Joseph H. Axell posted a long rebuttal in the comment section of my article “Unintelligent arguments against intelligent design: A Primer“. There are a number of claims I’d like to challenge in the response. For instance Axell writes: “Dembski’s ‘explanatory filter’ for detecting design has been shown to be inadequate (false positives being but one problem)….” That’s like saying that an umbrella is inadequate because it is ineffectual in a windy rainstorm. Dembski’s explanatory filter, like an umbrella, can still be a useful tool even if it is not perfect. Is Newtonian physics tossed out as illegitimate because it doesn’t work at the quantum level?
Second, Axell writes: “So you concede that ID proponents have so far failed to achieve even the preliminary goal of establishing that a causal intelligence has been engaged in creating features of the natural world.”
First of all, whether they have or haven’t suceeded in establishing any particular instance of intelligent design is completely irrelevant to the claim that such a project is, in principle, viable. That’s the point! (And philosopher of science / atheist Bradley Monton makes it much better than I ever could.)
Moreover, I never conceded this. I think that given our present state of knowledge about known acting causes in the world and the structure of DNA that Stephen Meyer has provided a compelling case that the best type of explanation for the origin of DNA is intelligence. The mere fact that people like Axell disagree is also irrelevant because the universal assent of the scientific community is not required for a person to have good scientific reasons to accept a given hypothesis.
Finally, we turn to the main point I’d like to focus on: whether it is legitimate to infer to intelligences which are not human (or otherwise already known by human beings). Axell thinks not. Or at least he thinks the demands on what we must know about such an intelligence are extraordinarily high before we can infer that it exists:
“Since ID proponents are positing an intelligent cause quite unlike the intelligent causes with which we are familiar they most certainly do owe us a detailed account of the nature of that intelligent cause and of the time, manner and place in which it has engaged with the natural world.”
“Your references to the SETI project suggests that you have merely accepted uncritically the view put forward by ID proponents such as Dr William Dembski, even though Dr Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute has stated that: “The champions of Intelligent Design make two mistakes when they claim that the SETI enterprise is logically similar to their own” (from space.com on 01 December 2005).”
I have two preliminary comments about the second paragraph. First, I am not sure why Axell says my acceptence of the SETI illustration is “uncritical”. Is it uncritical simply because I happen to agree with Dembski? That is a strange use of terms. Second, Axell says that Shostak made two objections to SETI being an example of ID, but then he neglected to provide them! Hopefully he can illumine us to these two points in the thread.
Finally I turn to the main point. Is it true that a person is obliged to provide “a detailed account of the nature of that intelligent cause and of the time, manner and place in which it has engaged with the natural world” if that intelligent cause is one with which we are not “familiar”?
Axell just invented that stipulation but provided no reasoning for it. He just asserts it. But not only is there no reason to accept it. There is also a good reason not to accept it. Consider the following illustration:
Axell’s friend tells him: “Joseph, I fear that there is some kind of intelligence in my house that doesn’t want me here.”
Axell, being a scientifically enlightened denizen of the twenty-first century is skeptical. “What evidence do you have?” he asks.
Axell’s friend then pulls out a ouija board and sets it on the coffee table. Immediately the planchette begins moving across the board and it spells “Get out of here.” Axell can clearly see that nobody is touching the planchette and immediately he picks it up, inspects it closely. There are no magnets: it is only a piece of wood. There are no wires. There is no draft. He puts it back down. Immediately the planchette begins to move again as it spells out “I said get out of here.”
“See?” Axell’s friend says, terrified. “There’s something here. Some kind of intelligence is manipulating the board.”
“Sorry,” Axell replies. “Before I can agree with you I require a detailed account of the nature of the intelligence moving the planchette as well as the means by which it engaged the planchette.”
Suddenly a demonic voice booms through the room, seemingly from nowhere. “I said GET OUT!” it howls.
As Axell’s friend curls up into the fetal position and begins to weep Axell crosses his arms stubbornly. “I need an account!” he barks back.
Then black ooze begins to seep from the walls. “GET OUT!” the voice shrieks.
“Account!” Axell yells.