Final Thoughts on the Problem of Sifting Natural from Designed

Final Thoughts on the Problem of Sifting Natural from Designed August 17, 2020

Imagine a simple algorithm that would reliably tell us whether something is natural or designed. Christian apologist Jim Wallace claims to have a checklist that can be used as such an algorithm.

But no, he doesn’t.

Let’s revisit that list one final time to summarize the problems with it. The overall idea is good (yes, it would be nice to have such an algorithm), but the execution was poor. Here’s a list of necessary corrections.

Problem 1: it’s a biased list

The jury has returned a verdict: evolution is correct, and the flagellar motor is natural. Wallace’s checklist of rules is an end run to save a game that Creationists lost a century ago. No biologist would reject evolution after reading this argument. Its value is only in giving wavering Christians an unfounded sense that the science is on their side.

Where they can, I’m happy to let the experts decide. National Geographic says that a weird undersea design was caused by a fish? That’s good enough for me. EarthSky.org explains lunar and solar eclipses as natural? Sure, I’ll accept that. But that’s not allowed by the unwritten rules behind Wallace’s original list! If he were to let the experts decide, they’d immediately put the bacterial flagellum in the Natural category—it’s there because of evolution, and evolution is natural. I’m happy to accept the consensus of science experts, but he isn’t.

The obvious expert witness for Wallace to call would be a biologist who could explain the scientific consensus, not Michael Behe and his irreducible complexity argument. That’s what you do when the consensus view is inconvenient, and you’re groping for something else. The whole purpose of the list was to reopen a closed case, ignore the experts, and encourage ordinary people to decide instead.

Why is evolution even a thing? A perfect Designer would design a perfect creature for each biological niche. And yet to look at his handiwork, he is apparently constrained by designs in other environments. The tree of life (cladistics), with species connected by their relatedness, is exactly what we wouldn’t expect from such a Designer and exactly what we’d need to see if life were shaped by evolution. Only evolution would need to repurpose things (a tail in human embryos that later gets reabsorbed; jaw bones to make the inner ear; front limbs that are fins, then legs, then wings; etc.). God’s perfect design would be elegant, but in life around us, complexity is the closest we come.

The theory of evolution is a house of cards—not in that it’s rickety or likely to fall but because a thousand different counterexamples could have overturned it. One of these is the famous hypothetical discovery of “fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian.” God could do anything, but evolution has constraints. That evolution is at all plausible given the evidence we find argues that God isn’t responsible for life being the way it is.

Problem 2: this list hasn’t been tested

A serious list would first be tested against hundreds of things that are known to be designed or natural. Next, it would be tested against things in the gray area—for example, an elaborate crystal that’s natural but looks designed or a simple stone mortar and pestle that’s designed but looks natural. Only if the list were very reliable on all these cases (say, 99% accurate or better) would we trust its evaluation on a case we honestly didn’t understand. Previous posts have highlighted this problem by listing some important examples that should be tried (more).

I give a sample of tests that could be added to this list here.

Problem 3: the list isn’t objective, repeatable, or quantitative

The list must provide a quantitative result for each test case—say a 10-point scale between “certainly natural” and “certainly designed.”

The prerequisites for users must be clear. Must the user have been raised in the West, or could someone from a culture without modern technology and formal education use it? At a minimum, it must allow young-earth Creationist Christians, scientists, atheists, and anyone in between to reliably reach about the same score for any test case.

Problem 4: the list doesn’t acknowledge how radical “supernatural designer” would be as a conclusion

Creationists want to conclude, “See there? This thing is likely not natural, but we know it’s not manmade. Therefore it was made supernaturally (and I can give you some suggestions of Who in particular, if you need any help).” But even if we know of no natural precedents, that doesn’t mean something must have been designed. This list doesn’t allow us to bypass the Sagan standard, the aphorism that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Concluding a supernatural designer would take a mountain of evidence, which we don’t have.

Anyway, advanced aliens would be a far likelier cause of something mysterious than the supernatural. Aliens are intelligent lifeforms with technology, which we already know exist. No new major category must be created to accept aliens, but the very existence of the supernatural is doubtful.

Remember also that an attack on evolution is no support for Intelligent Design/Creationism. For Creationism to beat evolution, it must explain why life is the way it is better than evolution. Creationists haven’t even accepted that challenge, let alone answered it.

God’s hiddenness

All this gets back to the problem of God’s hiddenness. Why must we track down these tenuous clues instead of having God’s existence be obvious? Shouldn’t Christian apologists be embarrassed that they must sink to arguments like this that broadcast how weak their case for God is?

(More on the problem of divine hiddenness here, here, and here.)

There’s one more post in this series: 5 Ways the Design Argument Fails

The universe we observe
has precisely the properties we should expect
if there is, at bottom,
no design, no purpose, no evil and no good,
nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
— Richard Dawkins

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Image from Ankur Gautam (copyright free)
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