January 16, 2007

No designer? No design - Yes, it's that simple

Loathe as I am to credit silly, oft-rebutted arguments by spending significant blogging time on them there are some that persist (and are critical in their persistence) to such a degree that they require an insistant hammering commensurate with their insensate repetition.

The suggestion that we can know something of "design" without knowing anything whatsoever of the "designers" is one such argument. It's most recent offering can be found over at Telic Thoughts. It comes from MikeGene, and it has not improved with age.

The post begins,
"I have no problem with a designer being an object of legitimate scientific inquiry (even though those who design experiments are themselves rarely the objects of legitimate scientific inquiry).
Ok, I’m confused already. What does the designer of an experiment have to do with inquiry into the source of design? Is it really possible MikeGene missed the patently obvious corollaries (to investigation of a designer) in archeology and forensic science, opting instead for this barely coherent observation?

Perhaps it would be more profitable just to move on...
But how does one do this? If I would like to investigate whether the flagellum is designed, for example, I can make use of what we know about design and then get my hands of flagella. But if I wanted to investigate the flagellum’s designers, it’s not as if I can call up another scientist and ask them to mail over some of the designers to me.
No it’s not. And this would be a tip-off to anyone who goes at the investigation of design without inappropriately (and intentionally) broadening the scope to include the influence of unevidenced cause. As the cart cannot come before the horse, so assumption of a design cannot come before evidence of a designer.
It would seem to me that in order to investigate a designer, you need some idea about its designs in order to detect the designer.
No, the only way one knows that “designs” are indeed designs is to know something of the designer. The fact of his/her/its existence would be a good start.
What makes the designer a designer are its designs. So how does one detect/investigate a designer without having a clue about its designs?
This is all still hopelessly backwards. It depends upon the presumption, rather than evidential demonstration, of a designer. It’s a cognitive cul-de-sac that seems to afflict nearly all ID proponents.

Let me try to make this clearer with a thought-experiment. Try to imagine an example of design that does not depend upon knowledge of the designer. It does not have to be from objective experience, it can be entirely hypothetical. But you must be able to defend your conclusion that it is designed by using real world arguments. In other words, whether the artifact in question is real or fanciful you need to describe its "designedness" empirically. It is not possible to do this without using descriptors which indicate some knowledge of the designer.

I've noted in the past that the passion with which adherents wish to invoke "design" often appears to be indirectly proportional to their willingness to examine the qualities of design. When design is invoked by proponents of ID it is always in a broad, not too deeply evaluated sense. It is considered apparent and obvious as an argument. We often hear that "the evidence is all around you if you just open your eyes" and "only those commited to their evolution religion cannot see the obvious design of our universe."

But what is really on display in that attitude is either a woeful paucity of imagination or an unwillingness to examine a priori assumptions.

Anyway, back to the post,
My main problem with the designer-centric approach is that I find it useless. Of course, I’ve explained this many times before, but because I’m not the brightest bulb in the room, I’ll try again. Whenever I ask the proponents of the designer-centric approach how I should investigate according to their model, their only suggestion is that I put on the floppy hat and do an Indiana Jones imitation - looking for the Lost Lab Notes of Gorganian Civilization buried under some mountain – or, rely on my psychic powers to understand how the Gorgans think. It’s not exactly a method that lends itself to an investigation. Might that be the very reason they advocate so strongly for this approach?
For example, when asked about this, one participant to this blog wrote:

"A designer-centric approach would require you to unearth evidence such as:

1) Evidence of the designer’s civilization - writings, starships, bio-engineering labs, fossilized caterpillar tracks, titanium girders, etc.

2) Evidence that life on this planet serves some utility to its designer that is counter to natural selection. Evolution predicts one utility: survival. Though a designer might design exclusively for survival, a designer could have designed for any of a million different purposes."

The designer-centric approach has us first unearthing details about the designer’s methods and psychology and only then can we begin to search for evidence of design. That’s one way of going about it, but the whole idea of ID is to begin with the awareness that we lack such independent information and then ask whether we can still find ways of detecting design. Nobody said it would be easy.
But they (ID "theorists") did say it would be science. Until, however, the hypothesis is tested and not just assumed, it is not science.

Whether the quoted poster was trying to lead MikeGene there by the hand or just knew it intuitively, what he was talking about was the development of data that must precede an inference of design. Without evidence of the designer, there is no justification, nor is there logic, in attributing any particular phenomenon to design.
Look, there is no reason to look for any civilization or psychological profile unless you have reason to think something is designed.
But according to designer-centric proponent, we must first have evidence of the civilization and psychological profile before we can look for and infer design. Did you get that?
I would have, had anyone given it. What was suggested is that there has to be some empirical warrant to infer design, otherwise one is simply advancing a faith proposition. Complaining that this is unfair only supports the conclusion that there is ideology at work here.
Unless you think something is designed, why look for a designer? But you can’t find something that is designed unless you first know things about the designer. It sounds like an approach designed to slam the door shut on any investigation into design.
No, it’s an approach designed to slam the door shut on accommodation of non-natural inference in scientific methodology. Assumption of design by a designer, the existence of whom is entirely unsupported (and, as demonstrated by the attempts of ID proponents to change the methodology of science, is effectively unsupportable) is an assumption of the conclusion one is trying to prove.
The evidence that is supposed to be unearthed is the type of thing you stumble over as you wander about doing other things, not something that is unearthed through an investigation.
This is a continued conflation of natural design (the kind investigated by archeology etc.) and non-natural design (the kind proposed by ID advocates). These are not logically or epistemologically equivalent. There is a completely different burden of proof incumbent upon the proposer of non-natural design. The naturalist walking along and picking up a flaked flint is justified in hypothesizing design because the designer in question is not a controversial inference. But an inference to a designer, the very existence of whom must be taken on faith, is an exercise in asking for exemption from the methodology of science. It is a hugely controversial inference, and must be empirically established as reasonable prior to any investigation of the design itself.
And even if we relax the standards of the designer-centric approach in order to allow it to be applied in an investigative manner, what good is it? If I assume X was designed by some intelligent agent, where do I look for those lab notes and diaries? Let’s assume life on this planet was indeed designed by some intelligent agency. Does this mean someone should be able to go into the lab and find evidence of the designer’s civilization? Does it mean we should be able to find the designers so that we can study them?
No, it means the assumption is just so much bafflegab until you can produce some evidence that such designers are a reasonable inference to those unwilling to accept your hypothesis on faith.
Three questions:

1. If X is designed, what else is designed?
2. Is there is something that connects the things that are designed?
3. How has the design of X (or whatever) influenced evolution and is that itself design?

It would seem to me that steps 1-3 could take of a lifetime of time.
Or it could happen in the merest of instants. As “design” is uncritically included as an assumption in all of the above questions, their exposition depends to a large degree upon personal philosophy and arbitrary evidential standards.
And it would seem if such questions could be addressed (and answered to the satisfaction of many), then, and only then, would it be worth my time to start thinking in designer-centric terms.

I don’t argue or insist that others follow along. But why do I get the feeling they are unwilling to return this respect?
Because you correctly suspect it has not been earned?


Blogger DaveScot said...

"Try to imagine an example of design that does not depend upon knowledge of the designer."

Crop circles.


Thanks for asking.

2:31 PM  
Blogger RLC said...


"Crop circles.

Thanks for asking."

Okay, now try to imagine an example that actually makes sense.

Except for at the very beginning, when the circles were just ordinary unadorned depressions in wheat fields, anyone who wasn't completely credulous, yet didn't consider it obvious that these were artifacts of human design, thought the cause might have had something to do with wind conditions (vortexes and the like).

But with the advent of more complex circles it became clear to all but the most commited nutcases that these designs were the work of human beings. Why was it obvious? Because as the circles left the realm of naturally occuring phenomena (if in fact they were ever there) and became more elaborately conceived they began to resemble human artifacts. Some of the earliest complex circles simulated celtic crosses. As they developed greater ornamentation they went on to mimic other familiar traditional and geometric symbols.

So what does this mean in the context of my question? It means that your example fails. The reason we (those of us who are not still insisting that the circles are the result of some occult or alien influence) were able to draw an illation to design in this case was that they began to express human activity in a multitude of ways. They mimicked human icons, they left evidence of human intervention, and they fit known patterns of human behavior (pranks, hoaxes, etc.).

We knew they were designed when we had enough information to make the connection with the natural, intelligent, and (most importantly) empirically demonstrable causal agent who was very likely the source of the phenomenon.

We didn't know they were designed before we knew humans designed them, we knew they were designed because we knew humans designed them.

Your help in making my point is much appreciated.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Jim51 said...

Crop circles???
Quite right rlc. The reason you know the pocketwatch is designed is because you have been shown watches before and you know about the existence of watchmakers.

3:16 PM  

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