April 11, 2007

The shape of Darwin's nose

Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute has blogged about sub-optimal design in an entry titled "Darwin's Nose." This relates to the following statement (made by Darwin in a letter to Asa Gray on the subject of the creator's involvement in the minutiae of human biological origins):
“Will you honestly tell me that the shape of my nose was ordained and guided by an intelligent cause?”
Darwin's remark prompts Chapman to characterize his understanding of religion as "rather puerile," which comment, aside from the irony involved in an ID proponent expressing disdain for the sophistication of someone else's religious acumen, suffers from the indignity of being directly contradicted by the article to which Chapman links:
Dr Alison Pearn, assistant director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, said: "There is a great deal of subtlety about Darwin's thinking on religion. Like most people, he didn't necessarily think the same thing at all times. He was prepared to say things in correspondence that he wouldn't say in print. So there is immense value in making the complete texts available."
But let's look past Chapman's lack of insight and concentrate on the argument he attempts to draw from Darwin's skepticism regarding the "design" of his rather large schnozz,
The existence of what appears to be sub-optimal design [is] a sad argument that cannot be evaluated scientifically. There is nothing in the scientific question of design to suggest that the source of design had to have our particular understanding of optimal design in mind. What appears sub-optimal at one time (the appendix, for example, turns out later to have had serious functionality. Furthermore, considerations of beauty (noses, female girth, etc.) are often products of culture, not science. Flaws in nature, likewise, do not disprove design.
I'm not a big fan of "bad design" arguments. As used by critics of ID they tend, in my opinion, to have little more effect than to reinforce the notion that the quality and process of design identification is a legitimate subject for discussion. It isn't. As I've said previously, this cannot be a reasonable course unless and until the logic of any inference to design is demonstrated a priori. Such demonstration requires an investment of time and effort that goes beyond anything ID proponents currently offer. And why shouldn't this be the case? Such an investment would surely not serve their purposes. It is virtually certain that any comprehensive program that rigorously categorizes and identifies those qualities of design that would allow us to make a legitimate analogical inference would merely sustain the notion that the only such inference possible would be to that of empirically demonstrable agency (like humans).

In other words, looking deeply into the issue of design will only ground the endeavor in the natural universe. And that dog just wont hunt the kind of prey the ID movement hopes to bag.

But even though I don't believe "bad design" arguments work broadly in favor of ID criticism, that doesn't mean they don't apply in a discussion where "design" itself has been granted. And in this case, they definitely don't work to the advantage of ID proponents.

Consider the inherent contradiction in Chapman's points above, beginning with - "The existence of what appears to be sub-optimal design [is] a sad argument that cannot be evaluated scientifically. There is nothing in the scientific question of design to suggest that the source of design had to have our particular understanding of optimal design in mind." A discussion of "design" of any kind includes assumptions. The word cannot be invoked without automatically calling up issues like purpose and process (which themselves are related). These ideas are integral to the concept of design: a product of intent, an act of deliberation. The real puerility occurs when Chapman, or someone echoing this argument, tries to suggest that he can infer design where it suits his purpose, but demur from it when convenient by suggesting that it might be some sort of design that is entirely unknown to us, one not consonant with "our particular understanding."

But "our particular understanding" is the only one available to us. "Our particular understanding" is all that the "scientific question" can address because our (human) kind of design is all that we know. It is simply not logically tenable to suggest that one knows enough about a specific act or object to call it "design" without a fundamental reliance upon "our particular understanding" of design. There is no other understanding of design. To imagine such a thing is to imagine something that cannot be so called, because it does not rely upon those properties that characterize something as "design."

"Our particular understanding" is that upon which Chapman bases his supposed scientific inference to design, yet is also the thing he is willing to reject when the consequences of a design designation are seen as disadvantageous.

I know I'm belaboring this point, but I see it as one of those semantic obstacles (much like trying to define "supernatural") that is casually ignored but is foundational to the discussion. ID advocates' use of "design" is as conveniently ambiguous as their incessant references to "intelligence." At its essence it is little more than a synonym for supernatural. Employed this way, it becomes possible to craft such sophistry that suggests they can identify design while never having to stand on any of the obligations inherent in such an identification, some of which run to the purpose of the design. This may legitimately include evaluations of design quality (good, bad, optimal, sub-optimal) because any inference to design "by definition" makes reference to purpose.

If their investigation of "design" was born of an honest instinct for discovery, rather than a desire to fill gaps in our knowledge with their God, all of this would be plain as the nose on Darwin's, or Bruce Chapman's face. Unfortunately, those in the ID movement appear to be incapable of looking that far.


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