Friday, April 02, 2010

When Meaning Transcends How it Works

The following was also published at Telic Thoughts.

Regis Nicoll wrote The Bad News of Intelligent Design which appears at the Break Point website. I submitted a comment which a commenter named Steven J. Thompson responded to. His remarks provide the context for my own arguments. Thompson's remarks are contained within the blockquotes:

Regis Nicoll offered an argument from consequences: ID, he claims, offers a support for moral choices he approves and undercuts support for moral choices he disapproves.

I would agree with Nicoll but would add that intelligent design disciplines like archeology and history offer more powerful support for the faith and morality he embraces. Undercutting views opposed to Christian moral norms is considered threatening to some ID critics. Why else would they moan about a Trojan horse? They are alarmed that ID could herald the propagation of Judeo-Christian values they abhor.

I was arguing, simply, that he was wrong: if we don't know and aren't allowed assumptions about the Designer's methods, motives, and design philosophy, then we have no grounds whatsoever for inferences about how much or under what circumstances the Designer values His creations, or how He expects us to behave (including either "all human life is sacred" or "some human life is not sacred").

Thompson is right to argue that intelligent design cannot answer important questions about our Creator and his expectations of us. That information must be revealed to us by God.

Intelligent Designers keep insisting, whenever they are arguing that their ideas are science rather than religious apologetics, that the Designer doesn't need to be the Christian God, or God at all. I'm simply pointing out the implications of that position.

IDists argue that a design inference tells us nothing about the character of a designer.

Intelligent design purports to be a scientific argument. The imputation of design is supposed to be a scientific hypothesis, if not an outright scientific conclusion. What possible sense does it make to say that it does not need to be empirical?

Intelligent design is influenced by realities of the physical world. ID might be considered protoscience. It surely has philosophical aspects but they are constrained by the natural world. Conservation of information concepts may lead to a full fledged scientific discipline or only to interesting musings. But ID is not delinked from empirical data even if it does not provide the theoretical framework needed for a research program.

There can be arguments for theism that are not empirical, but they cannot be design arguments (and conversely, again, a design argument is not necessarily an argument for an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God with a plan for our salvation).

Non-empirical arguments for theism cannot be design arguments? Why not? That seems irrational to me. But I would agree that a design argument is not an argument for a God with a plan for our salvation.

I don't think you quite grasp the "God of the gaps" accusation. Edward O. Wilson argued, on strictly naturalistic and evolutionary grounds, that there were probably natural phenomena that humans would never be able to explain. Conceivably, the origin of life could be such a permanently intractable problem. I think it was Isaac Asimov who stated that he was convinced that unidentified flying objects existed; it was their identification as alien space ships that he questioned. By the same token "we don't know how this happened" is not evidence for intelligent causation, much less for any particular sort of intelligent Cause.

This is a straw man. IDists do not make this argument.

ID doesn't have even a hint of a mechanism by which "intelligence" creates life (in our experience, so far as it goes, all the intelligence in the world won't put a line on paper, much less build a complete machine from a blueprint, without some sort of material mechanism), so what scientific advantage does it enjoy over "some unknown natural cause presumably did it?"

Several things need to be noted. That the presumption of a material mechanism is not evidence for it or even an indicator that a theoretical mechanism exists, is not even the problem alluded to by intelligent design. Even when you have an identifiable mechanism you still have not identified a causal source for a distinctive outcome accomplished through the endeavors of intelligent agency. Messaging is a case in point. Fingers and muscles are part of the mechanistic complex explaining the physical forces creating this message. But since the mechanism is directed by a mind, which could create a completely contrary message or none at all, the identification of a mechanism is of trivial significance to a determination of the message itself.

Yet a message can convey evidence of a conscious intelligent source. Consider the messaging inherent to gene expression. Biochemical processes give evidence of physical mechanisms involved in initiating, curtailing and realizing cellular changes. All made possible by a convention described as a genetic code. Sequencing of identical nucleotides can signal different amino acids, different proteins and ultimately alternative functions. Alternative sequencing within an established convention is a mark of symbolism which in turn indicates an abstraction i.e. meaning made intelligible by a mind.

Materialists argue that the symbolism alluded to is seeming i.e. the product of blind forces of nature simulating an abstraction. It may appear to be the case that UCC is the physical representation of serine and it indeed is but one may draw no conclusion that the linkage resulted from anything other than a combination of stereochemical forces, random environmental conditions and some unspecified natural selection dynamic. All as impersonal and intelligence free as the force drawing a batted ball toward the ground. This has not shown to be the case of course but the operative assumption is that this lack of empirical confirmation is attributable to a lack of knowledge which will yield to a breakthrough in the future. To doubt this is to engage in placing God into the gaps of our knowledge; as if God was removed from the realm of possibility by virtue of our discovery of how his creations function.

In a previous post John Polkinghorne was quoted as saying:

Science tells us how the world works, but it really doesn’t try to tell us about matters of meaning or value or purpose, which are equally important.

Messages have meaning, value and purpose consistent with a conscious intelligent origin source. UCC/serine is not a poetic or fanciful abstraction imposed by an observant mind yet unconnected to physical reality as is the imagery that a cloud pattern might evoke in a creative mind. Constraint is a distinguishing factor. The interpretation a mind applies to distinguish design from non-design is not dictated or precluded by empiricism. Rather it results from meaning assigned to physical symbols by a conscious intelligent mind. We don't know how God could happen is not an argument for the origin of a blind watchmaker. Don't use materialism to bridge the cognitive limitations of humans.

Science has boundaries demarcated by the accuracy and extent of its predictions. Meaning is not defined by scientific limitations. Rational linkages constrained by nature provide meaning. That meaning points to intelligent design as a likely causal source. Consistent with philosophical materialism? No. The result of identifying a physical mechanism? No. As rational as the materialist driven attribution of an unidentified mechanism? No. It's more rational in that the known logic, knowledge and workings of conscious intelligence favorably contrast with the fuzzy ill-defined machinations of physical theories for a causal explanation of functionally sequenced DNA.