Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Vacuity of Intelligent Design

Lawyer and ID advocate Barry Arrington has a post up at Uncommon Descent in which he says that ID is not bogus because his grandfather could tell the difference between an arrowhead created by prehistoric Native Americans and a rock. Arrington writes, "In my grandfather’s judgment each rock he added to his collection was different from the thousands upon thousands of rocks he rejected because it bore complex marks that conformed to a specified pattern."

Let's remember that ID advocates claim to have provided a mathematically-rigorous method to detect design. In The Design Inference and No Free Lunch, William Dembski supposedly laid out a series of mathematical steps required to infer design. These steps require a pattern specification, a rejection region, a list of background knowledge, etc., etc. Now, the ability to tell a genuine artifact from a natural rock would be of great benefit to archaeologists. So where is the specification for arrowheads? What is the rejection region? What is the background knowledge? Why aren't ID "theorists" publishing papers in archaeology journals providing their revolutionary method for distinguishing artifacts from natural objects? This was one of our challenges from 2003. Here it is 7 years later, and not a single intelligent design advocate has taken it up. ID is scientifically vacuous.

Arrington says, "Once one concedes that at least in some instances intelligent agents leave behind objectively discernable indicia of design, the intellectual jig is up – you have left the door wide open for the theory of intelligent design." Why? The examples he cites - forensics, archaelogy, cryptology - aren't about design in the abstract, but rather about the specific case of human design. No archaeologist holds up an artifact and pronounces, "This was made by an intelligence." Rather, part of archaeology (and not even the most interesting part *) is about distinguishing human-made artifacts from natural ones. We recognize artifacts not because they satisfy some "design inference", but because we recognize them as the characteristic product of human activity, and because they fit into a larger picture of our understanding of a culture obtained through other means (e.g., radiometric dating).

Arrington writes, "My grandfather knew absolutely nothing about the Indians that carved his points; yet that did not preclude him from making a design inference. Similarly, ID acknowledges that the empirical evidence tells us nothing about the identity of the designer, who may be natural or supernatural." But this is untrue. When we find an arrowhead, we infer it was made by people, who are biologically identical to us, with the same basic needs of food and shelter -- not by intelligent crabs, robots, or magical beings. Because of this, we can deduce the purpose of an arrowhead, and with more work, we can determine what kinds of animals were killed and how they were butchered. With radiometric dating, we can figure out when the events took place. And it's not just the arrowhead that tells us something about the people that made it: multiple lines of confirming, independent evidence (from DNA analysis of native Americans to studies of butchered bones) can help build a picture of the arrowhead's creator.

But ID advocates don't even know that there was any agent around at the time they claim DNA was created, and they offer no independent way to check that this agent existed. Further, they don't allow us to inquire about the nature of the agent. ID is vacuous because, contrary to the claims of advocates, it doesn't provide anything that scientists actually want.

* The interesting part is to determine who made an artifact and why, and how it fits into our understanding of the culture. For example, when archaeologists discovered Bronze Age wall paintings at Thera, they didn't proclaim "These were made by an intelligence!" Such a pronouncement would be regarded as idiotic. The interesting question is to determine the purpose: were they purely decorative, part of a shrine, or did they have some entirely different meaning? However, ID advocates tell us that we are not allowed to inquire as to the nature and purpose of the designer, at least when the designer is the one (ones?) who designed DNA.

21 comments:

idahogie said...

How did his grandfather tell the difference between intelligent man-made arrowheads and intelligent designer-made rocks?

RichardW said...

Standard ID fallacy of non sequitur: a valid inference involving design was made in these cases; therefore it must have used Dembski's "specified complexity" method of design inference.

Arrington: "In my grandfather’s judgment each rock he added to his collection was different from the thousands upon thousands of rocks he rejected because it bore complex marks that conformed to a specified pattern."

This makes it sound as if Arrington's grandfather was knowingly using Dembski's method decades before Dembski had described it. Yeah, sure.

Blake Stacey said...

You wouldn't have access to the journal Peptides, would you? The game's afoot. I can't judge much from the abstract alone, but it looks like a remarkably sloppy attempt to invoke "intelligent design" got past whatever review was in place. ("Current theories have proven inadequate to explain the origins of biological information such as that found in nucleotide and amino acid sequences"? Uh, no. "Here, we demonstrate that the information content of an amino acid motif correlates with the motif rarity"? Well, if information content is surprisal . . .)

Scote said...

" For example, when archaeologists discovered Bronze Age wall paintings at Thera, they didn't proclaim "These were made by an intelligence!" Such a pronouncement would be regarded as idiotic. "

That is an excellent point. What would archeology look like if it was run by "ID" advocates? They wouldn't even be able to say that prehistoric finds were created by humans, let alone which humans and why. Very, very funny. I'd love it if somebody could write a mock history of archeology using ID principles... :)

Tyler DiPietro said...

It's interesting to point out that Dembski's "specification" criterion would fail completely in the case of cryptography. Perfectly encrypted files are indistinguishable from noise, so if Dembski were to try to infer based on some pattern he would get a false negative.

Vladimir Levin said...

Don't ID people acknowledge that throughout history there have been innumerable "common-sense" ideas about the world that science eventually proved to be wrong? Just because something appeals to our everyday notions doesn't mean it's true. That such supposedly educated people exist in the 21st century and live in the most wealthy and powerful coutry on earth is both sad and frightening.

Miranda said...

"However, ID advocates tell us that we are not allowed to inquire as to the nature and purpose of the designer, at least when the designer is the one (ones?) who designed DNA."

Huh? Isn't it their greatest desire that people would inquire as to the nature and purpose of the designer?

Miranda said...

"We recognize artifacts not because they satisfy some "design inference", but because we recognize them as the characteristic product of human activity, and because they fit into a larger picture of our understanding of a culture obtained through other means (e.g., radiometric dating). "

Two questions: 1. when you say "and", do you mean to necessitate both the part before and the part afterwards, or do you really mean "or"?

2. Doesn't "We recognize artifacts ... because they satisfy some 'design inference'," sound awfully synonymous with "we recognize them as the characteristic product of human activity" ?

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

I wonder how the elder Arrington would do in identifying these items as man-made tools vs. ordinary rocks.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Isn't it their greatest desire that people would inquire as to the nature and purpose of the designer?

Nope. They say you can't - not in science. They say that belongs to theology, not science. Read Dembski, No Free Lunch.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Doesn't "We recognize artifacts ... because they satisfy some 'design inference'," sound awfully synonymous with "we recognize them as the characteristic product of human activity" ?

Not to me. Intelligent design claims to be able to discover the activity of any intelligent agent, whereas in practice we recognize design because we know the kinds of things humans tend to make. We do this because we know about the goals of humans, not because we use Dembski's multi-step method.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Just to add something to my last response to Miranda:

Dembski's method, outlined in his thesis and No Free Lunch, involves ruling out all naturalistic hypotheses first. Then one infers design. But in practice, we don't do this. We don't look at an arrowhead and rule out all naturalistic hypotheses for its creation. Similarly, when quasars were discovered, the first hypothesis that was ruled out was the hypothesis that the signal arose from human activity.

So what people actually do is quite different from what Dembski claims.

Alex said...

Scote wrote: "I'd love it if somebody could write a mock history of archeology using ID principles".

This isn't exactly what you had in mind, but I did find was this cartoon:

http://www.evidentcreation.com/image/Mystery%20of%20Mt%20Rushmore.jpg

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos said...

I find it amusing that Intelligent Design is based on analogy to human design, but human designers are restricted to creating things from existing materials. Human designers cannot create stuff ex nihilo. So if we are careful to stick with the analogy, the intelligent designer can only be a grandiose mechanic, not the ultimate creator. We are still in need of a theory of Intelligent Creation.

Miranda said...

I guess I never thought of it as funny. Since when was an analogy ever based 100% on something else?

RichardW said...

Tyler: "Perfectly encrypted files are indistinguishable from noise, so if Dembski were to try to infer based on some pattern he would get a false negative."

Well, Dembski doesn't claim that design is always detectable. He only claims that his method avoids false positives, not false negatives.

Anonymous said...

In agreement with Paul C. Anagnostopoulos:

The only designers that we know about use natural regularities (and chance!). It is odd to think that one can find a criterion for design which is so different from what we know about design.

Perhaps this explains why the advocates of ID make a point of not saying anything about what design is.

Tom S.

James F said...

It's amazing that the ID argument hasn't advanced past William Paley, isn't it?

@Blake,

The author showed up at Pharyngula to clarify that it is not a pro-ID paper. I think it's a combination of someone writing in English as a second language and a paper that was classified as a review rather than a research article that got less than stringent peer review.

Mark said...

My aunt used to have a pile of arrowheads she dug up in the gardens--in reality, all just pointy stones. So ID is bogus because my aunt couldn't tell the difference between arrowheads and rocks?
How did Arrington's grandfather conclude his objects were "arrowheads" and not, say, can openers or executive paperweights? He had some examples to go by.

Anonymous said...

No, the problem is that for traditional monotheists, rocks are also created (or, if you will, "designed") by God.

TomS

Garkbit said...

Jeffrey,
I think you mean pulsars.