Design and Science

Jacques Monod shared a Nobel Prize for his work on the lac operon. This work played a crucial role in the development of molecular biology and ultimately led to the birth of evo-devo. In 1971, Monod wrote a classic book entitled, Chance and Necessity. It begins as follows:

The difference between artificial and natural objects seems immediately and unambiguously apparent to all of us. A rock, a mountain, a river, or a cloud – these are natural objects; a knife a handkerchief, a car – so many artificial objects, artifacts. Analyze these judgments, however, and it will be seen that they are neither immediate nor strictly objective. We know that the knife was man-made for a use its maker visualized beforehand. The object renders in material form the preexistent intention that gave birth to it, and its form is accounted for by the performance expected of it even before it takes shape. It is another story altogether with the river or the rock which we know, or believe, to have been molded by the free play of physical forces to which we cannot attribute any design, any project, or purpose. Not, that is, if we accept the basic premise of the scientific method, to wit, that nature is objective and not projective.

Hence it is through reference to our own activity, conscious and projective, intentional and purposive-it is as makers of artifacts-that we judge of a given object’s “naturalness” or “artificialness.” Might there be objective and general standards for defining the characteristics of artificial objects, products of a conscious purposive activity, as against natural objects, resulting from the gratuitous play of physical forces? To make sure of the complete objectivity of the criteria chosen, it would doubtless be best to ask oneself whether, in putting them to use, a program could be drawn up enabling a computer to distinguish an artifact from a natural object.

Such a program could be applied in the most interesting connections. Let us suppose that a spacecraft is soon to be landed upon Venus or Mars; what more fascinating question than to find out whether our neighboring planets are, or at some earlier period have been, inhabited by intelligent beings capable of projective activity? In order to detect such present or past activity we would have to search for and be able to recognize its products, however radically unlike the fruit of human industry they might be. Wholly ignorant of the nature of such beings and of the projects they might have conceived, our program would have to utilize only very general criteria, solely based upon the examined objects’ structure and form and without any reference to their eventual function.

This crucial sentence is this:

Hence it is through reference to our own activity, conscious and projective, intentional and purposive-it is as makers of artifacts-that we judge of a given object’s “naturalness” or “artificialness.”

A reference to our own activity is an appeal to subjective knowledge. And maybe it is simply not possible to make such judgments without accessing this subjective element. After all, recognizing design may indeed be akin to recognizing another mind. For how do we recognize other minds if not by recognizing what they design?

This would explain why science has never come up with an objective method for detecting the existence of design. We cannot truly measure the conscious, projective, intentional and purposive activity of the mind. And since measurement is the foundational aspect of objective knowledge and science, it would mean that science cannot ever truly detect design.

In fact, Monod recognizes this truth:

The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that “true” knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose.” An exact date may be given for the discovery of this canon. The formulation by Galileo and Descartes of the principle of inertia laid the groundwork not only for mechanics, but for the epistemology of modern science, by abolishing Aristotelian physics and cosmology. To be sure, neither reason, nor logic, nor observation, nor even the idea of the systematic confrontation had been ignored by Descartes’ predecessors. But science as we understand it today could not have been developed upon those foundations alone. It required the unbending stricture implicit in the postulate of objectivity – ironclad, pure, forever undemonstrable. For it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end.

But the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science; it has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. There is no way to be rid of it, even tentatively or in a limited area, without departing from the domain of science.

So, instead of assuming it is possible to objectively identify design, let’s propose that reference to our own activity, conscious and projective, intentional and purposive- as makers of artifacts-is necessary.

This is of course is bitter pill for many to swallow. Let’s look at that next.

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