August 5, 2005

Why Dembski gets it wrong about Bush (and many other things)

In commenting on the controversy generated by our commander-in-chief’s unwise public assent for “intelligent design” theory, William Dembski further diminishes the space that once separated him from the ID carnival barkers that generate much of today’s design rhetoric.
"President Bush is to be commended for his courage, wisdom, and foresight in publicly supporting the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution.

Courage—because intelligent design is for now a minority position in science that faces fierce criticism from many in the scientific mainstream (criticism that he himself will now have to face)."
And boldly face it he will, secure in the knowledge that most polls of public opinion regarding biological origins put belief in creationism at somewhere between 45% and 55%. The courage Bush has shown is the immense intestinal fortitude it takes to score cheap political points off of the ignorance of the electorate.
"Wisdom—because he understands that ideas are best taught not by giving them a monopoly (which is how evolutionary theory is currently presented in all high school biology textbooks) but by being played off against well-supported competing ideas."
Except that real wisdom lies in understanding epistemological nuances such as the requirement that competing scientific ideas must pass the same tests as did their predecessors, lest we end up with classes in which astrology and alchemy, both of which are more well-supported than “intelligent design,” are presented. Real wisdom looks past petty, personal prejudices, especially those that take umbrage at the fact others believe differently from us, and considers the greater scientific, and indeed political, good.
"Foresight—because he sees that intelligent design holds a winning hand in the scientific debate over biological origins."
Which opinion is surely based upon his oft demonstrated scientific acumen, rather than his religious predilections. And the fact that ID holds a “winning hand in the scientific debate” forces one to wonder why it “faces fierce criticism” from real scientists.
"Intelligent design is a winner in the public debate over biological origins not only because it has the backing of powerful ideas, arguments, and evidence but also because it does not turn this debate into a Bible-science controversy. Intelligent design, unlike creationism, is a science in its own right and can stand on its own feet."
In view of the reaction of the vast majority of scientists, this can only be called a bald-faced lie.
"Christians need to view this as a strength rather than as a weakness of intelligent design. There is a long tradition in Christian theology that sees God’s revelation as coming through “two books”: the Book of Nature, which is God’s general revelation to all people; and the Book of Scripture, which is God’s special revelation to the redeemed.

Accordingly, intelligent design should be understood as the evidence that God has placed in nature to show that the physical world is the product of intelligence and not simply the result of mindless material forces. This evidence is available to all apart from the special revelation of God in salvation history as recounted in Scripture.

Creationism, by contrast, takes a particular interpretation of Genesis (namely, it interprets the days of creation as six consecutive twenty-four-hour days occurring roughly 6,000 years ago) and then tries to harmonize science with this interpretation. Now, it’s true that creationism was largely the position of the Church from the Church Fathers through the Reformers (though there were exceptions, such as Origen and Augustine). Yet, during that time, church teaching also held that the earth was stationary. Psalm 93 states that the earth is established forever and cannot be moved. A literal interpretation of Psalm 93 seems to require geocentrism. And yet every creationist I know accepts the Copernican Revolution. Although acceptance of intelligent design has now gone international and includes scholars of many different religious faiths and philosophical worldviews, among Christian proponents of intelligent design, the majority hold to a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1. I’m one of them.

In our view, the evidence of cosmology and geology strongly confirms a universe that is not thousands but rather billions of years old. Granted, this raises problems of theodicy: how, for instance, does one explain death, disease, and suffering among animals prior to the emergence of humans, whose sin, according to Romans 5, appears responsible for these evils. Yet, in our view, such problems are answerable whereas the scientific evidence for an old Earth and old universe seems unanswerable.

Precisely because intelligent design does not turn the study of biological origins into a Bible-science controversy, intelligent design is a position around which Christians of all stripes can unite. And, indeed, there are creationists who also call themselves design theorists (e.g., Paul Nelson). To be sure, creationists who support intelligent design think it does not go far enough in elucidating the Christian understanding of creation. And they are right! Intelligent design is a modest position theologically and philosophically. It attributes the complexity and diversity of life to intelligence, but does not identify that intelligence with the God of any religious faith or philosophical system. The task for the Christian who accepts intelligent design is therefore to formulate a theology of nature and creation that makes sense of intelligent design in light of one’s Christian faith."
While I have no problem granting that in the context of a theological discussion the foregoing might have some relevance, it is clear that as it pertains to the debate over evolution the previous five paragraphs can be understood as Dembski-speak for - "Look, we both want the same things. We’re all creationists after all, even if I don’t take Genesis literally. But you’ve got to understand that I can’t say this up front. It would destroy the façade we’ve tried to create in order to circumvent the law and force our religion upon others. If you’ll just shut up and leave this to me, we’ll end up with Christianity in the schools, and me superceding Darwin as the reigning paradigm champion. If we work together, we all win."

Dembski continues,
"Even so, there is an immediate payoff to intelligent design: it destroys the atheistic legacy of Darwinian evolution. Intelligent design makes it impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
And wouldn’t any discipline that does so be irrevocably theistic?
"This gives intelligent design incredible traction as a tool for apologetics, opening up the God-question to individuals who think that science has buried God. The evidence for design in biology is now overwhelming. In the last thirty years, advances in molecular biology and the information sciences have revealed that the most basic form of life, the cell, is an automated city complete with miniature motors and engines, digital data storage, signal transduction circuitry, monorails that move packages from one location to another, and information processing at a level that human technology has not begun to approximate. Even the simplest cell is a nano-engineered marvel. Indeed, biologists now need to be engineers to understand life at the subcellular level."
Even if this were an accurate description of cellular operations, which it is not, it would offer no support for ID at all. It would simply suggest that we lack a more convenient set of terminology for description of microbiological processes than that which we can co-opt from engineering and information sciences. But despite the overuse of this terminology, almost always by propagandizing ID advocates, the fact is that there is a fundamental difference; engineering begins with intelligence, continues with design, proceeds through manufacturing, and ends up with a product of directed agency. There is no evidence whatsoever that there are analogous processes going on in biological evolution.

Importation of engineering terminology does not allow imputation of engineering methodology. Assuming one’s conclusion is marketing, not science.
"Contrast this with Darwin and his contemporaries, who saw the cell as extremely simple—basically, they saw the cell as a blob of Jell-O enclosed by a membrane. No wonder Darwin never addressed the origin of life in his published writings. For him, the origin of life was not a problem.
Rather, how life diversified once it got here was for him the problem. That’s why he wrote On the Origin of Species rather than On the Origin of Life. The theory of intelligent design confronts biology with an immediacy of design that many scientists, committed as many of them are to a materialist worldview, are reluctant to accept. But for true scientists, this reluctance must be justified by evidence and not by an allergic reaction to design that is the result of cultural conditioning."
True scientists might well be described as having an allergic response to attacks on naturalist methodology by contrived “theory” meant to impose supernatural inference on legitimate investigation. Perhaps if Dr. Dembski tried injecting his “theories” with a bit more research and a bit less political posturing true biologists might be able to get close enough to examine them without having a reaction.
"Twenty years ago, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins asserted that “the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design.” A lot has happened since then, with the evidence of biology now revealing a universe chock-full of design."
What utter tripe. Dembski used to aspire to serious discourse, rather than these kinds of baseless, facile assertions.
"President Bush is therefore completely on target in wanting intelligent design taught in the public school science curriculum."
Thus we see one more rent in the fabric of the big tent of creationism. Yet another schism (this one with the DI) within a writhing, formless mass of entwined religious and political agendas touted to be science.

But there can be no science where methods, concepts and imperatives are drawn top-down from overarching moral absolutes, rather than bottom-up from measurements and observations. There can only be chaos. And this is just one more reason why the ID movement can never offer an authentic challenge to the legitimate science of evolutionary biology.


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