February 22, 2004

Answers to Dembski's "Ten Questions" - Question #1

William Dembski's Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher about Design is classic Dembski in full political flower. As such, it is full of his now familiar mix of self-promotion, distortion, silly strawmen (e.g. evolutionary biology = atheism), and bravado. These are questions meant to put biology teachers on the spot regarding supposed inconsistencies of evolutionary biology as well as exigencies of ID that demand attention.

I thought I'd give question #1 a go,

Student asks Question #1. - Design Detection

"If nature, or some aspect of it, is intelligently designed, how can we tell? For design to be a fruitful concept in the natural sciences, scientists have to be sure they can reliably determine whether something is designed. For instance, Johannes Kepler thought the craters on the moon were intelligently designed by moon dwellers. We now know that the craters were formed by blind material processes (like meteor impacts). This worry of falsely attributing something to design only to have it overturned later has hindered design from entering the scientific mainstream. Proponents of intelligent design argue that they now have formulated a precise criterion that reliably infers intelligence while also avoiding Kepler's mistake — the criterion of "specified complexity." An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent in the sense of being one of several
live possibilities; if it is complex in the sense of allowing many alternatives and therefore not being easily repeatable by chance; and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern. For instance, a repetitive sequence is specified without being complex. A random sequence is complex without being specified. A functional sequence, like DNA that codes for proteins, is both complex and specified, and therefore designed."

Instructor answers,

Well, young Skywalker, let's examine Dr. Dembski's question. But first we must discuss an important qualification. The word "design" by its nature tends to bias our thoughts regarding these issues. Dembski has, perhaps unnecessarily (except in regards to his ultimate purpose), qualified it with the word "intelligent." But it is crucial that we keep in mind that what he is talking about is distinguishing between intelligent causal agency with preconceived purposes and plans ("intelligent design"), and interaction between laws of physics, stochastic events, and vast periods of time (natural processes, i.e. "natural design"). For our purposes we could legitimately start a dichotomous key with this question; Is the design directed or undirected? For example, one could hardly consider the hydrologic cycle, or view the overwhelming sweep of the Grand Canyon without concluding that undirected natural processes can produce magnificent design...

...yes, yes I know that there are those who suggest this is the result of a certain deluge, but I had thought with your citation of Dr. Dembski that this was to be a slightly more scientifically grounded discussion. If I have to cover well-established scientific territory we’ll never get to the question at hand. Very well then, let's continue.

Accepting, then, that there can be directed and undirected design one would think that Dr. Dembski's "intelligent design" drops straightforwardly out of the directed design branch of our key. Ah, but not so fast my young apprentice. You see, Dr. Dembski's ID lumps together two distinct categories of intelligent design, natural and supernatural. One of these, natural intelligent design, admits those products we know of that derive from natural intelligence. These, of course, include human ideas and constructs, chimp termite twigs, some might even suggest bird bowers and beaver lodges. The level at which some of these inventions grade from instinct into intelligence can be disputed but that is a different subject for a different time. The point I am making here (which is only supported by the difficulty of finding the above discontinuity) is that these are the products of natural phenomena, empirically established and relatively well understood intelligences interacting with the natural universe. One would certainly also include the discovery of non-terrestrial intelligence in this category, should the SETI project eventually bear fruit.

These natural intelligences cannot be casually considered as functionally or empirically analogous with supernatural intelligence(s). For polemical and political reasons, Dembski neglects to establish this distinction. When he mentions intelligent design and includes in his broad category disciplines such as forensics and archeology and SETI he is betting that the self-evident empiricism and logic of these pursuits will cast an inclusive shade over his glaring insertion of supernatural design as part of the program. But we can see through this tactic, right? Ask yourself, how logical is it to lump these together? All of those phenomena we identify as natural intelligent design (nID) can be shown to exist, there are empirical evidences and logical chains of reason that establish those phenomena as demonstrable and understandable through scientific methodology. Can we say the same about supernatural intelligent design (sID). What do you thi...?

...yo, Skywalker, over here! You can ask her out later, let's concentrate for a moment. Can we say the sa...

No? No, of course not. And you are right to protest that this does not eliminate sID as a possible explanation. But it does eliminate sID as a scientific explanation. See the distinction here?

So then, in order to make an end run around this whole problem of the inapplicability of metaphysical ideas to natural science, Dembski tries to lump nID and sID together, counterposed against universal laws and random chance. As such, any time Dembski’s methods produce a conclusion of “intelligent design” we cannot know whether he has found natural or supernatural design, and of course we must then assume natural agency (aliens?). This is a compromise he has had to accept. Dembski knows that to achieve the ID movement's real, if unexpressed goal, identification of supernatural agency, his analyses must be configured to distinguish between nID and sID. But to do this gives up the game regarding the connection of ID theory to religion, and more desperately, forces him to devise methodology that can identify and explain the nexus of interaction between the supernatural and the natural world.

Consequently, Dr. Dembski is left with the only option that doesn’t exempt his hypothesis out of hand. He settles for attempting to distinguish between undirected design and directed design. He is then free to construct his own chain of logic that establishes a foothold for sID in natural phenomena. This is what Dembski calls "specified complexity," and this, my young friend is definitely the product of intelligent design (wink). Let's look at Dembski's description of it in the question you asked me,

--> "An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent in the sense of being one of several live possibilities; if it is complex in the sense of allowing many alternatives and therefore not being easily repeatable by chance; and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern."

You started out by asking how we can tell if nature is independently designed. Dembski's specified complexity is supposed to be able to answer that question without giving us false positives, am I correct? Well, I do not believe it accomplishes this task, but first let's examine the last phrase. What, exactly does Dembski mean by an "independently given" pattern? He means a pattern or interaction of functions or parts that could not have come about by natural processes. The pattern is given independently of natural laws and random processes. Thus, “specified complexity”(SC) is something that could only be possessed by intelligently designed phenomena. So to be clear, SC is not simply an attribute of an intelligently design thing, it is something without which (because of the assumptions in its definition) a thing cannot be intelligently designed.

But from where does this awkward and ambiguous concept, "independently given," derive its authority to distinguish between directedly and undirectedly designed phenomena? Why would a sycamore, and not a snowflake, qualify as being specifically complex? Both are complex, and both are specific in the sense that they would be different things given slight changes. What Dembski does is play on the inherent human slant toward those things that seem like us; complex, motile, growing, reproducing and dying things to bias the concept of specified complexity by demanding the pattern must be "independently given."

We end up, then, with a methodology that goes something like this - a thing is ID if it is specifically complex; a thing is specifically complex if it exhibits a pattern that is independently given; a thing exhibits an independently given pattern if it is not one of those things that exhibits patterns that look random to us (rocks etc.) Which is another way of saying that a thing is Intelligently Designed if its specifically complex independently given pattern looks intelligently designed.

Specified Complexity is circular and meaningless. It imports the very conclusion it is trying to prove, that life could not have arisen as a result of natural processes. The reality is that specified complexity, as defined by Dembski, can indeed identify broad "design," but cannot distinguish between undirected and directed design and is therefore useless for revealing intelligence. By Dembski's definition, we can conclude that DNA is designed as he so asserts. But we cannot then infer that the design is the result of intelligent agency, as he hopes the ambiguity of his use of "design" will lead us to do. Specified complexity does not establish this distinction. This failing could be rescued by including tests for methods and motives (the aforementioned “nexus of interaction between the supernatural and the natural world), thereby establishing something of the actual directedness of the design. But to do this would be to remove the cover that allows Dembski to keep sID out of the arena of hypothesis and experiment.

...Hey!!, Skywalker, everyone, wake up! I’m almost done here.

Now, you might licitly wonder if science really needs Dr. Dembski's help in the first place. Let's go back to poor Johannes Kepler. What an instructive example Dembski has given us. Did science need specified complexity in order to determine if Kepler was correct? Of course not, because Kepler proposed a natural intelligent designer that could be (and eventually was) confirmed or denied as an explanation by scientific methodology. The same methodology will eventually evaluate any SETI results. This can happen because these phenomena are empirically observable and we understand that the directed nature of intelligent design leads to testable hypotheses. But, had Kepler proposed sID as an explanation for moon craters and followed Dembski's logic that, because there was no current scientifically tenable explanation, this must be the work of sID (gOD), then you might nottoday know the name of Neal Armstrong and...

...what? Oh, come on now, don't tell me you don't know who,...never mind.

The point is there never was a "Kepler's mistake" in the sense Dembski implies. Kepler was doing science, proposing natural explanations for natural phenomena. Although Dembski ably identifies the natural phenomena, the proposal of natural explanation is something that he deftly avoids.

Dembski has offered no "precise criterion" that will allow intelligent design to enter the "scientific mainstream." Dembski's criterion is fallible and imprecise, as we’ve observed. More importantly, actual intelligent design is already within the scientific mainstream as a part of those disciplines that recognize the appropriate methodology for dealing with natural evidence.

You see, young Skywalker, this sIDistic attitude (sorry, I must have my little joke now and then) is nothing more than a kind of scientific looking shrink-wrap meant to give religion an empirical cover and obscure demonstrably dishonest motives. It's all about advertising and product placement. Dembski's hope is that with sID right there on the shelf next to science and looking, to the uneducated, similar to the real thing, gullible consumers will sidle by and throw it into the cart along with all the other faux products you guys buy. I mean, do you really think that Adam Sandler is funny, or Britanny Spears is an actress, or rap is music for God's sake!?

Anyway, that’s it for today. Keep your eyes wide open, your critical thinking caps on and question all authority, except mine.

Class dismissed.


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