The advertisements above do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog, its authors, or host.

The Logic of Anti-ID Arguments

PrismPaul asks the following question in the “Ask the Panel” section of the forums:

Love input from anyone on this – sorry for length, but I wanted to be clear…

You guys frequently point out that in science, each new answer leads to new questions. For example, vast evidence upholds Darwin’s idea that all known life evolved from a common ancestor. But that leads to a new question: how did that common ancestor come to exist? When ID proponents point to that unanswered question as evidence against common descent, scientists cry foul. As well they should.

But I’m bothered by something skeptics frequently do which seems to be exactly the same mistake. When ID proponents argue that there is evidence for a creative intelligence that initiated life or guided evolution in some way, skeptics mock this position by saying “That still leaves us with the problem of how the creator got there!”

I understand that this is often presented as an answer to the simplistic general axiom that “complexity implies a creator”, to which it is reasonable to respond, “If that were true, the creator would therefore also need a creator, and so on ad infinitum”. But that simplistic axiom seems like a straw man to me. In my experience, ID proponents make specific claims of the form “this specific type of complexity in this specific context implies a creative intelligence”.

As an analogy, imagine that you discovered a clearly bioengineered strain of corn growing in a field. It would be logical to surmise from examining the corn alone that this strain was “steered into existence” by intelligent processes because we know it is extremely unlikely that its characteristics would have come about naturally. Now imagine someone saying “By that logic, the hypothetical bioengineers must also have been steered into existence, because they are more complicated than the corn!” Mind you, I am not arguing that ID arguments are valid in this way. Rather, I’m using this example of a valid inference to intelligent intervention to show that the failure to account for the specific identity or origin of the intelligence does not invalidate the inference.

The bottom line is, it is possible that life on this planet was seeded, and/or that evolution was guided by some intelligent being. Pointing out the flaws in the evidence put forward for that theory by ID proponents is a worthwhile endeavor. However, arguing that ID is silly because it doesn’t explain the origin of the proposed creative intelligence seems just as invalid as arguing that the consensus scientific account is silly because it doesn’t explain the origin of life.

What’s wrong with my thinking here? Love the show.

You know I can’t resist a logic question, and this is a good one. The more subtle the better, because such slight distinctions really help you understand the underlying logic.

I think Paul’s problem is that he is mixing arguments. It may be that ID skeptics have also done this in the past, and Paul is responding to others who have mangled these arguments. So let me lay out my understanding of the arguments to which Paul is referring.

First, Paul refers to the fact that evolution deniers often criticize evolutionary theory (or sometimes all of materialism) by saying that it does not explain life origins. Evolution, however, is not about life origins, but the ways in which life changes over time. Evolution is a property of self-organizing, self-replicating, energy using systems (as long as the self-replication involves some variation). How such systems come into existence is a separate question.

A similar logical fallacy here is the god-of-the-gaps strategy of argument. Science is always incomplete – all explanations give only part of the picture and likely extrapolate from a limited set of data. There will therefore be holes or gaps in any scientific theory, no matter how solid it is. Even for theories that so far have held up completely to experimentation and observation, like special relativity, they are likely a superficial description of one aspect of a deeper underlying reality. (Whether science will ever get to the bottom and find a “theory of everything” remains to be seen.) The god-of-the-gaps strategy is to point at any incompleteness in current scientific explanations and proclaim that God is responsible for fill that gap in our current knowledge.

But these are actually distinct arguments with respect to evolution and the origin of life. Evolution is not about life origins (although chemical evolution likely played a role in the rise of molecules to something we would call life) – and therefore the criticism that evolution does not explain origins is not a gap argument – it is simply a non-sequitur. It’s like saying that special relativity does not explain genetic inheritence – it’s not supposed to.

Whereas saying that science (as opposed to just evolutionary theory) does no have a complete explanation for life origins, and therefore god did it, is a god-of-the-gaps argument.

Paul wrote: “I understand that this is often presented as an answer to the simplistic general axiom that “complexity implies a creator”, to which it is reasonable to respond, “If that were true, the creator would therefore also need a creator, and so on ad infinitum”.”

Here he is also mixing two arguments. The “creator would require a creator” argument is a response to the god-of-the-gaps argument that since we do not have an explanation for the origin of the universe, that the universe was created by God. The problem with this argument is that it solves nothing, it’s just displacing the mystery of origins from the universe to God – it adds an unnecessary step without explaining anything.

This is not the skeptical response to “complexity implies a creator.” This is actually an example of an unstated major premise – complexity requires a creator because only intelligent creation can produce complexity. The premise here – only intelligent creation can produce complexity – is actually the critical question, not something that can be casually assumed. The whole point of evolutionary theory is to provide a naturalistic explanation for how complexity can spontaneously arise within a self-reproducing, etc. system. Evolutionary theory has been so successful as an explanatory model and in its ability to make predictions that it is now accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists as not only a valid scientific theory but an established scientific fact.

This general acceptance has shifted the burden of proof to evolution deniers to either counter the evidence that supports evolution or to show that it cannot work. Evolution deniers have tried to do this; for example by arguing that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, or with irreducible complexity – but all such arguments have failed. So sometimes they try to bypass the need to show that evolution is wrong or doesn’t work by skipping straight to the assumption that complexity implies deliberate creation. This becomes circular reasoning. It is exactly as if they are saying, “OK, let’s assume that evolution cannot work. From that premise we can conclude that evolution is wrong.” They then pair that with the false dichotomy – if not evolution, then creation.

Paul’s analogy (which later in the thread he admits is weak) is very telling. What does “clearly bioengineered” mean? Does this mean that the corn’s genetic code contains elements that must have been engineered by humans, because there are highly improbable traits that are specific to human engineering? This can only be known if something is known about the process humans use to bioengineer corn. This analogy does not work with ID, because ID proponents refuse to make any statements about the creator or the method of creation. There can therefore be no “specific traits” of God’s, I mean the Intelligent Designer’s, creation.

Or does it mean that the corn displays traits that could not have arisen spontaneously. This is always ultimately an argument from ignorance, what we call in medicine the “diagnosis of exclusion.” It’s what’s left after you have eliminated everything known, but you can never know if there is something unknown that has not been eliminated. Such conclusions therefore always have an extra dimension of uncertainty. In terms of ID, this means, again, the assumption that evolutionary processes could not have produced the end result in question, in this case some unusual corn. Therefore “clearly bioengineered” would mean that somehow it can be demonstrated that the corn could not have arisen through some combination of cross-breeding, mutation, or natural selection. How would this be demonstrated? If we take “clearly bioengineered” as a premise, then this short-circuits the entire argument against ID from the get go.  How we could know that something was bioengineered is the question.

Thanks for the question, Paul.

10 comments to The Logic of Anti-ID Arguments

  • While the infinite regression argument is an interesting one, I still get a kick out of when Ken Ham says, “Evolution can’t explain the planet Neptune.” That always cracks me up.

  • Good question Paul,

    However it is not the same thing. See as Steven pointed out Evolution picks up AFTER life originated. It is not a theory of the origins of life as its enemies like to brand it, but it is a theory of life’s development after it originated.

    The main difference between the two arguments is that ID proponents assume the existence of an Intelligent Designer, who must be just as, if not more, complex as it’s creation (otherwise you have some sort of evolution, something more complex being created by something less complex). Evolution must assume the existence of a basic living unit, a cell for example, which is much less complex than life today. The first one adds no information and offers no solution. It can’t be verified, doesn’t make predictions, has no explanatory power.

    If you’re willing to assume that an Intelligent Designer just existed, then you must be equally ready to assume that life just existed. As such the ID answers eliminates the need to ask the question. It is logically self destructive, it makes the question it is trying to answer, unnecessary to answer.

  • ID is a flimsy attempt to push the ‘Creator’ back in time to defeat the problems inherent in the Creationist ‘recent earth’ argument. I don’t believe anyone argues ‘that ID is silly because it doesn’t explain the origin of the proposed creative intelligence’, and it would be naive to argue that science is silly if it fails to do the same.

    ID is silly because it tries to deny that complexity can come into being without any creative guidance. And we know, plainly, and from ample evidence, that it can. In fact ID is a kind of bluff move on the part of Creationists to divert attention from the absurd proposition that everything suddenly appeared as it is now, fully formed and operational 6000 years ago just like it says in the Bible. ID people have no choice but to accept the fact that humans can change God’s handiwork – just look at the hybridization of orchids, say – but their claim is that ultimately God is still in control. In other words, maybe God didn’t make the gadgets but he definitely made the parts. When it becomes clearer, as it is now, that humans can make the parts too, then God must have made the Rules. When science puts some good arguments together for the Rules, then ID/Creationism says yes, but it can’t explain how the Rules got there!

    To then advance the proposition that this means that therefore science is on the same footing as ID is completely erroneous. ID is not attempting to explain anything. It is doing the opposite in fact- it’s just saying ‘God did it’. That’s not an explanation – that’s an avoidance tactic. You could just as easily, and just as convincingly use the argument that ‘God created everything fully-formed – you & I and all our memories – yesterday!’ How could science ever ‘prove’ that wasn’t the case?

    I once gave some examples on my blog of the kinds of mistakes in thinking that Creationists and ID proponents make, I’ll spare you, but here is the one about complexity arising spontaneously:

    ‘Saying something like “What are the chances of the human eye arising entirely by chance? It’s a Miracle!!” is like pointing at a person on a bicycle and saying “Wow, what are the odds of seeing that particular guy, wearing that exact red scarf, on that exact model of bicycle riding down this exact street in London on a Tuesday in December?” Of course, they are ENORMOUS odds. You would not put a wager on such an event happening. Nevertheless, when you see that guy on his bicycle zip past, you don’t scream “It’s a miracle!” Why? Because it isn’t a miracle unless you consider it out of context and without all the relevant facts that led to that point.’

    Sorry, that was longer than I intended…

    Keep up the good work Rogues. I never miss the show.

  • medicated

    Want to have some fun when next you discuss this issue with a cdesign proponentist? Point out that if you can use the complexity of an object to imply the existence of a designer for that object, then you can also use the simplicity of an object to imply that it was not designed. Then ask if ID “theory” predicts that, say, a water molecule or a gram of silicon was not designed.
    In my experience, this eventually leads the IDer to reduce the complexity threshold for the implication of design, until eventually he/she/it/them gives up in disgust, or is forced to admit that every given object in the universe is so complex that it must have been designed. Once that point is reached, I find that explicitly religious arguments will shortly appear.
    As I said, this can be quite entertaining, especially if your cdesign propenentist claims to be approaching the issue from a scientific rather than a religious perspective.

  • BenjCano

    [quote]‘Saying something like “What are the chances of the human eye arising entirely by chance? It’s a Miracle!!” is like pointing at a person on a bicycle and saying “Wow, what are the odds of seeing that particular guy, wearing that exact red scarf, on that exact model of bicycle riding down this exact street in London on a Tuesday in December?” Of course, they are ENORMOUS odds. You would not put a wager on such an event happening. Nevertheless, when you see that guy on his bicycle zip past, you don’t scream “It’s a miracle!” Why? Because it isn’t a miracle unless you consider it out of context and without all the relevant facts that led to that point.’[/quote]

    I use a variation of that line of comment, but substitute license plates for “that guy in the red scarf,” mostly because people tend to have a better understanding of the cosmic odds involved with any particular combination of letters and numbers on a plate.

    I have yet to figure out how to work customized vanity tags into this analogy.

  • Yoo

    I would have a little respect for intelligent design proponents if they actually managed to scientifically explore and expand their ideas. E.g., let’s say that they manage to show that life has been designed (they haven’t even managed this first step), then the next step would be to find out attributes of the designer and how the design occurred with a mix of theory and experiments.

    They don’t even do the first step properly, though, and despite this they crow about how much intelligent design is a viable scientific theory. And this is despite the fact that they have absolutely no positive experimental evidence for their claims and that their usual approach is to poke the same supposed holes in evolutionary theory over and over again, even when said holes have been refuted or filled a long time ago.

    Intelligent design proponents don’t even manage to find new weaknesses in evolution that might point to new avenues of research for biologists (it feels like the last time this happened must have been a century ago, although I do wonder if there are any recent examples). No wonder I have no respect for intelligent design.

  • Jim Shaver

    BenjCano:

    By the way, the tags you want to use here for a block quote are <blockquote> and </blockquote>. Just trying to help with this internetty stuff. :)

  • mat alford

    Wouldn’t Paul’s question have been more subtle and more difficult to break down if he had ignored evolution and just concentrated on creation?

    The question as to the nature of the catalyst for the organic chemistry that resulted in ‘life’ is an awkward one. And whatever the force or energy for that reaction was, it certainly created something.

    For many sceptics, the only intellectually defensible position on the ‘deist question’ is one of agnosticism. This leaves room at least for the possibility of a creator that enabled that ‘first cell to form’. Evolution/natural selection then took over.

    This is why we should be careful to not always lump the creationists and the ID proponents together. ID is just dumb, and easy to pull apart. Creationism (depending on how you define it) maybe an acceptable position, although perhaps outside the realm of science.

  • Just as a further note to my previous comment… we can stick a fork in Creationism. She’s done. Evolution has been witnessed in the laboratory.

  • [...] Rogue’s Gallery talked about possible logical problems when criticizing intelligent design and does a good job of explaining why such criticisms are not illogical. I left a comment [...]

Leave a Reply