Those of you who’ve followed my posts and comments will have picked up that my view of Intelligent Design is pretty complicated. On the one hand, I defend design inferences, even strong design inferences. I’m entirely comfortable with questioning Darwinism (if that view still has enough content to identify it as a clear position, anyway), and have a downright dismissive view of both naturalism (if that view… etc) and atheism. I regularly see the ID position butchered, mangled and misrepresented by its detractors, most of whom should and probably do know better.
On the flipside, I don’t think ID (or for that matter, no-ID) is science, even if I reason that if no-ID is science then so is ID. My personal leaning has always been towards theistic evolution, and I see evolution as yet another instance of design rather than something which runs in opposition to it – a view which I know some ID proponents share, but certainly not all. I think non-scientific arguments for and inferences to design have considerable power, and see little reason to elevate particular arguments simply because some insist they’re “scientific”.
Here’s another part of that flipside, and the subject of today’s post. One of the more prominent ID arguments hinges on the trichotomy of Chance, Necessity, and Design. The problem for me is that I question the very existence of Chance, and I see Necessity as subsumable under Design.
Let’s start with the more straightforward issue first: Necessity and design. I think a problem straightaway is that design presupposes necessity, at least in the form of law – and the type of law/necessity you have serves as a limiting factor on design. But more than that, law is implemented and used in our own designs – you need only look at how software is designed and created to see man-made law at work. Likewise, the nature of physical laws of our universe is itself an open question, a thing which has to be explained. It would be enough to point out the mere possibility of “design” as an explanation of these laws to kick some dirt on contrast of necessity and design. The fact that we have intelligent agents implementing laws – arguably comparable laws – in software, systems and designs should be enough to give additional pause.
So what about chance? Well, let’s try to nail down the appropriate definition of chance here: Events and outcomes entirely unforeseen, undirected and unintended by any mind. I actually think that’s pretty straightforward, but let’s note what this definition is not identical to: The claim that outcomes were, largely or in part, the result of natural or material forces. It’s entirely possible for intelligent agents to foresee, intend, and orchestrate these outcomes, whether via direct intervention or well in advance (“front-loading”). Nor is the claim identical to “events and outcomes that were the result of accumulations of (small or large) changes over time”. Once again, such outcomes are entirely compatible with their being foreseen, directed, and intended by a mind, both in advance or directly.
Now, I think this is what many people who play the ‘chance, necessity or design’ card typically mean when they oppose chance to design. (I’m sure other people could go with another definition – but for our purposes I think I’m giving a fair view.) The problem is that, if this is what is meant by chance, then it’s not obvious that “chance” really exists to begin with. That’s not to say someone can’t assume that it exists, or that they can’t mount some kind of argument for the existence of chance based on whatever presuppositions or standards. People can assume whatever they like, and they’re certainly capable of arguing for just about anything. But while design can be verified by first-person experience (just design something), and law is both subsumable under design as well as generally verifiable (just observe regularity), chance – the sort of chance I’m talking about – is, and may well forever remain, a metaphysical assumption. For all we know, and for all science can tell us, this thing may as well not exist.
I want to stress: To question chance in the manner I’m speaking is not to question, say.. the existence of a gaussian distribution, or of uncorrelated patterns, or of any particular patterns at all. A mind could foresee or even determine a gaussian distribution. A mind could create or intend an uncorrelated pattern. But the pattern itself won’t get you where you need to go – not without, ironically enough, a Design Filter. Even Dembski asserts that his DF is incapable of ruling out design in cases where his filter does not go off – but the inability to determine the presence or lack of design in these mundane cases places the very existence of chance in these cases open to question. This doesn’t mean that chance is demonstrated not to exist – only that its existence is one of mere logical possibility. And that ain’t much.
Oddly enough, I think the DF – or investigations similar to the DF – only heightens my point. At least some of the events and outcomes we see in our universe are the result of intention, of guidance, of mind. In principle, most – even all – events and outcomes we see in our universe could be the result of these things, and as our technology grows our own capabilities become more and more incredible on this front. With this in mind, at least from my point of view, I see little reason to treat ‘chance’ in the sense I wrote about in this entry as more than an interesting and remote logical possibility, an extrascientific posit that doesn’t have much to commend it.