To What Shall I Liken Intelligent Design?

Something I read recently that Thomas Nagel wrote alighted in me an analogy concerning Intelligent Design’s relation to evolution. It’s an analogy that I’ve never seen anyone else make. Here it is:

I believe that I have free will. By all appearances I seem to have it. It is something that quite obviously belongs to me. I directly apprehend it and make use of my intentionality all the time.

But wait.

Let’s pretend that a person comes up to me and says this:

You’re not thinking clearly. You don’t have free will. I know it feels like you have free will. I feel like I have free will, too. By all appearances, both of us have this weird experience of free will, but we mustn’t believe it, for to believe it would be a very unscientific thing for us to do. It would mean that there’s an intentional ghost in the machinery of our bodies, or in our heads, and we must not believe in ghosts—not in the 21st century. Free will is, in fact, an illusion. To counter this illusion, I have a completely natural, wholly material, alternative hypothesis for free will. I hypothesize that free will is an epiphenomenon of physics.

Now let’s say that this clever fellow proceeds to explain his theory in great scientific detail to me, but I see holes in his theory and data, and point them out to him, and let’s imagine that his response to me is this:

Oh, I see that you’re one of those ‘free will of the gaps’ kind of people—an antiscience guy. If you reject my materialist hypothesis, it simply will not do for you to notice problems and gaps in my theory. You must come up with a probable alternative materialist theory for the appearance of an intentional ghost in your machine. If you cannot (or will not) do this, I simply cannot entertain your silly intentional ghost in a machine idea.

I reply:

I can’t give you an alternative hypothesis right now, but your hypothesis doesn’t seem to account adequately for what appears to me for all the world like an experience of free will. Your determinist and materialist hypothesis for free will just doesn’t seem convincing to me. I continue to believe that I have free will, though I cannot, at this time, give an accounting for its obvious existence in me. Sorry.

Now here’s my question. Which of these is true?:

  • The materialist is being scientific, but I’m not.
  • I’m being scientific, but the materialist is not.
  • We’re both being scientific—arguing in the realm of science about a scientific hypothesis.
  • Neither is being scientific. We’re both full of crap.

Here’s the Thomas Nagel quote that prompted my analogy:

[Evolutionary theory’s] defining element is the claim that all this happened [that is, the origin of species] as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative … It is therefore puzzling that the denial of this inference, i.e., the claim that the evidence offered for the theory does not support the kind of explanation it proposes, and that the purposive alternative has not been displaced, should be dismissed as not science. The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.

In short, just as we appear to have a purposeful ghostly agent behind our skulls—for why should we doubt it?—so the universe, in its stupefying levels of complexity, appears to have a purposeful ghostly agent behind it as well. If someone comes forward and claims to have scientific explanations that account for these two curious appearances (free will and telos in the universe), and we notice gaps and problems with the explanations, and point them out, isn’t that being scientific too?

Free will and telos are in the house? 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to To What Shall I Liken Intelligent Design?

  1. [Evolutionary theory’s] defining element is the claim that all this happened [that is, the origin of species] as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative … It is therefore puzzling that the denial of this inference, i.e., the claim that the evidence offered for the theory does not support the kind of explanation it proposes, and that the purposive alternative has not been displaced, should be dismissed as not science. The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.

    Utter garbage. This guy (and by extension, you) have no idea what a hypothesis involves. Evolution offers a mechanism by which speciation occurs. ID does not, since its proponents don’t even make a meager attempt at providing one. They say ‘it was designed’ as if that explains anything (it doesn’t). Evolution provides testable predictions. ID does not. Evolution is falsifiable. ID is not. It is a just-so story. Evolution explains the evidence from disparate disciplines such as paleontology, geology, embryology, evolutionary development, comparative morphology, cladistics, molecular genetics….. ID explains none of it.

    What the above quote does is demonstrate the usual dishonest tactics of its proponents. Not a single attempt is made to support the argument for ID. It is the proponents of ID that disparage natural selection and call it evidence. And you just lap it up, don’t you? These people are disingenuous. They are dishonest. They are LIARS FOR JESUS. Why don’t you try reading a decent book on evolution?

    In short, we do not infer design from complexity, but from mechanism. And ID offers no mechanism. It is garbage.

    Oh, and maybe you should learn something about the science behind volition. It has been experimentally shown that most of what we think is free will is indeed an illusion. That’s the difference between you and me. I actually look at the objective evidence, starting with Libet’s experiments up to the current functional MRI experiments. Have you done this? I doubt it. What you described above is merely subjective and completely unscientific.

    • Heuristics says:

      >”It has been experimentally shown that most of what we think is free will is indeed an illusion.”

      How do you imagine that the mechanistic bringing about of urges by neurons (libets experiments) is a threat to free will? Non-willed for urges are by definition not an act of free will in the first place. In what non-mechanistic model/idea of free will are urges not caused by atoms? It seems to me that even the most fluffy substance dualistic ideas still have the brain causing things in the mind.

  2. TomH says:

    “The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.”

    This is known as “stacking the deck.” It’s a standard tactic used by the evo-ideologues.

  3. ogatoprecambriano says:

    Tom

    You are the one who thinks the whole Universe begin after the domestication of dogs. The ideologue here are you.

  4. josef johann says:

    There was a famous dialogue between Wittgenstein and a student of his, where they were talking about the pre-Copernican view of the cosmos.

    Paraphrasing a bit, the student said “Well, it did make sense to think the earth went round the sun. After all, it does look that way.”

    Wittgenstein said “and what would it look like if the earth went round the sun?”

    So I ask you, Santi, what would it look like if we could make decisions, love laugh and lie, without having free will?

  5. josef johann says:

    Whoops, let me re-write that:

    Paraphrasing a bit, the student said “Well, it did make sense to think the sun went round the earth. After all, it does look that way.”

    Wittgenstein said “and what would it look like if the earth went round the sun?”

    • TomH says:

      If the earth went round the sun, it might look like perpetual day or perpetual night.

      Otoh, if the earth remained in place, with a little variance for the seasons, it might appear much like it does today.

      I have left something out. What have I left out?

  6. santitafarella says:

    Josef:

    As usual, you raise a good question. Probably there is no difference.

    And the list of things that are different from what they appear could be made quite huge, couldn’t it?

    Here’s a quick list of some of them:

    —We used to think that the earth was young and species were set by God. We now know the earth is old and that animals and plants change over time.
    —We experience the earth as flat, but it’s round.
    —We experience the earth as stationary, but it’s zipping through space.
    —We experience things as solid, but they’re actually made of particle/wavey thingies, or vibrating strings, with very little mass and lots of empty space—more ghost-like than hard.

    So maybe the appearance of design and the appearance of free will in the universe are just another couple of illusions.

    I don’t know.

    —Santi

  7. TomH says:

    The key to the day/night cycle is the rotation of the earth about an axis through the center of the earth, not the cyclical movement of the earth about the sun. Of course, if we assume that our observations from the earth are in a rotating frame of reference (FOR), then it is correct within that FOR to talk of the sun rotating about the earth.

    The movement of the planets can be adjusted by using epicycles, as the ptolemaic system showed very well.

    As an epistemic aside, our empirical knowledge about the heavens outside the solar system is limited to the observed intensity of the observed wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation at certain observed angles relative to our observatories, and the observed variation of the same with time.

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