Confusion by design about design

On UncommonDescent, GilDodgen quotes from Denyse’s comments

GilDodgen wrote:

Denyse wrote:

Bear with a simple lay hack here a moment: Why must we know a designer’s intentions in order to detect design?

If the fire marshall’s office suspects arson, do the investigators worry much about WHY?

Surely they investigate, confirm their finding, and turn the information over to other authorities and interested parties, without having the least idea why someone torched the joint.

ALL they need to be sure of is that the joint did not torch itself, via natural causes.

The observation Denyse makes is so obvious that one would need a Ph.D. in obfuscation not to see it. Common sense is not so common, at least among those with a foundational commitment to materialism.

Gil is right, Denyse’s observation is so obvious and wrong. Of course, in order for this to understand, it requires one to shed the veil of ignorance and determine how design is detected in real life and furthermore how intelligent design wants to detect “Design”. Note that I am distinguishing between design and Design to avoid the equivocation so commonly found in ID literature, leading to much confusion amongst its followers.

Denyse’s question is a valid one and in order to understand why one needs to know about means, motive and opportunity in order to detect ‘design’ such as determining in an arson or crime investigation if the cause was accidental, or purposeful. So far, we notice that crime and arson investigators have to determine ‘design’ versus accidental and the similarity between this and intelligent design may cause one to conclude that both take the same approach. But that is incorrect. First of all, lets point out that there is a third option: cause or causes unknown.

A good example of how in real life crime investigators go about determining cause is outlined in an excellent essay by Gary Hurd and discussed by me in this posting

Gary Hurd describes the death of a person because of a snake bite. “There are a variety of possibilities: accident, murder, suicide. Without more information about motive, means, opportunities it is hard to rule out any of these scenarios.” In fact, “cause or causes unknown” seems a fair starting point.

In other words, we need additional information in order to determine cause. So let’s add some side information and see what happens to our inquiry

The patient belonged to a religious group which believed that true Christians could handle snakes without any danger to their own lives. Snake handlers base their practice on the interpretation of Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”

This information suggests that an accident seems a likely explanation for the death of one of the participants in snake handling.

But wait, more side information comes in: there are in fact a variety of snake bites and there is some evidence that the arm with the snake bites was held down. Now murder becomes a likely candidate. In fact, we notice how sensitive our explanation is to changes in side information.

In order to determine suicide, accident or homicide, one needs to know more about the victim and potential suspects. Means, motive and opportunity become instrumental in determining not just guilt or innocence but also help establish the nature of the cause.

Arson investigators may find evidence of an accellerant and conclude arson. And yet, they may be wrong. In an episode of CSI we are introduced to an inmate who is about to die for setting fire to his house which killed his wife and son. The arson investigators detected the presence of accelerants. Seemed like a clear case. Especially since the accused had purchased a can of gasoline recently.

Yet a later investigation revealed two missing pieces: the first piece of information is that the wife had thrown a glass jar at the accused. The jar had missed him and had shattered in the closet where the fire had started. The second piece was that the wall outlet had in fact short circuited, creating sparks. Suddenly arson became an accident and an convict became an innocent man.

Another example of fire marshals reaching a wrong conclusion is explained in this Chicago Tribune report on a fire investigation gone awry:

The report reminds us that natural causes can mimick arson. The arson investigators had reached the conclusion of arson based on the following

In his report, the investigator for the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office announced that he had found more than 20 indicators of incendiarism. The indicators he cited as such were crazed glass, multiple origins, brown rings on a cement porch, low burns on walls in the Bedroom/hall area, V-patterns on walls, charring to the base of a screen door, a positive analysis for kerosene (“mineral spirits of kerosene”), burned wood under an aluminum threshhold, tiles burned from underneath, and an unnumbered occurrence of so-called “trailers,” “pour patterns,” and “puddle-configurations.”

But on closer scrutiny several of these findings had serious problems:

Trailers, pour patterns and puddle configurations: A decade ago, fire investigators would often look at a post-flashover fire scene and note various burn patterns of varying degree which appeared to be shaped like irregular pours of liquid. It was fairly common practice for the investigator to cite these patterns as proof of the use of an accelerant. With the advent of NFPA 921, it became more and more widely realized that post-flashover burning in a room or hallway produces floor burn patterns which cannot be differentiated from burns imagined to be caused by liquid accelerants.


Multiple Origins: The Fire Marshall reported multiple fire origins. Actual multiple fire origins create a powerful case for arson. However, multiple origins can only be demonstrated when two or more areas of fire are completely isolated from one another. In this post-flashover fire, all of the burn areas were clearly contiguous in the sense that they were at least joined by obvious radiation and/or conduction mechanisms. The finding of multiple origins was inappropriate even in the context of the state of the art in 1991.

The report continues in a devastating manner to unravel the findings of arson.

and yet a man may have been executed for a crime he may not have committed

Fire that killed his 3 children could have been accidental By Steve Mills and Maurice Possley; Chicago Tribune December 9, 2004

CORSICANA, Texas – Strapped to a gurney in Texas’ death chamber earlier this year, just moments from his execution for setting a fire that killed his three daughters, Cameron Todd Willingham declared his innocence one last time.

“I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit,” Willingham said angrily. “I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do.”

While Texas authorities dismissed his protests, a Tribune investigation of his case shows that Willingham was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental.

Shows you how false positives, inevitable in ID’s approach, can have devastating consequences indeed. So why should arson investigators be interested in the how, the motives, means and opportunities? Seems this case explains it all.

Intelligent Design’s approach would have been devastating before the new reports became available and it would have concluded ‘arson’ based on the fact that no known chance or regularity explanations for the observations existed and thus that they must have been designed. Yet, this inference was based on ignorance rather than knowledge and the same situation would not have triggered a design inference once the new scientific knowledge of arson became available. Given the new circumstances, ID would be unable to conclude arson, and that would be the end of it. Yet, science would start where ID would abandon the case by looking for means, motives and opportunities that would better explain the data to determine if this was a case of foul play or an unfortunate accident.

The problem with Intelligent Design is that it really does not detect design as commonly understood, it detects ‘Design’: the set theoretic complement of regularity and chance. And as Febble and others have shown, this makes the design inference highly succeptible to false positives. In fact, by ID’s own definitions, natural processes cannot be excluded as the ‘designer’. Various excellent papers and articles have long since shown why ID cannot live up to its claims, why ID cannot compete with the null hypothesis of ‘we don’t know’ and why ID is doomed to remain scientifically vacuous and irrelevant. In case of arson or homicide, at best ID can do is claim ‘design’, leading to an arson or homicide accusation without taking into consideration the relevant information. And because of this ID’s inference will be fraught with false positives, and uncertainties.

More examples of the cost of Denyse’s position can be found at truth in justice files, one man lost his life, the other was released from death row.

IDers may object that it was the ignorance of the investigators as to how features that may seem to point to arson could have happened naturally but that merely shows that ID can only rely on our ignorance to make its claims and that when our ignorance disappears, design inferences also disappear.

In fact, not only is ID useless to detect design, it also is not about detecting design as in arson or homicide cases, it is merely interested in detecting supernatural design. After all, what remains after natural processes of chance and regularity have been eliminated?