The improbability of ID

by Neil Rickert

ID proponents are frequently appealing to probabilistic arguments as evidence for their ID claims.  Unfortunately, most of the presented arguments are wrong.  There’s a particularly egregious example posted today at the Uncommon Descent blog.  The author of that post, JonathanM, apparently managed to get into a debate with Massimo Pigliucci.  He quotes Pigliucci as saying:

No evolutionary biologist I know…actually attaches probabilities to specific evolutionary events of the type you are talking about. There is no way to do that.

JonathanM then goes on to cite places where evolutionists have used probabilistic reasoning.  Apparently, JonathanM has no understanding of the difference between probabilities of specific events, and the use of probabilities over populations.

Here’s an illustration of the problem.  If I shuffle a deck of cards, and then deal out a bridge hand, I will have produced a highly improbable event.  If you were to list a particular hand before I had shuffled and dealt the card, then the probability calculation would show that the hand you listed was very unlikely.  If I had then dealt that actual hand, you would have reason to question whether I had been cheating.  However, once a hand has already been dealt, it makes no sense to compute the probability for that hand.  It does not tell us anything useful.

If you really wanted to look at a few hands that I had dealt, to find evidence of cheating, there is a way to do that.  You would need an alternative explanation as to how those hands were dealt.  And then you could calculate the conditional probability:  given that this hand was dealt, what is the conditional probability that it was dealt by method X (say, standard shuffling) rather than by method Y (your alternative).

It isn’t the direct probability of the hand that matters, it is that conditional probability.  And we can only use that method if we have sufficient data to realistically estimate the condition probability.

Unfortunately, the ID proponents don’t seem to understand this.  They do not use conditional probabilities in their arguments.  Perhaps this is because an estimate based on conditional probabilities would show that natural causes are far more probable than supernatural causes.

It is not just JonathanM who is confused about this.  His blog post has been made into a “sticky” and thus highlighted on the Uncommon Descent blog.  So whoever makes the decisions about such highlighting is presumably just as confused.

After citing his examples of statistics applied to population genetics, JonathanM comments “To this, I received no response.”  That, I can understand.  By this time, Pigliucci must have recognized that Jonathan was driven by ideology, and unwilling to learn anything.

6 Comments to “The improbability of ID”

  1. So, are you a materialist when it comes to the mind/brain? Do you have a post where you explain your thoughts on consciousness, the mind, and the brain? If not, can you write one up?

    Thanks a bunch.


    • No, I am not a materialist. That’s partly on the principle that we don’t know what material (or matter) is. Certainly our ideas on that are different from those of 100 years ago. There will probably be more changes in the future.

      On the other hand, I am not a dualist. That is, I do not believe there is such a thing as a spiritual soul.

      At present, I do not have a post with my ideas on consciousness. Experience in other venues shows that it is very difficult to explain.

      Philosophy has been studying this problem for over 2000 years. Although they have been singularly unsuccessful, they have established a framework in which to discuss the problem. That framework is firmly established, and people are looking for explanations within that framework. I don’t believe that there is any possible explanation within that framework, with dualism perhaps the best that you can get. So we need a different framework. I have one, but it is hard to explain to people who are firmly committed to the traditional framework.

      You might get some hints on how I am looking at this if you check my posts on purpose (see the “intentionality” category) and my posts on geometry (see the “mathematics” category).


      • Have you ever run across the quote from Noam Chomsky saying that there is no mind-body problem because there is no longer any definite conception of body? Your statements here remind me of that.

        What are your thoughts on panpsychism?


      • Have you ever run across the quote from Noam Chomsky saying that there is no mind-body problem because there is no longer any definite conception of body?

        No, I haven’t. That sounds as if it could be a defensive statement that he might make if his linguistics theory is criticized as causing serious problems for solving the mind body problem.

        Incidently, I am not a fan of Chomsky’s linguistics.

        What are your thoughts on panpsychism?

        I have no need for that hypothesis.


        • The mind-body problem can be posed sensibly only insofar as we have a definite conception of body. If we have no such definite and fixed conception, we cannot ask whether some phenomena fall beyond its range. The Cartesians offered a fairly definite conception of body in terms of their contact mechanics, which in many respects reflects commonsense understanding. Therefore they could sensibly formulate the mind-body problem…

          [However] the Cartesian concept of body was refuted by seventeenth-century physics, particularly in the work of Isaac Newton, which laid the foundations for modern science. Newton demonstrated that the motions of the heavenly bodies could not be explained by the principles of Descartes’s contact mechanics, so that the Cartesian concept of body must be abandoned.

          There is no longer any definite conception of body. Rather, the material world is whatever we discover it to be, with whatever properties it must be assumed to have for the purposes of explanatory theory. Any intelligible theory that offers genuine explanations and that can be assimilated to the core notions of physics becomes part of the theory of the material world, part of our account of body. If we have such a theory in some domain, we seek to assimilate it to the core notions of physics, perhaps modifying these notions as we carry out this enterprise.

          The mind-body problem can therefore not even be formulated. The problem cannot be solved, because there is no clear way to state it. Unless someone proposes a definite concept of body, we cannot ask whether some phenomena exceed its bounds. (Language and Problems of Knowledge, p. 145)

          Sounds right up your alley.

          As to not needing panpsychism, how about neutral monism? If you reject materialism, I’d like to know what your alternative is.


        • Thanks for those Chomsky quotes.

          I’m not sure that many people would agree with Chomsky. Those who dismiss the mind-body problem do so because of the evidence connecting the brain to the mind, and the fact that neurons from the brain are able to control actions by the body.

          I agree with Chomsky, that we don’t have a clear concept of the body. But we also don’t have a clear concept of the mind.

          I had not previously come across neutral monism. In spite of the name for my blog, I am not really a philosopher. I’m a mathematician and computer scientist with interests in questions on cognition. There are many ideas in the philosophical literature that I have not studied.

          The real problem with the cognitive science is that it is based on philosophy of mind. And the real problem with philosophy is in its use of logic. By itself, logic is useless. You need to have entities and relations to which you can apply logic. So philosophy assumes those a priori, as part of metaphysics. And it assumes too much. With the use of what I called geometric method (in my geometry posts), you can actually have a way of identifying entities and relations without those metaphysical assumptions.

          My rejection of materialism is technical. I reject metaphysics, and materialism is a metaphysical assumption. I suppose you could call my view “evidencism” – go where the evidence takes you. I could use the term “empiricism”, except that philosophy has made such a mess with that.

          For studying cognition, we cannot hope to reverse-engineer the brain. It is too complex for that. Instead, I assume that a person is using something like evidencism, and I try to work out the consequences of that assumption. Then I compare the way people behave with what is suggested by those consequences, to see how well my approach fits.


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