Life on Mars? The real lesson from Lowell

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Mars channels JPG.JPGIn an almost comical display of lack of self-awareness, Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute has recently taken inspiration from Google’s homage to Percival Lowell, the 19th century astronomer who argued for the existence of a system of engineered channels on the surface of Mars, to extract from this glorious scientific blunder the lesson that science moves, at times, “backwards”, i.e. rejects apparently established theories for more traditional, often religiously inspired views (something that Witt clearly wishes would happen far more often).

In addition to Lowell’s channels-on-Mars theory, Witt mentions in his article the idea of a Universal Beginning and opposition to spontaneous generation as other instances in which ideas originally found in the Judeo-Christian tradition have at some point worked their way back into the scientific mainstream. I’ll just pass on discussing Witt’s rather simplistic ideas about modern cosmology and abiogenesis, not to mention the history of science, since his arguments are just a rehash of well-known ID and Creationist talking points that have been abundantly critiqued before. I want instead to point to another obvious, and far more topical lesson that Witt could have taken from Lowell, but, alas, didn’t.

The most striking aspect of Lowell’s argument for the artificiality of Mars’s “channels” is, in fact, its uncanny resemblance to modern arguments for the intelligent design of biological structures. Luckily for the interested reader, Lowell’s first book on the subject, titled simply Mars, seems to be the object of some sort of cult following, and can be found online in its entirety (chapters 4 and 5 are the most relevant to the discussion here). For any ID connoisseur, reading Lowell’s original arguments is an exercise in dèjá vu (eat this French, Berlinski!), since they are an almost perfect example of design inference as currently practiced by ID advocates.

Essentially every fallacy of modern ID inferences can be found in Lowell’s book. You will find confident claims about the manifestly non-natural basis of the observed structures:

… the aspect of the lines is enough to put to rest all the theories of purely natural causation that have so far been advanced to account for them. This negation is to be found in the supernaturally regular appearance of the system, upon three distinct counts: first, the straightness of the lines; second, their individually uniform width; and, third, their systematic radiation from special points. … Physical processes never, so far as we know, end in producing perfectly regular results, that is, results in which irregularity is not also discernible. Disagreement amid conformity is the inevitable outcome of the many factors simultaneously at work. … That the lines form a system; that, instead of running anywhither, they join certain points to certain others, making thus, not a simple network, but one whose meshes connect centres directly with one another,–is striking at first sight, and loses none of its peculiarity on second thought. For the intrinsic improbability of such a state of things arising from purely natural causes becomes evident on a moment’s consideration. … Their very aspect is such as to defy natural explanation, and to hint that in them we are regarding something other than the outcome of purely natural causes.

You will find references to diagnostic features of basic human design, and analogies with known designed structures:

That the lines should follow arcs of great circles, whatever their direction, is as unnatural from a natural standpoint as it would be natural from an artificial one; for the arc of a great circle is the shortest distance from one point upon the surface of a sphere to another. … In fact, it is by the very presence of uniformity and precision that we suspect things of artificiality. It was the mathematical shape of the Ohio mounds that suggested mound-builders; and so with the thousand objects of every-day life.

(I can almost hear Behe arguing about Mt. Rushmore!)

Specious mathematical/probabilistic arguments and analogies are there too:

Simple crossings of two lines will of course be common in proportion to the sum of an arithmetical progression; but that any three lines should contrive to cross at the same point would be a coincidence whose improbability only a mathematician can properly appreciate, so very great is it. … Of course all such evidence of design may be purely fortuitous, with about as much probability, as it has happily been put, as that a chance collection of numbers should take the form of the multiplication table.

Strikingly, you will even find claims that the “overhelming impression of design” is prima facie evidence of actual design:

Their very aspect is such as to defy natural explanation, and to hint that in them we are regarding something other than the outcome of purely natural causes. Indeed, such is the first impression upon getting a good view of them. How instant this inference is becomes patent from the way in which drawings of the canals are received by incredulously disposed persons. The straightness of the lines is unhesitatingly attributed to the draughtsman. Now this is a very telling point. For it is a case of the double-edged sword. Accusation of design, if it prove not to be due to the draughtsman, devolves ipso facto upon the canals.

Finally, Lowell knew he could not formulate a convincing argument for design without tackling the fundamental issue underlying design of any kind, that is, its purpose. Just like ID advocates who, in order to support their design inference, find themselves forced to conflate function with purpose, so did Lowell have to justify the existence of this elaborate channel system with some sort of anthropomorphic goal. He thus claimed that, since Mars is clearly a dry planet, the existence of channels was entirely justified as part of an irrigation system (indeed, he went as far as describing the existence of putative “oases” at the intersection points of the channels).

Now, Lowell’s argument about the “purpose” of the Mars canals was clearly more far-fetched than most of the equivalent arguments of modern ID advocates about the “purpose” of biological structures, but one should keep in mind that Lowell, unlike Behe, Dembski, etc, didn’t have the benefit of actual science providing convenient, empirically tested functional explanations for his supposedly designed structures. In fact, when faced with structures whose functional properties are unknown, ID advocates do not fare much better than Lowell: for instance, Jonathan Wells has claimed that since centrioles (which are sub-cellular structures of unclear function that participate in the cell division process) look superficially like man-made turbines, they must be, and he built around this spurious assumption a whole fanciful model of what teeny-weeny turbines could actually be doing in the context of eukaryotic cell division.

Finally, if you are wondering how Witt could have missed the obvious parallels between modern ID advocacy and Lowell’s “martian” design inference, let me point to Witt’s vitae page on the Discovery Institute site, where Witt proudly claims to have discovered the fallaciousness of “Darwinism” after getting over all those pesky “arcane scientific data” and “jargon”:

They claimed to rest their arguments on a wealth of arcane scientific data, but once I dug past the jargon, I found that their arguments were always built on a foundation of question begging definitions, either/or fallacies, bogus appeals to consensus, and quasi-theological claims that ‘an intelligent designer wouldn’t have done it that way.

Still wondering?

136 Comments

Excellent post, Witt handed that to you on a platter. When I first read Witt’s piece I thought the same thing, I couldn’t believe he was using Percival Lowell’s observations and conjectures. Kudos on finding Lowell’s book, the quotes could have been written by Dembski himself.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

I’m still baffled as to what exactly Mr. Witt’s article is meant to demonstrate. So he shows us that sometimes people who are scientists say things which are inaccurate. … all right, and what has he gained by pointing this out?

The wonderful irony is of the argumentation, is that Witt doesn’t realize Lowell’s arguments were disproved by the scientific community that doubted him, and that the lines were figments of his imagination and desire to see design.

Why do I hear Dembski singing ‘The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one …’?

Andrea Bottaro wrote:

“Finally, Lowell knew he could not formulate a convincing argument for design without tackling the fundamental issue underlying design of any kind, that is, its purpose.”

This misses the point. “Purpose” is what makes human activity “artificial” and “not purely natural”. Otherwise why is human activity any less “natural” than all other physical processes. Humans are just as much a part of nature as wind, rain, storms and all other so-called “purely physical processes” that might be responsible for discernable channels on Mars. The key difference is that humans act with purpose, calculation and goal-driven considerations. Other physical processes do not. Or at least we don’t think that they do.

Deep down the real issue is whether the channels are comprable to the watch found in the forest. That watch is recognized as intelligently designed not because of its complexity (other things in the forest are also complex, yet we would not even give them a second thought) but due to the fact that we can compare it to other human made products. Lowell thought he was looking at a pattern that reminded him of human made irrigation systems on Earth. He turned out to be wrong about the partuculars that rendered it so.

None of this has any significance to the issue of whether life was designed. We certainly cannot claim that in looking at a living organism we recognize the handiwork of an agent or designer whose work pattern is familiar to us. No one has seen this before or somewhere else. So the question reduces to whether the sheer complexity dictates that it must be designed. It is asking the question regarding the trees and leaves in the forest, instead of the watch. The channels on Mars, on the other hand, ask the question regarding the watch. Big difference.

I noticed the same thing, and blogged about it earlier this week. It seems almost comical that Lowell would use the appearance of design to conclude actual design, and that Witt would then critique Lowell and by extension all science for drawing this conclusion. In my blog post, I quote a paper from the same time period by Evans and Maunder detailing their experiments in gauging the effectiveness of observers in detecting small image features. Their conclusion?

Our conclusion from the entire experiment is that the canals of Mars may in some cases be, as Mr. Green suggested, the boundaries of tones or shadings, but that in the majority of cases they are simply the integration by the eye of minute details too small to be separately and distinctly defined. It would not therefore be in the least correct to say that the numerous observers who have drawn canals on Mars during the last twenty-five years have draw what they did not see. On the contrary they have drawn, and drawn truthfully, that which they saw; yet, fior all that, the canals which they have draw have no more objective existence than those which our Greenwish boys imagined they saw on the drawings submitted to them.

It seems a thousand pities that all those magnificent theories of human habitation, canal construction, planetary crystallisation, and the like are based upon lnes which our experiments to compel us to declare non-existent; but with the planet Mars still left, and the imagination unimpaired, there remains hope that a new theory no less attractive may yet be developed, and on a basis more solid than “mere seeming”.

I thought it was oddly appropriate.

Do I recall correctly that someone within the past 20 years wrote a paper suggesting that what Lowell had mapped were the blood vessels in his own eye, reflected in the telescope? In short, he made great arguments for artificiality for patterns that are entirely natural …

Does anybody else recollect that one?

This doesn’t strike me as a very good argument. Had Lowell reported seeing buildings on Mars, no one would be questioning that the reports supported a claim of intentional design. The characteristics that Lowell reported were not that definitive, but they were still strong indications of intentional design, and those who believed that features such as parallel lines and seasonal color changes were visible generally accepted the claim that Schiaparelli’s “canali” really were canals, signs of a Martian civilization, and they weren’t irrational to do so.

The problem was not that Lowell and others inferred intentional design from the reported observations, but that the observations were just plain wrong, a severe case of selective perception and observer bias, helped along by flaws in their instruments. Significantly, we do not find anything in the biological world like Lowell’s “perfectly regular results, that is, results in which irregularity is not also discernible” – quite the opposite. Lowell’s claims were falsifiable – his canals disappeared under more accurate (as well as more honest) observation. Had Lowell admitted that Martian topography was in fact quite irregular but then insisted that the very complexity of that topography was itself evidence of civilization, then he would have been making an IDiotic argument.

Ah, faulty memory! It was Lowell’s maps of Venus that mirrored his eyeball, not Mars!

Lowell maintained that Venus sported a network of massive, mostly radial spokes–more canali–emanating from a central hub. The spokes he saw remained a puzzle until quite recently, when a retired optometrist named Sherman Schultz, from Saint Paul, Minnesota, wrote a letter in response to an article on the spokes by William Sheehan and Thomas Dobbins in the July 2002 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

Schultz pointed out that the optical setup Lowell preferred for viewing the Venutian surface was similar to the gizmo used to examine the interior of patients’ eyes. After seeking a couple of second opinions, the article’s authors established that what Lowell seemed to see on Venus was instead the network of shadows cast on Lowell’s own retina by his own ocular blood vessels. When you compare Lowell’s diagram of the spokes with a diagram of the eye, the two match up, canal for blood vessel. And when you combine the unfortunate fact that Lowell suffered from hypertension–which often shows up in the vessels of the eyeballs–with his will to believe, it’s no surprise that he had Venus as well as Mars teeming with intelligent, technologically capable inhabitants.

(Neil de Grasse Tyson, writing in Natural History in May 2004: http://www.findarticles.com/p/artic[…]/ai_n6026415

I wonder if anyone at Discovery Institute suffers from hypertension – anyone know or want to confess?

Do I recall correctly that someone within the past 20 years wrote a paper suggesting that what Lowell had mapped were the blood vessels in his own eye, reflected in the telescope? In short, he made great arguments for artificiality for patterns that are entirely natural …

Lowell’s descriptions are not descriptions of blood vessels. Whether he was seeing blood vessels or topographic features of Mars or flaws in his telescope, he misreported what he saw. In short, he did not make great arguments for artificiality for patterns that are entirely natural, he reported artificial patterns that he did not, in fact, see.

google yields this page on Lowell’s venus canals/blood vessels:

http://www.bautforum.com/showthread.php?t=2097

with this comment:

Lowell’s large refracting telescope, set at 144X magnification and with an aperture narrowed down that far, they figured, had a focal ratio of at least f/120.

In simple terms, this meant that the setup was the equivalent of placing a card with a pinhole in front of Lowell’s eye and shining a bright light through it.

The discerning readers concluded that the telescope was actually mimicking an ophthalmoscope, an instrument used to examine the interior of the eye

It also states that the reason he had the aperture set so small was because Venus was so bright.

Mars, on the other hand, would not need that, because it’s a much dimmer object.

So we still don’t know for sure what he was seeing when he saw lines on Mars. Could it be the same effect? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem like it. For one thing, the Martian canals weren’t always the same, unlike his Venus observations. Maybe we’ll never know.

Fascinating!

I have to disagree with one statement though, “Now, Lowell’s argument was clearly more far-fetched than most of those of modern ID advocates,.…”

Lowell wasn’t making an argument for supernatural explanation. He proposed a biological origin of the ‘canals’. More important, Lowell’s hypothesis was testable. One could, and presumably will someday, visit Mars and see if Martian features do provide evidence of intelligent design.

Lowell’s descriptions of Mars were scientific, albeit flawed; descriptions of ‘intelligent design’ of the bacterial flaggellum are non-scientific, invoking a supernatural agent.

I’m interested in the line about evolutionists up to and following Darwin believing in spontaneous generation. To my knowledge the only 2 individuals who postulated spontaneous generation as an essential feature of what they called “evolution” were Lamarck and Charles Bonnet (whose evolutionary scheme included angels, archangels, and the whole heavenly host all the way up to the Grand Old Designer himself!). For Lamarck, the whole purpose of “evolution” was to avoid that sticky problem of “extinction” that got his chief rival, Cuvier into such hot water with the French religious authority and had nothing to do with promoting a naturalistic world view.I have extensively read Darwin and I can’t remember him saying anything about spontaneous generation beyond the “small warm pond” but he also wrote about “the creator breathing life into one or a few forms” as well. Which significant evolutionary biologists in the last 150 years has postulated spontaneous generation? And anyway what does evolution have to do with origin of life?

Carol: I am not sure what you mean. My argument was that purpose is probably the single unifying characteristic of design (although sometimes purpose can be hard to discern), so both Lowell and the ID advocates have to come up with suitable explanations of why purpose is detectable in the objects they perceive as designed. Lowell did it by conjecturing Martians fighting planetary drought, and modern ID advocates by mistaking purpose with function.

Popper’s Ghost: In my opinion, both Lowell’s and the ID advocates’ design inferences are based on clearly insufficient evidence (even assuming that all Lowell’s astronomical observations were genuine), speciously bolstered by very similar arguments about probability, analogy, intuition and made-up “purpose”, and by discounting alternative non design-based explanations.

Pro from Dover: The position among post-Darwin evolutionists about spontaneous generation/abiogenesis was quite varied, and much more nuanced than Witt’s representation would make one think. Some, most notably Bastian, were strongly in favor of spontaneous generation, both for philosophical and scientific reasons. Others, like Tyndall and (a little later) Huxley, were quite vocally opposed to it, also mostly for scientific reasons (see Huxley’s address to the BAAS, Biogenesis and Abiogenesis). Darwin himself seemed to be quite comfortable accepting Pasteur’s evidence as conclusive. All evolutionists at the time, of course, already recognized that the fact that there is no ongoing spontaneous generation has no bearing on the possibility that abiogenesis occurred at least once in the distant past.

Where Witt gets science and his philosophical preferences mixed up, of course, is when he says that “we now know” that “the demarcation between [non-life and life] involves a quantum and discontinuous leap”, since we know nothing of the sort. Compare that with Huxley’s more rigorous scientific perspective on abiogenesis:

And looking back through the prodigious vista of the past, I find no record of the commencement of life, and therefore I am devoid of any means of forming a definite conclusion as to the conditions of its appearance. Belief, in the scientific sense of the word, is a serious matter, and needs strong foundations. To say, therefore, in the admitted absence of evidence, that I have any belief as to the mode in which the existing forms of life have originated, would be using words in a wrong sense. But expectation is permissible where belief is not; and if it were given me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions, which it can no more see again than a man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter. I should expect to see it appear under [257] forms of great simplicity, endowed, like existing fungi, with the power of determining the formation of new protoplasm from such matters as ammonium carbonates, oxalates and tartrates, alkaline and earthy phosphates, and water, without the aid of light. That is the expectation to which analogical reasoning leads me; but I beg you once more to recollect that I have no right to call my opinion anything but an act of philosophical faith. (From Biogenesis and Abiogenesis)

Maybe his commentary is a pre-emptive attempt to frame any future discussion on Lowell.

As soon I saw Lowell referenced in this context, the first thing that popped into my head was that his case is a classic example of an “argument from design” failing catastrophically. Witt may have noticed this himself and realized that if he didn’t say something about Lowell–and fast–that comparisons to Lowell’s discredited Mars canals would become a standard talking point against ID.

Witt is not a logical thinker, but give him some credit as a rhetorician. It’s a serious lapse if nobody on our side thought of bringing Lowell into the discussion, equating ID with “Lowell’s fallacy” and so on. Has anyone? Comparisons to Lowell are more pertinent than comparisons to Paley, since Lowell was claiming to do science, not theology, and clearly demonstrated the inadequacy of ID-like arguments.

This comment from Lowell struck me as especially funny. Warning: the following may be humor that “only a computational geometer can appreciate”.

Simple crossings of two lines will of course be common in proportion to the sum of an arithmetical progression; but that any three lines should contrive to cross at the same point would be a coincidence whose improbability only a mathematician can properly appreciate, so very great is it.

I’m not sure what he means by “improbability only a mathematician can properly appreciate” but the probability of three statistically uncorrelated lines intersecting at one point is zero, which I imagine any can appreciate. The probability of them appearing to do so, on the other hand, is fairly high depending on the precision of your observation. E.g., take a needle of a certain length and drop it on graph paper of a certain cell width and record the resulting line segment. Keep doing this. How long does it take on average before three of these lines pass through the same mesh cell. It depends on the length of the needle proportional to the cell width, but given enough needle drops, approximate co-intersection is a high probability event.

In fact, according to a common definition of “geometric duality”, the case of three lines sharing an intersection point can be considered equivalent to the case of three points being collinear. Did Lowell also believe that Orion’s belt was the product of design?

GT(N)T Wrote:

I have to disagree with one statement though, “Now, Lowell’s argument was clearly more far-fetched than most of those of modern ID advocates,.…” Lowell wasn’t making an argument for supernatural explanation. He proposed a biological origin of the ‘canals’. More important, Lowell’s hypothesis was testable. One could, and presumably will someday, visit Mars and see if Martian features do provide evidence of intelligent design.

Yeah–gotta agree. Lowell was just claiming (as it happens, on inadequate and indeed mostly nonexistent evidence) that an Unidentified Entity had pushed some dirt and water around on Mars. IDers claim that a (cough) Unidentified Entity has created our planet’s entire biosphere from scratch.

Of the two, Lowell’s claim sure doesn’t seem to me to be the more “far-fetched.”

While the parallelisms pointed out here are fascinating, and I affirm that the I.D. reasoning is fallacious, we should perhaps ask whether Lowell was wrong because his canals didn’t exist, not because he reasoned poorly about them. If they did exist and did have all the features that he ascribed to them, would not intelligence be a strong explanatory contender? For planetary-scale geological features are not, presumably, subject to natural selection and so cannot evolve the kinds of complexity that I.D. supporters fallaciously insist can be only be explained by intelligent design. I am not a geologist, but it seems to me that a planetary network of great-circle following, perfectly straight, nodally connected channels having beds graded so as to convey water from point to point, if it did exist, might be a devil of a thing to explain by nonintelligent causes. Civil engineering would certainly be an explanatory contender, wouldn’t it?

I am open to instruction on this point, but at the moment the distinction between evolvable systems subject to selection and large-scale geological features strikes me as important. Was Lowell’s reasoning really so bad? Or only his data?

Regards,

Larry

I don’t know the subsequent history here. Did Lowell ever reconsider his position as the quality of observations improved and the canals vanished? Yes, we can see that Lowell combined a desire to see what wasn’t there, with data inadequate to make this obvious. The part about these nonexistent canals being of uniform width, which even Lowell could have calculated weren’t within the resolving power of his telescope, is especially projective.

But the real test, at least in my mind, is whether Lowell was subsequently capable of changing his position in the light of superior (and conflicting) data. If he changed his mind, then his canals can be dismissed as the sort of wishful thinking anyone might do when there’s no way to know better. If he did NOT change his mind, then we have a much better approximation of creationist thought.

Comment #86542

Posted by Larry Gilman on March 15, 2006 10:51 AM (e)

While the parallelisms pointed out here are fascinating, and I affirm that the I.D. reasoning is fallacious, we should perhaps ask whether Lowell was wrong because his canals didn’t exist, not because he reasoned poorly about them. If they did exist and did have all the features that he ascribed to them, would not intelligence be a strong explanatory contender? For planetary-scale geological features are not, presumably, subject to natural selection and so cannot evolve the kinds of complexity that I.D. supporters fallaciously insist can be only be explained by intelligent design. I am not a geologist, but it seems to me that a planetary network of great-circle following, perfectly straight, nodally connected channels having beds graded so as to convey water from point to point, if it did exist, might be a devil of a thing to explain by nonintelligent causes. Civil engineering would certainly be an explanatory contender, wouldn’t it?

There are all kinds of possible evidences for Intelligent Design, my favorite being the code-rewrite bunny rabbit. But these things are not found by IDers. IDers do the same thing Lowell did with the canals: squint and then say, “that sure looks designed.”

Lowell died in 1916 before it was proven that the canals were figments of his own perception. He continued to believe in his Martian worldview.

“Planets and Perception” by William Sheehan is an excellent study of the canal issue.

Demski mentions a similar mistaken design detection:

Dembski Wrote:

For design to be a fruitful scientific concept, scientists have to be sure that they can reliably determine whether something is designed. Johannes Kepler thought the craters on the moon were intelligently designed by moon dwellers. We now know that the craters were formed by blind natural forces.

It is this fear of falsely attributing something to design only to have it overturned later that has prevented design from entering the natural sciences. With precise methods for discriminating intelligently from unintelligently caused objects, it is now possible to formulate a theory of intelligent design that successfully avoids Kepler’s mistake and reliably locates design in biological systems.

Can anyone explain what “precise methods” Kepler could have used to avoid his mistake?

Andrea wrote:

“I am not sure what you mean.….. both Lowell and the ID advocates have to come up with suitable explanations of why purpose is detectable in the objects they perceive as designed.”

I do not agree, and I don’t think the ID folks are ready to concede, that “design” MUST be predicated on “purpose”. Atheistic evolutionists can accept that the evolution of life is “designed” by the forces of nature, so long as the “random” mutations aspect of evolution keep the process purposeless. The key difference between them and the ID proponents is not in the “design” aspect but in the “intelligent” aspect of the process that led to the present life forms. “Intelligent design theory” should be more precisely labeled “purposeful design theory”.

Lowell was not arguing just complexity, his point was that he saw “recognizable complexity”. He claimed to recognize the complexity he saw on Mars as typical of human endeavors, such as when building irrigation systems.

I suppose the one thing Lovell may have been right about was that liquid water is necessary in order for life to exist, even on planets in the habitable zone around our star.

It will be interesting to see what is found on Europa, which although being well outside the habitable zone could have liquid water due to tidal heating. Did I hear on the news recently that one of the larger satellites of Saturn seems to have signs of liquid water as well ? Another candidate for possible life maybe.(I can’t remember the satellite’s name)

One of the recent “Sky at night “ programmes about Mars suggests that the surface long ago may have been acidic. Thinking that there must be Calcium Carbonate (they were wondering where all the Carbon was. On the Earth a lot of Carbon in the Carbon cycle is contained in Calcium Carbonate or limestone) on the surface of Mars they instead found Calcium Sulphate, which meant that there must have been sulphuric acid there at one time. I think the more we find out about mars the less it seems to resemble the Earth, and certainly Lovell’s perception of the planet.

I think the discovery of even microbial life elsewhere in the solar system, whether on Mars or Europa, will be a major breakthrough, and it will be interesting to see the reaction of young Earth creationists/Iders if and when it ever happens.

CT(N)T and Rieux: The “far-fetchedness” I was referring to was specifically that of the respective arguments for “purpose” (I will update the original post to make it more clear). To me it does seem more far fetched to postulate Martians fighting the encroaching desert with huge irrigation systems, than to conjure purpose for biological system like the flagellum or the complement cascade as ID advocates do.

As I said, though, this is simply because ID advocates can usually play the simple trick of conflating function and purpose, resting on decades of functional biological research. When they have to come up with “purpose” from scratch, ID advocates do not do much better than Lowell, as in the case of Wells and his teensy-weensy turbines, or Gonzalez and his idea of a benevolent deity who makes up a whole, immense Universe so that a small number of geeks on a tiny planet can “discover” stuff.

Larry Gilman: I guess, like all analogies, one shouldn’t expect to perfectly match every aspect of this one. That said, in my opinion the basic issue here is that Lowell, like the IDists, argued from insufficient evidence, and summarily dismissed contrary evidence that didn’t fit his model. He really saw what looked to him like channels and interpreted them as such, and since he could not have better direct evidence, he bolstered his conclusion with the specious arguments discussed above. Similarly, ID advocates really think they see teleologically-built machines inside cells, interpret them as such, dismiss contrary arguments, and in the absence of better evidence for design bolster their conclusions with claims very similar to Lowell’s.

I don’t know enough about geology to say whether a system like the purported Martian channels, if it corresponded to real planetary structures, could be explained by known models - I guess it would depend on the level of resolution and the amount of evidence. Ultimately, however, I don’t think that this is very relevant in evaluating Lowell’s claims as they were.

Flint: A little more on Lowell’s story is here. It would seem that he too, like ID advocates, had a tendency to just reject scientifically-based criticism. Certainly, his claims didn’t seem to have much traction in the scientific community.

Mark VandeWettering: I just read the Evans and Maunder paper you linked to - great find! This really is why I love PT.

Finally,

Carol Clouser wrote: I do not agree, and I don’t think the ID folks are ready to concede, that “design” MUST be predicated on “purpose”. Atheistic evolutionists can accept that the evolution of life is “designed” by the forces of nature, so long as the “random” mutations aspect of evolution keep the process purposeless. The key difference between them and the ID proponents is not in the “design” aspect but in the “intelligent” aspect of the process that led to the present life forms. “Intelligent design theory” should be more precisely labeled “purposeful design theory”.

Perhaps we are not understanding each other, because I pretty much agree with what you say here, and I thought I had tried to say more or less the same. I am not claiming that design (intended as intelligent design, since that what we are talking about here) MUST be predicated on purpose, if by that you mean that design can only be inferred when purpose is known. I am saying that a design inference is much STRONGER (and therefore more convincing) when a purpose is identified, precisely because purpose is arguably the single common feature underlying all of intelligent design (even if that purpose is, say, whimsical entertainement).

Brilliant piece of exposed unintentional irony.

Comment #86479

Posted by Carol Clouser on March 15, 2006 01:54 AM (e)

Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed…

Why do I hear Dembski singing ‘The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one …’?

I like the one that some IDers and creationists quote as the chance that molecules to man evolution occurred is 10450; As if there were a scientifically reliable way to come up with this ridiculous number.

Carol wrote:

I do not agree, and I don’t think the ID folks are ready to concede, that “design” MUST be predicated on “purpose”.

and then concluded

“Intelligent design theory” should be more precisely labeled “purposeful design theory”.

The former statement seems to contradict the latter.

Carol Wrote:

Atheistic evolutionists can accept that the evolution of life is “designed” by the forces of nature, so long as the “random” mutations aspect of evolution keep the process purposeless.

The randomness of genetic mutation is not a condition for scientific acceptance of evolution; it simply describes observed phenomena. If you prefer to call it “apparently random” in order to make room for a god, that’s fine - but not scientific.

Carol:

Well, one more try. Lowell saw ID NOT on the basis of complexity, but on the basis of simplicity. Popper’s Ghost raised the example of Stonehenge. We can only speculate what it was used for, but its very simplicity makes its intelligent design beyond any question. By and large, the case for ID (outside biology) is based on a combination of simplicity and purpose. Asking which of these is more important is like asking if it’s colder in the North or in the Winter.

But when it comes to biology, suddenly complexity becomes the touchstone of design, rather than simplicity. Yet very long technical discussions here have convinced me that “complexity” is what nature always produces. Natural feedback processes have so many different variables that the results are so commonly complex that when a result looks simple (like, say, frost circles) our first suspicion is that someone engineered it.

And function is not purpose (hear this Andrea?) because entities may function without having been purposely designed to do so.

You may have missed the point here. Agreed, function is not purpose. Function is improperly equated to purpose by those who *require* that the Designer have done His thing for a reason.

But if many components have come together and function as a unit and the probability of that happening by accident is very small, then we have a good argument for deliberate (not purposeful) design. If this in not Be he’s argument, it ought to be.

But it is still a terrible argument. Consider something like a watershed. It has many components, all of which must work seamlessly together. It clearly performs a function - to drain rainwater from a territory. So is the probability of a watershed small? On the contrary, *everywhere* is part of a watershed. Do we believe watersheds are designed, on the grounds that they are complex, have many parts, serve an obvious purpose, etc?

Well, no, what we observe is that natural feedback processes are pretty well guaranteed to form watersheds, no two alike. And similarly, natural feedback processes are guaranteed to create species, no two alike. These natural processes *can’t help* but create new species. Claiming that the probability of the inevitable happening by accident is very small, is misunderstanding the process in a very fundamental way.

Another example: You drop a glass vase on a concrete floor, and it shatters explosively, shards go everywhere. What is the probability of all those shards stopping exactly where they did by accident? Basically, infinitesimal. Did you witness a supernatural miracle? Or did you see the inevitable result of what natural forces DO? Is the pattern of shards an illustration of purposeful design, because it’s complicated and vanishingly unlikely?

Now, imagine if the shards instead fell so as to form themselves into a vase of another shape. THIS would be a very very compelling argument for Design. Why? Because the result is SIMPLE! And serves a known purpose, of course.

Think of the following. You walk into a room and see ten thousand nickels spread out on the table all “heads up”. Since the odds of that occurring by accident (someone tossed the coins on the table) is VERY small, we have a powerful argument for deliberateness (the coins were laid out carefully heads up) but not necessarily for purpose.

Again, you have become confused. You figure this is deliberate because it’s very simple, and I agree. Simplicity, NOT complexity, implies design. But surely you (and I) would both wonder WHY someone had chosen to do this. People do things for purposes. I doubt anyone has ever designed anything without some goal in mind (even if the goal is the artist’s abstract goal).

I think it’s legitimate, albeit confusing, to talk about the “designs” that natural processes create - the pattern of glass shards, or biological organisms, or rock shapes resulting from wind and water. But we do NOT think of these as “intelligent designs” for only one reason: We see no purpose to them. Intelligence implies purpose. Always. Behe surely wouldn’t say that a watershed was unlikely, or a purposeful arrangement of parts, but it meets all the requirements the flagellum meets. Now, guess which one Behe’s God “cares about”?

So, no, the ID argument as put forth has no scientific merit. As Judge Jones said, it MIGHT be true, but it cannot be tested in any way. And that makes it vacuous. I can claim that indetectable fairies make the flowers grow. Prove me wrong! Does my dog hunt simply because you can’t prove me wrong? It MIGHT be correct! But nonetheless, it lacks the sort of merit I consider valuable. You are free to believe whatever makes you feel good.

Excellent post, Witt handed that to you on a platter.

In case nobody’s mentioned it yet, there are a few more items on that platter.

Finger-lickin’ good rebuttal, hot off the stove. Bon Appetit!

“Martians, Darwinists, and Intelligent Design” http://www.idthefuture.com/index.html

FL

In all this arguing about canals, there’s one underlying assumption that hasn’t been challenged - that canals are “simple.” They are not simple, they are very complex, both in construction and in maintenance and operation even on our much more modest earthly scales.

The actual construction would be of such a magnitude that’d it make most anything we’ve ever done in the civil engineering realm look like a group of kids playing with Legos and a plastic shovel in the sandbox during a kindergarten recess. Once constructed, the workforce, maintenance and repair would take a significant portion of the martian population both directly and indirectly.

The scope of such an endeavor would be breath taking. And the process horribly complex.

Moses:

Nobody missed it; nobody considered it relevant. If you really wish to draw a distinction between geometric simplicity and administrative simplicity, go ahead. I’m not convinced that geometrically complex canals of that magnitude designed to mimic normal fractal landscapes would somehow be less difficult to build and operate.

Andrea,

You are oversimplifying the concept of complexity. It is not just a matter of counting components and measuring size. The number and quality of the interactions must be reckoned with, among other considerations. Are the interactions sequential? Do they complement each other? Do they form loops? The functioning protein ball will, upon careful examination, turn out to be more complex than the inert ball, reducing the odds of accidental arrangement and increasing the inference of deliberateness (design).

In other words, your scenario ought not occur.

It is Ok with me that you have the last word on this.

Flint,

I think you misunderstand the essence of Lowell’s (and Paley’s) argument. It is not the sheer simplicity that leads them to their design inference. It is the recognition of the simplicity they found (in the canals and watch, respectively) as the human-made simplicity they are familiar with that drives their arguments.

RECOGNITION vs. COMPLEXITY, that is the difference between Lowell/Paley and ID/Behe, as I have been saying all along.

Carol:

I think you misunderstand the essence of Lowell’s (and Paley’s) argument. It is not the sheer simplicity that leads them to their design inference. It is the recognition of the simplicity they found (in the canals and watch, respectively) as the human-made simplicity they are familiar with that drives their arguments.

And I think you missed it. Multiple factors are involved here: Human engineering is nearly always distinctly different from natural formations. It is nearly always simpler. It is ALWAYS done for some purpose. These all work together.

But in the case of biology, the purpose is unclear (what “purpose” does life serve anyway?). The simplicity of human engineering is also absent, and in fact not only the complexity of biological organisms but the nature of that complexity shouts “product of natural processes” quite loudly.

So if life is what natural processes would be expected to produce, AND it’s complex whereas intelligent designs as we know them are simple, AND we have no idea (other than sheer survival) what the purpose is, why “discover” ID lurking in biology?

And so we’re back to the direction of analysis. Life has a purpose because FAITH REQUIRES THIS. Knowing there’s a purpose, we project one and believe we see it. Having seen it, we produce a justification. ANY justification will do. So design is simple and life is complex? So what? Since life was created for a purpose, complexity must mean design. When the “knowledge” of design comes first, the characteristics of the object being examined really do not matter. They indicate design by definition, because doctrine requires it.

Imagine you’re an explorer landing on a planet utterly foreign to all your experiences. So you have no mental database for comparison. You see and hear incomprenensible shapes, motions, sounds. Which of these are natural (if any), and which are artificial (if any)? How could you possibly know? What do you use as a yardstick?

I agree, Lowell and Paley used their knowledge of human engineering for human purposes as their yardstick. I think they’re entirely reasonable in doing so. Behe is using an arbitrary a priori conviction, sheer faith, as his yardstick. He concludes design on one and only one basis: because his god, in his mind, created this stuff.

And so I agree there’s a distinction here. I would presume that Paley and Lowell, if they could actually witness unquestionably natural processes acting in unguided ways and producing canals and watches as side effects, would concede that their assessment of intelligent design was a false positive. But Behe has made himself immune from admitting a false positive, because there is no possible evidence-based refutation. Life is designed, for Behe, because it is designed. Period. Make it complex, it’s designed. Make it simple, it’s designed. Watch a natural process produce it, you’re watching the Designer at work. Change life in any way you can possibly imagine, and it doesn’t matter. The evidence of design flows from the conclusion, so any evidence becomes irrelevant.

But this is all irrelevant. I really don’t care what Behe or any other ID advocate thinks or says.

Obviously you do care, or you wouldn’t be trying to beautify Behe’s sow.

And neither should you. The issue is, does the ID argument, putt ting its best foot forward, have merit?

You haven’t even begun to show that it’s worthy of consideration. And the lack of merit of ID has been shown in so many ways already, that it’s hardly an issue at all, except to dogged theists.

Does this dog hunt? The ID argument is strongest when based on complexity, not purpose.

It’s obscured better when it is “based on complexity”. No one has show that it is stronger, rather you prefer to restate ad nauseum claims that you can’t back up.

There exists no evidence, only conjecture, pertaining to the possible purposes of a designer in this context.

If there’s no purpose, where is the evidence for design (I’m not saying purpose has to be known, though I’m underwhelmed by PG’s claims that art is “purposeless”–ornamentation and representation have long been considered to be purposeful)? You constantly fail to connect complexity to design in any coherent manner, though you as constantly reassert your opinion, much as you do about Biblical matters. Why don’t you for once make a reasonable case, instead of trying to gain through repetition what you fail to do via evidence and reasoning?

And function is not purpose (hear this Andrea?) because entities may function without having been purposely designed to do so.

This is true. But of course the function vs. purpose contrast favors evolution, because where we see function, the IDists proclaim purpose. Whether you like it or not, at least many do claim purpose, over and over again. Why is that? Are we really supposed to think that Dembski resurrects “final causes” in a way totally unrelated to the rest of the ID project?

But if many components have come together and function as a unit and the probability of that happening by accident is very small, then we have a good argument for deliberate (not purposeful) design.

Again, mere assertion to obscure the fact that you don’t have an argument, simply a false dichotomy. In fact, you’re making the extremely elementary mistake of leaving out natural selection, implying that evolution occurs by accident. The falseness of your line of “argument” is stunning.

If this in not Behe’s argument, it ought to be.

That is his assertion, not an argument (though he inextricably ties this argument with purpose as well). And it doesn’t become any more intelligent through your constant repetition of it.

And again, this is not the argument of Paley (watch in forest) and Lowell (canals on Mars).

Oh please. Paley no doubt picked a watch for his example because of its complexity. It’s more obvious when integrated complexity is designed than when simple objects are designed.

Lowell did pick up on less complex forms, however it’s not really especially true that the canals Lowell thought he saw are simple. The entire complex of canals is not simple (slightly larger picture than the one in the article):

http://www.nasm.si.edu/research/cep[…]g/EP0001.jpg

One line might be thought to be a particularly straight faultline (San Andreas is very straight in many places), or perhaps even an unusually straight erosion channel. Integrated canals spreading out from (or converging to) putative population centers are rather more complex, though not as complex as a cell. The non-regularities in the canal map increase complexity, and would be thought to relate to contingency and purpose. Just like Behe said:

I said that intelligent design is perceived as the purposeful arrangement of parts, yes. So when we not only see different parts, but wwe also see that they are ordered to perform some function, yes, that is how we perceived design.

That’s from the Dover testimony, as related here (took me less than a couple minutes to find):

http://tinyurl.com/otmfu

If we can’t accept Behe’s version of ID as “standard”, then what is ID?

These folks RECOGNIZE PURPOSEFUL HUMAN ACTIVITY in the watch and canals, respectively. Their argument is based on purpose, not complexity.

No, Lowell did not recognize purposeful human activity in the canals. And purpose was gathered at least in part from apparently non-accidental complexity in each case, much as Behe argues.

Btw, as long as we’re discussing canali, etc., I would like to point out that, despite the overall complexity of the canal map, I would not be so quick to believe that the canals by themselves necessarily indicate design. One of the arguments Lowells used was that these canals link up with the shrinking polar caps, which again moves us back to the issue of apparent purpose.

So even though I am arguing that there is a fair amount of complexity to the canal map, I do not think that by itself it necessarily indicates design. We don’t know what sorts of processes might create complex patterns on another planet, which is what I expect was one of the arguments put forth by canal skeptics. It is a legitimate objection, I believe.

As Popper points out, their argument is actually based on simplicity.

The watch is certainly not simple. And while the canal connections aren’t as complex as a watch, it is partly the overall complexity which might (along with other factors) at least suggest intelligence behind them.

And this is why I though Andrea’s comparison missed the point

That may be, but as I’ve shown, Behe deliberately conflates function and purpose.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

On Nature: The beauty of the human condition- the luxury of considering where we came from and why we are here…yawn.

Function; The forceful desire by an organism to reproduce and thus pass on genes as the consequence of successful previous generations whose resultant conglomeration (called design by pseudo scientists -pseudo designers?) succeeded its own ancestors.

Purpose; The forceful desire by an organism to reproduce and thus pass on genes as the consequence of successful previous generations whose resultant conglomeration (called design by pseudo scientists-pseudo designers?) ) succeeded its own ancestors.

Nothing holy about it.

“Martians, Darwinists, and Intelligent Design”

Witt argues “Design theorists have expressed confidence in their design inferences. Lowell’s confidence was misplaced.” In hindsight this is correct, and that is the point. This was a historical test of ID inference where design was inferred from observations. Further scientific study (using equipment available at that time) was unable to replicate Lowell’s claims demonstrating that the canal system did not exist and modern telescopes confirmed Mars is not crisscrossed by a canal system. In contrast, Witt argues that Dembski is more rigorous than Lowell and therefore ID is a possibility. ID would filter the canal system (canal filters?) then calculate the probability of occurrence and then look for additional support for design. Valid unaddressed arguments exist for the filter and no methodology has been proposed for calculating the probability of design. There is nothing quantitative and the “looks like a duck” argument is still heard. While Lowell’s canals would have eventually been proven false as technology advanced (whatever ones world view and independent of evolutionary theory), the acceptance of design in the intervening period would have wasted time and energy trying to support an other worldly intelligence as the origin of the canal system.

Anyway, Mars was the site of the largest flood in the solar system and the canal system was not for irrigation but flood control. Like Katrina, the canal system failed flooding the planet and wiping out the Martians. This predicts that the highest concentration of Martian remains should be found around the highest mountain, Olympus Mons, as they tried to escape this catastrophic flood (no snickering Lenny).

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Bruce don’t forget Olympus Mons the ark remains and that Noah was actually a LGM and that the tower of Babel did not refer to languages here on Terra Firma but the difficulty that *g*o*d* had actually learning Martian…after all he only knew Aramaic or Sumerian or neolithic or some-such.

Comment #87184

Posted by Flint on March 17, 2006 10:36 AM (e)

Moses:

Nobody missed it; nobody considered it relevant. If you really wish to draw a distinction between geometric simplicity and administrative simplicity, go ahead. I’m not convinced that geometrically complex canals of that magnitude designed to mimic normal fractal landscapes would somehow be less difficult to build and operate.

I didn’t say they were simple. I said they were, in fact, complex. Most people see a canal and think it’s a glorified ditch. They are not and they must meet a lot of challenges, even in the most ideal situations.

I was pointing this out because people were arguing from their own particular brand of ignorance. Not everyone comes from a back-ground like mine and can appreciate the incredible complexity of what appear to be simple structures. There’s just a lot more to that kind of a canal structure than just digging a ditch.

The ID argument is strongest when based on complexity, not purpose.

“If that’s your best, your best won’t do”. – Dee Snider

Noah was actually a LGM .….difficulty that *g*o*d* had actually learning Martian

I thought LGM communicated nonverbally.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

“I was pointing this out because people were arguing from their own particular brand of ignorance. Not everyone comes from a back-ground like mine and can appreciate the incredible complexity of what appear to be simple structures.”

As Flint said, nobody considered it relevant. The observations that Lowell thought he did was simple structures, as a channel would look like at a distance.

What you are discussing is not about these observations, but about your imagined structures, stemming from your ignorance about the discussion.

I’m underwhelmed by PG’s claims that art is “purposeless”

And I’m underwhelmed by your total lack of reading comprehension. I claimed no such thing. What I did claim is something completely and utterly different:

artists have designed machines that expressly have no purpose ([other than artistic metapurposes])

I must admit that it completely baffles me that an apparently educated and intelligent person can take the former as a restatement of the latter. Just as it baffles me that Andrea can write

I am not sure I even understand your argument about “intentional arrangement” being anything other that “arrangement for a purpose”

when I have explained over and over that the distinction is between appearance of purpose and identification of purpose. Stonehenge, and Carol’s 10,000 heads up coins, appear to be arranged purposefully, independent of what that purpose is or our ability to identify one. And Behe claims that we can infer intent from such appearance, and that the strength of the inference we can make is a function of a quantified measurement of this purposeful appearance. That’s the argument that Behe actually makes, particularly in regard to the cell. It’s pointless to debate whether Behe would make this argument when faced with a system without an identifiable function, since the argument is completely bogus regardless; complexity is negatively correlated with design, but positively correlated with natural processes, as Flint notes. And he writes:

I agree, Lowell and Paley used their knowledge of human engineering for human purposes as their yardstick. I think they’re entirely reasonable in doing so.

I disagree about Paley, who made an erroneous analogy between human engineering and living systems (and yet somehow failed to notice that the field upon which his watch lay was teeming with living systems). But Lowell is a different matter altogether; he characterized his imagined canals as directly having the characteristics of human-engineered systems. As I noted in my first post here:

This doesn’t strike me as a very good argument. Had Lowell reported seeing buildings on Mars, no one would be questioning that the reports supported a claim of intentional design.

Lowell (thought he) saw canals on Mars, and canals not only are known objects of human engineering, but they have characteristics that are commonly found in human systems but not commonly found in known natural processes. Under the assumption that his observations were veridical, his inference of design was “entirely reasonable”, just as it would be entirely reasonable to make the same inference upon finding a black rectangular monolith on the moon. OTOH, Paley did not see watches in nature, he saw natural biological systems, which of course have characteristics that are commonly found in natural systems, even if Paley didn’t understand how nature could produce such characteristics. His inference that these systems are designed was not “entirely reasonable”, rather it was pure question begging, as is Behe’s argument, which really is the same as Paley’s – the cell contains “very, very, complex machinery”, and Behe concludes that only intentional design can produce such machines, a claim that is entirely unwarranted, especially when we now, unlike in Paley’s time, have a scientific theory that explains how such machines can result from unintentional processes.

Moses Wrote:
Flint Wrote:

Nobody missed it; nobody considered it relevant. If you really wish to draw a distinction between geometric simplicity and administrative simplicity, go ahead. I’m not convinced that geometrically complex canals of that magnitude designed to mimic normal fractal landscapes would somehow be less difficult to build and operate.

I didn’t say they were simple. I said they were, in fact, complex.

How bizarre. Do you see the word “simple” anywhere in what you quoted? And what “they”? Flint’s “geometrically complex canals of that magnitude designed to mimic normal fractal landscapes” aren’t the sorts of things you were talking about. And he said that he’s not convinced that they would be less difficult to build – i.e., he suspects that they would be difficult/complex to build.

Sometimes it seems pointless to bother writing anything when people have such poor reading comprehension.

Not everyone comes from a back-ground like mine and can appreciate the incredible complexity of what appear to be simple structures. There’s just a lot more to that kind of a canal structure than just digging a ditch.

Do you really think that people here don’t know this? But consider Flint’s words, which you ignored the first time around. What is the relative complexity of man-made canals to “normal fractal landscapes”? Or, how about building a river? Be sure to get all the banking right, and the silting, and the erosion resistant plants, and the oxygenation to support fish and other fauna – it has to be indistinguishable from a natural river, but you have a lot less time to create one.

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This page contains a single entry by Andrea Bottaro published on March 14, 2006 11:07 PM.

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