Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Intelligent Artistic Design

Whether or not the universe has an intelligent designer, the concept of "intelligent design" that is often bandied about by cosmopundits is completely useless as a scientific notion, since it is both untestable and incompatible with the sort of materialism required in contemporary science. Don't get me wrong: I believe that the universe does, indeed, have an intelligent designer. But there is no reason to believe that the universe itself provides any evidence for that claim, contrary to what some folks desperately want to believe. To believe it requires an a priori metaphysical commitment on the order of, well, the same sort of a priori metaphysical commitment required to believe in materialism. You either accept it or you don't, and no amount of empirical testing can compel belief in one commitment to the exclusion of the other.

Now comes a report in yesterday's online edition of the New York Times that some scientists are engaging in some speculation of their own about possible intelligent design, but this time it's not the cosmos but medieval Islamic architecture that is the object of speculation. Peter J. Lu, a physicist, thinks that the geometric patterns found on many instances of medieval Islamic architecture exhibit the characteristics of quasi-crystals, mathematical objects only fully understood by modern scientists less than three decades ago.
The findings, reported in the current issue of the journal Science, are a reminder of the sophistication of art, architecture and science long ago in the Islamic culture. They also challenge the assumption that the designers somehow created these elaborate patterns with only a ruler and a compass. Instead, experts say, they may have had other tools and concepts.
What was that you were saying about not drawing inferences of like causes from observations of like effects? Oh, that doesn't apply here, you say? Hmm....

Mr. Lu's thesis adviser, Paul Steinhardt, who helped him with some of his research, was not quite as enthusiastic, perhaps, as his student:
Dr. Steinhardt said in an interview that it was not clear how well the Islamic designers understood all the elements they were applying to the construction of these patterns. “I can just say what’s on the walls,” he said.
Ohhh.... But hope springs eternal in our youth:
Mr. Lu said that it would be “incredible if it were all coincidence.”
Yep, it would just bowl me over to find that the universe, er, I mean, those buildings, did not have intelligent designers after all. But come on, now, let's give credit where credit is due:
“At the very least,” he said, “it shows us a culture that we often don’t credit enough was far more advanced than we ever thought before.”
What's that you say? Those morons knew about geometry? You mean they weren't just sitting around in caves painting pictures of bison on the walls? Man, this is revolutionary.

Speaking of giving credit where credit is due, let's get back to science.
In a separate article in Science, some experts in the math of crystals questioned if the findings were an entirely new insight. In particular, Emil Makovicky of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark said the new report failed to give sufficient credit to an analysis he published in 1992 of mosaic patterns on a tomb in Iran.
Oops! Man, I hate when that happens! Did I say "revolutionary?" I meant "unremarkable". Sorry about that. More importantly, however, let's, um, get back to science!
The article quoted two other experts, Dov Levine and Joshua Socolar, physicists at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Duke University, respectively, as agreeing that Dr. Makovicky deserved more credit. But, the article noted, they said the Lu-Steinhardt research had “generated interesting and testable hypotheses.”
There you go! The magic word: "testable". There are some testable hypotheses in there. Like, these patterns look just like quasi-crystals. Yep, you can test that one pretty easily, and it looks like lots of folks have done just that.

I wonder what the other "testable" hypotheses are supposed to be? After all, this is science we're talking about here, not some kind of fundamentalism.


Rick said...

Does "testable" mean mathematically plausible? If so, then must they assume an ontological possibility of such plausibilities (multiple universes, parallel universes, time travel) as well? Would it be a stretch to say that sometimes mathematicians are nothing but closet metaphysicians?

Scott Carson said...


That's a good question. I'd say they're usually not all that closeted.

It seems to me that the only sense in which the hypotheses could be testable would be in the sense that further archaeological study will reveal further examples of tiles that look like quasi-crystals. I can't even imagine how you could test the hypothesis that the architects knew about such things, or even vaguely imagined them.

mr_jargon said...

How are moral arguments from natural law effected by advances in modern science?

PS: There are some new posts on NeoChalcedonian

Scott Carson said...

The most obvious point of contact between natural law theory and science is the denial, by most scientists, of final causation. Without the notion of a final cause, natural law theory can become very difficult to defend. I think it's worth pointing out that the denial of final causation is not, in itself, a scientific claim but a metaphysical one. Scientists appeal to the principle of parsimony, claiming that they can explain things without any appeal to final causation and, hence, the notion of a final cause is otiose. But it's important to note that this is an a priori metaphysical commitment on their part, and cannot be demonstrated scientifically.

Natural law can be defended in isolation from final causation by appealing to other metaphysical notions, such as essence, but such defenses are open to rather well-known scientific criticisms.

I would have to say that, at least in my limited experience, science does not have a lot to say about morality that does not beg the question against somebody. Scientists have had all the wrong ideas about morality ever since Hume asserted (without a valid argument) that you cannot derive an ought from an is.