Does ID require an Infinite Regress?

One of the more interesting objections I have heard lately to the concept of intelligent design was set out by a reader to this site. Now, I personally believe we have some of the brightest readers on the Internet, so I have no doubt that he has forcefully and accurately articulated this objection.

The objection was made by rooobosmith in response to an essay I wrote entitled "Who Designed the Designer?" and other ID Questions, and unless he goes back and deletes his own comments, you are free to go back and examine the conversation in the comments section to the blog. rooobosmith stated the following:

If you state that anything of sufficiently ordered complexity requires an intelligent designer, then that intelligent designer must be of that complexity or greater, otherwise it would not be considered to be "intelligent." Therefore, that intelligent designer must have been designed by an even more intelligent designer, and so on, ad absurdum.

This is the argument from infinite regress which, in my opinion, can be a valid and effective refutation of certain views. For example, this argument is the basic point made in the arguments from a first mover and from cause for the existence of God. In both of those arguments, we see from nature that everything has a mover or a cause which means that each mover and each cause themselves must have a mover or a cause. At some point, however, there has to be an uncaused cause or an unmoved mover or else we have an infinite regress. In my view, these two arguments have never been effectively refuted.

Has rooobosmith accurately set up a valid proof that ID fails because it falls into an infinite regress? I don’t think so for several reasons.

A. The Designer Need Not be "of an equal of greater intelligence" than the Designed.

First, I don’t think it is necessarily true that an intelligent designer must be of an equal of greater intelligence than that which is designed. Keep in mind, that the word "intelligence" is being used as one aspect of "complexity" in this argument. (roobosmith’s earlier statement of his argument showed that he was using the two interchangeably when he said: "An even more complex intelligence as the source of design is inherently contradictory, because you've already assumed that the less complex entity required a designer. Therefore the more complex entity also requires a designer....") On what basis is such a claim made? There seems to be no reason that a designer has to be equal to or superior in complexity or intelligence than the designed.

Let me start with an analogy. Looking at complexity from the point of view of function, is it necessarily true that a designer has be more adept at a function that the designed thing holds in order to design it? I have a pencil sharpener on my desk that is more capable of sharpening pencils than I am. Did the person who created the pencil sharpener have to be functionally better at sharpening pencils than his creation in order to design the pencil sharpener? Of course not.

Looking at complexity from the point of view of intelligence, I think the same holds true. Science is already working on supercomputers that can calculate at the speed of petaflops (quadrillions of floating point operations per second). There is also much research being done in the area of artificial intelligence. It is only a matter of time before these two disciplines are combined and improved to the point where we have machines created by people that are able to think much faster than people. While we can quibble over whether such a machine is "intelligent," at a minimum, the machine will be able to think faster and be creative which are two signs of intelligence. Thus, I don’t believe rooobosmith’s basic premise that the intelligent designer must be of the same complexity or greater than the designed intelligence.

Moreover, keep in mind that in many ways the biological machines which show design are, of themselves, really not much more complicated than a pencil sharpener. For example, the flagellum is very much akin to an outboard motor on a boat, but even the flagellum has 40 pieces that need to come together to operate, and the information needed to direct the pieces to come together adds to the level of complexity making a naturalistic explanation extremely improbable.

Moreover, rooobosmith didn’t even believe that it was necessarily true that the designer had to be equal to or greater than the designer in terms of intelligence. As he noted in a later response (emphasis added):

I am not aware of any indisputable reasoning which prevents the design of something more complex than the entity which designed it, but it seems that source entity would at least need to be as intelligent and complex as man. I also find it difficult to believe that man will ever design something more complex than himself, although with the feedback loop of using complex tools to design ever more complex tools, it may happen.

Perhaps I am just more open-minded to the progress that we will obtain through science, but I think it certainly is possible that it will eventually happen.

B. ID Doesn't Say Anything About the Design of the Designer.

ID does not try to go beyond the fact that design exists and can be detected. It says nothing about the nature of the intelligent designer. It may be that we can infer some things about the designer, but those things are actually pretty limited. Certainly, it says nothing about who designed the intelligent designer if that intelligent designer was designed at all. Perhaps the designers (whatever they are) are made of simpler stuff than life on earth such that it would be possible for one or two amino acids (or whatever they use as the building blocks of life) to come together to form their basic unit of life.

Some may be asking why I am suggesting that life may have arisen naturalistically elsewhere while maintaining that it is impossible for it to have arisen on earth. The difference is that we can see the astounding complexity of even the simplest form of life on earth which requires an extremely long chain of DNA to form in order to have come into existence and such a formation could not occur naturalistically. But if another life form exists elsewhere in the universe that is hydrogen based and requires only a very small amount of information bits (two or three, for example, unlike the hundreds required to come together in the DNA strand) to come together naturally, then that certainly is more possible to arise naturalistically. But we won’t know for certain unless the designer is discovered.

C. The Possibility of a Non-Material Designer.

Third (and here is where religious ideas come in), this argument presupposes that the designer is also a material being. But it is possible (although ID says nothing about this question in and of itself) that the being that designed is a being that is supernatural or non-material being. Science says nothing about how an non-material being can come into existence since science, by its very nature, can only tell us about the natural world. I have previously addressed this issue in response to an essay by Kyle Gerkin where he argued (as I summarized):

Major Premise: Organized complexity, such as intelligence, is the product of conscious design or natural selection.
Conclusion: Intelligence is the product of conscious design or natural selection.

My response was that the intelligence may not be "the product of" anything. The intelligence that could be in existence may have been the "uncaused cause" or "uncreated creator" that has been part of theistic thinking for centuries. With all due respect to rooobosmith, he, like most atheists, is thinking "naturalistically." He has adopted (and his argument requires everyone reading it to adopt) the belief that the universe is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be. His Major Premise appears to assume that worldview, and fails to take into account the possibility that an intelligence need not to be "the product of" anything. For more on this argument, please read my essay, Trimming the Wrong Hedge -- A Response to Kyle J. Gerkin's “A Counterclockwise Paley.”

Thus, while I think there exists a great deal of validity in arguments that show that if there is an infinite regress in a belief, then that makes the belief untenable, ID does not suffer from such infinite regress for the reasons I have stated.


J.L. Hinman said…
The mistake they are making, the mistake you are making, faliure to distinguish between necessity and contingency. Contingent phenomena of complex naure reuqire deisnger, necessary phenomena do not. Why? Because Necesary means a thing is self sufficient on its own and is not contignent for its existence upon anyting else (that's at least one upshot of the concept).

We have to stick to the basics in God talk. We can't abandon the Christian intellectual heritage and expect to be able to play on a level field in a postmodern age.
BK said…
Thanks Metacrock, but I haven't said that the difference between necessary and contingent beings is not relevant. I have simple been talking to this point about material and immaterial beings. Thus, while I appreciate your comments which I think are largely right on, I am not making the mistake you seem to suggest.

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