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.