The defense rests on revisionist history - Dembski's "In Defense of Intelligent Design"
William Dembski has written a contribution for an upcoming book, “The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science,” called “In Defense of Intelligent Design.”
Much of this defense consists of the familiar, tired canards that Dembski and others continue to employ without regard for how they've help up under criticism. These include the SETI analogy, the Mt. Rushmore example and Anthony Flew as well as many others. He essentially hits all the talking points.
But there is a section called “Methodological Materialism” that I thought it would be useful to review, not because it is any less tired than the rest of this “defense” but because it’s where, in my opinion, the thinking of ID proponents goes so disastrously off the tracks.
Dembski begins this section by saying,
“Notwithstanding, critics of intelligent design argue that it is not a scientific theory. They do so, however, not by confronting the evidence and logic by which design theorists argue for their conclusions.”Of course this is simply untrue, and Dembski is well aware of it. His arguments have been confronted in a multiplicity of venues, and most often they have been found to be wanting. His arguments have convinced few but those predisposed by their theism to embrace closet creationism. What little “evidence” and logic Dembski has offered up for evaluation has been met with reams of discussion, so much so that he has accused others of creating careers out of contesting his arguments.
“Rather, they do so by definitional fiat. Essentially, they engage in conceptual gerrymandering, carefully defining science so that conventional evolutionary theory falls within science and intelligent design falls without. The device by which they keep intelligent design at bay is a normative principle for science known as methodological naturalism or methodological materialism. ID’s rejection of this principle is said to show that ID is committed to a form of supernaturalism. This, in turn, is supposed to make ID a form of religious belief. Barbara Forrest (2004) and Eugenie Scott (2005) make methodological materialism the centerpiece of their critique against ID.”Here we see the kind of paranoid petulance that too often lends an air of ugliness to these issues. Not content with relying upon the expertise of those who are professionals in the relevant field, Dembski attempts to inoculate ID against failure by making it clear that any who demur are unscrupulous and conspiratorial. His brooding-child-in-the-corner act instantly changes what could be a debate about “evidence and logic” into a rancorous polemic on power and morality.
Despite Dembski’s protestations about evidence and logic his tactics, as usual, make it clear that this is really not about science.
“The impression they give is that whereas conventional evolutionary theory is engaged in the hard work of real science, intelligent design appeals to the supernatural and thus gives up on science, substituting magic for “natural explanations.” But what are “natural explanations”? Indeed, what constitutes nature remains very much an open question. If one reviews the ID literature, one finds that early on there were quite a few references to “the supernatural,” but that by 2000 (especially with Nature of Nature conference, organized by Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center—see Dembski and Gordon 2000), references to the supernatural largely disappear. The reason for this is that the very term “supernatural” concedes precisely the point at issue, namely, what is nature like and what are the causal powers by which nature operates.”Cynics might rejoin that there is another, more obvious, and certainly more politically savvy reason for this change, that being the intent to avoid direct reference to ID’s fundamental reliance upon religious concepts.
Dembski says - “...what constitutes nature remains very much an open question.” An important, and ostensibly unobjectionable question. But let’s understand this question within the context of history. Seekers of explanations have spent over two millennia wrestling with questions of epistemological inference. From before the time epilepsy was considered “the sacred disease” to the present day explanations with no observable or measurable content, explanations that offered no predictions, and included no testable agency, have been offered and found inevitably to be inadequate. The process has been slow, with great progress coming in the last couple hundred years (with no small thanks to Darwin), but the argument is today considered, for scientific purposes at least, settled. Science cannot accommodate explanation by way of untestable phenomena. Anything beyond the bounds of nature is, not simply by definition but by acceptance of reality, not testable.
Unhappy with the way the last several hundred years played out Dembski and other ID “theorists,” by way of questioning the methodological concepts that underlie contemporary science, are implying we need to have this discussion all over again, despite (or perhaps because of) the foolish waste of time and energy it would represent.
But most rational individuals realize that debate is old news. When scientists make statements along the lines of this quote Dembski offers from Eugenie Scott...
“Most scientists today require that science be carried out according to the rule of methodological materialism: to explain the natural world scientifically, scientists must restrict themselves only to material causes (to matter, energy, and their interaction). There is a practical reason for this restriction: it works. By continuing to seek natural explanations for how the world works, we have been able to find them. If supernatural explanations are allowed, they will discourage—or at least delay—the discovery of natural explanations, and we will understand less about the universe.”...these statements can be functionally regarded as a footnote referencing the hundreds of years spent debating the compatibility of science and the supernatural. This is not hand-waving, or blithe dismissal of reasoned confrontation, this is simply a shorthand way of saying “who the hell needs to relive the Enlightenment?” Dembski’s complaint about gerrymandering should be seen for what it is, a bit of rhetorical whimpering designed to encourage sympathy for a position that has already been soundly rejected.
Certainly, though, the ID advocates make noises about how they are not simply presenting the same old tired argument from supernatural design. Dembski suggests that what may be needed is a new definition of “natural.”
“If nature contains a richer set of causes than purely material causes, then intelligent design is a live possibility and methodological materialism will misread physical reality.”But this is a sham. And we know it is a sham because if Dembski could demonstrate how we might detect, quantify, and test “non-material” causes he would have done so. Not only this, but he'd have written papers that would have been published, reviewed, won awards, and garnered the paradigm-shattering accolades he seems so fervently to desire. A few sentences later he says,
“Indeed, design theorists argue that intelligent causation is perfectly natural provided that nature is understood aright.”And isn’t this really the point? Here Dembski provides us with a rubric for understanding his position - ‘Let’s toss out the progress science has made in the last couple of hundred years and go back to a time when nature could include whatever our fantasies demand. Everything, including science and our culture, will work fine if we are just willing to change definitions to suit the ID agenda.’
This business about nature containing a “richer set of causes” is obvious special pleading. And what’s worse it is special pleading for (despite Dembski’s use of euphemisms such as “mind,” or “designing intelligence,” or even “telic processes that are not reducible to chance and necessity”) an idea that has long since been conclusively shown to be empirically irrelevant.
Dembski goes on to find other difficulties with the perspective of methodological materialism. In a stunning display of non sequitur he opines that,
“if,… scientists employ [methodological materialism] because “it works,” then scientists are free to discard it when they deem it as no longer working. Design theorists contend that for adequately explaining biological complexity, methodological materialism fails and rightly needs to be discarded.”In response let me just say that when a child protests “but I ate all of my dinner!” as a way of avoiding his usual (not punitive) bedtime, it shows that the child either misunderstands or is willfully twisting the concept of bedtime. Children, however, have the excuse of not having grown up.
The second difficulty Dembski notes is that definitions of science (“the search for natural explanation”) appear to assume their conclusions, which is again just another way of saying he doesn’t get what has happened over the past two thousand years.
After this he returns to the idea of redefining "nature,"
“Because so much of the debate over intelligent design’s scientific status hinges on the role of methodological materialism in restricting the nature of nature, let us examine the nature of nature more closely. Nature, as conceived by Scott and most critics of intelligent design, consists of material entities ruled by fixed laws of interaction, often referred to as “natural laws.” These laws can be deterministic or nondeterministic, which is why some scientists refer to nature as being governed by “chance and necessity” (like Jacques Monod 1972). Obviously, these laws of interaction rule out any form of intelligent agency acting real-time within nature.”I just want to take a moment to point out here (as I've needed to do so often previously) the standard ID tactic of deliberately conflating supernatural intelligent design with natural intelligent design, as with the above “rule out any form of intelligent agency…,” so as to achieve two goals,
1) allow ID to appear to be a reasonable, even mundane, inference, and,
2) cast scientists who oppose ID as foolishly opposing obviously real, demonstrable phenomena.
This is one of the tactics used by ID “theorists” that I find exceedingly disingenuous.
But I digress. Dembski continues,
“They operate autonomously and automatically: given certain material entities with certain energetic properties in certain spatio-temporal relationships, these entities will behave in certain prescribed ways. An inescapable question now arises: How do we know that nature is in fact a set of material entities ruled by fixed laws of interaction? Equivalently, how do we know that everything that happens in nature can be accounted for in terms of antecedent material conditions and the material causes that act on them?”I’d say that Dembski’s questions here evoke an even more inescapable question – what alternatives does he propose? After all, it’s not as if the definition of natural – 'everything we can directly or indirectly observe' – is particularly restrictive, unless of course one has a need to bolster one's insecure theology.
In any case Dembski’s self-serving questions are those of philosophy, not science, and edge rather close to a kind of nihilism that doesn’t offer any more evidential support for ID than it does evolution.
But he presses on, quoting himself (from NFL),
“In arguing that naturalistic [materialistic] explanations are incomplete or, equivalently, that natural [material] causes cannot account for all the features of the natural world, I am placing natural causes in contradistinction to intelligent causes.”(Well, that will certainly come as a shock to archeology, forensics, etc. And notice once again the disingenuous conflation I spoke of above.)
“The scientific community has itself drawn this distinction in its use of these twin categories of causation. Thus, in the quote earlier by Francisco Ayala, “Darwin’s greatest accomplishment [was] to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.” Natural causes, as the scientific community understands them, are causes that operate according to deterministic and nondeterministic laws and that can be characterized in terms of chance, necessity, or their combination (cf. Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity).”(Nice to see that he now acknowledges the possibility of combination, pointed out to him by many who were examining his “evidence and logic.”)
“To be sure, if one is more liberal about what one means by natural causes and includes among natural causes telic processes that are not reducible to chance and necessity (as the ancient Stoics did by endowing nature with immanent teleology), then my claim that natural causes are incomplete dissolves.”(In other words – ‘if you guys would just accept my redefinitions then I wouldn’t have any complaint.’)
But now we come to the nut. Dembski pulls out his chessboard analogy, suggesting that it demonstrates how ID has defused the explanatory power of biological science,
“Accordingly, to define science (in line with methodological materialism) as the search for natural explanations of natural phenomena is to affirm that such explanations exist for all natural phenomena. But how is this affirmation to be justified? Rather than justify it, methodological materialism begs the question. To see this, consider the following analogy from the game of chess.He goes on to grant that the analogy isn’t really a good one – “chess constitutes a toy example whereas the biological examples ID theorists investigate are far more complicated,” but continues from there to say – “But the point of the analogy still holds” – and proceeds to take inferences as if no one has noticed that the analogy, as he’s admitted, is inapt.
[He displays two chess board configurations.]
There is no way to get from the first position to the second by the rules of chess.
So too, intelligent design purports to show that there exist configurations of material entities in biology (e.g., bacterial flagella, protein synthesis mechanisms, and complex organ systems) that cannot be adequately explained in terms of antecedent material conditions together with the law governed processes (i.e., mechanistic evolutionary processes) that act on them.”
Yes, by the rules of the game of chess we cannot get from one configuration to the other. But this very important caveat “by the rules of the game” is exactly the one which needs to be applicable to biology for his analogy to hold. It isn’t and it doesn’t. We don’t know all the rules of the biological game, a fact which many of us consider something to be thankful for, and something to be protected from the overreaching “truths” assumed by ID.
Dembski's analogy more accurately reflects that moment in science when a scientist looks at some data and mutters, "hmmm...that's not supposed to happen." By comparing the unattainble chess configuration with biology, he highlights the provisional nature of scientific explanation. The fact is that at any moment we might make an observation that has the potential to rewrite the rules as we know them. In addition, by relying upon this breach in current understanding modeled by his chess analogy, he puts a fine point on the criticism that ID theory amounts to slapping a "designer" label on a gap in scientific knowledge.
He follows with more special pleading for redefining "nature" and then recounts his dog riddle,
“How many legs does a dog have if one calls a tail a leg? The correct answer is four. Calling one thing another thing doesn’t make it something else.”As happens with so many aspects of this debate, opponents of evolution often do quite well with a concept right up until the moment it becomes applicable to their own position, at which point the mirror is ignored, and the irony is inevitably missed.
After a bit more special pleading...
“To make methodological materialism a defining feature of science commits the premodern sin of forcing nature into a priori categories rather than allowing nature to speak for itself.”...Dembski sums up by again arguing for new definitions, this time with a wrinkle. He suggests that the distinction is not necessarily a dichotomy. We do not need to choose between natural or supernatural (magical) explanations, he suggests, we can consider a third possibility, that of “mind.”
“ID theorists are not willing to concede the materialist claim that a designing intelligence (mind) interacting with matter is “supernatural.” Indeed, investigations by ID theorists are beginning to demonstrate that this interaction is perfectly natural — that nature cannot be properly understood apart from the activity of a designing intelligence (cf. Schwartz and Begley 2002).”I think we’d all like to see the fruits of those investigations. Perhaps Dembski can refer us to the appropriate biological journals. Maybe it will be there that the skeptical among us will discover the functional difference between Dembski’s “mind” and magic. Maybe there the experimental design which tests this concept will be outlined so that the data can be replicated. Maybe he, or one of his colleagues will finally demonstrate to us how we can adduce “mind” as a causal agency of a naturally occurring phenomenon by revealing the empirically connected series of steps that link the two (rather than relying on gaps in data, or unsupportable assertions about "impossible" configurations).
Or maybe he’s just hoping that if people spend enough time boggling over what the difference between supernatural/magic and supernatural/“mind” (God) might be, they won’t notice that ID has nothing more in the way of evidence or logic going for it than does the notion of divine invention of epilepsy.
But science figured epilepsy out a long time ago. And acting as if the intervening millenia haven't included a significant debate on, and rejection of, supernatural explanations for natural phenomena isn't going to wash. Much as he might wish to, Dembski cannot rewrite history. Science and theism are different animals, and as we all know, "calling one thing another thing doesn’t make it something else."
It is thus with regard to the disease called Sacred: it appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from the originates like other affections. Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder, because it is not at all like to other diseases. And this notion of its divinity is kept up by their inability to comprehend it, and the simplicity of the mode by which it is cured, for men are freed from it by purifications and incantations. - Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease