Roddy Bullock: "Of Pots and People"

Roddy Bullock has a good new essay up on ARN:

Of Pots and People

Archeologist with simple piece of pottery: Look what I discovered; I wonder who created it.
Scientist: Wow! What a cool pot; who do you think made it?

Biologist with complex piece of DNA code: Look what I discovered; I wonder who created it.
Scientist: Wow! What a crackpot; why does he think someone made it?

It’s a good thing the Bible doesn’t say God made clay pots. If it did, design-minded archeologists would be out of a job. With little to say about each new find that cannot be turned into a “religious” question, design-inferring archeologists would be relegated to the fate of their like-minded brethren in biology–the realm of “science cannot infer design because design might mean God and science and religion cannot mix.” Archeologists be glad; you get to freely infer intelligent design for objects of obvious design but unknown origin without facing the “might mean God” barrier to truth-seeking. In other words, you get to be scientists and logically infer intelligent design–a luxury not to be taken for granted.

Actually, archeologists are not the exception; they are the rule. Scientists of many stripes infer design to explain phenomena of unknown (and unknowable) origin all the time. Forensic scientists, faced with a dead body and no witnesses look for evidence to piece together a historical narrative to explain a past event: was the death accidental (unintelligent causes) or murder (intelligent causation)? Simple. And what about the good folks over at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)? Their name says it all. Although embarrassed at being rightly compared to their like-minded biologist counterparts, these scientists regularly collect evidence in the form of radio signals to determine if the signals are the result of background radiation in space (unintelligent causes), or extraterrestrial intelligence (intelligent causes). Easy. A child can do it.

And biologists? Well, there’s the exception to one rule and the imposition of another. Biologists must suppress entertaining any lingering thoughts spurred by logical inferences of design because such thoughts automatically and necessarily lead to “religion” and, unless it’s a God-denying religion, that’s a bad thing. After all, a respectable scientist having “religious” thoughts hasn’t happened since the days of Newton, Boyle, Kepler, Bacon, Pascal, Herschel, Faraday, Joule and, well, you get the idea. It’s been a long time since the natural wonder of the beauty of intelligent design in nature could be scientifically expressed without professional and personal recriminations.

The savvy Darwinist will quickly jump in here with a smug smile and reply that the analogy to archeology does not hold. It happens, he says with the certainty of one-sided thinking, that in our human experience we know that humans can, and have, made pottery for generations. And because we can explain the kind of potter with some certainty, archeology never approaches the “might mean God” line. Living systems, on the other hand, are not known to be made by human intelligence, so we have no basis to infer human design, and any suitable intelligence must mean God, and science and religion cannot mix. You see? The inherent “who” problem in origins science is not to be found in archeology, so there is no inconsistency in letting archeology be respectable science and letting intelligent design be respectable religion (if there is such a thing).

Read more here.

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One Response

  1. Let me step in as “the savvy Darwinist” (I’m not, but I play one on TV). You suggested that a sophisticated Darwinist would put it this way:

    in our human experience we know that humans can, and have, made pottery for generations. And because we can explain the kind of potter with some certainty, archeology never approaches the “might mean God” line. Living systems, on the other hand, are not known to be made by human intelligence, so we have no basis to infer human design, and any suitable intelligence must mean God, and science and religion cannot mix.

    I would put it a little bit differently. We have a huge amount of background information that we’re able to draw upon when we assess the functions of various archeological finds. (But of course there are limits to this as well!!) We know that human beings today make pottery as well as other artifacts, the artifacts found in ruins are often accompanied by human remains, etc. So we’re able to draw on our background knowledge of human beings — their needs, interests, capacities, etc. — in interpreting archeological discoveries. The same point applies to even quite ancient discoveries, such as stone tools that are millions of years old. We have a huge amount of background knowledge about what sorts of processes form stones that resemble tools, and can reliably (we think) distinguish between stones that resemble tools and tools actually made by hominids.

    The problem is that in the case of biological (let alone cosmic) intelligent design, none of this holds. Since we know nothing of the designer except that it was an intelligent being of some sort — we know nothing of its needs, interests, or capacities — we cannot make any reliable inferences regarding what it could or could not have done. Thus there’s nothing we can test. At best we have some probability equations about the limits of “chance” and “necessity” all by themselves.

    That’s the case if the identity of the designer is left unspecified. If one says that the designer is God, then of course the situation is quite different, but then different sorts of problems arise. In fact it’s quite clear to me that ID, in order to be consistent, must hold that the designer is a supernatural being of some sort — but nothing entitles us to infer, from the claim that the designer is a supernatural intelligent being, that the designer must be the God of the Abrahamic faiths. Rather, pretty much any god or gods or goddesses would do just fine; intelligent design does not, so far as I tell, allow us to distinguish between Christianity, Gnosticism, Hinduism, or Norse mythology. That’s quite a big tent you have there.

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