Doing Intelligent Design Right?

The presence of information in even the simplest living cells suggests that intelligent design played a role in life’s origin. After all, we know computer programs come from programmers and information generally — in a book or newspaper, for example — always arises from an intelligent source. … In addition, no alien being within the universe can explain what scientists have discovered about the structure of the universe. … the fundamental parameters of physics have been finely tuned, against all odds, to make life possible. (More by Stephen Meyer, author of Return of the God Hypothesis)

I haven’t read this book, but this article doesn’t make me optimistic about it. However, I was for other reasons recently considering the (to-me-likely-false) hypothesis that our thoughts and feelings are more than complex patterns of physical processes, and in my recent poll belief in this has a big 0.58 correlation with belief in gods, spirits, or other non-physical agents.

People who believe such things often feel that we science types dismiss such possibilities out of hand. And another poll of mine finds that while 25.8% lean toward the “more than” position, 53.4% are “almost sure” of their position, which does seem overconfident. (32.4% of philosophers who take a position so lean.)

Dismissing out of hand does seem unfair here, so it occurs to me to try to explain a more reasonable standard to ask of advocates of this sort of intelligent design. A standard for how they could express their theories to enable a more careful and systematic evaluation. As I see their story as less likely than not, I don’t expect such an evaluation to favor them, but that’s a different issue. And as someone who recently estimated the prior for if UFOs are aliens, this seems like a task I may be suited for.

In our usual science story, there is all this physical stuff, which started in some initial state, and then evolved according the usual physical laws. In a big enough version of this, eventually some random fluctuations will get a self-reproduction process started, which then develops and spreads according to natural selection. Eventually this results in computers (= “brains”) in each organism assessing its situation and calculating its responses. And when those organisms interact a lot (i.e., are “social”), they should want to explain their motives and plans to each other, thus resulting in minds who talk to each other about their feelings and thoughts. Which is how under this story we end up with a universe containing both physical stuff and minds, with the experiences of those minds very closely connected to that of particular organisms.

As I understand it, many want to instead postulate that the universe started with minds as elemental primary things. Some of those minds are able to, and choose to, create or change physical stuff and processes, and tie some minds to that physical stuff in ways that are highly correlated with the computers of particular evolved organisms. That is, each tied mind only recalls events after that particular organism formed, only events which that organism could sense, and only in ways that brain could compute. This mind also only notices causing actions by that organism, and has a mental capacities connected closely to the size, design, and health of that organism’s brain. Furthermore, all the other elemental minds not attached to organisms (i.e., “spirits”), don’t seem to cause much in the way of noticeable deviations from what simple physical laws would cause in their absence.

Some of these folks claim that some special features of some organisms and their minds are much less plausible under the usual science story than under this alternate minds-as-primary view. These features include the beauty and meaning that these organism-tied minds see, and their mental tendencies toward spiritual experiences.

To compare these two categories of theories systematically and carefully, we want each class to be described as clearly and precisely as possible. And while I’m aware of many ambiguities and issues with the usual science story, it seems to me that the alternative minds-as-primitive story is described with vastly less precision and detail. For example, these seem to me some obvious big open questions about elemental minds:

  1. What sets the capacities, features, and structures, of elemental minds?
  2. In particular, what sets their capacities to create or experience beauty and meaning?
  3. What sets the capacities of some minds to create or modify or end themselves or other minds?
  4. How many elemental minds are there, and do they exist in time, if not in space?
  5. If elemental minds exist in time, when did that time start and will it ever end?
  6. Are there any resources they need to think or to continue existing, and if so what sets the dynamics of those resources?
  7. In the absence of physical stuff, what exactly do elemental minds experience, and how do they interact with each other?
  8. Why do elemental minds make or modify organism-tied-minds to become so intimately connected to and limited by particular organisms?
  9. Why don’t untied-minds show more clearly to organism-tied-minds that they can create and change physical stuff outside the organism-tied channel?
  10. Can physical stuff influence and change elemental minds, and if so how?
  11. What sets the degree to which these elemental minds encourage the frequency of existence of organisms among physical stuff, and which organisms get tied minds?

Note that it is fine to get probability distributions over possible answers to each question. But without clearer answers to many of these questions, I can’t see how to even begin to systematically compare these two classes of hypotheses. Again, while the usual science story still has missing parts, it looks vastly more specified than this alternate story.

Added 18July: Some on fb say that many answer these questions via the key assumption that there exists a “perfect” God, which implies uniqueness, always existing, needing no resources, max intelligent, able to know and do and create anything, and doing what is “best”. Predictions from this theory seem to mostly come down to what this God thinks is best, which is widely admitted to be hard to guess or understand. Making this theory even harder to evaluate than Freemasonry, alien zoo, simulation hypothesis, and other deep conspiracy theories.

For example, yes, the specific hypothesis of a God who shares human concepts of beauty and meaning (CBM) gives a higher likelihood to humans having those CBM, relative to the entire class of evolution scenarios wherein we could have had many different CBM. But for each other possible CBM we could have a different God hypothesis, one where God has those CBM. So when we compare the entire class of God and evolution scenarios, I can’t see this consideration giving a boost to the God hypothesis.

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