Engineering an idea

8 01 2007

The latest post over at Uncommon Descent got me thinking. Little more than a cut-and-paste job to support the release of Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator DVD (exclusively featuring those nutty Discovery Institute fellows). The poster, GilDodgen, writes this in support of Stephen Meyer’s assertions about the preponderance of various engineers in favor of intelligent design:

“As a software engineer — in both the artificial-intelligence and aerospace research and development fields — I recognized that there were huge problems with the thesis that natural selection and random variation could produce complex information-processing systems, because designing such systems is what I do.”

The attempt to convince people that ID is a legitimate hypothesis (notice I didn’t say “theory”) by way of making allusions to art, music, mechanics, or software has long aggravated me. Surely, if someone finds a hitherto-undiscovered cave painting we can infer that such a painting was likely the result of someone who wanted to try their hand at depicting, say, a mammoth. How can we infer this? Well, there are other cave paintings in various locales, there is evidence that people were living in the area that seem to match the time period in which the painting was made, and we can identify to some degree who did the work. Identifying the designer is a key element, as I can’t see anthropologists settling for “This is the product of intelligence, but we can never know who made it, why they made it, or when they made it” and hence close of inquiry. I’m sure there are some artifacts that have yet to be fully described and that may remain mysterious, but it would be a joke to say that we can’t at least get some idea of the designer from their work. Despite their appeals to such analogies, however, ID advocates propose just this about their own designer.

“Purposeful arrangement of parts” turned out to be one of the phrases that led to Michael Behe’s undoing on the stand during the Dover trial, the phrase inferring that things were put together for a reason or with a certain function in mind before completion, hence inferring design. This seems to hold up with man-made products, but I don’t see it holding to the natural world. When an engineer creates something, be it software, a bridge, or a motorcycle, they don’t seem to go to great pains to make it just a little different from previous work or include “vestigial” parts: it’s all about making the product functional and then including whatever bells and whistles may be fit to be added. Such products of human innovation are designed with a purpose in mind, in the case of a car to get someone from one destination to another in relative comfort, hence the product will be designed to fill whatever need is vacant. Inferring such a system on some supernatural intelligence seems silly to me, some god thinking “Well, I really would like those bacteria to get around more efficiently, so I’ll give them a flagellum.” Such a description almost reminds me of the “God of Evolution” in the wonderful Terry Pratchett novel The Last Continent (the god’s ultimate creation being the cockroach, of course).

So, if we take ID advocates at their word on this matter, not only is life designed but it has purpose. What purpose? They won’t say. This seems to belie the attempted 1-2 suckerpunch of the Disco Institute, for once you believe life is designed and has a purposeful arrangement of parts, then life must have a purpose, right? And if all life has purpose, then you have a purpose to and will be led by this warm and fuzzy feeling to the nearest church/synagogue/mosque (although if the faith of major ID advocates is any judge, a Christian institution would be preferred), forever shrugging off the chains of materialism and “worldly thoughts.” This is what I can the “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?” approach, proponents of such ideas believing that once “dangerous” ideas like evolution are swept away mankind will turn back to god and all the abortion, homosexuality, greed, rape, murder, lies, etc will end once and for all. Doesn’t seem like they really thought things through, huh?

Is life complex? Surely, it is, and the more we know the stranger it gets. Even so, not having all the answers is no excuse to start appealing to absolutely or invisible forces, the same sort of logic that has led some to suggest that we can’t find Bigfoot because the creature is psychic (perhaps Bigfoot is the intelligent designer… hmm). Until ID pundits can actually show us the actual signs of design and what such indications mean, they will be left to wallow in shallow analogies and poor logic, attempting to dazzle laypeople who may already be inclined to believing there’s a higher power or intelligence. Such is one of the most maddening parts of my intellectual journey, many Christians I know embracing ID because it seems to give scientific credence to what they already believe. Keep in mind that although many creationists reject the stripped down, God-not-included version of ID set out before school boards across the country, they often use many of the same arguments from design, attempting to appeal to logic and fuzzy feelings rather than actually taking a scientific stand.


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