The Bad Design Argument


I’m not familiar with the ‘autopilot’ option in Spore. Iow, a wide variety of creatures are produced by video game players of Spore making decision trees, as you say ‘choices & intervening’. The creature avatar they play with ‘emerges’ or results directly from their choices. Nothing here smacks of Philip Johnson-fathered Seattle ideology at all because the focus is on human design & development.

The game protocol must have developed a massively open territory for ‘phylogenetic’ trees, and maybe just a standard one or a small few, to ‘autopilot’ - demonstrate the game space to potential players and observers. The ‘one single path’ idea would be required by programming limits unless there is a ‘random’ option of some kind that simply selects a ‘trait’ or ‘skill’ when the ‘autopiloted’ Spore player reaches a decision node. But that suggests a level of AI programmed into the game that is beyond what should be ascribed to it. The game cannot carry on to move to the next level unless a ‘decision’ is made among options. Again, this is not Seattle Discovery Institute thinking at work, nor BioLogos’ main focus of interest.

It seems to me that @jongarvey said it well:

So in @Revealed_Cosmology’s case here, we have author as gods or game designers as gods. There is no need to confuse theology with Spore system architecture bent on free will within digital ‘life’ parameters. The IDC people have gone stomping around with & on the word ‘design,’ sometimes making it a proud one named ‘Design’ claiming it belongs in science, but any thought of ‘design’ or ‘Design’ just echoes man’s mind anyway.

So the ID people lost a reflexive battle that they don’t even want to admit ever happened, though in some ways we are now nearly past it and may be better for it that it happened. In any case, it was before the time of the current USA President whose name doesn’t usually come up in the ‘bad design’ category these days. :wink: IDists at the DI are largely fans & think White House = ‘good design,’ not ‘bad design’ nowadays mostly, maybe, or well, perhaps they thought it would be good design for white evangelical Protestants anyway, etc.

Maybe a term something like ‘derivative evolution’ is therefore needed, to split the primary & secondary causal power of evolutionary theories into ‘makers’ and ‘makees’; those who are active changers & those who are passive receptacles of change. The ‘autopilot’ is passive and is constrained by the options the game designers give to the players. An option outside of the game parameters is functionally impossible; it does not exist except in imagination. Although, noteably Spore has simply an amazing # of ‘variation’ options for players to choose. Does anyone know how many total different Spore decision trees are possible to play?

“the game’s “autopilot” might never come up with on its own.”

The game designers & developers set the options. The notion of ‘coming up with’ sounds a bit anthropomorphic here, though it likely wasn’t meant that way. Suffice it to say there is no ‘consciousness’ in the packaged single-player video game on its own. Let us be clear about the source of agency, even if that agency is ‘scientifically’ reduced largely to ‘efficient cause.’

The rules of the game limit how we can play. But within the rules there is no reason that ‘bad design’ cannot be a fruitful and necessary topic. I can see focus groups discussing it to help improve products or services. Style columns thriving on it critically as a way to promote their alternative ‘good design’ offerings, which of course are now also on sale. Plunking it down in ‘this conversation’ (& I am not sure that most of us are having more than 60% of the ‘good designed’ conversation possible between us) as if people ‘simply need to discuss design’ has been an act of imbalancing language intentionally perpetrated by the DI that ‘the conversation’ needs to recover from.

Maybe with @Agauger here, still representing the DI and IDC, she can help us?

(Mark M Moore) #62

You have the advantage on me here because I am a fifty-something not a thirty-something. I don’t know if that statement is true or how to test, I have to take your word on it. But even if so, that does not mean that our world must operate that way. It could have the same conceptual framework with the limits of natural evolution on “autopilot” but much more can be attained if an intelligent designer intervenes. Indeed we know this is true because we now have intelligent designers taking jellyfish genes and putting them in mice and things like that.

(Vincent Torley) #63

Hi everyone,

Just a few quick comments.

Science, however, is blind to divine design.

I don’t think this is true a priori, even if it happens to be true in our universe. Let me put it this way. Suppose, for argument’s sake, it turned out to be really true (as Dr. Douglas Axe has argued - mistakenly in my opinion) that proteins are (a) astronomically rare and (b) isolated from one another, making a “stepping-stones” scenario for the evolution of proteins massively implausible. Would that be a pretty good scientific argument for divine design? I’d say so. Not conclusive, perhaps, but highly suggestive.

Or what if scientists discovered a “Made by Yahweh” message in human DNA? The scenario is a highly fanciful one, to be sure, but if such a message were discovered, even in ancient human DNA, theism would be far and away the most best explanation for this singular fact.

Or what about the “fly-on-the-wall” version of the fine-tuning argument, which is commonly used to show that our universe is most likely a put-up job? I might also mention that Dr. Ken Miller and Dr. Francis Collins are both fans of the fine-tuning argument. I’m not sure whether they’d say it’s a scientific argument for God, but I see no reason in principle why it couldn’t be.

Take two games. Run one with a person guiding everything. Then run another one in autopilot. There is no way to determine at the end which one was guided and which one was not. Sure, intelligent guidance was in one, but not the other. However, you cannot tell in the end if it was on autopilot or not.

I just had a look at the Spore video. It looks like an interesting game, but I’m afraid I’m one of these terrible people who never plays online games - I just can’t get into them. Seriously, though: are you making this claim only for Spore, or for all games? Because if you are claiming the latter, then what you’re saying is equivalent to the assertion that computers can solve the Turing test (which is after all a game), and that there’s no way in principle of telling whether one is conversing with a computer or a human being. That’s a controversial position, to say the least. Or am I misreading you?

Re Molinism: it’s certainly an interesting theory, but in my view, it fails. I would argue that if God knows exactly what I would do in every possible situation, then it makes no sense to say that in a given situation, I could have acted otherwise. That’s why I find Molinism theologically incoherent. I would personally say that if (for argument’s sake) we suppose that (a) God didn’t intervene in the history of the cosmos and (b) life was nonetheless designed, then mutations must be pseudo-random. Thoughts?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #64

Only for Spore. It came up because of @Revealed_Cosmology, not me.

In general, it is usually a bad idea to try and understand evolution by making analogies to computer code, language, cars, human designs, computer games, etc. We fall prey to the Idol of the Theatre very quickly. Biology is “like” many things, but also very unlike all these things too.

Well sure. If the evidence was different, and science was different, perhaps we would have a different position.

However, with evidence as it is, and science as it is, it is not really possible to see divine design in science. We can debate how much it would be if science were different, but the way the evidence comes to us is problem too. This shouldn’t trouble us too much, because there is no a prior reason to think God’s design should be anything like human designs.



“there is no a prior reason to think God’s design should be anything like human designs.” @swamidass

That’s their fork in the road their language requires you to take. I disagree with them that it is required and instead attend to other more demanding forks and branches. What’s your alternative to requiring that ‘divine/human design’ fork in the road, Joshua, as nuanced as some can make it sound? Currently, you seem to accept them eating with their fork. There are other forks to choose from or chop sticks as well involving ‘design’.

Are human beings not God’s creation? This Forum appears dedicated to affirming that we are. If so, then are you not above saying that God’s creation shouldn’t create anything like … God’s creation creates? Or do I misread the way you are using that fork as you digest your science with theology in this mealy conversation?

Otherwise, if not choosing to translate creation (creating) --> design (designing), then what different combination of alternative precise terms would you use to engage the conversation? In sticking to those terms, perhaps you will need a Glossary of your own, like @J.E.S.

“I don’t think this is true a priori, even if it happens to be true in our universe.” @vjtorley

Well, if it were up to me I’d make all “Science is…” statements by natural scientists cost money today. They should to pay to sell us their “Science is…” story. :hushed: That’s a communicative issue with how much authority scientists actually have over (to speak for their) ‘Science’. Nevertheless, the principle Joshua is entreating is a valid and important one and addresses the reason ‘methodological naturalism’ was invented.

While there may be a philosophical need to argue this way, my view is that it looks a bit suspect with such statements. “True a priori” is bulky, sideshow talk nowadays. Rather than trying to force the questions into your answer, an alternative would be to make more of your own effort to clarify human design from divine design, as Joshua stated it. More than a few people have left the IDC over this fork, as some people here will surely know.

Natural science does not involve ‘divine design’ in its domain of work. Divine design (& the ofttimes more elegant family of alternative terms) can of course ‘pass through’ or ‘occur’ in the natural world as well as the spiritual world (which is apparently not what Joshua is speaking about, ‘spiritual talk’), but that is not what science itself is studying. You want divine effects, is that it? Sprinkles that can be counted? Hmm … how to address that. Or why to spend precious time facing that fork?

Some people do want you and I and everyone else to insist that the word ‘design’ simply is “a topic for natural science” and one that should be louder & widespread (cf. PR wing of DI). They want to force it as much as possible without enforcing it. They sing about it in the local evangelical churches and quite of few of them ‘affirm’ ‘creation science’ or creationism too. How many of them, the laggards of western Christianity, will BioLogos convince otherwise in their decades of existence? How far will you allow the ‘design’ metaphor to be stretched in your grammar?

As for me, I’m not into letting laggards define the terms of discussions, though they may have their value on other topics. There is indeed a LOT of forward-thinking design work, just not much coming from the IDCs ‘perspective.’ Perhaps it is the IDC’s ‘Design argument’ that is ‘bad design’?

(Mark M Moore) #66

What is in the code makes a difference, but I can think of at least one serious effort to simulate evolution via computer code which failed. They concluded that more processing power (time and chances) was not enough to evolve complexity.

Well, I agree in a way, but as far as what God might enjoy doing… if we are indeed made according to His likeness and we like playing with inventing new life forms and guiding them around a “world” then perhaps it is a sign He gets enjoyment from the same thing?


Just to confirm, those were @swamidass’ words, not mine. :blush:

(Mark M Moore) #68

@auntyevology was that last part about “no a priori reason” from you or the good doctor? It was hard for me to tell.


This is what I’m going on, please correct if missing something:

“I don’t think this is true a priori, even if it happens to be true in our universe.” @vjtorley

“there is no a prior reason to think God’s design should be anything like human designs.” - @swamidass

ETA: corrected to add source name in #65

(George) #70


I couldn’t find the place where you think you and I differ.

Are you sure you and I differ?

(George) #72


My question to @jongarvey was specifically addressing a specific feature of God’s involvement in natural law.

You offer zero insight into his views…and you are completely obnoxious in your attempt to engage me.

Until you develop some manners, I doubt you and I will spend much time conversing. Certainly there was nothing in this post what interested me.

(Vincent Torley) #73

Hi Joshua,

Only for Spore. It came up because of @Revealed_Cosmology, not me.

Thanks for the clarification. I see now that you’re not making any radical claims about A.I.

In general, it is usually a bad idea to try and understand evolution by making analogies to computer code, language, cars, human designs, computer games, etc. We fall prey to the Idol of the Theatre very quickly. Biology is “like” many things, but also very unlike all these things too.

I totally agree. Living things are in a category of their own.

If the evidence was different, and science was different, perhaps we would have a different position.

However, with evidence as it is, and science as it is, it is not really possible to see divine design in science. (Bolding mine - VJT.)

Good point. I understand now where you are coming from. Cheers.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #74

Just FYI, there are thousands of studies that effectively use simulation to understand evolution.

(Mark M Moore) #75

That is true, and most of them seem to do a good job of what they model. So in those cases I think computer programs are a good analogy to evolution, at least on the limited questions where the computer model matches up to things we then see in the real world. The researches thought so too or there would not be hundreds of such programs.

But there is a difference in a program which models say, the fST between five different DNA samples of Bronze Age human remains against certain modern populations and the one I referenced. The one I referenced attempted to measure if increases in complexity could be obtained through a computer simulation of evolution. They concluded it could not. This does not mean it didn’t happen. Maybe their software failed to account for a way of adding information to genomes. Maybe nature has a process which is currently unknown to science. This is just one data point, but that data point concludes that more processing power alone - which is analogous to time and chance in nature, could not get the job done.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #76

Not to be pedantic, but this is important. The simulation might be a good analogy, but the computer program implementing the simulation is not.

Computers Code vs. Simulations of Evolution
(George) #77


I think you need to define “increase in complexity” before you can run tests for it.

When a walking fish becomes a tetrapod, is that loss of complexity? Or an increase?

(Mark M Moore) #78

OK I accept that your point is important so let me see if I understand it. Are you saying that Spore in particular is bad at implementing the simulations (which of course I agree with) or that computer programs in general are bad analogies to what goes on with evolution? That raises a question because your fellow researchers rely on them so heavily. Or are you saying they way programmers take some code and use it to build other code is a bad analogy?

Computers Code vs. Simulations of Evolution
(Mark M Moore) #79

I believe the researchers did that and were interested in how single-celled organism became animals with tissues and organs.


Keeping to the topic: “Ah, what a ‘good design’ on that electric chair!” “Excuse me, that Catholic-run homeless shelter & soup kitchen is a ‘bad design’ and lowers the value of rental units for landowners.”

@swamidass, @Revealed_Cosmology where does the use of ‘design’ in your approach begin and end? When would you refuse to use the term ‘design’? When would you conceivably use the terms ‘bad design’ or ‘good design’ in a legitimate or authentic (as if using pomo terms is sometimes required to be understood) way?

I think all are largely or fully agreed here (not trying simply to be unified, but to identify common ground), with the formidable exception of @Agauger & @paulnelson (others should jump in defending it if they arrive), that Intelligent Design Theory isn’t what the majority of people at Peaceful Science want to use to address this topic. We find it a ‘theory’ that can be left aside, not finding it helpful for ‘straight-talking’ science, theology & philosophy conversations and at the same time observing it as having been potentially or actually harmful.

So Joshua, is there anything that you would identify as ‘bad design’? You ask “why do you think that is?” Isn’t the answer best explored first knowing if you allow that term in the door or not, and if so, where/when?

(Jon Garvey) #81

On this matter apparently not!