasn't static but had to copy itself over and over with the copies being made from the copy before it, then it would slowly evolve in whatever way would help it successfully create more copies. Previous copies need to be discarded... the hard drives burn out or something.

A selection pressure, that is a factor that affects the programs ability to generate copies, will drive attributes of said program. If we decide the number 13 is an ugly expression of the program and we delete all the programs that insist on producing 13's eventually there will be no 13's. Perhaps the characters 1 and 3 will be omitted from the library of characters so that there is no chance of ever making a 13.

so who makes the program? The program is the laws of physics. Its the programs that arranges grains of sand on a beach by size and weight according to the energy of wave action or current. Different rules acting on different properties of matter from mechanical and chemical sorting to emergent patterns forming from attractive and repulsive charges.

This is not a smack down and I don't even want to convert you. I'm playing a game with my self. I can't be so confident in my view unless I test it. Thanks for the opportunity.

RkBall said...

Joe -- Perry Marshall says exactly that -- that far from being random, evolutionary mechanisms have what amount to change algorithms built-in.

Language, information, algorithms -- too bad we can't discuss and explore evolution freely, freely inquire and follow the evidence wherever it leads; evolution is held hostage by close-minded darwinian fundamentalists with a lot at stake, both personally and professionally.

RkBall said...

"The program is the laws of physics."

Exactly. But, from whence come the laws of physics? And why is the universe law-based and not simply grossly chaotic? Why does the universe behave more like a prim librarian rather than a drunken sailor? Ponder that O Jedi Knight!

* * *

But, let's say Alex, that you have built a model train set in your basement. OK, not your basement, your marvellous sunlight-drenched atrium. It runs like clockwork. You enjoy watching the trains make their motions, switches opening and closing. You could program in both programmed and random events. It's all good.

And, if you choose, would it not be OK for you to tweak things every now and then? Would you not have the freedom to do so? And might it not in fact greatly add to your pleasure to do so?

The Scripture says, "and for His pleasure, they were created".

RkBall said...

Replication and mutation -- by algorithm, by chance, or both?

Anonymous said...

Why can't intelligent design and evolution exist side by side? Think about it, intelligent design to get things started and to create an order of life, then evolution to shape and challege it to evolve further, to add an element of chaos, freedom and of course individuality. It is the last aspect which is the basis of conservatism as a political ideal I believe. (real conservative)

RkBall said...

Why can't intelligent design and evolution exist side by side?

I think all ID scenarios involve some dimension of darwinian evolution, some degree of random mutation and natural selection. E.g., Michael Behe.

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"