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The Calculation-Free Design Intuition and the Calculations That Validate It

Douglas Axe

design intuition

From childhood, we all naturally ascribe things like spiders and hummingbirds to a “God-like designer.” But are we right to do this? My recent book Undeniable shows why I think we are. In short, our innate sense of design — our design intuition, as I call it — is tightly connected to our sense of coincidence. In particular, we easily spot claimed coincidences that are way too good to be true. And when we use the math of coincidence (probability) to figure out what makes one of these unbelievable coincidences unbelievable, we find a solid basis for affirming our design intuition. Unbelievable coincidences are unbelievable for a very good reason.

My theistic-evolutionist friend Hans Vodder doubts this (see here at Evolution News for all posts in our discussion). Of the objections he has expressed, the two that in my opinion most immediately undercut his position are:

  1. his claim that we can’t rule out the standard evolutionary account of the origin of something without an accurate assessment of how probable this is (his words: “…our ability to make accurate calculations about biological organisms is crucial for the mathematical case against evolution…”), and
  2. his claim that no attribute of things can justify our intuition that they are designed without being defined with greater precision than I have given to the term functional coherence in my book (his words: “If a dragonfly is fantastically improbable in consequence of its being an ‘example from a category of things…defined by what I call functional coherence’ (Axe, Part 4), then it’s imperative we know in a definite, precise way what functional coherence is”).

To press my point that we don’t actually need the technical precision or formality Hans is calling for, I suggested in a previous post that we suppose NASA’s Mars rover were to encounter something on that planet that appears to be a working communications device — one that isn’t of human origin. Can we agree that we’re right to think such a thing had to be designed, even though we can’t get an accurate probability?

Sure, said Hans.

Hmm, thought I, wondering how he’s not seeing the inconsistency that I’m seeing.

I asked him to justify his own use of the design intuition, and here is his response:

You’re asking if I can come up with a framework that would a) distinguish between activities that are within the reach of nature and those that are beyond it; b) explain how we easily detect design without “careful analysis or calculation” (Axe, previous post); and c) apply equally well to both human and alien activity.

Happily, there is such a framework, although I can’t take credit for it. Philosopher Del Ratzsch has developed a conceptual apparatus for thinking about design, and it’s based on the concept of counterflow. He defines counterflow as “Nature moving in paths it would not of itself have taken” (Ratzsch, Design, Chance, and Theistic Evolution, p. 292). It’s basically shorthand for agent intervention in the course of nature.

Let’s see if counterflow can help us address the three points above. With respect to a), we can say that activities that (as you say) “certainly can be done by ordinary physical processes” require less counterflow than those which cannot be done by those same physical processes. That seems straightforward enough.

For b), let’s consider our alien communications device. Whether it’s neon green, or lacks the irregular edges of Martian sandstone, or looks like something from Star Trek, there will probably be visual indicators of counterflow. If we pick up those indicators in a gestalt-like manner as Ratzsch suggests, then that would explain our facility in recognizing artifacts as such — no number-crunching required. And finally, regarding c), there’s nothing in the concept of counterflow which prevents us from attributing it to alien agents.

Lastly, I don’t consider myself a critic of the design intuition per se. I think our design intuitions are valid, depending on how we construe them. If all they require is that the natural world, including its various biological organisms, exists as a result of God’s will that it exists, then you may count me as a design theorist, as this intuition is logically compatible with neo-Darwinism (those interested should see Peter Van Inwagen, “The Compatibility of Darwinism and Design”).

Thank you, Hans. I’m trying to understand you, but I’m triply puzzled. First, you seem to be happily acknowledging that we rightly conclude some things are designed with no need for accurate probabilities or precise definitions. How do you do that while criticizing my argument for lacking those things?

Second, beyond its lack of technical precision, the above definition of “counterflow” is inherently question-begging in that it presupposes knowledge of what natural processes can accomplish — the very point in question. You seem to be doing nothing more than restricting the attribution of “counterflow” to the objects you think of as being designed and then appealing to your use of the term as though it somehow validates your opinion.

And third, you seem to apply the term “natural” with equal convenience, as though your very use of it gives us insight into the origin of the things you apply it to.

To clear all this up, it’s very important that we distinguish mere consensus that things are designed, on the one hand, from a way of validating (or invalidating) that consensus, on the other. These are two different things. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but you seem to be confusing them. Our design intuition readily produces consensus, but we have to look to something else for validation.

I made this very point in Chapter 7 of Undeniable:

The way forward is to recognize that whatever value we place on the design intuition, we can certainly reason without it. Without rejecting intuition, we can lean instead on observation and calculation to decide whether we should expect a universe like ours to produce busy wholes like spiders.

The needed calculations are indeed probability calculations. To think otherwise is to think we can rightly declare that something can’t happen while remaining completely ignorant as to the probability of it happening. That’s nonsense. To say that it can’t happen is to say that the probability of its happening is indistinguishable from zero, practically speaking.

So, your belief that natural processes can’t produce a communications device, Hans, is a belief that natural communications devices are fantastically improbable. Consequently, you don’t have an objective basis for this belief unless you can show why they really are fantastically improbable.

Contrary to your claims, Hans, this doesn’t require accurate probability estimates. To show that some outcome is effectively impossible, we merely have to show that its probability is below a value that would make it effectively impossible. For example, while there’s no way to put an accurate number on the probability of a thousand-word essay being produced by a monkey playing with a keyboard, we can easily show the probability to be so low as to be wholly negligible. I provide an example of this kind in Undeniable.

Furthermore, using a variety of examples, I show readers why accidental production of high-level functional coherence has to be fantastically improbable. In other words, we don’t have to keep repeating these calculations. Once we know why accidental invention is impossible, we can just trust our design intuition.

Unlike functional coherence, counterflow (as you’ve used the term) doesn’t seem to lend itself to this kind of objective demonstration. If you were to develop the idea to remedy this, I think you’d end up with a property similar to functional coherence. In that case you’d agree that living things have this property in abundance…in which case you’d agree that they can’t be the products of natural processes.

Photo credit: edbuscher, via Pixabay.