Was the panda’s “thumb” designed? (Part three)

The importance of thinking like an engineer

Uncommon Descent was, in its heyday, the leading blog for Intelligent Design, before it was eventually overtaken by EvolutionNews.org. (I contributed dozens of articles to it myself during my years as an Intelligent Design proponent, before leaving the ID community in 2016.) If you look at the Glossary of terms on the Uncommon Descent blog (which has now been archived) and if you expand each of the definitions and do a text search, you will find four references to “engineers,” “engineered” or “engineering,” but not a single reference to the terms “God,” “divine” or “divinity.” The word “Creator” is used twice, but only in connection with creationism, as opposed to Intelligent Design, which ID theorist Dr. William Dembski has defined simply as “the science that studies signs of intelligence.” Citing Wikipedia, the Glossary defines “intelligence” as “capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn.”

I was therefore astonished to find that in Professor Stephen Dilley’s article
Gould’s God-Talk: Is the Panda’s Thumb Incompatible with ID? (Evolution News, April 5, 2024), the word “God” is used no less than 27 times, including footnotes.

Dilley’s theologizing – and why it’s tangential to Intelligent Design

Now, to be fair, in many of these cases, Professor Dilley is attacking the late Stephen Jay Gould for making unwarranted theological assumptions about what an omnipotent Creator would and wouldn’t do. However, there are other passages in the article in which Dilley himself (citing nineteenth-century advocates of Intelligent Design) resorts to out-and-out theologizing. As it turns out, all of these passages are excerpts from Dilley’s recently published article, God, Gould, and the Panda’s Thumb (Religions 2023, 14(8), 1006; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14081006). Here is a brief selection (bolding is mine):

To my knowledge, nearly all contemporary young-earth creationists affirm the existence of an omnipotent God and the adverse effects of the Fall on creation (Nelson 1996, p. 500). Given the degraded state of creatures and their environment, it is hardly surprising that some organisms are poorly adapted to their current ecological niche.9

Agassiz believes that species are incarnations of ideas in the mind of God, and their (taxonomic) relations reflect a grand divine plan. On this view, God created basic organismal types that allow variation, some of which are less functional than others. He did not create each species (or structure) optimally adapted to its (current) environment…10

Strikingly, William Paley also implicitly rejects Gould’s theology. In Natural Theology (1809), he argues for the existence of an omnipotent deity based on organismal adaptation. Yet he thinks that limited cases of imperfection pose no difficulty because the sheer quality and quantity of exquisite adaptations provide a preponderance of evidence for the existence and traditional attributes of God (Paley 1809, pp. 56-58).

I have to ask: what do these theological speculations have to do with Intelligent Design? If Intelligent Design proponents want ID to be taken seriously as a science, then they must eschew speculation of this sort, which has no place in articles on an Intelligent Design blog.

In any case, Professor Dilley’s criticisms fail to undermine Gould’s central argument, which is not about what God would do, but about what an engineer would do. I’d like to quote a short passage from the opening paragraph of my first post on the panda’s “thumb” (references to “engineers” and “engineering” have been highlighted in red):

Sadly, Professor Dilley manages to completely misconstrue Gould’s argument, which isn’t about God at all, but about engineering. This can be shown by the fact that even if we delete the two brief references to God and the single reference to an omnipotent creator and replace them with “an engineer,” and if we replace the reference to God’s “wisdom and power” with the term “skill,” then Gould’s argument still makes perfect sense. I maintain that Gould’s use of theological terms is a mere embellishment which obscures the central point he is making: namely, that mere tinkering (i.e. a series of step-by-step natural changes involving the adaptation of pre-existing parts) does not warrant an inference to intelligent design, as it requires no foresight.

Back to the panda’s thumb

An artist’s reconstruction of Ailurarctos. Image courtesy of Mauricio Antón and Wikipedia.

In my second post, I argued that the panda’s “thumb” is indeed suboptimal, and that it was even less optimal six million years ago, in ancient pandas like Ailurarctos: back then, it was excessively long, making it harder for these early pandas to walk, and it lacked a hook, making it harder for them to grasp bamboo shoots properly. I also pointed out the suboptimal character of the panda’s highly inefficient digestive system.

Now, there are dozens of psychological reasons why an intelligent agent might decide to make a suboptimal complex structure, or allow a once-optimal structure to degenerate over the course of time. But the question we need to ask here is: is there a single engineering-related reason why an intelligent agent with the capacity to optimally design a complex structure would choose instead to make a suboptimal one.

Professor Dilley complains that an optimality requirement imposes unreasonable demands on the Creator:

Given that Gould believes God would (probably) not allow a suboptimal thumb in the present, one might ask: on Gould’s view, what should God do if the environment changes? Should God prevent change? If so, to what degree should He maintain stasis? Or should God create new animals, as the famous nineteenth century scientist Georges Cuvier believed?

But this is a red herring. In the case we are talking about – namely, the panda’s “thumb” – we saw that the original “thumb” was less optimal (not more) than the present one. It isn’t a question of the panda’s “thumb” being allowed to degenerate; it was never optimal in the first place. The “thumb” hasn’t devolved over the course of time; it’s actually improved under the winnowing influence of natural selection, over millions of years. From an engineering perspective, this counts as prima facie evidence against the panda’s “thumb” having been originally designed.

The “likelihood argument” for evolution

Things get worse in Professor Dilley’s third post over at Evolution News, titled, Does a Suboptimal Panda’s Thumb Fit Better with Evolution than with Intelligent Design? (April 8, 2024). The post has 26 references to God, including footnotes, and is even more blatantly theological than its predecessor, which merely sought to establish that suboptimal designs such as the panda’s “thumb” are compatible with Intelligent Design. In his third post, Professor Dilley attempts to refute a more sophisticated objection to Intelligent Design: “a critic might grant that ID is compatible with the panda’s thumb, but still claim that the thumb generally fits better within an evolutionary paradigm rather than a design paradigm.” Dilley refers to this objection as the likelihood argument. He deliberately refrains from formulating the argument in Bayesian terms, because he doesn’t think that was Gould’s intention: as he puts it in his published article, God, Gould, and the Panda’s Thumb (Religions 2023, 14(8), 1006; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14081006), “in the context of the panda’s thumb or other imperfection arguments, it is not clear that he attended to prior probabilities, a core feature of Bayesian reasoning.” In his published article, Dilley puts forward his own succinct formulation of the likelihood argument:

The point of the likelihood argument is to contrast special creation with evolution. That is, while an imperfect thumb is compatible with the activity of an omnipotent creator, nonetheless, it is said to be less expected on this view than on evolution. The deity tolerates a few screw-ups; evolution tolerates a lot.

Once again, I have to protest: Professor Dilley has misconstrued the point of the argument, which is not to contrast special creation with evolution, but to contrast intelligent engineering (which requires foresight) with natural transformations which make no appeal to foresight. Surely it’s reasonable to believe that non-foresighted processes are more likely to come up with suboptimal designs than alterations requiring foresight.

Scott Minnich and Stephen Meyer: suboptimal designs are the product of devolution over millions of years

But Professor Dilley will have none of it. First, he argues, citing ID theorists Scott Minnich and Stephen Meyer, that Intelligent Design theory “is consistent with at least some degree of ‘devolution’ in the present day.” However, this point is irrelevant: the question that needs to be addressed here is whether intelligent engineering is more or less likely to produce suboptimal structures (such as the panda’s “thumb”) than non-foresighted natural processes. And as we saw above, the panda’s “thumb” is not a case of devolution, as it’s an improvement on the original version.

William Dembski: God, foreseeing that Adam and Eve would sin, punished them by making a world that was flawed and suboptimal from the get-go

Second, Professor Dilley quotes from a book titled, The End of Christianity (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009) by ID theorist William Dembski in an effort to explain why Intelligent Design theory would actually expect suboptimal design to be frequent in nature. On Dembski’s view, God foreknew that humans would sin, and retrospectively decided to punish them for their sin by making a flawed, broken world in which imperfection runs rampant. On this view, “one can accept that God knew about the Fall (logically) prior to the moment of creation and thus deliberately created suboptimal organisms for punitive and redemptive purposes.”

Unfortunately, Dembski’s argument makes no appeal to engineering-related reasons in its attempt to explain the widespread prevalence of suboptimality and imperfection in Nature, so it is irrelevant to Intelligent Design, which is supposed to be a science.. It is also highly problematic on theological grounds, as it assumes God has counterfactual knowledge of everything that each of us would do, in any possible set of circumstances – a controversial position known as Molinism. Finally, Dembski’s argument assumes that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a real event involving the very first human beings, and it took place at a discrete point in time. All of these concepts are foreign to Intelligent Design as such.

Peter van Inwagen: as Creator, God is free to make a world that’s filled with imperfections, if He so chooses

Next, Dilley appeals to the philosopher Peter van Inwagen, who holds that the optimality requirement limits the creative freedom of God, Who as Creator is perfectly entitled to make a universe that’s as good or as bad as He thinks fit – even one which contains “gratuitous evils,” which exist for no reason at all: “On this view, ‘gratuitous suboptimality,’ as we may call it, is no objection to a creative deity.”

In response: van Inwagen’s argument that an intelligent Creator is free to produce a world with bad designs is irrelevant to the Intelligent Design project, which is concerned with what an intelligent engineer is likely to do. Van Inwagen has offered no engineering-related reason why the intelligent being or beings responsible for making our world would have produced one riddled with suboptimal designs. What’s more, van Inwagen’s argument proves too much: it entails that no amount of evil, imperfection and suboptimality could count against its having been intelligently designed. Carried to its logical conclusion, the argument would render Intelligent Design theory unable to make any predictions at all about the world we live in, as such predictions would limit the freedom of its sovereign Creator. A theory that’s unable to make predictions does not deserve to be called a science.

Alvin Plantinga: the world is suboptimal because it needs to be redeemed

But Professor Dilley has another leading thinker up his sleeve: the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who maintains that a fallen world such as ours needs to be redeemed by the death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In such a world, we would expect natural evil to run rampant, even within the animal domain. As Dilley puts it:

… Plantinga suggests that God may have allowed the incarnation, death, and resurrection of His Son as an unrivaled great-making property of the universe and as a remedy to the problem of creaturely rebellion. But “if the remedy is to be proportionate to the sickness . . . [our] world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain. Still further, it may very well contain sin and suffering, not just on the part of human beings but perhaps also on the part of other creatures as well” (Plantinga 2011, p. 59).

Plantinga’s explanation of natural evil is explicitly Christian, invoking doctrines such as the Incarnation, Resurrection and Atonement, in addition to the Fall. It has nothing to do with engineering, and is therefore irrelevant to the Intelligent Design project, which seeks to explain the complex structures found in our world in terms of the general hypothesis that these structures were engineered. Plantinga’s explanation for evil envisages the Creator as a physician healing a sick world, rather than as an engineer. As such, it is off-topic.

The takeaway

The take-away conclusion that Professor Dilley draws after all this is that “theology-laden defenses of current evolutionary theory in technical literature, popular writing, and textbooks nearly always lack theological and metaphysical rigor.” Sorry, but the theology is entirely on Professor Dilley’s side. In his attempt to account for the widespread occurrence of suboptimal designs in the natural world, he made four suggestions: first, that devolution can explain suboptimal design; second, that suboptimal design is a punishment for the sin of our first parents (Adam and Eve); third, that a sovereign Creator is perfectly free to make as many suboptimal designs as he likes; and finally, that a world which needs to be redeemed by God’s Son must inevitably contain numerous flaws and imperfections, including suboptimal designs. None of these “explanations” has the slightest relevance to the Intelligent Design project, which looks at the world through the eyes of an engineer, and attempts to explain it from that perspective – no theology required. If Professor Dilley has to resort to theological speculations in order to obviate the problem of suboptimal designs in nature, then he has left science behind and is steering in uncharted waters.

In my next post, I’ll conclude my discussion by reviewing Professor Dilley’s final two articles, where he argues that Gould’s argument based on the panda’s “thumb” actually hurts the case for evolution, as well as creating problems for atheistic and agnostic worldviews.

One thought on “Was the panda’s “thumb” designed? (Part three)

  1. Nuh.. it was accidental. Nobody without brains that weren’t designed designs things…. It is a common knowledge among ignorant designers.
    BTW: Do you know how to recognize Japanese or some Asian women in the West on the street?

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