Friday, January 01, 2016

Intelligent Design: A Case Study in Cherry Picking

Intelligent Design (ID) theory proposes that her complex workings make nature look so much like an artifact that we should take her to be one, one that, according to ID discourse, was willed into being by a pre-existing creative intelligence. This is in distinction to the prevailing explanation of nature offered by science.

Problem is, the putative intelligence responsible for nature is, alas, a stunningly peculiar species of intelligence. According to the IDers, it is unlike any intelligence anyone ever has encountered anywhere outside of theology (or science fiction).  IDers propose a brainless intelligence and an omniscient one at that. 

Somehow, despite all inductive evidence to the contrary, there exists, they argue, an intelligence that requires no brain, nor even solid-state circuitry, for it to attend its business. Nature’s intelligent designer doesn’t need a body of any sort at all. The designer belongs to a unique class of intelligences, of which it is the sole member.

This odd construct, a disembodied supermind, derives from a faulty analogy. IDers observing human invention, notice that nature in suggestive ways looks and acts like a high-tech machine. They reason that since explaining machinery requires reference to an intelligent designer (or several), then so must explaining nature. This line of analogical thinking constitutes a case study in the disreputable practice known as cherry picking.

Accounting for human inventions requires that we refer to intelligence, yes, but the account also must entail brains, eyes, ears, hands, language, note taking, experimental methodologies, use of tools, and so forth. Intelligence per se is not going to accomplish anything. Manufacturing impressive technologies requires more than thoughts, more than ideas, no matter how insightful or inventive they might be.  It requires more than intelligent design.

From among the many various requirements needed to produce complex technologies, IDers pluck the cherry of intelligence from the milieu that normally accompanies the design and manufacturing of artifacts and plops it into a context in which, otherwise, we never find it, namely in a discarnate immortal entity that produces physical phenomena simply by willing them to occur. Nothing in human experience supports the idea that intelligence might operate in such a manner. It would be a uniquely special case.

Nonetheless, despite its logical shortcomings, the ID position possesses merit, because it begs a question that the star larvae hypothesis is eager to see answered. If it’s kosher to declare that intelligence can exist without a brain, then maybe there’s no real objection to the proposal that a complicated physical structure or process can exist without a designer/creator. The begged question is thus: If an intelligent creator can be invoked by fiat, then why cannot a physical universe as readily be invoked by fiat, obviating the extra step? If we can declare special cases, then we don’t need a designer to explain nature. Nature herself can step in as the special case.

Human innovators study nature’s ways and, applying what they gather from their observations and experiments, craft technologies that embody specified complexity, thereby simulating nature. Unlike human technologies, however, nature need not require any pre-existing intelligence, omnipotent, omniscient, or otherwise. It can assert itself as ontological bedrock. The intelligent design argument ingeniously shoots itself in the foot.