[I’m for giving opposing viewpoints a fair representation. Aiguy is a widely respected critic of ID. I cross post his offering from TSZ What Does “Intelligence” Mean in ID Theory?]
Below I argue that despite insisting that it makes no claims about the nature of the Designer, ID’s equivocation on the meaning of “intelligence” results in implicit and unsupported connotations being lumped together as conclusions of the “design inference”.
Is it Intelligent?
Working in Artificial Intelligence, one comes to realize that asking if something is “intelligent” or not is generally a matter of definition rather than discovery. Here is a joke illustrating this point:
AIGUY: Here is our newest AI system. It learned to play grandmaster-level chess by reading books. It has written award-winning novels, proven the Goldbach Conjecture, written a beautiful symphony, designed a working fusion reactor, and talked a suicidal jumper down from the Golden Gate Bridge.
CUSTOMER: That’s very nice. But is this system actually intelligent?
I find that more often than not people don’t get this joke – at least not the same way I do. Some people think it’s obvious that a computer can’t be truly intelligent, so it’s ridiculous to ask that question. Other people think that anything that could do all the things this system does obviously is intelligent, so it’s funny that anyone would even bother to ask. Still others believe that the question is perfectly reasonable, and the answer could be determined by looking more carefully at the computer’s characteristics.
To me, the joke is that the question isn’t actually about the computer system, but rather it’s about what the word “intelligent” means. And there is no right or wrong answer; it is entirely a matter of our choosing what we consider intelligence to be, and thus whether we consider some particular thing (entity, being, system, process) intelligent or not.
[Footnote: As an aside, ID proponents often change the subject when talking about computer intelligence. If I point out that computers can design things, they respond that the computer only can do this because it was itself designed by a real intelligent agent, a human being. In other words, rather than try to judge whether or not a computer that can design things is intelligent per se, ID proponents start talking about “Who designed the designer?” and about how this computer came to exist. I’m not sure why ID proponents don’t realize that they believe human beings were also designed by a real intelligent agent, yet this doesn’t disqualify us from being intelligent per se!]
The concept of “intelligence” – like “life” – is notoriously difficult to pin down. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked about pornography, we know it when we see it, but if you ask five cognitive psychologists what the word “intelligence” means, you may get seven different definitions. Broadly speaking, definitions of intelligence can be categorized as either functional, where the definition specifies something about how intelligent systems operate, or behavioral, where the definition specifies the sorts of tasks systems must be capable of in order to be considered intelligent. I have been in countless semantic disputes (as opposed to substantive disagreements) regarding the concept of intelligence because people have different types of definitions in mind.
[Footnote: People sometimes complain that if “life” is hard to define, why don’t I object to biologists that they are equivocating on that word? The answer is that biologists use the word “life” not to explain anything, but rather to generally describe the sorts of things they study. In contrast, ID Theory offers “intelligence” as an explanatory construct, and thus is obliged to say exactly what it means.]
ID Theory and Intelligent Behavior
In spite of this confusion over what the term “intelligence” means, ID theory offers it as the best explanation for the existence of complex form and function in biology, as well as universal fine-tuning (I’ll refer to these features collectively as “biological CSI” here for simplicity). In fact, the term “intelligent cause” is the sum total of ID’s explanatory framework – absolutely nothing else is said about what ID supposes to have been responsible. So it seems fair to ask what precisely is meant by this term in the context of ID.
Years ago William Dembski was asked (by me) in a forum interview what he meant by “intelligence”, and he replied that it could be defined as simply as “the ability to produce complex specified information”. I’ve heard this many times since (here’s a recent example from Sal at UD: https://uncommondesc.wpengine.com/philosophy/arguing-for-resemblance-of-design-rd-instead-of-intelligent-design-id/#comment-460109 ).
The problem with using a behavioral definition of intelligence like this is that it renders ID theory a vacuous tautology: ID claims the best explanation for CSI in biology is that which produces CSI. Simply labelling a hypothetical cause does not add anything to our understanding; the theorist must actually characterize the explanatory construct in a way that enables us to decide if it exists or not. Otherwise, for example, we could explain the existence of crop circles by invoking the “cerealogical force”, which is characterized by the ability to produce crop circles. How do we know that the cerealogical force exists? By the appearance of crop circles of course!
Why isn’t it obvious to everyone that defining “intelligence” this way makes ID into a vacuous claim? Because people typically make a set of implicit assumptions about other sorts of things an intelligent thing should be able to do, viz. the things that human beings can typically do. For example, if ID said this intelligent cause was something that, besides creating biological CSI, was also capable of explaining its actions in grammatical language, or proving a theorem in first order logic, or predicting lunar eclipses, then ID would indeed be making meaningful claims. The challenge then would be to provide some indication that these claim were true, but of course there is no such evidence.
Again: There is no evidence whatsoever that ID’s intelligent cause could do anything aside from produce the biological CSI we observe. There is no theory of intelligence that tells us that when some entity displays one particular ability it will necessarily have some other ability. Just like the chess-playing computer – or a human with savant syndrome – it may be that ID’s “intelligent cause” could do one thing very well, but could do nothing else that human beings typically do.
Of course, to the extent that the intelligent cause was supposed to be similar to human beings in other respects (and in particular had similar brain anatomy and neurophysiology) there may be reason to speculate a similarity in other abilities. But since the thing (entity, system, process, force, etc) that ID claims as the cause biological CSI may be a radically different sort of thing than a human being, there is simply no grounds to assume it has other abilities similar to humans.
[Footnote: Occasionally at this point an ID proponent will remind me that ID makes no commitments as to the nature of the Designer, and thus It could well be some extra-terrestrial life form with some sort of brain. The suggestion seems disingenuous, though, and in any event once we posit the existence of extra-terrestrial life forms as the cause of life on Earth, it is simpler to imagine that life on Earth arose as these organisms’ descendents rather than as the product of their advanced bio-engineering skills.]
If ID chooses to define “intelligence” behaviorally, then, the result will either be that (1) ID is vacuous, or (2) ID makes claims that are not supported by any evidence. What about if ID defines “intelligence” functionally instead?
ID Theory and Intelligent Function
Dembski’s most usual definitions for “intelligence” are functional, including “the complement of fixed law and chance” and “the power and facility to choose between options”. So intelligent entities, in Dembski’s view, are defined by their power to make choices that are not determined by antecedent events. What Dembski does not mention (although he is surely aware of it) is that what he is defining as “intelligence” is another way of describing libertarian free will, and in my experience discussing ID with its proponents on the internet, this is indeed an important part of what most people mean when they talk about intelligence.
I believe the concept of metaphysical libertarianism to be incoherent, but in any case it clearly cannot be mistaken for settled science. But ID authors (including Dembski and Stephen Meyer) fail to acknowledge that this particular metaphysical position underlies their theory. On the contrary, Dembski and Meyer argue that the “intelligent causation” posited by ID as the cause of biological CSI is something that is known to us by our familiarity with intelligent agents. This is specious. What we know is that human beings design and build complex machinery. We do not know how we do it (because we don’t understand how we think), and we do not know if our thought processes transcend physical causality or not. Thus when Stephen Meyer claims that the causal explanation proposed by ID is known to us “in our uniform and repeated experience of intelligent agency”, he is pulling a fast one.
To his credit, Meyer does say something specific about what he means when he talks about intelligence: He often refers to intelligence as being synonymous with “conscious, rational deliberation”. We all know what consciousness is, even if nobody has any idea how (or if) it functions causally in our thought processes. So to say that the cause of life, the universe, and everything was conscious is to make a concrete claim.
But just as ID can’t support the claim that the intelligent cause was capable of explaining its intentions, ID offers no good reason to believe the intelligent cause was conscious. Moreover, there is some reason to doubt that claim a priori: Our uniform and repeated experience confirms that a well-functioning brain is necessary (even if not sufficient) for conscious awareness, and unless ID is explicitly proposing that ID’s intelligent cause had a brain, the conclusion warranted by our experience would be that the intelligent cause did not likely deliberate its designs consciously. We human beings are conscious of our intentions and consciously imagine future events, but this conscious awareness is known to critically rely on specific neural systems. The generation of biological CSI may well have occurred in ways that are fundamentally different from human cognition, and so we have no reason to believe it involved consciousness as humans experience it.
What about SETI?
ID proponents often turn to SETI to legitimize their insistence that “intelligence” is a meaningful scientific explanation. If we could explain a SETI signal by invoking extra-terrestrial intelligence, they reason, why can’t ID invoke an unspecified intelligence as the explanation for biological systems? But of course SETI is virtually the inverse of ID: SETI looks for things that do not otherwise occur in nature in order to find extra-terrestrial life forms, while ID looks at things that do occur in nature for signs of extra-terrestrial non-life forms.
SETI is not a theory; it is a search for data. It is the assumption that an ETI is an extra-terrestrial intelligent life form that lends meaning (and research direction) to the SETI program. SETI astrobiologists make assumptions about the likelihood of various planets being hospitable to life as we know it, and astronomers look for signals coming from such planets. If SETI did find some signal and a paper was published that suggested this was evidence for a intelligent agent that was not a form of life as we know it, I would complain that the term tells us nothing at all about what was responsible. All we could say is that the cause was something we know nothing about except that it was capable of producing the signal we observed.
The broad connotations of the word “intelligence” in the minds of most people include consciousness, metaphysical libertarianism, and the ability to solve novel problems in varied domains. These are specific claims that cannot be supported empirically in the context of ID. Once all of these concepts are removed, however, there is no meaning left to the term “intelligent cause”. And therefore, ID tells us nothing at all about the cause of life, the universe, and everything that can be supported by the evidence.
Imagine if we found the Intelligent Designer and asked It, say, why It created so many different types of beetles. For all ID can tell us, the Designer may be unable to answer, because It may be some sort process with no conscious beliefs or desires at all, acting without any idea of what It is doing or why.