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The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement - Page 6

Basil Mitchell: Telekinesis and Disembodied Agency

In the course of defending the coherence of talking about incorporeal agency in The Justification of Religious Belief, Basil Mitchell (then Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and Fellow of Oriel College Oxford) has this to say on the subject of telekinesis (the alleged power to alter events, such as the fall of dice, by simply "willing"):

Whether or not telekinesis actually occurs, it does not seem difficult to specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit its occurrence. If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise, we should conclude that he had the power to cause physical changes without bodily movement. Bodily movement on the part of the agent is normally a reliable guide as to whether an occurrence is an action or not, and, if so, whose; but we could, in principle, settle both questions without recourse to this criterion, if the other indications were clear enough. What are these? A combination of the following: (i) The unlikelihood of the event's occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent. (ii) The event's contributing to some purpose. (iii) The agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent.[81]

(Note that Mitchell is arguing that intelligent design can in principle be detected even if it is not implemented by bodily agency.) Mitchell's design detection criterion has more parts than Dembski's, but then it attempts to do more, because it attempts to provide a criterion whereby we can detect not only that "an occurrence is an action" but also "whose" action it is. Mitchell's criterion for detecting intelligent design per se appears to be similar to Dembski's.

Mitchell says that whether an occurrence such as the falling of dice is an action (that is, is the result of intelligent design) can be answered positively if two conditions are met-and those conditions are sufficient complexity ("The unlikelihood of the event's occurrence apart from the intervention of some agent") combined with an independent specification ("specify the conditions under which we should be prepared to admit its occurrence"; "If the dice were to fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise"; "The event's contributing to some purpose"). Knowledge concerning "The agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent," while helpful in pinning a designed event on a specific agent, is clearly not necessary for Mitchell's design inference per se. This shows once again that, as Dembski asserts, "detecting design . . . does not implicate any particular intelligence."[82]

Suppose paranormal investigators set up some rigorous scientific experiments into telekinesis (would critics of ID condemn such experiments as nonscientific in principle?[83]) and the dice do indeed "fall with a certain number upwards whenever a particular individual was asked to bring it about and not otherwise." Suppose the specified complexity of this result exceeded Dembski's universal probability bound (something Mitchell does not bother calculating): While we should conclude that the best explanation for this result is intelligent design, we could not implicate our test subject on the basis of CSI alone. Any agent with the requisite causal power might have caused the result we detected. To settle on attributing the exercise of telekinetic powers in this instance to our test subject (rather than to God, or a god, or a ghost, or a demon, or an angel, or another human or alien with telekinetic powers who is trying to dupe our researchers into thinking that their test subject has telekinetic powers when they do not) our scientists must appeal to criteria beyond CSI. Mitchell's "agreement of that purpose with the independently known character and purposes of the putative agent" might be useful here; but one imagines that Ockham's razor should feature fairly heavily in such deliberations.

Unlike contemporary ID theorists, Basil Mitchell did not clearly distinguish between criteria for inferring design and criteria for inferring the responsibility of putative designers. Mitchell also left his design detection criterion in a fairly pretheoretic state (simply suggesting the combination of low probability with a specification) without the context of information theory and universal probability bounds deployed by Dembski; and perhaps for these reasons, Mitchell never made much of his criterion. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Mitchell was thinking along the same lines as Dembski.

Conclusions

William A. Dembski claims to have formalized (one of) the intuitive design detection tools of humanity. Confidence in the truth of this claim, and in the claim that CSI is a reliable criterion of design detection, is bolstered by the fact that academics outside the ID movement (irrespective of their worldview, and sometimes despite their own negative assessment of ID) explicitly or implicitly employ (pretheoretic versions of) the CSI criterion when arguing for (and against) design inferences.

Moreover, the greater the number of scholars who independently arrive at the same answer to a problem, the more confident we tend to be about the truth of their answer. Hence, discovering CSI used to solve the problem of justifying and repudiating design inferences in the work of a diverse group of scholars outside the ID movement (including several "hostile witnesses" opposed to ID) justifies some confidence in the first premise of ID.

Since the conclusion of intelligent design follows logically if we add a premise affirming the existence of sufficient relevant empirical evidence (even if in only one field of inquiry), the truth of such a second premise would therefore seem to be the crucial issue between supporters and detractors of the claim that intelligent design theory can be advanced as a sound argument. And if ID is acknowledged to be advancing a sound argument, advocates of the definitional, "it's not science" critique of ID will either have to eat their proverbial hats, or else endorse transferring assets from university science departments to philosophy departments in the interests of furthering our understanding of physical reality.

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