Intelligent Design

ID’s Broken Watchmaker Analogy

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Should we all pack up and go home with such erudite opponents as this?

Watching Intelligent Design – Alexander Nussbaum Free Enquiry April / May 2012 Volume 32, Number 3 (edited exerpts below)

Watches are a product of intelligent design and are often used as an example of such by creationists in their beloved – and deeply misleading – analogy.

Watches are a poor analogue for living systems, as they bear one characteristic that is common in products of intelligent design but absent from the products of biological evolution. Watches tend to be engineered for performance far beyond what is needed in use. Evolved living systems never display this kind of overdesign except, arguably, in certain characteristics used for sexual selection.

Biological evolution makes use of what is already available and generally produces not optimal design, but rather design just good enough to survive. Biological evolution is a master of jerry-building, of making do, and of overlooking design flaws as long as reproduction is achieved before the system dies.

For the human brain, amazing product of evolution though it is — capable of calculus, creating computers, and even of reaching the Moon — is also a deeply flawed belief machine that is unable to shake itself of delusions like creationism.

Animals’ senses reflect that which produces fitness advantages in the niche they evolved to fill and at the minimum level needed. For living creatures, energy consumed to support a sensory capacity that does not increase survival decreases overall fitness. It becomes a handicap to be ruthlessly weeded out. In contrast, products of intelligent design often retain capabilities that exceed usefulness, often by great magnitudes.

There is no evidence that intelligent design exists anywhere but in human artifacts.

Products of intelligent design typically have capabilities that exceed usefulness and complications that would be profoundly maladaptive in a living system in that they add relatively useless features at great cost and with increased chances of malfunction. In biological evolution, by contrast, “barely good enough” is the highest level that can be reached, because expense that does not improve overall fitness cannot be tolerated.

Human bipedalism is clearly the result of a quadruped design being turned into a biped design rather than having been intelligently designed from scratch. This is exactly the mark of the “blind watchmaker” of natural evolution.

No characteristic of a living system has ever evolved by the addition of whole new parts with no precursors in order to attain a desired result.

It is a characteristic of biological evolution that once a trait evolves that produces survival benefits in a specific environment, evolution cannot undo it and return to an objectively inferior trait.

This can — and does — happen in objects that are intelligently designed. When quartz watches with digital displays were introduced it appeared that they would supplant analog watches in the marketplace. Before long, analog displays returned to dominance, even on watches with quartz movements that had no need for it.

Where does this leave modern-day purveyors of Paley’s watch analogy? Well, what exactly do those who claim that life on Earth shows signs of intelligent design mean?

What they mean by “intelligent design” is that all life came instantly into existence on the word of an omnipotent being who used magic.

Alexander Nussbaum is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology at St. John’s University. His dissertation topic concerned evolutionary psychology.

11 Replies to “ID’s Broken Watchmaker Analogy

  1. 1

    Boy, the whole thing is one nonsensical assertion after another, but this one really caught my eye: “What they mean by “intelligent design” is that all life came instantly into existence on the word of an omnipotent being who used magic.”

    Hard to imagine anyone more clueless than this. Maybe he needs to go visit a psychologist! 🙂

  2. 2 says:

    Wow, and this guy is a professor? Stunning.

    Few thoughts:

    Evolved living systems never display this kind of overdesign except, arguably, in certain characteristics used for sexual selection.

    Mmmm, but what is overdesign and how could you measure it?

    There is no evidence that intelligent design exists anywhere but in human artifacts.

    This is simply to beg the question.

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    ID Net:

    Kindly explain to me why it is, that those who want to use Paley’s watch analogy as an objection to design theory almost invariably play out a strawman caricature?

    At two levels? First, Paley, in Ch 2 of his 1806 Natural Theology, goes on to draw out the implications of finding a watch with capacity to replicate itself, as I discuss here on in my online free-access IOSE course. Let me clip the excerpt from Paley — and yes, this was there all along:

    Suppose, in the next place, that the person who found the watch should after some time discover that, in addition to all the properties which he had hitherto observed in it, it possessed the unexpected property of producing in the course of its movement another watch like itself — the thing is conceivable; that it contained within it a mechanism, a system of parts — a mold, for instance, or a complex adjustment of lathes, baffles, and other tools — evidently and separately calculated for this purpose . . . .

    The first effect would be to increase his admiration of the contrivance, and his conviction of the consummate skill of the contriver. Whether he regarded the object of the contrivance, the distinct apparatus, the intricate, yet in many parts intelligible mechanism by which it was carried on, he would perceive in this new observation nothing but an additional reason for doing what he had already done — for referring the construction of the watch to design and to supreme art . . . . He would reflect, that though the watch before him were, in some sense, the maker of the watch, which, was fabricated in the course of its movements, yet it was in a very different sense from that in which a carpenter, for instance, is the maker of a chair — the author of its contrivance, the cause of the relation of its parts to their use.

    [[Emphases added. (Note: It is easy to rhetorically dismiss this argument because of the context: a work of natural theology. But, since (i) valid science can be — and has been — done by theologians; since (ii) the greatest of all modern scientific books (Newton’s Principia) contains the General Scholium which is an essay in just such natural theology; and since (iii) an argument ‘s weight depends on its merits, we should not yield to such “label and dismiss” tactics. It is also worth noting Newton’s remarks that “thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy [[i.e. what we now call “science”].” )]

    In short, it is utterly incorrect and a strawman misrepresentation — unfortunately, this seems entrenched to the point of ignorance (a major example of systematic failure of duties of care in argument) — to suggest that capacity to reproduce is not a point taken seriously and addressed by Paley.

    But, the second strawman issue is even worse.

    For, in 1949 or thereabouts, John von Neumann discussed his kinematic self replicator, some years before the nature of DNA was elucidated, especially the use of digitally coded information in a molecular control tape. He then analysed the logic of self replication, yielding the result that, in summary, such a von Neumann self replicator [vNSR] requires:

    following von Neumann generally (and as previously noted), such a machine uses . . .

    (i) an underlying storable code to record the required information to create not only (a) the primary functional machine [[here, for a “clanking replicator” as illustrated, a Turing-type “universal computer”; in a cell this would be the metabolic entity that transforms environmental materials into required components etc.] but also (b) the self-replicating facility; and, that (c) can express step by step finite procedures for using the facility;

    (ii) a coded blueprint/tape record of such specifications and (explicit or implicit) instructions, together with

    (iii) a tape reader [[called “the constructor” by von Neumann] that reads and interprets the coded specifications and associated instructions; thus controlling:

    (iv) position-arm implementing machines with “tool tips” controlled by the tape reader and used to carry out the action-steps for the specified replication (including replication of the constructor itself); backed up by

    (v) either:

    (1) a pre-existing reservoir of required parts and energy sources, or

    (2) associated “metabolic” machines carrying out activities that as a part of their function, can provide required specific materials/parts and forms of energy for the replication facility, by using the generic resources in the surrounding environment.

    Also, parts (ii), (iii) and (iv) are each necessary for and together are jointly sufficient to implement a self-replicating machine with an integral von Neumann universal constructor.

    That is, we see here an irreducibly complex set of core components that must all be present in a properly organised fashion for a successful self-replicating machine to exist. [[Take just one core part out, and self-replicating functionality ceases: the self-replicating machine is irreducibly complex (IC).]

    This irreducible complexity is compounded by the requirement (i) for codes, requiring organised symbols and rules to specify both steps to take and formats for storing information, and (v) for appropriate material resources and energy sources.

    Immediately, we are looking at islands of organised function for both the machinery and the information in the wider sea of possible (but mostly non-functional) configurations.

    In short, outside such functionally specific — thus, isolated — information-rich hot (or, “target”) zones, want of correct components and/or of proper organisation and/or co-ordination will block function from emerging or being sustained across time from generation to generation. So, once the set of possible configurations is large enough and the islands of function are credibly sufficiently specific/isolated, it is unreasonable to expect such function to arise from chance, or from chance circumstances driving blind natural forces under the known laws of nature.

    And, lo and behold, the observed, C-chemistry, aqueous medium, living cell implements such a vNSR.

    So, if we are to adequately account for it, we need to credibly and plausibly — on empirical observation — explain its origin. The only empirically warranted and analytically credible source of the required functionally specific, complex organisation and associated information (including, digitally coded info) is design. Something that is as easily exemplified as posts in this thread. There is simply no empirically warranted explanation of FSCO/I on blind chance and mechanical necessity acting in any reasonable pre-life environment.

    In short, contrary to the objections so commonly made to dismiss design thought, design thought in science is grounded on the empirically well founded inference that FSCO/I is best explained on design. Indeed, it is an empirically warranted sign of design.

    And in the case of comparison to watches as organised, functionally specific complex organised entities, it is relevantly analogous to the living cell in particular. And, while neither Paley nor we have built a self-replicating time-keeping watch, we have a context of discussion, the vNSR, which we can use to set up as a thought exercise, a relevant comparison.

    Once we put such on the table, it is at once evident that when a complex organised functionally specific entity shows the ADDITIONAL capacity of self replication, that would add to our reasons to infer design as best explanation.

    It is high time that the matter were seriously addressed instead of being turned into an occasion for strawman caricature and dismissal.

    GEM of TKI

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    CA: Please, there is no need to resort to ad hominems, especially ethnically tinged ones. KF

  5. 5
    Granville Sewell says:

    Since Nussbaum specifically notes that the human brain is capable of calculus, yet says evolution only produces “design just good enough to survive,” I presume he feels that calculus is a minimal requirement for survival. In this case calculus should clearly be a core requirement for all majors in all universities. 🙂

    No characteristic of a living system has ever evolved by the addition of whole new parts with no precursors in order to attain a desired result.

    This statement is certainly not supported by the fossil record, for example, G.G.Simpson says “It is a feature of the known fossil record that most taxa appear abruptly…Gaps among known orders, classes and phyla are systematic and almost always large…” In fact, the fossil record actually does look a lot like the way we humans create things, through testing and improvements, see this reference.

  6. 6
    scordova says:

    This was such an incredibly good find by that inspired me to write an essay that was at first a response to this confused psychologist which evolved into an essay about bad design.

  7. 7
    Axel says:

    …. “all life came instantly into existence on the word of an omnipotent being who used magic.”

    I think the dolt means magic like the quantum world. Scary to think this lad’s probably a scientist.

  8. 8
    scordova says:

    Nussbaum’s mistake is that he equivocates the “needs” of the organism with the needs of the intelligent designer of the organism. I gave the Monsanto illustration in the other thread to highlight his equivocation.

    Unless he has access to the requirements definition that the intelligent designer used to make his designs, Nussbaum is in no position to argue something is poorly designed any more than he would be in a position to judge Monsanto’s biological organisms as poorly designed because they are sterile. Nussbaum decides how a God he doesn’t even believe in ought to design things, and then uses a supposedly non-existent God’s psychology as evidence against design.

    Only in evolutionary biology are such perversions of logic passed off as science.

  9. 9
    Querius says:

    The professor’s argument apparently hinges on whether something is arguably overdesigned.

    So, just-good-enough plastic spoons obviously must have evolved, while the redundancy of kidneys must have been the result of intelligent design.

  10. 10
    M. Holcumbrink says:

    E. Coli is capable of calculus, too. The sensors for the chemotaxis detect changes in attractant/repellent concentrations, and last time I checked, changing rates is all about calculus. Which means that this little bacteria has computational machinery capable of calculus operations… not to mention the algorithmic cascade of logic required to ultimately reverse the spin of the flagellum.

    And I would say that machinery capable of calculus operations (to say the least) is probably designed.

  11. 11
    M. Holcumbrink says:

    I wonder if molecular calculus computations would look something like this, if we could zoom in close enough (play the video):

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