Book Review

A friend of mine has an overly strong commitment to things she learned when she was growing up. “Doctors say you need to drink eight glasses of water a day” is one. I ran across a repot in which a leading researcher in this field told of his attempts to track down the source of that belief. He found no medical evidence for it. Apparently it just showed up one day in some magazine, and grew. He said there was no truth to it whatever. My friend’s response: “I don’t believe it.” She wouldn’t look at the source material; she already had her facts.

There is research out this week casting doubt on the belief that stretching before sports activities reduces injuries. I’m not going to bother telling my friend. She won’t read the report, and she wouldn’t believe me if I said. She knows we should all drink eight glasses of water a day, and that stretching before exercise reduces injuries. She knows it because that’s what she has always heard.

I expect similar reactions from evolutionists to Mike Gene’s The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues. Everyone in the pro-evolution, anti-Intelligent Design crowd knows that:

  • ID is thinly disguised creationism
  • ID is just negative science (nothing but picking points against evolution)
  • ID has no positive research program
  • ID makes no predictions
  • ID relies on a “God of the gaps” approach to knowledge
  • ID presents no testable hypotheses
  • ID is dogmatically driven by people with a theological/philosophical agenda

Everybody knows these things. Mike Gene shows that none of them are true. The evolutionists, I fear, are not going to read it; they’re just going to say, “I don’t believe it.” Like my friend, they will stick with what’s always been “true” for them in the past.

The author uses a pseudonym, obviously, and as far as I know no one has cracked his real identity (or if they have, they’re not telling). He says in the intro to the book that he remains anonymous so that his ideas can be evaluated for themselves, without regard for who has presented them. It seems likely he’s also carrying out some career protection, too. If he’s working in a university biology department (and yes, he does know his science), it could obviously risky for him to “come out” as an ID supporter. (See his Design Matrix website for more.)

The way that he supports ID is refreshingly unique, however. He doesn’t argue for a conclusion of Intelligent Design at all. He argues more modestly, for a suspicion of Intelligent Design. He would have a beef with dogmatists on either side of the issue. Quite helpfully he distinguishes between the strong evidence required for conviction by a court of law, and evidence required by an investigating detective. A detective arrives on the scene with nothing but questions. His first objective is to move toward reasonable suspicions. A little hint there, a vague clue there: these things can move him toward a theory of a crime; and from there he can begin to look for more definite signs. Eventually, much further down the road, proof may come. Mike Gene believes we should recognize ID is in the developing suspicion stage: there is no hard scientific proof of design, but there are hints and clues that raise a most reasonable suspicion, and which can lead to a search for more definite signs.

These hints and clues he summarizes into his “Design Matrix,” four relatively independent factors to test for in nature:

  • Analogy with known instances of design
  • Discontinuity with observed or means by which evolution works
  • Rationality apparent in the design of the natural feature
  • Foresight apparent in the design of the natural feature

These are defined such that they can all lead to testable research hypotheses. We’re not talking about black/white, unambiguous research results, however (“Evolution never could have done this!” or “Evolution absolutely could have done this, it’s easy!”). Natural phenomena can be scored on a continuum, Mike Gene says; we’re still in the detective stage, not the judge and jury stage. We’re looking for suspicions of ID, so we should be open to gradations on the scales of the Design Matrix. Only one of them, by the way (Discontinuity), bears any relationship to the tired stereotype that ID is nothing but a negative science that resorts to god-of-the-gaps thinking.

Mike Gene wrote this book with a sense of humor. (Thank God for an evolution/ID-related book with a sense of humor!) The book wraps around a theme of the Rabbit and the Duck. It’s a metaphor about our preconceptions, and the way they can color our perceptions. I won’t try to replay it for you; I’ll just quote the book’s final paragraph, and leave it to you to read the book and chase down the metaphor for yourself:

So as we begin our journey, these lessons, coupled with all the lessons in these chapters, must be kept in mind. We are not engaging in a Duck Hunt; we are going to chase the Rabbit. So, do you see that rabbit hole over your shoulder? Yeah, that one. Wanna have some fun? Well, grab your Design Matrix, and follow that Rabbit.

(There’s much more Rabbit fun on the Telic Thoughts blog, where Mike Gene writes frequently.)

Some of you reading this “know” that ID is nothing but negative science, it’s just god-of-the-gaps, and it’s a mere religious ploy. You won’t read the book; you won’t accept that ID-related thinking can lead to genuine research questions; you’ll just say, “I don’t believe it.” I strongly urge you to get your hands on a copy of this uniquely creative approach to Intelligent Design, and find out where the Rabbit leads you.

The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues by Mike Gene. No City: Arbor Vitae Press, 2007. 291 pages plus index. Amazon Price US$16.47.

14 thoughts on “The Design Matrix

  1. Tom,

    There are also a lot of people who will say “I’ll read it and consider it and take it objectively, etc,” because that’s what they know they’re supposed to say.

    I’d be curious to see who makes that claim ‘out loud’, since some of those daring to say it will have already proven they’re not interested in revising their preferred views on “settled” ideas.

  2. I am a Christian evolutionist, and I would like to point out a couple of defects in the reasoning of the above post. Said defects may originate in the book, but as I have not yet read the book, I cannot comment to that.

    First, the following quote expresses a false-dichotomy:

    “Everyone in the pro-evolution, anti-Intelligent Design crowd…”

    It excludes the large zone in the middle that is populated by Christians who regard evolutionary process as the mechanism by which the Creator instantiated His design. One can be a creationist and believe in the intelligent design of the universe without accepting the unbiblical notion that it was all done is a cosmic instant.

    My second point is about a missing bullet. You gave seven bullets, but there needs to be an eighth one. This addition obliterates that form of ID that is just a mechanism of sneaking the instant, recent creation in the back door. The bullet is this:

    * ID exists solely as a mechanism for defending a particular religious doctrine of Protestant Christian fundamentalism. If it were not for the need of this sect to defend the particular doctrine, ID would not exist as a scientific proposition.

    ID is invalid as a scientific theorem because it arises from the religious beliefs of its advocates and is a device for validating those religious beliefs within the hard sciences. ID is only valid as a religious interpretation, and so I hold it for myself. ID has no place whatsoever inside the researches of the natural sciences.

    Despite these objections, which may be more of the post than the book, I promise to read the book just as soon as I am through with The God Delusion.

    Kind regards,

  3. Russ, thank you for your comment. I agree that my use of “everyone” was not accurate. It was an intentional hyperbole, actually, but you are correct in that it was not literally true.

    Your additional bullet would have been a good one to include, precisely because it is yet another misconception that Mike Gene effectively obliterates.

    I think Mike would agree, by the way, that all of the errors listed among those bullets could be found among various ID proponents if you look hard enough, but that not one of them is essentially a part of the ID investigation. And they’re not as prevalent as detractors often think they are.

  4. I shall look forward to reading his response to my “misconception”. It is more than a coincidence that ID is coming from a particular quarter of the religious population in an apparent counter-insurgency, so to speak, to insinuate fundamentalist dogma back into fields of study where it never belonged. For my part, I think Christianity doesn’t need this. ID is a religious interpretation and need not sit at the table of the natural sciences to have meaning or significance.

    Kind regards,

  5. I expect you’ll enjoy the book. Please let us know what you think of it when you’re done.

    In the meantime, here and here are two posts that give careful examination to the claim that ID is just a religious interpretation.

  6. I don’t get this — I linked here as a positive response to the criticism that ID provides no evidence and makes no predictions. Instead I get a reference to a book that will give these to me?

    How hard is it to state a scientific theory’s most basic evidence and prediction? Everyone keeps on asking for it, and ID’ers respond that there are lots of examples if only the skeptics would be open-minded, but all we ever seem to get is bait-and-wait ploys. Why the suspense? Why no statement of laws with observable evidence and experimentally falsifiable predictions.

    Just one. That’s all we ask.

  7. Sorry, Tony.

    How hard is it to state the theory’s most basic evidence prediction? Very difficult in this case. ID’s basic claim is that nature evinces evidence of design. Well, everybody agrees with that, including Richard Dawkins. So ID quite rightly has to go one step further, to predict that nature shows evidence of design that is intentional, purposeful, or teleological in nature. That’s a difficult task from a philosophical perspective.

    It’s not so unusual to run into theories that are hard to define. Try writing a blog-sized, robust, uncontroversial operational definition of human intelligence.

    So I’m going to refer you back to the book again. If you want a blog-sized answer, though, you can look above at the “four relatively independent factors to test for in nature.”

  8. Tom,

    I’ve read 2 of Dawkins’ books on genetics and evolution and I’m not sure he’d agree that nature “evinces” evidence of design. I think it would be more accurate to say that he finds it has been common for intelligent people to find nature to be so obviously complex that they have only been able to conclude that a designer must have been involved. Sympathy for another’s world view, however, is not the same thing as agreeing that another’s world view is correct.

    I’m also not sure how a philosophical perspective would inform the establishment of a scientific theory’s evidence and predictions. Of course, I agree that something like you suggest (an operational definition of intelligence) would be unwieldy as a blog entry, but that strikes me as a different request than making a statement of a theory’s evidence and predictions.

    For instance, if I wanted to say there was a “theory of surgical antisepsis” I might say:

    1) Evidence: Patients often become infected and die following surgery;
    2) Prediction: Sanitation procedures (cleaning the surgical instruments, the area around the wound, the surgeon’s hands, and the air in the operating room) should greatly reduce the risk of infection;
    3) Explanation: Microbes on surgical instruments, in the air, and on the surgeon’s hands cause infection.

    Now this is probably malformed and clunky but for me it provides a template for what ID lacks — a statement of evidence, a prediction for an experiment that can be falsified, and an explanation of the forces at work.

    Unless I’m totally misunderstanding things and ID is supposed to be considered a philosophy, not a scientific theory?

  9. I don’t know of any other scientific theories that so defy summation.

    The theory is not what defies summation, it’s the operational definition that distinguishes teleological design from apparent but non-purposive design. I already gave you another scientific category that similarly defies summation–human intelligence.

    The philosophical perspective is inseparable from all of science. In the case of ID, it is part and parcel of developing operational definitions. By “philosophy” in this case I mean developing careful thinking on issues of philosophical and methodological naturalism, and also thinking deeply about what design would look like if it were purposeful as opposed to being Darwinian in nature.

    Dawkins said in Blind Watchmaker that nature gives a strong appearance of being designed. That’s what I meant by my earlier reference to him: everybody agrees there’s something there that looks designed. Now, is it or is it not? And how would we tell the difference? That last question is the challenging one.

  10. I’m still not sure what you mean by the Human Intelligence reference. Is there a Theory of Human Intelligence that similarly cannot sum up its definitions in a scientific manner, but is well funded and participated in by the scientific community? If so, that would be a great piece of evidence supporting the claims of scientific prejudice against ID.

    Your assertion that the philosophical perspective is inseparable from all of science seems like a reach to me. Is conducting a laboratory experiment on the law of gravity inseparable from philosophy? How does philosophy involve itself in observation and prediction? Does a philosophical understanding that God created gravity change the fact that gravity works the way it does? Or more appropriately, how could science benefit from conducting itself as an endeavor to understand philosophical questions like the why of existence? I’m not sure that it could, or should, involve itself with those questions.

    Right. Your last question seems to me the framing of the ID problem: Is nature designed? If there’s not a non-philosophical (physical world) way to determine if nature is designed, then ID cannot be a scientific endeavor.

    1905. Einstein posits relativity. And the reason it’s not all just math is because it can also be scientifically tested — the optical experiment of the light from stars bending around the sun as they were observed during the solar eclipse (in 1912?).

    A theory. An experiment. A positive result, and science moves forward. You could say that Einstein was influenced by philosophy of the day, the same as you could say that ID scientists are influenced by theist sentiments, but I don’t see where that has any significance with the acceptance of a scientific theory.

    (By the way, I do very much appreciate your engagement on this topic, and have enjoyed reading some of the lengthier discussions in other areas of this site.)

  11. Is there a Theory of Human Intelligence that similarly cannot sum up its definitions in a scientific manner, but is well funded and participated in by the scientific community?

    Yes. Too much there to summarize. Everything you read about intelligence and its measurement is based on operational definitions that are more or less controversial.

    Your assertion that the philosophical perspective is inseparable from all of science seems like a reach to me.

    This is very basic stuff, Tony. Theories of knowledge, theories of reality, correspondence, inference, truth, logic, and far, far more are philosophical subjects that are fundamental to all of science. I suggest you pick up a good philosophy of science textbook. Again, I know I’m referring you offsite. But this is not something that I’m taking up as a topic to be responsible for here.

    If there’s not a non-philosophical (physical world) way to determine if nature is designed, then ID cannot be a scientific endeavor.

    I’m not sure now what you mean by philosophical…. you may be taking up a very ethereal definition that isn’t the real thing

    Thanks for the encouraging words, and I appreciate the dialogue too.

  12. On later thought–since I’ve had more time to think about it–I don’t want to brush aside this matter of philosophy and science as quickly as I indicated in the last comment.

    I’ll come back to it in a while–probably tomorrow.

  13. Okay, I went on Amazon and ordered a book of essays on The Philosophy of Science.

    For the record I have read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, have taken Philosophy in College, (as well as Religion and Science), as well as read a fair amount of historical accounts of scientific discoveries. I am aware of the history of knowledge and its course through fields termed philosophy, theology, rhetoric, science, etc.

    My understanding had been that there has been a split in the field of human knowledge, where philosophy (and to some extent theology) had been relegated to a priori study, and science had inherited the explanation of the physical world. I realize that science owes a great debt to philosophy, but felt that the two fields had become distinct. (Semantic and historical quibbles aside, I believe this would accord with the popular understanding of the two fields.)

    So when I say that ID should strive to be scientific, not philosophical, I mean that it should strive to escape the realm of modern philosophy and present a theory that can be experimented on in this, the physical world. Say what you want about Evolution it resides in the physical — real fossils, real rock formations, real living bacteria, real Galapagos birds, real things that lead to genuine falsifiability.

    So that’s my point. Where is the theory? I was hoping to find it here, or somewhere else. Or, and maybe this is your position, there is a pre-theory moment where a field of science is setting itself up, and the signs look promising, and very soon a hypothesis and experiment will unfold from the philosopher/ theoreticians of the ID community?

    If this is the case, wouldn’t it be productive to guess at what they might put forth? Shouldn’t there be a site where experimental ideas are put forth, where, in fact, all those ID scientists who are forced to toe the line in academia to keep their jobs could suggest (anonymously) the experiments that should be funded? A site like that, with outlined experiments, would receive massive funding from anything promising — look at the money behind Christian movies, candidates, etc. There are many in the Christian community who would love the opportunity to fund an experiment that destroys the credibility of Evolution (although I hold that it is very reasonable to remain a theist and also be a proponent of Evolution).

    Until that occurs I find the logic surrounding ID and the persecution it claims in movies like Expelled to be unbelievable.

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