When a designer does not cooperate with design detection

In my book, I make the distinction between epistemological evidence (EE) and ontological evidence (OE).  Put simply, EE is the type of evidence that would be needed to convince a hardcore skeptic, while OE is the type of evidence that would be expected to exist if a hypothesis was true.

It is important to realize that OE need not be EE.  For example, if Smith really did enter Jones’s house and kill him, we might expect to find Smith’s fingerprints in Jones’s house.  Yet if we found them, this expected evidence (OE) might very well be totally insufficient to convince a proponent of Jone’s innocence that he is guilty.

I think this distinction between OE and EE comes into play many times in the debate between teleology vs. non-teleology.  Often times, the evidence we might expect to exist (OE) from a teleological origin of life will not rise to the level of EE, thus the skeptic reasonably retains his skepticism.  But sometimes the difference runs in the other direction, where a search for some form of EE would not be expected to exist from the perspective of looking for OE.

Take the popular focus on looking for complex specified information in the sequences of DNA or proteins.  In The Design Matrix, I offer up the most powerful example of such a state:

Imagine a hypothetical protein built from 100 amino acids that elicits function F. In a rather simplified manner, let us think of proteins as containing information. Say, for example, that in order to elicit F, a specific sequence of all of the 100 amino acids is needed, such that a single mistake, at any place in the sequence, eliminates F. We can think of such a protein as a high-information protein, because in order to elicit F, the amino acid at each of the 100 positions must be specified.

Many ID proponents would consider this as a powerful example of EE, as how could we possibly explain the origin of a such a protein with random mechanisms?

Yet while such an example might pose a serious challenge to the skeptic of design, does the hypothesis of life’s design really lead us to expect the existence of such proteins?  I argue ‘no,’ as such a design would be a bad design:

Consider the high-information proteins. Imagine a cell that is constructed such that every amino acid in every one of its proteins was essential. This is a terrible design. The cell might be a marvel to look at, but it would also be incredibly fragile. A single amino acid substitution, as a consequence of mutation, in any one of the cell’s components would be fatal. Since mutation is inevitable, the cell has been designed such that it cannot propagate over any serious period of time. If every position in every protein is essential for the cell’s survival, then there is no room for adaptation. Every single mutation would be deleterious and selected against. The cell would be like an ice sculpture of a hammer—frozen, fragile, and useless.

So the type of evidence needed to convince a hardcore skeptic might not exist.  And this is because the designer did not design with the intent to convince hardcore skeptics; the designer intended the designs to work well and survive into the future.

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4 responses to “When a designer does not cooperate with design detection

  1. OK, but even in a low-information protein, such as FlgE, where apparently only 10% of the amino acids need to be in the right locations, this still yields a very improbable sequence (1 in 26^20, not including getting them in the right positions, out of 260 possibilities). It may be that there are other amino acid sequences that will yield FlgE, without those 26 amino acids. And then again, maybe not.

  2. This is an interesting argument in light of ultra-conserved DNA sequences. Do ultra-conserved DNA sequences not constitute your exact example of EE which is not OE?

    The thing I find most amazing remains that some of these ultra-conserved DNA sequences (not most), when removed from the organism, produce an apparently fully functional organism. The latter I find to be highly inconsistent with the neo-Darwinian theory.

  3. Nick (Matzke)

    “And this is because the designer did not design with the intent to convince hardcore skeptics; the designer intended the designs to work well and survive into the future.”

    Sound the alarms! Designer-centrism! What makes these random evidence-free presuppositions about the desires and abilities of the hypothetical designer any better than anyone else’s random evidence-free presuppositions about the desires and abilities of the designer?

  4. Hi Nick,

    Making assumptions about the designer is not designer-centrism. Designer-centrism is the insistence that we must possess a fairly solid and independent base of knowledge about the designers. For example, when we infer design in the case of forensics or archeology, we make use of our massive information about humans (the designers). Designer-centrism says we must do likewise for all design inferences – we must draw from our massive independent information about the proposed designers. Without this information, we are helpless.

    What makes these random evidence-free presuppositions about the desires and abilities of the hypothetical designer any better than anyone else’s random evidence-free presuppositions about the desires and abilities of the designer?

    Right now on my desk sits my sunglasses. Were these designed with the intent to ensure that everyone would know the sunglasses were designed and who designed them? Not that I can tell. Were they designed to darken my field of vision and help protect my eyes? Yep.

    Yes, I am making an assumption here, an assumption based on my experience with other designers. And this assumption states that if life was designed, it was not designed to carry some message to identify the designer (Look it me! The Designer!). It was designed to work, to carry out an objective.

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