Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Intelligent Design and Atheism are logically consistent

Many people think that Intelligent Design necessarily infers the existence of God.  Therefore, it must count as a religious doctrine since it is necessarily connected to an essential article of all religions.  However, this analysis relies on hasty reasoning, without giving due consideration to the definition of Intelligent Design.

Many also know that Intelligent Design proponents often claim that ID agnostic about the designer, that it only cares about examining the activity of said designer.  Many claim this is disingenuous, since who else could a designer of our world be but the God of the faith traditions?

Maybe the many are correct.  But, let us first take a moment to examine what ID on its own merits entails.  To start with, let us see what the basic claim of ID is.  The basic claim of ID is that only intelligent agency (IA) is capable of creating complex specified information.  This claim takes a bit of unpacking, and has been adequately unpacked in many other arenas, so I will forgo the unpacking for now.

Back with the core claim, then.  Does it imply that the IA must necessarily be God?  Well, no.  There are many other potential IAs that can can account for a given portion of CSI.  For instance,  humans are a great candidate.  In fact, humans account for all the CSI for which we have direct, unequivocal, historical evidence of its creator.

Plainly, then, ID does not necessitate the designer be God.  Otherwise, you'd have to say God created the computer you are reading this article on, instead of a number of American and Chinese researchers and workers.  Perhaps in certain theologies that statement is true, but in the everyday common sense understanding of that statement, it is false that God created your computer.

Now that we have identified that the intelligent designer can be many other agents besides God, it is clear that the initial claim that ID necessarily entailed the designer be God is false.  But perhaps an infinite regress argument gets us back to the necessity of God?  Maybe, but this is not straightforwardly the case.

To understand why, let us consider physics.  In physics, in order for anything to happen, we must at least have matter and energy.  Now, if matter and energy inherently necessitate the existence of God, then physics too is a religious doctrine, and should be removed from the schools.  But, it is not immediately obvious that matter and energy do inherently necessitate the existence of God.  Instead, matter and energy are considered basic substances in our universe.  Kinds of substances that have existed for the entire duration of the universe.

Consequently, there appear to be some things which we don't account for their origin.  If intelligent agency is shown to exist, it may be the same sort of substance.  If ID turns out to be correct, physics may say that there are three basic substances: matter, energy and intelligent agency.  Accordingly, there is no inherent reason to account for the origin of intelligent agency, at least not any more than there is an inherent reason to account for the origin of matter and energy.  And, just as the mere existence of matter and energy does not tend to convince atheists they must become theists, so the mere existence of intelligent agency has no more reason to dissuade atheists from their atheism.

In fact, a number of existing and ancient religious narratives are consistent with a non-theistic existence of intelligent agency.  If we define theism as a belief in an all powerful, all knowing God, such a view of God is fairly recent in the religious timeline.  There are even religions today that don't believe in a deity with omnipotence and omniscience.  Without these qualities, the gods in these religions are essentially super men - humans that have acquired greater than normal powers.  As such, there is no ontological difference between these gods and humans, and in fact ancient myths tell of humans supplanting the domain of the gods.  Consequently, these religious traditions are actually atheistic in the logical meaning of the term, and are additionally consistent with ID.

That being said, while Intelligent Design is logically consistent with such an atheism, it may not be evidentially consistent, such as demonstrated by events like the big bang.  And, upon further reflection, it may also turn out there are deep logical problems with intelligent agency existing without any further explanation.  But, if so, then these same logical problems also apply to the existence of matter and energy, and are not unique to Intelligent Design.

Sketch of experiment using Stylus and Complex Specified Information Collecting (CSIC) to falsify Intelligent Design

The central claim of Intelligent Design is that only intelligent agents can create complex specified information (CSI).  However, Intelligent Design research has not focused very much on how intelligent agents actually impart this information, choosing rather to focus on detecting information in the first place.  This makes sense, since we have to detect the information in order to then determine whether it was deposited by an intelligent agent, or some other causal agent.

In a previous post, I outlined a practical approach of discovering how intelligent agents, such as humans, impart information.  The approach is called Complex Specified Information Collection, and I describe CSIC here:

In CSIC, human interaction is incorporated into an algorithmic search process to add active information to the search process.  The amount of active information imparted can be measured during each stage of the search process to determine just how responsible the intelligent agents are for the information that is in the search.  The concept of active information is explained by Dr. Dembski's work on the No Free Lunch Theorem:
The Search for a Search: Measuring the Information Cost of Higher Level Search

In "The Search for a Search" Dr. Dembski shows that the effectiveness of a search algorithm in finding a target is limited by the amount of active information the search has about the target, which is information that reduces the area the algorithm must search.  Thus, extremely effective search algorithms should correspondingly possess large amounts of active information.

Dr. Dembski, with the aid of Dr. Robert Marks and Mr. Winston Ewert, have shown this correspondence holds true with Avida.  Avida has been purported to generate complex specified information without the intervention of an intelligent agent.  However, Dr. Dembski et al. have shown that the active information was actually front loaded into the search algorithm by the programmer.

ID experimental researcher, Dr. Doug Axe, has been investigating the implications of ID for evolution.  He has developed a cutting edge simulation called Stylus to examine how well functional specification can be acquired through stepwise mutation:

The notion of active information also applies to Dr. Axe's stepwise mutation algorithm.  If it ends up being especially effective at creating functional specification, it is possible to take the algorithm apart and examine it piece by piece to see how the active information has been integrated into the algorithm.  With this analysis we have a baseline of active information to characterize the search process.

Now we also have the tools to go the next step and see how intelligent agents can increase the amount of active information in a search.  This is very valuable since we can learn how conditions, behaviors, techniques exhibited by the intelligent agents impact the amount of active information created, if any.  We can also falsify Intelligent design theory by detecting an increase in active information within the search with no corresponding intelligent agent interaction.

Thus, by combining Stylus and CSIC, we have a full fledged scientific experiment with which we can either falsify or confirm intelligent design, as well as gain valuable insights into how intelligent design works.