The Atheist Missionary demurs from my advice on when an intelligent agent is a warranted causal explanation. He explains why as follows:
The best provisional judgment is to look for (an as yet) unknown non-intelligent causes while, in fairness, not dogmatically ruling out an intelligent one. Why? Because, to date, we have no evidence to suggest that intelligence is the cause of any existent piece of matter aside from human artifacts.
On the one hand, it is difficult to find the disagreement between what I said and what TAM says. After all, I agreed that we begin by looking for non-intelligent causes. It is only when those causes fail and the only remaining known causes able to create the effect are intelligent ones that we can infer to an intelligent cause.
But then this closing sentence caught my attention: “to date, we have no evidence to suggest that intelligence is the cause of any existent piece of matter aside from human artifacts.” There are three problems with this statement.
The first problem (a minor one) is that it is pitched too narrowly. There is much more to be explained than why individual pieces of matter exist. We also must explain why pieces of matter have the properties they do, why natural laws or regularities exist, why events happen and so on. But that is, as I said, a minor point.
More significant is the second point. TAM asserts that we have no evidence for non-human intelligent design. According to whom? Stephen Meyer’s argument from the origin of biological information, Robin Collins’ argument from cosmic fine-tuning, and William Lane Craig’s argument from the origin of the universe a finite time ago all provide some evidence since they are logically valid arguments with plausible premises.
This is where I have to lament the terrible double-standard that is evident in TAM’s comment. Since TAM is well acquainted with the legal profession, this illustration should resonate with him. Let’s say that Fred is a lawyer defending his client from a murder charge. There is no DNA, his client lacks an apparent motive, there was no gun shot residue on his hands and his client has an alibi: his wife says he was at home that evening. However, an eyewitness places the client at the scene and the client’s wife is an ex-con herself. Fred may sincerely believe his client is innocent and he may be right. But is it correct for Fred to say there is no evidence against his client? No. There is some evidence. Perhaps it is enough to persuade a jury and perhaps not. But if Fred does claim there is no evidence then he’s just blowing smoke.
Sadly, TAM is just blowing smoke. There are many evidences for non-human agent causation in the universe. They may not be the (if you’ll pardon the expression) smoking gun that we might like. But that hardly warrants us saying that there is no evidence. And so TAM is inconsistent, because he endorses a statement about the lack of evidence for non-human intelligence in the world which can be described charitably as hyperbolic but which is in fact just false and inconsistent with any reasonable person’s assessment of the case against Fred’s client.
Now the third problem. TAM’s statement seems to imply some sort of principle. Perhaps it is something like this:
Intelligence is only a warranted inference to explain a token phenomenon if we have prior evidence of intelligence creating that type of phenomenon.
I could be wrong. It may be that TAM isn’t depending on a principle like this. But it seems like he is. And if he is, then it seems that trouble is afoot because this principle is clearly false. Consider, for example, the fact that we have no experience of intelligence creating cloud formations. That is certainly true (although as we saw at the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese can indeed control the weather to a surprising degree by sending rain clouds in the opposite direction). However, what if TAM was out one day flying a kite when the clouds above him spelled out “I’m watching you TAM.” Let’s say that TAM’s family also witnessed this event and he hadn’t yet consumed any spirits (it was 10 AM and he doesn’t start drinking until noon). According to this principle TAM couldn’t conclude that the cloud formation had been created by an intelligence. And that’s surely false.