Argument from ignorance? – Berlinski on the Question: How in the world could these complex machines and systems have come about without intelligence? – A first look at the question

Warning 64pxAttention:  This is not necessarily an article about Intelligent Design; this is an article about how we think, how we think about scientific propositions, how we think about our own and other people’s thinking and more particularly how the logical fallacy of the Argument from Ignorance can be part of the dynamic.

All of what follows was wrapped around a conversation that was organized around a discussion of Intelligent Design hosted by the Watermark Community Church in Dallas on April 19, 2009 at a forum called The Creation Conversation.  Ok, the building, the host, and the audience were some brand of evangelical Christian, and their ulterior motives were whatever they were, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing for the rest of us to learn from what transpired there, that is if you can be open minded enough to set aside for the moment the place and intentions of that particular conference and learn something from what was said there.

Therefore, we will all be expected to proceed, for the sake of the discussion, as of the subject matter is worth of being treated as a legitimate hypothesis, to be falsified or passed forward to the next round of discussion because it attempts, in good faith, to answer a question that other hypotheses have failed so far to answer:  How in the world could these complex machines and systems have come about without intelligence?

Fair enough?

Also for the sake of this discussion we will be using evolution with ‘e’ miniscule for the concept of evolution in its broadest sense and Evolution majuscule for the neo-Darwinian sense.

Argument to the man

The Meme Merchants have become interested lately in David Berlinski, in part because of his brilliance as a thinker and his erudition as a speaker, more than that Dr. Berlinski is a skeptical thinker of the sort that we Meme Merchants aspire to be, keenly penetrating into the root thinking of a problem, rather than being merely a nay-sayer or a successful partisan for or against a particular research project.

Dr. Berlinski speaks best for himself,  I can probably hope only to give a very distorted account of his arguments, therefore I urge you to listen to him speak for himself and enjoy, or feel skewered by, what he has to say.

The title of today’s essay comes from a rhetorical question posed by fellow Creation Conversation panelist Michael Behe.

58:30 Michael Behe]  “How in the world could these complex machines and systems [life] have come about without intelligence?”

58:35 the host piling on to Behe]  “Because undirected natural cause is the foundation of Darwinian theory and science.”

58:38 Michael Behe] “Absolutely.”

58:40 host]  “Dr. Berlinski?”

58:42 David Berlinski]  “Well, if you permit me I have a slightly different perspective on that question, but I think the question is essential.  Just imagine you are walking in the desert, and you are walking with a Darwinian biologist and you come across a termite mound.  You know termite mounds are fairly complicated structures, they have many tunnels, they have elaborate construction; you say the Darwinian biologist, ‘How did that come about?’  And, he says, ‘The termites made it.’  Good answer, the termites did make it; termites are perfectly capable of making termite mounds.  Go go a few miles further and you come across a nuclear fusion reactor – massive thing – sitting there in the desert, gleaming pipes, ducts, ceiling, water works, producing steam, generating electricity.  And, you turn to the Darwinian biologist and you turn to him and say, ‘Here we are in the desert and here is a nuclear fusion reactor.  How did that come about?’  The guy says, ‘Termites made it.’  [audience laughter]  You know that is not the right answer.  You just know that is not the right answer.  But the interesting case, the interesting case is one intermediate between these two.  You are in the desert again and you see something, [pause] That’s all I’m going to tell you, you see something, and you turn to the Darwinian biologist and ask, ‘How did that appear?’  The guy says, ‘It was the Darwinian process.’ What is wrong with that answer which is the answer that has been classically given by Darwinian biology!? What is wrong with that answer is the description, ‘I saw something’ is not complete enough, it is not specific enough, so that any answer is logically possible.  In that sense, when Darwin proposed a mechanism for evolution in 1859 he was looking through the wrong end of the telescope, because not, one hundred and fifty years later have not be able to specify the structures of the cell with that degree of precision and sophistication that would enable us to say, ‘Yes, that was a Darwinian process.’”

“Darwin was looking through the wrong end of the telescope, so are Darwinian biologists.  The question that Darwin attempted to solve may be, perhaps, solved in five hundred years, but now is not the time that admits of a solution.  We have not been able scientifically or rationally to describe the structures we see, certainly not in molecular biology, the only honest thing we can say is that they are stupefying in their complexity.  But, if they are stupefying in their complexity, we cannot characterize that complexity.  There is no theoretical model that is adequate to the task of  explaining their emergence.  That’s a logical point; I think it’s a powerful point.”

That is a penetrating observation, that there is a problem not so much with the observations, with our powerful intuitions about evolution, but with the question itself, ‘how did life originate from non-life?’

The Meme Merchants have till this point taken only a very distant look at Intelligent Design as a set of hypotheses that attempt to explain the complexity of nature, and as a social and political phenomena.  However Meme Merchants at this blog and in other places have always taken the very strong position that evolution itself is a fundamental pattern to the ordering of the universe at every level: from the cosmological structure of the Universe itself, to complex organic and inorganic systems, to life, to humanity, language, culture, and the English novel; however, some things at this point remain complete mysteries:  the origin of life, the origin and ultimate fate of the universe, and whether Shakespeare will ever be exceeded in cultural significance in the west.

It is largely do to the influence of Dr. Berlinski that we here have begun to undertake to look into the matter to see what Intelligent Design actually is as a phenomenon and as a theory, thus we are refraining from prejudging it prematurely.  So we would say that at the moment are in an exploratory phase of the process, but have noticed a few things worth mentioning.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam

The first of which is that Dr. Berlinski isn’t an Intelligent Design theorist himself, he seems to have his own agenda.  Dr. Berlinski’s agenda, since he evidently has one, seems to have something to do with rolling academic science’s pretensions to truth back a little and leaving some room for the discussion of our deepest human needs outside of the purely reductions, positivist terms that modern academic science enforces on the rest of reality. Dr. Berlinski describes his relationship to ID, even though he is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, as rather like his relationship in public with his ex-wives, “Warm but distant.”  It is evident that people in the Intelligent Design world want to wrangle Dr. Berlinski into their own coral, but he remains slyly elusive, though still somehow related.  It is also evident that Dr. Berlinski is generally winds up being the smartest person in the room, smart enough to make most educated people around seem a little dim.

A second thing is that of the several counter-arguments made against Intelligent Design theorists by its detractors, one of them is that ID in many ways appears to be an argument from ignorance in that a lack of evidence for the Darwinian Evolutionary view is erroneously argued to constitute proof of the correctness of the Intelligent Design view.

Argument from ignorance (Latin: argumentum ad ignorantiam), also known as appeal to ignorance (in which ignorance stands for “lack of evidence to the contrary”), is a fallacy in informal logic. It asserts that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false (or vice versa). This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes a third option, which is that there is insufficient investigation and therefore insufficient information to prove the proposition satisfactorily to be either true or false. Nor does it allow the admission that the choices may in fact not be two (true or false), but may be as many as four: true, false, unknown between true or false, being unknowable (among the first three).


If one examines Dr. Berlinski’s above complaint he makes the powerful case that secular Darwinian theorists themselves are making the argument from ignorance because they often slyly deny the third option: “which is that there is insufficient investigation and therefore insufficient information to prove the proposition satisfactorily to be either true or false,” in the case of their own Darwinian theoretical paradigm.

If your own paradigm is failing to explain the emergence of a hyper-complex phenomenon, maybe you should allow some breathing room for other to sketch out their ideas.  After all if there is some type of intelligent agency embedded in, constituted among, or woven throughout the universal system as a whole that is drawing life into deeper and deeper levels of novelty, complexity, and intelligence wouldn’t we want to know about it if it existed?  To discover that there is no Intelligent Designer does not exclude the possibility that the design is intelligent.

The basic argument is that an argument may not appeal merely to the fact that a proposition is not disproved to arrive at a definite conclusion: the proposition must be true because it has not been proven false or visa versa.

The Wikipedia article uses an example from Dutch physicist Dr. Duco A. Schreuder’s Vision and Visual Perception.  I will add slightly different emphases than the Wiki:

Arguments that appeal to ignorance rely merely on the fact that the veracity of the proposition is not disproven to arrive at a definite conclusion. These arguments fail to appreciate that the limits of one’s understanding or certainty do not change what is true. They do not inform upon reality. That is, whatever the reality is, it does not “wait” upon human logic or analysis to be formulated. Reality exists at all times, and it exists independently of what is in the mind of anyone. And the true thrust of science and rational analysis is to separate preconceived notion(s) of what reality is, and to be open at all times to the observation of nature as it behaves, so as truly to discover reality. This fallacy can be very convincing and is considered by some to be a special case of a false dilemma or false dichotomy in that they both fail to consider alternatives. A false dilemma may take the form: If a proposition has not been disproven, then it cannot be considered false and must therefore be considered true.  If a proposition has not been proven, then it cannot be considered true and must therefore be considered false.

Such arguments attempt to exploit the facts that (a) true things can never be disproven and (b) false things can never be proven. In other words, appeals to ignorance claim that the converse of these facts are also true. Therein lies the fallacy.

True enough, however, one must recognize that “Reality exists at all times, and it exists independently of what is in the mind of anyone,” is itself an  untested, possibly untestable assumption, it is also the assumption at the bedrock of modern, materialist science, it is also intruding materially into the present discussion which is about intelligence or mind – but not necessarily human mind – feeding back into the process of evolution.

Absence of Evidence

Dr. Schreuder’s goes on to say [my emphasis]:

It must be stressed that evidence of absence must not be confused with absence of evidence.  Evidence of absence is evidence of any kind that suggests that something does not exist.  A simple example of evidence of absence:  a baker never fails to put finished pies on the windowsill, so if there is no pie on the windowsill, no finished pies exist.  This can be formulated as a modus tollens in propositional logic: P implies Q but Q is false, therefore P is false.

Evidence of this kind should not be confused with mere ignorance, and the traditional axiom warns that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, although this is only the case if there is no reason to believe that such evidence would already have been found if it existed.  It has been sometimes stated that in some circumstances it can safely be assumed that if a certain even had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators.  In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of evidence as proof positive of its nonoccurrence.

Fair enough, a couple of obvious thoughts though.  Firstly, when two sides of an argument are both lacking any real proof for their assumptions, both sides should show some restraint in playing the argumentum ad ignorantiam card.  Secondly, that after an interval of say a hundred fifty years some explanation why, when new evidence is being amassed at a tremendous rate from the microscopic to the size of large vehicles, that a certain percentage of ‘ghost lineages’ are not represented among the trove, otherwise people will begin to believe that if such evidence existed, it should have been found by now.  And thirdly, in a case where the point in question is a creative intelligence at work in the universe that “qualified investigators” really ought to be theologians, philosophers, and the religious and not the physicists or the biologists.

Something to think about.

Scientist:   We see no evidence for God, we cannot conceive of a God, 
             therefore God is kaput.

Theologian:  The Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth, but men
             do not see it.  God is known though experience but is 
             more than the experience, just because you haven’t had the 
             experience doesn’t assure that the experience is invalid.

Scientist:  People who have had that experience are all crackpots 
            and crazies, and stupid people because they have had the 
            experience.  Therefore their experience is invalid.  
            Also, we are unable to ascertain either the mass, charge, 
            or angler momentum of the experience of God and since mass,
            charge and angular momentum are our only primary qualities
            of interest God is kaput.

Theologian:  God by nature is ineffable, irreducible, and the strange 
             attractor that summons new novelty out of novelty already
             attained.  To attempt to reduce God to mere qualities 
             makes it impossible to have the experience that allows 
             one to know God.

Scientist:  Reducing things to their material properties is all we 
            allow ourselves to do, which makes God Kaput 
            - everything else is religion.

Theologian:  Precisely.

~ Wygart

Watch also:


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