Eric Anderson at Uncommon Descent: what ID is and is not

Eric Anderson, over at Uncommon Descent, gives what is IMO a very concise and lucid account of what ID does and does not do:

 

You may be disappointed that ID doesn’t identify the designer. You may complain that ID doesn’t provide a bright-line definition of mind, or consciousness or other things that scientists and philosophers have struggled with for centuries. You may be frustrated that ID doesn’t provide more answers than it does. But these are frustrations borne of your own desires and expectations, not a problem with ID itself.

 

ID is not a theory of everything. It has never claimed to be. ID does not seek to identify the designer. It is not a philosophy of mind, or consciousness, however interesting those topics may be. We may wish to pursue those topics as follow-up questions to ID, but it is not a failing of ID that ID does not have answers to everything. I’ve said it and will say it again: ID is a very simple and limited inquiry, and can be understood and explored and addressed with a very basic common every-day understanding of what we mean with words like ‘design’ and ‘plan’ and ‘intent’ and ‘purpose’. There is no need for definitional plays or semantic deep-dives. If someone wants to go beyond that and ask philosophical questions or speculate about mind, consciousness, the nature of reality, and so forth, great. Those are valuable inquires in their own right.

 

However, by the same token it seems to me to highlight what, IMO, is wrong with ID, without muddying the water with extraneous claims.

It is certainly not a failing of ID that “not a failing of ID that ID does not have answers to everything”, any more, I would say, that it is a failure of Darwin’s theory that it does not have answers to everything, not least being an answer to the question of how life began.

Nor is it a failing of ID that it does not “provide a bright-line definition of mind, or consciousness or other things that scientists and philosophers have struggled with for centuries”.  But where Eric is wrong, I think, is where he says:

ID is a very simple and limited inquiry, and can be understood and explored and addressed with a very basic common every-day understanding of what we mean with words like ‘design’ and ‘plan’ and ‘intent’ and ‘purpose’.  There is no need for definitional plays or semantic deep-dives.

Yes, there is such a need, if ID is to be regarded as a testable scientific hypothesis.  In order to test a hypothesis in science you need to operationalise it, and to operationalise it, you need an operational definition of the terms used to express that hypothesis, in this case, words that include “design” and “plan” and “intent” and “purpose”.

And to quote the linked definition on Wikipedia:

An operational definition defines something (e.g. a variable, term, or object) in terms of the specific process or set of validation tests used to determine its presence and quantity. That is, one defines something in terms of the operations that count as measuring it.[1]

And that, to me, is where ID falls down.  Dembski, to his credit, does provide a reasonable operational definition of intelligence (“the power and facility to choose between options“), but does so in a way that excludes “intention” (specifically, in fact) and so inadvertently covers natural selection (a point that I made, not originally, in my first doomed foray on to UD).  But if IDists do invoke “intention” as a necessary attribute of “intelligence”, it seems to me that their argument no longer holds anyway, as “choosing systems” that are nonetheless not “intentional” can be readily demonstrated to produce precisely the kinds of patterns that Dembski, ironically, rightly, given his definition, attributes to “intelligence”.

Moreoever, Eric’s post also reveals what I think is a more fundamental flaw in ID: the fact that it is a default conclusion without a specific hypothesis.  It is arrived at (at least in Dembski’s formulation) by rejecting a null.  Which would be fine, if what is usually called “H1″ was defined.  But it isn’t, not even using “very basic common every-day understanding of words like design”.  It is the default conclusion to be inferred if a pattern cannot be accounted for by “Chance”.  The problem here is that not only is H1 not defined, but H0 (the null), namely “Chance” is not defined either.  The implication seems to be that “Chance” stands for “drawn from an equiprobable distribution of patterns”.

But the theory of evolution (in any formulation) does not state that complex life forms equipped with all kinds of fancy gadgets that promote not only their own persistence in a environment full of resources and threats, but the persistence of their kind, came about because certain configurations of organic compounds happened to be drawn from some cosmic hat. It provides a whole series of mechanisms (involving both choosing mechanisms and mechanisms that provide options to choose between) by which such forms will tend to arise, given some starting conditions.

And this is why ID is essentially vacuous.  If all it does is what Eric rightly says it does, then it fails.  It can only succeed if it tries to do what Eric rightly claims it does not try to do: actually propose mechanisms by which a designer might not only have designed biological life, but implemented it, and derive testable hypotheses from that proposal.

This is why I was delighted to see Genomicus’s series of posts (here, here and here) on “frontloading”.  I think his ideas are a long way short of a viable program still, but he’s on the right lines.  But then he’s also going well beyond what Eric claims is ID’s remit.

65 thoughts on “Eric Anderson at Uncommon Descent: what ID is and is not

  1. All one has to do to falsify any given design inference is to demonstrate that necessity and chance are all that is required-

    I’ve never been able to tell whether an iterative feedback process is necessary (it doesn’t seem to be) or chance (it doesn’t seem to be) or design (it doesn’t seem to be this either).

    Which leads me to suspect that the universe of possibilities has not been enumerated very well.

  2. Patrick: You seem to be assuming that intelligent intervention is the default, despite providing no evidence for any such intelligence or intervention.That is not a scientific theory.

    What is the scientific theory of intelligent design and what testable predictions are entailed by the theory and would serve to falsify it if proven incorrect?

    You have no idea what “default” even means.

    What is your position’s testable hypothesis? And I told you how to falsify ID. Obvioulsy you have other issues.

  3. Flint: I’ve never been able to tell whether an iterative feedback process is necessary (it doesn’t seem to be) or chance (it doesn’t seem to be) or design (it doesn’t seem to be this either).

    Which leads me to suspect that the universe of possibilities has not been enumerated very well.

    Whatever Flint- your position doesn’t have a testable hypothesis nor does it make any predictions.

  4. Cubist: I didn’t mention Stonehenge, joeg. Instead, I said that the scientific fields of archaeology and forensic science do have a protocol of distinguishing between design and non-design. Since you, yourself, noted that such a protocol does, indeed, exist, it’s far from clear why you accuse me of “[not] knowing what [I am] talking about” here. And in the fields of forensic science and archaeology, you do test whether or not a given whatzit is Designed by formulating a hypothesis about how said whatzit was manufactured, and testing that hypothesis. If you disagree, I’d be interested in seeing if you can pony up any counter-examples, instances in which an archaeologist of forensics specialist has determined Design by any other protocol than ‘formulate a hypothesis of manufacture, and test said hypothesis’.

    Umm Stonehenge was an example that refutes your nonsense. And your position has nothing- no testable hypothesis nor any predictions.

  5. Joe G: You have no idea what “default” even means.

    What is your position’s testable hypothesis?

    We’re discussing ID here. If you want to learn about modern evolutionary theory, there are hundreds of textbooks and hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed papers available to you.

    And I told you how to falsify ID.

    You did no such thing. What is the scientific theory of intelligent design and what testable predictions are entailed by the theory and would serve to falsify it if proven incorrect?

  6. Patrick: We’re discussing ID here.If you want to learn about modern evolutionary theory, there are hundreds of textbooks and hundreds of thousands of peer reviewed papers available to you.

    You did no such thing.What is the scientific theory of intelligent design and what testable predictions are entailed by the theory and would serve to falsify it if proven incorrect?

    LoL! I have read about the ToE and it can’t even muster a testable hypothesis.

    And to falsify the design inference all one has to do is demonstrate that blind and undirected processes can account for it-> Newton’s First Rule and all.

  7. Joe G: LoL! I have read about the ToE and it can’t even muster a testable hypothesis.

    And to falsify the design inference all one has to do is demonstrate that blind and undirected processes can account for it-> Newton’s First Rule and all.

    Unless and until you provide an actual scientific hypothesis that entails testable predictions, nothing can serve to falsify intelligent design. “Somewhere, somehow, at some time, some entity did something” is not falsifiable.

    What is the scientific theory of intelligent design and what testable predictions are entailed by the theory and would serve to falsify it if proven incorrect?

  8. Patrick: Unless and until you provide an actual scientific hypothesis that entails testable predictions, nothing can serve to falsify intelligent design.”Somewhere, somehow, at some time, some entity did something” is not falsifiable.

    What is the scientific theory of intelligent design and what testable predictions are entailed by the theory and would serve to falsify it if proven incorrect?

    Well your position doesn’t have anything Patrick. No testable hypotheses and no predictions.

    But all that is moot because obvioulsy you are ignorant of science.

  9. Unless and until you provide an actual scientific hypothesis that entails testable predictions, nothing can serve to falsify the theory of evolution. “Somewhere, somehow, at some time, some thing did something” is not falsifiable.

  10. Joe G:
    Unless and until you provide an actual scientific hypothesis that entails testable predictions, nothing can serve to falsify the theory of evolution. “Somewhere, somehow, at some time, some thing did something” is not falsifiable.

    Tell you what, Joe.

    For each and every specific and risky prediction of ID “science” you can give me, I’ll match you with one from evolutionary theory.

    (Warning – googling “intelligent design predictions” is not too helpful)

    Your throw.

  11. damitall: Tell you what, Joe.

    For each and every specific and risky prediction of ID “science” you can give me, I’ll match you with one from evolutionary theory.

    (Warning – googling “intelligent design predictions” is not too helpful)

    Your throw.

    Nice equivocation. You need predictions based on blind and undirected processes.

    So for each and every specific and risky prediction borne from blind and undirected processes I will match you with two from ID.

    Good luck…

  12. Joe,

    If you change your mind and decide that you want to have a real discussion, I’ll be here. In the meantime, you should be aware that your unfounded claims are not exactly convincing.

    “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
    ― Christopher Hitchens

  13. Patrick:
    Joe,

    If you change your mind and decide that you want to have a real discussion, I’ll be here.In the meantime, you should be aware that your unfounded claims are not exactly convincing.

    “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
    ― Christopher Hitchens

    Patrick,

    What Hitchens said applies to your position. Your position doesn’t have any evidence so it is easily dismissed.

    So if you ever have anything to discuss I will be here.

  14. Patrick,

    What Hitchens said applies to your position- no evidence and that is why most people easily dismiss it.

    So if you ever have anything to discuss, I will be here.

  15. Patrick: You seem to be assuming that intelligent intervention is the default, despite providing no evidence for any such intelligence or intervention. That is not a scientific theory.
    What is the scientific theory of intelligent design and what testable predictions are entailed by the theory and would serve to falsify it if proven incorrect?

    No, ”intelligent intervention” is not being taken as the default. It is being inferred as the best explanation among competing hypothesis, which does follow the pattern of a historical scientific method that even Darwin used to formulate his theory of natural selection.
    I would like to point out that the OP makes some persuasive points, but unfortunately it is against a mischaracterization of what ID is. Eric’s quoted comments do not define what ID is (nor do I believe he was even trying to). The comments do touch on what ID does not do, as Elizabeth noted in her opening, but his comments don’t really mention what ID does do. So for one to argument against ID based on his comments, is not fairly representing ID.
    In addition, I am a little thrown off by what appears to be changing requirements. First in the OP it is stated:

    Yes, there is such a need, if ID is to be regarded as a testable scientific hypothesis. In order to test a hypothesis in science you need to operationalise it, and to operationalise it, you need an operational definition of the terms used to express that hypothesis

    but then in a response regarding evidence against “junk-DNA” it was said:

    However, I’ll stick my neck out and say that while falsifiability is a good litmus test of a scientific theory, it is not, in fact, how science generally proceeds…..
    ……
    Darwinian theory is not a testable scientific hypothesis. It’s an explanatory theory, just as ID is…..

    So which is it?
    I think for the sake of argument, I’ll go with the 2nd quote, which tends to put ID and Darwinian theory on a level playing field. And I think it is supported by the comments following the last set above:

    It proceeds by fitting models to data, and the better fitting models are retained while the worse-fitting models are discarded. So I would say that the real test of a scientific theory is: can we derive a testable model from it?
    …….
    But from it we can generate testable scientific hypotheses. This is what ID needs to produce if it is to be regarded as science IMO.

    Might I point out that “fitting models to data, and the better fitting models are retained while the worse-fitting models are discarded” is a restatement of that historical scientific theory of inferring the best explanation among competing hypotheses, and is precisely what ID is claiming to do.

    But to really evaluate that, you need a proper definition of ID. You could use the one from the UD site located here, but I prefer the definition stated on one of the Discovery Institute sites HERE. Part of that definition says:

    The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act.

    There. Your model.

    A lot of the evidence in support of ID comes from that last sentence in that statement. We infer the design in things every day, and it’s so obvious in most cases that people take it for granted. Recognizing the activity of intelligent agents constitutes a common and fully rational mode of inference. We do not need an ‘operational definition’ of “design” to make that judgment in most cases. But if you must have it, Dembski has provided definitions of CSI and even a mathematical representation that can be partially seen here.

    As for testable predictions (as stated on the definition page I referred to), one easy one (that was already mentioned in the comments with regards to the bacterial flagellar motor) is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. And if you want to drop Darwinian theory from any predictions about Junk-DNA (which I should point out has not been the case for some prominent Darwinist supporters), that is fine. But ID to my knowledge happily WILL stake predictions around Junk-DNA, and did so very early on when there was much less information known on the subject.

    I would also like to point out that as part of the considering “competing” hypotheses, ID is doing this. I would suspect that when Elizabeth mentioned evolution as “involving both choosing mechanisms and mechanisms that provide options to choose between”, she was referring to natural selection and random variation. Pro-ID scientists don’t have any problem with that in concept, but where they may question things is how far the “mechanisms that provide options to choose between” can go. Recent examples are: Michael Behe deals with this subject in his book The Edge of Evolution,
    Behe’s comments on the data from Richard Lenski’s work with E. Coli, Douglas Axe experiments with proteins and amino-acid sequence space, Stephen Meyer in Signature In The Cell goes over chemical evolution theories extensively.

    There is a lot to ID theory if you just look. You can debate the experimental results and/or the conclusions reached by Pro-ID supporters as much as you want. But I think characterizing ID as essentially empty and vacuous is essentially arguing a strawman.

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