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Back to Basics: Understanding the Design Inference

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This is prompted primarily by a recent post and by the unfortunate realization that some people still do not understand the design inference, despite years of involvement in the debate. Specifically, there was discussion at Barry’s prior post about whether Elizabeth Liddle admits that “biological design inferences” may be valid in principle. Over 200 comments appeared on the prior thread, including a fair amount of back and forth between Barry, Elizabeth and me, all of which may be worth reviewing for those who are interested.

However, the primary takeaway from that thread is that we need another back-to-basics primer on intelligent design – specifically, what the design inference is and how it works. Yes, I know regular readers have a great deal of exposure to this topic. And I know that many of you have an excellent grasp of the design inference. But please stay with me to the end and I trust this post will shed some additional light and provide perhaps some additional nuances on the issues. Perhaps less in terms of providing you with additional insight and more in terms of understanding the rhetorical tools and mindset of intelligent design opponents (or proponents who may have misunderstood some basic issues).

With that need clearly established from the prior thread and a more recent thread, I have finally taken a deep breath, gathered my courage, and set aside many hours to put this together. (Yes, that is the amount of time it takes to carefully analyze, lay out, and properly articulate an issue like this. Unfortunately, the quick one-liner complaints and dismissals are much more facile to post.) I apologize in advance for the length, as I dislike lengthy head posts in general, but there are some key issues here that need to be fleshed out in detail.

For those who need a shorter read, skip down to “Is Life Too Complex to Be Designed?”

Background

We hear from time to time, as in the two threads I cite above, claims essentially equivalent to the following:

“The design inference is a valid mode of inquiry in principle, but it cannot be applied to biological systems.”

or

“The design inference only works with human artifacts and cannot be applied to life because we have never seen a designer of life.”

or

“It is possible to detect design in theory, but it cannot be applied without knowing characteristics of the designer.”

or, this zinger:

“Design detection works with some phenomena, but life is ‘too complex to have been designed.’”

It is claims like these I wish to address. For present purposes and to keep this to some merciful length, I am setting aside issues about whether ID is science, whether ID is falsifiable, whether ID has a positive case, whether ID is directly testable, and so on. Our present purpose is to examine specifically the situation in which an individual asserts that (a) the design inference has some application, but (b) it cannot be applied to biological systems or to non-human designers.

How Can We Determine Design?

There are a couple of approaches to determining whether something is designed.* These can be broken into two broad categories: namely, actual knowledge and inference.

In the first category, we have actual knowledge of the artifact being designed. In this situation we see or experience as directly as possible a creative event – something being designed. All of us have experience with this: we have created or built something with our own hands, or have worked on a schematic, or have written lines of code. In such cases we have direct, actual knowledge that the artifact in question was designed. We can also include in this category creative events that we witness directly.** No-one disputes these examples and there is no need to infer anything when we have actual knowledge. We need not discuss this category further.

In the second category, we don’t have actual knowledge of the artifact being designed. Rather, we infer it was designed by examining indirect evidence after the fact. These pieces of indirect evidence can be legion. Indeed, in some cases they can seem so many and so obvious that we are tempted to think we have “actual knowledge” of the design. However, on closer inspection we realize we are really drawing an inference.

Bear with me for a moment while we dive into some examples that I think will be very helpful in elucidating the issues. Two specific examples will suffice.

iPhone, You Phone, We all Phone with iPhone

Was the iPhone designed? Of course, you say, only a fool would think otherwise. Fair enough, but why are you so sure it was designed? Did you personally design it? Did you actually witness someone else design it? Even if you personally worked on a couple of the parts, how do you know the rest of the iPhone was designed?

Make no mistake, the fact that Apple claims it was designed, or that Apple sells it, or that no-one questions it was designed, or that patents were filed, or that you have actual personal knowledge of some similar system being designed – none of these things shifts the iPhone into the category of “Actual Knowledge.” No, when we say the iPhone was designed we are still drawing an inference. A correct one, undoubtedly, but still an inference.

And what is it that gives us such confidence the iPhone was designed?

There are many possible pieces of indirect evidence that could bolster our claim that the iPhone was designed. A key list might include: (a) perhaps we know an Apple engineer who claims actual knowledge of its design; (b) there were lots of engineers around at the time who could have been available to work on it; (c) perhaps we know of some similar system that was designed; (d) the iPhone contains multiple components that have been brought together into a greater functional whole; and (e) to our knowledge there is no natural event or other non-design process that can produce something like an iPhone.

Excellent. So we are pretty confident the iPhone was designed. Confident enough that we would stake a great deal on it. And we can draw the same conclusion for millions upon millions of other human inventions. But it is still an inference.

stonehenge

Henging Our Bets

Let’s up the ante a bit. What about something like Stonehenge? Let’s go through the same list:

(a) We know an engineer who actually worked on Stonehenge? No. But how cool would that be!

(b) Lots of engineers around at the time? This one is more tricky and deserves some discussion.

We don’t know if there were lots of engineers, but, we might argue, perhaps a small handful, or even one, would suffice. On the other hand, do we have actual knowledge that there was even one engineer capable of designing Stonehenge around at the time? No. We do not.

We have corroborating evidence (bone fragments, burial mounds, and the like) that there were humans around at the time. So we can infer that there was a designer around at the time. But we have no evidence – none at all – outside of Stonehenge itself, that there was a designer around at the time capable of producing Stonehenge. Indeed, it is the very existence of Stonehenge itself, coupled with our conclusion that Stonehenge was designed, which gives us the following piece of information and allows us to draw the following conclusion: there was a designer around at the time capable of designing Stonehenge. This is the way it always works, whether we are talking about some newly-discovered structure, a previously-unknown manuscript, or otherwise.

It is absolutely critical to understand this point: In archaeological and other investigations of the past, we do not infer that an artifact was designed because we have knowledge of a designer capable of producing the artifact. Rather, we infer there was a designer capable of producing the artifact, because we have found the artifact and concluded that it was designed.

Do not get this backwards. Doing so is a failure of logic at the most basic level and a failure to understand the process of investigation.

Let me briefly add one last related point here. Stonehenge is a somewhat simple case (though perhaps a more confusing case to those who aren’t thinking through the chain of logic clearly), because there is much corroborating evidence in the Stonehenge area for the existence of humans. However, there are many other examples in archaeology where independent evidence of whether designers were around is absent. In those cases, the chain of logic works precisely the same way it always does: we eventually infer that there were capable designers around, because we have found an artifact and concluded that it was designed.

(c) Actual knowledge of a similar system being designed? Perhaps.

This turns on how “similar” something needs to be. Stonehenge, by many accounts, is a fantastic, singular monument. And, no, we cannot rely on the fact that lots of other henges have been found in the surrounding area – we don’t have any actual knowledge about their design either and must draw an inference just the same. So we might have actual knowledge of some stones being cut and placed generally, but we really have no actual knowledge of something highly similar to Stonehenge being produced.

Nevertheless, under this particular criterion we might reasonably conclude that we know of designed systems which at least contain analogous characteristics or which have a number of similarities to aspects of Stonehenge.

(Incidentally, there are some interesting documentaries on recent work done at Stonehenge with cutting-edge mapping technologies. The area turns out to contain an entire massive complex of henges and other structures, not just a single henge. Well worth checking out.)

(d) Stonehenge contains multiple components that have been brought together into a greater functional whole? Definitely.

(e) To our knowledge there is no natural process or event that could produce Stonehenge. Correct.

So, to review, why are we so utterly, completely, unabashedly confident that Stonehenge was designed? Is it because we have actual knowledge and were there at the time to witness it? Is it because we know someone who claims to have worked on it? No and no.

Is it because we know there were engineers around at the time who were capable of producing Stonehenge? No. Quite the opposite: it is our conclusion of design that allows us to infer there were engineers at the time capable of producing Stonehenge.

Is it because we have actual knowledge of similar systems being designed? Perhaps, turning a bit on how we define “similar.” Is it because it contains multiple components that have been brought together into a greater functional whole. Yes. Is it, in part, because to our knowledge there is no natural process that could reasonably produce Stonehenge? Yes.

How the Inference Runs

Take another close look at the above. There is a fundamental point here that seems lost on some critics of the design inference and which is absolutely critical: We infer that Stonehenge was designed not, as sometimes claimed by design critics, because we know there were designers around at the time capable of producing the artifact in question, but because of the characteristics of the artifact itself.

Then, having concluded the artifact was designed, we can infer that there were designers around at the time capable of producing the artifact. This is the directional arrow of the logic. This is the way the design inference works. This is the way it always works.

Furthermore, let us note for completeness that the arrow of reasoning can never run in the opposite direction. Even if we know for certain that a designer exists in the right time and place, and even if we know for certain that the designer has the capability of designing, we still cannot conclude, based simply on those facts, that an artifact was designed. After all, there is no requirement that a designer actually produce anything. The designer may have existed; the designer may have been capable. But the only way we know that the designer actually designed the artifact in question is by examining the artifact itself.

The inference simply cannot operate any other way.

What is so often happening in the design critic’s mind, the essentially philosophical stance being taken, is that design can only be considered in certain circumstances. Not that the artifact doesn’t need to be examined on its own merits. It does. Not that we need to have independent evidence of the designers and their characteristics beforehand. We don’t. The design inference works across the spectrum. In can be applied just fine. It is just that the critic is unwilling to apply the design inference in certain unpalatable circumstances.

Is Life is Too Complex to Be Designed?

Let us now turn to a particularly remarkable stance taken by Elizabeth Liddle on the prior thread. I refer to Elizabeth only because it is a convenient example and because it also highlights some of the mistakes made by critics of intelligent design generally. Specifically, although she claimed willingness to consider design in the case of human ingenuity, when it comes to biology she says, “I think [life] is too complex to have been designed.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

How could someone say that and what could it possibly mean? In the context of the design inference, we are looking for indicia of design as we examine an artifact: complex specified information, irreducibly complex functional structures, and so on. What does it mean to claim that we can infer some simpler things are designed, but that life is “too complex” to have been designed? (Please don’t get hung up on the fact that Elizabeth misuses the term “complex.” She is essentially talking about indicia of design, otherwise her whole statement is meaningless.)

Essentially, she is arguing that there are certain indicia of design we can look to, but when there are too many, then we cannot infer design because it is too much. Here is how it looks graphically:

Incidia of Design

The first column is easy and makes sense; the second is fine as well.

It scarcely bears mentioning that the conclusion in the last column is nonsensical. Blatantly inconsistent. Utterly irrational and illogical. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how anyone could be so completely off track as to even countenance such a viewpoint. We might be tempted to conclude that such an individual can only be either (1) incapable of rational thought, or (2) purposely deceptive.

At least in the context of the design inference.

A Third Way

But is there another way to think about a conclusion of design? Is there a third possibility that might explain how someone could take the view that some indicia of design = design while even more indicia of design = non-design? There is indeed another way of looking at it, and this is precisely what is happening with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, as she has made clear, does not believe it is possible to infer design without knowing about the designer’s existence and something about the designer’s capabilities. For those intrepid souls who have stayed with me to this point, you know this is wrong, and demonstrably so, as has already been shown above. Nevertheless, let’s run with it for a moment to see if we can at least identify the chain of thought that leads to this remarkable “too complex to be designed” idea.

If one mistakenly thinks that we have to know that (a) a designer exists and (b) the designer is capable of producing the artifact in question, then it follows that we cannot infer life was designed. After all, the argument goes, we do not have direct independent evidence that a designer existed at the time nor that the designer was capable of producing the artifact in question. Thus, even though life is teeming with indicia of design, even though life is “too complex” compared with other things Elizabeth believes are designed, she is unwilling to infer design because she doesn’t have independent evidence about the designer and the designer’s capabilities.

She unfortunately fails, as do so many others, to realize that the exact same situation applies to almost every other inference of design – certainly to artifacts from the remote past, whether Stonehenge or otherwise. So her attempt to identify design is, at best, poorly thought through and inconsistently applied.

The Demand for Evidence Beyond the Artifact

Elizabeth says, regarding her conclusion that life was not designed:

But were evidence to arise, say, of optimised solutions from one lineage being transferred to another (as we install cameras in phones), or of evidence of artefactual fabrication, or of the presence of designers on early earth, or possibly something I haven’t thought of that indicated that living things were designed, I might have to think again.

Note the part I have highlighted in bold. This is the crux of the matter. She is looking for actual evidence of design – or at least a version of actual evidence she is willing to accept.  In other words, if we find independent evidence to our liking that something was designed then we will acknowledge it was designed.

This is not to say that Elizabeth never infers design. She clearly does. But she reserves her willingness to infer design to those cases in which there is some other reason, something other than the characteristics of the artifact in question, to conclude the artifact may have been designed. Let’s say she concludes artifact x, such as Stonehenge, is designed. We might do well to ask how she could come to that conclusion in the case of artifact x, but not in the case of living systems.

The answer is rather simple.  Perhaps she feels artifact x is closer in time to other things that are known to be designed; perhaps she feels that artifact x is more “similar” to things known to be designed; perhaps she just has a difficult time accepting the idea that a designer could be capable of designing living systems (remember, she thinks they are “too complex”); perhaps it is the pedestrian (but rapidly weakening) observation that no designer she knows of has yet designed a complex living system. Fine. As with the iPhone, we can infer design based on a number of criteria, apart from the characteristics of the artifact itself.

But that is not what the design inference is about. The design inference is precisely about identifying design from the artifact itself in the absence of additional evidence, in particular evidence about the existence or capabilities of the designer. Furthermore, as pointed out above, absent actual knowledge of design we must always fall back to an analysis of the artifact in question. Thus, any inference that relies only on other evidence will never be as solid or as robust as an inference based on the characteristics of the artifact itself.

Whatever the case, Elizabeth is clearly not willing to accept the design inference,*** despite any statements that could be understood as such. The most that can be said for Elizabeth’s approach is that in certain cases she is willing to make a design inference. Just not the design inference relevant for purposes of intelligent design. Her approach is not based on an examination of the artifact to find complex specified information, for example. Rather, it is a vague, ill-defined, “I need to see some additional corroborating evidence beyond the artifact that looks good to me” type of approach.

To be sure, one might indeed infer design with reference to other pieces of evidence beyond the artifact itself, or with reference to some poorly-defined “similar” system or some independent corroboration that designers were around at the time or some other piece of evidence that is palatable or seems subjectively good enough. But such an approach (i) does not constitute the design inference for purposes of intelligent design, and (ii) is embarrassingly poorly-defined and terribly inconsistent in application and practice.

Here we come face to face with the irony of the situation. The oft-repeated allegations that the design inference is poorly defined or difficult to apply are multiplied by orders of magnitude when the magnifying lens of critical thinking is turned on the inconsistent, poorly-defined approach of those individuals wont to claim that design can only be discerned in this field of study but not that, or in this time and place but not that, or with this type of designer but not that.

Conclusion

Despite continued criticisms of the design inference, upon closer examination the arguments of critics fail to meet the tests of objectivity, logic, and practical application. The design inference, properly understood, continues as an extremely reliable and robust, and in some cases our only, avenue to determine design.

Absent actual knowledge, which rarely, and in the case of historical events and artifacts almost never, exists, an inference to design always turns on an examination of the artifact in question. This is true with Stonehenge and other ancient artifacts just as much as with living systems. Assertions that we must have independent knowledge about the existence or characteristics of a designer before design can be inferred are misguided and demonstrate a basic lack of understanding of both how the design inference works and the direction of reasoning in investigation.

In addition, willingness to apply the design inference to only a particular field, or only a particular timeframe, or only a particular kind of designer bespeaks a fundamental confusion of the issues and, too often, an unspoken philosophical bias.

—–

 

* To nip a common red herring in the bud, we are talking about actual design, as commonly understood, by an intelligent being. Please, for the sake of rational discourse and for clarity of discussion in this thread, do not twist words and make claims about “nature designing” or something being “designed by a natural process” or similar nonsense. That is not what design means in the context of intelligent design and it is not what this thread is about.

** To nip the next red herring in the bud, we do not need to get into an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussion about what reality is, whether we can trust our senses, whether what we see is actually real. Such philosophical musings, interesting as they may be, are completely irrelevant to the present discussion and are not what this thread is about.

*** There is another important reason for Elizabeth’s unwillingness to accept the design inference, but that will have to wait for a subsequent post.

11 Replies to “Back to Basics: Understanding the Design Inference

  1. 1
    22056 says:

    It is absolutely critical to understand this point: In archaeological and other investigations of the past, we do not infer that an artifact was designed because we have knowledge of a designer capable of producing the artifact. Rather, we infer there was a designer capable of producing the artifact, because we have found the artifact and concluded that it was designed.

    Do not get this backwards. Doing so is a failure of logic at the most basic level and a failure to understand the process of investigation.

    This is exactly right, and it is precisely why the SETI project, for example, can actually do what it does, for they infer the existence of unknown designers from the design inference, not the opposite. Furthermore, this is also the reason that we could even infer the existence of a designer even if the same SETI-type signal came from a black-hole rather than a possibly habitable planet, for the inference to the designer comes from the design, not the design from the designer.

  2. 2
    HeKS says:

    Eric,

    Excellent article to act as a primer for the design-inference challenged.

    I’d like to add an additional point to your coverage on the “arrow of reasoning” with respect to the design inference. You said:

    Take another close look at the above. There is a fundamental point here that seems lost on some critics of the design inference and which is absolutely critical: We infer that Stonehenge was designed not, as sometimes claimed by design critics, because we know there were designers around at the time capable of producing the artifact in question, but because of the characteristics of the artifact itself.

    Then, having concluded the artifact was designed, we can infer that there were designers around at the time capable of producing the artifact. This is the directional arrow of the logic. This is the way the design inference works. This is the way it always works.

    Furthermore, let us note for completeness that the arrow of reasoning can never run in the opposite direction. Even if we know for certain that a designer exists in the right time and place, and even if we know for certain that the designer has the capability of designing, we still cannot conclude, based simply on those facts, that an artifact was designed. After all, there is no requirement that a designer actually produce anything.

    There’s an additional aspect we can add to this point.

    Suppose that in addition to knowing for certain that a designer or group of designers existed in the right place and time to produce some artifact, and that they had the requisite design capabilities to actually produce the artifact, we also concluded with absolute certainty that the artifact really was designed. The fact would still remain that we could not be certain that this designed artifact was designed by the designers we know to have been both present and capable.

    In other words, even with all of this additional information about capable and actually existing designers being present, the fact of the artifact’s design would still be logically separable from the facts about the possible designers. No matter how reasonable and warranted it would be to infer that these designers were truly responsible for the artifact, the possibility would remain that the artifact was actually produced through the design efforts of completely different and unknown designers, who may not have even been human (e.g. they could have been aliens).

    That it may be most plausible to appeal to the human designers already known to be both present and capable as the source of the artifact is simply irrelevant. What matters is the necessary lack of certainty, because the simple existence of this lack of certainty shows the logical problem with claims that we can only infer design when the design is supposedly brought about by human designers.

    This common claim relies on the false notion that we can be certain that all the artifacts in the history of the world that we hold with confidence to have been designed were designed by human designers. In fact, we know no such thing. Rather, we make the abductive inference that the designers of these artifacts were humans (rather than some other sort of being) because we are familiar with human designers and because the existence of human designers at the time the artifacts came into existence does not seem to be precluded. In most cases, though, we simply can’t be certain that humans were the actual designers of these ancient artifacts and structures – not even when humans have taken credit for them. After all, we weren’t there to see it. We simply accept it as an eminently reasonable inference based on the available evidence because human designers seem to have been available to do the job, and so we accept that human designers are the most likely candidates.

    And yet, we can see that most people who claim that design can only be inferred for specifically human designers don’t really consider humanity to be an absolute limit on the design inference simply by asking what they would conclude if we found on earth a pyramid, or maybe some sort of research facility, that was coeval with the earliest bacterial life. There would not have been any humans around, so would they conclude that these structures were merely the product of natural forces, or would they more likely conclude that they were designed and that there must therefore have been some unknown form of designer present that we do not have any additional evidence for beyond the products of their designing activity?

    It seems to me that the latter is more likely. They would have to conclude that there existed some kind of designer that we know nothing about, and that we did not already know existed prior to inferring design, and that we can only know to have existed because we found their intelligently designed artifacts.

    Furthermore, anything that they might claim to be able to infer about the designer apart from its basic existence and possession of the requisite intelligence to do the job would be without solid or compelling foundation, having been drawn only from humans as a single sample of intelligent life, and with no ability whatsoever to be certain that the characteristics that allow humans to be intelligent designers are necessary characteristics for all possible types of intelligent designers.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents. Once again, nice post.

    HeKS

  3. 3
    Eric Anderson says:

    HeKS:

    You raise an excellent point.

    In other words, even with all of this additional information about capable and actually existing designers being present, the fact of the artifact’s design would still be logically separable from the facts about the possible designers.

    Well said and definitely worth keeping in mind this logical separation.

  4. 4
    Eric Anderson says:

    22056:

    Yes, thank you for mentioning SETI. It is the quintessential example of being able to determine the design of an artifact without knowing a priori anything about the designers, or even if such designers exist.

    Anyone who imagines that a design inference can only be drawn once we have some a priori knowledge of the designers and their capabilities, must also claim that SETI is a search without a subject, an impossible task even in principle.

    Yet they are seldom willing to follow the logic. Usually the allegation that a design inference is impossible is limited to the realm of biology. For some reason a design inference in biology just seems too uncomfortable.

  5. 5
    Virgil Cain says:

    Eric- You may find the following very informative: Artifact.

    Basically humans are not the only makers of artifacts and it is signs of work that tell the tale.

  6. 6
    22056 says:

    Eric,

    And the other great irony of the SETI project as it relates to ID—being as SETI is a quintessential example of the design inference—is that many atheists consider SETI to be ‘science’ as well. So ID is not science, but SETI, which is ID, is science. The logic is astounding.

  7. 7
    SteRusJon says:

    When Eric first posted this I got a mental image of the Zachriel crowd standing off to the side, all with their heads down, looking at the pebbles on the ground with an occasional kick to one, all the while hoping it would all just go away before anyone else really noticed.

    Was I right?

    Stephen

  8. 8
    SteRusJon says:

    Eric,

    I guess I just said it that it is a very well presented piece that appears to have stop the mouths of those who insist on getting the cart before the horse.

    I wonder if it has caused any to stop to think as well?

    I, for one, appreciate you effort to put your thoughts to keyboard.

    Stephen

  9. 9
    Eric Anderson says:

    Thanks, Stephen. I appreciate your kind comments.

  10. 10
    Zachriel says:

    Eric Anderson: Do not get this backwards.

    Evidence doesn’t exist in isolation. The evidence of Stonehenge, our knowledge of human design, and the demonstrated existence of humans in the correct period and place, are mutually supporting.

  11. 11
    Phinehas says:

    Z:

    Evidence doesn’t exist in isolation. The evidence of Stonehenge, our knowledge of human design, and the demonstrated existence of humans in the correct period and place, are mutually supporting.

    You’ve stated this as though Eric would disagree or as if it had something to do with the design inference. I’m not at all sure that either is the case.

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