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Sep 30 2005

Paley’s watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design

One does not have to spend much time reading about intelligent design creationism (IDC) to come across the “Mount Rushmore” argument. IDC advocate William Dembski even begins an article with it as follows:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. (emphasis in original)

This idea that it should be obvious to anyone when something is designed and when it is not permeates the literature of the IDC movement and variations of the Mount Rushmore argument is brought up repeatedly because it provides a concrete image of the idea and has a simple persuasiveness. On a recent episode of The Daily Show Dembski was asked by host Jon Stewart about ID and he brought up the Rushmore example again, showing how valuable they think this example is, since on such shows you only have a few minutes to make your case.

Theologians and philosophers, of course, know that this type of argument has a venerable history and goes back two hundred years to the Christian apologist William Paley (1743-1805) and even earlier. Paley was an Anglican priest and in his book Natural Theology (1802) he talks about what would happen if you were walking across a field and came across a stone. You would not ask how it got there because it would seem perfectly natural that the stone had always been there and was not specially created and kept there. But what if you came across a watch? We can quote Paley himself:

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.

The IDC argument is to say that there are things in nature that are analogous to the watch and Mount Rushmore in that they clearly could not have occurred naturally and they point to various biological systems that they claim support their position. The more sophisticated IDC people like Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) take a minimalist approach and point to just a few (five actually) biochemical systems and processes as showing signs of design. But other religious believers take a more expansive view requiring a designer for a rising number of things, like the human eye, humans themselves, animals, etc. Some of them say that all living things must require a designer.

But whatever the sample that is selected for this purpose, all these things, they say, are too complex to have occurred by the gradual process of random mutation and natural selection, with a large number of small changes leading to the large variations in species that we see today.

The usual response by biologists to this argument is that the appearance of design in nature is just an illusion, that random mutations and natural selection are capable of producing the complex biological systems that we mistake for designed objects. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker explicitly addresses Paley’s argument, and he followed it up in his other book Climbing Mount Improbable.

But apart from the biological issues, there is also a philosophical argument that is not often brought up and this will be discussed in the next posting.

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