Re: Of Martian Sculptures (was: Re: [asa] on science and meta-science)

From: Iain Strachan <>
Date: Tue Nov 10 2009 - 14:55:01 EST

Dear Cameron,

First I'll just note the following.

My post was 439 words long, including a quotation from Keith. (383)
without. Your reply was 1306 words long - over three times the
length. Is it really necessary to be this verbose? The trouble I
have is that I don't have sufficient time to take it all in and in
replying am afraid I'll have missed some vital point. If you could
try and be more succinct that risk would be lowered. So let me try
and summarise your two points as succinctly as I can.

1. Just as Intelligent Design (or miracles) can be invoked to explain
virtually anything, so can Neo-Darwinism. (And it is).

2. Suppose you find Rushmore-like statues on Mars but absolutely no
trace of the creators of the statues. Are you justified in drawing a
design inference even though you know nothing of the nature of the
designers? If you are, then why doesn't the biological example

Is there anything essential I missed out?

In answer to point 1.

I don't know quite what you expected, but I agree with you. Recently
I gave a talk to a church "men's breakfast" (following on from a talk
about Creation and ID), which I titled "Five Gods out of a Machine".
I based it around the idea of a poor literary device; the "deus ex
machina", where the difficulties of a plot were resolved at the end by
a God appearing on a crane and magically sorting everything out, as
opposed to them being resolved within the story or the actions of the
characters. My "Five Gods" out of the machine were:

(1) The appeal to coincidence.

 (Take the story I posted in the Quantum Consciousness thread about
what happened to my father-in-law - compelled by an overwhelming
feeling to do something apparently quite irrational, which turned out
to save the day - as if some premonition of the future had happened).
Your atheist/rationalist is compelled to invoke coincidence on this
one (or maybe say it was a lie).

(2) The appeal to the Intelligent Designer. (I think I've dealt with
that in the previous post).

(3) The appeal to Evolution (your point).

(4) The appeal to the Multiverse. In most universes nothing
interesting happens - the anthropic principle states that we just
happen to be in one where interesting things did happen. Just make
enough Universes and you're bound to hit the jackpot sometimes just as
if you buy enough lottery tickets. Note it's infinitely pliable as
there is no limit on the number of universes.

(5) The appeal to Science we haven't discovered yet. We don't know
now but we will given time. Again, unspecific and hence unlimited in
explanatory power, just like the designer.

All five of these, I suggest are infinitely malleable, just like my
polynomial of arbitrary degree, and hence are equally unsatisfactory
as explanations.

In answer to point 2. (Martian Sculptures).

I think it's wrong to say we know nothing of the nature of the
creators of the statues. I think it would be reasonable to infer that
just as intelligent life evolved on our planet, so it did on Mars, so
we might well infer that the creators of the statues were somewhat
like us (multicellular organisms, DNA etc). But we don't presume that
God is made of cells and DNA.

However, I simply don't buy your scenario where all life vanished
without trace - no fossils, no discarded tools etc. I think you would
expect to see those things if you found the statues. Therefore I feel
that I must reject your example as unrealistic.

[511 words without the preamble - a reply of similar length (or even
shorter) would be appreciated - already I think my reply has become
somewhat too long].


On Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 5:06 PM, Cameron Wybrow <> wrote:
> Iain:
> Two points on your reply:
> 1.  Neo-Darwinism also can explain virtually anything.  Any evolutionary
> change, and its opposite, are equally explicable in neo-Darwinian terms. The
> extinction of the ancient moa can be explained in neo-Darwinian terms, and
> the survival of the modern ostrich can as well.  The development of flight
> in bats can be explained in neo-Darwinian terms, and the failure to develop
> flight in other mammals can be explained in those terms as well. And given
> the apparently arbitrary fact that only one set of land mammals took to the
> air (the bats), whereas three groups of mammals (pinnipeds, sirenians,
> cetaceans) took to the seas, the relative popularity of the sea vs. the air
> can be explained in Darwinian terms.  But had it been the opposite, had
> there been three groups of flying mammals with different ancestries, and
> only one group of aquatic mammals, that, too, would have a perfectly valid
> Darwinian explanation.  Again, I have seen television specials on evolution
> where the scientific narration explains how vastly superior the "dog design"
> is to the "cat design" for predation, but both wild dogs and wild cats
> survive all over the world.  Had cats been wiped out by the competition from
> dogs, the neo-Darwinians could explain it in terms of the arguments given on
> the television program; but doubtless they have an explanation why
> "inferior" cats and "superior" dogs both survive and flourish as well.  The
> survival of the coelacanth in one small area of the Indian Ocean can be
> explained in Darwinian terms, as can the wiping out of the coelacanth
> everywhere else.  In the human case, selfishness and aggressiveness can be
> explained in neo-Darwinian terms, and so can compassion and altruism.  I
> could multiply such examples at will.
> The explanatory terms of neo-Darwinism (mutation and natural selection) are
> so malleable, so massageable, that if an inconvenient living form turns up
> in an environment where one would not expect it, the theory can handle it.
> Hypothetical changes in environmental pressures, hypothetical mutations,
> hypothetical increases in the mutation rate, hypothetical genetic
> bottlenecks, etc., can be invoked at will.  Thus, no matter how many
> difficulties pop up, neo-Darwinism never has to be abandoned.  One merely
> adjusts the hypothetical evolutionary pathways, without surrendering the
> theory itself.  Thus, neo-Darwinism explains everything and therefore
> explains nothing.  So if one wishes to attack design notions as being able
> to explain anything, that's fine, but the same standard must be applied to
> its competitor, i.e., neo-Darwinism.
> 2.  Regarding needing to know something about the designer before being able
> to safely infer design, I've used this example before, and it may not be
> original with me, because I think I've seen it elsewhere, but here it is:
> The first manned spacecraft lands on Mars.  The astronauts disembark.  They
> trek across the reddish soils in search of signs of moisture or microscopic
> organic life.  Passing by a range of low mountains, they stop abruptly.  An
> expression of shock crosses their faces.  To their left, on the face of a
> mountain about a thousand feet in height, there is what appears to be a
> sculpture.  It is reminiscent of the sculpture on Mt. Rushmore.  Five
> well-articulated figures, somewhat humanoid in form but different in some
> respects (antenna-like organs on the heads, and tentacle-like organs for
> arms), stare mutely at them.  They immediately draw a design inference. They
> say to each other:  "Some race of intelligent beings carved these figures
> into the side of this mountain."  Yet, as the exploration proceeds, what do
> they find?  They find no trace of the civilization which carved the figures.
>  No buildings.  No tools or machinery for chipping or drilling stone.  No
> evidence that any intelligent species other than man has ever set foot on
> the planet.  Several later expeditions confirm these findings:  if there
> ever were intelligent beings living on Mars, they have long since become
> extinct, leaving no trace, or have abandoned the planet, leaving no trace.
>  Who, then, could have carved these figures?
> My question is:  Do they need to know who carved the sculpture, to know that
> it was the product of intelligent design?  Either they can be certain that
> it was the product of intelligent design, or they cannot.  If they cannot be
> certain, then they must contemplate an alternate explanation, one couched in
> terms of blind natural forces, acting by law and chance, for the carving out
> of the articulated figures from the mountainside.  On the other hand, if
> they can be certain of design, then they need not do this.
> Now according to many of the scientists on this list, it is an explanation
> from ignorance to assert intelligent design when we have no independent
> knowledge of the existence and properties of the putative designer; it is
> "god of the gaps" reasoning, which is dangerous, because a "naturalistic"
> explanation may lurk just round the corner, and embarrass the design
> theorist when it becomes available.  And because we can never be sure when
> this may happen, our ASA-list scientists tell us, we must always postulate
> "unknown natural causes" in preference to "design" as the explanation.  This
> is the sacred requirement imposed by methodological naturalism.  So our
> Martian explorers, having no proof of the existence of an intelligent race
> on Mars (or anywhere in the universe for that matter), are *scientifically
> duty-bound* to concoct speculations about times when Mars had an
> air-and-water environment capable of producing weathering effects on rock,
> and explaining how such weathering effects could have carved out such
> articulated forms without guidance.  Or they must postulate that alternating
> heat and cold on a virtually airless and waterless Mars caused the rock face
> to crack in just such a manner as to leave articulate sculpture behind --
>  and then explain why no fallen rocks are found at the base of the
> structure. Etc.
> But wait.  Suppose that our ASA-list scientists are not so wooden and
> mechanical as I have made out above.  Suppose that they are wise enough to
> rank common sense and basic intelligence above the mechanical application of
> "methodological naturalism", and that they agree with the most uneducated
> janitor or bus driver that the Martian figures were in fact intelligently
> designed, and that trying to dream up explanations like weathering and so on
> is a complete waste of anyone's time.  What follows?
> What follows is that design inferences can be reliable even in the complete
> absence of:  (1) knowledge of the motivations of the designer; (2) knowledge
> of the nature or character of the designer (beyond obvious general
> characteristics such as intelligence, a degree of power, and a degree of
> skill); (3) independent proof -- outside of the phenomenon to be explained
> -- that the designer even exists.
> Does this sound familiar?  ID claims that we can infer design in biological
> systems without knowing:  (1) What the designer [God if you will] intended
> by making these systems; (2) What the designer [God if you will] is like,
> other than that he [she, it] is intelligent, and possesses sufficient power
> and skill to effect the design; (3) Whether the designer [God if you will]
> even exists -- the only evidence being the phenomenon to be explained.
> So if you *accept* that the design inference would be legitimate in the
> Martian sculpture example, I find it hard to see how you can reject the
> design inference in biological examples.  No new principle of reasoning is
> employed in the biological case.  And if you *deny* that the design
> inference would be legitimate in the Martian sculpture example, then you are
> responsible for sending Martian scientists on a wild goose chase, looking
> for chance-and-necessity explanations that will never reveal the true origin
> of the sculpture.  Which do you choose?  Is it a practical certainty that
> the Martian sculpture is designed, or not?  And if so, why does the
> application to biological examples not follow?
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Iain Strachan" <>
> To: "Keith Miller" <>
> Cc: <>
> Sent: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 8:19 AM
> Subject: Re: [asa] on science and meta-science
>> On Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 10:40 PM, Keith Miller <>
>> wrote (inter alia)
>> Secondly, human
>>> causal agents are NOT the same as divine agents. This is a very important
>>> distinction. Humans are causal agents that we can directly observe and
>>> study. Other organisms are also similar agents (we can study the
>>> purposive
>>> behavior of animals and identify their past actions). We cannot study God
>>> through scientific methods.
>> I think this is a very important point to make.  When we infer design
>> of, say a watch, or a piece of architecture, we already know
>> independently that such designers exist - our inference is whether the
>> object of interest was indeed designed by one of these designers that
>> are known about.  However, it seems to me that in ID, one is inferring
>> the existence of the Designer as well as inferring Design, because the
>> "evidence" of design is taken to be evidence of the existence of the
>> designer.  But we don't need that final step with a watchmaker, or an
>> architect - we had independent evidence before.  Keith mentions the
>> "argument from ignorance", which often folks take exception to.  But
>> it goes like this:  "I don't believe nature can do this unaided, so it
>> must be designed".  But in the case of a piece of architecture, one is
>> not in a position of ignorance.  I've seen something like this before,
>> and I met the architect who designed it.  So I think it's a fair bet
>> that he or another architect designed this one.
>> Furthermore, God is unconstrained and can
>>> accomplish any logically possible end. As I have argued on other threads
>>> in
>>> this forum, to be meaningful as a causal agent in science, the
>>> capabilites
>>> of an agent must be constrained. Otherwise an appeal to such an agent is
>>> identical to an appeal to ignorance.
>> This and the point above succinctly summarise my own problems with
>> Intelligent Design.  If one just says "it must have been Designed"
>> then there is no constraint on the capabilities of the Designer.  To
>> use an example from maths that I have used before.  Suppose I have N
>> observations X at N different times T.  Then mathematically I can
>> always construct a polynomial function that exactly predicts the value
>> of X for each of the N times T.  All I need to do is fit a degree N-1
>> polynomial function   (a0+a1.t + a2.t^2 + .... a(N-1)t^(N-1)).  But to
>> do this says absolutely nothing interesting about my data because it
>> can be done for ANY set of N points.  However, if I say that the set
>> of N data points is accurately modelled by a quadratic (ie degree 2)
>> polynomial, then I have said something of value, because not all
>> datasets can be modelled in this way.
>> Although, as Cameron has pointed out "design" and "miracle" are not
>> the same thing, they nonetheless have one important feature in common.
>> They can both be invoked to explain absolutely anything.  Hence they
>> explain nothing; just like my unspecified order polynomial explains
>> nothing.
>> Iain
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Received on Tue Nov 10 14:55:17 2009

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