I’ve addressed the absurdity of Denyse O’Leary’s analogy between arson investigations and biology before, but she can’t seem to stop. Here is how she proposes to address why invoking design doesn’t stop research:
Suppose we say: If the fire marshall’s office (FMO) concludes that a fatal fire has been set deliberately, then they are just taking the easy way out, and they won’t be able to find out anything more about it.
As she’s stated it, yes. If the arson unit concludes that the fire was set deliberately, and then refuses to address who set the fire, indeed dismisses that as a problem of theology or philosophy that has no place in a courtroom, classroom or scientific investigation, we would indeed say that they are taking the easy way out and hindering real research.
Denyse disagrees, indeed finds this deeply unlikely.
What’s wrong with this picture? Clearly, the question of whether the fire was set deliberately must first be addressed as a question of fact. There is no other way to determine the origin of the fire than to address it first as a question of fact.
Perhaps the origin cannot be determined at all. But only an intensive investigation can demonstrate that.
If so, does the arson investigator simply attribute the fire to “intelligent design,” or is the default assumption that the arson investigator makes that the fire is a result of natural processes? I think you know the answer. I think you also know that an issue of fact an arson investigator has to address is not just whether the fire was set deliberately, but by whom.
If the FMO concludes that the fire is arson, far from losing the ability to find out anything more, it is in a position to focus on key details (Where was the fire started? What accelerant and how much? What was the pattern and timing of spread?).*
(*Many other questions can later be asked by the police — for example, were the charred victims intended to die in the fire? Or was their presence unforeseen and accidental? Or were they unlucky arsonists engulfed by flames?)
Do you notice an important missing question? More on that in a moment.
Why does the arson investigator care about where the fire started, what accelerants were used, and the pattern of spread? Not just for fun, but because fires work according to natural laws, and we know something about how intentionally set fires work. Understanding what accelerant was used can tell us a great deal about who, if anyone, set the fire. Because fires obey various natural laws, their behavior under different circumstances is predictable. Fires set by arsonists exhibit certain patterns, and observing those known patterns in a fire can lead the investigators to the arsonist (the “designer” as it were).
The question which is still missing from O’Leary’s analysis is the central one in any criminal investigation: Who set the fire and what was their intention in doing so? Did the “designer” intend to set the fire, or simply set in motion a series of accidental events?
These omitted questions of O’Leary’s are significant, because they are exactly the sorts of questions IDolators insist should not be asked regarding “intelligent design.”
Eventually, of course, she must contend with the fact that in a court of law, one must produce not just evidence that a crime occurred, but that a particular person had motive, means and opportunity to commit that crime, and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that person actually did commit that crime.
If the police investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire and lay charges, the FMO must defend its verdict against the lawyer for the accused, who will attempt, as one strategy among many, to cast doubt on the FMO findings, imply that the FMO routinely bungles cases or — in a pinch — that virtually any pattern of accelerants can be accounted for by random events or that it is never possible to determine the cause of a fire with certainty. (The analogies to the intelligent design controversy require no unpacking.)
Indeed not. The arson investigator will present a series of scientific experiments showing how natural laws require a particular pattern of evidence to have originated with some natural event at the beginning. This does not make the investigator some sort of metaphysical materialist, just that it would not fly in court to simply say “This here evidence is complex in a way that, having seen it, I can specify. Even if I can’t explain how this fire happened, or who did it, I know a crime happened.” This sort of pragmatic naturalism is how we all manage not to walk off of cliffs, and why we call the AAA rather than an exorcist when our cars won’t start.
A Dembskiite arson investigator would be laughed out of court as soon as he quoted Of Panda’s and People, saying “what kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy.”
Similarly, were the investigator to say (quoting Dembski’s Design Revolution) “design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy,” his conclusions would not be given much weight.
He might well be accused of making a mockery of the court, even jailed for contempt, if he were to quote Michael Behe’s comment in Philosophia Christi that “the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo [I feign no hypothesis].”
Judges and juries want the prosecution to offer some hypotheses, and are quite happy to exclude angels (fallen or otherwise), space aliens and mystical unknown beings. There’s a reason OJ didn’t offer a “Bigfoot made me do it!” defense.
In short, the analogy to IDC is quite clear, but not at all favorable to the IDolators. Why does Denyse persist in such an unflattering analogy? We may never know, though it seems to offer her a chance to engage in cheap stereotypes:
If her client’s case looks pretty bad, the defense lawyer may even try arguing that arson is a natural cause because people are, well, “just natural animals”. (This defense will work better if her client has looked and acted, throughout the proceedings, like a large rodent crammed into a dress suit, and appears truly unable to grasp the moral significance of the accusations against him.)
No matter what, fire is a natural process in the same sense that evolution is a natural process. We can investigate both using experimentation and deduction from available evidence. The hypothetico-deductive scientific method is a powerful tool, but only when investigating natural phenomena, it fails with the supernatural.
That is why an IDoltatrous defense lawyer would do better to try to ask whether an invisible, intangible, omnipotent, omniscient being could have started a fire and left evidence behind in such a way as to exactly simulate the evidence that would exist if the defendant had intentionally set a fire. Alas, I think that lawyer would find jurors, however religious, would not consider a defense of “God framed me” to offer much reasonable doubt.