Back to intelligent design for a bit. In my article "Intelligent Design, Unknown Intelligence, and a Ouija Board" I critiqued several of Joseph H. Axell's claims culminating in his assertion that you cannot invoke intelligence as an explanation unless you have an account of the intelligence. Axell posted a long response on July 10. Other commitments have kept me from responding until now.
The first topic up for discussion was the claim that ID is illegitimate because you might occasionally attribute design falsely to something that wasn't designed. As far as red herrings go, this one is as smelly as they come. Let's say that you have an alarm system in your house. Over the course of a year it goes off three times. Two times it was a false alarm (literally!), but the third time there was an actual intruder. Based on that experience would you rather have the alarm or would you choose to remove it? Of course you'd keep it. Perhaps you might look for a better, more effective alarm, but you wouldn't choose to have no alarm at all.
ID is like an alarm on the house. It gets set off by things like cosmic fine-tuning and DNA. Are these in fact cases of design? Is there in fact an intruder in the house? Perhaps that remains to be seen. But even if there were two false alarms earlier this year, are you really going to go back to bed without checking downstairs?
Next, Axell turns to Shostak, representative of the SETI program, who attempts to distance SETI from ID. According to Axell, Shostak claims that SETI is not looking for intelligence: "rather, they are looking for what Shostak terms "artificiality"."
Really? Then why don't they call their program the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Artificiality? (chuckle) Of course the term "artificiality" is, in this context, merely code for "intelligence". The term "artificial" comes from "artifice" meaning made by humans. In other words, non-natural, a product of intelligence. Sadly, Shostak's claim that SETI isn't set up to detect intelligence is a pathetic and disingenuous attempt at obfuscation.
Axell next claims that "leading ID concepts of "explanatory filter" and "irreducible complexity" are of negligible scientific worth". I think this is false. But it is also completely irrelevant (as I already pointed out) to the question of whether intelligence is, in principle, a legitimate type of causal explanation for natural systems, processes and events.
Next, after some grumbling about Steve Meyer Axell returns to the big issue:
"Do the ID proponents need to provide a detailed account of the properties of the putative intelligence and its engagement with the natural world? Of course they do: otherwise their conjecture simply amounts to "an unidentified X with intelligence but of unknown other properties and unknown abilities did it at unknown time and in an unknown manner". How very scientific!"
But wait. I demonstrated that Axell's claim that an account of the nature of an intelligence was required before the presence of an intelligence could be inferred was false with my delightful Ouija board thought experiment. If Axell's claim is to be believed then he could not believe the paranormal occurrences in the room where the Ouija board was being used were being produced by intelligence. But surely that is absurd.
Let's consider Axell's response:
"I confess to being at a loss in trying to understand what the Ouija board scenario is supposed to demonstrate (though I am gratified by your acknowledgement of my intransigence in the face of the apparent supernatural). If your point is that the "Ouija" phenomena are actually due to some supernatural intelligence, then your little tale fails completely as a thought experiment, for it simply begs the question against the methodological naturalist."
Axell asserts that I "beg the question" against methodological naturalism. On the contrary, if anything this thought experiment would reveal methodological naturalism as being deeply flawed. Consider another analogy. Let's say I am a methodological a-pachydermist meaning that I believe no pachyderms exist and thus I seek to explain all phenomena in the wild with reference to the effects of animals other than pachyderms. You then argue as follows:
What if you were in the jungle and you suddenly came across an elephant standing in the river. You wouldn't be able to conclude that that elephant was there and that's absurd.
An objective observer would certainly think you had a point. So imagine if I then responded:
You're simply begging the question because I don't accept the existence of elephants or any other pachyderms.
No, that's not actually begging the question. Rather, it is demonstrating that the rejection of pachyderm explanations is an indefensible dogma. And likewise if you are constrained from inferring intelligence in the Ouija board case then you are likewise constrained by a dogma.
Of course there is another problem here. Axell categorically dismisses the intelligence in the Ouija board case because it is "supernatural". But he doesn't know that. Assuming that the "natural/supernatural" distinction which undergirds methodological naturalism is even meaningful (and that's a big if), it still might be the case that malevolent spiritual entities exist but conform to the natural. For example they might be a special form of energy on which consciousness supervenes which are subject to the laws of thermodynamics. So Axell's refusal to conclude intelligence in this case because he lacks an account is shown again to be a dogma.
Finally, let's get away from Ouija boards for a minute. Imagine that Axell is an astronaut and is sent by NASA to explore Mars. He lands on Mars and finds the wreckage of what appears to be a giant space ship. Axell would have to radio back to NASA: "There's something weird here. It looks like a giant space ship. But I cannot conclude that it was created by an intelligence because I lack an account of that intelligence."