In Ted Davis’ conversation with me on BioLogos, he raised Elliot Sober’s objection to ID in Debating Design, which he summarises as the conclusion “that one cannot simply infer ‘design’ without some prior knowledge or assumption about the ‘designer’ coming into it.” This objection is often raised by opponents of ID from both within and without the Theistic fold. It clearly impinges, too, on the wider field of natural theology. Because I’m not sure I really comprehend it, and have a vague feeling that it doesn’t completely hold water, let’s toss it about a bit.
I’ve not got access to Debating Design, but Sober’s views are well summarised in an enthusiastic Amazon review, which should suffice for my purposes here. According to this reviewer, Fritz R Ward, Sober points out that design theorists make an implicit assumption that we know “if not the motives, at the least the general methods of the designer.” But though the SETI project is often given as an example of the validity of detecting alien intelligence:
Sober is skeptical that anything, even something as apparently universal as a series of prime numbers, would necessarily be recognized by a truly foreign intelligence as evidence of design. And there is little reason, he adds, for assuming that we would recognize the purposeful designs of other alien intelligences, much less of God. Design arguments, then, by humans, must necessarily be restricted to human artifacts.
It would seem then, that at at the heart of Sober’s argument is that we probably could not recognise non-human design if we saw it, at least to the degree of certainty required to make it “evidence”, though Sober seems to allow for a similar kind of “non-scientific” design inference to that Alvin Plantiga suggests (the latter calling it, though, “design discourse” rather than “inference”, which he considers too strong a word). Ward rightly points out that such a position also effectively destroys the “argument from bad design” often used against the concept of design. The reviewer doubts that there is an effective reply to either application of Sober’s objection.
To begin my examination, we should remember that what is at issue here is a scientific concept of design, rather than anything else. As a layman, one might perceive design in nature intuitively. As a Christian, or other theist, one might accept it on faith. But one cannot deduce it in a way that’s scientifically acceptable. Thus, the argument might run, “design” is quite legitimate within the human sciences such as archaeology and sociology, because we know that humans design things, and how they do it, first hand. The same cannot be said of a non-human designer of, say, living systems. One could rephrase that by saying that methodological materialism, the accepted methodology of the natural sciences, cannot detect it.
Let me digressbriefly to the work of the materialist philosopher, Alex Rosenberg, whose book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality has been under damning review by the Catholic Arsitotelian-Thomist, Ed Feser. In his latest blog Feser examines Rosenberg’s claim that all thought is entirely meaningless:
What Rosenberg is saying is that in reality, both our thoughts about cats and the sequence of shapes cat are as utterly meaningless as the sequence of shapes ^\*: Neither cat nor any of our thoughts is any more about cats or about anything else than the sequence ^\*: is about anything. Meaning, aboutness, or intentionality (to use the technical philosophical term) is an illusion. In fact, Rosenberg claims, the brain does everything without thinking about anything at all.
You may have some inking of that kind of idea from the experiments suggesting that volitional thought occurs after the acts to which they supposedly lead, suggesting to many materialists that conscious thought is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain.
Rosenberg is an “eliminative materialist”, which is very much a minority position. However, both he and Feser believe that such conclusions are inevitable if materialism is followed through rigorously, even though their absurdity prevents this. The reasons others draw back from them are similar to those for atheists continuing to lead moral lives rather than dismissing ethics as an an evolutionary accident: they are more human than their philosphy is.
So how does that relate to detecting design? Well, if Rosenberg and Feser are correct, a consistently materialist approach cannot detect design at all, even human design, because there is no such thing. Science cannot attribute purpose to human agents if the very concept of mind is pure illusion. And yet the natural sciences insist that their methodology be strictly materialist.
Now there may be many physicists or biologists who look down on the human sciences, and a very few who might wish to exclude them from the scientific academy. But we can, I think, be certain that at no time soon will the world acquiesce in denying archaeology, cultural anthropology, sociology, economics and so on their status as sciences. Rather, as I believe Gregory would confirm, it is much more likely that the human sciences will become progressively liberated from the hold of pure materialism.
Science (overall) then, surely cannot claim truthfully to operate only by materialist methodology. It may employ that methodology routinely, but there are glaring exceptions – and the most glaring of all is the whole area of design, which takes the existence of “mind” as axiomatic, rather than as something to be established scientifically.
Now it is the insistence on a methodologically materialist detection of design in (non-human) nature, as opposed to human intuition, faith commitments and other products of the (axiomatic) human mind, that underpins Sober’s objection. If this insistence must be waived in the human sciences, then by what consistent principle can it be enforced in the physical or biological sciences?
I’ll move on to Sober’s practical objection (that we might not be able to discern non-human design) in the next post. But are you with me so far?