Elliott Sober (2007)

What is Wrong with Intelligent Design (=ID)?


1.       SUMMARY

          a.       Article reviews two standard criticisms of creationism/ID

                    i.        ID is unfalsifiable

                              (1)     Nothing could count against it. It’s defenders don’t let anything count against it. Any observational data at all can be made to fit the hypothesis

                              (2)     Examples?

                    ii.       ID refuted by many imperfect adaptations found in nature (no designer worth his salt objection)

                              (1)     How?

          b.       Sober finds problems with both criticisms

          c.       Puts forward a conception of testability avoids problems with the falsifiability criterion

          d.       Different forms of ID require different criticisms

          e.       ID fails to constitute a serious alternative to evolutionary theory



3.       ID is comparatively modest compared to earlier forms of Creationism

          a.       ID is a more recent version of Creationism

4.       Young Earth Creationism (YEC)

          a.       Denies humans share a common ancestor with other species

          b.       Claims God designed organisms

          c.       Life on earth at most 10,000 years old


          d.       YEC been challenged by compelling evidence for common ancestry and ancient life forms


5.       A minimal version of ID (Mini-ID) is neutral on these three claims

6.       Mini-ID claims

          a.       The complex adaptations that organisms display (e.g., vertebrate eye) were crafted by an intelligent designer

          b.       In general, ID claims “somewhere in the causal chain leading to “complex information” there is an intelligent designer at work”

          c.       Not challenged by compelling evidence for common ancestry and ancient life forms that question Creationism’s claims



          a.       (To allow ID to be taught in school)

8.       Some proponents of ID often go beyond minimal claim above and claim that

          a.       Intelligent designer is supernatural

          b.       Deny common ancestry

9.       Why is mini-ID so important to these folks (for it leaves out much they care about?)

10.     Courts have ruled that versions of creationism that mention a supernatural being are religious and so are not permitted in public school science curricula

          a.       Mini-ID may be able to avoid this problem

11.     Mini-ID expresses an idea all creationists believe, and thus presents a united front, allowing the factions to stop quarreling and face their common enemy

12.     Proponents of Mini-ID hope it will replace the dominant materialist world view and replace it with a science that fits with Christian and Theist convictions



          a.       Adaptations are often imperfect and this undermines creationism and mini-ID

          b.       Because no designer worth his salt would produce the many imperfect adaptations we observe in nature, creationism is false

          c.       Darwin made this argument


          d.       S.J. Gould: Panda’s thumb is a crude spur of bone that enables pandas to laboriously strip the bamboo they eat; if a truly intelligent designer had built the panda, it would have possessed a far mor efficient device for preparing its meals

          e.       Dan Dennett:

                    i.        “Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.”

14.     Sober’s reply

          a.       Argument concedes that creationism is testable

                    i.        And Sober later argues it is not at all clear it is

          b.       Assumes that designer would have wanted more efficient devices for stripping bamboo

          c.       How does Gould (or anyone) know what God would have wanted to achieve in building a panda? (Or eye?)

          d.       Sober thinks this creationist reply works, but opens them to different but serious criticism

                    i.        Creationism does not make testable predictions that are different from its competitor (evolutionary theory)

                    ii.       And all legitimate scientific theories must do this



16.     If imperfect adaptations don’t show ID false, perhaps right criticism is that ID’s claims can’t be tested

17.     (Popper’s view): Testability means falsifiability

          a.       And falsifiability is what separates science from non-science

18.     Falsifiability (possibility of being shown false)

          a.       Hypothesis is falsifiable if it rules out (is logically inconsistent with) some possible observation


19.     Sober thinks creationism is falsifiable on this explanation

20.     On the falsifiability account, some versions of creationism are falsifiable and hence scientific

          a.       Purple-ID: Hypothesis that omnipotent supernatural being wanted everything to be purple and this was his top priority

                    i.        Purple ID is inconsistent with observations and hence is falsifiable (and proven false!)

          b.       Mini-ID (which does not mention God, only a designer) might claim that intelligent designer created vertebrate eye

                    i.        This is falsifiable (entails that vertebrates have eyes and would be proven false if they did not)

          c.       Mini-ID might claim organisms were created by ID, this is falsifiable as entails that there are organisms, which we observe to be true (and if there weren’t it would be proven false)

21.     Sober is arguing that falsifiability is not a good criterion for testability

          a.       Popper’s falsifiability fails to capture what testability involves

          b.       Need better theory of testability



23.     If ID is to be tested, it must be tested against a competing hypothesis

24.     Before Darwin, chance was the competing theory (that a mindless random process is responsible for the complex adaptations we observe)

          a.       Notice that evolution, though mindless is not a random process

25.     Both Mini-ID and chance are theories about how the eye was produced (by God or by chance),

          a.       Fact vertebrates have eyes doesn’t let us distinguish them

26.     How do these two hypothesis disagree about what we observe?



28.     Physical theories do not make testable predictions on their own but need “auxiliary propositions”

          a.       E.g., Laws of optics don’t predict when eclipses will occur, but with statements about positions of earth, moon, and sun, they do

29.     Mini-ID’s claim an ID created the vertebrate eye does not have any observational consequences except that vertebrates have eyes

30.     Supplement Mini-ID with more assumptions that allow it to have additional observational implications

          a.       E.g., If ID created eye, he would want it to have certain features (F)

          b.       Then ID would entail detailed features that eye will have

          c.       And we could test it.


31.     Crucial for science that these auxiliary propositions not be simply invented

          a.       And not invented to match the already known facts!

32.     For by inventing assumptions we can equip a theory with a favorable auxiliary propositions that allow it to fit the data

33.     So scientists insist must have independence evidence for the auxiliary propositions

          a.       When testing laws of optics by observing eclipses, do not just invention assumption about position of earth moon and sun; but support them with independent evidence

34.     This scientific strategy for rendering theories testable by finding independently justified auxiliary proposition does not work for mini-ID

          a.       We have no such evidence to justify claims about the designer’s goals or abilities

          b.       Several ID proponents concede this: Designers motives and nature inscrutable



36.     Sometimes they accept falsifiability and claim ID is falsifiable

          a.       “ID is falsifiable as it predicts that a complex information (e.g., like what is in a genome) never arises from pure chemical or physical antecedents”

          b.       “One could falsify by showing that confirmed instances of purely physical or chemical antecedents produced complex information”


37.     Sober’s argument that ID is not falsifiable

38.     ID claims: “Somewhere in the causal chain leading to complex information there is an intelligent designer at work”

          a.       If newspaper contains complex information, ID not obliged to say that the press used to print it is intelligent

          b.       Rather their claim is if you look back further along causal chain you’ll find an intelligent being

          c.       In this case, they are right: person setting the type

39.     But if scientists show that purely physical antecedents at time t-9 produced complex information at t-10, does not refute ID (as with printing press)

          a.       Rather an ID was present at an earlier stage

40.     If scientists show that mindless physical conditions at t-8 produced t-9, ID will say ID involved earlier and so on

41.     Even if scientists traced the causal chain back to the start of the universe without having to invoke ID, not refute ID as supporters would postulate a supernatural intelligence exiting outside space/time

42.     Defenders of ID always have a way out

43.     Not a mark of a falsifiable theory


44.     Also ID proponents fail to see the role of observation in scientific testing

          a.       ID is inconsistent with existence of complex information without an ID in causal history

          b.       But “all lightening bolts issued from hand of Zeus” is also inconsistent with there being any Zeus-less lighting bolts

          c.       But how could observations refute either claim?

          d.       A good scientific theory should predict observations that if they occur would refute it


45.     Defender of ID claim to test their position by criticizing the theory of evolution (but doing so is not to make testable predictions...)

          a.       If they can show it has problems (e.g., predicts things that are not true), then their ID theory is supported as the only other alternative

46.     Sober: This argument does not test ID, for ID to be testable, it must make predictions

          a.       That a different theory (evolution) makes predictions says nothing about ID’s testability


47.     ID criticism of evolution: Can’t explain irreducibly complex adaptations

48.     ID claims evolution can’t produce irreducibly complex adaptations and since they exists, evolution is probably false

          a.       An irreducibly complex system is “composed of several well matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic functioning; remove a part and it ceases to function”

          b.       Idea is that it is highly improbable for different parts determined by different genes would work together to perform a function?


49.     Sober’s response

50.     ID often assume that evolution always leads to increase fitness

51.     But this ignores that evolution is probabilistic

52.     Genetic drift can lead to evolutionary changes that involve no increase in fitness (and even decrease in fitness)

          a.       Genetic drift: Genes and related characteristics sometimes occur simply by chance and not because they have been naturally selected for

53.     Also, the most that can be claimed about irreducible complex adaptations is that evolutionary theory says they have low probability

          a.       Does not justify rejecting evolutionary theory or accepting ID


54.     Also the fact that a system can be segmented into parts so that it counts as irreducibly complex, does not mean that evolution produced each part independently

55.     Consider horses with 4 legs

          a.       A horse with zero, one, two, or three legs can’t walk or run

          b.       But with four it can and this gives it a fitness advantage

          c.       4 footed-ness satisfied definition of irreducible complexity

          d.       Mistake to think that horses had to evolve their legs one at a time

          e.       This is not controlled by four sets of genes, one for each legs

          f.       Rather there is a single set that controls the development of appendages



57.     ID needs to not just have observational consequences, but also ones that differ from those of a theory with which it competes

          a.       Idea that ID created vertebrate eyes, entails they have eyes, but does not permit it to be tested against alternative explanations of why vertebrates have eyes

58.     Usually when scientific theories compete, there are independently attested assumptions that allow the theories to make predictions that disagree

          a.       No such assumption allows mini-ID to do this

59.     Easy to construct a version of ID that accommodates a set of observations already known (also easy to make an version ID that conflict with these)

          a.       Neither is substantive science

60.     No point in constructing a version of ID that is so minimalistic that it fails to say much of anything about what we observe

61.     In all versions, ID fails as a serious alternative to evolutionary theory