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.

1 comment:

Will said...

This is a very thorough and well argument. I really like your idea about where the line between a collection of dumb parts and an intelligent whole is drawn. In the study of the origins of life, it is generally accepted that what we call the cell is what was originally an organism, made up of the same organelles that are in our cells now. Those early cells co-opted a smaller, older cell which is now called the mitochondrion. The mitochondrion has its own DNA, which is now passed on only on the mother's side. It is believed that even before the mitochondrion, DNA existed without the protective cell walls. At that point, it isn't unreasonable to treat DNA with the same respect that one treats organisms now. In fact, through the help of enzymes and catalysts, DNA was capable of mutating and replicating on its own. This process probably behaved in a manner similar to darwinian evolution.

The DNA (both nuclear and mitochondrion) that we walk around with is the knowledge gained though billions of years of experimentation. The result of which is a chemical reactions so complex it's difficult to grasp how it could have happened "on accident". An easy explanation to turn to, especially when it is convenient for other political motivations, is that it must have been designed by some intelligent consciousness. I think that is the most trite and meaningless explanation. Thinking about nature in the way it is described by science is far more "magical" and, I think, inspires more reverence for the world.