Friday, March 25, 2005
Setting the Facts Straight on Intelligent Design
Intelligent Design in a Nutshell
Many people equate Intelligent Design with Creationism. That is untrue. Although this is somewhat the fault of dogmatic darwinists, some blame must be placed on Dembski, who often fails to separate out the idea of Intelligent Design with its implications based on results in Biology. I think if this were more properly separated by both him and others, it would lead fewer people to misunderstand Intelligent Design.
The basics of Intelligent Design say the following:
- Objects that are creations of design (computers, toaster ovens, paintings, etc.) have certain properties that objects that arise by chance (tornadoes, rock formations, etc) do not contain.
- It is possible to determine mathematically the likelihood of whether or not an object is the result of design.
- We can use this mathematic quantity to determine whether an object of unknown origin is a product of design.
I hope you noticed that these basics mention neither biology, creation, nor evolution.
If Intelligent Design is correct (and I emphasize "if"), then this can be used to go beyond an intuition that something is a result of intelligent causes to a mathematical criteria to determine whether they are above a statistical threshold containing evidence of design. Note that this is how every other scientific property is judged -- based on statistical thresholds (this are often termed "error bars" or "confidence measures" in science). Also note that although it is always possible that something deemed to be Intelligently Designed might have just resulted from chance, that is true of all scientific inferences. What makes an inference scientific is the ability to measure the confidence interval of your data (i.e. 93% accurate, +- 1%, 99% confident of the interval). Any given set of scientific data might be inaccurate, but we have measures so we can determine the likelihood of its accuracy. While it is possible that all scientific experiments are incorrect and the results are the result of chance happenings, we know because of the confidence measures that this possibility is so remote as to not even consider. This is also how Intelligent Design works. It says that we can measure the design of an object so that we can have a measurable confidence in an assertion about whether or not an object is designed. And remember, we still haven't mentioned biology yet.
Some people complain that Intelligent Design is simply covering up the gaps with an "Intelligent Creator". In fact, it's nothing of the sort. Let's take, for instance, a computer. According to Intelligent Design, a computer is the result of an intelligent designer. However, this does not prevent further inquiry into how computers are put together. It is perfectly logical to say that computers are built by intelligent designers, and then go and describe the production process for a computer. It is also perfectly logical to describe the history of computers, and of their design. Intelligent Design absolutely does not just throw up its hands and say "I don't know how it got here, it must be intelligently designed." On the contrary, most designed objects we have experience with we know exactly how they got here. In fact, some production processes are so efficient, with only a serial number I can identify the assembly line workers who put it together, and get a fully documented history of its design. The only thing Intelligent Design does do is rule out a process that is completely devoid of design. It is compatible, however, with the idea that chance could be involved in an object's final state. For example, the scratch on my computer monitor was the result of a chance happening. This does not negate the known fact that my computer was designed by an intelligent designer. In fact, even positive chance happenings can occur. For example, my shoes are much more comfortable after I've worn them for a few months, but that does not mean because some parts of their final state are improved and different from their design, that the shoes themselves are not a product of design.
And notice, we still haven't talked about biology yet.
A Short Note on the SETI Project
As mentioned in Dembski's book, the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project relies entirely on Intelligent Design. In their case, they are trying to find a signal that is obviously not the result of chance or purely naturalistic causes, but can only be ascribed to an intelligence. Without this assumption, SETI would not have any way of evaluating a signal and determining if it was the result of intelligence or not. SETI recognizes that there are distinct differences between natural, chance happenings and intelligent happenings, and believes that they can detect them. That's how Intelligent Design works.
Criteria for Determining Design
Before going into these, we must note that the lack of these criteria does not imply an undesigned object. In science, you have the null hypothesis, which can never be proven right, only wrong. In Intelligent Design, the null hypothesis is undesign, which can never be proven right, we can only prove that the characteristics of design are statistically significant, as with every other area of scientific inquiry.
The key to Dembski's Intelligent Design criteria is specified complexity, which is complexity that accomplishes a purpose or follows a patterned design. He lists five ingredients for specified complexity:
Probabilities of Events Occurring
This is the most basic -- essentially establishing the probabilities of various possible events and outcomes occurring (however, while it is easy to understand, this can be very hard to compute). The example Dembski gives is that of a combination lock with three wheels each with 40 positions. The chance that any given combination will be the combination to the lock is 40x40x40 = 64,000. The "complexity" part of specified complexity refers to the improbability of an event occurring when not taking intelligent agents into account.
Conditionally Independent Patterns
The patterns found must be independent of an event. Shooting an arrow and then drawing a bullseye around the arrow's landing point does not qualify the arrow shot as intelligently directed. However, if the targets are set up in advance, then hitting a bullseye does point to an intelligence, because the pattern was specified independent of the event. This is the "specified" of specified complexity. Specification doesn't mean much when the odds are about even, but when taken with events of small probability, you have specified complexity.
This is the number of opportunities for a specified complex event to occur. There are two types:
- Replicational resources means that the event has multiple chances to happen. If we have 200,000 random guesses at the combination lock mentioned above, hitting upon the correct combination is no longer seen as such a feat.
- Specificational resources means that there are multiple specifications to hit. If the combination lock above has 50,000 possible combinations that open it, again, hitting upon the correct combination is no longer a feat.
This is the one I find most interesting. Since we can't see the patterns of a designer beforehand, this is a test to verify that we aren't just making up ad-hoc specifications. The more complex the specification, the more likely it is that we are dealing with a true specification, and not just a description made up to look like the specification. According to Dembski, this is measured by Kolmogorov complexity. For example, the pattern "ten heads in a row" is a simpler pattern than "heads, then tails, then heads twice, then tails once, then heads once, then heads four times".
This sort of order is interesting to me because of my background in computer science. In computer science, there are numerous compression algorithms. This is what makes GIF files smaller than BMP files on your computer, and allows you to compress your entire CD collection into mp3's that can fit on an iPod. However, it is a principle of mathematics that you cannot compress random data. If you know how, there is someone willing to give you $10,000 right now if you can compress the data he gives you. Therefore, you can essentially detect the amount design that occurs within a specification by attempting to compress it. The more compressible it is in relation to the event/object specified, the more likely it is an actual specification, and not an post-hoc specification.
The Universal Probability Bound
This is a measure of the highest amount of improbability available in the universe. According to Dembski, events over this bound are improbable no matter how many probabilistic resources you apply to them. He calculates by estimating the number of particles in the universe, combining it with available time, and the fastest rate that matter can change states (corresponding to Planck time, again, another item outside my field).
Modes of Explanation
In addition to specified complexity, Dembski also discusses Intelligent Design in more of a philosophical context dealing with the three modes of explanation -- necessity, chance, and design. Necessity is something that by physical law must happen. Chance is something that occurs, but not by necessity. Design is that which is neither by necessity nor by chance, which we can determine by specified complexity.
Intelligent Design and Biology
I hope you've noticed, WE HAVEN'T MENTIONED BIOLOGY YET. Intelligent Design as a theory is entirely separate from anything dealing with Biology at all. If you have a criticism of Intelligent Design in general, and you can't frame it WITHOUT REFERENCING BIOLOGY, CREATION, OR EVOLUTION, then you haven't understood Intelligent Design. So, why has Intelligent Design created such a noise in the area of biology? Simply this:
IF Intelligent Design is true (and I hope you notice that "if" is emphasized), then there is no reason it cannot be applied to biological systems.
Criticism of Intelligent Design
I have a lot of criticisms of intelligent design, personally, but I need to go be with my family for a little bit, I miss them :) However, I will tell you what my major ones are in general terms.
I think the biggest problem in all of science is determining the role intelligence plays in causation. If we assume cause/effect relationships (and quantum mechanics I've heard gives us some reason not to), then ultimately those cause/effect relationships include intelligent agents. Therefore, to what extent are the actions of intelligent agents guided by necessity, and to what extent are they guided by design? This conundrum even prompted one philosopher (I forget who) to speculate that will and causation were two completely different entities, which only happened to collide. Note that if necessity were the only real component of explanation, then explanations themselves would have no meaning, because they would only be the result of necessity. In order to engage in reason or science at all, intelligence or will must be assumed, but the relation of them to necessity is still a very large problem which we have not even approached solving.
This has a HUUUGE effect on calculating probabilities, and of detecting design.
Secondly, there is determining whether the base set of objects we apply this test to to determine the test's validity we know whether or not they are designed. A nihilist might believe that nothing is designed, and therefore would falsify the design inference because it would show design on things that were not designed. The Calvinist creationist might think that all is designed, therefore the percentage of designed objects that the inference detects would be meaningless. For science to be workable at all, both these extreme positions must be rejected, but that still leaves us without a true ability to find a base set of designed and undesigned objects to perform these tests on. However, we can probably get around this by looking at objects that the majority of us can agree are designed and undesigned.