Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Soft Core Science

The following passage by Intelligent Design guru V J Torely appeared on the ID apologetics site Uncommon Descent on 15th May. It is a passage about the nature of the intelligent agent who from time to time is thought by these de facto IDists to “intervene” in the “natural world”. It provides ideal evidence of just how soft the soft science of ID is:

When I speak of the agent’s “goals,” I don’t mean the agent’s personal motives for doing something, which we have no way of inferring from the products they design; rather, I simply mean the task that the agent was attempting to perform, or the problem that they were trying to solve. Beyond that, there is nothing more that we could possibly infer about the agent, unless we were acquainted with them or with other members of their species. For instance, we cannot infer that the designer of an artifact was a sentient being (since the ability to design doesn't imply the ability to feel), or a material being (whatever that vague term means), or a physical entity (since there’s no reason why a designer needs to exhibit law-governed behavior), or even a complex or composite entity. To be sure, all the agents that we are familiar with possess these characteristics, but we cannot infer them from the products designed by an agent. Finally, the fact that an agent is capable of performing a variety of functions does not necessarily imply that the agent is composed of multiple detachable parts. We simply don’t know that. In short: the scientific inferences we can make about non-human designers are extremely modest.

This tells us how unknown and unknowable is de-facto ID’s version of the intelligent agent. It is this all but unknowable unknown that is purported to make good the design gaps that these ID people believe to be at the heart of the natural world. Of course everyone knows the subtext; the designer the ID community have in mind is none other God himself who, it is envisaged, is acting behind the Turing screen as if he was an alien engineer tinkering with otherwise "natural processes". No doubt some gaps are here to stay, but my view is that divine proactiveness is not seen in these gaps only. Moreover, God’s presence in "natural forces" is more than just a sustaining power. In fact the idea that I continue to probe is that these so called “natural forces” are God’s intelligence in action, action which therefore becomes the subject of empirical investigation.

Torely (and his ID community) see nature and God intelligence as two very distinct categories; one with cognitive powers and the other without. Torely’s model of divine intervention is almost “archeological” in the sense that the artifacts are living things, a product of Divine  intelligent agency some time in the distant past. Using the epistemic of the explanatory filter he sees a stark choice between natural forces and God intelligence – for Torely those natural forces are utterly insentient with ability to achieve little more than high order, chaos, and randomness. What Torely is telling us above is that his postulated intervening intelligence is all but inscrutable. Consequently, once he has concluded that a material configuration is the result of an intervening intelligence there is little more he can say, because, Torley concedes, so little is known about that intelligence: “…the scientific inferences we can make about non-human designers are extremely modest”. It follows, that the predictive efficacy of Torely’s version of ID is concomitantly reduced; since we know so little about the intelligence concerned it is going to be difficult to come to any expectations in advance about what form the work of that intelligence will take. And yet the ID community claims to be able to make predictions such as economy of design and absence of Junk DNA. I suggest that they cannot make these predictions unless they are actually making implicit assumptions about the nature of the intelligence they are dealing with; there is therefore an inconsistency in Torley’s thought: He can’t make claim to knowing so little about the nature of the intelligent agent and yet at the same time try and pass on predictions that contain implicit assumptions about that intelligence. After all, motive, that is emotions, are a huge part of any practical intelligence and we need some inkling of those motives to make predictions. But when we do hazard postulating something about the nature of the intelligence involved the resultant science is far from exact, in fact it is a science that is a lot softer than archaeology (see link below).

Two other points about Torely’s post:

1)      I have a feeling that Torely’s remark about the agent not necessarily being “composed of multiple detachable parts” is a nod by Torely to Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy. Aquinas believed that God is simple, without composition of parts, i.e. indivisible. By modern standards Aquinas knew little about any analytical breakdown of intelligence. To me it seems inconceivable that something as complex as God doesn't have multiple parts in the analytic sense, although, of course, those parts would not be literally detachable. I suspect that here Torely has been seduced by Aquinas philosophy of “substance”.

2)     Stupidly, to my mind, Torely even claims that an intelligent agent might be insentient: To date this seems highly implausible. A designing intelligence would have to be highly motivated; our current understanding is that all highly motivated goal seeking complex systems are the seat of a motivating sentience: For example, it is a form of irrational solipsism to suggest that the higher mammals are anything other than conscious/sentient. Notably, Roger Penrose book "Shadows of the Mind" is based on the premise that real intelligence and consciousness go together.

To finish let me just say I have no illusions that evangelical atheists will be anything other than vociferously opposed to theism in any form and may argue against it from a basis which caricatures science. But there is little to be gained from the unnecessarily dichotomising models of the de-facto ID community, models which place much about the evolution of life well beyond conventional science and into the realm of unknown powers that in Torely’s own oxymoronic terms may not even be sentient!

Relevant Link:

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