October 28, 2005

Spuds and "specification"

Showing once again the superficiality of his considerations of design criteria, William Dembski, in this blog entry “Design Detection - It’s Everywhere!” has posted a link to an online anti-plagiarism service.

Of course it’s possible that this was a bit of tongue in cheek from Dembski but considering his recent record of loopy and desperate offerings I’m inclined to think he really believes this stands as support for his ideas.

And if so, it further demonstrates the convenient confusion among ID “theorists” as to the validity of identifying “specification” (or what Michael Behe calls the “purposeful arrangement of parts”). Most ID critics don’t deny that there exist qualities of artifacts and phenomena which an observer could characterize as a specification. Critics would suggest that the problem exists in the ID “theorist’s inference as to a specification’s etiology.

Dembski thinks it means something that people are using specification detection techniques. But we all do this consciously and subconsciously. And we have extended this process to external methodology, as with the plagiarism detection software. We are capable of such things in the case that the agency of the specification is already well established. We can understand faces on Mt. Rushmore as designed because we know humans sculpt. We recognize the specification for language because we know humans communicate. And we know humans copy communication and claim it as their own. There is nothing controversial about using the specification of a human activity to identify it as plagiarism.

As I’ve said before, design “theorist’s” claims, based upon the ubiquity of conventional design detection, that “intelligent design” detection is uncomplicated and obvious is nothing more than a request to be allowed to assume their conclusions. It is tantamount to asking for exemption from the empirical methodology that should be used for demonstrating the validity of their “theory.”

The analogy with ID implied by Dembski would be more accurate if the plagiarism detection service offered an ability to discover the agent of the plagiarism in question, without having any clues (such as a name on the paper or handwriting analyses) to that agent’s identity. The point here is that the debate on “specification” is all about whether “design” detection is methodologically capable of attaching specification to intelligent agency. Many critics, including myself, would suggest that what really happens in the identification of a specification is the application of the “theorists” own acculturated biases. A truly effective “design” detection method would eliminate the burden of these biases by investigating the source of the specification.

Here’s an example of what I mean. One recent morning, while perambulating my canine near a creek, I happened upon a watch on the hea…sorry, a rock in the sand. This particular rock caught my eye because at first glance it looked for all the world like a potato that someone had dropped on the ground. After picking it up I could feel the weight of stone, but the object was still easily mistaken for a smoothed spud.

Now, obviously this was a product of thousands of years of weathering and river rolling, but that’s not the point. And please let’s not confuse things with protestations about this resemblance being to an artificially selected organism. Neither is it germane to protest that spuds themselves are products of “intelligent design” (and certainly “theorists” such as Dembski and Behe would not argue this).

The point is that identification of the potato “specification” in this case can lead us either to bent fork tines or the recognition that natural forces can craft specifications that match patterns with which we are familiar. Given the opportunity, humans will impose those patterns inappropriately. This is what I did with the rock, and I believe this is what ID “theorists” do.

Some may protest that it’s one thing to show that natural forces can produce specifications only as complex as the appearance of a potato, and that’s vastly different from producing “machine-like” complexity. The first answer to this is that it misunderstands complexity. ID proponents use complexity as synonymous with “designed intricacy” (another way of saying specification). But the appearance of a potato can be staggeringly complex in the light of a topological analysis.

The second answer is simply to say – show us the methodology that can distinguish (based upon the "specification") between a potato pulled from the soil, a “potato” formed and painted by an artist, and my spud rock, then we’ll talk. In the case of all three candidates we can get as far as the potato specification. But with no knowledge of methods and motivations of designers, how, using ID “theory,” can we go any further?

For ID to be a valid empirical methodology, it must be able to probe beyond trivial questions of specification into realms of evidential demonstration of causal agency.

‘Til then, anyone else hungry for fries?


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