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.