Is design undetectable?

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?

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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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7 Responses to Is design undetectable?

  1. Avatar photo penman says:

    How do design philosophers define “design”? I’ve struggled with this. Does it mean “produced by intelligence”? Honest question.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    All your questions are honest, penman 🙂

    I guess nowadays mostly they’re responding to the usage of the Intelligent Design movement, rather than to careful philosophical categories. If so, then “intelligence” is in there somewhere, as are planning, purpose and utility.

    To take a borderline example that’s sometimes discussed, a beaver dam helps the beaver get along, and the pattern even varies according to local circumstances. If you believe the beaver has some degree of intention in making, or adapting, the dam, then there is design.

    If, on the other hand, some beavers happen to survive better because they happen to build dams, and the phenomenon of dam-building evolves thus, it’s not design.

    If God made beavers with the instinct to build dams, then God designed the dams and the beavers are secondary causes.

    That would be my understanding, anyway!

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    Good borderline example.

    So two questions emerge:

    (1) Is the universe itself, its existence & structures, in any sense the product of intelligence, rather than “it just happened” / “it just happens to be this way”?

    (2) If so, then what, apart from special revelation, would count as evidence for this?

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman

    I should have added another nuance to your previous “what is design?” question, in that there’s a tendency by some to regard “design” as too restricted a word. For example, you can design a machine, but can you “design” a process that grows organisms with systems that pop in and out of solution when needed, develop according to need etc? Personally I think a broad concept of design with planning, purpose, function etc includes that.

    Then again the whole “world that creates itself” opposed to “coercion” schema complicates things if one accepts it (but planning such a world is still design in my book).

    But as to your last questions, I’m not in a position yet to answer. The heart of the question is “evidence” = evidence for whom? What I’ve tried to show in this piece is (a) that methodological naturalism, rigorously applied, won’t detect design even if it’s there and (b) that there’s a case, therefore, for exempting design considerations from such methodology in natural science as well as human science.

    Next question to answer is, how would someone accepting such an exemption be able to detect design, if at all? I’ll start on that in next post.

  5. Gregory says:

    On the one hand I agree with the paraphrase of E. Sober, which says: “Design arguments, then, by humans, must necessarily be restricted to human artifacts.” On the other hand, it seemingly cannot be denied that the argument to/from is a long-held theological one for ‘proof of G-d’s existence’. So, in so long as a person is already a theist, they will allow and embrace ‘design/creation’ as an explanation for the world. This is why BioLogos accepts small id and why most people joined the IDM to begin with; they already believe in ‘design’ and it has nothing to do with natural science.

    Thus, we can say there are (no less than) two levels of ‘design’ arguments: 1) Human-made artefacts, 2) Apologetics for a certain religious understanding. If we wish to include ‘design’ as pertaining to 3) biological origins ‘proved’ by probabilistic reasoning, then we have to realise that we’ve changed the definition of ‘biological (or pre-biological) science’ that most people are familiar with. This is why nullasalus at UD doesn’t want to count ID as ‘science’ and why James doesn’t defend the scientificity of ID, but rather how almost everyone misrepresents it. Calling it philosophy or theology, however, differs from saying ‘design’ is a legitimate concept in human-social sciences and applied sciences.

    BioLogos’ position rejecting the (biological) scientificity of ID from this point of view seems quite logical and responsible and has gained the support of scientists, philosophers and theologians that ID would love to have in its camp, but couldn’t manage. Some of these folks at BioLogos are ‘liberal’ or theologically ‘post-neo-Classical’ rather than conservative or ‘traditional’ in the sense defended here. But I see no reason to doubt Darrel Falk’s notion that *everyone* at BioLogos accepts level 2) design arguments, which is precisely the meaning of adding a big-L – Logos in Francis Collins’ meaning. Biology is ‘designed’ by ‘Intelligence,’ when viewed according to religious faith.

    If “what is at issue here is a scientific concept of design, rather than anything else,” then I side with Sober’s comment, up to the point that ‘reflexivity’ is involved, which is what is raised in the 2nd Design Detection thread. Human beings ‘detect’ human designs. If anti-realists would like to challenge this by denying human ‘minds,’ that is their own problem, not a problem for most people.

    ‘Westerners’ generally are trained to be rational rather than intuitive. ‘Easterners’ are ‘by nature/character’ more intuitive than rational (though the fact that most chess grandmasters are ‘Easterners’ is still a mystery to me by that logic). One of my favorite sociologists Pitirim A. Sorokin, who lived both in the ‘East’ and the ‘West,’ pointed out that reason, intuition and emotion are all faculties possessed by human beings, which we use in various situations. Unfortunately, students in western (public = secular) universities are not often told that intuition, emotion and yes, even faith, have as much importance or more in ‘being human’ than does reason. This is where studying the philosophy, history and sociology of science can help in the ID vs. TE/EC discourse; it shows instances where the ‘reasonable’ choice was not always the most successful one scientifically or for humanity.

    “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.” – Jon

    When you speak about ‘methodological materialism,’ after Feyerabend, I think it is helpful to think about ‘science’ in terms of ‘anything goes.’ In other words, there are methods and theories that are not ‘materialistic’ that are used by natural (or material) scientists and that still work. Materialism is the ideology or worldview held by individual scientists. However, if one is studying nature or matter, they do so using natural or material tools; they don’t use a culturological approach to bacteria, diseases, fertilizer or optics. Thus, it may be giving too much credit to materialists who are scientists and not enough credit to non-materialists who are scientists to suggest that “methodological materialism [is] the accepted methodology of the natural sciences.” I think this is merely a useful fiction for the science vs. religion warfare model and that you could come up with a plethora of cases where Jews, Christians and Muslims who are scientists do not operate solely under ‘materialistic’ premises. That story needs to be told more often.

    This is partly why the entire discussion of ‘methodological naturalism’ is a poor excuse for a philosophy of science (Steve Fuller has much harsher words about it); it is inexcusably biased at its roots when speaking about ‘science’ and cannot defend itself from scientific methods that do not study ‘nature-only.’ Paul de Vries’ article which coined the term ‘methodological naturalism’ qualifies it as having to do only with natural sciences (like ‘water that is wet water,’ ‘natural science is about nature’), so it is rather obvious already how partial and narrow the term was meant to be, that is, once (and only if) the discussion becomes more holistic and involves human beings as those who ‘do science,’ even natural science, in community, society, nation, world. IDists, just as much as atheist scientists and many scientists who are theists, especially in the Anglo-American discourse have run with MN as if it is a helpful term. Imo, it is a burden worth releasing for an alternative discourse.

    Epistemology, ontology, methodology, metaphysics, ethics, politics – these all come into play when ‘doing science’; they are the philosophical or ideological foundation on which or within which ‘science’ is done. The irony for MN or MM is that physicists are more likely than anthropologists to believe in the divine reveals the incomprehensiveness to the idea that materialism as method. Physicists study matter, physis (or nature), but they are less likely to become cultural relativists or nihilists because the topics they study don’t enable them see all the sinfulness, waste and wrong done and suffered in human societies.

    In support of Jon’s statement, yes, I’d agree that human-social sciences are not captive to materialistic ideology, that is, unless one approaches them with materialist presuppositions (whether they are being ‘liberated’ is another theme). If one “take[s] the existence of ‘mind’ as axiomatic, rather than as something to be established scientifically,” they can still approach mind materialistically. If one takes the mind as just a higher level of complexity, emerging out of the material brain, in an otherwise meaningless universe, one needn’t leap from mind to Mind, as the IDM hopes by its implications. But I agree that making mind and/or choice axiomatic would make a huge difference (and would require ID to discuss ‘designing,’ not just ‘designed’).

    Simply saying ‘design’ = ‘mind’ doesn’t actually solve much. It is rather reflexively in ‘doing design’ and how we study and live and ‘intuit’ it that matters most, which is why the IDM has so far failed to be convincing (except among those who were already convinced based on religious apologetics) and has lost many potential proponents to the likes of BioLogos, ASA or Faraday, which focuses more on theology and the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ in the USA. If this was just a conversation among natural scientists, it would be too boring for most people to tolerate or to give it much of their attention. And if it could be expanded from just evangelism to a wider religious-global conversation, it would perhaps become all that more interesting…

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Good thoughts, Gregory. You see where I’m coming from in this series well – though I’ve got a bit further to go in it, I think.

    Tangential to this discussion is some new input from Ted Davis on the BioLogos thread. He cites a very interesting piece by R J Russell of which most is here:,+Robert+John.+%E2%80%9CSpecial+Providence+and+Genetic+Mutation:+A+New+Defense+of+Theistic+Evolution.%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=W191cmPjum&sig=43ehCw9CgtAfOGyThsKuj7TZOIc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=836GT-SiEsi78gPU3LTBBw&ved=0CDoQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=Russell%2C%20Robert%20John.%20%E2%80%9CSpecial%20Providence%20and%20Genetic%20Mutation%3A%20A%20New%20Defense%20of%20Theistic%20Evolution.%E2%80%9D&f=false
    Sorry for silly link – I lack the code to shorten it! I’ve put my thoughts on the thread there.

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