Quote of the Day (Casey Luskin)

“identifying the designer can’t be done by science. It is a strictly theological question” (Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute)

I just had to make this my “Quote of the Day” today. Not only did the Discovery Institute respond to my accusation of dishonesty, but they were kind enough to illustrate it!

Luskin goes on to state that “while biological structures may be scientifically explained via intelligent design, the structures themselves have no way of directly telling us whether the designer is Yahweh, Buddha, Yoda, or some other type of intelligent agency.” A whole second page is devoted to elaborating on this question of the designer’s identity, trying to salvage the appearance of honesty.

The attempt is unsuccessful. No one believes that a fictional Jedi master from Star Wars created the universe. Buddhists don’t believe the universe had a beginning, and so they certainly won’t claim the Buddha created it. Guess which option is left… The aim of Intelligent Design, as I said in a post earlier today, is to try to manipulate the impression people have of what the scientific evidence can and cannot prove, and to use it to get people to just the point where they ask ‘Who designed this?’, at which point they will presumably be told the “Four Spiritual Laws”.

The truth is that, if science can say anything about design at all, it can go further than the Discovery Institute wants people to believe. If one can demonstrate design, one can also study the flaws in design. If one can detect the affects of human intelligence acting on the environment, or of water erosion carving channels in rock, it is only because the scientists have some knowledge of those personal and impersonal forces and their effects.

Either the study of design can tell us something about the designer – in which case it tells us things that are theologically troubling – or it cannot tell us that something was designed at all. The assumption of Intelligent Design is consistently that God (oops, sorry, “the Designer”) does not work through natural processes. Is it too much to hope that the Christians in the movement might read verses like Exodus 14:21 and broaden their perspective just a little?

It is certainly true that discussions of the actions of persons take us beyond the realm of the sciences. Discussing what a painter ‘meant’ by a certain painting is not something science can tell us. But could science, as science, tell us that a painting was designed at all? Would an analysis of the chemical makeup of the paints be enough to prove design? Could we tell anything about the paint-maker through such a study? Couldn’t we study the presence or lack of impurities in a human-made substance and determine the level of expertise of the maker? Could we tell anything at all about design if we didn’t already know something about human beings and the sorts of things we make?

As I’ve said before, Michael Behe’s argument about Mount Rushmore is instructive. The classic viewpoint of the Jewish and Christian traditions expressed in the Bible is that mountains in general are God’s handiwork. Ones with presidents’ faces on them are what human handiwork looks like. A failure to appreciate this difference, and an insistence on making analogies between God’s handiwork and that of humans, seems to be what keeps getting these proponents of Intelligent Design in trouble.

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  • George

    Indeed, many of Dembski’s own favorite examples give the lie to the claim that science can simply infer design without making any kind of statement about the nature of the designer whatsoever. We can only detect design in election frauds, or fraudulent scientific papers, because we know something about the way these frauds are usually perpetrated. We can detect design in Mount Rushmore because we know the way humans design things.Now, ID could be made a legitimate, testable theory. They could say, ‘life was designed in such and such a way, which must have left certain clues in the natural world that we will find in future, if our theory is correct.’ These predictions, of course, cannot be of the variety ‘naturalistic theories will be unable to provide an explanation for sos-and-so.’ It has to be new evidence that we have not found yet.An example of this would be if the great majority of ‘junk DNA’ did turn out to actually have function, and not function that is clearly evolved from, vestigial of, earlier function. The fact that many macroscopic structures labeled ‘vestigial’ do possess functions, occasionally even important ones, makes them no less vestigial. The fact that the coccyx (tail bone) is useful as a shock absorber shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the obvious realization that it is descended from an analogous bone in creatures who actually possessed tails. Just so, if most junk DNA is found to have function that does not stem from a protein-coding ‘ancestor’ or a non-functional ‘ancestor’ with the trademarks of natural selection, it will be an evidential victory for a specific formulation of ID hypothesis, provided such a hypothesis is ever formulated.Of course, such a prediction would only constitute circumstantial evidence. But as most of the important evidence for evolution, and indeed most of the evidence for any branch of science, is circumstantial, I don’t see that as a problem. ID would merely need to acquire a very large amount of such evidence in order to compete, as evolution has perhaps the largest catalogue of evidence of any theory in the history of science. To be sure, I believe the likelihood of this happening to be very low. The more evidence a theory acquires, the lower the likelihood of its being totally overturned; the only plausible outcome in which ID would emerge victorious is one in which evolution remained responsible for the majority of life’s diversity and the designer only entered at a few key steps along the way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17899049404620738944 scripto

    It seems as though Casey got himself in some sort of logic pretzel.ID starts with observations from “uniform sensory experience” showing the effects of intelligence in the natural worldThis is a new one for me. Any idea what he is talking about?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17336244849636477317 John Pieret

    Re “uniform sensory experience”: There is this article by Luskin that expands on it a bit, as follows: “[ID] appeals to our uniform experience of presently acting causes …” There is also this article which includes an excerpt from the Amicus Brief filed by the Foundation For Thought And Ethics (the publisher of Of Pandas and People):”Pandas infers design using observations, uniform experience, and empirical experimental evidence: “If experience has shown that a certain class of phenomena results from intelligent causes and then we encounter something new but similar, we conclude its origin also to be from an intelligent cause.”It’s really hard to tell, but I think they are using it as a weasel term that can mean “empiric evidence” when they want it to seem like they are acting scientifically and “common sense” (i.e. a wild-assed inference without basis in fact) when they want to make their argumentum ad ignoratum that any gap in our scientific knowledge is evidence for design.

  • George

    The trouble with using ‘our uniform experience’ as evidence of anything when we’re talking about design is that our uniform experience of design is exceedingly limited. We have experience of human design. That’s it. We therefore have no way to distinguish between aspects of this design that are entirely specific to human design and those that may be indicative of design in general. Many characteristics of human design result solely from constraints of efficiency and function imposed on us by our environment. It is hardly likely radically different designers would share these characteristics; they would likely have very different ones depending on their own environment and history.So how do IDers tell which characteristics of Mount Rushmore are indicative of design in general, and which indicative of environmental constraints that would likely have influenced the products of evolution as well? The answer is, they can’t.

  • Franzine

    Actually lots of people out there these days believe in a natural, extraterrestrial alien-like creator.  I’m a Christian and I don’t.  But on logical grounds, Luskin doesn’t seem implausible to be saying that the evidnece for design doesn’t tell you who the designer is.