The mallet and blank cartridges

Sat 21 Oct 2006 04:18 PM

I have refrained from writing anything about so-called Intelligent Design (ID) for the same reason I have refrained from hitting myself with a mallet. I have been teaching William James' Pragmatism lectures for the last couple of weeks, however, and he takes up the topic of design. The mallet beckons.


In Lecture III, James considers what a pragmatist must say about the question of whether or not the universe is designed by a divine craftsman. If everything were a "lubberland of happiness already" then there would be no dispute. In a perfect world, religious conceptions that reach beyond our immediate, satisfying experience would never occur to us. So the question of design only arises because the world is a complicated, imperfect place-- the kind of world in which some things do not seem to serve a higher purpose. When we consider "a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars... we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has no consequences and explains nothing. ... Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. I carries no consequences, it does not execution."

The passage resonates a century later. IDists plead that ID is science and not religion, because it concludes that there is a designer but not does stipulate that the designer is the divine smiting trinity of the Christian tradition. Consider this site, which claims: "There is nothing mystical, supernatural, religious, or non-scientific about intelligent design theory. In its current form, intelligent design theory also can say nothing about the designer other than that the designer was intelligent." The contemporary arguments are more intricate than the older creationist gambits, but the upshot is the same. This bare claim of design leads nowhere. It fails as a scientific research program, because it does not tell us in any way what we might do next.

A different page on the same site ventures into theology. For example: "Theistic models of intelligent design define optimality as that which matches God's purpose, which is ultimately loving and wise." It then has to do the shuffle step that James anticipates: God must have some really complicated long range plans such that this modest rock ball Earth figures as an optimal component of them. These plans are beyond our ken. Which is to say, we cannot say why this or that apparent sub-optimality is really optimal.

Now we are well into 'blank cartridge' territory. ID is severed from being a contentful account of the natural world, and is just a propaedeutic to a sermon on hellfire, the devil, and original sin. As James says, "When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it." To put the point differently: The hypothesis that an unfathomable mind means for things to go just this way will confer a higher probability on the present state of the world than any comprehensible hypothesis, regardless of how things turn out. To quote James again: "The question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer-- and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars."


Addendum Nov27:

Shortly after I wrote the post above, Ron suggested that ID does have empirical content: It predicts that some features of the world will ultimately resist natural explanation. On the one hand, any modest naturalist will agree. No matter how far science progresses, there will still be unanswered questions. On the other hand, this is not a prediction of bare ID. A designer might well create things that, although artificial, could be explained in terms of natural causes. To say that the products of the designer will be inexplicable is to specify some of the craft of the designer; in short, to do theology.

Another specimen of the character that James effectively skewers, IDist Richard Buggs is quoted in today's Guardian: "Intelligent design looks at empirical evidence in the natural world and says, 'this is evidence for a designer'. If you go any further the argument does become religious and intelligent design does have religious implications." Buggs' ID is just the content-free creationism. Any feature of the world could be taken as evidence for a designer that would make it thus.