Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Notes on Intelligent Design

Posted by Sam D on August 18, 2005

Since I’m trying to do some serious work on my thesis this week, I can’t respond in full to the current Intelligent Design debate as much as I would like. So here are some points to think about, that I will maybe flesh out later.

Proving the existence of an intelligent designer tells us nothing about them. It shows nothing about whether or not they care about us. Nothing about their morality. It doesn’t even tell us if there are more than one of them. In this context the ‘Problem of Evil’ can be used not to question the existence of such a designer, but to question certain qualities that some groups attribute to them.

Proving the the existence of an intelligent designer does not show, whether this designer is God, Allah, Yaweh, Krishna, Zeus or whoever. In fact, the argument works to “prove” the existence of a number of deities. If we took ther existence as being mutually exclusive, eg if Allah exists, then Zeus does not, then we have an argument that logically implies both X and not X. This is considered by logicians and some philosophers as being a bad thing for an argument to do. Now we don’t have to accept the premise that the gods of different faiths are mutually exclusive, but this is not something that most people of faith would want to accept, and seems counter to most doctrine from most religions.

In the same way that Darwinism is “Just a theory”, Intelligent Design is “just a theory”.

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6 Responses to “Notes on Intelligent Design”

  1. “if Allah exists, then Zeus does not, then we have an argument that logically implies both X and not X.”

    Actually, I don’t see this. Claiming that there is an intelligent designer (if it weren’t literally nonsensical) would be like claiming that exactly one of {Zeus, Allah, Cthulhu,…} was the designer.

    The main problem with “intelligent design” as a theory about god is that it’s not falsifiable. The gaps in scientific knowledge constitute the sum of its evidence. So the theory only gets falsified when all the gaps are removed, which, conveniently for the loons, never happens.

    People who claim the god of the Bible exists (or does not exist)are linguistically confused. The verb “to exist” means “to have the potential to have its properties observed.” My teddy bear exists because it has the potential to have its properties observed. There is no such thing as spirit of teddy bear which has no properties of teddy. Things do not exist in the absence of their properties.

    The common definition of god is an entity whose properties can never be observed. So to say that “god exists” is to claim that “the entity whose properties can never be observed has the potential to have its properties observed.” (Notice that inserting a “not” infront of this doesn’t make it any more sensible).

    Now, if one’s god does have properties that can be observed, then presumably one’s god theory is falsifiable. For, to be observable, the properties of god must be distinguishable from the properties of things which are not god. No one I know believes in a falsifiable god.

  2. I was thinking something along the lines of this:
    Allah = P
    Zeus = Q

    Their relationship being presumably:
    If P then (not Q).

    I do see your point, effectivly the ID argument implies (P or Q), but not (P and Q). I’m glad that you pointed that out, you might have saved me from a serious blunder in a paper I’m working on.

    The falsifiability is for me what clearly renders ID as pseudo-science, in much the same way that God-faked-the-fossil-record-etc Creationism. IOf you want to call something science, there are certain criteria it has to meet, and falsifiability or verifiability is generally agreed to be one of those things.

    I find your comments on what “to exist” means very interesting. What’s the basis for this claim? Is it a literal claim, such as logical positivists might make, or is it more that we can’t assert that something exists unless it has the potential to have its properties observed ( More Wittgenstein inspired, I think)?

    As for God being the entity whose properties can never be observed, I think many of the faithfull would want to disagree. I would modify it to say that God’s properties were not publicly observable, which many, both LP’s and followers of Wittgenstein would say is the same as not being observable at all.

    I do agree however that God is generally accepted as not being falsifiable. But this is more about pride and hubris than a coherent metaphysical position on the part of its adherents.

  3. michael said

    the essential problem with defining existence as ‘the potential to be observed’ is that it means nothing can exist until the idea of a sentient being comes into existence (because without the concept of an observer there cannot be the concept of potential observability). but if the idea of a sentient being is part of existence, then a sentient being must also be in existence, for what else can have ideas? So from this we can see that nothing exists without a sentient being also existing. And the sentient being cannot exist unless it is either reflexively aware, or another sentient being also exists. I will put bets that one wants to claim reflexive awareness for obviouse simplicity. the sentient being must then drag itself into existence by becoming self-aware – in short it must create itself. this would be God in the general picture.

    As one who does not think that a god exists, and also one who does not hold complete truck with existentialism i reckon there is a problem with defining existence in such a manner, and am quite happy to claim that if a tree falls in a forest and no sentient being has been thought of that tree still falls.

    one may say that we have now thought of a sentient being. I say yes but how did we get that idea?

  4. Hi michael,

    I think that in day-to-day use, the verb “to exist” is generally defined as I have described it.

    If I understand your comment, you are concerned that this definition has some adverse side-effects vis-a-vis sentience.

    Philosophy is here to answer questions about the limits of thought and discourse. I don’t think that words have any meaning at all in the absence of sentient observers.

    It seems that you are looking for a definition of existence that transcends observability because you want to speak of events that occur even when we do not or cannot see them.

    I have elaborated on my definition of the verb in the comments of my post “God does not exist” is nonsensical.

    Under this definition, something exists if it a) is itself an observation, or b) has invariants or conserved quantities.

    A tree that falls in a deserted forest still has invariants (mass, shape, cellulose, etc.). If we visit the forest (or could visit such a forest), we would recognize a fallen tree. That is, we can perceive objects that exist in the past or in the future, and we can perceive things that once existed, but no longer do.

    I think this adequately covers all the phenomena we consider to exist in the scientific sense, even when we don’t actually observe every event. For example, based on samples of neutrinos from the Sun, we can claim that the Sun is as bright in neutrinos as it is in photons. We don’t have to see every photon or every neutrino to make this claim.

    I will put bets that one wants to claim reflexive awareness for obviouse simplicity. the sentient being must then drag itself into existence by becoming self-aware – in short it must create itself. this would be God in the general picture.

    I think that, by this definition, even we would be God.

    There’s a difference between existence having meaning only when we’re capable of reasoning about it, and our having caused existence. The reality is that the universe existed before we were able to observe it, but that existence would be undefinable if no sentient life existed.

    In short, there are limitations on what can be reasoned about that come from the science of computability and language. One of those limitations is that semantic meaning is empirical. It is impossible to speak of meaning when there are no observers.

  5. Again we return to Wittgenstein, Dr Logic.

  6. michael said

    I didn’t claim that existence in a universe that did not contain sentience or the idea of sentience had meaning; that would be absurd. So yes, every phenomena we consider to exist in the scientific sense is covered, because we consider them; your point is circular.

    I quite agree that there are limits past which we cannot discuss meaningfully. But that does not mean that there is nothing past those limits. As Foucault points out in his “A Preface to Transgression” any limit set must theoriecially be able to be crossed. It is past these limits, Wittgenstien declared, that lay irrelevance: his little correction to Sartre’s nothingness.

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