Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sun Oct 18 2009 - 07:44:28 EDT

Hi Cameron,

First, in the interests of fairness, I acknowledge what you say as regards the various claims you (and Behe) have been making - so where you make comments of the sort "I have never argued..." and "I haven't asked for.." and etc, let me say that nothing I said, or will say below, should be taken as implying otherwise.

With that put to bed, there is one point I would like to explore, viz;

You wrote:
> I have never argued that living things should be explained ONLY in terms
> of design. Nor has Behe. He grants the existence of contingent
> elements in the evolutionary process. So do I. But classical
> neo-Darwinism thinks ONLY in terms of contingent elements (albeit
> conditioned by natural laws), and it intentionally rejects design.

My understanding is that Darwinism (and I mean by this the speculations of Charles Darwin himself) are to be seen as an attack on precisely the sort of design theory implied by Paley's famous watch on the heath example; i.e. the notion that biological systems are analogous to an engineered artefact comprised of an assemblage of parts.

Now, it strikes me that Paley's approach is precisely what we might expect from 18th-19th century Britons whose society, it has to be remembered, was basking in the glow of THE golden age of engineering. To Paley's contemporaries the steam engine was the peak of human technological achievement, and the pocket watch regarded with the same sort of awe we now reserve for achievements in nano-technology. And engineers were the technological gods of the age. So when Paley cast about for an analogy for biological systems it was natural that he appeal to the best imaginable example of a precision engineered artefact and it is natural that he would settle on the watch. For Paley the watch was THE pinnacle of human technological artifice, thus THE cutting edge of engineering technology. It follows that when Darwin set about constructing a theory that would put paid to the notion of design in nature, it was precisely Paley's understanding of engineering design that he set out to criti

However, what should be readily apparent is that engineering has moved on somewhat since Paley's day. We now have engineering systems which are orders of magnitude more complex than steam engines and pocket watches. Contemporary engineering systems not only have complex feed-back and control mechanisms as per my previous remarks, but can even integrate a degree of "intelligence" thanks to inbuilt computer systems. What this means is that engineering design increasingly deals with self-regulating, even "self-aware", systems of a sort totally unimaginable to Paley or Darwin.

Which gets me to the main point I wish to make; when it is argued that Darwinism (or neo-Darwinism) "rejects design" I cannot help but think that this is to presume a rather archaic notion of engineering design. It is to assume, in particular, that engineering design involves the sort of thing familiar to Paley and Darwin - entirely "dumb" systems, comprised of a simple assemblage of parts, with at best rudimentary feed-back and control systems, and certainly with NO "self-awareness" of the sort evident in biological organisms. In consequence, I meet with some reserve the idea that engineers might cast some light on the notion of design - not because I think the claim is wrong, but because the notion of "engineering design" had in mind seems to me, rightly or wrongly, to involve no more sophistication than the design of steam engines or pocket watches. And, believe me, engineers can say a whole lot more than this about design of *processes* which seek to achieve outcomes tha
n non-engineers might imagine.

This, I have to say, is one reason why I don't warm very much to the claim put by some that certain biological systems evidence design and couldn't have evolved. My response - as an engineer - is to consider that any person making such a claim simply hasn't thought through what is possible given a suitably complex process of the sort toward which modern engineering is trending. I can, I think, virtually guarantee that given the theoretical resources of modern systems engineering it would be possible to model a process of essentially the neo-Darwinian sort - a process which, at the level of outcomes, would show precious little direct evidence of design. But while the outcomes of such a system would *appear* to be little more than the contingent consequences of a rule set rather than the specific result of intentional engineering design, the entire system would most emphatically be designed through and through.

What all this boils down to is this: I am quite unconvinced by claims that neo-Darwinism is inherently inconsistent with notions of design. I do acknowledge that such a claim is routinely made, and that many neo-Darwinists take very great pleasure in parading the apparent inconsistency of neo-Darwinian processes and design. I even acknowledge that there is something inherently proper in your objections to neo-Darwinism when it is taken to logically entail a "blind watchmaker." But what should not be overlooked is that such a claim actually has a particular sort of design in mind. In particular, it has in mind the sort of design characteristic of 18th and 19th century engineering, the sort of design whose greatest achievements were the steam engine and the pocket watch. In consequence, it is hardly overwhelming to point out that 150 years ago Charles Darwin put paid to the idea that biological systems are constructed according to a rather 200 year old notion of engineering de
sign which is, by contemporary standards, rudimentary in the extreme.

If, then, people want to restrict themselves to debates about whether bacterial flagellum (or whatever) evidence design that's quite okay as far as it goes. But from an engineering perspective they are conducting an incredibly simplistic discussion - one which Darwin probably DID put to bed 150 years ago and one which I personally find quite uninteresting. Far more interesting is the question of whether neo-Darwinism - as a system which produces complex structures - is compatible with the sort of processes which engineers routinely design to carry out complex tasks WITHOUT direct intelligent input.

I quite agree, I have to say, with your insistence that dumb processes don't substitute for intelligent design and there IS something inherently questionable about Christians accepting, without reserve, the sort of neo-Darwinist models put about by Richard Dawkins et al. But I hope you are at least able to appreciate this; neo-Darwinists of Dawkins' sort simply don't grasp just how smart a dumb process can be when that process is itself devised by an intelligent designer. So when I refuse to reject neo-Darwinism outright it's because I DON'T share Dawkins' archaic (I use the term advisedly) notions of "design" nor his rank ignorance of systems engineering. And that, I think, is my current bottom line: if anybody doesn't see design in the neo-Darwinian process, it's because they are looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place.


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Received on Sun Oct 18 07:45:07 2009

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