Wall Street and ID

Since the stock market has everybody’s attention lately, I thought now might be a good time for a quick post about what Wall Street can teach us about Intelligent Design, and in particular about Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter.”

Briefly, the Explanatory Filter (EF) purports to detect design by eliminating the two other possible causes for a phenomenon: natural law and random chance. That is, if we see a watch lying on a beach, we can ask ourselves how this watch came into existence. Did it spontaneously assemble itself by random chance? Is it the the product of ordinary natural laws operating without intelligent direction? Is it perchance some combination of random chance and undirected natural laws? If none of these possibilities is plausible, then by process of elimination (filtering), we’ve determined that the watch must have been intelligently designed.

On the surface, this sounds plausible enough that many people might be tempted to see it as a scientific technique. There’s a gotcha hiding in that third possibility, though. How do we know what undirected natural laws can produce when combined with random chance? Our intuitive estimates tend to downplay the effectiveness of laws interacting with random chance, but the effects can be quite sophisticated.

The stock market gives us a good example. To what do we attribute the sudden and dramatic loss of stock value which we have recently seen (and may not be done seeing)? Is it the result of natural law, random chance, or intelligent design?

Here’s where the EF gets a bit tricky. If you say the stock slump was the result of a natural law, then you have to give the law. That’s how the EF works, you see. If you can’t name the law, if you can’t describe exactly how your proposed law produces the observed result, then you’re not allowed to say that law is the cause. Obviously, if there were some known law that allowed you to predict exactly what the stock market was going to do, some scientist would get very rich!

On the other hand, if you say that the stock market is purely the result of random chance, you ignore the many factors that do indeed have a cause-and-effect relationship with stock values. Economics would be essentially a voodoo art, with no predictable results. It’s all just random chance you see.

Yet the Intelligent Design explanation won’t work either. Sure, there were lots of intelligent people working with the stocks, but none of them intended to cause their own wealth to suddenly evaporate. If anything, intelligent design on Wall Street would have driven the prices up, since that’s where Wall Street gets its money. Intelligent design would have produced the opposite result from what we actually observe. The EF fails!

The trick is that ordinary natural laws can produce surprisingly complex results that are similar in many respects to the directed actions of some sentient being. Where you have a very large number of independent factors interacting with each other according to a relatively small set of relatively simple rules, the results far exceed our intuitive estimation of what is likely to happen. This is true whether we are talking about stock prices or marketing fads or genetics or meteorology or what have you. Simple rules times a large number of independent agents equals sophisticated behavior.

I’ve been talking about random chance, since that’s the easiest way to explain the Explanatory Filter, but it’s time to admit that in fact there is no such thing (at least above the quantum level). The things we call “random” are in fact proceeding according to a relatively small number of relatively simple natural laws: opposite charges attract, like charges repel, etc. They appear random to us because the insanely large number of independent factors involved make it impossible for us to solve all the interconnected equations in order to predict the actual outcomes. So we just call it “random.”

What we find in the real world, then, is that “random chance” and “undirected natural laws” are really the same thing: an inconceivably large number of independent factors, operating according to predictable natural laws, interacting with each other in subtle but immensely complex ways, producing sometimes astonishingly sophisticated results. The subtlety and complexity of undirected natural laws, in the presence of large numbers of independent, interacting factors, makes the Explanatory Filter essentially useless, since you can never predict exactly what undirected natural law is capable of, and thus can never really eliminate the possibility that your observed effect was not the product of intelligent design.

It may look like some intelligent force is directing stock prices, making decisions, having mood swings that vary from bullish to bearish. But the real complexity comes from the fact that we have a large number of independent factors and agents, each following a fairly simple set of rules that, by interaction with the other factors, turn into complex and unpredictable zigzags on the stock chart. And the number of stock brokers on Wall Street is infinitesimal compared to the number of independent factors (e.g. individual molecules) we have interacting in the history of evolution.

The bottom line: I wouldn’t put much stock in the Explanatory Filter if I were you. And if you do have stock in the EF, now might be a good time to sell off.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Wall Street and ID”

  1. Olorin Says:

    Dembski’s explanatory filter runs into problems even in simple cases. The filter requires that categorizing a phenomenon’s cause as “chance” or as “law” reuires evidence to support the conclusion. But clasiifying a cause as design occurs automatically wwhen we can’t assign it to one of the other two categories. That is, “design” requires no evidence at all.

    One consequence is that Dembski’s filter classifies ignorance as design. Suppose that a phenomenon is actually casued by a natural law that is presently unknown to science. Then we can’t assign either chance or law, and the filter therefore calls it design by default.

  2. John Morales Says:

    Nice post!

    I think this is a clever, topical and apposite comparison.

  3. Nemo Says:

    Economics would be essentially a voodoo art, with no predictable results.

    I think this is a fairly accurate summary of the field.

    I laugh when, every single day, whether the market rises or falls, the analysts offer an explanation. Never “I don’t know,” which (most of the time) would be the truth.