Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martian Rocks and Intelligent Design

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...

Take a good, long look at the photograph at the top of this post (it's from NASA). Does anything about it strike you as odd? Go ahead, I'll wait...

For example, do the rocks in the photograph appear to be simply "randomly" scattered about? How about size; are there patterns in the distribution of the different sizes of rocks in the photo? And how about placement - are any of the rocks in lines, or do they show similar orientation of edges, do any of them have a coating of dust or sand on them, and are any of them stacked on top of each other (or even overlapping)?

Hmm...the more you look at this picture, the less it looks like a random and unrelated collection of objects (that is, rocks). Indeed, it looks as if someone (perhaps Someone "intelligent" with a lot of time on His hands) spent no small amount of time arranging them (after all, such arrangements apparently cover a significant fraction of the surface of the planet Mars).

It's observations like these that lead some "intelligent design theorists" (IDTs) to infer the existence and active interference in natural processes of an "intelligent designer". A significant subset of IDTs go on to infer that this "intelligent designer" is the God of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Mormon faith(s). In so doing, they are following the lead of the founder of the neo-Palean "intelligent design and natural theology" movement, the Anglican minister Rev. William Paley. True, what we see in the photograph is rocks, not Rev. Paley's pocketwatch, and that's the windswept plains of Mars, not a windswept heath on Earth, but "design is design" and all design points to the existence of a "designer", right?

Furthermore, many IDTs use a very familiar mode of argument in asserting the existence of "intelligent design". We could call this mode of argument the "duck" argument, as in the old saw "if it looks like a duck, flies like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck".

What's the operative word here? The word like, of course, which is the tipoff that what is being marshaled is an "argument by analogy".

I have already written about the weaknesses of arguments by analogy (see here, here, and here). Most recently, I pointed out in a critique of a recent blogpost by Dr. Steven Fuller, that arguments by analogy are extremely weak: they lack almost all logical force. Dr. Fuller replied that what IDTs (including himself) use are not, in fact, arguments by analogy. Instead, he argued that what they (and he) were pointing out were "partial identities". That is, a pattern of rocks like the one in the photograph is "partially identical" to, say, a flagstone patio set in place by a "designer" having access to large amounts of dust and sand, but only a few, small rocks.

What, precisely, does the phrase "partial identity" mean? Is it something like being "partially pregnant" or "partially dead"? Or does it mean "only partly identical"? I thought that "identical" meant "identical". That is:
Two things that are identical are the very same in each and every possible way.

Isn't a thing that is "partially identical" to some other thing also "like" that thing? Seems so to me. Indeed, the phrases "partially identical"and "partial identity" seem to me to be oxymorons, plain and simple.

To be as precise as possible:
"Partial identity" is identical to "analogy"

Ergo, Dr. Fuller apparently agrees with me that ID arguments are essentially "arguments by analogy" and therefore have virtually no logical force.

But, to get back to the curious behavior of the rocks on Mars...what's that, you say? The "behavior" of the rocks? Can it be that the rocks are "behaving"?

Indeed, they are. After long and patient analysis, it has become clear that the rocks on Mars (at least the ones in the size range shown in the photograph) "behave". To be specific, they move around on the dusty/sandy surface of the Martian plains.

Furthermore, their movement is not random. On the contrary, there is a very precise pattern to it. The rocks shown in the photograph actually move against the wind, and away from each other. The latter pattern of movement is why they appear to be non-randomly placed on the surface of the Martian plain. Furthermore, they move apart at a rate that is apparently related to their size. Small rocks move apart further and faster than large rocks (very large rocks apparently don't move much at all).

In the parlance of "intelligent design theory", something that acts non-randomly in such a way as to produce non-random patterns of activity is an "agent". Furthermore, according to IDTs, agents are "intelligent" by definition. If it moves like an agent, arranges itself like an agent, and produces patterns that are "partially identical"/analogous to patterns produced by an agent, it's an agent.

Ergo, the rocks in the photograph are either agents, or have been arranged by agents.

Or not.

Here's another explanation for the arrangement of the rocks on Mars:

Wind removes loose sand in front of the rocks, creating pits there and depositing that sand behind the rocks, creating mounds. The rocks then roll forward into the pits, moving into the wind. As long as the wind continues to blow, the process is repeated and the rocks move forward.

The rocks protect the tiny sand mounds from wind erosion. Those piles of sand, in turn, keep the rocks from being pushed downwind and from bunching up with one another....

The process is nearly the same with a cluster of rocks. However, with a cluster of rocks, those in the front of the group shield their counterparts in the middle or on the edges from the wind...

Because the middle and outer rocks are not directly hit by the wind, the wind creates pits to the sides of those rocks. And so, instead of rolling forward, the rocks roll to the side, not directly into the wind, and the cluster begins to spread out.

In other words, the pattern of rocks shown in the photograph is the result of purely natural forces and the explanation presented above is a "naturalistic" explanation.

There is, of course, an essentially infinite number of imaginable explanations for the arrangement of the rocks in the photo. They could have been arranged by an invisible "agent" who prefers rocks to be "organized". They could have been arranged during the creation of Mars (which, of course, happened on 23 October 4004 BC, along with the creation of all of the other planets, asteroids, comets, planetismals, bolides, etc.). They could have been placed by little green men or hexapedal strongly-thewed Barsoomians, taking a break between sword fights. The list of possibilities is quite literally endless.

However, the scientific consensus is that the "naturalistic" explanation in the block quote above is most consistent with observations and with an assumption that natural processes alone are sufficient to explain them. "Agents" may be involved, and so may Barsoomians, but neither are necessary to explain the arrangement and behavior of the Martian rocks, and so they are not included in a scientific explanation of such arrangement and behavior.

The same is the case for biological organisms and the explanation for their existence: the theory of evolution by natural selection. All of the explanations listed above, including not only wind erosion and "intelligent rock placement", but also tiddly-winking six-armed green warriors (and obsessive-compulsive demiurges), are consistent with the pattern shown in the photograph. However, only the scientific explanation contained in the block quote is also consistent with the universal assumption underlying all of the natural sciences: that only natural forces by invoked to explain observed patterns in natural objects and processes, until such forces are shown to be insufficient to explain such things.

It should also go without saying that, if one is in favor of explaining the arrangement and behavior of Martian rocks in the incredibly limited environment of science classes in the public schools, rather than going into all of the imaginable explanations (including Tars Tarkas and Jaweh Elohim), one should stick to the explanation(s) worked out by practicing professional scientists, and confine the other explanations to classes intended for the non-empirical speculations of amateur philosophers and theologians (or am I being redundantly redundant?)

P.S. To Dr. Fuller: contrary to your aspersion, I am not a "closet theistic evolutionist" — like Newton, "I make no hypotheses!" Unlike Newton, I am an anarchist Heinlein-libertarian Zen Quaker evolutionary psychologist who prefers not to be labeled.

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


Labels: , , , , , , , ,


At 1/19/2009 01:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


First, there is nothing wrong with being a ‘theistic evolutionist’, if that’s what you are. From your self-description, it sounds like you might still be one – or open to becoming one.

But that’s not why I’m writing. ‘Partial identity’ is not the same as ‘analogy’. When we say that human and chimp genomes overlap by, whatever, 98 or 99%, we are not drawing an analogy between the two genomes. We are saying that the two genomes are substantially the same, with some marginal differences. That’s partial identity (in this case, very large), and helps to establish the principle of common descent in evolution.

My original point was that the theodicists (who I see as the original ID theorists) took the Biblical claim that humans are created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ very literally, which is to say, that some of our powers – in particular, intellectual ones -- are identical to God’s, which is what enables us to infer reliably design in nature. In other words, according to this view, many of our thought processes (though not all) are exactly the same as the ones used by God. Indeed, this partial identity is the mark of our ‘common descent’ from God.

I’m not saying that this point about the partial identity of human and divine creative capacities is not without its own various problems but they are different from the usual weaknesses associated with analogical reasoning. Where there may be analogical reasoning here is in the evolutionists’ own principle of common descent, which may be ultimately modelled on the creationist idea of humanity’s divine descent.

At 1/19/2009 09:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allen, I enjoy your blog.

Thank you for deconstructing Fuller's lame attempt to weasel out of his equivocation that The Design Argument is not based on analogy, but on "overlap."

He is a confused person. Confused by his own rhetorical skills, I suspect.

At 1/24/2009 10:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw your complaint at Uncommon Descent about Fuller's lecture in wma format. I just converted it to mp3 format with dBpoweramp. Check it out.


Post a Comment

<< Home