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Friday, February 22, 2008

II. Defining some terms and concepts

There is considerable confusion over what intelligent design is. Indeed, the concept is often used in different ways. It is sometimes used to describe a cause and other times used to describe an effect. For example, someone can ask if a laptop computer requires intelligent design or they can ask if it is an example of intelligent design. In the first use, 'intelligent design' is being used in the causal sense; it is a necessary cause for a laptop computer. In the second use, it is being used as a result or effect; intelligent design is the result of a prior cause, presumably a mind. For the purpose of this article, I will treat intelligent design as an effect. In other words, the question, 'does this laptop computer require intelligent design?, can be replaced by the question, 'is this laptop computer an example of intelligent design?' Of course, if one is inclined to be more exhaustive in their definitions then, as is often the case in lexicons, two or more definitions or senses of the term can be offered.

If we take intelligent design to be an effect, then we can define it as an effect that requires a mind. If we take intelligent design to be causal, then we can define it as the process of producing an effect that requires a mind. Since the common denominator in both uses is an effect that requires a mind, I will define intelligent design as follows:
Intelligent Design: an effect that requires a mind.

It follows from this that a necessary requirement for intelligent design is a mind. Of course, natural processes could also be necessary as well but, in this case, insufficient to produce the effect. Thus, at the very least, intelligent design requires a mind but may also require natural processes as well. In other words, natural processes may be necessary for intelligent design, but they are not sufficient; a mind is also necessary. The other option is the hypothesis that intelligent design is not required for a given effect. This second option must assume that natural processes are not only necessary to produce the effect, but they are also sufficient. A mind is not necessary. Thus, to be perfectly clear, this second option entails that mindless natural processes are necessary and sufficient to produce the given effect.

To illustrate the two options, let us imagine that the SETI Institute obtains a signal from outside the solar system that contains the first 50 prime numbers. If they were to conclude that it was more likely that a mind would be necessary to produce the signal than that mindless natural processes were sufficient to produce the phenomenon, then the signal would be a possible example of intelligent design. It would only be a possible example due to the nature of scientific investigation; we could not be certain. No matter how improbable, it is still logically possible that the signal could have been generated by mindless natural processes. The best we could do is to weigh the probability that a mind could produce such a signal against the probability that mindless natural processes could do it and draw a conclusion as to which option was more likely. We know that a mind can generate the first 50 prime numbers, so the probability that a mind could produce that information is 1. If the probability that natural processes could generate the first 50 prime numbers is less than 1, then one can compare the two probabilities to decide how much more likely intelligent design is than mindless natural processes. If it turns out that intelligent design is ten times more likely, or a thousand more times more likely, then it becomes increasingly irrational to invoke mindless natural processes, and increasingly rational to invoke intelligent design.
Causal Hypothesis: For any effect, either mindless natural processes are sufficient to cause the effect, or a mind is required.

The problem arises in estimating which of the two options is more likely. We need something that we can use to distinguish between examples of intelligent design and
mindless natural processes. One possibility is the following hypothesis:
Intelligence Hypothesis: an attribute that distinguishes a mind from mindless natural processes is the ability of a mind to produce effects requiring significant levels of functional information.

The above Intelligence Hypothesis allows that mindless natural processes can accidentally produce functional information within, say, the background noise of a physical system, but the information will not achieve a significant level. It also allows for the fact that a mind can mimic mindless natural processes by producing effects that do not require a significant level of functional information. We are left with the following questions:

1. How is functional information measured?
2. What constitutes a significant level of functional information?

Before we look at these questions, we will take a brief look at the role of intelligent design in science.

Next: III. The role of intelligent design in science

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