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Bob Murphy’s Case For Intelligent Design Revisited

Bob Murphy dedicated an episode of his podcast arguing in favour of intelligent design (ID). The evolution vs intelligent design debate is very old. I was really interested in it when I was a teenager. However, I have not paid much attention to it in over 20 years. It was therefore nice to hear a well argued summary of the ID position again, which has itched me to write this responds.

I don’t actually think that this question is terribly important. I really don’t care too much whether people believe in ID, evolution, both or something else. But it is an interesting question and it is fun to think about it.

I was quite a radical atheist as a teenager. In fact, I was a real materialist, knowing that everything is just physics. I am now too old to know everything, that is something reserved for the youth. I have since become very sceptical of materialism. That is not to say that I think materialism cannot be true. I have not come across an argument that shows this world-view to be definitely false. However, I do now believe that materialism is unlikely true. The alternative view seems more plausible.

Consequently, I am very open to the possibility that reality does not purely function according to some natural laws. It seems likely to me that there are real random processes and it even seems likely to me that there are active intelligent forces. I am therefore open to the possibility of some form of intelligent influence on the evolving of life.

That, however, is not to say that I don’t believe in evolution. I do think that evolution is by far the best theory out there to explain how species came into existence. It might not be perfect, but it is pretty good. It also does not mean that I find the ID arguments convincing.

Murphy starts out by insisting that ID is just good science. In his view, the critics of ID often falsely portray it as a clever way to defend what is really dogmatic religious believe. He is right in the sense that if evolution is a scientific theory, which it is, then it could be false, like any other scientific theory. It is therefore totally legitimate to try to find flaws in this theory. Indeed, we should try to find flaws in it. If it is a really good theory then we should not be able to find any.

Even if there were flaws, then we might only conclude that this theory cannot be fully correct. That does not mean, however, that any alternative theory is automatically true. The alternative theory would also need to be looked at with the same scepticism. When all we have is a few theories that are all flawed one way or the another, then we should still go with the one which is the least flawed and most useful, while at the same time trying to come up with a better theory.

This is the first thing that bothers me about the ID argument. It assumes that if there are any flaws, or the theory of evolution is even just incomplete, then that would automatically mean that ID is more plausible.

No doubt, ID can explain everything. That is not a strength though. A theory that explains everything really explains nothing. It is literally useless. In order to have any kind of use, a theory needs to have predictive power. And there is no predicive power if every possible future outcome can be explained by it. In other words, a good theory should tell me that B follows A and not C. However, if a theory tells me that no matter what follows A, whether it is B, C, or any X then it is literally useless.

One could object to this by saying that a theory does not need to be useful. It is simply interesting to know the truth. I agree, it is interesting. However, the ability to test a theory is the only way to find out how likely a theory is true. Without this ability, we cannot say anything about its truth value. Besides, a theory that is true, should not be completely random, as reality is not random. There should be consequences from it that are testable.

Evolution is a useful theory. It has predictive power and is used for a number of purposes. For example, the reason why one should always take antibiotics to the very end is to not create resistant bacterial strains. The possibility of such a strain emerging is what evolutionary theory predicts, and this is exactly what we can observe. All breading of new animals or plants is also based on it. It is a very useful theory.

ID, on the other hand, has no use whatsoever. At least unless we don’t know much about the designer. And it is here that the ID crowd unquestionably really sees its value. “Hey maybe I can tell you something about that designer. …”. Murphy already in his opening let’s us know that he is a Christian. I don’t think he has thought that through to the end though, but more about that later.

Let’s get into the arguments that he is making. Bob essentially makes three arguments. Of these three only one is really good. The others are not very relevant. Murphy briefly hints at the question of the origin of life. I don’t think that this question is really part of evolution. I don’t see any theory on offer trying to explain the origin of life that is not wild speculation. I have no clue where life came from. Whether it was created in a chemical process, some God created it, or aliens, I have no idea. I have not come across any theory of substance about this. Feel free to speculate. For me, I am happy with “I don’t know”.

Nevertheless, Murphy refers to an argument by Stephen Meyers to back up his theory of design. Meyer’s argument is that the world with its physical laws is exactly right for life to be possible. If anything would be even slightly different, we would not be here. And the probability of that coming into existence by chance is just infinitesimal small. Someone must have therefore improved the odds.

Let us leave aside the fact that we don’t know how anything came into being, let alone what the probability was that this universe came into being instead of another, and how this other universe then might look like. Aside from that, this argument does not work in any case. It simply is not possible to disproof a fact by calculating how probable it was that it came about. At every single moment an uncountable number of events happen that are extremely unlikely.

For example, what is the chance that from all the atoms in the atmosphere, I am breathing in exactly the ones that I just inhaled at exactly that time? Calculated in advance, the chances for that to happen are so small, it is very close to 0. And yet it definitely happened. I cannot disprove this fact with probabilities after it happened, nor do I need to explain this with someone designing it that way. Countless extremely unlikely things happen all the time, that is not an argument for design.

Of course, design could explain it. But as we have already seen, design can explain absolutely everything. The question is, is it needed to explain something and is it the best explanation? I would say, it is definitely not needed to explain this.

The second argument that Bob quotes is by William Dembski. Dembski calls his argument specified complexity. He argues that natural random selection cannot explain adaptation, as the likelihood of the needed mutations coming about by chance is too small for this to happen all the time. Mutations therefore have to be not random, but targeted. The question then arises, who or what is doing the targeting, which opens the door for ID.

I am not a biologist, so judging how likely certain mutations are is above my pay grade. But let us just assume that he is right about that claim. That would not necessarily get the theory of evolution in trouble. All it does is to show that the theory is not complete. There are things we don’t understand, which is undoubtedly true. It is also true about pretty much any other scientific theory I have come across. A limitation of knowledge is not the same as a contradiction, as our knowledge is always limited. Only a fact that contradicts a theory falsifies that theory in some way.

The fact that a theory is not complete also does not automatically make ID a better theory. Again, ID can explain everything, but that does not make it true. It just makes it impossible to find out whether it is true or not, and it makes it useless.

However, there are other possibilities. One is that there are things we do not understand about genetics or that there are other natural forces at work. In the history of science this happened all the time. There were mysteries that then got resolved with better theories. It does not necessarily mean we need a designer to explain it.

These two arguments are not very convincing to get evolution in trouble. They merely raise some interesting questions. The only argument that really goes to the core of evolutionary theory, and could therefore get it into trouble, is the argument of irreducible complexity. It is a good argument, because it really understands what evolutionary theory is about and then tries to test a core assumption of the theory. In other words it tries to find facts in the real world that contradict the theory.

The argument, which was popularised by Michael Behe, states that there are things in nature that cannot possibly have come about through a slow, gradual process of adaptation. That is because, these things are so complex that any reduction in their complexity would make them useless. Therefore, the incremental stages that would have been needed to bring these complex structures about would not have given the organism any advantage.

I do think that if something in nature could be shown to be irreducibly complex, evolutionary theory would be in trouble. At least to the degree that not everything can be explained by natural selection. There would then also have to be other forces at work, forces that we don’t understand yet. Consequently, we would need a fundamentally different theory to explain the emergence of at least some species.

However, absent of such a new theory, evolution would still remain the best theory available. It is the only testable theory that has some use. And that is true, even if it does not turn out to be entirely true. It is similar to Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics has also been shown to be fundamentally flawed by Einstein. And yet, it is still the most used theory of physics. A theory does not have to be entirely true to be useful, it just needs to be true enough. But of course, if truth itself is the goal then inconsistencies are unsatisfactory.

The problem with the irreducible complexity argument is that, so far, the ID advocates have not come up with anything that really is clearly irreducibly complex. Bob mentions two: the eye and the bacterial flagellum. In both cases, however, biologists could demonstrate exactly how the two could evolve incrementally. The eye can even be shown to have evolved multiple times independently. Therefore, as long as there is not a indisputable example of irreducible complexity, evolutionary theory seems to pass the test.

I suspect that some people might be attracted to ID because they have an indirect use for it, namely they think it strengthens their case for their favourite religion. But does it really? It is true, ID can explain everything and at the heart of it could be some mystical designer. But if we assume a designer, then we can maybe infer some characteristics of that designer from the observations that we have.

And it is here, where the major religions are probably not going to be very happy. For example, could it be that the Christian god is behind the alleged design that we can observe? We can be certain that that is not the case. ID, as a scientific theory based on observations, seems incompatible with Christianity. The Christian designer is omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent at the same time.

Despite the fact that it is called intelligent design, the design we find in nature is often clearly not that intelligent and therefore incompatible with such a designer. I really wonder why the people coming up with this phrase thought it wise to add “intelligent” to design. Design would have been totally sufficient. But it goes to show that this is probably not just impartial science, but they have a specific designer in mind. Unfortunately, all kinds of obviously stupid mistakes can be found in nature’s design.

For example, the way women give birth to a baby. One can hardly call it intelligent to design a system in which a baby is born through a birth canal that is not really big enough for it to fit through. It takes a lot of pain and trickery to get it out, and before modern medicine, a significant number of women died during the process. How is that intelligently designed? At least make the canal bigger. However, every 10 year old would have come up with something even better like a zipper. But whoever the intelligent designer is,he clearly was not intelligent enough to figure this one out. I am not sure, but a zipper would be arguably be irreducibly complex, which is why we would not expect to find it in nature.

That is just one example. Examples are ubiquitous. Therefore, if evolution could be shown to be an unsatisfactory theory to explain all our observation – as ID tries to argue – a better alternative explanation would definitely not be the god of the major world religions. Given the apparent flaws in a lot of nature’s design, it seems far more likely that there is some other force at work, one that we do not understand.

Evolution is actually more compatible with Christianity. At least with evolution, one could argue that for whatever reason, god created the earth and then intended to let it be, similar to the free will objection to the argument from evil. It doesn’t convince me, but it would at least give people who want to belief it a more satisfactory rescue of their belief. That is because, if god directly interfered in the process of creating species then he is directly responsible for the failed design. It is, therefore, a bit strange that some advocates of these religions seem so keen in pushing ID.

Bob Murphy Show Episode 319

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