January 20, 2006

"Bad design," "good design"? - The point is there's no design

For various reasons I cringe every time I hear a defender of evolution invoke the “bad design” argument. Besides the fact that it leaves unquestioned numerous, and much more fundamental assumptions about the “designer,” "bad design” cannot work simply because it does not challenge the concept of “designer” most proponents hold. Whimsy and capriciousness are inherent qualities of the Christian God, thus leaving moot conclusions about faulty design. ID proponents can, and do, simply respond that not all of God’s plans are known or knowable.

This, though they seldom seem to realize it, similarly disqualifies nearly all of the reverse arguments made by proponents of ID. These include suggestions as to how the “designer” (when acknowledged to be God) might operate. It is true that there are still those instances, fewer though they may be these days, where a design proponent will argue the point from the position of “the designer could be aliens, or time-travelers or…” But in this case, any consideration of design must be held accountable to natural processes and scientific methodology. Also, such lines of argument invoke a “designer” incapable of being the causal agency they infer (missing Jon Stewart’s appropriate “skill-set,” as it were) .

So if we first separate the argument ontologically (natural designer, non-natural designer), and then examine cases of such specious “that’s just how the designer might do it” assertions it becomes clear that this rhetoric just does not logically hold up.

The following example comes from the now retooled and even more fatuous Uncommon Descent blog. One of the moderators posted an entry which criticized evolutionary interpretation of fossil data. He suggested that the following should be an empirical consideration,
“Designer Reuse - One of the positive cases for Intelligent Design is the observation of the ways designers act when designing. Intelligent agents often ‘re-use’ functional components that work over and over in different systems.”
Now if argued from the standpoint that the “designer” in this case is of the transcendent variety the problem I mentioned at the beginning is relevant – if one can argue that certain qualities are evidence of “good design,” that same argument is invalidated if a pass is taken on explaining bad design. However since there was no extension of this point wherein the poster cited God’s mysterious ways, this rebuttal does not specifically apply.

But there are other reasons to dismiss his suggestion. Consider the poster’s point that intelligent agents “often ‘re-use’ functional components.” In the natural universe, this is undoubtedly true. All of our experience with intelligent design (human activity) implies that reuse is both important and ubiquitous. Why? Because humans live in a time dependent reality. Time contrives beginnings and endings. If things - resources, experiences, processes, lives - can end then economy of use becomes an inevitable contributor to success. This virtually ensures that reuse will become a facet of human activity and design, as it unquestionably has.

But we are then left with the question – can a proposed transcendent designer be subject to these same restrictions (need for economy)? Definitely not the Christian God. And certainly no “designer” capable of creating the cosmos itself. Any further argument that the “designer” might reuse for aesthetic reasons is merely an arbitrary and desperate attempt to provide life-support for a flagging point. “Aesthetics,” especially those of a transcendent God, is unfalsifiable and cannot frame an empirical argument.

On the other hand, if we address the poster’s inference as if to natural intelligent design we must, as mentioned above, ask that empirical evidence for the methods employed be offered. How would the “designer” have operated over the course of millions of years (itself a challenge to the designer’s “naturalness” in this instance), what advanced genetic engineering techniques were used, where is the evidence of said designer’s intervention, even existence (natural entities, after all, always seems to leave messes of some sort behind)?

Absent suitable documentation, this design argument relies on a tacit admission that everything looks just like it would if no intelligent intervention had occurred, and of course this is not a useful scientific argument at all.

We would also have to ask if the (purportedly natural) designer responsible for influencing biological events in the history of life on earth is the same one who gave life to the cosmos. If the answer is yes, then any argument dependent upon the possibility of the designer being “natural” requires addressing the paradox of nature (the universe) creating itself before it can proceed with attempts to explain events on earth.

So the take-home point here is that “design-can-explain-that-data-too” arguments are indeed bogus, and can be shown to be so when the ontology of the possible designers is addressed separately. When trying to respond to the assertion without making this distinction the counterarguments are not as clear, and one is often left with “bad design” responses, which are themselves bad.


Blogger Jim51 said...

Interesting post. I, too, find the "bad design" argument problematic, but perhaps for different reasons. I believe that the bad design argument shows inadequate understanding of the "intelligent design" argument. Intelligent design does not equal good design.
The bad design argument may be worthwhile politically (given my view that creationism is a political movement more than anything else), and it may be good for getting a laugh (Jon Stewart's scrotum example). Nonetheless the bad design argument may be more theological than scientific.
Your "ontology of the designer" thoughts may be useful in calrifying some of the discussions, but I did find it difficult to grok and to see the further implications.

1:57 PM  
Blogger RLC said...


Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that the bad design argument, while it may not be logically tenable, may have the power to sway public opinion. I'm undecided as to whether its use in that fashion is a good thing.

It's probably a fault of my poor composition that I did not effectively communicate how I intended the "ontology of the design" separation to restrict further implications, not open up more of them.

If we accept that ID proponents, when invoking an inference to a "designer," take advantage of the ambiguity of said designer's ontology, then this can be seen to contribute to confused responses, including bad design arguments.

I'm trying to suggest that if we deal with the proposed incarnations of "designer" (natural or non-natural) as separate lines of discussion it actually removes implications from one that cloud consideration of the other. It then becomes possible to respond to the notion of a natural "designer" without confusing the argument with omnipotence, and as well it streamlines the counterargument to non-natural designby removing irrelevant consideration of natural processes.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Consider one of their arguments: A car requires a designer, doesn't it?
Unsafe at any speed.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Jim51 said...

Dear rlc,
Thanks for the additional explanation. I think it makes sense to separate the discussions into 2 threads when one considers the nature of the designer. It would tend to make non-sequitor responses more transparent.
And by the way, I share your concern regarding using specious arguments for political advantage. I wasn't really proposing that cynical use of the bad design argument. Having said that I must admit that I am sorely tempted sometimes. Its just that I see so much specious argument, straw man, and downright lies used for political advantage that it does depress me.

6:00 AM  
Blogger defender said...

Regardless of whether humanity truly evolved from blobs of jelly and monkeys, Creationists cannot prevail in the ongoing debate about our origins. Their position is fatally flawed. You see, the Creationist position fundamentally relies upon the premise that the Judeo-Christian Bible is the Word of God. If it’s not; if the Bible is just a book, then there is no Creationist position. Recently, a lawyer embarked upon a mission to become the greatest Christian on the planet. In his quest he made a profound discovery. He discovered that the Bible is unequivocally not the Word of God. His argument is compelling. After reading his thesis, I am both shocked and embarrassed that I spent my whole life as a Christian and a Creationist. And while his thesis does not invalidate the so-called theory of “Intelligent Design,” it absolutely dismantles the theory of Biblical Creationism. You can read his Thesis at http://www.InDefenseOfGod.com/

11:04 AM  

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