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Who Designed the Designer?

Jason Rosenhouse

November 3, 2006

The existence of complex contrivances like computers or automobiles is routinely explained via the intelligent action of human designers. We are aided in this inference by the knowledge that human beings exist, and that they are capable of crafting such things. No one would object by saying, “But you haven’t explained where human beings come from!”

The situation is quite different, however, when we attempt to infer the existence of a designer by considering alleged examples of his handiwork. Living organisms are highly complex and consequently require a special sort of explanation. Most scientists explain them as the end result of a lengthy evolutionary process. Proponents of intelligent design (ID) dissent from this view. It is their belief that living organisms exhibit a certain kind of complexity, which they refer to as “complex specified information (CSI),” that is most plausibly explained as the result of intelligent design.

In drawing this conclusion they are hypothesizing the existence of an entity with the ability of creating, via an act of will, life in all its complexity. This is far beyond the abilities of any intelligent agents with which we have direct experience. The complexity of nature is used as the evidence that a certain sort of designer exists. This designer, in turn, is used as the explanation for nature.

This leads to a problem. The existence of complex entities was precisely the phenomenon in need of explanation. Hypothesizing the existence of something more complex than the thing to be explained only replaces one problem with a far greater one. If the universe can only be explained as the product of design, then any designer capable of crafting the universe must also be so explained. The result is an infinite regress of designers, each invoked to explain the existence of the one before.

Since this simple bit of logic poses a grave challenge to their theory, it is unsurprising that ID proponents have offered a number of gambits to get around it.

We could try denying the problem. Just as no one asks where humans come from when they are invoked to explain complex machines, perhaps it is unreasonable to demand an explanation for the designer in ID. Design proponent William Dembski, in his book The Design Revolution, writes:

Design-theoretic explanations are proximal or local explanations rather than ultimate explanations. Design-theoretic explanations are concerned with determining whether some particular event, object or structure exhibits clear marks of intelligence and can thus be legitimately ascribed to design. Consequently, design-theoretic reasoning does not require the who-designed-the-designer question to be answered for a design inference to be valid. There is explanatory value in attributing the Jupiter Symphony to the artistry (design) of Mozart, and that explanation suffers nothing by not knowing who designed Mozart. (p. 199)

This, alas, is not an adequate reply. The issue here is not how we explain the existence of the designer in ID. It is that the design proponent’s own logic tells us that such a designer can only be explained via the action of some other designer. It is their argument that the presence of a particular kind of complexity in living organisms can only be explained by design. Any designer capable of producing such complexity would have to be at least as complex as his production. If the design inference is legitimate when applied to living organisms, then it applies with even greater force to the designer himself.

Can we reject the premise that the designer in ID is as complex as his creation? No, we cannot. We are hypothesizing a designer capable of first conceptualizing the design of Earth’s biosphere, and then implementing that design by manipulating matter to bring it about. The greatest intelligences of which we are aware require highly complex bodies to function, but they can do nothing remotely like what the designer of ID is said to do. It seems implausible that an agent with vastly greater powers than our own is nonetheless simpler than us in any relevant sense.

Perhaps we can concede that the designer’s origin is mysterious, but argue that scientists routinely hypothesize the existence of entities that are themselves unexplained. Dembski again:

The regress implicit in the who-designed-the-designer question is no worse here than elsewhere in science. Such regresses arise whenever scientists introduce novel theoretical entities. For instance, when Ludwig Boltzmann introduced his kinetic theory of heat back in the late 1800’s and invoked the motion of unobservable particles (what we now call atoms and molecules) to explain heat, one might just as well have argued that such unobservable particles do not explain anything because they themselves need to be explained. (p. 198)

This, at least, is an instructive error. Dembski is wrong to analogize the explanation of heat via the motions of unobservable particles to the explanation of living organisms via the action of an unknown intelligent agent.

To see why, you need to consider the nature of scientific explanation. As I described in a previous essay in this series (See “What is Science?”), what scientists value is not so much truth as it is predictability and control. When scientists assert that a particular theory is true, they mean that it has successfully predicted the results of so many experiments that it would be unreasonable to withhold tentative assent.

That is why no one challenged Boltzmann when he invoked unobservable particles in his explanation of heat. He was able to show clearly that his hypothesis allowed him not only to explain the phenomena of heat, but also to predict the results of experiments not yet performed. It was undeniably useful to think in terms of atoms and molecules, and that was what Boltzmann, like all scientists, cared about.

Perhaps the most famous example of invoking an unobservable entity in scientific explanation is the neutrino. Atomic experiments in the early nineteen hundreds produced results in seeming contradiction to the principle of energy conservation. In other words, experiments were conducted in which it appeared there was less energy at the end of the experiment than there was at the beginning. This led some scientists to hypothesize that the kinetic energy of a tiny, unobservable particle, the neutrino, accounted for the missing energy. At the time, some scientists objected to this move, but later experiments established that the neutrino actually existed.

In both of these cases, hypothesizing certain unseen particles brought clarity to previously mysterious phenomena. And if the design proponents could show that their hypothesis does likewise scientists would embrace it for that reason. That is, if design proponents could point to some facts of biology and say, “The design hypothesis makes sense out of these facts, and suggests a likely fruitful line of investigation,” scientists would not object on the grounds that the designer itself needs to be explained. That would be treated as a mystery for another day. But the design proponents do not do this. They merely assert the reality of design and leave the matter there. Though they frequently assert otherwise, they have yet to produce anything of scientific interest from their chosen starting point.

There is a second difference to be noted. The scientists of Boltzmann’s day already had ample reason to suspect the existence of atoms and molecules. Neutrinos were themselves a novelty when first proposed, but many subatomic particles were already known and it was not too farfetched to hypothesize another one. Furthermore, the properties these particles were said to possess were in line with those possessed by other physical entities. Though unobserved, they were not totally mysterious. They were not imbued with remarkable powers invoked solely to explain puzzling data. Rather, scientists were able to infer precisely what properties they ought to have to explain the data in question, and these inferences formed the basis for subsequent experiments.

As a further example of this logic, consider the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846. Its existence was originally inferred from anomalies in the orbit of Uranus. Astronomers hypothesized that these anomalies could be explained via the gravitational pull of a then unknown planet. But they did not leave the matter there. Instead they deduced the approximate size and location of the mystery planet and used those deductions as the basis for their astronomical investigations. They were later repaid with success, of course.

Such is not the case with the design hypothesis. We have already seen that the entity being hypothesized is utterly unlike anything with which we have experience. It certainly is not a simple extrapolation from known intelligent agents, since the designer of ID is capable of feats orders of magnitude beyond anything known intelligences are capable of. And while you might think we could draw inferences about the nature of the designer by examining its alleged productions, thereby offering hope that it could be a useful hypothesis, the design proponents are quite adamant that this is not the case. They routinely assert that we can infer nothing beyond the trivial about the motivations or abilities of the designer on the basis of the design.

What, then, are we left with? Well, we might argue that the logic by which design proponents infer design in living organisms applies only to objects within the universe as we know it. If the designer resided outside of the universe - and how could it be otherwise if he is the entity that created the universe in the first place - then we cannot apply our Earth-bound logic to him.

Writing in the November 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine, author Marilynne Robinson tried this line of attack. She was responding to a version of the who-designed-the-designer argument offered by British biologist Richard Dawkins:

That God exists outside time as its creator is an ancient given of theology. The faithful are accustomed to expressions like “from everlasting to everlasting” in reference to God, language that the positivists would surely have considered nonsense but that does indeed express the intuition that time is an aspect of the created order. Again, I do not wish to abuse either theology or scientific theory by implying that either can be used as evidence in support of the other; I mean only that the big bang in fact provides a metaphor that might help Dawkins understand why his grand assault on the “God Hypothesis” has failed to impress the theists.

Of course, by going this route we are giving up all hope of making design into a scientific hypothesis. Saying that the designer is not himself subject to the principles of inference and logic applicable to everything else is equivalent to saying that he resides outside of all scientific investigation. Many religious people will have no problem with this assertion, but it is fatal to ID proponents.

More to the point, however, is that you do not need to be a logical positivist to regard Robinson’s suggestion as nonsense.

In explaining the origin of the universe, it seems inescapable that there must be something that has always existed. The Big Bang theory puts paid to the notion that our universe in its present form could be the something in question. Nonetheless, we can imagine that the cosmos has always had the capacity for quantum fluctuations and the like, and that certain basic principles of physics are eternal. Curious people will now ask where these principles and quantum phenomena came from, but we must stop somewhere and this at least provides the simplest stopping point we can imagine consistent with what is known about the universe. The great mystery of the universe’s existence is then reduced to the lesser mystery of the origin of something vastly simpler than the universe itself. This represents progress.

It is hardly reasonable, by contrast, to hypothesize a realm of reality even more bizarre and incomprehensible than our own, populated by at least one entity of unfathomable power, and argue that is the thing that has always existed. Placing the designer outside the normal logical and physical constraints of our universe solves nothing. If the designer exists and can influence our universe, then it is reasonable to ask where he came from. And if the designer is declared by fiat to have no need of an explanation, then it is likewise unreasonable to demand an explanation for the universe in the first place.

This is the problem with using the action of an awesomely powerful designer as an explanatory principle in science. Nothing that was formerly mysterious becomes clarified by such a move. No aspect of nature becomes controllable or predictable. The who-designed-the-designer question is not so much an attack on the logical possibility of an intelligent designer of the universe (though it does raise some troubling issues for ID proponents). Rather, it points to the utter vacuity of the idea. It explains nothing, and it leads to no fruitful lines of investigation. It solves one problem, the existence of the universe, only by creating a vastly greater problem, the existence of something more complex than the universe.

Still, we might imagine certain observations of nature that would drive us to such a conclusion anyway. That is, we could hypothesize observations that, were they to be made, would so strongly suggest the existence of something beyond our familiar reality that we would accept that conclusion despite our bafflement over where that something beyond came from. But prior to making this leap we had better be quite certain the phenomenon is genuinely inexplicable by more mundane approaches. Invoking design is not a solution. It is a concession that a problem is insoluble.

One wonders why this is not obvious to the design proponents. After all, scientific explanation typically moves from complex to simple. This is so for the most practical of reasons: simple explanations are more likely to be useful than complex ones. Complex phenomena do not become predictable or controllable by explaining them as the result of something more complex still. Yet design proponents urge scientists to proceed in precisely that manner.

The reason for this is not hard to spot. Despite their protestations to the contrary, ID is not really a scientific enterprise at all. Really its goal is simply to claim the backing of science for the conclusion that God exists. They understand perfectly well that hypothesizing the action of an unfathomable designer represents the end, not the beginning, of our investigation into nature’s mysteries. This is acceptable to them because their goals have more to do with cultural power and authority than they do with the more quotidian concerns of practicing scientists.

The difficulty posed to ID by the who-designed-the-designer question is real. If your argument is that aspects of nature are so complex they could only have arisen by design, then you are forced either to an infinite regress of designers or to the conclusion that the designer has some very bizarre characteristics indeed. If you place the designer outside of all investigation based on the principles of the known universe, then you are conceding that design cannot be part of science, and you are asserting nothing of explanatory value.

Perhaps someday we will be driven nonetheless to this conclusion, and we will just have to accept certain mysteries even more baffling than the ones nature already presents. ID assertions notwithstanding, that day has not yet arrived.

Jason Rosenhouse

Jason Rosenhouse is the author of EvolutionBlog, providing commentary on developments in the endless dispute between evolution and creationism.