Is design undetectable? (2)

Let me summarise and consolidate my last post. Methodological materialism cannot detect – or even properly admit – design of any kind. Therefore the acceptance of design in the human sciences depends on treating the reality of the minds producing it as axiomatic. The question necessarily arises of the basis on which we arrive at that axiom.

Elliot Sober’s objection to the design argument in nature depends on our ignorance of the nature, intentions and methods of the designer. So how much do we know of the designer in the field where design is admitted, that is the human sciences?


At the heart of our appreciation of human design is theory of mind. However, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with developmental psychology this is not a scientific theory, but an aspect of human development in which we, unlike any of the animals, come to recognise other people as having an internal “self” like our own. Very early on, children begin to realise that if another is in pain, it is like the pain they themselves sometimes feel. Likewise for pleasure, and an increasing range of other human experiences.

This is hugely important, for from it arise not only our deep social interactions, but our ability to empathise, think symbolically, communicate via language, develop moral values, worship; in a word, pretty well everything that marks us as human. Quite unlike anything we might imagine from the word “theory”, theory of mind is entirely intuitive, a product of what we are rather than of any formal activity, though it leads to every formal activity including design.

As Alex Rosenberg and the evolutionary psychologists have reminded us, theory of mind is therefore far from scientific. They would tell us that our minds are purely the product of adaptive need – in Rosenberg’s case they are mere illusion. Alvin Plantinga has argued cogently that a materialist understanding of mind completely undermines the basis of science. In Where the Conflict Really Lies he shows how a faculty like mind, developed purely for survival in a dangerous world, is extremely unlikely to develop beliefs that are true as well as useful. So not only (in a naturalistic worldview) is our self-conscious awareness suspect, but there is no reason why our theory of mind should be that reliable either.

We may assume that our fellow human beings are like us, but experience itself shows how unreliable that belief is. We argue with our friends. We can’t understand the opposite sex. We certainly can’t comprehend why others are atheists/Republicans/Liverpool supporters/stamp collectors. We wage war on foreigners. That applies to those within our own social sphere. Understanding the motives of the builders of Stonehenge is beyond us. Understanding how the stone spheres of Costa Rica were made is a mystery. We’ve even forgotten the unwritten skills of Victorian iron workers. In other words, our knowledge even of human designers is far from certain. Our inference of design when, say, examining archaeological artifacts is therefore, at root, intuitive, not scientific.

Find a pot in the ground, and we think, “Someone like me could have used that.” Find an inscription in an unknown language, and we surmise it’s more likely that someone would have planned it than scribbled it – even less that a natural process made it. The process is primarily analogical – “this is enough like what I might do to ascribe it to someone like me”. Scientifically it’s unreliable – as the atheists like to point out any random pattern is as likely as another. But Linear B forces us to say “design” instinctively. Yet it’s a remarkably reliable instinct, even when – as in the stone balls – we know little about the who, why or how.

If anything our theory of mind is over-sensitive to human personality. We see faces in the clouds, think our dogs understand us and even anthropomorphise cars or soft toys. We’re inveterate spotters of personhood. Design-spotting is us.

Given, then, that the process of human design detection is fundamentally instinctive, rather than scientific, it is not possible to quantify its reliability, when we can’t interview the designer. It’s certainly not 100% reliable, though, even if evolution hasn’t dealt us such a dummy hand as Plantinga describes.

So when Elliot Sober says that we could not detect alien design, as opposed to human design, it has to be a quantitative, rather than a qualitative difference. Who can say how well we understand other humans? And who can say how little we would therefore understand an extraterrestrial designer, or a divine one? They might be completely incomprehensible to us – but they might be quite familiar.

In the next post I’ll try to explore that further.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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