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Detecting design

Judging explanations

A practical example: vestigiality vs design

Just what is intelligent design?


In Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes, we will encounter some intriguing features of living organisms. But before that, there are a few theoretical considerations to, well, consider. We need to work out what we might reasonably expect of a Creator-Designer. Claims are made... how are we to judge them?

Judging explanations

How do we know that an explanation is a reasonable one? That is, of course, a huge area in philosophy. But in relation to 'intelligent design', the theoretical psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey can offer some guidance.

Humphrey's 1995 book Soul Searching (Leaps of Faith in the US) is about the paranormal, and chapter 12, Designed Too Far, offers a way of examining the explanations offered for a paranormal phenomenon. It is therefore a means to judge the paranormal in the shape of supernatural creation of life by a god or other intelligent designer.

The clue to whether we are dealing with the paranormal or the normal might lie, I am suggesting, not so much with what the soul [read: creator] does achieve as with what it does not achieve. We ought to examine the [creator]'s preferred style of working and the peculiar patterns it slips into. We ought to look for evidence of unanticipated lacunae and silences, the sound of dogs that do not bark. If the [creator] does not exist perhaps we shall know it by the restrictions on its works.

[...] The criterion I suggest we employ is one that, echoing the famous 'Argument from Design', I have elsewhere called the 'Argument from Lack of Design'. But this name was not quite right for it. I would have done better to have called it, as I shall do now, the 'Argument from Too Much Design of the Wrong Sort', or maybe the 'Argument from Unwarranted Design'.

Essentially it goes like this. If a phenomenon [eg the structure of living things] shows signs of being unduly restricted in its form and manner of occurrence, so that our theory of its underlying cause provides us with no principled reason why it should take just the peculiar form it does, then we should suspect that the true cause of the phenomenon lies elsewhere. That is, if the theory cannot tell us either 'why this in particular' or 'why not that in general', we should take it that there is an alternative theory to be found which -- if we were to know it -- would tell us why.

The rationale for this argument is, I think, intuitively obvious. But let me illustrate it with several relatively straightforward examples.

Suppose you have a theory that the underlying reason someone sends you chocolates is that he loves you. In practice, however, all he does is send you three After Eights on the second Thursday of the month, and he fails to come through in the other ways you might expect. Then, whatever this is, it is surely not what you would expect of 'love' -- and there is no way of redefining 'love' that could meet the case.

Suppose you have a theory that the reason a parrot talks to you in English every time you pass its cage is that it has mastered the English language. But in practice the only two things it ever says are 'Who's a pretty boy then' and 'Strike a light!'. Whatever this is, it is not what you would expect of 'English comprehension', and there is no way of redefining 'English comprehension' that could meet the case.

And, of course... Suppose you have a theory that the reason living things are often so elegantly and intricately put together is that they were designed by a highly intelligent creator. But in practice, though many things are indeed elegantly and intricately put together, there might be many other things that are poorly, wastefully and unnecessarily complicatedly put together, and others where the design is pointless.

If such examples were to be found, then, whatever this is, it is not what you would expect of 'intelligent design', and there is no way of redefining 'intelligent design' that could meet the case.

Humphrey continues with a real-life example, that of 'Clever Hans', the amazing turn-of-the-(20th!)-century horse. Hans could apparently solve arithmetical problems, and would respond to questions put to him by tapping out the answer with his hoof.

But his performance had some remarkable peculiarities. He could only get the answer right when his owner or other audience members knew the answer themselves, and he did best of all when his owner was wearing a particular hat. As Humphrey observes, "Calculation is simply not a fitting explanatory concept to do justice to the specificity of the observed phenomena. Calculation has nothing to do with hats."

On these grounds alone, therefore, you could -- and ought to -- reject the calculation theory without more ado. But note that in rejecting it you would not be relying on the Humean argument that for a horse to be able to calculate would be too improbable. Even though it is clearly highly improbable -- indeed, it might mean acknowledging that Hans was the one and only calculating horse the world has ever seen -- it might still be true in fact. However, for a horse or anyone else to have this kind of calculating ability would not only be improbable but conceptually absurd. What deals the knock-out blow is not so much factual probability as theoretical propriety.

Similarly, for a creator or vastly intelligent designer to produce wantonly stupid designs would be conceptually absurd. If such designs were to be found, what would deal the knock-out blow is not so much factual probability as theoretical propriety.

It is important to recognise that this Argument from Unwarranted Design would give us a good enough reason for rejecting the calculation theory even if we could not come up with any more plausible alternative. No one could argue that it would be better to retain such an inappropriate theory than to have no theory at all. And the same goes for the other illustrative examples above.

With all these examples there are, as it happens, more or less likely alternative theories which, unlike the theory first considered, could take the observed limitations in their stride. [...] But the point is that we do not need to have any clear idea of what is the right explanation in order to recognise what is the wrong one. We can be sure it is not love, not language, [not intelligent design], even if we do not have a clue what it really is. [note]

This has, as we shall see, great relevance to assessing the status of phenomena that are supposedly paranormal. Again and again the argument is put forward by believers that a phenomenon must be paranormal if and when neither they nor anyone else can think of any normal explanation for it. It would be a weak argument at best. But it would collapse completely if the paranormal explanation itself should turn out to be quite unable to do justice to the facts.

Just what is 'intelligent design'?

It is worth bearing in mind what 'intelligent' really means in a design context. Manufacturing researcher and consultant Terry Hill could help here. He has noted that "any third-rate engineer can design complexity"; the hallmark of truly intelligent design, Hill says, is not complexity, but rather, simplicity. Specifically, it is the ability to take a complex process or product spec and create the least complicated design that will meet all project parameters.

Does this not sound eminently sensible? Good designs are elegant, efficient, with a tight fit of form to function

If nature, then, were the result of intelligent design, there should be no unwarranted complicatedness; no waste of materials in the designs, and so on. At least, we mere humans should be unable to find design flaws.

Note that our identification of such flaws, if they were to exist, would not be dependent on understanding the mind of the designer. If we can perceive 'good' designs -- that is, if we can see that some 'designs' are efficient and so on -- then the criteria by which we can call them 'good' cut both ways. Those same criteria should allow us to see poor designs, if there are any.

Or put another way: suppose we find an apparently poor design. If we reject this 'poor' design as genuinely bad, because we don't know what the designer intended -- "it might be a good design really, we're merely too ignorant to realise it" -- then we have to reject, too, the apparently good designs we find as evidence for the designer. If something seems to be poor design, but may not be, then something that seems to be good design may not be either. We either cannot know the designer's intentions at all, or we can deduce some of them. Which means accepting the bad (if there are any) -- and their implications for the nature of the designer -- along with the good. Reject our ability to spot poor designs, and we cannot use an argument from design at all.

Yet, there is no doubt that the world is full of the amazing complexity we call 'life'. This fact requires an explanation. The question is, is 'intelligent design' an appropriate explanation?


So, if we were to find designs in nature that are less good than we mere humans can think of; that are wasteful of materials; that are unnecessarily convoluted; that can be a danger to their owners; that leave out some important, 'known-of' element, or include elements that are unnecessary; or that are pointless, stupid or plain weird... then we would have good reason to reject the theory of an intelligent designer as the explanation for life, even if we have no other to substitute for it.

Now proceed to...

Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes


This point, that invalidating one hypothesis does not render another one correct, seems to completely bypass many creationists. They are quick to claim problems for evolution, but so rarely offer evidence for their own 'hypothesis'. Even if evolution were shown to be an inappropriate theory for explaining the observations, that fact would not mean that their explanation would be right by default.

To have their explanation taken seriously, creationists need to show that creation explains, and fits with, the observations... and pending refutation of evolution, that it does so better than evolution. In this, they are likely to have a hard time, because their hypothesis is not something new -- it is the very hypothesis that was rejected as being inadequate, and was replaced by evolution!

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Oolon Colluphid 2003, 2006. The contents of this site may be freely used for educational purposes provided they are attributed - only so that Oolon himself is not accused of plagiarism!