thinking is dangerous

The vitalist's last breath

Vitalism: the doctrine that life cannot be explained solely by mechanism. Wikipedia entry

1) What does it mean to be intelligently designed?
2) Is this fundamentally different from systems that occur naturally in the universe?
3) More importantly, given a system at some arbitrary state in its existence, is it possible to determine whether such a system was designed through natural or intelligent means?

The obvious answer to the final question, as any good student of Hume knows, is of course not. There are some more or less relaible indicators- if the system has wingnuts and a steel case it probably isn't a naturally occuring system. But these sorts of judgments do not scale properly. Imagine walking across a particularly captivating rock formation. The naive person might look at the stark straight lines and colorful sediment and immediately think it was the product of an intelligent designer with an aesthetic sense. The geologist, on the other hand, will be able to tell a far more convincing and full story about the natural fault lines and forces that gave rise to this rock formation over the course of the earth's history. And absent evidence to the contrary (ie, without having seen a terraforming crew at work the day before), we should trust the geologist. As we scale up further to consider the extremely complicated and sophisticated biological processes we find all around us (inclusive), it becomes more imperative to trust our best science.

Simple enough, right? Science is preferrable to intuitions regarding intelligent design. It doesn't get any more obvious and straightforward than that. And yet, the 'debate' over Intelligent Design continues grabbing media attention, due in no small part to vocal groups like the Discovery Institute. The majority of the (godless, leftist) media deserves credit here in at least recognizing that this 'debate' is over the validitiy of ID itself, not as a competing scientific paradigm as the IDers would have it, but over the more social issues of whether it deserves to be taught in schools or if it has a place in the public discourse. And the fact is that in most cases are are inclined to think sufficiently complex and organized things have intelligent origins. It is part of our psychology; it is exceedingly natural. If we found a working pocketwatch on Mars, everyone including scientists would be crying out for some explanation or story of how such a thing could have been assembled via the natural processes on Mars.

The distinction between intelligent and natural design, I think, is a good distinction to hold on to, for more than these intuitive reasons. We want to maintain, for instance, that there is some important difference between genetically engineered food and naturally occuring food, since this distinction might have important consequences for our health and agricultural practices. I think the media recognizes these concerns, which ultimatly have to do with our relation to our own technological artifacts; but it finds itself stuck between the ID fanatics, who blow such intuitions far out of reasonable scientific proportion, and the scientists, who when pressed seem to want to distance themselves from the notion of intelligent design as a coherent concept altogether. Luckily, philosophy can help us avoid this rather nasty little fork.

And all the philosophy we need to do is recognize that the core of this debate, on both sides, rests in question 3 above. Both the scientists and the IDers hold that Q3 can be answered in the affirmative. But of course, this answer is wrong. We are under the impression that we can distinguish intelligently designed from naturally occuring systems, simply because we are faced with an overwhelming number of intelligently designed systems everyday; the roads we drive on, the car we drive in, and every flashing light, tall building, and landscaped lawn in between is an artifical construct designed by some person or committee. And for each of these systems, we can tell some story in which they arise due to the planning and intentions of some intelligent creature, namely human beings. We can't tell such a story for the Martian pocket watch.

What is important, however, is to distinguish between a 'no' answer to Q3, and a dismissal of the idea of intelligent design whatsoever. What a no answer to Q3 tells us is simply that the origins of a system, intelligent or otherwise, are entirely irrelevant to the legitimate science conducted on that system. That there was a God is worse than false; it simply doesn't matter.

But for a 'no' answer to Q3 to be convincing, it will require some robust elaboration on questions 1&2. This is perhaps one way to see the motivation for my project.
14:58 :: :: eripsa :: permalink