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Naturalism, Intelligent Design and Extraordinary Claims Part II

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In my earlier post on this subject, I attempted to address the question of whether or not the claim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, or what I called the EC-EE claim, was itself an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. In this post, I want to take a step back from that and just grant that the EC-EE claim is valid, at least as a general guideline, along the order of, say, Ockham’s Razor.

That granted, let’s see where that may lead us with respect to how the EC-EE claim is used as an argument against certain kinds of claims on the basis that they are “extraordinary”. For my point of departure, I’ll revisit the quote from Michael Shermer I referenced in my earlier post and a companion quote from the late Philosopher of Science and staunch defender of evolution and ID critic, Niall Shanks. My purpose in citing Shermer and Shanks is not to single them out, but to simply use their claims as representative of a line of thought that is quite pervasive among the defenders of Darwinian evolution. First Shermer again as a reminder:

Darwin’s original claim of evolution by means of natural selection was an extraordinary claim in its time, so he was required to provide extra ordinary evidence for it. He did, and evidence has continued accumulating ever since. Today, the burden of proof is on creationists and Intelligent Design advocates to provide extraordinary evidence for their extraordinary claim that a supernatural being of great power and intelligence performed a supernatural act in place of or contrary to natural law. They have yet to do so.

(Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2006, pg 50)

Shermer’s claim here is of a piece with what Shanks, wrote:

The conclusion, once again, was that we had been given no serious evidential case upon which to base further investigations into supernatural intelligent design. The late Carl Sagan advised that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence for their validation. Intelligent design advocates have not merely failed to offer extraordinary evidence but indeed have failed to offer even humdrum evidence to support their case. In fact, intelligent design theory, for all its blather about being the science of the twenty-first century, is little more than old medieval theological wine in new biochemical and cosmological bottles.

(God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory, Niall Shanks, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 2004, pg 226)

Both Shermer and Shanks agree that there is a paucity of evidence where ID is concerned and that whatever evidence is cited for it far falls short of the required extraordinary evidential bar. But are the core claims of ID extraordinary in the first place, and if so, what makes them so? Further, why does Shermer think that the burden of evidence lies with the ID proponents and not with Darwinian evolution? Is it really the case, as both Shermer and Shanks suggest, that in modern times anyone who thinks that the cosmos in general or biological systems in particular give evidence of intelligent cause is making an “extraordinary” claim?

So, let’s examine these questions in turn and see where we get to. Are the core claims of ID extraordinary in some sense? There are a couple ways to look at this question. Both Shermer and Shanks have equated the core ideas of ID and ID’s appeal to intelligent cause with supernatural cause. However, this misrepresents the actual case. There is no requirement in ID per se that the intelligent cause must be supernatural, or, more to the real worry that Shermer and Shanks have, that the cause is God. What both of them fail to see is that ID as a scientific enterprise merely seeks to identify and separate intelligent causes from undirected, natural causes. So, the comparison between undirected natural causes on the one hand and supernatural causes on the other is off the mark. William Dembski has made this abundantly clear in his book The Design Revolution where he wrote:

Now from the vantage point of intelligent design, treated strictly as a scientific inquiry, no theological or atheological position has a privileged place. Intelligent design, as a scientific research program, attempts to determine whether certain features of the natural world exhibit signs of having been designed by an intelligence. This intelligence could be E.T. or a telic principle immanent in nature or a transcendent personal agent. These are all, at least initially, live options…Forget about the term supernatural and the presuppositional baggage it carries. What if the designing intelligence(s) responsible for biological complexity cannot be confined to physical objects? Why should that burst the bounds of science?…But the contrast between natural and supernatural causes is the wrong contrast. The proper contrast is between undirected natural causes on the one hand and intelligent causes on the other…Design has no prior commitment against naturalism or for supernaturalism. Consequently, science can offer no principled grounds for excluding design or relegating it to the sphere of religion.

(The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, William A. Dembski, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2004, pp 188-190)

Thus we see that the actual comparison is undirected natural causes versus intelligent cause, with no reference to supernatural. Even a modicum of research would have shown both Shermer and Shanks that this was the case, yet they persisted in misrepresenting the case, as have many other critics of ID. By conflating ‘intelligent cause’ with ‘supernatural cause’, Shermer and Shanks have, in effect, set up a straw man which they then proceed to beat up in order to claim victory over ID.

ID as a scientific enterprise does not attempt to identify the designer, but rather attempts to identify and quantify artifacts in nature that exhibit the effects of intelligent cause, most notably the presence of complex, specified information (CSI). So stated, the core claim of ID hardly seems worthy of the label “extraordinary”. After all, there are many sciences wholly devoted to discerning intelligent causes, as has been noted many times over the years: forensic science, archeology, certain forms of cryptography and many others. No one thinks anyone in these sciences is making an extraordinary claim when a conclusion of intelligent cause is indicated from their research. So why think any differently where biological artifacts are concerned? If we remove supernatural causation from consideration, and that is precisely what ID as a scientific enterprise does do as we have seen, then what precisely is the problem? Are Shermer and Shanks suggesting that nothing in nature exhibits anything that could be taken to be evidence for intelligent causation? If so, what would be the scientific basis for making such a claim? It has never been established scientifically that all phenomenon in nature past, present and future can only be the result of undirected, natural causes. If that is what Shermer and Shanks do think (and it’s a pretty safe bet that it is), then they are not basing that claim on anything scientific, and their claim, that everything we observe in Nature is the result of undirected natural causes, begins to look just as extraordinary as they think the claims of ID are. At the very least, such a claim would go well beyond the bounds of anything that has been confirmed scientifically and betrays an a priori commitment to a particular worldview.

To see this, consider the following scenario. As you drive down a country road you observe a small grove of trees. Upon further inspection, you notice that the trees of this grove are all the same kind (pine, let’s say) and that they appear to be more or less equidistant from one another. You further notice that the trees are so arranged as to spell out the name “Smithson” on the side of the little hill upon which they stand. What would be your most likely inference regarding the origin of this particular grove of trees? Would anyone, including Shermer and Shanks or those of their ilk, conclude that the grove, like all the other nearby forests, was simply the end result of undirected, natural causes? Or would the more likely conclusion be that the grove was intentionally planted according to some design plan by someone…perhaps a nearby farmer named Smithson? That conclusion would be pretty straightforward and unextraordinary, and most likely correct. Trying to explain the existence of the grove through undirected, natural causes would require some difficult explanatory work as to how such causes would bring about a nearly perfect grove of trees all pretty much equidistant from one another spelling out the name “Smithson”. Further, any such explanation would most likely be dismissed out of hand on the basis of Okhham’s famous razor. Yet, for all that, there could be no denying that the little grove exhibits CSI.

But now we leave the grove of trees and observe CSI in a biological system. This arrangement of matter is far more complex than the simple grove trees. Yet, Darwinians, like Shermer and Shanks, have no problem whatsoever conjecturing that this level of CSI can easily be accounted for as the result of undirected, natural causes through Darwinian evolution. (We’ll leave aside for the moment that no one has yet provided any plausible explanation in Darwinian terms for CSI). The reason for this seeming disconnect is that in the case of the trees, it would be argued, we know that people can and do plant trees and crops, so it’s a simple inference that someone planted the trees in that precise configuration. However, they would further argue that we don’t know of any intelligence in nature that could account for the greater level of CSI exhibited in a biological system, so it must be the result of undirected, natural cause. In making this claim, they would not necessarily be denying the existence of CSI in the biological system any more than they would deny the CSI in the grove of trees. Rather, they are denying that there is no known intelligent agent in nature that can account for it. What they fail to see is that whether such an agent is known or not, there should be no problem in seeing the effect of intelligent cause in the form of CSI. Further, eliminating intelligent cause out of scientific bounds a priori is to make a metaphysical commitment as to what there is and to what science may appeal as cause for a given effect. In short, whether or not an appeal to intelligent cause is extraordinary with respect to CSI in a biological system is worldview laden and can not be divorced from that in any principled way.

Whatever the case here, the point to be appreciated is that once the concept of ‘supernatural’ is rightly removed from ID as a scientific enterprise, the remaining core claim becomes a simple, one could say ‘humdrum’, appeal to intelligent causes, whatever or whoever those causes might be. Not knowing the identity of the designer is of no consequence whatsoever with respect to seeing that something is, in fact, designed. This takes a lot of the starch out of the EC-EE claim where ID is concerned as it reduces the actual claim of ID to a straightforward, everyday claim of intelligent cause as opposed to undirected, natural cause. Divorced from any particular worldview commitments, nothing seems extraordinary in that.

Shermer wants to go even further, though, and claim that the burden of proof must lie with those claiming intelligent cause. This gambit is used often among ID critics. However, if we rightly understand what the actual core claim of ID is, with any appeal to supernatural cause removed, then the claim that the appeal to intelligent cause is somehow extraordinary is greatly reduced or eliminated, so why think that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to the ID proponents? Here Shermer betrays his underlying prejudice that undirected, natural cause in the form of Darwinian evolution has fully accounted for all that we observe in biological systems,(indeed he says so in the above quote) including the presence of CSI. (if Shermer doesn’t think that, then why bother claiming that the burden of proof has shifted to ID?) But whether or not that is even true is a significant part of the issue and thus Shermer’s entire argument is little more than begging the question. Given what we know about CSI, and given that in every case where an artifact exhibits CSI and we know it causal history, intelligent cause is always the explanation, then it would seem reasonable and logical to say that the extraordinary claim here is not the simple claim of ID of intelligent cause, but the claim that the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy interacting over eons of time through chance and/or necessity are capable of producing biological systems that exhibit CSI. To paraphrase Shanks, it seems safe to say that proponents of the undirected, natural cause story “have not merely failed to offer extraordinary evidence but indeed have failed to offer even humdrum evidence to support their case.”

However one wishes to look at this, the claim that ID is making “extraordinary” claims for which there is not even “humdrum” evidence, let alone the requisite “extraordinary” evidence, is way off the mark as it based entirely on a (deliberate?) misrepresentation of what ID actually claims. At the very least, it seems plausible to say that the EC-EE claim leveled against ID is fairly misguided and does little more than emotive work in defense of Darwinian evolution or as a criticism of ID. While the EC-EE claim might make an ID critic feel better, it does little to actually diminish, let alone defeat, ID or promote Darwinian evolution. If anything, it is the Darwinian account of undirected natural causes being capable of producing CSI in biological systems that smacks of the ‘extraordinary’.

In my next installment on this subject, I want to look more closely at the EE side of the EC-EE claim and the question of evidence and what would make evidence rise to the level of being extraordinary, or even if such a thing is possible. For now, let’s discuss whether or not there really is anything ‘extraordinary’ about any of the claims of ID, when all appeal to supernatural cause is removed, or is the appeal to undirected natural causes as explanation for CSI the real ‘extraordinary’ claim?

Axel in #5 writes: "That dictum: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, must be one of the dumbest platitudes anyone with an IQ above 50 has ever made." Well, dumb or not, it is a dictum with no teeth as I'm trying to show. So far we've seen the dictum can't live up to its own standard as it could be viewed as an extraordinary claim; we've seen how worldview laden are any claims that someone else's claims are "extraordinary"; and we've seen that once the proper contrast between undirected, natural cause versus intelligent causes is made, then there's little to to any claim that ID is making any claim that could be considered "extraordinary". The dictum isn't fairing too well. Next I'll take on what exactly amounts to 'extraordinary evidence' and we'll see that that too fails on definitional and worldview grounds. There won't be anything left of the dictum to apply! And in the final installment of this series, we'll see that's there no principled way to even apply the dictum. Other than that, its a great principle! DonaldM
Eric @1, I'm borrowing that quote Barb highlighted and sticking it next to these notes: Programming of Life - Biological Computers - video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRooe6ehrPs ExPASy - Biochemical Pathways - interactive schematic http://web.expasy.org/cgi-bin/pathways/show_thumbnails.pl Learning from Bacteria about Social Networking (Information Processing) - video Excerpt: I will show illuminating movies of swarming intelligence of live bacteria in which they solve optimization problems for collective decision making that are beyond what we, human beings, can solve with our most powerful computers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJpi8SnFXHs 10 Ways Darwin Got It Wrong Excerpt: As molecular biologist Jonathan Wells and mathematician William Dembski point out: “It’s true that eukaryotic cells are the most complicated cells we know. But the simplest life forms we know, the prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria, which lack a nucleus), are themselves immensely complex.,,, There is no evidence whatsoever of earlier, more primitive life forms from which prokaryotes might have evolved” (How to Be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist (or Not), 2008, p. 4). These authors then mention what these two types of cells share in terms of complexity: • Information processing, storage and retrieval. • Artificial languages and their decoding systems. • Error detection, correction and proofreading devices for quality control. • Digital data-embedding technology. • Transportation and distribution systems. • Automated parcel addressing (similar to zip codes and UPS labels). • Assembly processes employing pre-fabrication and modular construction. • Self-reproducing robotic manufacturing plants. So it turns out that cells are far more complex and sophisticated than Darwin could have conceived of. How did mere chance produce this, when even human planning and engineering cannot? http://www.gnmagazine.org/issues/gn85/10-ways-darwin-wrong.htm "To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must first magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is 20 kilometers in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would see then would be an object of unparalleled complexity,...we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity." Michael Denton PhD., Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, pg.328 How we could create life: The key to existence will be found not in primordial sludge, but in the nanotechnology of the living cell - Paul Davies - 2002 Excerpt: Instead, the living cell is best thought of as a supercomputer – an information processing and replicating system of astonishing complexity. DNA is not a special life-giving molecule, but a genetic databank that transmits its information using a mathematical code. Most of the workings of the cell are best described, not in terms of material stuff – hardware – but as information, or software. Trying to make life by mixing chemicals in a test tube is like soldering switches and wires in an attempt to produce Windows 98. It won’t work because it addresses the problem at the wrong conceptual level. - Paul Davies http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/dec/11/highereducation.uk Cells Are Like Robust Computational Systems, - June 2009 Excerpt: Gene regulatory networks in cell nuclei are similar to cloud computing networks, such as Google or Yahoo!, researchers report today in the online journal Molecular Systems Biology. The similarity is that each system keeps working despite the failure of individual components, whether they are master genes or computer processors. ,,,,"We now have reason to think of cells as robust computational devices, employing redundancy in the same way that enables large computing systems, such as Amazon, to keep operating despite the fact that servers routinely fail." http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616103205.htm The Cell as a Collection of Protein Machines "We have always underestimated cells. Undoubtedly we still do today,,, Indeed, the entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each which is composed of a set of large protein machines." Bruce Alberts: Former President, National Academy of Sciences; http://www.imbb.forth.gr/people/aeconomou/documents/Alberts98.pdf Problems with the Metaphor of a Cell as "Machine" - July 2012 Excerpt: Too often, we envision the cell as a "factory" containing a fixed complement of "machinery" operating according to "instructions" (or "software" or "blueprints") contained in the genome and spitting out the "gene products" (proteins) that sustain life. Many things are wrong with this picture, but one of the problems that needs to be discussed more openly is the fact that in this "factory," many if not most of the "machines" are themselves constantly turning over -- being assembled when and where they are needed, and disassembled afterwards. The mitotic spindle...is one of the best-known examples, but there are many others. Funny sort of "factory" that, with the "machinery" itself popping in and out of existence as needed!,,, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/07/problems_with_t062691.html etc.. etc.. bornagain77
That dictum: 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence', must be one of the dumbest platitudes anyone with an IQ above 50 has ever made. A classic example, if ever there was one, of atheists being so easily taken in, hook, line and sinker, by the sententious twaddle that passes for profound sagacity in their circle, proudly parroting it at the drop of a hat, convinced it's the ultimate put-down. In fact, that 'profound insight' sounds like nothing so much as the pearl of wisdom of the 'punch' line, uttered by a venerable eastern sage, half-way up the Himalayas, visited by a Westerner, doggedly seeking the meaning of life, in one of those interminable shaggy-dog stories. Actually, it also reminds me of those ludicrously pompous, but utterly vacuous, titles film-makers used to give to films in the fifties: The Wind Cannot Read, Above Us The Waves, This Is She ... Oh, no, that was a pop song or tune. But there's tons of them. They must had some hilarious sessions thinking them up. Axel
Here is my two cents on why materialists are so anti-ID: Knowing that ID does not necessitate the existence of a supernatural agent of creation, at least from a logical perpective, why are they so vehemently opposed to it? I believe it is that they instinctually know that there IS a Creator who exist. They KNOW that as the created, they must then owe some type of allegiance or reverent devotion to the Designer. If there is just blind chance, then nothing is owed. Their decision to adhere to a materialist dogma is merely a religious decision. Science, in all of its naked truth, exposes the foolishness of subscribing to a designer-less theory regarding the origin of life. OldArmy94
Barb in #2: "You are absolutely correct. What I find more laughable, though, is that when confronted with this information, most atheists respond, “But we’re here, so it must be true!”" This from the same folks who would deny that undirected, natural causes could account for the grove of trees I mentioned in my post. Let's apply the same logic to the trees arranged to spell "Smithson": "Well, the trees are there, so it [the naturalistic story] MUST be true!" Would any of the Darwinists go for that? I hardly think so. But when it comes to US...well, Nature has all the creative power and possibilities it needs. Nothing "extraordinary" in that. If it turned out that the grove of trees really did come about from undirected natural causes - they just happened to grow into that particular and peculiar arrangement, probably the first word a Darwinist would utter is "Extraordinary" followed by "Inconceivable" and "Fascinating"! DonaldM
Eric Anderson@1:
The truly extraordinary claim — indeed, the wildly and irresponsibly outrageous claim — is that a highly scalable, massively parallel system architecture incorporating a 4-bit digital coding system and a super-dense, information-rich, three-dimensional, multi-layered, multi-directional database structure with storage, retrieval and translation mechanisms, utilizing file allocation, concatenation and bit-parity algorithms, operating subject to software protocol hierarchies could all come about through a long series of accidental particle collisions. That is beyond extraordinary. It is preposterous. It is laughable.
You are absolutely correct. What I find more laughable, though, is that when confronted with this information, most atheists respond, "But we're here, so it must be true!" Barb
For now, let’s discuss whether or not there really is anything ‘extraordinary’ about any of the claims of ID, when all appeal to supernatural cause is removed, or is the appeal to undirected natural causes as explanation for CSI the real ‘extraordinary’ claim?
Indeed. The only thing extraordinary about ID is that it claims that a designer of Earth life existed before the designed life (obvious enough). This is hardly extraordinary in a logical sense. The only reason it is "extraordinary" to some people is that it contradicts their received doctrine -- namely that no such designer did exist before life arose. Such a design claim doesn't contradict any empirical evidence, but it conflicts with a deep-seated a priori philosophical commitment. Design is really the blatantly obvious conclusion from general observation. Even committed Darwinists admit that life looks designed. The truly extraordinary claim -- indeed, the wildly and irresponsibly outrageous claim -- is that a highly scalable, massively parallel system architecture incorporating a 4-bit digital coding system and a super-dense, information-rich, three-dimensional, multi-layered, multi-directional database structure with storage, retrieval and translation mechanisms, utilizing file allocation, concatenation and bit-parity algorithms, operating subject to software protocol hierarchies could all come about through a long series of accidental particle collisions. That is beyond extraordinary. It is preposterous. It is laughable. Eric Anderson

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