Ways to Approach a Design Inference

I wanted to make one point of clarification in regard to Bilbo’s posting at Telic Thoughts. Bilbo writes:

He labels the first approach “The Traditional Template.” Basically, it tries to prove that ID is true by establishing that a certain thing that looks designed (analogy) is too improbable (discontinuity) to have arisen through non-intelligent processes.

Actually, this is not the Traditional Template. Let me quote my definition from the book:

Due to the ancient nature of this debate, both sides have developed a consensus on the proper way to approach the question of design in nature. This consensus has in turn shaped all present and future debate on this topic. I shall call this consensus the Traditional Template. The template looks like this: proponents of design look for some feature that cannot possibly be explained by natural causes. Then, once such a feature has been proposed, it is argued that only a designer can account for the existence of this feature.

I should note that this perspective/expectation is common on both sides of the debate. Not only is it common to see a design proponent arguing that some feature cannot be explained by evolutionary theory, it is just as common to find a skeptic of design arguing that evidence for design must entail something that evolutionary theory cannot possibly explain.

Those who rely on the Traditional Template are seeking some earth-shattering, sensational evidence, something that will shock people into a design inference. They typically place all their eggs in the basket of discontinuity.

Instead of this one-step process, I suggest people approach this topic incrementally, as a detective sifting through clues and strengthening or weakening hunches. The Design Matrix is thus an effort to spell out this approach, organizing our thoughts, while encouraging continued assessment of our suspicions and hypotheses as we go along.

The coupling of analogy and discontinuity is one step in this direction. This takes us out of the Traditional Template by adding the dimension of positive evidence. But again, the two criteria need to be combined. This approach is essentially the approach that is taken by SETI.

What I then do is take the analogy criterion and split it into three points of focus. This is because SETI, or an analysis of a Face on Mars, does not have to contend with the designer-mimic. Thus, the criteria of Rationality and Foresight come into play because these point to an intelligent, rather than a blind, watchmaker.

So let’s consider the various approaches that are available to us.

1. The designer-centric approach. If we had independent evidence about the putative designers, we could use it and turn a design inference into a scientific explanation. However, since we have no such independent knowledge, science cannot process this proposal. We should also note that the truth of a design inference does not entail that we would find independent evidence of the designer(s), thus the lack of such evidence is not meaningful. The designer-centric approach thus terminates in agnosticism.

2. The traditional template approach. Without independent evidence of the putative designers, we can search for (or demand) something that is not explainable by non-teleological processes (discontinuity). This approach amounts to proving a negative and easily slips into a god-of-the-gaps argument.

3. The SETI approach. Without independent evidence of the putative designers, we can look for features that do not fit or work against a non-teleological explanation (discontinuity) coupled to features that fit or work for a teleological explanation (analogy). This approach should not ignore or underestimate the power of random variation and natural selection to behave as a designer-mimic.

4. The DM approach. Without independent evidence of the putative designers, we employ, and combine, four criteria – discontinuity, analogy, rationality, and foresight, to score whether or not a feature better fits a teleological or non-teleological cause. The problem with this approach is that is becomes increasingly subjective (compared to 2 and 3). Then again, it is not clear we can escape the subjective realm outside of the designer-centric approach and it would also mean that the arguments against design are all subjective.

The choice is simple. Either adopt a position of agnosticism about design (there is no evidence for or against design) or enter into the subjective realm. The DM recognizes we are in the subjective realm, yet provides guidance for reasoned exploration.

3 responses to “Ways to Approach a Design Inference

  1. I guess I would have to sort of try to defend Behe. He admits that it is possible for IC systems to evolve, but just thinks that it is extremely improbable — to the point of being implausible. And he concludes that design is a reasonable explanation by way of analogy: The IC systems appear to be the result of the purposeful arrangement of parts.

    So Behe, at least, would seem to fall under the SETI category. Or at least sometimes. I think he occasionally lapses into the Traditional Template category, talking about how something couldn’t possibly have evolved. I guess when he does that, we could say he’s “backslidden.”

  2. Perhaps we should put Dembski in the Traditional Template category. Or at least his…oh my, it’s been so long I forgot what he called it. His…EF? Eliminative…something. You know, the one where there are three categories: Chance, Necessity, and Design. Eliminate the first two, and then it must be Design.

  3. Eliminative Filter? I think that was it. But even here, I think Dembski included the concept of specified phenomena, which would sort of fall under the category of Analogy.

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