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Bad Anti-ID Arguments Demolished

John on November 21, 2005 at 1:18 pm

Recently a group of 150 professors at the University of Iowa and Iowa State signed a petition against intelligent design. Apparently 150 only represents about 10% of the faculty, but it’s still a significant number. The petition was apparently in response to a presentation at the university by Guillermo Gonzales, author of an ID book called The Privileged Planet.

One of the original co-authors of the petition against Gonzales is Hector Avalos, professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State. Apparently, Hector has had issues with The Privileged Planet for some time. He published something in the school paper about it in June of this year and a version of that piece is still available on the Iowa State website. [HT: Telic Thoughts which blogged about all of this.]

What’s interesting to me is how Avalos’ piece clearly conveys the sense that anti-ID faculty are about to come unglued at the seems. I suspect this sort of thing correlates extremely well with Bush Derangement Syndrome, which many political bloggers have diagnosed on campuses (perhaps Gregory S. Paul will do a study). But let’s take a look at Mr. Avalos insights into the questions of the ages.

After a quick summary of The Privileged Planet which makes clear that he has not read the book, he says:

One need only read theologies produced over the last hundreds of years to understand that this is not a new argument. Already in 1907, the famed Baptist theologian, Augustus Hopkins Strong stated… “

Blah, blah, blah. In other words, according to Avalos, design is an old religious argument dressed up in new language. What he fails to mention is that we could pull quotes about design from individuals who were not Baptist Theologians. Einstein, Newton and Copernicus all discussed their work in design terms (though Einstein rejected a personal God). Consider this quote from Newton:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.

In short, Avalos idea that design arguments should be excluded from scientific discussions would thereby exclude the thoughts of some of our greatest scientists.

Avalos then tries to mock the idea of intelligent design but only manages to call into question his own rationality:

[I]f our planet were not located precisely where it is, then we might also not have AIDS viruses, congenital deformities, or death itself. So why do ID proponents think that life and intelligence were the features selected for intelligent design?

In other words, perhaps life on Earth is an accidental byproduct of the designer’s desire to create AIDS. This, so far as I know, is a view of life unique to Hector Avalos. One wonders how long he has nurtured this view. When he was a child and his parents handed him a Christmas gift wrapped in bright paper and ribbons, was his assumption that the purpose of the gift was a microbe living in the pulp of the cardboard box?

It seems to me that even the staunchest materialist, someone like Dawkins for instance, holds to a more exalted view of human significance that does Avalos. After all, if intelligence is incidental and unremarkable why bother to know anything?

Avalos returns to this same argument a moment later when he argues:

The main assumption is that the amount of physical constants and entities that “must be right” to produce any entity X is generally proportional to the amount of the Designer’s purpose for X…Yet, this assumption can be reduced to absurdity.

The argument that follows, though poorly framed, is essentially that since a computer requires all of the universe’s laws plus the addition of human technological genius, it must therefore be of greater cosmological significance than a person which requires only the laws of nature. This is in fact an example of reduction to absurdity, though not the one Mr. Avalos inended.

Mr. Avalos begins with a sound premise (that complexity of specification is proportional to value of an item to its designer) but from there quickly drifts into nonsense. The problem with his formulation is simple and the corrective is even simpler, almost axiomatic. So much so that I’m tempted to call this Foyle’s law: Design is not addative additive of the substrate and/or tools employed in its creation. Let me illustrate…

Take any work of art, say the Mona Lisa. DaVinci put all of his gifts into this painting and it is generally considered a masterpiece. However, if I take a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and paint a mustache on it, have I added to its perfection because there is now additional detail? Take it a step further…If I create a mustache in photoshop and then feed the Mona Lisa into an inkjet plotter, have I added the vast hours of design inherent in the computer, software and printer to the art?

Take another example, this time starting from the computer itself. A modern day Shakespeare might use a computer to draft a 21st century Hamlet. On the other hand, a ten year old boy might use it to write limericks about his math teacher. The fact that both used a computer does not change the fact that as far as design is concerened the results are no where near equivalent. One would not say that because the dramatist wrote on an old Pentium 3 laptop while the child wrote on the latest Pentium 4 that the child’s work was of greater overall complexity.

A computer is a piece of intelligent design, but it comes from the hand of a different designer (man) than the universe itself (God). Mr. Avalos is correct that complexity of specification is proportional to the value of an item to its designer, which is why we are correct to identify the most complex item in the known universe — the human mind — as having greater significance than a virus.

Finally, I would add that Foyle’s law above is really a kind of restatement of something found in Darwin’s Origin of the Species and in ID. If one eliminates a designer then change can only occur by slight, successive modification. Any change larger than what could be attributed to chance, would in fact indicate that intelligence had been added to the design. As I understand Dembski, this larger than average leap is precisely the thing for which ID wants to test.

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