Elliot Sober: Just Don’t Call the Designer “God”

By Sean Pitman

The anti-ID Arguments of Elliot Sober

Elliot Sober is a well-known philosopher of science. In the above-listed essay he presents his arguments against the notions of Creationists and Intelligent Design theorists. He extensively discusses the famous watchmaker argument of William Paley and what he considers to be the logical flaws in the general application of this argument.

After reading through Sober’s paper, it seems to me like his arguments contain a few flaws.

For example, Sober presents the “inverse gambler’s fallacy” noting that it would be a logical error to assume that just because a pair of dice landed on double sixes the first few times that they were observed to be rolled does not mean that the dice had been rolled many times in the past or that the next roll is more likely than 1/36 to be something other than a double six.

This maturity of chance fallacy is used by Sober to argue against the concept of intelligence being required to explain a given phenomenon. Sober references Hacking’s 1987 gambler’s fallacy argument against the assumption of design behind the fined tuned features of our universe needed to support complex life (the “anthropic principle”). Hacking argues that the fine tuning of the universe necessary to support life does not necessitate a Fine Tuner since our universe could simply be one all possible universes that coexist in some non-temporal sense.

It seems to me that this is only a variation on the multiverse idea where our universe is just one of a great many randomly generated universes. Therefore, given the existence of all possible universes it is not surprising that at least one would support complex life.

In this line of reasoning, it is interesting to note that Hacking’s assertion that those who appeal to the Wheeler multiverse model commit the “Gambler’s Fallacy” has been challenged in literature. See the following comments by P. J. McGrath:

Hacking has misrepresented the sort of reasoning employed by those who appeal to the Wheeler model to explain the delicately balanced nature of the universe we inhabit…


Of course, whatever way one looks at it, we would not be here if our universe could not support complex life. It is like a gambler who knows ahead of time that he will not be allowed to see the rolls of the dice until a particular type of roll is realized. Given this information, it would be far more logical and predictable for the gambler to assume prior rolls before a very specific outcome among many many other options would be realized. In other words, the hypothesis with the greatest predictive value is that a an unimaginably huge number of rolls of the dice occurred prior to the current “correct” roll of the fine tuned universe in which we live – far beyond the number of tornadoes it would take to turn a junk yard into a Boeing 747.

Essentially, what this multiverse notion does is remove the basis of science itself. After all, given the “proper” universe any “unlikely” outcome can be explained by pure chance. There would be no scientifically determinable cause and effect, induction or deduction, or predictive value for any hypothesis since all could be explained by the multiverse theory – a theory that is itself not currently testable in a falsifiable manner and is therefore not scientific. In fact, it is anti-science.

This addresses yet another flaw in Sober’s paper. Sober accuses IDists of appealing to the concept of “modus tollens“, or the absolute perfection of the ID hypothesis. He uses the illustration of a million monkey’s randomly typing on typewriters producing all of the works of Shakespeare. He argues that while such a scenario is extremely unlikely, it still isn’t statistically impossible. There is still a finite probability of success.

While this is true, science doesn’t go with what is merely possible, but what is probable given the available evidence at hand. This is the reason why nobody reading a Shakespearean sonnet would think that it was the product of any kind of mindless random production. The same would be true if you were to walk out of your house and see that the pansies in your front yard had spelled out the phrase, “Good Morning. We hope you have a great day!”

Given such a situation you would never think that such a situation occurred by any non-deliberate mindless process of nature. You would automatically assume deliberate design. Why? Why is this the most rational conclusion given such a scenario?

Sober argues that if a known designer is not readily available to explain a given phenomenon, that the likelihood that a designer was responsible is just as remotely unlikely as is the notion that a mindless process was responsible for such an unlikely event. Therefore, there is essentially no rational basis to assume intelligent design. However, by the same argument, there would be no rational basis to assume non-intelligent design either.

The detail that Sober seems to selectively overlook is that if certain features fall within the known creative potential of known intelligent agents (i.e., humans) while being well outside of the realm of all known non-deliberate forces of nature, the most rational conclusion is that of ID.

Essentially what Sober does, yet again, is do away with all bases for hypothesizing ID behind anything for which an intelligent agent is not directly known. This essentially includes all of modern science that deals with ID – to include anthropology, forensic science, and especially SETI. Yet, amazingly, he goes on to use this very same argument in support of the ID detecting abilities of the same.

In the end, it seems like Sober is more concerned about the specific identity of the designer not being “God” rather being concerned about the idea that the scientific inference of a need for some kind of intelligent designer to explain certain kinds of phenomena is in fact overwhelmingly reasonable – scientifically.

Ultimately, it seems to me like Sober’s arguments are really directed against the detection of God, not intelligent design…

In this line Sober writes:

The upshot of this point for Paley’s design argument is this: Design arguments for the existence of human (and human-like) watchmakers are often unproblematic; it is design arguments for the existence of God that leave us at sea.

– Elliot Sober

Of course, the ID-only hypothesis does not try to demonstrate the need for God. Rather it suggests that at least human-level intelligence or beyond had to have been involved to explain certain features of the universe and of life on this planet. It doesn’t attempt to argue that any particular God had to have been involved. If fact, it is impossible for the finite to prove the need for the infinite. However, one may argue that from a given finite perspective a particular phenomenon would require the input of a creative intelligence that would be indistinguishable from a God or God-like creative power.

At this point, a belief that such a God-like creator is in fact omnipotent is not unreasonable, but must be based, not on demonstration, but on trust in the testimony of this Creative Power. If a God-like creative power personally claims to be “The” God of all, Omnipotent in every way, it would be very hard for someone from my perspective to reasonably argue otherwise…

Anyway, your thoughts regarding what seems so convincing to you about Sober’s “arguments” would be most interesting – especially as they apply to granite NHPs or other such “artifacts”…

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106 thoughts on “Elliot Sober: Just Don’t Call the Designer “God”

  1. Ken — I agree completely with you on the fact that different people can come to different conclusions on subject A or B. I also agree that within my own denomination people are all over the spectrum when it comes to actually knowing the Bible or having ever remotely tried to use solid principles of exegesis to render any text accuratly much less Genesis or Daniel 7.

    I have seen questions on some of the other SDA”ish” boards that indicate that some of the people in my own denomination really don’t get out much in terms of being able to modestly much less accurately defend a given Bible position or doctrine with someone who genuinely knows their Bible and is of a different POV. (This is not true of all SDAs by any means – but sad to say I am finding that it is true of more than I would have hoped.)

    So your point is well taken – there exists people even in my own denomination that are essentially clueless when it comes to having had any practice at all objectively exegeting the text of scripture using the historical grammatical method and showing that any given doctrine is validated “sola scriptura”.

    However that level of “lack” on the part of some – in no way is a condemnation on the method itself. The fact that many people choose not to drink pure water is not an argument against the benefits of pure water.

    In Christ,



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  2. Getting back to the subject of the original post, it seems that Elliot Sober is happy with the design inference if it regards humans, but is against it if it regards God. I haven’t read his book, and therefore can’t say that this describes his thought accurately (although the quotes are suggestive), but I can say that this attitude is common. I think (assuming that Sober is accurately portrayed) that he has gotten to the nub of the question, and I congratulate him for it.

    I have tried out the following design argument recently, and there appear to be no major flaw in it.

    A. Intelligence exists. We may not know of what it consists, or how it works, but that it exists should not be in question. (This may seem to be obvious, as to state the opposite has certain unavoidable negative self-referential implications, but it is the second most attacked premise.)

    B. Entities possessing intelligence are able to produce long strings of DNA, long enough, and complex enough, and specified enough to serve as the sole coded information source for cells to be able to live and even multiply. Specifically, Craig Venter and his group were able to do so, and there is no defensible reason to believe that other intelligent entities that possess similar or greater intelligence and material-manipulating abilities could not do the same.

    C. There is at present no known theoretical pathway to such long complex specified strings of DNA without intelligence, nor is there experimental evidence that nature without intelligent intervention can create such DNA strings.

    D. Therefore, it seems at present that the most reasonable original cause of such DNA strings is at least partly intelligent intervention.

    That doesn’t get us to God, but rather to an intelligent designer or designers. The conclusion is the essence of ID. Thus, if the premises and the logic hold, ID is scientific.

    The usual reaction to this line of reasoning that I have gotten is that embodied designers are allowed, but a disembodied one is not. Therefore I cannot use this to prove the existence of God. And besides, we might someday find a pathway to life from non-living material, and what then?

    Notice that the second part of this argument, the only semi-scientific part, relies on faith that we will someday find a pathway, a faith that is presently without evidence. That’s okay, as long as it is labeled “faith” or “belief” and does not claim to be based on the scientific evidence.

    And notice that the first part of the argument has nothing to do with ID per se, or with the above arguments, but is rather an explicitly antitheological argument. For if there is a God, who is to say that He must have a body, and especially that His body must be made of material familiar to us (especially since some physicists are claiming that some 90% of the universe is “dark matter”, interacting in some ways with ordinary matter, such as gravity, so it can be detected, but otherwise being undetectable by us at present). This objection is a religious, or at least philosophical, objection to a scientific argument, and seems to reverse the usual claims that the evolution-creation controversy is science versus religion.

    Since Brad appears to have some expertise on Elliot Sober’s thought, I’d appreciate his comments.


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  3. @BobRyan:

    Dear Paul Giem

    The answer to your “editing” problem is quite simple though I’ll admit I had to learn it the hard way–many blushes later!
    Now I simply type it on my “Word” first. That way I can check and recheck it many times to be sure I haven’t written something–or left out something–or misspelled a word, or done some other stupid thing that will make me cringe when I see it in print later.

    It is a simple matter to then copy and paste it on the place for your “comments” before it is actually submitted for all the world to see. I always TRY to edit it one more time before I hit the “submit” button. Even then SOME things will still slip through once in a while. But the damage control is much less severe–and not as often.

    (Someone will surely find some kind of a mistake in this comment even though I have tried to edit it carefully. Oh well…. Fortunately, I don’t claim to be perfect!)


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