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

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu Nov 12 2009 - 21:15:26 EST


I thank you for responding to my example and discussion in the spirit in
which it was intended, and for not employing evasions and sophistries in
your answer. (I don't mean that anyone else so far has done the latter, but
the night is young and I'm expecting such tactics yet, based on past

I will put comments after each of your paragraphs.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Jon Tandy" <>
To: "'asa'" <>
Sent: Thursday, November 12, 2009 7:02 PM
Subject: RE: Of Martian Sculptures (was: Re: [asa] on science and

> Cameron,
> I think the space probe argument seems to me pretty good, on first
> reading.
> I have no particular objections to identifying or claiming evidence of a
> designer in nature, if such evidence is sound. In fact I would prefer it
> to
> some of the standard TE arguments.

I'm glad to hear of your open-mindedness on this question.

> However, I'm trying to examine your argument from the other side to
> understand what "particular" or general objections could and will be made
> against it.
> 1. A space probe, made presumably of metal and wire etc., is made of
> inanimate objects. We have a pretty good idea of the sorts of properties
> that exist in inanimate objects, and what nature and natural forces can
> make
> of them. We would consider it a vanishingly low probability that nature
> would construct a thing of sheets of metal, buttons, electronics, etc.,
> that
> appears to have definite and specific purpose, such as a space probe would
> have. Thus the overt design inference would be very strong.


> 2. Living matter, on the other hand, has certain characteristics that
> differ
> significantly from inorganic matter. DNA replicates, *as far as we can
> tell
> scientifically*, on its own, according to regular activity of enzymes,
> proteins, and a lot of other things that I couldn't begin to describe
> accurately. Transcription errors occur on their own, *as far as we can
> detect scientifically*, causing mutations both good and bad. Good
> mutations
> on a genetic level, and drift of population characteristics on a macro
> level, occur and are observed in nature, *as far as we know* without a
> divine hand tweaking every gene or finch beak. Would you agree that the
> character of living things is significantly different from non-living?


> 3. If we were to postulate, in response to the previous paragraph, that it
> is indeed God behind every lengthened finch beak, mutation, and the decay
> of
> every radioactive atom, we could indeed postulate a God who acts on this
> level. We may not comprehend how God does it, but the doctrine of
> Providence could in general provide a justification for such belief.
> However, that is a far cry from saying that we can actually prove or
> detect
> *scientifically* that God is pulling the strings, as opposed to the "gene
> fairy", or nature itself. It is a matter of faith that would postulate
> that
> God acts in such ways, whether in extraordinary circumstances or in every
> cause and effect reaction in the universe. We *might* be able to make
> such
> proof, but I think the difficulty is postulating a set of conditions that
> would absolutely prove God's existence, as opposed to natural forces
> acting
> within their prescribed characteristics.

I agree that it is likely impossible to prove divine involvement at the
level of specific radioactive emissions and specific mutations. Fortunately
for ID, none of its theorists have ever made any such claim. However, note
that it does not follow that a pattern of mutations tending in a certain
clear direction would not be evidence of design.

> 4. Such a response as in the previous paragraph definitely begs the
> of how life arose in the first place, why it has been so extraordinarily
> successful, and how it came to have such robust properties. But these are
> two different arguments.

Agreed, and here Stephen Meyer's new book is relevant. At no point in that
book does he attack "evolution" as such. At no point does he say that it is
impossible for the DNA-protein mechanism, once existing, to generate
evolutionary change. He recognizes that the plausibility of
macroevolutionary change is a separate question, requiring a separate
investigation, from the question of how life came to be and where it got its
robust properties.

> One argument is why does life exist and why does
> it have such properties; the other is, looking at organic life at any
> stage
> of its development, can we infer that this particular structure is the
> result of "nature acting naturally" versus "nature acting under the hand
> of
> a Designer". I think both arguments have merit to discuss (existence of
> matter and fine-tuned properties of nature, vs. specific examples of
> complexity in nature), but I'm not as sure of the sustainability of the
> latter arguments in light of the success of scientific research.

I'm not asking anyone to be sure of the sustainability of ID arguments; I'm
just asking people not to rule them out of court by methodological
sleight-of-hand, as several people here regularly do.

> 5. The normal argument of "front-loading" should be applied to the space
> probe: could God have designed the forces of nature so that they would
> eventually produce a random space probe, which we here on earth would
> happen
> to intercept, but which was merely the result of otherwise blind, natural
> forces? I think even the most ardent front-loading advocates would have
> to
> say that it could be possible, but of vanishingly small probability,
> knowing
> what we know about inorganic matter.

I agree.

> However, I would reiterate that the
> argument against front-loading in this case does not necessarily apply in
> the same way to organic life. It seems (based on what I know so far) that
> God could have made the first life (in some way, not specified here), so
> that it would perpetuate, grow, multiply, diverge into multiple branches;
> and that this property is fundamentally different from the capabilities
> inherent in inorganic matter.

I agree that this is possible. I don't think we are anywhere near
understanding how it might work out in detail, but I agree that it is
possible. I've already indicated that I am open-minded to the conclusions
of Michael Denton on this subject. And of Mike Gene, as far as I understand
his position, though I haven't read his book yet.

> At some times you are willing to accept a "front-loading God" postulate as
> acceptable from TEs, but then you seem to want more of an acknowledgement
> from them that God is more intimately involved with specific outcomes in
> biology.

Very few TEs, at least on this list, have shown much interest in
front-loading, other than Mike Gene, who probably coined the term, and Denis
Lamoureux, who popped in for a while a few weeks ago, and then exited again.
Most TEs here seem to have opted either for the "subtle intervention through
quantum indeterminacy" route, or the "God never intervenes in evolution +
Darwinian and stochastic processes are the drivers of macroevolutionary
change + stochastic mechanisms are not in contradiction with the mysterious
providence of God as understood by Calvinism and the Westminster Confession"

As for me, I *haven't* asked for an acknowledgement from anyone here that
God is "intimately involved" with specific outcomes. I *have* been trying
to find out why so many people here so strongly resist the idea that nature
itself -- not just private faith -- points to the conclusion of design.

Certainly design is compatible with "intimate involvement" -- if by that you
mean on-the-spot-at-the-point-of-mutation involvement -- but it is also
compatible with a Deistic God who never touches nature after the Big Bang.
I've not set up an either/or choice of "miraculous intervention" versus
"natural causes"; I've put the alternatives as "intelligent design" (with or
without intervention) and "unguided natural causes". I've said that in my
view (as in Polkinghorne's, apparently) nature "tilts" in the direction of
"intelligent design" more than in the direction of "unguided natural
causes". The tilt (as I said to Ted the other day) isn't so pronounced as
to be absolutely compelling, but it's real. So it's not a sheer, blind leap
of Biblically-motivated faith that leads one to belief in a designing God;
nature and reason point that way, too.

> 6. The space probe argument could be constructed slightly differently. It
> is still a space probe, but we may not be certain about its particular
> design (is it really a space probe, or a just highly organized collection
> of
> rock and elements?), or its purpose (it's not certain what function it has
> or once had; just like the face on Mars, upon closer examination it may
> turn
> out to be a natural structure; if there was an original intent behind it,
> it's not clear from observing it; etc.) What if we find more than one
> space-probe-like structure in our investigation of the heavens, which
> exhibit varying degrees of complexity, but we have less than conclusive
> evidence that there was an intentional sequence of intermediate designs
> leading up to the most complex?

> 7. I think the above modifications to the original space probe argument
> weaken its otherwise clear conclusion. If we can't clearly identify an
> intentional design or a clear-cut purpose in the structure, and if we
> *can*
> identify certain natural forces that could have produced it, can we infer
> that there was an intelligent designer at work?

Under the modified circumstances you've provided, I agree that the design
inference would be much less certain, and the degree of uncertainty would be
proportional to the plausibility that the "certain natural forces" that you
speak of "could have produced it". But keep in mind the *purpose* of the
space probe example, and the Martian sculpture example. I never suggested
that *all* cases that confront us would be as clear-cut as these examples.
I picked clear-cut examples to show that *in certain cases* we don't need to
have proof that the designer exists before inferring design. (In fact, the
reverse is the case in these examples: the design inference is what leads
us to know that the alien designers exist.) My point with the examples is
then to show that the "requirement" several people here have set forth for
design inferences, i.e., that we must have antecedent knowledge that a
designer of a certain sort exists -- is a bogus requirement. We don't have
to have such knowledge -- at least not in all cases. So it's not clear to
me why we must have such knowledge in the case of, say, the first cell, any
more than in the case of the space probe. (I am not saying that the
argument to design in the case of the first cell is certain; I'm saying I
don't see why antecedent proof of the existence of God is required before
the argument to design could be sound.) And what I've just said about the
existence of the designer applies to the chararacteristics and motives of
the designer. We don't need to know these things, at least in some cases.
So it can't be a "rule of design inferences" that such knowledge is
required. I think the TEs here who are saying this are simply wrong. I
think they are trying to evade dealing with individual design inferences by
invoking some sort of general principle which allows them to discount all
design arguments in advance of hearing them.

> I'll leave it to you to
> apply this to the case of organic structures - what if genetic
> transcription
> errors don't seem to serve a particular purpose? What if we discover
> certain amazing, ordered structures (such as the flagellum) of varying
> degrees and levels of complexity across various proteins and species of
> bacteria? Does that indicate the Designer was trying out new models, or
> that the natural forces have been successful in diversifying *on their
> own,
> as far as we can detect scientifically*?

I've never denied that pure neo-Darwinian evolution (throw in other
mechanisms of a non-Darwinian kind if you wish) was a *logically possible*
explanation for macroevolutionary change. Rather, I've raised the question
whether, given what we know from observation and experiment (e.g., what we
know of finch beaks and antibiotic resistance) whether such mechanisms "have
what it takes" to get the job done. No one here has convinced me that this
is the case. All I get is arguments like: (1) You don't know enough
biology; (2) There are thousands of peer-reviewed articles [never specified]
that have demonstrated this; (3) Non-specialists should defer to the
consensus of the self-appointed experts, even when the arguments of the
self-appointed experts appear self-contradictory, improbable, or weak; (4)
Give us more time; we've only just begun to understand enough biology to
really tackle the detailed mechanisms [which raises the question why
neo-Darwinians were so cocky during the 60 years *before* they acquired this
necessary recent understanding]; (5) God always works through natural
causes, so it must be true. I don't find such arguments persuasive.

Also, keep in mind that I've never denied that there is *some* contingency
in evolutionary processes. I see both design and contingency in evolution.
And some TEs here might agree with me, but they would say that the design is
a "metaphysical" or "religious" interpretation, whereas the contingency is a
"scientific" fact, as proved by fused chromosomes and junk DNA and useless
organs and so on. I think differently; I think that *both* the design *and*
the contingency are scientifically establishable truths about nature, though
I think that neither one of them is a "fact". I think that both are
inferred, but reasonably inferred, from the evidence of nature.

> I do agree with you that materialists get too much of a pass, in being
> allowed to claim that "nature" can do everything they claim it can,
> without
> having detailed knowledge of how it is/was done. They are relying on
> science to "fill the gaps", instead of relying on a "God of the gaps"
> argument. It's "science of the gaps".


> But isn't that the way science
> proceeds? It identifies what is known, what is not known, and then seeks
> evidence for how to close those gaps with empirical evidence. When
> science
> shrinks the known gaps in knowledge, it is good for science. When a "God
> of
> the gaps" gets squeezed into smaller and smaller gaps, it is a bad thing
> for
> theology.

I would agree, if ID, when properly argued, were simply "God of the gaps".
But it isn't. The complex, interlocking systems of organic beings
constitute (at least tentatively, for as long as they can't be "explained
away" by chance-and-necessity mechanisms) positive evidence for design.
There's no reason why "non-design" should be the default choice, which
"design" has to plead against. Where the evidence is strong for design,
"non-design" should be regarded as in the pleader's position. Our
"evolutionary science" has a built-in bias in favour of "non-design" which
in my view is unjustifiable.

Also, I've argued in many posts here that the alleged "gaps" don't exist,
because in order to have gaps, you have to have a structure in which the
gaps are located, and the structure in which there supposedly are only a few
"gaps" left to close does not exist. In fact, macroevolutionary explanation
at this point is almost all gap, and no solid structure. I still don't know
how an eye, a lung, a brain, a flagellum, a bat's sonar, underwater
lactation and feeding, etc. evolved, and when I ask the Ph.D.s in biology,
they respond with silence or purely qualitative stories. When they can
explain the evolutionary origin of every organ in the body except the eye,
then it would be appropriate for them to call a design inference regarding
the eye a "God of the gaps" argument. But right now, they're still having
trouble explaining the toenails.

> If more materialists, like Denton, would be more tentative about their
> knowledge of nature and thus their atheistic interpretation of nature,
> perhaps it would lead creationists (including ID) to be more tentative
> about
> their interpretation of scripture and nature. But I suspect the opposite
> would be true - more perceived weakness in scientists would be taken
> advantageously to show that "scientists don't really have evidence to back
> up what they claim, so therefore our arguments should be taken more
> seriously".

I think you meant Dawkins rather than Denton. ID people like Denton, or at
least, they like his critique of neo-Darwinism and his insistence upon
design, and some of them like his front-loaded evolutionary notion as well.

On your last point, I think that is a danger that comes from YEC people, not
people like Behe or Denton or Sternberg. If Dawkins admits that he doesn't
know something, or if Ken Miller grants that our understanding of the
mechanisms is rather shaky, Behe and Denton and Sternberg are not going to
jump up and down, waving their Bibles, saying: "See! We told you so.
Evolution is only a theory! The earth could still have been created in just
six days!" I wish that TE people and atheist Darwinists would just *forget
about* YEC, and meet the substantive arguments of the better ID proponents
with seriousness and intellectual honesty and genuine intellectual
curiosity, and admit that there are some problems with the reigning
paradigm. But they seem to regard the reigning paradigm as a fort which
much be held at all costs.

> Jon Tandy


> -----Original Message-----
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of Cameron Wybrow
> Sent: Thursday, November 12, 2009 2:49 PM
> To: asa
> Subject: Re: Of Martian Sculptures (was: Re: [asa] on science and
> meta-science)
> David:
> I like your example of the travel-worn space probe. It is better than the
> Martian sculptures, because it removes Iain Strachan's objection (that it
> is
> unrealistic that there would be no other sign of a Martian civilization on
> the surface of the planet). In the case of a space probe, the probe
> itself
> would be the sole evidence for the existence of the aliens.
> So let's analyze that example in terms of the usual objection to design
> inferences here. The usual objection here to design inferences regarding
> natural objects is as follows: Whereas in the case of artifacts, one has
> (a) independent knowledge that a possible designer [human beings, beavers,
> bees, etc.] in fact exists or existed, and (b) independent knowledge of
> the
> nature, habits, inclinations, intentions, etc. of the possible designer,
> in
> the case of natural things like cells or body plans, one has no
> independent
> knowledge [by scientific means, that is] (a) that the possible designer,
> i.e., God, exists, or (b) of the motivations, intentions, habits, methods,
> etc. of the possible designer, i.e., God. Thus, the argument concludes,
> design inferences regarding natural objects lack validity.
> But the same objections apply in the case of the travel-worn space probe.
> We have no independent knowledge -- knowledge other than the existence of
> the probe itself -- that any other intelligent life exists in the
> universe,
> so objection (a) above applies. And we have no independent knowledge --
> knowledge other than what can be inferred from the probe itself -- of the
> nature, habits, motivations, inclinations, etc. of the purported
> designers,
> so objection (b) applies.
> In the case of the space probe, our inferences, both of the existence and
> of
> the character of the purported designers, depend *entirely* upon what we
> can
> discover from the probe itself. We have no warrant for inferring anything
> else about the designers. Our certainty that such designers exist, that
> they have certain capacities, etc., springs from a *design inference* that
> *rests entirely upon the very thing whose design status is being debated*.
> So, when the question is asked: "Is this metallic object from outer space
> designed, or only the product of chance and natural laws?", our design
> inference is made in violation of objections (a) and (b) above. Yet we
> would feel certain that our design inference was valid, and rightly so.
> Our
> own practice would show that we do not consider the criteria used to
> reject
> design inferences (given above) to be sufficient criteria for such
> rejection.
> It follows that the TEs on this list should abandon the above-described
> *general* argument which rules out design inferences from natural objects
> to
> a designer of natural objects. There remain available to TEs, of course,
> *particular* objections that *particular* inferences from nature to a
> designer of nature are invalid, or are made on evidence that is too
> skimpy,
> and so on. I carry no brief against such *particular* objections. It is
> the general objection that I reject. In practice, the real-life behaviour
> of everyone on this list negates the objection, which shows that it is not
> a
> principled objection, but an intellectual *deus ex machina* called up to
> rid
> TEs of the hard work of having to deal with particular design inferences,
> one by one.
> Cameron.
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Thu Nov 12 21:17:06 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Thu Nov 12 2009 - 21:17:06 EST