“Design” for Behe is merely an attempt to redefine biochemistry as designed

NOTE: This was first published here on 8.13.08, and is simply being re-published as a separate post now.

Ought it then to be said, that, though we have little notion of an internal mold, we have not much more of a designing mind? The very contrary of this assertion is the truth. When we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience. William Paley Natural Theology chapter 23.

Prior to the quote above, Paley was criticizing metaphysical ideas of “internal molds,” which according to some were responsible for the forms of organisms, as being vacuous. In that quote, he fends off any notion that his “designer” would be meaningless, or something much different from what we understand about human artificers and architects. We don’t know what a designing mind is? Perish the thought, is Paley’s response.

Contrast this comparatively scientific viewpoint (to which Paley only partly adheres) with biochemist Behe’s decidedly unscientific claims about design. He writes:

What is “design”? Design is simply the purposeful arrangement of parts. With such a broad definition we can see that anything might have been designed. DBB 193

To support the last sentence of that quote he points out that an accident might be staged, apparent chance meetings might have been arranged, art may be made to look “random”.

Could anybody come up with a less useful notion of “design” than that one? Importantly, he has nothing that shows design in the manner that Paley suggests is reasonable, so he claims that anything could be designed. Of course that is as meaningful as saying that any and every scientific measurement might be faked, that it is designed to produce desired conclusions, rather than to actually measure a given phenomenon.

What may be even more important is that there he essentially concedes that his oft-repeated definition of design as the “purposeful arrangement of parts” has no rigor, and basically no meaning. And of course it does not. In the first place, a “purposeful anything” indicates design in the broader meaning of “design,” so adding “arrangement of parts” does nothing other than to attempt to deflect questions of how to discover “purpose” and to prejudice people into supposing that arrangments of parts indicates design.

Even he knows that evolution produces “arrangements of parts.” So does the wind. And if one recognizes that he has absolutely no means of discovering purpose at all (though he often conflates purpose and function), clearly he’s trying to redefine “arrangement of parts” as design.

Of course he’s doing more than just that in DBB. He’s trying to demonstrate that some aspects of life cannot have evolved. Yet cleric Paley even had the sense to recognize that merely showing that the other ideas don’t work isn’t good enough, that the word “design” has to refer to something limited and meaningful, and that life has to yield up evidence that is “comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience,” if life is to be rightly identified as being the result of design. One cannot criticize another’s ideas for being vacuous, if one’s own idea has no limits, nor criteria for adducing positive evidence in favor of one’s claims.

Paley the cleric was trying (if not succeeding) to do what Behe the biochemist does not attempt, or even seem to understand to be part of science: To come up with actual evidence of design that is claimed to be evident.

In order to be more specific and meaningful than Paley himself was, I would note that an “artificer or an architect”–in other words, a designer–is rational, purposeful, able to take an idea from one context and to put it into another one, and (one hopes) is capable of novelty. These aspects are basically missing from life, although one might excuse Paley for thinking that these attributes exist in biology.

“Design” will be revisited in many future entries. I wanted to make a more general criticism of Behe’s (non) concept of “design” near the beginning, because his lack of a meaningful design concept undermines everything that he states regarding design, and evolution.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

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