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#126 Design Inferences and Familiarity

September 14, 2009

Dr. Craig - I recently watched a video of a lecture you gave wherein you explained that an explanation does not require an explanation. You then go on to argue that if a team of archaeologists digging in the Earth were to discover artifacts resembling tomahawks they would be absolutely right to infer that the artifacts were created by intelligent design. I completely agree with that statement. Obviously that would be the best explanation despite not knowing who exactly the designers were. But here is where I get hung up. The way I see it, the reason why we can infer that the artifacts were the product of an intelligent designer is because we know that man is capable of designing tomahawks. The same could be said if the archaeologists found a flute. We KNOW that man is capable of designing flutes. We've SEEN men design flutes. Therefore we can say, "Well, we don't know who exactly designed this flute but we can be almost certain that it was a man." We have no evidence of any other being other than man designing a flute. Bears don't design flutes. Spiders don't design flutes.

But can the same be said about, say, a tree? We know that man is not capable of designing a tree or a blade of grass or a cloud, etc... So we cannot attribute the design of a tree to an intelligent designer the same way we can with a tomahawk or a flute. I guess my question is how can we be so sure that a tree is the product of intelligent design when we have no physical evidence of a designer who is capabale of designing a tree?

Please do understand that I am not arguing against the existence of an intelligent designer. I am not an Atheist nor am I a member of any religion. I am nothing, really. Just a young man trying to seek out truth. At this moment I am leaning towards the existence of a God but I'm still struggling with a few complicated issues. I respect your work a great deal and do hope that you're able to respond to my question. Thank you for your time and patience,



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    The video you're referring to was of my talk "Dawkins' Delusion," which responds to what Richard Dawkins calls "the central argument" of his bestselling The God Delusion (view a portion of the video here). His supposedly death-dealing objection to the teleological argument for a Designer of the universe is that it raises the further question, "Who designed the Designer?

    It's not clear why this question is supposed to be a problem for a design inference. In general, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don't need to have an explanation of the explanation. In fact, so requiring would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained, and science would be destroyed. In the case of a cosmic Designer we can leave it an open question for future inquiry whether this being even has a designer and if so, who that designer might be.

    Now your concern is different than Dawkins'. You say that we can infer an unknown designer for, say, archaeological artifacts because we are familiar with the production of such artifacts by human beings. It was precisely to forestall this sort of objection, however, that I gave my second illustration concerning astronauts' finding a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon. They know that no country other than the U.S.A. has successfully carried out moon landings and that we didn't leave that stuff there! We might not have even a clue as to the function of these devices, they are so unfamiliar. Nevertheless, even though such machinery is not the product of human intelligent design, it is still clearly the product of intelligent design.

    The salient point is that intelligent design is characterized by certain recognizable earmarks that tip us off to its presence quite independently of our familiarity with the designer. In William Dembski's analysis in The Design Inference it is the combination of high improbability plus conformity to an independently given pattern. If we discover such characteristics in, say, a signal emanating from outer space, as in the movie Contact, then we may infer that the signal is not random noise but the result of some sort of intelligence out there and that we are not alone.

    In the case of biological complexity, any reservations we have about a design inference is not because we haven't seen, for example, trees being produced by intelligent design, but rather because we are uncertain that a tree does exhibit those earmarks of intelligent design such as high improbability plus an independently given pattern. The detractor of design will offer a naturalistic, evolutionary story to show that the improbability of the existence of a tree is merely apparent and so warrants no inference of design.

    I think, then, that whether or not we are familiar with human production of certain artifacts is really a red herring. Rather the relevant questions will be: (1) What are the characteristics of intelligent design, and (2) Does some entity exhibit those characteristics?

    - William Lane Craig