Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

Design Disquisitions: Design & the Problem of Intelligibility


Many critics of intelligent design argue that not only is ID false (or at least unscientific), but that it is basically meaningless. Such lines of criticism come from philosophers such as Sahotra Sarkar and Elliott Sober. They argue that the general concepts that are assumed in ID discussions like ‘design’ and ‘intelligence’ are too primitive and vague to be of any use in a coherent scientific theory. Sarkar in particular claims that ID’s concepts can only be propped up by using analogies inherited by the natural theological tradition, and so cannot be formulated in a non-theological/scientific manner. In this article I have attempted to take a good stab at this objection. Though this article is quite in-depth, it is actually a shorter version of a more detailed document I’m working on that deals with the objection in further detail. Let me know how you would respond to this objection.


                           Design & the Problem of Intelligibility



Sorry for the late reply, but thanks all for the feedback. That is a fair point StephenB yes. The definitions can have nuances depending on the context of the methodologies in question. Origenes, yes that is precisely my point. We are perfectly comfortable with appealing to other concepts and fields in science that are quite primative. For some reason however, many hold ID up to a higher standard. Nevertheless, as I have argued, that higher standard has been met. tearfang, I think that is certainly true. We can sit here arguing over definitional nuances till the sun dies, but at the end of the day these must be applicable in a practical sense. I think the examples you mentioned are certainly applicable and are used on a daily basis. Thanks for your comments, Eric. I do think that it is a rather obvious logical mistake on the part of Sarkar and Sober. I think also critics like Elizabeth Liddle has often argued a similar point on these pages and on 'TSZ'. It is certainly as you say: selective hyper-skepticism. Joshua G
tearfang @5: Good point. Indeed the principles of the design inference are regularly used in that context. As well as in archaeology, forensics, SETI, and other enterprises. This gives the lie to complaints about the vagueness or inadequacy of the design inference. It is regularly used. Every day. In numerous fields. No, it is only in the context of biological origins that people close their eyes to the evidence, cover their ears, and start comforting themselves in their materialistic philosophy by loudly repeating to themselves "Design cannot be considered in science! Design cannot be considered in science! . . ." Eric Anderson
Joshua, good work. It is disappointing that Sober, being who he is, has such a hard time with basic logic when it comes to intelligent design. Intelligent design is very simple. And the definitions needed for a well-thought-out understanding of the subject are not complicated. All Sober needs to do is consult Webster. Plain old standard dictionary definitions of words like "intelligence", "design", and, yes, "information", are plenty adequate to flesh out the design inference and the fundamental claims of intelligent design. Has Sober publicly stated that neuroscience is not science because it cannot provide a comprehensive account of consciousness? Does Sober argue that criminal law is inherently problematic because we cannot provide a definitive definition of intent? Would he claim that no progress can be made in psychology or psychiatry until an unassailable concept of personhood is established and agreed upon by everyone? Does he extend his criticism of the vagueness of "design" to bench science and technology, or does he give them a pass and only apply his criticism to biological origins? As you noted, this is less about a genuine criticism than it is a selective hyper-skepticism that attempts to avoid the real issues and prevent intelligent design from even being considered. Eric Anderson
My thought is if you want to know if you have a good enough operational definition try to use it. Could this be used in murder trials to distinguish between premeditated murder and heat of the moment murder? tearfang
Undirected materialistic randomness can do anything an atheist desires. It's not about evidence. Mung
Joshua Gidney: Demanding, however, that ID theorists provide an account [of ‘design’ and ‘intelligence’] that is uncontroversial, and satisfactory to everyone, is unreasonable. At the very least one can offer some possible accounts that are coherent and scientifically useful. … When asked what one can mean when talking about design, and the difficulty in defining it, ID proponent Mike Gene responded as follows:
I think when you’re dealing with large concepts it’s often hard…to come up with these succinct, rigorous definitions…if you ask a biologist ‘what is life?’…they will give you a list of characteristic features…When you get to concepts like ‘design’ and ‘intelligence’, you kind of run into the same problem.
In saying this, Gene hit upon a point that can easily be missed. Attempting to come up with non-controversial accounts of some of our most fundamental concepts in science is notoriously difficult.
This is certainly true. For example, we do not know what the laws of physics consist of, how they operate, how they came into existence or where they reside, nor do we have non-controversial accounts of energy, matter, time and space. Origenes
I think it is only necessary to define "intelligence" or "design" in the context of the methodology being used. As the methodology changes, one would expect the definitions to change. To insist that everyone in the ID community use exactly the same definitions, regardless of context, is unreasonable. Anti-ID partisans play that game to avoid confronting ID's arguments. We have had people try that tactic right here on this site. StephenB
I really like what you are doing Joshua. Don't stop. Upright BiPed

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