Monday, February 18, 2008

Answering tough questions about Intelligent Design

William A. Dembski has a Ph.D. in mathematics and a Ph.D. in philosophy, and earned degrees in statistics, theology and psychology. He is a professor at Baylor University. He is also a leading thinker for the Intelligent Design movement.
Dembski shows that one can be an intellectual and can doubt Darwinism.
For many months, I have been reading his book, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design. Although the book has short chapters, each chapter answering an objection to Intelligent Design, it has been slow going for me, as he delves into technical issues and frankly, I am not a scientist. So I would read a chapter, make notes, put the book down, and come back to it a week later. However, I appreciate science and its implications to theology, so I kept at it until I finished the book.
Dembski will quickly tell you that Intelligent Design does not require that there be a God. However, because it attacks Darwinism at its core, it is often dismissed as religion, rather than science. Dembski boldly and deftly takes on his critics, and anybody who actually reads the book cannot easily dismiss him.
The key concept in the book is what Dembski calls "specified complexity." He explains it this way on page 35: "An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent and therefore not necessary; if it is complex and therefore not readily repeatable by chance; and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern." Dembski then explains that design theorists have identified many systems of specified complexity in biology, including individual enzymes, metabolic pathways, and molecular machines like the bacterium flagellum. This concept is devastating to Darwinism, because blind natural forces cannot by themselves produce the specified complexity that we see in biology, but an intelligent designer could.
Dembski scorns Darwinian scientists who refuse to consider intelligent design simply because it violates their pre-conceived notions of naturalism: "A science that on a priori grounds refuses to consider the possibility of unembodied designers artificially limits what it can discover" (p. 195).
He also scorns Darwinists for making the rules to play by and then calling "foul" against Intelligent Design theorists for not following their rules. In particular, Darwinists will say that design theorists have not published their work in peer-reviewed literature. Dembski cites examples of design theorists have have indeed had their works published in peer-reviewed literature, such as Fritz Schaefer, the inventor of computational quantum chemistry (p. 300). However, he points out that as soon as the "establishment" finds out that a scientist is sympathetic to intelligent design, he finds it hard to get his work published, no matter how worthwhile his work may be. Says Dembski: "The old guard never opens its arms to a scientific revolution; they have too much invested in the old paradigm... Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, Galileo's On Two World Systems and Newton's Principia are cases in point. None of these works were peer-reviewed. Nor was that book by a retiring English biologist from the nineteenth century--an unconventional work entitled On the Origin of Species." (p. 305)


scripto said...

Hi Bob,

In the first place modern evolutionary theory is no more Darwinism than modern physics is Newtonism. It is an innaccurate perjorative along the lines of Marxism or Fascism. It is meaningless.

Science as it is practiced operates through the principles of methodological naturalism. Contrary to what Dembski maintains this is not an invention of "Darwinists" but the way all of science is done because it has worked. The supernatural, by definition, is outside the realm of science. That is a matter for another discipline.

Dembski's design filter is dependent on filtering out chance and natural processes. Changes in background knowlege regarding natural processes are continually subject to change. This leaves design as a shifting goal without any positive definition of its own. What is design today according to the filter may well turn out to be necessity tomorrow.

It's the hallmark of crank science to cry persecution. Dembski should be refining his ideas in the statistical and information theory journals and Behe should be performing his own tests of irreducible complexity instead of cranking out popular books, press releases and movies. It's not like they have a drawer full of rejection slips from the appropriate journals. They don't even try. It is a fundamentally dishonest enterprise.

One thing I've never been able to figure out is whether there actually is an Intelligent Design "Theory". It seems to encompass everything from front loaded deism, to design and manufacture of limited life forms, to continual tweaking of genomes to mimic evolution. Without some testible ideas about design process, a timeline or even defined design events the whole idea remains incoherent. There certainly isn't enough empirical evidence to contrast it with evolutionary theory.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Great post, by the way. Very well written.

Brother Bob said...

Thank you for your comments. After reading Demski's book, I don't agree that his design filter can be so easily dismissed, simply because our background knowledge may change. If one takes this line of reasoning, it leads to the conclusion that nobody can really know anything, since anything we know may be based upon faulty background knowledge. This is a cop-out to dealing with the evidence.
Archaeologists assert design from their discoveries, as do forensic experts in law enforcement. They use principles that indicate unlikelihood of chance and point to intelligent action. Why can other disciplines assert evidence of intelligent action, but naturalists are unwilling to do so?
What sticks with me in the whole debate is that ID scientists are willing to follow all the evidence wherever it may lead, while naturalists close their minds to any possibility that violates their preconceived idea that all things happen by blind chance.

scripto said...

Well, I still have a problem with defining something as the absence of something else, particularly when that something else (evolutionary theory) is a work in progress. Archaeology and forensics make assumptions based on prior knowlege of the likely agents. Nobody looks for extra-natural explanations in those disciplines. Unless ID comes up with some kind of coherent mechanism it can't be fairly compared with evolutionary theory.