August 10, 2005

Fabrication is as good as argumentation to an ID "theorist" - Dembski on Pinker

In responding to a piece from Steven Pinker in Time magazine, William Dembski indulges in his usual miasma of bloated claims of authority, unfounded assertions, and petty prevarication over at UD. A few quick hits,
“Contrary to Pinker’s exaggerated claims, natural selection (even when supplemented with all the blind sources of variation you could like) has yet to prove itself a competent fashioner of biological complexity (cf. http://www.designinference.com/documents/2004.01.Irred_Compl_Revisited.pdf).
Call me picky, but as support for the goofy, contrary-to-all-evidence claim that natural selection cannot fashion biological complexity I’d like to see references to works other than those by the notably non-partisan Dembski. Not all of us share the high opinion he obviously has of himself.
“The evils of religion pale by comparison with the evils associated last century with materialistic ideologies underwritten by evolutionary theory (Marxism and National Socialism being cases in point).”
What? Does he think not saying the word “Nazi” is going to save him from looking like an over-the-top ideologue?
“Thus, Pinker himself has justified infanticide in the name of evolutionary theory (it was, according to him, at times “adaptive” for our hunter-gatherer mother ancestors to do so — go here for his evolutionary defense of infanticide)."
Please, do go check out that link. Apparently Dembski didn’t bother to do so. Or somehow he missed the part where Pinker says,
“Killing a baby is an immoral act, and we often express our outrage at the immoral by calling it a sickness. But normal human motives are not always moral, and neonaticide does not have to be a product of malfunctioning neural circuitry or a dysfunctional upbringing. We can try to understand what would lead a mother to kill her newborn, remembering that to understand is not necessarily to forgive.”
To say that Pinker “justifies” infanticide is nothing more than an unwashed lie.

But the most interesting (in a train wreck sort of way) part of Dembski’s gripe is his response to Pinker’s discussion of design quirks. Pinker writes,
“Our own bodies are riddled with quirks that no competent engineer would have planned but that disclose a history of trial-and-error tinkering: a retina installed backward, a seminal duct that hooks over the ureter like a garden hose snagged on a tree, goose bumps that uselessly try to warm us by fluffing up long-gone fur.”
Now I’m not a big fan of the “bad design” arguments we see more and more of these days, for several reasons. One is that it gives the appearance of presuming the logic of a design argument. But most importantly, I don't like these kinds of arguments because in order to get to a place where we can discuss qualities and characteristics of organismal design we need to skip over many, more foundational arguments that must be established by design advocates in order to support the very idea of an inference to intelligent design. In other words it gives them a pass on exactly those counter-arguments that are the strongest evidence against their “theory.”

But that being said, I also have to agree that “bad design” arguments are fair dialectical game. Why, because the ID people bring it into the discussion. When they offer inference to directed “design” as a valid hypothesis, they open up the floor to all that this entails. And despite the spirited efforts to insulate their “theory” from this avenue of inquiry (and more importantly from the connection with religion) by contending that there is no need to deal with the designer, they trip over their own feet every time they argue, as Dembski does here, that design “theory” can offer a reasonable answer.
“What about the intelligent design of goose bumps? I’m perfectly happy to consider them a quirk that results from evolution working in tandem with design. But let’s say we had to come up with a design explanation of them. Here goes: goose bumps kick in when we’re frightened or cold or otherwise experience strong emotions. But is it that we are consciously having such experiences or is it the goose bumps that assist in bringing to consciousness such experiences. Goose bumps are, after all, not under conscious control — they are governed by the sympathetic nervous system. Perhaps goose bumps are designed as a way of bringing to consciousness various stresses that need attention.”
Perhaps they are. But the only way to establish the facts of the matter is to gather data and perform experiments, to develop the solid basis of theory and understanding employed by evolutionary biologists. Conjuring a “design theoretic” explanation is empirically vacuous without the two hundred years of foundational theory and data that biologicals can rely upon. It has no more persuasive force than blaming goose bumps on the Tooth Fairy.

But the most ridiculous argument Dembski makes in this piece is the one that directly precedes the above paragraph.
“The final quirk that Pinker considers is goose bumps. Do goose bumps confirm conventional evolutionary theory? If we didn’t have goose bumps, Pinker would explain them as the result of natural selection selecting them away because they were no longer necessary. Since we have them, they are the result of phylogenetic inertia not getting rid of them. Given that his theory of evolution could equally explain both possibilities, goose bumps provide no evidence for evolution one way or the other.”
So, if evolutionary theory can explain the maintenance of goose bumps and the possible loss of goose bumps, goose bumps become irrelevant as evidence for evolution? How did that happen?

Let’s look at it this way – if quantum mechanics can explain both the “up” spin of an electron, and the “down” spin of electrons, do electrons then become irrelevant as evidence for quantum theory?

How about – if astrophysicists can account for both the presence and absence of a moon around a particular planet then moons are irrelevant as part of planet formation theories?

If geologists can explain the formation, and eventual disappearance of islands, or mountains, or oceanic trenches, then these become moot as evidence for geology?

I’d say I was flabbergasted, but it seems like such a puny understatement.

In a way though, this kind of argument makes a certain amount of epistemological sense coming from the unremittingly credulous. (There is no excuse for someone like Dembski using this vacant rhetoric, but those less familiar with science can perhaps be understood, if not ignored).

It follows, for one used to looking at the world in terms of absolutes, that others must do the same, that this is a perfectly natural way of approaching reality. It follows as well, if only subjectively, that biological explanations should act as empirical absolutes, disallowing an event’s opposite (e.g. goose bumps, no goose bumps). Many theists have difficulty understanding how evolution can accommodate opposing observations and still be considered rigorous. But I'd suggest it's because many of those who rely on a religious epistemology don’t really understand the fundamental differences in the development of scientific explanations.

Religion is a sort of “top-to-bottom” epistemology. It begins with functional absolutes, rules, stories etc. and efforts to harmonize (to one degree or another) these messages with human society and the natural world drop out of this top of the hierarchy into subsets of understanding and direction. In other words, the lower levels of detail are derived from the big ideas. For some, this kind of epistemology relies upon adherence to rock-solid, broad-based fundamentals that cannot change to accommodate any sort of contradictory information.

Science, by contrast, proceeds as a “bottom-to-top” enterprise, during which small observations are gathered and understood in terms of small explanations (e.g. “hey, those two items are similar, maybe they’re related”). As more and more observations are made, and growing levels of understanding accumulate to encompass the details a bottom up hierarchy is built. Here, the big ideas are derived from, and depend upon, the established veracity of the lower levels of detail. As such, changes in the overarching explanations can happen as a result of new observations. A discovery can have implications up into and throughout sections of the hierarchy of knowledge that might cause an explanation to be reworked, or even discarded. This kind of flexibility would be anathema to religious doctrine, and many theists, but it is a part of the scientific process. It can be tough for scientists however, careers balance and sometimes fall on these kinds of shifts in the consensus.

Perhaps this grinding incongruity of methodology is what leads many anti-evolutionists to conclude, whenever biologists appear to reverse their position on some aspect of evolutionary theory, that the entire discipline is little more than a collection of convenient just-so stories and atheistic rhetoric. The optimist may see in this observation an opportunity for progress.

However, we might be forgiven for expecting better from a prominent design "theorist." Dembski should understand the utter senselessness of asserting that because evolution can explain an event and its opposite it then says nothing at all of relevance. Dembski should understand that science doesn't deal in absolutes.

There is only one reason for this kind of nonsense to come off of his keyboard - he doesn’t care about the accuracy of the argument anymore, assuming he ever did.

1 Comments:

Anonymous John A. Davison said...

Of course Dembski is an ideologue. That is why he has banned me from his "Uncommon Descent." The name of the forum is itself revealing. I have no truck with ideologues of any stripe. The Fundamentalists, of which I think he is a closet member, believe in a personal, all powerful, intervening God. The Darwinians who believe in the Great God Chance, granting to Nature all evolutionary authority, are simply ideologues of another variety. I have rejected both camps in favor of the Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis. Both camps are hampered by their preconceived notions none of which are in accord with reality.

There is absolutely no evidence for a God at present or in the past until we reach the origins of life itself. You will note that I have used the plural and for good reasons. It is my conviction that a monophyletic origin for all of life is out of the question. Everything we know about both the animal and plant biota indicates profound discontinuities (saltations) for which intermediate states are inconceivable. I am not alone in this conclusion. Leo Berg presented one of the most shocking (to the Darwinians) statements in all of the evolutionary literature when he claimed that there were:

"tens of thousands of primary forms."
Nomogenesis, page 406

I think that this comment is one of the major reasons that he has been ignored by the evolutionary establishment. I have enormous repect for Berg and regard his Nomogenesis as the single most important book in all of the evolutionary literature. He saw and expressed in no uncertain terms that there was no role for chance in either ontogeny or phylogeny, a conclusion with which I am in perfect accord.

"Neither in the one nor in the other is there room for chance."
Nomogenesis, page 134.

After carefully considering both the indirect and direct evidence I have abandoned both the Darwinain and Lamarckian, as well as all sectarian Creationist perspectives in favor of what I feel is the only rational and remaining hypothesis to explain organic evolution - A Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis. Rivista di Biologia 98: 155-166, 2005.

Furthermore I, like all my sources, have not found it necessary to invoke a personal God.

Just as the development of the individual proceeds from a single cell which contains all the necessary information and machinery to achieve that end, so, I have postulated, did all of organic evolution result from similar front-loaded origins which in my opinion must have been several in number. I am in the process of writing a manuscript dealing with how many such independent life origins have probably been involved.

There is no question that at the sub-order or family level we can account for common ancestry and the release of the necessary information from a common pool of information with no necessity to postulate any environmental intervention through the restructuring of existent chromosomal information (position effects). Indeed Schindewolf clearly stated that he saw no evidence for enviromental effects anywhere in the fossil record beyond its possible role as a releaser for internal potential, a perspective with which I agree entirely. When it comes to higher taxonomic levels it seems increasingly difficult to imagine transitional forms and such forms seem not to exist in the fossil record.

Everything I have proposed in the Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis follows directly from the revelations and conclusions of such distinguished investigators as Pierre Grasse, Leo Berg, Robert Broom, William Bateson, Reginald C. Punnett and Otto Schindewolf, not a Darwinian in the lot.

The fact that these scientists have been ignored by the evolutionary establishment is the proof that Darwinism is entirely ideological in nature, denying any role for any endogenous sources all the while that:

"the existence of internal factors affecting evolution has to be accepted by any objective mind..."
Pierre Grasse, Evolution of Living Organisms, page 209.

It is obvious that Darwinism is now in its death throes and I am delighted to be able to play a role in that long overdue inevitablity by resurrecting some of the greatest minds of the past on whose work my own so heavily depends. The Fundamentalists and the Darwinians are both dead wrong. The truth lies elsewhere and I think I know where that is.

6:52 PM  

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