Sunday, November 23, 2008

A materialist argument for Intelligent Design

From what I know, and I'm no biologist, it seems like we have solid evidence that life evolved gradually, changing from generation to generation because of mutation and genetic recombination, selected by the failure of the least fit to reproduce. Also, from what I've heard, the "intelligent design" (ID) people are almost all Christians who in fact believe in the biblical account of creation, and they're just using the vague ID argument as a backdoor way to eventually teach Bible stories in the science classroom.

Butterfly picture

But I think there's an aspect of their argument that can't be rejected out of hand.

Suppose you hand a responsible, honest specialist some item, and ask them, "Was this designed by an intelligent being, or did it come about through some non-intelligent process?" Let's say, maybe, that it's a kind of square rock that could be an ancient brick, or it could just be a square rock. How would they answer?

I think, to answer responsibly, they'd have to have some clear idea of what constitutes "design" and what constitutes "intelligence". Otherwise they'd just be talking through their hat. Maybe an archeologist could take the rock and X-ray it or something and show that there were systematic chip marks, just the right size to have been made by a human hand. That wouldn't be proof, but it would be a good indication that it was designed by a person, and we know people are intelligent, so: intelligent design.

But it's kind of a cheat answer because it just relies on the common assumption that "humans are intelligent". It doesn't answer the deeper question of what "intelligence" really means, and how it shows up in the design of an object. It wouldn't help us answer the question of some alien artifact, made by a creature whose intelligence was in question. And it wouldn't help us figure out whether life on earth was created by an intelligence or not.

Well, I don't have a good set of criteria, either, that could demonstrate that, say, some crude hand-axe was made by an intelligence, but the human eye was not.

So here's another possibility. Suppose I said that the hand-axe wasn't intelligently designed. Sure, some person made it, but people aren't really intelligent. Actually they're just made of chemicals and membranes that bounce around and react to each other for eighty years or so, and any apparent "intelligence" they exhibit can actually be seen as the sum of a lot of unintelligent smaller things: neurons firing when they get stimulated, muscle reflexes getting triggered by neurons, etc.

Supposing you buy that, then why is it that the emergent behavior of a bunch of dumb neurons is considered intelligent, but the emergent behavior of DNA reactions and natural selection is not considered intelligent? They both produce amazingly complex artifacts. The time scales are wildly different, and humans have lots of other interesting characteristics like language and feelings and elbows, but aren't they both at least capable of creating some pretty brilliant designs?

The ID'ers, I think, would like to take a further leap and say this intelligent process is part of a great mind, that is self-aware, that created the universe, and inspired scriptures, and hears your prayers, and really likes candles and singing. I'd rather not jump to such conclusions, but instead suppose that there can be intelligence without "mind". Maybe intelligence is just a feature of some natural systems, like for example evolution, brains, and maybe other complicated things: an ecosystem? an economy? an anthill? Maybe humans are just unusual in being examples of intelligence that also have self-awareness, minds, and blogs.

Anyway, I think the ID argument poses an interesting problem: if we say the eye is not intelligently designed, then we are making a strong claim that ought to be justified, not about how the eye arose, but about what exactly is intelligence, and what exactly is design.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Andy and Olivia's Korean Ceremony

My brother and sister-in-law just did the Korean ceremony part of their wedding. My dad just posted his photos of it. I really wish I could have gone. I can't get over the cool hats!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

After the coronation, Queen Olivia reads her first proclamation to her adoring subjects.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

History is fake

Wow. I just ran into a very very old friend, who I hadn't seen since high school. He's someone I parted with on a bad note, and one of the first things I did when we found each other again, was apologize. The funny thing was, he had no memory of the incident that I thought had driven us apart, and that had being bugging me for a quarter of a century.

I know that the fussy, detailed social dramas we all play out in our heads are make believe bullshit that draw our attention away from real things; the feel of your feet in your shoes, the flavor of ramen, or the way your shirt smells when it's still clean enough to wear a second time. But I need constant reminders like this or I forget again.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Modern Brown Elephant

Allison and Eric helped us paint our new place last week. Here we see them deviating from the planned minimalist abstract color field, experimenting with representational zöoscape. This represents an elephant:

Monday, March 24, 2008


花見. The cherries are in bloom in Oregon!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Spanish: it stings, it burns, it chafes!

I just got another of a series of phone calls from 1-555-000-9561, some telemarketing recording in Spanish. I searched for it because I get this once a month or so, and I was curious how they manage to look like they're dialing from "555" when that's not a real area code.

Anyway, I found this web site ( that collects reports of weird telemarketing calls, and lots of people have been getting this. The amusing thing to me was how many people, maybe 1 in 20, were just especially enraged about the fact that it was in Spanish:


I'm fascinated by this hugely different attitude people have towards variety in the world. The people who react this way seem to be irritated by seeing anything different from what they're used to. Do they think it will hurt them somehow to hear it? As for me, I think my irritation with a telemarketing call would be inversely proportional to how exotic the language was. If someone called me up and tried to sell me timeshares in Ainu or Quechua, I'd probably at least opt to attend the obligation-free seminar in Aspen.

I guess change irritates me, too, with certain things -- I hate the way menus in Microsoft Word change themselves around trying to adapt to my use patterns, making it hard for me to find things. So, I can be a xenophobe too. I wonder what determines when we prefer variety and when we prefer homogeneity?