Once upon a day, on a Facebook discussion group, on a thread about design, a skeptic responded to a claim for design and designer by saying “if someone says that something was designed by someone, then we should be able to test that claim.” The discussion that followed led to this blog.
What is design and how can we identify it? Richard Dawkins addresses this topic in his book The Blind Watchmaker. He contrasts “complicated things” such as those found in biology as well as “man-made artefacts like computers and cars” with “‘simple’ things, such as rocks, clouds, rivers, galaxies and quarks.” On one hand we have biology and man-made artefacts and on the other we have “the stuff of physics.” “The difference is one of complexity of design,” Dawkins says. Then he adds “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Thus, it’s easy to misidentify design simply because sometimes things have the appearance of purposeful design. But then how can we tell when it’s true design or when it’s only apparent, purposeless design? Is there a test that can tell us (as requested by the Facebook skeptic)?
At this point I could elaborate on William Dembski’s test for design. In his books (The Design Inference, etc.) he puts forward the concept of explanatory filter and complex specified information. That is meant to be a mathematically rigorous test for design and could get technical. Therefore I’m sticking to Dawkins and his The Blind Watchmaker book (also because some would rather take Dawkins’ words over Dembski’s words, the latter being a main intelligent design (ID) proponent). In it Dawkins makes a contrast between what he calls a “true watchmaker” (and its design) and a “blind watchmaker” (and its design). He says:
“A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.”
About the blind watchmaker he says:
Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the illusion of design and planning.
On one hand we have true watchmaker which produces true design. On the other we have evolution (“the blind watchmaker”) which produces only apparent design. What’s the difference between them? One is mind. A true watchmaker has a mind while evolution is “unconscious [and] automatic” and it “has no mind and no mind’s eye.” Therefore the test is this: is there a mind that orchestrates the process? If there is a mind (aka, a designer) then we have true design. If no mind then no true design but only “the illusion of design.”
We can look at this another way. Other differences Dawkins underlines are foresight, planning for the future and purpose. That means:
- the ability to (fore)see possible outcomes or ends,
- to choose between these future alternative end the desired or purposed one
- the ability to make those changes now that will later lead to the chosen outcome.
If we allow random processes then we can have multiple possible future alternatives. But then agency or choice of one possible outcome over another, if there is any, belongs to randomness, to chance. Again, there is no foresight, no desire, no intention and no purpose. Therefore there is no true design. If a cook wants to make some soup and the cat jumps on the table and ingredients fly in the air and some end up in the soup then that soup was not designed even if it tastes very good and one tasting it may think it was. But neither the cat or the cook designed it.
Therefore the test is this: is there more than the deterministic causality and/or randomness? That is what Dawkins calls “blind, unconscious automatic process[es].” Then there is “no mind,” “no purpose,” no “plan for the future”, “no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.” That only gives the appearance of design. But if there is free will, which is neither deterministic causality or randomness, then we have “true watchmaker” (or designer), we have “mind,” and “mind’s eye”, “plan[ning] for the future,” “purpose”, “vision,” “foresight.” We now have true design. Thus we can say that true design is dependent on a true designer, that is, a free-willed designer.
In the same book Dawkins further clarifies: “We may say that a living body or organ is well designed if it has attributes that an intelligent and knowledgeable engineer might have built into it in order to achieve some sensible purpose…” he thus link “design” to the attributes endowed by a designer (“intelligent and knowledgeable engineer”). Such a designer can choose “some sensible purpose” to build into the designed object. This is a true designer or “true watchmaker.” On the other hand, the mindless process of evolution, he says, is a “blind watchmaker.” When its outcome looks like design (that is, it has the characteristics of design) the design is apparent. It has the characteristics which makes it look like having been produces by an intelligent designer but there is actually no such designer behind it, he says. There was no purpose for the design to end up the way it was. It only happened to be that way because 1) the mutations happened to be what they were and 2) the environment (with its selective pressure) happened to be what it was. Had the mutations been different or the environment been different (Dawkins may say if no meteor wiped the dinosaurs for example) the outcome would have been different. Apparent design just happened. True design was foreseen, intended, purposed and deliberately pursued.
Leaving Dawkins aside, if we look at the contrast between Darwinian evolution and “directed evolution” (which is a man-made, artificial evolution) we see the same characteristics: mind, purpose, foresight, goal. Here’s a quote from Design by Directed Evolution:
Evolution does not work toward any particular direction, nor is there a goal; the underlying processes occur spontaneously during reproduction and survival. The laboratory evolution experiment, in contrast, often has a defined goal, and the key processes—mutation, recombination, and screening or selection—are carefully controlled by the experimenter.
The author contrasts what he calls “‘irrational’ design” (which is what Dawkins would call apparent design or the “illusion of design”) and directed evolution design which is purposeful and done in a lab by an intelligent agent or designer (“experimenter”) which “control[s]” the process (that is, one that exercises free will to define and choose a goal and then choose those conditions that lead to the “defined goal”).
Or, another quote from Scientific American:
By selecting the bacteria more likely to survive, and allowing them to produce new mutated strains, the researchers harness the power of natural evolutionary processes in order to produce bacteria that do what they want. This process is known as directed evolution.
For directed evolution, the researcher needs to produce the right conditions for growth, continual nudges in the right direction…
The designer “select[s]”, “want[s]” a specific end result or goal, towards which he “direct[s]” and “nudges” the process by choosing “the right conditions for growth” and “the right direction.” These are all characteristics of a free-willed mind. Still another quote on directed evolution: “In the lab… we get to set the criteria for who survives.” A designer chooses the criteria with the foresight of an end in mind.
We can also look at the meaning of the term design in dictionary and we draw the same conclusion. The first entry of the definition in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is “to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan.” If there is no free will there is no creating (and no creativity); there is no plan. There is just following the path on which predetermining factors push. The 2nd entry: “to conceive and plan out in the mind.” Well, it takes a mind, the capacity to conceive and plan out! The 3rd entry: “to have as a purpose” and 4th: “to devise for a specific function or end.” Again, predetermining factors and chance have no purpose and they aim no end. They don’t weight functions and ends and prefer specific ones. Other terms used include “intent” (which is also a synonym for purpose) and “deliberate.” Neither determinism or randomness have intent or deliberation. Only free will, only a mind does.
Therefore, the question and the test whether something is truly designed is the question and the test whether there is a free-willed mind behind it. And searching for design ultimately means searching for a designer and, more specifically, for a designer’s mind. And that search, and the corresponding test, are left for Part 2.