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Croft, Continued: More Thoughts on Meyer’s Debate with a Skeptic

Elizabeth Whately
Photo: A car break-in, by WhyDolls, via Flickr.

Readers who have been following my series on the June debate between philosophers James Croft and Stephen Meyer will be interested to know that Dr. Croft has offered a new Substack response to the series. Before continuing with my own thoughts as planned, I’m pausing to, likewise, give a few new responses to this response! 

Housekeeping

I should clarify a few things upfront, per Croft’s opening comments: First, it was not my intention to imply to my readers that all the interesting aspects of the debate were included in his first Substack post. (Indeed, I’d touched on the mind-body dualism question, which was unique to the debate.) I linked the debate right at the start of this response series and would encourage everyone to watch it for full context, if nothing else to see how Meyer himself handled Croft’s objections! However, since Croft writes clearly, organized his post in an easy-to-follow manner, and recapped a significant portion of his side of the debate, it seemed natural to use it as a loose outline for organizing my series. (Especially since Croft himself kept getting cut off, which made it more challenging to follow his argument.) So, lest I’m misunderstood, by all means watch the debate! Here, I’ll embed it again!

There also seems to have been some slight misunderstanding of emphasis around my introductory post in the series. I quoted Croft’s statement that the design inference had to be a Dembskian “knockout” or nothing, then I gave a slightly technical aside about how to encode a Bayesian inference to design. Of course I knew Croft had his reasons for thinking it has to be all or nothing, which he details at length, hence my own response in several parts. We don’t actually seem to be saying different things here. 

Finally, I acknowledge a slip I made in attributing a car break-in analogy to Meyer, when it was actually Croft who’d introduced the illustration to say we have background knowledge about car burglars that’s lacking for God. It’s a type of illustration Meyer has used in the past, and out of carelessness and not having watched the debate in a while, my brain made a swap. So thanks to Croft for catching my mistake and reclaiming his illustration. (However, I still fail to see how that illustration in fact helps him.)

With those small things out of the way, let’s go back to what Croft and I agree is the meatiest part of the debate I’ve covered so far: the problem of background knowledge (catch up here).

The Problem of Background Knowledge, Revisited

First, to return to Croft’s reclaimed car break-in analogy, I think he’s mistaken my emphasis in the specific car break-in examples I gave, namely that the burglars’ behavior was odd and unpredictable. The one burglar grabbed a couple cheap knives and a clutch of paper masks in a season when mask use was in a pronounced dip (and, I was reminded later, had meanwhile not taken an mp3 player or a watch). As for Fran Lebowitz’s burglar, he had busted out her windshield just for her apple and cigarettes. These specific choices are not things we would have predicted a priori, yet we have no qualms about drawing the obvious inference, despite murky motives (one of Croft’s three background ingredients for humans — Existence, Means, Motive).

Croft also objects to my point that we all have to begin somewhere in the process of inferring the existence of other entities, like a baby realizing a puppy exists. In this sense, I claim all our non-deductive inferences are an inference to the best explanation. But Croft doesn’t want to introduce examples where we have sensory experience of other entities, because he feels we’re in a wholly different category then. 

Descartes might beg to differ, however! Whole sci-fi worlds have been built around “evil genius” scenarios. Simulation theory is a current topic of energetic debate. I don’t buy simulation theory myself. I’m pretty sure the external world is, in fact, a thing. But there are several explanations for my experience of the external world on offer. I just find it simplest and most elegant to reject “evil genius” scenarios. In other words, I’m still making an inference to the best explanation (IBE). 

IBEs All the Way Down?

Croft is right that we have stronger, more direct evidence for puppies, trees, etc. than for entities we have yet to encounter. The way I would phrase this is that we make IBE arguments of varying length and strength. There are just more steps involved in putting together an IBE for something I’m not directly sensing. But none of these inferences are deductive. However, that’s not saying much, because virtually no inferences are! 

The reason I mentioned the external world was because of Croft’s insistence on the necessity of “independent background knowledge” for the theistic inference from the clues we have. Yet we began fresh without such knowledge every time we encountered clues of an alien-to-us entity. Naturally, in his new post, Croft emphasizes that of course he’s not blocking the path to inferences of things beyond our immediate ken. He wants to be clear that he’s not saying we can’t infer the existence of any new thing or entity as we data-gather — that would be absurd!

I agree, it would be absurd! But that’s exactly what a reductio ad absurdum argument is: Not saying a person does affirm an absurd thing, but rather saying if we followed the vectors of his argument all the way, we would end up in an absurd place. Croft and I just disagree about the directionality of his vectors.

Up next, I’m not saying it’s aliens, but… We’ll be looking at another important element of Croft’s latest piece.