Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Explanatory Continuum

This is the first in a series of posts regarding themes in Darwin’s Black Box and The Design Matrix.

All quotes in this post are from Chapter 2 of The Design Matrix.

The Traditional Template

It appears one of Mike Gene’s goals in writing the Design Matrix is to change the current structure of the ID/evolution debate, which he calls the “Traditional Template”.

"…proponents of design look for some feature that cannot possibly be explained by natural causes. Then, once a feature has been proposed, it is argued that only a designer can account for the existence of this feature. (Emphasis mine)

The Traditional Template assigns the non-teleological explanation the default status.

…because this template pushes the design proponent into the position of opposing Darwinian evolution, the design proponent ends up trying to prove a negative.
Proving a negative is notoriously difficult to do for any topic." (Emphasis not mine)

Thus, it would seem that the Traditional Template is a “rigged” debate. Darwinian evolution is presumed “true” and teleologists are left with unenviable task of proving it impossible. The Template is analogous to a defendant having to prove his innocence in a court of law, which is contradictory to our system of law (innocent until proven guilty). Gene implies that it is the job of the proponent (prosecutor) to provide evidence to support his suspicion (charge).

Enter the Explanatory Continuum

How is this done? It starts when the detective first arrives at the scene of the crime. He starts with a hunch and looks for clues to support it and move forward by looking for more incriminating evidence. When enough clues are gathered to get a conviction, an arrest is made. The Design Matrix suggests this is similar to what occurs with the historical sciences, such as evolutionary biology.

Following in the footsteps of the detective analogy, Mike Gene proposes an Explanatory Continuum with the following steps:

1. Impossible
2. Possible*
3. Plausible
4. Probable
5. Fact

Mike Gene suggests that “All investigations must begin with a hunch or suspicion.”, and then grants the possibility of the hunch or suspicion; IOW, all investigations begin at step 2 of the Continuum. This is a radical change from the Traditional Template because all arguments start at the same point in the Continuum. Even though this is a huge step forward (and possibly relief) for teleologists, granting design in nature as a possibility is NOT the end of the investigation.

"Possibilities do not really carry that much weight when trying to account for something that actually happened."

Thus, all suspicions are encouraged to move forward through the Continuum. As defined by Mike Gene, the next step is “plausible”. To move from possible to plausible, some circumstantial evidence needs to be dug up that supports the “suspicion”. Experiments need to be proposed and performed, data collected, and so on. There is work involved to move from the possible to the plausible. But what does it mean that a suspicion is plausible?

"Plausible explanations function to arouse or heighten suspicion but are in need of more evidential support."

IOW, even though our certainty level has increased, more evidence and investigation is required to move forward through the Continuum. The next step forward is “probable”. One moves from plausible to probable as the result of:

"…a vast amount of data that all converge and best make sense in light of the explanation. The probable emerges when it becomes clear to unbiased observers that the explanation is the best way to account for all the relevant data." (Emphasis mine)

Note that “a vast amount of data” is required to move from plausible to probable, which could take years to accumulate, maybe even decades. Also note that the level of fact is approached, but rarely attained. This allows for new and contradictory evidence to be taken into consideration.

Scientific Certainty Revisited

A couple of months ago, I created a post referencing this post at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution that listed six meanings for the word evolution and arranged them according to levels of scientific certainty. After reading The Design Matrix, I wondered how these meanings fit into the Explanatory Continuum. So I propose that we take a look at the six meanings of evolution through the lens of the Explanatory Continuum. Please refer to the linked post for a more complete definition of each meaning.

E1. Change over time: I think everyone would agree this would fall into the probable category.

E2. Common ancestry: According to the scientific world and Evangelical Dialogue, this would fall under probable, but why? It would appear that E2 is closer to the boundary of probable and plausible since much of the evidence appears circumstantial and any “hard” evidence either appears to be lacking or is controversial. That said there are two reasons for E2 to be in the probable category: no competing hypothesis and the shear weight of the accumulated circumstantial evidence. Both lend credibility for E2 to be considered probable.

E3. Evolutionary mechanisms: not much controversy here – this falls squarely in the probable category. However, an argument could be made that the mechanisms are well established enough to be considered fact, of which I would have no problem with. After all, the controversy is not whether the mechanisms (gene duplication, genetic shift, etc.) exist, but how they are applied, which brings us to…

E4. Mechanisms (E3) account for (physically) common descent: Charles Darwin argued for the possibility of natural mechanisms to describe the history of life. 150 years later, there is only circumstantial evidence to support Darwin’s hunch. Therefore, E4 falls in the plausible category.

E5. Origin of life (or chemical evolution): This is an interesting category. Circumstantial evidence has come and gone over the years with nothing really sticking. Given Mike’s definition of the Explanatory Continuum, E5 automatically starts at the possibility stage. Is there interesting research occurring in the OOL field? Absolutely. Has the research produced enough circumstantial evidence to proceed forward to the plausible stage? IMO, no.

E6. Evolutionism: This is stuck (and I predict will remain stuck for a long time) in the possible stage. After all, anything’s “possible”.


Mike Gene’s Explanatory Continuum is a radical shift in the current structure of the evolution/ID debates because it provides more maneuverability and puts the onus on the proponent to provide evidence to prop up his hunch. The “suspicion of design” (a phrase found often throughout The Design Matrix) can be acknowledged while recognizing that evidence is required to progress forward (from possibility to plausibility and from plausibility to probability). So where does that leave ID at this point?

"The debate between teleology and non-teleology is at least 2500 years old and has involved some of history’s greatest thinkers. … But if history spans 2500 years or more, consider the possibility that the non-teleological view has just recently gained the upper hand with more sophisticated versions of the same arguments from old. Teleologists have the potential of evening the playing field somewhat by also reviving their arguments in more sophisticated versions."

Roll up your sleeves, ID; there’s work to be done.

*Note that the Traditional Template falls within steps 1 and 2 of the Explanatory Continuum.

Gene, M., The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues, 2007
An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution, “What Does Evolution Mean? A Framework For Christians”

Next post: Irreducible Complexity

1 comment:

  1. "Thus, it would seem that the Traditional Template is a “rigged” debate. Darwinian evolution is presumed “true” and teleologists are left with unenviable task of proving it impossible."

    This is ridiculous. There are plenty of ways that Darwinian evolution could be falsified. It just so happens that no one has found any.

    For example, if mammal fossils were found in precambrian rock, that'd be a big problem for the modern theory of evolution.