Friday, October 28, 2005

New Issue of Skeptical Inquirer

Speaking of fine coverage of the Evolution/ID issue, check out the November/December issue of Skeptical Inquirer, now at newsstands. Mark Perakh offers an interesting variation on the imperfection argument. He points out that a complex system that loses its function when a single part is removed or damaged is not well designed. Consequently, the very feature that tells us (according to ID proponents) that a system must have been designed immediately implies that it was badly designed. Not too sensible. David Morrison offers some wise words about the proper way to frame the debate, such as it is. My own article about William Dembski's blatant misues of a quotation from paleontologist Peter Ward appears next, followed by some remarks from Lawrence Krauss about the Catholic Church and evolution. Then there's an excerpt from Sean Carroll's excellent book Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo. Lawrence Lerner wraps things up with an analysis of the polling data on evolution and creationism. Good stuff.


At 5:52 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Human designers commonly design redundancy into critical systems where failure can be costly, so that if a component fails there is a backup to take over its function.

A perfect Designer would not need to design redundancy, because such a designer's products would not fail.

Many biological systems are prone to failure or sub-optimal performance.

The obvious conclusion is that biological systems were not designed by an all-powerful deity, but by some human.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

Perakh has been pedaling this "incompetent" designer theory for some time. (Actually I could not find the article from the link you provided, but I am assuming it is essentially the same case he has made before.) There are cogent arguments against ID, but isn't one of them. It is utterly sophomoric.

The argument does not work even if one just states explicitly what most IDers are reluctant to say: the designer is the perfect God. For is supposes that God intended a perfect design when in fact what scripture teaches is that God inacted a perfect plan. Big difference.

There is much more that is wrong about this silly argument--it can be defeated, without much effort, even without assuming the designer is God.

The argument that evolutionary pathways exist to explain IRC is a much better approach to arguing against ID. Perakh's approach is just plain stupid.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Jason said...


The link I provied was simply to CSICOP's homepage, which includes a link to Skept. Inq. magazine. They have not yet updated that page to include the new issue. I don't know if they are planning to mke the individual articles freely available online.

As for the rest of your rather pompous and content-free comment, let me say the following: Mark is simply observing that the very feature that Behe says proves design is also a feature that in any human context would be considereed indicative of bad design. In other words, when engineers build complex systems, they regard it as a bad thing if the failure of any one part causes the whole system to collapse.

This leads to the irony that the very feature of a complex system that points to God's existence is the same featrue that points to his ineptitude as a designer.

If you find it intellectually satisfying to get around this by playing meaningless word games about the difference between a perfect design and a perfect plan, then more power to you. But since Behe, Dembski and others claim that their design inference is based on a straightforward extrapolation of what human designers do, it is not unreasonable to point out what huamn designers consider good or bad design. Furthermore, the brittleness and sensitivity of the complex systems we find in nature leads to a truly ridiculous amount of pain and suffering in nature. This is not pain and suffering brought about by any act of free will. From an ID perspective, it comes about as a result of specific actions taken by the designer.

I have no doubt that you could invent some twisted reason why our all loving, omnipotent God was forced by the logical niceties of his perfect plan to afflict his creation with poorly designed complex systems. But a simpler explanation is that our complex biological systems appear to be badly designed because they were crafted not by an omnipotent designer, but rather by the prolonged action of natural selection sifting random variations.

Far from being stupid, that point is actually rather obvious.

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

No it is stupid and rather obviously, even trivially wrong.

There is nothing twisted about the plan being perfect and not the design (I'll leave aside the fact that you unconscionably stuck implied words in my mouth about "logical necessities") A second grader who reads Genesis can understand that creation became radically defected as a result of the fall. Now you can of course dispute the whole account—but the idea that the plan of redemption is perfect while creation is flawed is at the level of a little kid's Sunday School lesson. I'm sure you can grasp the concept.

As for the lack of redundant systems, that could signal an inferior design, but it could also signal a superior one. It would take a cost-benefit analysis to determine. You do not want redundant systems that comsume resources (if only to lug them around) if they are rarely needed.

Has anyone compared the defect rate of the flagellum to automobiles coming off GM's assembly lines? Are there many bacteria broken down on the side of the road?

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Jason said...


As I said previously, I did not doubt your ability to devise some twisted reason why an all loving, omnipotent God afflicts his creation with numerous design flaws. I notice, however, that you had to resort to explicitly religious arguments to explain away this simple point. People like Behe and Dembski do not have that option. They are running around pretending to be scientists, and claiming that their inference to God's existence is based on a straightforward extrapolation of the characteristics of human designers. Mark was addressing their arguments, not yours.

Let's review: Behe claimed that an irreducibly complex system must have been designed. Perakh replies that, in addition to all the other problems with that notion, IC implies that a feature that would indicate bad design in any human context is precisely what proves design in a biological context. Heddle calls this stupid, because Perakh should have considered the possibility that bad design resulted from human sin. I suspect Behe is having a “Get off my side!” moment right now.

The twisted reason you came up with is that the design flaws of animals are the result of human sin in Eden. Right. Adam and Eve disobey God so God decides to torture animals. You find that satisfying? But then, after prattling about creation becoming radically defected as the result of the fall (whatever that means) you then turn around and argue that, actually, the lack of redundancy might indicate a superior design. Well, which is it?

Let's be more specific. I'm sure you've seen March of the Penguins by now. If you have, you know the penguins must undergo a torturous and often fatal multi-step process to produce baby penguins. In the course of this process, numerous penguins freeze to death before finding a mate, countless others freeze to death during their treks to and from the ocean, countless more see their eggs freeze before being hatched, and many of the babies that are successfuly hatched wander to far from their parent's protection and freeze to death as well.

How are we to explain that? Are we to say that the sin of Adam and Eve was so egregious that penguins in Antarctica had to pay the price for it? Or are the reproductive rituals of the penguins a reflection of God's perfect design?

I do not know how many bacteria experience difficulty because of defective flagellae. But I do know that the hospitals are filled with people whose complex, Rube Goldberg-like biochemical systems have broken down in some fundamental way. The fact is that an omnipotent God is not hampered by design constraints. It would have been trivial for him to design more resilient systems without burdening his creation with excessive baggage.

The suffering caused by poor design in nature is something that needs to be explained. The simplest explanation is that there is no God, and that the only designer is natural selection. An only slightly more complicated explanation is that God must allow poor design to occur because it was the only way for the creation to be truly separate from God himself. I find the first explanation satisfying. If I were inclined to believe in God I would probably find the second explanation satisfying.

But your explanation, by contrast, requires a complete abdication of common sense.

Nowhere in my previous comment did I talk about logical necessities. I talked about logical niceties. And nowhere did I imply that that phrase came out of your mouth. My point was simply that either the design flaws in animals are a logically necessary part of God's plan (as in my second explanation above) or they are not. If the former, then God can not be blamed for poor design. But it's a strange plan indeed that requires animal torture as one of its correlates. The alternative is that these design flaws are not logically necessary. In this case they exist as the result of a conscious choice on God's part. You will have to explain to me why God made that choice.

For the record, I went to Sunday school as a child. One of the reasons I am so hostile to religion today is that my teachers at the time made the same brain-dead arguments then that you are making now.

It is revealing, however, that you are content with the arguments of a child's Sunday school lesson. That explains a lot.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


As I said, you are free to dispute the theological explanation, but it is not twisted in the sense that it is consistent rather than at odds with scripture. If I had to do violence to scripture to claim that it teaches of a perfect plan for a flawed creation, you'd have a point. You may decide that this implies a cruel God who tortures animals, but that is a different issue.

I don't really care about Behe, and I am not on his side, and I don't even understand his arguments beyond a superficial level.

However, you ask me "well, which is it?" The answer: both. I guess you missed my first comment in the post where I said Perakh’s argument is does not work even if you assume the designer is not God—and it is mostly because he has not demonstrated that the design is indeed bad, he just asserts it to be bad because of a lack of fault tolerance. (This was his argument before, perhaps it has become more sophisticated—it almost has to have improved—from what he posted about subotimal design on Panda's Thumb, which I blogged about here.)

I don't believe your explanation about why you are hostile to religion. It falls in the "too good to be true" category as I recently posted on here. In fact, I may update that post with the new example you have provided.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Your theological explanation is twisted because it runs afoul of basic common sense. Being consistent with scripture is not a very high standard. Scripture is itself so riddled with contradictions and implausibilities that I believe it should be rejected on that basis. The fact remains you have offered no answer to any of the theological points I raised. Helplessly crying “Sin entered the world!” explains nothing. Scientifically it is vacuous and theologically it makes God's motivations and desires a baffling mystery. That's what I'm trying to get you to deal with.

A few comments ago you wrongly accused me of putting words in your mouth. Now you say you don't believe my explanation for why I am hostile to religion. So amused, in fact, that you intend to feature me in an upcoming blog entry.

But, of course, I did not say the reason I am hostile to religion is because of what I learned as a child. I said, simply, that one of the reasons I am hostile to religion is because of my Sunday school experience. There are many other reasons for my hostility that I will not detail here.

I'm not sure why you find it implausible that things I learned as a child would have turned me off of religion, but if you choose to disbelieve me I don't see how I can defend myself (would you like names and e-mail addresses of the Sunday school teachers whose weekend mornings I made so unpleasant?)

I read the post you linked to, and I'm afraid your main point is total nonsense. It is not in the least implausible that a sincere Christian could come to disbelieve because of the bad behavior of his fellow Christians.

The simple fact is that no matter how conifdently you talk about believing in God, or being moved by scriptue, or believing that your prayers have an effect on the rest of the word, there is always going to be some doubt. You can't just ignore the fact that everything in your day to day life seems to occur in regular, predictable ways, with no clear manifestation of God's presence. Nor can you ignore all of the suffering, cruelty, pain, and injustice that has suggested atheism (or at least the lack of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God) to everyone who has ever considered the matter.

One way to become confident in your faith is to live in a community of other believers and see the effects of faith on their lives.

In fact, as I understand Christiantiy, one of the ways I, as an nonbeliever, am supposed to come around to the belief that Chrisitanity is true is by observing Christians. I'm supposed to be able to see that they have something I want, and currently lack. Call it contentment, or inner peace, or whatever.

If you routinely see Christians behaving badly, it starts to ring a bit hollow to say they're all doing it wrong. At some point that nagging bit of doubt that's always there starts to assert itself. You begin to think that if all these people who claim to be saved are nonetheless behaving badly, maybe the whole thing is just an exercise in delusion.

Why is that implausible?

I can't believe you're really arguing that animals aren't riddled with deisgn flaws. And if the designer is omnipotent, and therefore not burdened with difficult trade-offs or finite resources, then a lack of fault tolerance is obviously a design flaw.

But it's interesting that now you are saying that your main reason for rejecting Mark's argument is that he has not proven to your satisfaction that the systems in question really are badly designed. Earlier you said his argument was stupid, that refuting it was trivial, and all the rest. That's quite a change in stance.

It sounds like you're argument is this: I am not convinced there is bad design in nature. But if there is bad design, then it's the result of the radical defect introduced into creation at the time of the fall.

That's not an answer. It's a decision to ignore the question.

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous PvM said...

Heddle is as always reliable when it comes to showing the scientific vacuity to intelligent design. Without even reading Perakh's arguments he knows that it must be sophomoric.

Thank you David,

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


I qualified my comments, several times, to stipulate that I was referring to his previous writings on suboptimal design. Those I have read. So it is not "without reading," except, apparently, on your part.

At 9:16 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


Actually it is impossible that a sincere Christian could come to disbelieve for any reason, including a bad Sunday School teacher or an encounter with a bigot in Christian clothing, because of the doctrine of "perseverance of the saints", or "eternal security", or "you can't lose your salvation", etc. See, for example, John 10:29.

You wrote:

"In fact, as I understand Christiantiy, one of the ways I, as an nonbeliever, am supposed to come around to the belief that Chrisitanity is true is by observing Christians. I'm supposed to be able to see that they have something I want, and currently lack."

No, that is not true. You have to be born again. That is, first you have to be regenerated, and then you will begin to seek God; It is never the other way around. You will never, ever become a Christian by observing Christians. You don't talk yourself into Christianity. You don't "come around" to Christianity, You are "drawn" in by God (John 6:44), not by other Christians (the Greek word translated as "drawn" is translated elsewhere as "dragged" and means "compelled by irresistible force."

I would never dispute that Christians behave badly. We all do at times. But our bad behavior never has the consequence that someone who might have believed ends up being driven away.

Perakh’s argument is, in my opinion, stupid, precisely because he does not demonstrate bad design. If he actually demonstrated a bad design it would force IDers to give the theological argument I gave or to argue that, although the systems are indeed designed, since the designer is not God he needn't be expected to be perfect anyway. Bad design, good design, it's still design. Perakh doesn't force either response, because he fails (in what I have read) to make his case.

It is true, and further speaks of the weakness of his approach, that if he did make his case either of these responses would be waiting in the wings. That is why a more scientific approach, namely postulating plausible pathways, makes more sense. But hey, if you like Perakh's approach, knock yourself out.

My "argument", as you put it, is this: God's design is perfect for his plan. Your only response to this is to, in effect, say what you would do if you were God: Everybody and everything would live in harmony forever, with no pain, disease, or cruelty.

Your blog--you get the last word. I'm done. (Unless you have theological questions, those I'm happy to try to answer.)

At 11:16 AM, Blogger Jim said...

Mr. Heddle, perhaps you could enlighten us as to what "fallen from grace" means in Galatians 5:4, if such a thing is "impossible."

Shoot, for that matter, how about all the scriptural references to apostasy? Especially how some will "depart from the faith" in the "end times?"

Or can you grant that "eternal security" is a particularly Calvinist conception that doesn't square with the entirety of scripture?

Quite frankly, your "prooftext" (John 10:29) is worthless. It states that "no man" is able to take someone out of God's hand--but says nothing about whether God can harden someone's heart against Him, even the heart of a "sincere believer." You could even remain consistent and argue that Jason was a believer, but God, in the grand Pauline trick of fashioning some vessels for destruction, drew him away from the faith--all to make His glorious salvation that much more glorious to you. After all, God is sovereign, and who are we mere mortals to question his logic, methods, or motives?

As I think about it further, the phrase "sincere believer" seems entirely inappropriate from a Calvinist perspective. One is either in or damned, by the whim of God, and personal feelings on the matter are irrelevant.

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Consequently, the very feature that tells us (according to ID proponents) that a system must have been designed immediately implies that it was badly designed. Not too sensible."

Why not? If that is where the evidence leads, then so bet it. Dembski himself says this explicitly.

If you want to believe "Intelligent Design" necessarily implies Creationism, then perhaps you have to try to bend up in knots trying to justify this (as David Heddle seems to be doing). But ID advocates deny that ID neccessarily implies Creationism, so it seems bizarre to accuse them of an inconsistency that is being manufactured by assuming that ID implies Creationism.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger Drek said...

Hey Jason,

I just wanted to congratulate you on your article in The Skeptical Inquirer this issue. I just finished reading it this morning, and found it very entertaining and quite enlightening. Keep up the excellent work!

As for the rest of these comments... wow.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Jason said...


The point is not so much to catch the ID folks being inconsistent, it's to point out that the very argument they make to show that a biological system was designed implies something about the nature of the designer. Specifically, the designer is either not omnipotent or not all-loving. If you're willing to give up one of those conclusions then you can circumvent Mark's argument. As it happens, though, people like Behe and Dembski are not willing to give up those conclusions. They are also unwilling to make explicitly religious arguments, because then it would be obvious to everyone that they're not doing science.


Thanks for the kind words about the article. Glad you liked it!

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, whatever. But there is nothing knew about what Perakh "points out". Dembski himself points it out. It's kind of obvious.

In my view, regardless of fine issues of biological design, the argument from evil is a very strong prima facie argument against the existence of an all powerful, knowing, loving God. But that seems neither here nor there in the context of the claims of Intelligent Design.

At 6:13 AM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


I am sure Jason doesn’t want his blog to turn theological, so I’ll answer briefly. Gal. 5:4 refers to those who have abandoned the doctrines of grace in favor a salvation by works. They may appear, for a time, to be believers but, consistent with the doctrine of eternal security, they were not (see 1 John 2:19)

There are a gazillion verses that support eternal security, but perhaps the most straightforward are those that tie belief to eternal life, such as the ubiquitous John 3:16. None of those offer eternal life only if you are still believing when you die, but when you believe, period. Eternal life that can be lost is not eternal—thus denial of eternal security makes God into a liar.

No, Eternal Security is not a particularly Calvinistic doctrine. It is a particularly Protestant doctrine. Well it is true that all Calvinists would affirm it, the Arminian wing of Protestantism has more or less been split down the middle. It is a trivial exercise to find non-Calvinist Protestant churches that teach eternal security.

Apostasy has nothing (necessarily) to do will losing one’s salvation—eternal security never demands that apostasy will not exist, even among those who had been faithful members of a church.

Your passage from Rom 9 is germane, but your interpretation is flawed. In the context of Rom 9, it is clear the vessels of mercy and wrath are prepared in advance and not in response to foreknowledge of any man’s actions. Thus, the passage you cited fully supports eternal security.

You last comment about Calvinism is a common misconception. Calvinism teaches that men are “sincere” or true believers and that they choose God from their own free will. It simply adds that such a choice is impossible without first being regenerated by God.

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous The other Jason said...

The argument to "sub-optimal" design doesn't work unless we have some knowledge of what the designer was aiming at. How optimal a design is is purely a reflection of how effective the desiger was at achieving its intent.

If you don't know what the designer of "ID" was aiming for, you can't say the designer's design is bad. If the designer likes Rube Goldberg like machines that break down with the slightest screw up, it did a bang up job.

Elliot Sober discusses this issue in his excellent paper on the Design Argument:

Biologists often present two criticisms of creationism. First, they argue that the design hypothesis is untestable. Second, they contend that there is plenty of evidence that the hypothesis is false. Obviously, these two lines of argument are in conflict. I have already endorsed the first criticism; I now want to say a little about the second. A useful example is Stephen Jay Gould’s (1980) widely read article about the Panda’s thumb. Pandas are vegetarian bears who have a spur of bone (a “thumb”) protruding from their wrists. They use this device to strip bamboo, which is the main thing they eat. Gould says that the hypothesis of intelligent design predicts that pandas should not have this inefficient device. A benevolent, powerful, and intelligent engineer could and would have done much better. Evolutionary theory, on the other hand, says that the panda’s thumb is what we should expect. The thumb is a modification of the wrist bones found in the common ancestor that pandas share with carnivorous bears. Evolution by natural selection is a tinkerer (Jacob 1977). It does not design adaptations from scratch; rather, it modifies pre-existing features, with the result that adaptations are often imperfect.
Gould’s argument, I hope it is clear, is a likelihood argument. I agree with what he says about evolutionary theory, but I think his discussion of the design hypothesis leads him into the same trap that ensnared Paley. Gould thinks he knows what God would do if he built pandas, just as Paley thought he knew what God would do if he built the vertebrate eye. But neither of them knows anything of the sort. Both help themselves to assumptions about God’s goals and abilities. However, it is not enough to make assumptions about these matters; one needs independent evidence that these auxiliary assumptions are true. Paley’s problem is also Gould’s

However, if you argue that IDists are mostly Christians and Christians specifically say God is omnibenevolent, powerful, knowledgable, etc. and that contradicts the design we find then what you are doing is offering an argument from evil. In this context, your argument to bad design is a special case of argument from evil.


Post a Comment

<< Home