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You Don’t Need a Calculator to Know Some Things Just Can’t Happen

Douglas Axe | @DougAxe

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This is the seventh part of my ongoing conversation about Undeniable with theistic evolutionist Hans Vodder. Hans has responded to my comments in the sixth part as follows:

You may recall that in our fifth exchange, I mentioned two concerns: counterexamples and vagueness. I’m willing to discuss the intentions of Maynard Smith and Szathmary, but we might want to discuss the vagueness issue first: a lack of conceptual clarity seems to be hounding our Oklo conversation. For instance —

  • Recent posts (from your side) have argued at some length that Oklo is anything but functionally coherent. At the same time, the last post granted that Oklo meets the “bare definition” of functional coherence. But how can something so obviously lacking in functional coherence also match the general description? There’s something worrisome about that.
  • Alternatively, suppose context is vital for understanding functional coherence. But if “purpose is at the heart of this term,” then we cannot apply it to controversial cases (like biology) without also begging the question. That is, if we have to establish purpose before we can know whether something is functionally coherent, then we cannot turn around and use functional coherence as evidence of purpose. But that seems at odds with the general spirit of Undeniable, which wants to use functional coherence as evidence of design.
  • The previous post mentioned the Universal Design Intuition, i.e., “tasks that we would need knowledge to accomplish can be accomplished only by someone who has that knowledge.” This is ambiguously worded: after all, we humans need knowledge to do pretty much anything, even if we’re just duplicating natural processes. That seems to imply that, because we would need knowledge in order to duplicate the Oklo reaction (for instance), we can therefore conclude the original Oklo reaction was designed (!).

Now, obviously that’s not what you meant. But that is how it’s written, and the text is all that I, as a reader, have to go by. Perhaps these criticisms can be mitigated somewhat by the fact Undeniable is a non-technical book written for a lay audience. But “commonsensical” informality obviously isn’t an exemption from principles of sound reasoning, nor is it a philosopher’s stone that will make vague or ambiguous language clear.

Our perspectives are so different, Hans, that every point raised calls for several more to be raised! I think I have good answers for the above, but to prevent our already long list of not-yet-resolved differences from multiplying any further, I suggest we go back to the early subject of probabilities. If we can agree on that one point, perhaps that will help us choose a productive next point.

The following quotes from your contributions to parts one, four, and five summarize your view on the question of probabilities, namely that without accurate probability calculations, we can’t rule out things like eyes or dragonflies having come about by unguided evolution:

  • “I think we’d be hard pressed to say whether or not a given biological event was ‘fantastically improbable’ or merely ‘highly improbable.’ The calculations cannot be precise enough, so far as I see, to constitute a knock-down argument against evolution.”
  • “…our ability to make accurate calculations about biological organisms is crucial for the mathematical case against evolution…”
  • “If…we don’t have enough information to get reasonable evolutionary calculations off the ground, then we aren’t able to say they exceed a particular threshold of improbability (such as Dembski’s universal probability bound of 1/10150). In which case the proper response on the mathematical likelihood of evolution is agnosticism.”

Perhaps I said too much in my attempt to illustrate the problem with this reasoning.

I’ll say less this time. If your reasoning is correct, then we have no basis for thinking the Mars rover won’t stumble upon what appears to be a working communications device on Mars — one that isn’t of human origin. And if it did, we would have no basis for thinking the device isn’t a natural product of Martian geological processes.

This would seem to follow from your reasoning, given that we can’t put an accurate probability on natural geological processes producing a working communications device.

Does your position still seem reasonable to you, cast in that way?

Photo credit: Jorge Franganillo (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.