November 21, 2005

The Golden Record - Evidence that we need know nothing of the "designer?"

At Uncommon Descent William Dembski has printed the query of a “colleague” (the scare quotes are there because Dembski so often cites friends, colleagues, and scientists-who-are-afraid-to-go-on-the-record-for-fear-of-losing-their-jobs that one can never really know whether it’s an honest reference or another example of Dembski floating a notion he doesn’t want associated with his good name).

In any case, Mr. Colleague asks an important question. It has been dealt with often and at length to be sure, including here on this site, but it nonetheless offers an important opportunity as it deals with some very fundamental flaws in “intelligent design” theory.

He begins,
A common criticism of ID is that the design inference ONLY works when you know something about the potential designer. Since we know nothing about the potential designer for ID, it’s theory is useless and unproveable.
Mr. Colleague is right that this is a common criticism of ID “theory.” In fact it is, as far as I know, a completely unrefuted criticism. But I’m surprised Dembski didn’t jump in here and correct him on a small point. According to ID “theorists," there is more to ID than a mere analogical induction of “design.” The point here is that knowing nothing of “the potential designer for ID” leaves only the induction itself “useless and unproveable.” It is possible there are other aspects of the “theory” that are untouched by this logical difficulty. But I digress.
But then I stumbled upon the Golden Record ( and realized this is ID in reverse. We are the unknown designer sending our design out into the universe to be detected. Science thinks it won’t get mistaken for a ‘natural object’ so we must conclude that the recipients don’t need to know anything about humans in order to conclude it was designed.
No, this is not an example of ID in reverse. It is not an investigation of “Intelligent Design,” it is an investigation of (notice the lower case) intelligent design. This is about natural intelligent design, as are archeology, forensics, and SETI (and of course Mr. Colleague’s example is very closely related to issues dealt with by SETI).

To think there is a possibility that the Golden Record might get mistaken for a natural object is to know nothing of its design and manufacture, or the design and manufacture of the craft to which it is attached, or simply to have ignored the very link Mr. Colleague himself provided.
Tell me how the “aliens” can know this Golden Record is not the product of unintelligent processes (nature) and I’ll tell you how I know DNA falls into the same catagory.
As I’ve noted before, the passion with which design proponents hold to ID creationism appears to be indirectly proportional to their willingness or capacity to examine the concept beyond shallow wishfulness.

Mr. Colleague is equating the “information” encoded in physical form by DNA with the information encoded in physical form by the Golden Record. But, as the request for evidence of the motives and methods of the “designer” would imply, this is not separable from the processes involved in bringing an artifact into physical reality. The best way to deal with his point is to look at it in the context of the complaint with which he opened, that being - do we need to know something of the designer to infer design?

Well, the first, and most obvious question we would ask here would be - How? If the artifact was imagined and incarnated by an “intelligence” of some sort, by what acts was this accomplished? If we look at the Golden Record we can see that it is the result of many manufacturing processes. It has been cut, ground, buffed, etched, and attached to a vehicle that reveals more of the same evidence of intelligent engineering. There is physical evidence of these processes right there on the Record itself. The artifact reveals many characteristics that separate it from the natural world with which we are familiar.

Of course we cannot say the same for DNA. There are many analogous molecules, most of which are not claimed as “intelligently designed,” that suggest an inference of intervention by “intelligent” agency is unwarranted. There is no physical evidence to be found in DNA that requires, or even supports, an inference of “intelligent” engineering of the molecule. Even the “information” content of DNA is devoid of evidence for “intelligence.” It does not encode a language of the sort etched into the Golden Record. And it reveals all of the agglomerated duplication, excess, circuitousness, and confused rearrangement we would expect from a naturally evolved system.

There is no reason whatsoever to conclude that DNA was designed. This conclusion requires evidence, the kind we get when we know something of the designer’s methods.

Of course the next question we would ask would be – Why? For what reason was the artifact created, what purpose does it serve? If the aliens in question have not developed intelligence, or are not sophisticated enough to posit and investigate these kinds of problems, then the question is irrelevant. But if the aliens are in a position to successfully examine the Golden Record then they likely have developed some systems of language, math, and sciences. In that case they will eventually understand at least some of the encrypted information and realize that it is an attempt at communication. This function implies an intelligent agent.

But if we ask – why does DNA exist? – the only answers forthcoming are those that relate to its operation, not to existential purpose. DNA exists so as to propagate RNA, more DNA, and the products thereof. But is there any evidence that DNA exhibits functions that imply intelligent causation? Is DNA an attempt to communicate? Not that we can see. Does its construction require intelligent activity? Well as far back as we can follow the evidence is clear that DNA has been produced by natural processes. No intelligence required. An inference of intelligent causal agency for DNA requires the layering on of assumptions not justified by the physical evidence.

In fact the cases of DNA and the Golden Record are not analogous at all. The reasons go beyond the fact that any analogy with natural intelligent design is impotent to demonstrate “Intelligent Design.” They have to do with the fact that, in spite of Mr. Colleague’s protestations, we are irrevocably dependent upon knowing something of the designer in order to infer design. Without this knowledge we are, as ID proponents invariably show, reduced to relying upon unevidenced assumptions (e.g. “it may look natural, but the designer might have wanted it that way”) and arguments from ignorance (e.g. “the exact mechanism by which this was created is irrelevant”).

The example of the Golden Record, despite Mr. Colleague’s intent, further demonstrates the vapidity of the "we need know nothing of the "designer"" argument.


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