Re: What's *Really* Different Between Design and Evolution

From: Chris Cogan (
Date: Sat Jan 29 2000 - 22:47:41 EST

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    > I really liked this essay. I suppose it is because it so nicely reflects
    > the way I approach this issue. However, you might want to consider
    > that you are playing with fire. You wrote:

    > "Of course, there is a certain weakness in this proposal. Design theorists
    > are very careful *not* to have a theory. That is, they are very careful
    > *not* to specify a design theory that their alleged designer uses, *not*
    > specify *what* he is supposedly designing things for, and so on. Thus, we
    > cannot *deduce* from design theory that the designer will *not* design
    > organisms in such a way that they will appear to have *just* the type of
    > apparent design errors that would be predicted by evolution. Because the
    > designer is a perfectly arbitrary construct, designer theory makes no
    > predictions at all as to empirical facts."

    > But what if this situation changes? For some time now, I have been
    > making mental and literal notes. I am increasingly convinced that
    > I can indeed deliver on such a specified theory. Furthermore, I can
    > deliver on this:
    > "Put another way: If you find something that looks like it was designed by
    > intelligent designer, and yet it has fairly obvious and intractable
    > errors," you are almost certainly looking at something that *evolved*, not
    > something that was designed by a very knowledgeable designer. On the other
    > hand, if you find something that looks like it was designed and which,
    > being *just* as complex (if not more complex) than the evolved object, is
    > nevertheless apparently *free* of any design errors of any sort (e.g., the
    > vas deferens goes directly to the prostate), then you very likely *are*
    > looking at something that was in fact designed. Look for foresight in the
    > "design" of things. If you don't see it, even after a close look, then it
    > was either evolved or designed by a designer who did not really know what
    > was doing. If you *do* see foresight, freedom from "design errors,"
    > and through, then you probably *are* looking at design."

    How can you "deliver" on it? Foresight involves looking at the *future*.
    But, evolutionary features of organisms only occur, apparently, *after* they
    are needed *or* as serendipitous or adventitious new uses of features that
    originally evolved in some other capacity. Providing evidence for foresight
    would require that there be significant features that are "designed"
    correctly even though apparent evolutionary history says that they should be
    designed in some other, now-incorrect, way. It would also require the
    *consistent* avoidance of the kinds of "design errors" I describe, *even* in
    the cases of what evolutionists would regard as very smooth and gradual
    evolutionary progressions not involving any changes in the "direction" of
    evolutionary pressure (even from within the organism, as it becomes larger
    or whatever).

    > Furthermore, I can deliver on this:
    > "We should expect that on those very rare occasions when we found
    > something that appeared to be a design error, closer examination would
    > show that it makes perfect *design* sense after all."

    Really? Most professional biologists would disagree with you. There is no
    *current* biological sense for the overly-complex structure of the human
    wrist, nor for the circuitous route of the human vas deferens, nor for
    dozens of other "features" of the human body.
    > And, yes, I can take it much further than all of this.
    > Perhaps I will one day share some of these thoughts with this list.
    > But right now, I'm concerned about the sincerity of your
    > post. I'm not saying you are being intentionally insincere, only
    > that you might feel so emboldened by the notion that a
    > design theorist could not meet these tests that you thus
    > propose them as an offer to listen to what they have to say.

    I still do not believe that a design theorist can meet these tests, but, I'm
    willing to wait and see.

    > Since I have been thinking along these lines for some time,
    > let me simply say that addressing the issues contained
    > within your post clearly shows that design can be a fruitful
    > guide to research. After all, closer examination of an
    > apparent design error is doing science.

    This is true. Closer examination of the route of the human vas deferens
    indicates that it *is* that way because of pure accidents of evolutionary
    history, *not* because it has any hidden design value *now*. Closer
    examination of the wrist indicates a similar origin. These kinds of things
    make sense as the result of blind biological evolution, but not as
    *intelligent* design (without some very strange and also unfounded

    In other words, asking ourselves, "What would an intelligent designer do in
    this case?" and then comparing that with what actually has occurred is
    science, but I don't see how it really makes much difference, since all we
    are really asking is, "What explains the way this is?" This is something we
    can do perfectly well without the designer premise, and I don't think it's a
    deeper question. Indeed, it is *less* deep than the general question of what
    explains something.

    Remember, I said that a distinguishing feature of some cases of pure
    *non-*design is that it *completely* lacks foresight. Unfortunately, the
    *lack* of evidence of a *lack* of foresight is not the same as evidence of
    foresight *except* in the kinds of cases I indicated, because non-design
    processes do not *necessarily* include evidence of non-design. If a breeze
    turns over a leaf on the ground, it may appear no different in its new state
    from how it would appear if *I* had turned it over. There is no evidence of
    non-design *or* design in such cases. A lack of evidence of a lack of design
    is not a logical double negative; it is not evidence of design.

    > It also means
    > design theory has the potential to uncover evidence that
    > supports design (evidence of "foresight," as you describe).
    > If you want ID to meet the challenge of your thoughts,
    > doesn't this mean we should let it into science?

    Yes; we already do, in psychology and sociology for example, because we are
    dealing with organisms that do things by design (human beings). But that
    kind of use of "design" in science is hardly what you seem to want. At
    least, it is not equivalent to what Stephen Jones and Phillip Johnson and
    the other theistic ID theory types are trying to argue for. It lacks the
    Platonistic metaphysical quality that they (and, seemingly, you) want to
    link with the concept of design.

    I see further problems: There is no *positive* empirical sign for foresight;
    there are only negative signs for *lack* of foresight, except in special
    cases. They are cases where we would *expect* the lack of foresight to
    produce certain results characteristic of poor design, but instead, despite
    the conditions for poor design (assuming no foresight at all), we find
    eminently-well-designed results with no sign of having been *evolved* from
    some other design (for example, if an organism with a badly-routed vas
    deferens starts developing a tendency to a *well-* routed one, that does not
    count as evidence of good design, but only of evolution belatedly finding a
    genetically-reachable way to re-route the vas deferens). That is, there must
    not only be no evidence of precursors to the design, but evidence *against*
    the precursors. We don't see this in evolution. We see *strong* evidence
    (though not absolute proof) that every complex form of life there is today
    came from less-complex forms in the past. This pretty much rules out this
    approach to validating design.

    What would do it would be if a *new* form of life were to appear that
    clearly had no ancestors, and that was *ideally* "designed."

    The problem with the whole intelligent design theory is that it depends on a
    false idea of the nature of design and how we detect it. In the hands of the
    usual ID theorist, ID is a kind of Platonic "essence" that we magically and
    mysteriously detect somehow. But, in reality, detecting design is a complex
    and *very* contextual process. How would we tell that Paley's watch was in
    fact designed if we came across it on ground? Not by virtue of *anything* we
    can "just see," but by virtue of our *prior* knowledge that such things are
    of the sort that we humans make, and that it *isn't* the sort of thing we
    find in Nature. If we did not have such prior knowledge, a watch and a rock
    would be equally design or not design to us, because we would have no
    knowledge of physics and human manufacture to apply to them to enable us to
    make the distinction.

    Further, there is the fact that we know that the watch is designed partly
    precisely because it does *not* have the *non-*designed look of biological
    organisms and such. It's parts are put together differently. It has screws
    and such holding it together. Living organisms do *not* have such "design"
    features. Paley's argument, and modern design theory arguments depend on the
    ability to distinguish design *from* Nature, but then they try to weasel out
    of that distinction by claiming that Nature, too, has design features, which
    it does not. There are *no* unique characteristics of design, and there are,
    especially, no unique characteristics of design that are shared with things
    in nature. None whatever. Or, at least, I have never seen one, and I
    challenge anyone to produce such a characteristic.

    As I said, even apparent design *perfection* is not proof of design,
    *except* in very special cases determined by context. And, while it is true
    that even very *bad* "design" is not *proof* that there was no design
    involved, it *is* true that such bad design typically makes sense
    evolutionarily and is only *barely* defensible as not truly disproving
    > So here's the concern. Say I deliver on all of this. What's
    > to keep you from slipping back into the safety of your
    > a priori justification for the exclusion of ID, something
    > you call the Principle of Naturalistic Sufficiency?

    Maybe nothing. It would depend on what in fact you "delivered." If I could
    easily proffer a naturalistic alternative, then, *yes,* I'd bring up the
    Principle of Naturalistic Sufficiency. Actually, I'd bring it up *anyway,*
    because the question is not whether there could be non-naturalistic design
    or not, but whether there could be *design* or not. Obviously, if there is
    design, there is the *separate* question of whether it is of
    non-naturalistic origin or not, a separate question requiring, in the usual
    case, *additional* and *special* evidence to justify the claim of a
    *non-naturalistic* designer. So, unless you delivered such a resounding case
    that not even *non-*naturalistic design could handle it, I'd definitely
    argue that you had not carried the burden of proof for *that* kind of
    designer, but only for a designer as such.

    > You seem to want to have it both ways. But you'll need
    > to decide. Is this origin question about philosophy and
    > the simplest metaphysical explanation? If so, then
    > you just wasted all kinds of time with this article of
    > yours, as design theorists who find

    Yes and no. They are distinct issues. We can have design *and* naturalism.
    Evidence of design is not automatically evidence of non-naturalistic design.
    In fact, I'm not sure it could ever be evidence of non-naturalistic design.

    > >If you *do* see foresight, freedom from "design errors,"
    > >through and through, then you probably *are* looking
    > >at design
    > are also going to find that the goal-posts will be moved
    > into the realm of naturalistic sufficiency upon such discovery.

    They've been there all along. I never said that such evidence (if found and
    validated) would show non-naturalistic design. You brought that into it
    yourself. I don't happen to see any evidence for design at all in nature,
    but, if some were to be found, why assume that it would support a
    *non-naturalistic* designer?

    > Is the origin question about evidence? If so, then we
    > should drop all these attempts to find a starting position
    > that imposes a filter on the world so that no interpretation
    > of intelligent design is allowed.

    The concept of design is *not* a metaphysical concept. That's Platonistic
    silliness. Design and non-naturalism are distinct issues. If you could have
    evidence for a non-naturalistic designer, fine. So be it, if any is found.
    But, in my view, we will find only evidence for *naturalistic* design if we
    find any evidence for design at all. I cannot even *imagine* what would
    constitute empirical evidence for a non-natural designer as opposed merely
    to a naturalistic one. If I could suppose a naturalistic designer, wouldn't
    I need *additional* evidence for a *non-natural* one? What would *that*
    evidence be? How would it *differ* from evidence for a merely naturalistic

    Further, I never proposed an *intelligence* filter when I identified the
    Principle of Naturalistic Sufficiency. I merely said that any
    non-naturalistic explanation for any known facts could be "naturalized." I
    did not say that it could necessarily be deprived of intelligence (at least
    at some level in the explanatory sequence).

    As I said once before, if someone found the first ten-million digits of pi
    blatantly encoded in a piece of the "junk" DNA in the human genome, I'd
    believe in design (at least for that piece of DNA). But that would not
    settle the issue of *who* the designer(s) might be, and it certainly would
    not prove that they/it were non-naturalistic.

    > You're playing a dangerous game, Chris. And I'm up to
    > it. But before we play, are you willing to burn that
    > bridge back to naturalistic sufficiency?

    I see now why you said I was playing with fire, because you think I crossed
    a bridge leading *away* from naturalistic sufficiency. In fact, though, both
    the considerations that I raised in the post to which you are responding
    *and* the considerations you and I have raised here seem to *enhance* the
    stance of the Principle of Naturalistic Sufficiency. Design is not Platonic,
    after all. There is no "magic bullet" to prove design. There is only large
    amounts of contextual information of a sort gathered by large amounts of
    *empirical* observation and investigation, and knowledge of *designers* and
    how they work (i.e., *ourselves*). The best we can do is prove that design
    is *unlikely* because of a *lack* of an intelligible design *premise* for
    some feature (such as the wandering vas deferens), combined with the
    evolutionary history that *does* make such features make sense (just as the
    arrangement of some streets in some cities makes no design sense, but they
    *do* make sense when it is understood that they originated because of the
    needs and behavior of people living in the area a hundred years ago, when
    there *was* no city there).

    That is, aside from some special cases, there is no globally or
    "philosophically" *positive* but only *neutral* or *negative* evidence with
    respect to design. That is, sometimes you can show the lack of design (if we
    assume certain design premises would be followed *if* there were design).

    Thus, I don't think I'm playing with fire at all (though, if that were
    indeed the case, and I could find no flaws in my reasoning, I'd be stuck
    with the results). Proof of design is not proof of any particular
    *metaphysical* status of the designer, though, so it seems pretty
    "flameless" to me.

    I'd say I'm willing to burn the bridge, but I don't think there's one to
    burn. I don't think there's anything to make a bridge *to*; I don't think
    there *is* anything non-naturalistic, design or no. I certainly don't think
    there's any way to provide *evidence* for a non-natural realm.

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