October 9, 2004


On this week's Tangled Bank we find an Introduction to Multiple Designers Theory, an attempt by one Richard Hoppe to inject some scientific method into the ID scrum.

I suppose my initial, visceral reaction to reading it is some displeasure at the fact that, given the intent of the effort, the best he can do towards fabricating a real academic discipline out of ID is to reduce evolutionary biology to something like art history. More substantively, I detect two areas of intellectual sloppiness; I'm not sure to what extent I should blame this on Hoppe, and to what extent I am simply reading unfairly based on my admittedly sparse experience with current ID writing (I hesitate to call it "scholarship").

The first is the insistence on an "unembodied" set of designers. I understand that this would be absolutely vital if one tried to postulate that intelligent design is an ongoing process, effectuating biological change from one generation to the next in a broad class of organisms -- there is no reasonable method by which some intelligent, physical entities could access and alter so many pieces of matter, in so many locations, without someone noticing. Not unless there is some heretofore-unrecognized variety of intelligent virus, which would run into severe information theory difficulties. However, if one already concedes that design is an activity that can take place in punctuated bursts, at various times during the Earth's history, then there seems to be no reason why physical designers are ruled out, so long as no widespread instance of design has taken place since humans became globally dispersed and keepers of accurate observational records -- which is to say, not in the past millenium or so. If designers are inclined to work in more geographically localized domains, however, who's to say that it isn't ongoing somewhere on Earth that we simply haven't noticed.

Moreover, the appeal to one or more "unembodied" designer entities raises the serious question of physical mechanism. The "infinite wavelength-zero energy" proposal raised in this article falls somewhere between mumbo-jumbo and nonsense. The author suggests that MDT research need not concern itself immediately with the mechanism by which the design activity occurs. This is fine, if a tad incurious, but proves that there is no crisis of understanding connected to this mechanism question, only a lack of data. If there isn't an extremely good reason to require such noncorporeal beings, Occam's razor alone strongly militates against them, and good sense likewise advises against inventing new physics to explain a phenomenon the existence of which your theory is indifferent towards.

The second objection, stemming from the first, is that no mention is made of conventional evolution taking place in tandem with designed processes. There is a wealth of evidence that selective mutation-driven evolution can account for some, if not all, of the biological diversity currenlty observed, and plenty more data support the proposition that this mechanism is ongoing. Therefore, and especially if one posits punctuated design, it seems vital to include "mechanistic" evolution alongside the intelligent process.

With regards to this second point, I may be simply misunderstanding ID theory as it currently stands. It could be the case that the ID crew implicitly assumes that conventional evolution does take place, and thus never mentions it. Indeed, the presently ubiquitous notion of "irreducible complexity" would seem to concede that evolution works just fine, except for the genesis of those features judged to be "irreducibly" complex.

One reason that I am somewhat intrigued by MDT is that it offers a potentially coherent line of investigative activity that would, if pursued, validate it as a true empirical science. So long as the ID community declines to take this bait, it gives me an exceedingly handy piece of ammunition against the creationist hecklers that keep showing up to astronomy outreach events. It becomes a perfectly valid question to ask, then, why if evolution is so obviously deficient, are no ID proponents actively researching the one area of ID thought so far to suggest a realistic research programme.

Another aspect is that MDT, preferably with punctuated design and physical, "embodied" designers, offers some insight into Fermi's paradox. Namely, the evidence for biological design in the Earth's past would, if confirmed, represent the strongest support yet for the "They are already here" solution to the paradox. This could, likewise, help move the SETI research program toward some actual conclusions, by posing questions grounded in fact instead of conjecture. Questions like, "Now that we know someone was here, where did they go?"

Posted by mill1974 at October 9, 2004 1:26 PM