Strict Materialism, Intelligent Design, and a Potential Crime Scene (by Way of Analogy)

Barry Arrington is an intelligent design advocate, and he recently offered a detective analogy for thinking about the tensions between strict materialists and intelligent design advocates. His analogy seems pretty sound to me. Imagine a scene where someone is killed by a blunt object and two detectives are talking over the body:

Columbo:  “I am a materialist.  Therefore, given my premises I know for a certain fact that this person’s death must have been caused by blind, unguided natural forces.  Therefore, I already know that all of the data I find will support that conclusion.  Moreover, the certain knowledge I have before I ever even look at the data means I will never even have to consider the possibility that this person’s death was caused by the acts of an intelligent agent, and I can safely ignore any data that might tend to disprove my starting point or confirm an “intelligent agent” theory.  My theory is that a rock fell from above and hit him in the head.  Probably the rock was dislodged from the side of a hill by the wind or rain and rolled down the hill and smacked him.  Bad luck all around.  By the way, I call the rolling rock theory a “theory” only for form’s sake.  We both know it is a fact! fact! fact!  Bad luck all around.  Case closed.”

Holmes:  “I am not going to make up my mind in advance about whether this death resulted from blind, unguided and exceedingly bad luck or whether it is the result of the acts of an intelligent agent, that is to say, murder.  By the way, I am willing to assume materialist premises too, at least on a methodological basis, but you are wrong to say that assumption precludes the act of an intelligent agent. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Strict Materialism, Intelligent Design, and a Potential Crime Scene (by Way of Analogy)

  1. Teague Tubach says:

    Magnum: How about both of you STFU and look at the evidence. Let’s see. He was standing next to a sign that reads “beware of falling rocks” and there is a rock on top of his bashed in head. Since we are on a very remote part of the island, if someone was responsible for this they would have had to travel here (and back) by kayak, just like our victim. Looks like it was probably just a fallen rock.

    Holmes: That can’t be the case. Maybe the flying spaghetti monster did it. There has to be something behind it all.

    Man, that was the worst analogy I’ve ever read. OF COURSE there is intelligence behind human actions — but they are very dissimilar to the origins of the universe. Does it really seem sound? Wow.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Teague:

    I like your extension on the analogy, but yes, I think it is sound IF you are at least willing to entertain the idea that mind precedes matter at the beginning of the universe. If you are not willing to entertain that possibility, then of course the analogy breaks down. But how do you know that matter precedes mind at the beginning? That would make contingent matter either eternal or self created, right? How can that be? Why, at the beginning, is self existent matter any less mysterious (ontologically) than self existent mind? How did you decide the first great questions of metaphysics: “Did matter precede mind, or mind matter?” and “Is mind reducible to matter?”

    Did you flip a coin to get your answers?

    —Santi

  3. Teague Tubach says:

    Actually I don’t have the answer. The problem I have with Holmes is that I see no reason to accept ID as a plausible explanation until there is some evidence for it. There is currently none.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Teague:

    Intelligent design, like strict materialism, must always be an inference that we make from incomplete data. Whether or not mind functions in the universe in some way that is “non-reducible to matter” or “prior to matter” is always going to be an inference, and nothing more. How could it be otherwise?

    Let science do its work. Science is a tool for generating material causal explanations for material phenomenon. You can only ask it material questions, and it can only return material answers. And when questions are pressed, and science hits an impasse in material explanation (as with a question like, “Where did the laws of physics come from in the first place?”), that’s where intelligent design can be reasonably inferred. It’s not the only inference, but it is one, and it’s not unreasonable.

    Insofar as I can tell, that’s all “intelligent design” is pressing (for some elbow room to keep god in the play of possibilities).

    —Santi

  5. Teague Tubach says:

    Thanks for the replies Santi.

    That is a very humble articulation of ID. I still don’t find it reasonable — I guess a better way to put that is, I don’t find questions like “Where did the laws of physics come from in the first place?” reasonable. Before I would ask myself that question, I would ask “How could I know where the laws of physics came from in the first place?”. I always get stuck on those epistemological questions and I can never move into the metaphysical ones.
    I really appreciate your honest and insight.

  6. bobxxxx says:

    Barry Arrington is a MAGIC advocate, and he recently offered a detective analogy for thinking about the tensions between strict materialists and Magic advocates.

    IDIOT

  7. bobxxxx says:

    And when questions are pressed, and science hits an impasse in material explanation (as with a question like, “Where did the laws of physics come from in the first place?”), that’s where MAGIC can be reasonably inferred.

    IDIOT

  8. santitafarella says:

    Teague:

    It’s ultimately a difference of personality then. I’m one of these hand-wringing Woody Allen-like characters, fretting over unanswerable questions, and the questions that I like to chew on illicit shrugs from the more practical (like you). I love this scene from one of Allen’s films. Allen is pacing the floor and asks his father whether God exists, and his father says: “I don’t know how my toaster works, and you ask me if God exists?!”

    Just personality-wise, I’m going to always be one of those people who frets over questions like: “Why is there something when there might just as well have been nothing?”

    But the God question is always going to be like the UFO question. If God would just fly down onto the White House lawn and hold a press conference, take questions, and for a cherry on top just (in passing) tell us how to produce cold fusion to solve our energy problems, the issue would be settled, right?

    But short of that, all we have is inferences to materialism first or mind first (or “magic” as bobxxxx) puts it.

    But I myself find material existence absent mind as ontologically absurd and baffling as mind absent material existence. It’s why I’m an agnostic. They both seem to be magical starting points to me—and those who believe fervently in either of them strike me as magical thinkers. Matter before mind or mind before matter are mysteries in need of a better explanation than “That’s just the way it was in the beginning. That’s my starting point, and I ask no questions beyond it. And I think that anyone who takes a different starting point from mine is kind of a dumbshit.”

    Anyway, that’s my view.

    —Santi

  9. Teague Tubach says:

    But if you are agnostic about it, then why even fret over the questions? I mean, there are far more interesting things to talk and think about. Like my blog 😉
    Kidding. Thanks for the comments.
    T.

  10. Pingback: The Fundamental Question | Uncommon Descent

  11. Jeffrey Shallit says:

    It seems like an exceedingly poor analogy to me (not to mention the silly rhetoric like “fact! fact! fact!”).

    Scientists study “intelligent agents” all the time; such scientists are called “archaeologists” and “anthropologists”. But for these scientists, about the most uninteresting thing one can say about an artifact is “this was designed”; what they are interested in is who designed it, when, what they did with it, and why they made it, and how it fits into the larger understanding of their culture. I don’t hear any of these scientists insisting that artifacts were not designed, but neither do I hear them saying “this was designed” and expecting that people consider that a profound observation.

    There is a big difference between assigning causation to a human being, who we know exists or could have existed to make an artifact, and assigning causation to some unknown “intelligent agent” whose motives are unknowable, who acted at an unknown time, using unknown techniques, for purposes unknown. The differences lie in things like falsifiability and fecundity.

  12. Jeffrey –

    Another form of science studies the action of intelligent agents – computer science. And that science is almost completely devoid of any reference to when or how design takes place. What it does is examine the *formal* relationships between components in a system. This is what ID does. It, first, establishes that the relationships in a system are primarily formal, not historical, or at least have a formal component, and then it examines the formal relationships between parts.

    IC, for instance, is an attempt to identify holistic entities whose parts exist in a formal relationship.

    • santitafarella says:

      Jonathan:

      Your “formal, not historical” formulation is intriguing. What then is your take on historical contingency in the universe—for it seems everywhere (if the earth hadn’t been hit by a planetoid four billion years ago, for example, our planet wouldn’t have a moon). Is the universe suffused with only the appearance of contingency, but with purpose underlying it? Or is the universe a combination of ahistorical design elements and historically contingent elements?

      And how do we distinguish them?

      —Santi

  13. Jeffrey Shallit says:

    I am a professor of computer science, so I believe I am familiar with what is studied in our discipline.

    If you wrote about “an attempt to identify holistic entities whose parts exist in a formal relationship” on an exam, I would mark it down for the gobbledygook factor.

  14. Teague: “I see no reason to accept ID as a plausible explanation until there is some evidence for it.”

    It would seem the discovery of a sophisticated encryption technique within a highly structured nested coding of information would change anyone’s mind. Meaningful and purposeful messages coded within other meaningful messages could only point to intelligence.

    (See these articles: http://nar.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/30/14/3262, http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pcbi.0030091
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18571877)

    A cryptologist may prove me wrong but in reading Signature in the Cell by Stephen Myer it seems chock-full of reasons, explanations and evidence in plain English without any agenda other than going where the evidence leads, which is – mind and information from mind as the origin of the life.

    • santitafarella says:

      Franck:

      It would be so much easier if God had just written a little coded message into, say, DNA (like the book of Genesis). Unfortunately, the messages coded are for the reproduction of organisms and so we are left begging the question: which is adequate to an explanation of information: (1) time, contingency (chance), history, and natural selection; or (2) God?

      I think reasonable people can come to very different conclusions.

      —Santi

  15. Jeffrey –

    “I am a professor of computer science, so I believe I am familiar with what is studied in our discipline.”

    And I wrote a textbook that was used at Princeton University, as well as numerous articles for IBM’s developer portal, ranging from memory management to program proving. What’s your point?

    “If you wrote about “an attempt to identify holistic entities whose parts exist in a formal relationship” on an exam, I would mark it down for the gobbledygook factor.”

    So you think that in reverse engineering that identifying holistic units of functionality is gobbledygook? Seriously?

    Perhaps you have spent too much time in the academy, and need to get out into the real world and program something. Real life is not what’s in an exam, it’s what you encounter every day.

    • Jeffrey Shallit says:

      I am sorry you are having reading comprehension problems. Perhaps I should use shorter words.

      My point was what I said: “I believe I am familiar with what is studied in our discipline.” Very little of computer science has anything to do with “an attempt to identify holistic entities whose parts exist in a formal relationship”, whatever that is supposed to mean. And “Reverse engineering” has little to do with computer science, although it might be of interest to an engineering department.

      Perhaps you have spent too much time in the academy, and need to get out into the real world and program something.

      Thank you for your profound advice, but I was supporting myself as a programmer at age 17.

      Real life is not what’s in an exam, it’s what you encounter every day.

      I am sure your opinion of what constitutes “real life” is as valuable as your other contributions to this thread.

      • Mike says:

        Jeffrey, why don’t you ask Jonathan to explain what he means by “identify holistic entities whose parts exist in a formal relationship” instead of assuming it’s gobbleygook? I have been doing software development since 1976 (yes, I’m old) and I know what he’s talking about. If his explanation doesn’t suffice, *then* you might have a point but try to understand it first. I suspect you are making the same error by casually dismissing ID. What gives you reason to be *certain* that life arose through purely random, natural causes? Or that random chance mutations and natural selection alone are *demonstrably* capable of achieving anything beyond mere change within species? Where’s the evidence necessary to support your certainty?

        The critics of ID sound an awful like the global warming Nazi’s. In both arenas (biological origins and anthropic global warming) no one can even ask a question without being savaged as a “denier” or an idiot or (to use Richard Dawkin’s rhetoric) evil. Where’s the civility?

        I see nothing dangerous about ID proponents doing the work necessary to develop the math and science required to reliably detect design within biology. They may or may not achieve something remarkable. But heck, no one questions the math and science of cryptography, the SETI project, forensics, archaeology, etc. In all those areas, no one questions whether intelligent causes can be reliably detected. What, fundamentally, is so scary about attempting to do the same within biology? ID proper, would simply detect design. It need not identify the designer(s) or explain motivations (any more than a forensic scientist is required to identify the murderer when making a ruling of homicide). What’s so scary about this effort? I don’t fear the possibility that SETI will detect an intelligence besides ourselves in the universe. If it happens, it happens. Why be so worried about the attempt to detect design within biology?

        I personally lean towards the ID argument for the cosmos and for life because I lack the imagination necessary to fill in the gaps with fantasy stories like the multiverse (not at all falsifiable). In biology, the fantasy stories take the form of concepts like “disappearing genetic scaffolding” and co-option. But there’s no actual evidence. To assume the truth of those fantasies only betrays what is really at work: materialism.

        To be clear, I do not claim certainty regarding the existence of an intelligent agent as a prime force in the universe. It just makes more sense to me than something quite literally arising from nothing (huh?) or something simply always existing (why?). Sure, there’s an element of question begging but I lean towards the need for a transcendent intelligence — transcendent in that it is outside nature and therefore free to exist without a material beginning. I have zero proof of this, mind you. It is strictly a logical inference (for me). Therefore, I leave room for the possibility that I am wrong and would never require that anyone agree with me.

        Sure wish the macro-evolutionists would admit their limits as well. They should do the hard work necessary to prove they are right instead of just assuming the “fact” of macro-evolution. Demonizing everyone that dares to question their faith position is not just unseemly. It’s bad science.

  16. Jeffrey Shallit says:

    What gives you reason to be *certain* that life arose through purely random, natural causes?

    Who said I was certain? And why do you think natural causes are “purely random”?

    Or that random chance mutations and natural selection alone are *demonstrably* capable of achieving anything beyond mere change within species?

    Because we have many examples of new species being created in the laboratory and in the wild. Even a cursory survey of the evolutionary biology literature would show this. There is a good speciation FAQ at the talk.origins website. If you don’t know that speciation is routinely observed – for example through polyploidy – why do you think your opinion on biological matters should count for anything? You seem like a typical creationist: ready to disbelieve evolutionary biology without doing your homework.

    The critics of ID sound an awful like the global warming Nazi’s.

    Many of my relatives were killed by Nazis. Your comparison is ludicrous, offensive, and trivializes the Holocaust.

    Where’s the civility?

    Absurd and risible, considering that you, in the same paragraph, likened climate scientists to Nazis. Shame.

    Why be so worried about the attempt to detect design within biology?

    No one is worried about this. We just laugh at it. What is worrisome, however, is the attempt to enshrine your religion as science in public schools.

  17. santitafarella says:

    Mike:

    You wrote: “The critics of ID sound an awful like the global warming Nazi’s.”

    I would ask you a simple question: what weight should a non-expert in a discipline give to expert opinion that leans overwhelmingly in one direction? In other words if you ask a random set of 100 global warming scientists or biologists about global warming and evolution you are likely to get 99 of them to affirm that global warming is real and evolution happened (the earth is old and plants and animals have derived from a common ancestor).

    Unless you are an expert in either of these fields isn’t the sane response this: to assume that the experts as a whole are more likely to be correct than the tiny fraction of experts who disagree? And if you are inclined to question global warming and evolution, isn’t it reasonable to apportion your skepticism to the evidence (that is, hold your doubts about these things very, very cautiously, and not be too quick to side confidently with a minority of experts who are contending with their colleagues on a very complex subject)?

    In other words, whence comes your confidence that the vast majority of experts on these two questions are wrong?

    —Santi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s