Monday, May 14, 2012

How to tell if something is designed?

Just how does one tell that something is designed? Can we look at an object and just know, or is there something to that object that gives it away?

I'll state the conclusion right now.

This discussion is unintelligible. There's only one way to determine whether something is designed/created - by demonstration. All other avenues fail.

In this discussion, I'll attempt to explain why.

Three Basic Categories

In the diagram above, I have three basic categories of avenues for telling whether something is designed.
  • Demonstration - observe that the object is designed and created by a designer/creator.
  • Attributes - determining a set of attributes that distinguish this trait. There's something about the object that indicates it has the trait, in other words.
  • Extra Sensory / Other - This category covers anything that isn't in the first two.
I will explore each of these categories.


In this category, we can tell something is designed/created by direct observation. 

For instance, we can go watch car designers craft new types of cars. We can observe each step in the process from conceptualization to production. This is the same for most all man made objects. We can go find the designer.

This approach doesn't require us to consider anything about the object itself.

Further, as sort of a corollary, we can know something is designed if we're told it is, otherwise known as education. Note, however, that knowledge is demonstrably confirmable - so in a sense, the education is a reference to the demonstration.

The limitation to this category is that we can only build an itemized list of what we know is designed. Just because something is outside of this list doesn't mean it's not designed. That just means we don't know definitely that it is yet.

It's limited because instead of determining whether all trees are made of wood by a generic set of attributes, for example, we check each tree individually and take down a list of each tree that's made of wood.

This isn't an efficient method.

Extra Sensory / Other

This category is very broad. It's literally anything that's not the other two ("attributes" and "demonstration"). I threw in "extra sensory" as an example.

It's possible that, like our first five senses - touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing - there may be a sixth sense that we can point at an object and "just tell" that it's designed. It's possible there's some other mechanism that we can use that doesn't fit the other categories at all.

This category automatically fails. At least, it's a dead end until:
  1. The mechanism is well defined (no obfuscation), that meets the criterion of science (testable, falsifiable, etc).
  2. Hypotheses are generated to test the mechanism.
  3. Mechanism is consistently objectively empirically demonstrated.
An unjustified and undemonstrated assertion cannot be used to demonstrate something else. Until these steps are followed, there's nothing to assess within this category.

If this conversation devolves into you saying "This is designed because I can tell", we're not really getting anywhere, because I might look at the same object and say "That doesn't look designed to me." After that, we're two people with opposite opinions, and we need some way of demonstrating one way or the other - which is what this whole topic is about.


I saved this category for last, because, it's the meat of the issue, and it also requires a sub-category breakdown, which I will soon explain.

For context, I will explain what "Attributes" is all about. Consider the objects below:

A chipmunk, a bird and an airplane

Each of these three objects has a set of attributes. The bird is yellow, the chipmunk is brown, and the airplane is a white/blue combination. The airplane is large, and the bird is small. Both the bird and the airplane fly. We could assemble a fairly lengthy list of attributes for each object.

Some different objects share attributes, like flight. If we are trying to distinguish a bird form an airplane, that attribute wouldn't be enough. We can observe that the airplane is made out of metal, and the bird isn't, which would help.

What are the attributes of design? The airplane is made of metal, but the bird isn't so maybe that's it. Maybe it's the geometric simplicity of the airplane compared to the chaotic mess of fur of the bird? That could be it. Maybe it's the complexity? Well, no, the bird, while smaller, is more complex than the airplane, which is essentially a metal shell with some geometrically simple gadgets inside. Even the computers are crude in comparison to the bird brain, not to mention the nervous system that interweaves around the organs, etc.


We have a problem. It's a problem dire enough to render this conversation unintelligible.

You see, not everyone agrees about what is designed. Many people would recognize the airplane as designed, but not the chipmunk or bird. Some believe everything is designed (except "The Designer").

The problem is that we can't compare and contrast non-designed objects with designed objects, because we  don't know which is which. It'd be like trying to figure out what objects are "long", with one group of people insisting that snakes are long, but beetles aren't, and the other group thinks everything is long. Well, agreeing on the two groups for comparison is step one.

I've identified three basic sub-categories. While there exists blends between these categories, these are the boundary conditions - major distinguishing points along the spectrum. (I doubt anyone would contest that man made things are designed)

This spectrum of categories starts with the idea that only man made objects are designed, and ends with the idea that everything is designed (That would be hardcore creationists).

In order to answer the question, "How do we tell if something is designed?", what we'll do is explore that question within the context of each of these sub-categories, assuming that each is true.

Everything is Designed

If everything is designed, then the conversation is over. We literally would have nothing to compare to designed things. How can we know what it means to be "garmilonish" if we have no non-"garmilonish" objects for comparison?

This context, as an answer, would be something like:
How can we tell that something is designed? Everything is designed. If you look at an object, it's designed - that's how you can tell.
This category/sub-category as an avenue for answering the question fails, because we're essentially left with a tautology - one that becomes very similar to the "Extra Sensory / Other" category. It boils down to a mere assertion where we don't agree on the premises/assumptions.

We can find no answers here.

Only Man Made Objects and Life is Designed

In one group, we have man made objects (cars, lamps, ice cream), as well as organisms (trees, frogs, mushrooms, bacteria). These are all designed, whereas anything not in that group belongs in the other group - that which is not designed (rocks, moons, gas, crystals).

This context has a major flaw. It's introducing a bias to the comparison.

Without realizing it, we're not comparing designed and not-designed anymore. We're comparing biology and man made to non-biology.

If we compare stuffed animals and biological animals to rocks, we might conclude that designed objects have fur, or are generally fuzzy. Actually, that wouldn't even be true, because there are plenty of non-man made objects that aren't fuzzy. In fact, there's a lot of attributes of man made objects that would conflict with the biological objects.

Just about the only attribute of non-designed objects would be that they're masses of chaotic inert rocks and minerals.

This, also, is a dead-end avenue for answering the question because the assumptions are biased/contaminated. We couldn't derive an accurate answer.

Man Made Only

This sub-category assumes that only man made objects are designed. Heck, I'll throw in extra-terrestrial designed things - those things that are designed by reasonably intelligent mortal creatures.

We have two nicely defined groups to compare and contrast - man made and not man made. Personally, I think this is the most likely avenue to derive a set of attributes. If we assume that life isn't designed, and man-made items are, we can do this.

Of course, this seemingly appropriate context has a couple problems, for both myself, and for the intelligent design proponents.

First, if this is what we're agreeing upon, then the intelligent design proponents have essentially conceded their argument.

I haven't discussed yet why we're having this discussion yet. This question arises due to the Argument from Design, which goes something like this:
  1. Life is designed
  2. A design requires a designer
  3. It wasn't us, therefore a greater mind did it - the intelligent designer (aka "God") exists
If everyone involved with this discussion is agreeing that life isn't designed, then premise #1 goes out the window, and the discussion is over. For intelligent design proponents, this avenue is a dead end.

Secondly, as I look at the tree outside my window, as it sways back and forth among the tornadoes, I don't know whether it's designed or not. That's actually an assumption. I think it's a safe assumption myself, but I'm willing to be open minded, and ask the question:

"How can I tell whether the tree is designed or not?"

I'm trying to answer the question, not assume that it isn't for the sake of telling whether it is. Does the prior sentence seem like gobbledygook to you? Well, it is.

This avenue, for both sides, is a dead end.

Wrap up for the Three Categories

To look at it another way, each sub-category is begging the question - whether what we're assuming is designed is actually designed - but that's what we're trying to figure out.


I've thoroughly gone through each possible branch of this question. Out of all the categories, all the avenues, there's only one way of telling that actually kind of worked - demonstration.

Demonstration as the only venue for telling whether something is designed is bad news for the intelligent design proponents. It establishes a circular argument, because the only way that you could demonstrate that life is designed is to demonstrate them being designed, but at that point, God is demonstrated already, so the design part of his/her/its activity is moot:

  1. To show that God exists, we can point to life being designed.
  2. To show that life is designed, we have to demonstrate that God exists, and designed it.
In conclusion, outside of demonstration, the debate about how to tell whether something is designed is unintelligible.

If you would like an example of this type of conversation, you might listen to a theist calling into the Atheist Experience about inferring design. He's no Ray Comfort, but these arguments to crop up frequently.

Potential Rebuttals

One may point out that life doesn't have to be completely designed. It's possible that instead of straight-up creation, an intelligent designer simply created the fundamental programming to some organisms and let things proceed via evolution - or created the original DNA for each life form and set it loose, and no evolution occurs. It could be that the intelligent designer is responsible only for basic mechanisms, like bacterial flagellum

My response to these objections is that they're microcosms of the overall discussion. Instead of evaluating the chipmunk as a whole, we're evaluating individual organelles, or the DNA itself. The same process of evaluation applies at that level - as well as the same pitfalls.

Secondly, one may think that my standards of evidence and science unfairly exclude the supernatural. You can read up on why the standards of evidence are they way they are here.