Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Intelligent Design

Society would benefit if students were taught about intelligent design in school. They should know why it is philosophical theory and not a scientific theory, what the differences are, and why philosophers do not take it seriously.

On September 26th, the Dover Area School District will defend its policy of reading a statement questioning evolution and proposing intelligent design to students taking biology.

This has been raised as a church/state issue. However, as I have said before, I have no interest in the legal arguments. I am concerned with the moral issues. Of course, there have been, and there will continue to be, just and unjust laws, and the question of what laws ought and ought not to exist are, ultimately, moral questions.

On the moral side of the dispute, where is the wrong in exposing biology students to intelligent design? What moral principle is being violated?

To answer that question, I want to examine a hypothetical requirement to expose biology students to intelligent design and try to see if I can find where doing so crosses a moral line.

Teaching the Teachers

Of course, the state has an obligation to fill teaching jobs with qualified teachers. Consequently, we cannot expect biology teachers to address this subject until they have learned about it themselves.

This is not an insurmountable barrier. As soon as these rules are adopted, the state’s universities can add the required coursework to their students’ curriculum. Those who are already teaching should be required to get additional training in this new subject area. As they are trained, they can go back to class and teach this material.

Where would these teachers go to learn this new subject?

Actually, they would need to take a philosophy class. Contrary to claims made by those who defend "intelligent design", this is not a theory invented in the last fifteen years. This is the "Argument from Design," which has its roots in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The most widely known expression of this expression comes from the 18th century scholar, William Paley.

Paley argued that, if you were walking and discovered something as intricate as a watch, you would assume that there was a watchmaker. Similarly, if you were to find something as intricate as the human eye, you should assume that there was an eye-maker.

Of course, Paley argued that this eye-maker is God.

Even if we are justified in assuming an eye-maker, we are not permitted to infer anything about the moral character of this artisan, or any other characteristic, other than that it can make eyes in the context in which eyes are found. The eye-maker may be a malicious individual that made humans so that he could watch them suffer from the diseases and natural disasters he subjects them to. Or, he could be a benevolent being that knows just enough to make the eye as it is -- certainly not enough to make an eye free from cataracts or glaucoma. Or, again, maybe he is knowledgeable and kind but lacks the power to make an eye better than what exists.

This matches the claims that the defenders of intelligent design make. They state that irreducible complexity justifies the inference that there was an intelligent designer, but they refuse to say anything about that designer. They allow, for example, that it could be a space alien – perhaps a malicious, sadistic extraterrestrial species that built us so that they can sit in front of their televisions and watch another season of Survivor: Earth.

Problem with the Design Argument

Philosophers have had centuries to discuss this argument, and have recognized a number of problems. One of the most significant problems is this:

We are told that the existence of the watch implies the existence of a watchmaker. The watch itself is too intricate to have occurred naturally, so it must have been intentionally constructed.

However, the watchmaker is significantly more intricate and complex than the watch he constructs. If the watch needs a maker because of its complexity, then the watchmaker also needs a maker. In fact, Paley argues this point when he says that the eye is so complex that it must have maker of its own.

If the watchmaker is so complex that it must have been made, then whatever makes a watchmaker must be even more complex. Because whatever makes a watchmaker must be significantly compex, it must have a maker as well. So, now, we are forced by Paley's argument to assume that there must be a maker of whatever makes watchmakers.

The maker of whatever makes watchmakers, of course, is also extremely complex. Complexity means that we must assume that these makers of the makers of whatever makes watchmakers also has a maker.

And so on. And so forth. Ad infinitum.

The only way to break this chain is to say that there must be something that is complex that still does not require a maker. Paley would assert that this complex entity that does not require a maker is God. However, he has given no reason to believe that the complex entity that does not require a maker is man himself.

Paley's claim that this unmade complex entity is God suffers an additional problem. His argument for a maker is tied directly into the issue of complexity.

According to the argument, the case for a maker becomes stronger as the entity becomes more complex. A crude hour glass with sand falling through a hole at the bottom of a rock depression may be natural. A digital stopwatch and timer with an alarm more strongly suggests a designer. If greater complexity means a stronger need to assume that a designer is involved, then God certainly must have been designed by a Godmaker.

It is better to cut this infinite chain off as close to the original object as possible. In fact, we should not even assume that the watch has a watchmaker unless we have independent evidence for the existence of such an entity. In fact, we have this independent evidence, so we can comfortably assume that a watchmaker is involved. We do not have this independent evidence for the ‘intelligent designer’ of intelligent design.

Back to Class

Once our teachers understand the design argument and can teach their students what it is and why it has been rejected, then we can send them back to teach this to their students.

With this, some may object that, "This is a science class, and it is inappropriate to be discussing philosophy in a science class." Of course, it is easy to prove that the design argument is a philosophical argument (and not a scientific theory) because the teachers went to a philosophy class to learn about it.

However, it is not at all difficult to sidestep this objection. All we need to do is rename the class, "The Philosophy and Science of Biology." Clearly, there is nothing wrong with discussing philosophical arguments in a class with such a title. No moral lines have yet been crossed.

Social Utility

The last question we need to answer is whether this change has any social utility. Are we contributing to a better society, or are we just playing games and wasting time?

It seems obvious that this move would have clear benefits for society as a whole. The fact that so many people say that “intelligent design” is a scientific theory and that it has been around for only 15 years shows that they have suffered from important gaps in their education. These gaps are not only proving harmful to them, they are wasting serious resources throughout the whole nation. They are distracting society away from the task of teaching science.

Because of this ignorance, they are putting science education itself at risk. This risk is particularly great in the life sciences – the sciences we use to study the ecology and the environment, agriculture, and medicine. These are sciences that have a significant effect on how well we live, or even whether we live at all.

To avoid these detrimental effects, it is reasonable to argue that high school education must focus at least a little attention on the nature of scientific theories, the argument from design, why the argument from design is a philosophical theory and not a scientific theory, and the overwhelming problems known to exist in this argument.

Over time, our society might become sufficiently well educated that we no longer have to deal with these distractions. To the degree that happens, we can have more and better-educated people taking up the study of ecology, environmental sciences, agriculture, and medicine. This better-educated public will be able to make wiser decisions that will benefit all levels of society.

Is this not what the education system is supposed to accomplish?


Anonymous said...

Are you a biologist?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

No. I am a philosopher.

This is how I know that the "Argument from Design" is not a biology question. It is a philosophy question -- and has been for several centuries. It is one of the questions that I studied as a philosophy student.

Anonymous said...

The part of the watchmaker arguement you leave is out is the age of the universe. The crux of the watchmaker argument lies in the assertion that the universe is to young (perhaps 17 billion years old) to have randomly produced life. The watchmaker argument can fall within the realm of a biological argument, if mathmatics are introduced.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous: Actually, the time element is irrelevant. Introducing the time element is just another part of saying "the greater the complexity, the stronger implication for a designer." Accomplishing an objective in a shorter period of time is simply a measure of greater complexity.

This still runs straight into the objection that "if greater complexity implies a designer, and God is the most complex thing of all, then God must have been designed."

If you assume a watchmaker when you discover a watch, then you certainly must assume a godmaker if you encounter a god.

Anonymous said...

My name is Ted, just haven't formally signed in).

The time element is not irrelevant, because the theory of evolution must be mathmatically sound in order to "work".

By mathmatically sound I mean there must be enough time to allow for random chance to have a reasonable opportunity to form life as we know it.

Imagine if a "seperate" universe were one hour old, and we were able to observe it. Imagine if we saw a life human infant on the ground, along woth plants and animals etc... It would be absurd to think that random chance created that baby from nothing in an hour.

I see the question of "where did God come from" as a way of not directly addressing the watchmaker argument.

There is nothing wrong with asking "where did God come from" for various reasons, but the asking of that question does not satisfy the question asked of evolution by the watchmaker arguement.

Anonymous said...


You said "This still runs straight into the objection that if greater complexity implies a designer, and God is the most complex thing of all, then God must have been designed."

To make my point clear, this objection isn't really answering the watchmaker issue head on.

Let's assume that smoking is harmful to your health), and that person "A" smokes. The objection above is like person "A" telling person "B" that he shouldn't smoke. Person "B" may object saying, but "YOU" smoke. This has nothing to do with the fact that person "A" is right, even though person "B" has a true objection.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Greetings, Ted:

Actually, as long as we are talking about probability > 0, then the case is mathematically sound.

The example that you use of an infant showing up in a universe within 1 hour of the big bang is a case with probability < 0. It is physically impossible.

Any evidence that shows that evolution is physically impossible would count as a good objection. However, intelligent design theory only identifies options as improbable.

Even if the odds were 1x10^-1000000 chance, this is still greater than 0, so we are still within the realm of what is mathematically sound. As a result, the dispute remains philosophical, and not scientific.

And, the philosophical argument still stands.

If a watch implies a watchmaker, and an eye implies an eyemaker, then a god implies a godmaker, ad infinitum.

Anonymous said...

If one accepts the position that evolution is not true, that does not mean that intelligent design is true. If intelligent design is to be taught as science, then it must stand on its own merits as valid scientific theory. Show the evidence and it will be taught.

The effect/cause illustrated by the watch/watchmaker scenerio requires that both the watch and the watchmaker are known quantities. Showing a watch to a person from a newly discovered, primitive tribe deep in the Amazon will not cause that person to deduce a watchmaker.

To deduce a universe maker from a universe first requires that we know what a universe maker is and how it makes universes. We do not.

Anonymous said...

Hello Alonzo,

I've heard that scientifically speaking if something has a 1 in 10^50 chance of occurring it is classified as an impossibility, If that is true, then the case is classified as mathmatically impossible.

But since this is a philosophical discussion...

Do we agree that "something" had to start it all, in other words something has to be the cause of life, matter etc ( you may say a God maker etc ) but there is a SOMETHING that must be the initial cause). Does this make sense, philosophically speaking? Or is there some infinite chain of causes? If there is an infinate chain of causes, what is causing this chain to occurr? So are we in agreement that there is SOME initial cause, defined or undefined to all this (life matter you may say God, whatever)?

Anonymous said...

Hello Cubic Room,

What you said here "If one accepts the position that evolution is not true, that does not mean that intelligent design is true. If intelligent design is to be taught as science, then it must stand on its own merits as valid scientific theory"
is absolutely true, for my 2 cents at least.

This "To deduce a universe maker from a universe first requires that we know what a universe maker is and how it makes universes" however, misses the point of the argument.

Scientists deduce things without understanding their causes all the time. For example scientists deduce that planets/stars are in space not because they can see them, or know anything about them. They could be made of gold, or cheese or lead or whatever.

They deduce that something is there due to the gravity exerted on nearby objects. Years later sometimes they actually "see" the planets/stars. So then, it may be possible to deduce that life is to complex to have evolved in ~17 billion years without knowing it's cause.

Show an Amazon man a watch, then explain what it is and how it works. Then ask him weather he thinks someone with intelligence made it, or random chance made it.
You bet your beans he will say someone with intelligence made it. He may claim man, God or the great purple stork made it, but certainly he will not say it came about by chance.

Anonymous said...

News for the philosophy student perhaps...

NEW YORK Dec 9, 2004 — A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.

The first hint of Flew's turn was a letter to the August-September issue of Britain's Philosophy Now magazine. "It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism," he wrote.

Flew told The Associated Press his current ideas have some similarity with American "intelligent design" theorists, who see evidence for a guiding force in the construction of the universe. He accepts Darwinian evolution but doubts it can explain the ultimate origins of life.

soihgior44 said...

To anon who mentions British philosophy professor Flew,

An atheist who changes his mind does not prove a god exists any more then a man who believed in a god all his life proves a god exists.

Anonymous said...

Correct Soihgior44, but someone of Flew's "stature" in this arena is bound to have influenced many.

So.... if someone has viewed Flew's early works as solid, they may want to relook at them using the same "new evidence" Flew himself used.

Anonymous said...

"I have not changed my views"
Today, 16th December 2004, Professor Antony Flew, British philosopher, well known rationalist, atheist and an Honorary Associate of Rationalist International, telephoned me (Sanal Edamaruku) and informed that the wild rumours about his changed views are baseless.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I see that I have a number of items to comment on.

(1) In logic, 'impossible' is defined as 'probability <= 0', and 'impossible' is what is required to prove 'mathematically unsound'.

(2) To a person who bases his views on reason, Anthony Flew's personal opinion carries no weight.

For reason-based thinkers, Mr. Flew must present the reasoning behind his new opinion to a peer-reviewed philosophical journal where it can be publicly assessed. In the absence of a reasoned defense of his position, it simply has no weight.

(3) As for 'original cause', I have just finished a book on string theory that throws the whole concept of 'original cause' up in the air. Allegedly, we live in an 11-dimension universe with 4 extended dimensions (1 of them being time) and 7 coiled dimensions that may have come into existence as a result of a collision of two membranes in the 11th dimension of some alternative universe.

Anyway, string theory is so far outside of my area of expertise that I would be negligent if I were to say that it is sound or unsound. I am going to leave that question up to the experts in that field.

Anonymous said...

Ted here,


Philosophically speaking...

Why not check out what people say about God? Why not explore the notion that there really is a watchmaker, and that you really can meet him? Notice the word explore.

To not do that seems kind of like choosing to believe that the next coin or pop can you find on the ground was randomly created.

Seriously, have you sought and not found Alonzo?

Anonymous said...

Ted asks:

"Why not check out what people say about God?"


"Why not explore the notion that there really is a watchmaker...?"

The problem, Ted, is that there just isn't much to explore. There just isn't any good evidence at all that God exists. In short order, you find that all there is to explore is "what other people say about God." But who cares what other people say about God when they themselves have nothing upon which to base their belief?

Anonymous said...


Ted here. In my response to Alonzo, I was not trying to "prove" that God exists because other people say so. I was only asking a philosophical question, because Alonzo's reply seemed remarkable.

However, if you want to find God you have to seek Him. It's as simple as an honest "ok God, IF you really do exist, let me know who you are because I don't know you" type of 5 second inward or outward utterance.

Then it's up to God. If he does exist, and is kind, all powerful etc. then He will introduce Himself to you.

If not, you've spent 5 seconds exploring the possibility of "something" utterly amazing - not a bad investment really.

He who seeks will find

Anonymous said...

Well, Ted, I did ask that question when I was younger, and I came up with nothing.

But, what exactly are you suggesting one might get as evidence that God exists if you ask as you've suggested? Will God literally appear to you? Will He hold some sort of conversation with you inside your own mind? Will some sort of feeling come over you that he exists?

Anyway, we are drifting away from the main point that Intelligent Design is a philosophical, not scientific, argument that leads nowhere but to an infinite regression of creators or an arbitrary and baseless declaration about where that regression stops; in other words, where the "first cause" lies. It is in no way an alternative to evolution, and will only detract from real science teaching.

Anonymous said...

Hello Yecats,

Intelligent design claims that mathematically speaking, life is to complex to have evolved on it's own given the age of the universe as we know it.

ID may or may not appear as a valid argument to you, but because it bases it's case upon mathematical probabilities, it falls within the realm of science.

As far as the infitite regression of creators goes, ID (again perhaps unbelievably to you) is not bound by a 17 billion year (or any year) time frame in asserting that a creator is necessary to have started THIS universe.

The raw, unlaced ID argument makes no claims as to the origin of a creator, therefore it is not bound by probability based upon time, like the origin of this universe and it's life forms are.

Anonymous said...

I should have said "falls within the realm of a scientific argument", not "falls within the realm of science" in my previous post.

As a side note I'll bet God has been speaking to you alot Yecats, PERHAPS this conversation is one of the many ways He has.

Anonymous said...

I am interested in your blogs.

Jonathan said...

Everything has to come from something correct? Even we with all our technological advancements cannot create something out of nothing. It is one of the laws of physics, "matter cannot be created or destroyed." So this begs the question, where did all the matter in the world come from? If we trace everything in the world back to it's origin, we can logically assume that there had to be a "first" of it's kind. So where did this first come from? Well, in order for it to be here, we must assume that this "something" came out of "nothing." That somehow matter was created. By doing this we have broken a law of nature, we have proved the supernatural could happen. Therefore, when delving into the supernatural where matter came from nowhere, how does an intelligent designer seem any more irrational than a random explosion?