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Must We Directly Observe the Intelligent Agent to Detect Design?

Casey Luskin

camp fire.jpg

Yesterday I discussed an email exchange with an atheist student who argued that we cannot detect design in nature unless we directly observe an intelligent designer. I explained the flaw in his objection through an analogy.

Let’s say you find the remains of a campfire — e.g., charred wood, a circle of stones, and smoldering ashes. You may reasonably infer that a campfire was present, even if you didn’t see the fire as it burned. In the same way, we understand the kinds of effects that are produced by intelligent agency — e.g., high levels of complex and specified information — and infer that an intelligent agent was at work. We legitimately make that inference even if we didn’t see the agent with our own eyes in the act of designing.

The student replied that there’s a difference between detecting a campfire and detecting design in biology. He explained that we operate on the knowledge that humans exist, and that allows us to detect design in the case of the campfire. But, he argued, we haven’t directly observed the intelligent designer behind life and the universe, so an inference to design there is unwarranted.

I replied by explaining that in the context of the campfire, it isn’t necessary to know if humans were around beforehand. In a broader sense, it’s not necessary to know beforehand if an intelligent agent existed to be able to infer that such an agent was at work in a given situation.

For example, let’s say that in the year 2150, humans for the first time finally get around to visiting an extrasolar planet orbiting another star. Furthermore, they find that the planet has an oxygen atmosphere. Let’s also say that in all our travels, we’ve never encountered any extraterrestrial alien beings.

The first exploration party to this extrasolar planet discovers a circle of stones with charred wood and ash inside it — the remains of a campfire! In fact, not only do we discover that evidence, but we also discover buildings and technology designed to transmit radio signals to outer space.

Now prior to this time, humans had no evidence that there were other non-human intelligent agents in the universe. We didn’t know whether they existed. But now they’re finding evidence of campfires, buildings, and technology on a planet far from home.

Are they justified in inferring design? Of course they are! In fact, even if they find no extraterrestrial beings on that extrasolar planet (maybe the alien civilization went extinct or abandoned the planet), our human explorers would still detect design.

Thus, we may not have direct “observable” evidence of the intelligent agents in the sense that we can see them physically before our very eyes, but we still have ample evidence that these structures were designed. And we can make this design inference despite the fact that we had no prior knowledge that these designers even existed. There is no logical flaw in this reasoning.

In fact, the same reasoning drives the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). SETI researchers don’t know if there are intelligent extraterrestrial beings out in the universe trying to send us radio signals. But SETI researchers presume that if aliens did exist, then we could detect their presence.

ID theorists reason similarly. We don’t know before we go out and study nature whether we’re going to find evidence of an intelligent agent at work. We can even start off our investigation in an agnostic position about whether there is an intelligent designer. But we know that intelligent agents produce systems with high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). If we do find that evidence, then we are justified in inferring design:

  • “[T]he defining feature of intelligent causes is their ability to create novel information and, in particular, specified complexity.” (William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, p. xiv (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2002).)
  • “Agents can arrange matter with distant goals in mind. In their use of language, they routinely ‘find’ highly isolated and improbable functional sequences amid vast spaces of combinatorial possibilities.” (Stephen C. Meyer, “The Cambrian Information Explosion,” in Debating Design (edited by Michael Ruse and William Dembski; Cambridge University Press 2004).)
  • “[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents — in particular ourselves — generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. In the first place, intelligent human agents — in virtue of their rationality and consciousness — have demonstrated the power to produce information in the form of linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters. Indeed, experience affirms that information of this type routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind — that of a software engineer or programmer. The information in a book or inscriptions ultimately derives from a writer or scribe — from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.” (Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)
  • “[T]he discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source.” (Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design, p. 347 (HarperOne, 2009).)

Thus, in the final analysis, it’s not the case that there is no observable evidence for an intelligent agent. Irreducibly complex structures like bacterial flagella or CSI-rich entities like DNA or even the life-friendly architecture of the universe are evidence for an intelligent designer who was at work in designing life.

We don’t logically require prior evidence that an intelligent agent existed in order to detect design, because the designer’s existence is shown by the natural structures it made, which resemble things that in our experience come only from intelligence. To detect design, all we need is (a) to know the kinds of things that intelligent agents produce, and then (b) to find such things in nature. That is observable evidence of an intelligent designing agent, even if you don’t directly observe the agent with your eyes, or even if you didn’t have prior knowledge about whether the intelligent agent existed.

Image: Pavel Klimenko / Dollar Photo Club.