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reader comments: argument from design & intelligent design

17 July 2010
I came across your "Skeptic's Dictionary" website this evening and perused your section on ID. I felt compelled to respond to the following:

If we grant that the universe is possibly or even probably the result of intelligent design, what is the next step? ... By appealing to an "intelligent designer" to explain some complex phenomenon is to explain nothing about that phenomenon's relation to its alleged designer. The theory illuminates nothing.

The above reasoning is fatally flawed; the premise that, somehow, the theory of evolution does any more for science than the theory of intelligent design is pure bunk. NEITHER does ANYTHING for true science. Whether one believes in evolution or intelligent design - neither should have an impact on the empirical study of the physical world that surrounds us.

reply: You seem to have missed the point. We are very familiar with many natural processes. Natural selection, sexual selection, and other scientific explanations for evolution are naturalistic and require no speculation about non-naturalistic causes. The appeal to an intelligent designer of some natural process is a metaphysical layer of belief that cannot help us understand any natural processes, including evolution, because the nature of that being is unknown. We don't know the being's intentions, limitations (if any), powers, etc. So, positing such a being cannot aid us in our understanding of natural processes.

Those of us with an education in the sciences don't say we "believe" in evolution (or "believe" in gravity or electricity). We accept evolution as a fact and find theories such as the theory of natural selection to be powerful. They are predictive and explanatory, which is what we expect of a good scientific theory. We also expect that the predictions we draw from them aren't contradicted by the empirical data. To say that scientific theories should have no impact on the empirical study of the physical world is to demonstrate one's ignorance regarding the nature of scientific theories. A theory that had no impact on empirical study would not be a scientific theory.

I suspect you have some reason for using the expression "true science," but I don't know what it is.

The theory of evolution has done as much harm to true science today as Catholic dogma in the dark ages.

reply: You give no support for this claim. Since you don't say what harm you think evolution has done to science, I'll refer you and any reader of these comments to my response to the false claim that Darwinism leads to racism.

The theory of evolution is as much a philosophic dogma about origins as intelligent design (and its close cousin creationism). To use either (evolution or intelligent design) as a premise for scientific research results in circular reasoning and flawed logic.

reply: Evolution is a fact and there have been several theories proposed to explain how things have evolved. Philosophers continue to debate whether a belief in a creator is compatible with both the facts and the scientific theories of evolution. I think they are. So does Ken Miller. Some believe a creator made all species individually. Belief in intelligent design is indeed a philosophical dogma. Understanding evolutionary science is essential to many scientific fields and has increased our understanding of ourselves and the natural world immeasurably. You might begin to have a better understanding of evolution as science not dogma by reading How does evolution impact my life?

In the past, theories, hypotheses, tests and the like were designed with the premise of religious principles (flat earth, earth center of universe, etc. etc). The results of testing the theories (data) was viewed through the lens of religion. Low [sic] and behold, amazingly, the data supported the premise that framed the theory.

reply:  You're being selective. If you consider the entire history of science, you will find that scientists have been steadily moving away from theology and philosophy. Religion no longer has a stranglehold on art, architecture, literature, or science in advanced industrial societies.

EVOLUTION DOES THIS EXACT SAME THING TODAY. Hypotheses, and the testing of these hypotheses, are designed by ardent believers in evolution. The hypotheses are designed to prove the premise (evolution) and the data generated by the testing are viewed through an evolutionary lens. Surprise, surprise - amazingly science "proves" evolution to be "fact" much like the "science" of the church in years gone by that proved the earth was the center of the universe.

reply: Not true. Find a pre-Cambrian rabbit and evolution is falsified. The hypotheses are designed to test predictions by the theory. Nobody could know beforehand that what is predicted is what would be discovered. (Consider the discovery of Tiktaalik.) Any scientist who would make a discovery that falsifies any of the scientific theories of evolution would be honored by other scientists, and his or her career would be made.

The concept that evolution is somehow "non-religious" is a rotten, smelly, farce of a lie.

reply: No, it isn't. Evolution has been made religious by religious fundamentalists in order to claim that they are "equal" or "the same" in some sense. Evolution happened. The evidence from many sciences supports this fact. Various scientific theories have been put forth to explain how evolution happened. Religions have made up stories to explain the origins of fire, wind, rain, and our species. These stories are not scientific. They're fables and myths, and were not intended to be taken literally as science lessons.

The theory of evolution is identical to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism - they all attempt to provide answers about where we come from, and where we are going.

reply: Wrong. Evolution does not claim to provide answers about where we are going. The religions you list provide stories about where we came from, but they are put forth as dogmas to be believed on faith. The facts have been compiled from numerous sciences to support the fact of evolution. Natural selection has withstood more than 150 years of scrutiny and it is still going strong. Unlike the religions that are going strong for more than a millennium, we can expect the growth of knowledge in the sciences to provide us with more information about evolution as time goes on.

Darwin says we come from primordial soup, the Bible says we come from God, neither will ever, ever, EVER, be able to prove their premise through scientific means.

reply: Darwin did not propose a theory of the origin of life. He proposed a theory of the origin of species. The god hypothesis may be unprovable and untestable. The theory of evolution is not a theory of the origin of life. It explains what happened after life came to be. That is one reason, by the way, that I hold that belief in a creator and acceptance of evolution are not incompatible. Others disagree.

No scientist can go back 6000 - 6,000,000,0000 years and empirically record scientific proof of creation. To claim that science proves evolution is just as bad as saying that science proves God - both are an ABUSE of science.

reply: Science works, in part, by inferences from observable phenomena. Not all scientific claims are observation claims. You may wake up to snow on the ground and reasonably infer that it snowed during the night, even though you did not see it snow. Scientists often make inferences to possible and probable causes based on observed effects. This is not an abuse of science, but the way a good part of science works.

True science seeks to understand the function of the world around us through testing and observation of the present. When we understand how the world around us functions, we can apply this knowledge to our benefit in the future. The sooner religious premises (evolution/creationism) are removed from the scientific process, the better off we all will be.


Urbandale, Iowa

reply: Your final comment seems reasonable enough, except for your reference to "true" science, whatever that means, and your belief that evolution is a religion. Evolution is no more a religion than electro-magnetism is a religion.


15 Feb 2005
As I have just finished reading Behe's
Darwin's Black Box, I have been looking for any good arguments against Paley's thesis. It appears to me that, with all due respect, you misunderstand the thrust of his argument. Paley seemed to hold that intelligent design can be apparent in something (like a watch), or at least that there can be rules to determine whether or not it exists. He did not posit that since a watch is designed it must have been designed.

reply: True. Paley did not posit that since a watch is designed it must have been designed. There would be no reason to posit anything so obvious. If you think that is what I claim about Paley, you have misunderstood me.

Rather, he, I believe, held that a watch shows obvious signs of design.

reply: Yes, that is his claim and it is based on the observation that the various parts of the watch would be of no use by themselves, that they only work together.

Archeologists deal with this all the time in their digs; does the pattern of rocks that they found reflect design? Detectives do it as well when they have to determine whether or not there is any evidence of "foul play." There are clear criteria in many disciplines for detecting design.

reply: Yes, we all know that there are ways to detect design, as long as we have something analogous to compare things to.

The ID people just want to generate criteria for the life sciences. Is this such a threatening prospect?

reply:  I assume you mean that the ID folks want to stipulate design criteria for biology. This may seem innocuous to you, but ask yourself this question: If you were presented with two virtually identical beings but one was a human being, born of a natural mother, and the other was created in a laboratory, could you tell which one was designed? How would you do it?

On the other hand, since we have no experience of any creation or design of a living being, all we can do is look for something analogous in the biological entity to artificial objects such as watches or mouse traps. The danger here is that since we do not know all the evolutionary processes that have taken place over the millions of years it has taken any living thing to become what it is, we can never be sure that our belief that the parts of some biological system could not have evolved separately and independently. Any claim we make that the system must have been designed because, in our view, the odds are too great that the system could have occurred by any natural processes, is simply an assumption that begs the question. Also, this approach to science was tried by the Church with Galileo. It is always dangerous to place your bet against something that it is possible to discover in the future that will prove you were wrong, as has happened not only with evidence for the Copernican system, but with evidence for the natural evolution of the flagellum of a bacterium.

However, it is always theoretically possible that everything has been designed, including the natural processes that we don't yet understand. In which case, the ID argument is superfluous and misleading. We don't need it because evolutionary biologists can admit that God designed everything. It is misleading because it pretends to be an alternative to theories like natural selection, when it isn't.

Why can't Darwin supporters admit the truth; either I hear a) weak attempts to resuscitate gradualism (you did this in quoting H. Allen Orr who said "An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become-because of later changes-essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn't essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required."

But this gross oversimplification in no way explains how a fraying reptilian scale can change to a feather.

reply: How is this a "gross oversimplification"? Orr isn't obligated to explain all the details. But others have provided some of the details in response to critics who say things like "half a wing won't do no good" or "scales ain't like feathers." Many people have responded to these and similar kinds of misguided complaints. For example, Frank R. Zindler wrote:

Although some very famous ornithologists have thought otherwise, I am convinced that the majority opinion is correct: bird flight began in the trees, not on the ground. Having evolved from small, two-legged dinosaurs, the proavians were arboreal bipeds. Proavis used its "hands" to climb‚ into trees in much the same way that young hoatzins - primitive South American birds - today still use their finger-remnants to scuttle back up to their nests if they fall or jump out of them. But the major mode of proavian locomotion while in the tree, I believe, was bipedal hopping.

Hopping short distances from branch to branch presented few problems for Proavis. (Proavis, keep in mind, was a precursor of birds, not a prehistoric rental car!) But jumping greater distances, especially from higher to lower branches, created a serious problem. Upon landing with its feet on a target branch, momentum would have tended to rotate the animal forward on the branch - making it end up hanging from the branch upside-down! The situation would be even worse if the branch were flexible instead of rigid. Suitable braking, by flailing the arms, would have helped to prevent this - as readers can easily demonstrate for themselves if they set up two chairs several feet apart and then try to jump from one to the other, without flailing the arms, and without falling off or tipping over the target chair. As the distance between chairs increases, the experimenter's arm reflexes will quickly demonstrate how important arm-flailing must have been to the bipedal branch-hopping proavians.

The lengthening and fraying of reptilian scales to form feathers would have conferred a great selective advantage upon such creatures as I have envisioned. (Many birds still retain reptilian scales on their legs, remember, and even the barnyard hen occasionally sports structures which are part-scale, part-feather.) Body feathers may very well have existed long before flight evolved as a means of thermal insulation allowing the animal to maintain the high body temperatures needed for active life in trees. Longer feathers, such as wing and tail feathers (often the first non-down feathers to develop in the young of songbirds) first evolved not for flight, but as a means of improving aerial braking and balancing capability as Proavis hopped and parachuted from branch to branch.

The larger surface area provided by the feathered limb would allow for more effective "air-braking," and would make possible later reduction of the inertial mass of the arms and other parts of the body - a handy thing still later when active flight developed. Proavis probably behaved a lot like the previously mentioned hoatzin which, even as an adult bird capable of clumsy flight, seems to spend more time flapping its wings to keep from falling off branches than it does in active flight! (Half a Wing and No Prayer)

b) incredulous ideas about punctuated monsters (the mammalian eye just popping into existence),

reply: What evolutionary biologist believes the mammalian eye just popped into existence? Read Richard Dawkins account of the eye, which has evolved independently at least 40 times.

or c) bizarre appeals to extraterrestrial panspermia.

reply: This theory is certainly no more bizarre than that of an invisible guy in the sky who makes everything out of nothing; rolls up some clay into the shape of a human figure and blows life into it, rips a rib out of the figure and puts flesh on it to make a woman ("and that's how human life began, children"); and who keeps track of who's naughty and nice so he can reward those who obey him with eternal bliss and punish those who disobey him with eternal damnation...all in the name of love, of course.

Panspermia is also no more bizarre than the theory that the invisible Man in the sky created the universe so that His favorite planet, Earth, would arrive on the scene some 8 billion years after the creation and that life would not arrive on Earth for another 4 billion years. Then His plan called for waiting around for another few billion years before bringing His favorite species into existence.

Such outlandish theorizing smacks of the medieval astronomical "epicycles" of planetary movement, conjured up in order to prop a geocentric solar system. Such "grasping at straws" only looks to us like foolish displays of pseudo-scientists who are too invested in the present paradigm to admit when it looks like its run its course. What's so scary about a paradigm shift?
(name withheld)

reply: The paradigm shift Behe and the ID folks propose isn't scary; it's retro. They want us to return to the paradigm of the medieval astronomers that you ridicule. If anybody's grasping at straws it is the folks who live in the 21st century but want to drag us back to the 1st century and who base their views of science on stories told by shepherds and desert nomads thousands of years ago.

12 Nov 2003
 In your entry at skepdic.com on this argument you quote as follows:
"When one is dealt a bridge hand of thirteen cards, the probability of being dealt that particular hand is less than one in 600 billion. Still, it would be absurd for someone to be dealt a hand, examine it carefully, calculate that the probability of getting it is less than one in 600 billion, and then conclude that he must not have been dealt that very hand because it is so very improbable." --John Allen Paulos

You seem to think this is a good argument, even decisive. I disagree. Paulos is using a bad analogy. Whatever hand one was dealt would necessarily be a hand of cards. But whatever universe was 'dealt' wouldn't necessarily be a universe capable of supporting life, though of course it would necessarily be a universe. The proper 'card analogy' for the universe supporting intelligent life would be to be dealt 13 cards of the same suit. The odds of that hand are indeed the same as for every other hand. But if you were dealt *that* hand, you'd much more reasonably believe that the deck was stacked than that the hand was dealt quite randomly.

Davies, Carter, Wheeler, Tipler and many other scientists have acknowledged that anthropic cosmological fine-tuning cannot be explained on the analogy you seek to draw. They see it as a genuine problem, calling for explanation. The literature on this is vast.

The anthropically fine-tuned nature of the universe is established fact. The question is why. Sir Martin Rees (the British Astronomer Royal), recently published a book _Just Six Numbers_ attempting to answer this question. If the Paulos quote was on the right lines, this would be a misguided thing to do. But it is not. The only way Rees can see to avoid the Design Hypothesis is by positing a multiverse. I.e., he has to posit a vast, possibly infinite, number of parallel universes, each with a different set of numbers governing their basic physics.

It is only by positing this colossal number of extra universes that one can render it unsurprising that the numbers in our universe are so well suited for the generation of life. Note that this Multiverse Hypothesis violates the test of observability, and violates Ockham's Razor with a vengeance. It is pure speculation, and a metaphysical prejudice on Rees's part. But the point I'm making is that he is *forced* to adopt this hypothesis to avoid the Design Hypothesis. In other words, it is only probable that the universe would turn out as fine-tuned as it is if it is but one of many, many universes. Otherwise it is extremely improbable.

Let me show this a bit more by drawing your attention to a lengthy quotation from Peter van Inwagen's recent book, Metaphysics (pp. 134-6):

Some philosophers have argued that there is nothing in the fact that the universe is fine-tuned that should be the occasion for any surprise. After all (the objection runs), if a machine has dials, the dials have to be set *some* way, and any particular setting is as unlikely as any other. Since any setting of the dials is as unlikely as any other, there can be nothing surprising about the actual setting of the dials, whatever it may be, than there would be about any possible setting of the dials if that possible setting were the actual setting. (Here is a parallel argument. If you toss a coin and it comes up 'heads' twenty times in a row, you shouldn't be surprised. After all, you wouldn't be surprised if the sequence HHTTHTHTTTHTHHTTHTHT occurred, and that sequence and the sequence HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH both have exactly the same probability of occurring: 1 in 1,048,576, or about .000000954.) This reasoning is sometimes combined with the point that if 'our' numbers hadn't been set into the cosmic dials, the equally improbable setting that did occur would have differed from the actual setting mainly in that there would have been no one there to wonder at its improbability.

This must be one of the most annoyingly obtuse arguments in the history of philosophy. Let us press the 'parallel' argument a bit. Suppose that you are in a situation in which you must draw a straw from a bundle of 1,048,576 straws of different length and in which it has been decreed that if you don't draw the shortest straw in the bundle you will be instantly and painlessly killed: you will be killed so fast that you won't have time to realize that you didn't draw the shortest straw. Reluctantly--but you have no alternative--you draw a straw and are astonished to find yourself alive and holding the shortest straw. What should you conclude? In the absence of further information, only one conclusion is reasonable. Contrary to appearances, you did not draw the straw at random; the whole situation in which you find yourself is some of kind of 'set-up'; the bundle was somehow rigged to ensure that the straw you drew was the shortest one. The following argument to the contrary is simply silly. 'Look, you had to draw some straw or other. Drawing the shortest was no more unlikely than drawing the 256,057th-shortest: the probability in either case was .000000954. But your drawing the 256,057th-shortest straw isn't an outcome that would suggest a 'set-up' or would suggest the need for any sort of explanation, and, therefore, drawing the shortest shouldn't suggest the need for an explanation either. The only real difference in the two cases is that you wouldn't have been around to remark on the unlikelihood of drawing the 256,057th-shortest straw.

 It is one thing, however, to note that an argument is silly and another thing to say why it is silly. But an explanation is not hard to come by. The argument is silly because it violates the following principle: Suppose that there is a certain fact that has no known explanation; suppose that one can think of a possible explanation of that fact, an explanation that (if only it were true) would be a very *good* explanation; then it is wrong to say that the event stands in no more need of an explanation than an otherwise similar event for which no such explanation is available.

My drawing the shortest straw out of a bundle of over a million straws in a situation in which my life depends on my drawing just that straw certainly suggests a possible explanation. If an audience were observing my drawing the shortest straw, they would very justifiably conclude that I had somehow 'cheated': they would conclude that had had some way of knowing which straw was the shortest and that (to save my life) I had deliberately drawn it. (If I know that I *didn't* know which straw was the shortest--if I am just as astounded as anyone in the audience at my drawing the shortest straw--then the situation will not suggest *to me* that particular explanation of my drawing the shortest straw, but it will suggest the one that I have already mentioned, namely that some unknown benefactor has rigged the drawing in my favor.) But if an audience were to observe my drawing the 256,057th-shortest straw (and my consequent immediate demise), this would not suggest *any* explanation to them: no one would suppose--nor would it be reasonable for anyone to suppose--that I knew which straw was the 256,057th-shortest and that I deliberately drew it; nor would anyone suppose that someone had rigged the drawing to ensure my getting the 256,057th-shortest straw; nor would any other possible explanation come to anyone's mind.

We have seen that the setting of the cosmic dials does suggest an explanation: the dials were so set by a rational being who wanted the cosmos to be a suitable abode for other rational beings. Therefore, those critics of the teleological argument who say that one setting of the cosmic dials is no more remarkable than any other possible setting are certainly mistaken. We should note that our principle does not say that one can think of a really good explanation for some fact, one should automatically assume that that explanation is correct; the principle says only that in such cases it would be a mistake simply to assume that that fact required no explanation. [End of extract from van Inwagen]

So you see, Rees *has* to posit the Multiverse in order to explain the fine-tuning (that is, keeping to the straw analogy, he has to posit that all the straws are drawn, but that as soon as each straw is drawn, the drawer pops up in a separate universe, in all but one of which he is dead.) This is the only way to avoid the Design Hypothesis. But it is done at the cost of the most egregious and unscientific violation of Ockham's Razor in the history of philosophy.

Incidentally, the six numbers Rees refers to are: nu (a ratio of the strength of electrical forces that hold atoms together compared to the force of gravity, which is 10 to the 37th power) epsilon (how firmly the atomic nuclei bind together, which is 0.004) omega (amount of material in the universe) lambda (force of cosmic "antigravity" discovered in 1998, which is a very small number) Q (ratio of two fundamental energies, which is 1/100,000) delta (number of spatial dimensions in our universe). Martin Rees is Britain's Astronomer Royal. He is the author of several books, including Gravity's Fatal Attraction: Black Holes in the Universe (with Mitchell Begelman) and Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others. A member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and numerous foreign academies, Rees is Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge University.

Stephen Tunney, Los Angeles

reply: I don't consider Paulos' 'argument' to be "a good argument, even decisive." I don't consider it to be an argument at all. It's an illustration. The point he is trying to illustrate is that "rarity by itself shouldn't necessarily be evidence of anything." I'm sure some people of faith will be quite taken by your impressive marshalling forth of authorities and arguments from rarity. Sorry, but I'm not.

You say "The proper 'card analogy' for the universe supporting intelligent life would be to be dealt 13 cards of the same suit." You might as well say that the proper card analogy would be to get dealt a hand in a fifth suit. The point is, the analogy isn't meant to prove the universe wasn't designed. It was meant to illustrate the point that no matter what mathematical odds you come up with for a universe intelligently designed, those odds don't prove the universe was designed (any more than a card analogy could prove the universe wasn't designed).

The sledgehammer I refer to in my entry on the argument from design is not the card analogy but the point that "rarity by itself shouldn't necessarily be evidence of anything."


Stephen replies

I have to confess, I find your reply intellectually weak to a breathtaking degree, and strong evidence that, far from being a skeptic, you are doggedly committed to an anti-theistic prejudice. Let me explain why.

You say: "The sledgehammer I refer to is not the card analogy but the point that 'rarity by itself shouldn't necessarily be evidence of anything'". But what kind or degree of 'rarity' are we talking about? Rees' book, to take a recent example, is forced to posit a Multiverse in order to avoid the Design hypothesis. In effect, he's *conceding* that the improbability against anthropic cosmic order arising accidentally is billions of billions of billions to 1. I'm not sure you comprehend the import of this. What it *effectively* means is that in order to show that this was *still more probable than* the Design hypothesis, one would practically have to have an a priori proof of the falsity of design. (I don't think Rees fully realizes this himself, by the way). To then say, as you do, that rarity isn't necessarily evidence of anything is to miss the point in a rather spectacular and, with respect to other skeptical arguments, decidedly inconsistent way.

For 'rarity' in this context, one should read *'mind-boggling improbability'*. To say that *this* kind or degree of improbability isn't necessarily evidence of anything is stupefyingly obtuse. What does the term 'evidence' *mean*, for crying out loud? If a hypothesis's mind -boggling improbability *isn't* evidence against that hypothesis, what on earth *could possibly count* as evidence against it? And what on earth are skeptics, such as yourself, doing when they invoke the improbability of hypotheses X, Y, and Z against the rational propriety of giving credence to those hypotheses???

reply: I thought we were talking about the argument from design? an argument about the existence of God? Who denies the universe is designed? There are laws of nature and there is "stuff" that over billions of years have produced amazing systems from viruses to galaxies. The designer need not be some anthropomorphic being reproducing "rationality" to reflect its own nature. The designer, as Richard Dawkins put it, is "a blind watchmaker." That is not to be taken literally, of course. We're not talking about the odds of ten zillion pieces of metal arranging themselves to form a Boeing 747.

For those who are interested in the multiple universes idea (Rees is not alone in this notion) I suggest reading the title essay in Martin Gardner's Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries? He notes that Andrei Linde, a Russian physicist at Stanford University, proposed the multiverse hypothesis (which is what it is, by the way, a hypothesis) but came to a different conclusion that Rees.

Linde's multiverse goes like this. Every now and then, whatever that means, a quantum fluctuation precipitates a Big Bang. A universe with its own space-time springs into existence with randomly selected values for its constants. In most of these universes those values will not permit the formation of stars and life. They simply drift aimlessly down their rivers of time. However, in a very small set of universes the constants will be just right to allow creatures like you and me to evolve. We are here not because of any overhead intelligent planning but simply because we happen by chance to be one of the universes properly tuned to allow life to get started. (Gardner)

There is also a nice little argument in Daniel Dennet's Darwin's Dangerous Idea (p. 165) that you might find interesting.

According to the Anthropic Principle, we are entitled to infer facts about the universe and its laws from the undisputed fact that we (we anthropoi, we human beings) are here to do the inferring and observing. The Anthropic Principle comes in several flavors....

In the "weak form," it is a sound, harmless, and on occasion useful application of elementary logic: if x is a necessary condition for the existence of y, and y exists, the x exists. If consciousness depends on complex physical structures, and complex structures depend on large molecules composed of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, then, since we are conscious, the world must contain such elements.

But notice that there is a loose cannon on the deck in the previous sentence: the wandering "must." I have followed the common practice in ordinary English of couching a claim of necessity in a technically incorrect way. As any student in logic class soon learns, what I really should have written is:

It must be the case that: if consciousness depends [on complex physical structures, and complex structures depend on large molecules composed of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium,] then, since we are conscious, the world contains such elements.

The conclusion that can be validly drawn is only that the world does contain such elements. It has to contain such elements for us to exist, we may grant, but it might not have contained such elements, and if that had been the case, we wouldn't be here to be dismayed. It's as simple as that....

Suppose John is a bachelor. Then he must be single, right? (That's a truth of logic.) Poor John--he can never get married! The fallacy is obvious in this example, and it is worth keeping it in the back of your mind as a template to compare other arguments with.

Finally, here's another short straw story for you. Imagine you are holding a short straw. Behind you is an infinite row of haystacks. Behind each of these haystacks in an infinite column of haystacks. No matter how deep you go into any column you never find a haystack with nothing but short straws. And about half-way through each infinite column you discover that there are no short straws in the stacks, just particles needed to make straw. A little deeper in you find that there are infinitely more columns branching off into the abyss. You follow them and find that half of these seem to be floating, disconnected from all the others  as if these were dead ends, yet they go back forever. However, the infinite row of haystacks at the front contains nothing but stacks with all short straws. I leave it to you to create more stories. This one really has many infinite possibilities. For example, you could have me standing in front of the stacks with short straws. You could tell me I must pick one straw from one haystack in the front and that you will kill me if I don't pick a short straw. Or, how about, there is only one haystack behind you and it contains nothing but short straws. Behind it, imagine there are infinite branches of haystacks. Those branches are all out of reach. What are the odds of you surviving? Since you are already here, they are very good. Since you can only pick from one haystack and it only contains short straws, the odds are very good. 1:1 I'd say.

15 Nov 2003
I think the discussion of Intelligent design is unnecessarily wordy and obtuse on both sides. Try this simpler analogy. You walk into a cave and find a large crystal sticking out of the wall. You have never seen a crystal of any kind and you have no powers other than your senses to examine it. You think, "This must have been made, it has perfectly symmetrical sides, absolute straight lines, and no apparent means of natural propagation. Nothing else natural looks like this."

We have only one universe to examine and no possible way to test a hypothesis that this one is somehow "designed" differently from any other one. Even if another were discovered, how could you tell with the knowledge we have now which is random and which is not?

"The anthropically fine-tuned nature of the universe is established fact. The question is why?"

This is like saying the air was put here for us to breathe, why? Evolution aside for the moment, there is no way to prove the universe was fine tuned for us or for what possible reason.

"...the improbability against anthropic cosmic order arising accidentally is billions of billions of billions to 1.

No, there is no probability for this question. Probability is mathematically determined theoretically or experimentally. A coin flip is theoretical - equal chances for heads or tails. How many times the coin would land standing on it's edge would have to be determined experimentally - drop it a million times and see the results.

We don't know what happened to cause the Big Bang and resulting cosmic order theoretically so... primordial heads = Universe...tails = ? Experimentally we have only one Universe so we can't look at others to see what's in them...flip number one = our Universe...flip number two = ?

I doubt there is a Metaphysical answer for what is essentially a scientific question.

reply: I'd say that there is a metaphysical answer for every scientific question, but they're all wrong. The odds that there is a correct metaphysical answer for a scientific question are probably about the same as the odds that the arrangement of whatever existed at the moment of the big bang would produce the unique genetic person you are in just 12 billion years.

24 Nov 2003
Let us assume for the sake of argument that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. Let us further assume that a human generation is about 20 years. In that case, we are some 300 generations from Adam and Eve. Now, each of our parents has two copies of each gene, but we get only one copy from each parent, so the odds of getting a particular gene from our parents is one in four (that's a big assumption--there might be thousands of variants of any given gene, but the principle is the same). Our mothers typically have about 400-500 fertile eggs over a lifetime. Our fathers produce some 60 million sperm cells in each ejaculation, of which American marrieds have perhaps 120 per year. Of those cells, only one can fertilize an egg. Given a female fertile period of about five days a month, that means that only about 25 ejaculations per year even have a chance of resulting in pregnancy. About half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions. So, here's what the odds of your existing as a result of your parents' sexual relationship are:

Particular gene 1:4

Total genes: 1:30,000

Eggs: 1:400

Sperm: 1:60,000,000

Intercourse 1:25

Ejaculations 1:120

Fertile sex life 1:40

Female fertile days: 1:6

Abortion: 1:2

I think that covers it--I get 4,147,200,000,000,000,000,000 (a bit over 4 septillion):1, but it should be multiplied by the number of variants in the average gene.

But wait, what if our parents had married others, or our mothers had been raped, or our fathers had an extramarital liaison? Conservatively, I'd guess we each have at least 100 different potential fathers and 100 potential mothers (but Mary broke up with Bill in 1957, or Sam moved to Moosejaw the year before Judy moved to Sacramento), so add four more zeroes. And the same problem obtains for each of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. So we have 41,472,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (41 octillion and change) times 2 to the 300th power (2.4 X 10 to the 90th). My HP scientific calculator can't handle a number so big as this final calculation. Obviously, then, none of us exist.
John Renish

reply: Unless we were created five minutes ago with memories of it  being impossible for us to exist or we just stepped through a wormhole from the Garden of Eden to the Olive Garden.

28 Oct 2003
Thank you very much for your body of information about the Argument from Design. I am very interested in taking deeper what many theists take for granted. I am a young theist myself, and I bear the necessary burden of skepticism which God gave me. (Heh-heh). I do have one comment about the nature of some of your comments that I hope will incite some reply from you.

Whenever I speak with atheists (I'm assuming that you are one), invariably we will get to the subject of human suffering. I don't fault atheists for this, for even theists struggle with the problem of evil & a supposedly all-powerful, benevolent God. What follows is an excerpt from your hand:

I might find this watch analogy more convincing of Divine Purpose if, while observing it in his imaginary scenario, Paley's watch suddenly and for no reason shot a lightning bolt through his forehead. That would be more in harmony with the universe I have come to know and love. If the watch could give AIDS to anyone who touched it, or contaminate his progeny for endless generations, then I might be convinced that this watch is like the universe and indicative of a Grand Designer.*

To be plain, Mr. Carroll, I see this attitude all the time. And coming from intelligent, critically thinking men such as yourself, it seems to take a step back from the standard of skepticism you so proudly profess to follow. What I see in this excerpt is a large dose of cynicism that has no place in an argument. It plays on the sensibilities of others who feel the same way you do about the subject and does nothing to support your position. In my opinion, it merely betrays your bias to see the world in a way that suits your desires.  Just like the skeptic who criticizes the theist because he WANTS to view the world as a meaningful, orderly place is the skeptic who takes the opposite view for the same weak reason. It saddens me to see people arguing on preference, using clever anecdotes or biting wit to bait others into accepting their view, whether it be employed in the atheist camp or the theist camp. If that were the purpose of argument, all I'd have to do is to convince some impressionable young man that it's beneath his dignity and intelligence to disbelieve in God. And all you'd have to do is the same from your angle.

Mr. Carroll, I am not claiming that personal prejudice is the sole basis for your beliefs, but why even allude to it in your reasoning? I hope that I have made some sense, for what I have said, I have said forcefully. If you ever find the time to comment, I would greatly appreciate it. I am open to being put in my place if you see the need.
J. M. Galjour

reply: I have no intention of putting anyone in his place, but I will try to explain and defend my comment about unpredictable horror in the context of evaluating the watch analogy. Paley's argument hinges upon similarities of order and design between the watch and the universe. The watch is a machine whose parts have been designed to work together for a purpose. That much everyone can agree upon. But were this watch truly like the universe, it would have elements of unpredictability and destructiveness. In short, this is a bad analogy. The universe is no more like a watch than it is like an atomic bomb or a Beethoven piano concerto.

The argument from design, however, fails because it begs the question, as I point out in my entry on this subject. The fact that it is also a false analogy is a bonus for those opposing the argument, but it is not essential. It is true that the designer need not be good  (though this is assumed by Paley and all other good Christians) and so the watch need not be a good watch for the analogy to work.  (The designer of the watch must be intelligent, according to Paley, because of the fact that the parts of the watch had to have been made to work together to fulfill their purpose. And from this he concludes that the designer of the universe must also be intelligent on a very grand scale. Paley clearly recognizes that order alone implies neither design nor intelligence.)

So why bring up the bad watch scenario if the argument from design makes no claim upon the goodness of either the watch or the designer? Because the argument from design is just the first step in a series of arguments. The next step is to assume that the designer is the Judeo-Christian God: the All-Good, All-Powerful, All-Knowing God. If it were just an argument that the universe has enough order and structure to make it appear to be designed, then Nature could be said to fill the bill as well as the Judeo-Christian God. But the argument does not stop with a Designer who may be good or evil. Those who make this argument do not stop with a non-descript Designer.

It is common for theists to build an impenetrable defense around this belief in a perfectly wise and good God by claiming on the one hand that there is a reason God allows moral and non-moral evil, but on the other hand God's reasons transcend human understanding. If the latter is true, then for all you know God is evil and simply tolerates a bit of goodness. Or worse, for all you know, what you call good is what God calls evil.

Personally, I don't consider it a cheap shot to remind the theist that you should not be selective when listing attributes of the good, orderly, designed universe. It is not just that there is evil in the universe, but that evil is unpredictable and falls upon the good and bad alike without discrimination. There is order, yes, but there is disorder, too. Maybe I should have alluded to a broken watch, or a watch that always tells the wrong time, instead of being so dramatic with the lightening bolt watch. However, I see bias in those who selectively ignore the chaos in the universe. Yet, I must admit that the bad watch scenario is a distraction because it is aimed not at the argument from design per se, but at the notion that this Designer is wise or good.

14 Dec 2001
Just one minor quibble:

"On the other hand, if by 'empirical' one means capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment then ID is not empirical. Neither the whole of Nature nor an individual eco-system can be proved or disproved by any set of observations to be intelligently or unintelligently designed. "

Suppose, for example, we found in some of the junk DNA in a human genome a pattern that decoded to the first 100 significant figures of pi in base 4. Or better yet, a coded message that read, "No shit, I really did create the Universe in seven days, yours truly, Yahweh." That would be some pretty convincing evidence of ID, at least in my mind.

Best regards... Stuart

reply: I'm sure someone working on the Bible Code will find pi in junk DNA several times over. It may take some work to create the code to find pi, but if it were easy even George Bush could do it. On the other hand, I doubt if Yahweh uses words like sht. But, if every sunset spelled out "on your knees and worship me or I will destroy everything on the planet except for the guy that runs Noah's Bagels" in large Gothic letters visible to everyone on earth, then I'd believe in design and I'd be afraid to use any adjectives to describe that design.

14 Sep 1997
How would you explain the global migrations of birds and fish?


reply: Well, Robert, I suppose your question is intended to imply that if I can't explain to your satisfaction how birds and fish find their ways to their traditional migratory areas that God must be giving them maps. Or perhaps God busies himself by directly intervening and guiding the animals to their breeding grounds. On the other hand, maybe God gave the animals some intelligence to go along with their brains and senses, so the dumb animals wouldn't get lost. On the other hand, maybe God didn't have anything to do with it. Maybe these animals evolved and their global migrations are part of their evolutionary process. I don't know, but the migratory habits of birds and fish is a bit outside of my field of expertise. However, you might like to look at these sources:

1. Gould, Stephen J. 1996. "Fly (almost) south young bird." Nature. 383(Sept. 12):123
2. Kerlinger, Paul. How birds migrate (Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, 1995).
3. Orientation in birds edited by P. Berthold ; with a foreword by Rudiger Wehner. (Basel ; Boston : Birkhauser Verlag, 1991).
4. Alerstam, Thomas. Bird migration translated by David A. Christie (Cambridge [England] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1990).
5. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley

As for the fish, well, Robert, I suggest you go to the library and check out a book on the subject. You are asking the wrong person when you ask me to explain the global migration of fish. But you might try

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