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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The arsonist’s tale: Misconceptions about intelligent design

When people examine a new idea for the first time, they often approach it from a basis of older, assumed ideas which cause confusion. They can't really evaluate the new idea properly until the source of confusion has been identified.

In discussing the intelligent design controversy with people, I sometimes hear the following comment:
If scientists conclude that something is designed, then they are just taking the easy way out, and they won’t be able to find out anything more about it.

The comment - actually, more often a passionate outburst - come at such an oblique angle that it requires a bit of unpacking - all the more so because it is frequently followed up by other, similar ones. On rare occasions, time is permitted for a thoughtful response, so here's one:

Let us look at a real life example: Suppose we say: If the fire marshall's office (FMO) concludes that a fatal fire has been set deliberately, then they are just taking the easy way out, and they won't be able to find out anything more about it.

What's wrong with this picture? Clearly, the question of whether the fire was set deliberately must first be addressed as a question of fact. There is no other way to determine the origin of the fire than to address it first as a question of fact.

Perhaps the origin cannot be determined at all. But only an intensive investigation can demonstrate that.

If the FMO concludes that the fire is arson, far from losing the ability to find out anything more, it is in a position to focus on key details (Where was the fire started? What accelerant and how much? What was the pattern and timing of spread?).*

(*Many other questions can later be asked by the police - for example, were the charred victims intended to die in the fire? Or was their presence unforeseen and accidental? Or were they unlucky arsonists engulfed by flames?)

Assuming that the FMO can render a decision on these questions based on fact, in what sense would it be taking the easy way out?

Not in any sense I can think of. If the police investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire and lay charges, the FMO must defend its verdict against the lawyer for the accused, who will attempt, as one strategy among many, to cast doubt on the FMO findings, imply that the FMO routinely bungles cases or - in a pinch - that virtually any pattern of accelerants can be accounted for by random events or that it is never possible to determine the cause of a fire with certainty. (The analogies to the intelligent design controversy require no unpacking.)

If her client’s case looks pretty bad, the defense lawyer may even try arguing that arson is a natural cause because people are, well, “just natural animals”. (This defense will work better if her client has looked and acted, throughout the proceedings, like a large rodent crammed into a dress suit, and appears truly unable to grasp the moral significance of the accusations against him.)

At any rate, this analogy from everyday law enforcement helped me think of how to respond to the somewhat confused outburst captured above:

Design must first be addressed as a question of fact. Evidence pro or con can only be acquired by investigation and anywhere design turns out to be a fact, it must be factored into further fruitful investigation.

Should scientists refuse to consider design a possibility because they are “objective”? Well, how about this: Suppose the FMO gets a call from a leading local politician announcing that he wants the arson investigation called off because the FMO has no business assuming that someone might have wanted that building torched?

If the FMO thinks it has reasonable grounds for pursuing its present line of inquiries, should it meekly accept that argument? Should we assume that the politician obstructing the investigation is “objective”? Or rather that he is trying to defend somebody or something? In the same way, materialists attempting to suppress ID-friendly scientists are hardly “objective” in the matter.

The reason the outburst above is confused is that the speaker assumes that design is not a conclusion that can be arrived at by considering evidence and moving on to identify patterns. Underlying that assumption is a lifetime of steady indoctrination by materialism.

(Note: I haven;’t been blogging much, because I am writing an index for somebody else’s book. Back soon though. )

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God , my backgrounder about peer review issues, or the evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin and of academic ID publications.

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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