Jonathan McLatchie and the Case for Intelligent Design.

Attended an interesting event at Teeside Sceptics in the Pub last night, to hear Jonathan McLatchie talking on “The Case For Intelligent Design”.

His case – that the best description for evolution involves “intelligent cause” as well as random events – is entirely scientific, though obviously the quality and validity of the science is impossible to judge in a single – at times highly technical – presentation.

[Post Note : Audio recording here on YouTube.]

Though not part of his case, it is worth noting that McLatchie is a christian theist, and indeed runs an “apologetics-academy” ministry proselytising Christianity over atheism, islam and judaism, aiming to arm Christianity with scientific tools. In that environment he’s no stranger to controversial debate and vitriolic reaction and accusations of bigotry. He freely admits that his intelligent cause mechanism is indeed the Christian God, though in the context of the evening’s topic it was not appropriate to attempt all the theological arguments about how such an agent god would actually intervene in the workings of nature, nor in any creationist cosmological first cause. He’s clearly armed and ready for such debates however. If you were a cynic you might easily see his scientific case as personally motivated by these aims and the density of technical detail as some kind of smokescreen.

Giving his science the objective benefit of doubt requires some tough science as well as subtle philosophical understanding of what can actually be known about what exists. The fact that the average scientist is happy to throw rocks at philosophers is unlikely to prove helpful.

The basic argument – that “some” intelligent cause must exist – is that evolutionary events must meet some criteria of “complex specificity” of outcome within constraints of probability and time available in the design space. If it can’t meet these, there must be something directing the probability better than random chance. (So far the argument says nothing about how, simply that it must be.)

For what it’s worth I actually believe that. That is I believe the logic and I believe there is already evidence of evolution directed by intelligence. This does of course beg questions of what we mean by intelligence, as well as the evidence for it.

There are many classic Climbing Mount Improbable examples postulated and studied, starting with William Paley’s watchmaker and the complexity of the human eye, and including (so-called) sub-optimal designs in the arrangement of retinal blood supply and the routing of the laryngeal nerve around the aorta.

McLatchie’s evidence uses the case of bacterium flagella, also an established case-study with established controversy but where McLatchie believes his arguments have already rebutted criticisms made to date. We were certainly in no position to further that highly technical scientific debate in any detail on the night.

There were questions around the logic:

  1. Questions of our “anthropic” perception of improbability, all the way from cosmogeny to complex design. All I will say for now, is that the two extreme anthropic arguments are too easily dismissed and there are more subtle and more significant anthropic effects to be recognised. Science however continues to be (literally) ignorant of epistemology.
  2. Questions around the availability of alternative amino-acid & protein manipulation mechanisms that might reduce the improbability. Not much more I can add on this topic.
  3. Questions of how the size of the design space is always narrower than the theoretical number of permutations, due to permutations already consumed in, and in new constraints created in, the objects and patterns already arisen by prior evolution. Several of the audience raised different versions of this question, but they were never really acknowledged as significant.
  4. Questions of how “intelligent cause” may in fact be in those prior-evolved natural patterns, rather than in any supernatural external agent. This wasn’t addressed directly, but the question of the intervention between intelligent consciousness and physics was, and was dismissed with the “but science can’t explain that anyway”. McLatchie admitted to being a Cartesian dualist – seeing his god in the stuff of super-physical consciousness. Here I differ. For me consciousness and free-will are already explained by natural science. They are simply denied by greedy reductionist materialist physicists, who indeed not only fail to explain, but regularly dismiss such things as a non-existent or epiphenomenal illusions because (obviously) they can’t explain them. No prizes for guessing who’ll be proven wrong here.

Anyway, interesting stuff. The science needs working though by those that can, but it won’t change the facts. It will evolve a better definition of intelligent design, without the need for any supernatural god.

[Post Note: a subsequent event which demonstrates that deniers are dumber than intelligent designers .]

[Post Note: And, controversial fiction, but it makes you think.]

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