Friday, April 29, 2005

Getting confused

Someone asked this question of the braindrain that is Intelligent Design the Future:
"I hope my query can be directed to someone able to respond to my question regarding to the theory of intelligent design.

My question is: 'WHO DESIGNED THE DESIGNER??????'"

After a few moments of stunned silence, I realized what a powerful objection this is. In fact, it's a universal acid, a show stopper. Its application is almost limitless. For example, people say that Mt. Rushmore was sculpted. But that does nothing to explain the origin of the sculptors! Similarly with respect to all examples in which we infer the activity of an intelligent agent. All those explanations fail to explain the origin of the agent itself, and are therefore unjustified. Therefore, we can never infer design in any case. Therefore, if you are reading this, you have no justification for inferring that someone has written this post. It's best just to stop the regress of explanation at the computer screen itself.
Yes, how can we possibly know that Jay Richards wrote that post, or that Mt. Rushmore was designed.

Well, I know Jay is involved because he signed his name. I know Mt. Rushmore was designed because there are pictures of people carving it under the instruction of Gutzon Borglum.

Why don't I think that the Old Man of the Mountain was designed? It sure looked like a face. But geological explanations are that it's partly the result of the melting and slipping away of the ice sheet that covered the Franconia Mountains at the end of the last glacial period, and partly by freezing water in crevices randomly shifting rocks and ledges.

Those are stupid examples. Supernatural design is different from natural design. Evolution can be considered a crude sort of natural design. It's reactive and not insightful, but it's still a form of design. Chimps or ravens making tools are designers, too. Say we postulate a supernatural designer, one who started the universe in motion, set the first spark of life, and then left off. Such a sophisticated designer could not have spontanteously come into existence through random chance. Such a sophisticated and unlikely being must itself have been designed. And so we are left with the question which Dr. Richards failed to answer.

Were I a quoteminer, I'd just yank "We can never infer design in any case" out of the rest of the nonsense and use theologian Jay Richards's word against theologian Bill Dembski. But that would be petty.

Update: A commenter wants a better analysis of Dembski's position. Dembski's argument of "specified complexity" is bogus, which makes the explanatory filter useless. I look at the Old Man, and I say that there's a low probability that all those rocks would come together "just so." We refer to it as "the profile" because it has "specified complexity." Dembski claims that constitutes design, and yet, no it isn't designed.

The notion of specified complexity is bogus because it assumes knowledge of the designer. A talus slope might not seem specified to me, but it might have been designed by a being with different standards for design. The probability of any batch of a few thousand rocks being in any one configuration is infinitesimally small, so probabilistic arguments take us nowhere.

The issue is specification, and that begs the question. If we assume that a designer has the same motives and intentions that I have, we've just skipped over all the interesting questions. If the designer has different motives, intentions or abilities than I, how can I judge specificity?

The problem with the "design filter" is that it assumes design if the probability of getting a result by chance or regularity is sufficiently low. What we do to decide that the Old Man isn't designed is different. The probability of the Profile forming by chance alone is very low. The precise position of each rock being where it was is infinitesimally small. By that standard, we have design.

What people do is they ask "What's the probability of this happening by chance processes?" and "What's the probability of this happening because of design?" That involves a little Bayes' Rule, which requires you to specify prior probabilities of a designer or of natural causes. Since we know that the natural processes do exist, but don't know that the designer exists, we have an inherent bias against design. Since we don't know what the hypothetical designer would design, we can't estimate the probability of the data given the hypothesis, which makes it impossible to assess the probability of the designer given the data.

Dembski knows that, knows that's how people think, and knows that it kills inference to design, so he cooked up the filter. But the filter really just hides all those unspecified numbers behind some fancy language.

Aren't you glad you asked?

And the question remains, why doesn't the Explanatory Filter apply to the Designer?