Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Dembski in World In Monday's entry we mentioned this collection of articles from the current issue of World magazine. There, I considered Phillip Johnson's essay. Now we move on to William Dembski's musings on the subject.

Given the complete lunacy of Dembski's recent writings, it is easy to forget that not too long ago he was the most serious of the ID proponents. He was the one who managed to get a technical monograph (in philosophy) published by Cambridge University Press. He was the one who claimed to have developed a rigorous mathematical framework for detecting ID. It was Dembski who claimed that obscure mathematical theorems were the final death knell for Darwin's theory. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but he even suckered me in to thinking he was a serious fellow. In a review of his book Intelligent Design that I wrote in 2001 for Skeptic magazine (available here), I wrote:

Despite this, I do give Dembski credit for two things. He does not simply sling mud at evolution in the hopes of establishing creationism by default. Rather, he makes an affirmative case for what he actually believes. His work is also relatively free of the righteous invective so typical of creationist literature. For these reasons I believe his books are worth reading and considering.

In my defense, this came after a lengthy essay in which I strongly criticized every one of his major ideas. I suppose it represents some sort of milestone that I have now been writing about this subject long enough to be embarrassed by things I wrote several years ago.

Well, the serious Dembski is dead and gone. He has been replaced by the hysterical, cartoon Dembski, who simply repeats the standard anti-evolution tropes of his more articulate forbears. His pathetic, recent attempt at propping up the idea of irreducible complexity, and his recent Q&A book The Design Revolution are exhibits A and B in that argument. Exhibit C is his essay in World. We consider it in full:

AT THE TIME OF THE SCOPES TRIAL, and for the remainder of the 20th century, science was wedded to a materialistic conception of nature. The architects of modern science, from Rene Descartes to Isaac Newton, had proposed a world of unthinking material objects ruled by natural laws. Because these scientists were theists, the rule of natural law was for them not inviolable-God could, and from time to time did, invade the natural order, rearrange material objects, and even produce miracles of religious significance. But such divine acts were gratuitous insertions into a material world that was capable of carrying on quite nicely by itself.

In the end, the world bequeathed to us by modern science became a world of unthinking material objects ruled by unbroken natural laws. With such a world, God did not, and indeed could not, interact coherently, much less intervene. Darwinian evolution, with its rejection of design and its unwavering commitment to purely material forces (such as natural selection), came to epitomize this materialist conception of science. If God played any role in the natural world, human inquiry could reveal nothing about it.

Science is not ``wedded'' to any particular conception of nature. Scientists focus their attention on naturalistic forces because those are precisely the ones amenable to study in the field and the lab. Supernatural forces are, by definition, the ones that can not be tested under controlled conditions. When people talk about evidence for the supernatural, what they have in mind are phenomena that seemingly defy any naturalistic explanation. That is not a style of argumentation that carries much weight with scientists.

Science bequeathed us a world of unthinking material objects because by its very nature that is the only sort of world it could possibly bequeath. The surprising thing is that science has been so successful at explaining so much, that it now seems illogical to invoke the supernatural to answer what questions remain. That is why science is sometimes perceived as a threat to religion It's not that any particular finding of science is inconsistent with a theistic worldview. Anything scientists discover could just be God's way of working in the world, after all. Rather, it is that the overwhelming success of science in rendering the world controllable and predictable has made religion seem superfluous as a way of understanding anything.

Finally, it's just silly to talk about Darwinian evolution ``rejecting design'' and having an ``unwavering commitment to purely material forces''. Evolutionists invoke purely material forces for the same reason all scientists invoke such forces: they are adequate for explaining the phenomena at hand. And evolutionists do not reject design. They merely argue that natural selection working over vast periods of time can result in objects giving the appearance of design. What they reject is the idea is that you must invoke a supernatural designer to explain the adaptations of organisms.

This materialist conception of the world came under pressure in the 1990s. Scientists started asking whether information might not be the fundamental entity underlying physical reality. For instance, mathematician Keith Devlin mused whether information could perhaps be regarded as "a basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy (and being ultimately interconvertible with them)." Origin-of-life researchers like Manfred Eigen increasingly saw the problem of the origin of life as the problem of generating biologically significant information. And physicist Paul Davies speculated about information replacing matter as the "primary stuff," therewith envisioning the resolution of age-old problems, such as the mind-body problem. Thus he remarked, "If matter turns out to be a form of organized information, then consciousness may not be so mysterious after all."

Such speculations became serious scientific proposals in the first decade of this century as proponents of intelligent design increasingly clashed with Darwinian evolutionists. The irony here is that the very sorts of arguments that Darwinists had been using to try to discredit intelligent design and relegate it to the sphere of religion rather than science ended up discrediting Darwinian evolution itself and exposing its unscientific presuppositions.

I haven't the faintest idea what Dembski is talking about here. First, ID proponents have offered no serious proposals for turning vague musings about information into scientifically useful hypotheses. Second, the arguments that evolutionists use to discredit ID have to do with the manifest falseness of the specific claims ID proponents make. Claiming that ``Irreducible complexity poses no challenge to natural selection'' or ``The NFL theorems have no relevance to assessing the viability of current evolutionary theories'' have nothing to do with any blinkered view of information or relegating ID to the sphere of religion. They have to do with the fact that ID's are intellectual charlatans, who routinely talk about things they know nothing about.

What does relegate ID to the land of religion is its reliance on supernatural forces to explain aspects of the natural world. Until they can tell us how the action of the supernatural designer manifests itself in the world in some predictable way, ID will not be scientific. Finally, ID's seem to think that information has some mystical quality to it that means it must be treated by techniques foreign to modern science. They frequently talk as if the irreducibility of information to the medium that contains it somehow means that information has some mystical quality to it. Of course, what Darwin's theory explains is how a small amount of information encoded in an early genome could have changed over time to produce what we find in nature today. Once again, it is not a theory about the origin of life. The origin of the first genome remains mysterious, but there is nothing in the nature of information or any other current scientific finding to suggest that naturalistic forces could not have brought it into being.

To see how this happened, recall how exchanges between Darwinists and the early design theorists used to go. The design theorists would go to great lengths to analyze a given biological structure, show why it constituted an obstacle to Darwinian and other materialistic forms of evolution, and lay out how the structure in question exhibited clear marks of intelligence. To such carefully drawn lines of scientific argument and evidence, the Darwinist invariably offered stock responses, such as, "There you go with your religion again" "You're just substituting supernatural causes for natural causes" "You just haven't figured out how evolution did it" "You're arguing from ignorance" "You're lazy; get back in the lab and figure out how evolution did it."

Oh, man. After this paragraph the only question remaining is whether Dembski constitutes a threat to himself, or whether he can continue to live independently. The trouble is that many of the people who read magazines like World believe such things unwaveringly, and absolutely refuse to educate themselves on the issue.

These responses were effective at cowing critics of Darwinism so long as the scientific community agreed with the Darwinists that science was about understanding the natural world solely in terms of unguided material processes or mechanisms. But in the first decade of this century it became clear that this definition of science no longer worked. Science is, to be sure, about understanding the natural world. But science is not about understanding the natural world solely in terms of material processes.

The problem is that material processes, as understood by the Darwinists and most of the scientific community at the time, could not adequately explain the origin of biologically significant information. Darwinist Michael Ruse saw the problem clearly, though without appreciating its significance. Describing the state of origin-of-life research at the turn of the century, he remarked: "At the moment, the hand of human design and intention hangs heavily over everything, but work is going forward rapidly to create conditions in which molecules can make the right and needed steps without constant outside help. When that happens, ... the dreaming stops and the fun begins."

At the risk of being repetitive, evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life. It is not clear to me why Dembski thinks the Ruse quote is helpful to his case. Yes, origin of life research has a long way to go. Many of the results produced to date, while interesting and suggestive, do require scientists to create potentially unrealistic conditions in the laboratory. As we get more data on the likely environment of the early Earth, and on what sorts of chemical reactions take place under what conditions, we will come up with better and better scenarios for how life emerged. Isn't that obvious?

There are many hypotheses for explaining the origin of life. They all have their problems, but none of them invoke anything that's known to be impossible, and that is sufficient to rule out the necessity of invoking supernatural forces. And, obviously, invoking supernatural forces as the origin of biological information explains nothing and gives no insight into anything. As I've said before, nothing that was formerly mysterious becomes clear by invoking the supernatural.

Sadly for the Darwinists, the dreaming never stopped and the fun never began. Instead, the work of theoretical and applied intelligent-design theorists went forward and showed why scientific explanations of biologically significant information could never remove the hand of design and intentionality. The watchword for science became information requires intelligence. This came to be known as the No Free Lunch Principle, which states that apart from intelligent guidance, material processes cannot bring about the information required for biological complexity.

As already noted, the claim ``information requires intelligence'' is totally false. As George Williams has pointed out (see pp. 551-552 of Intelligent-Design Creationism and its Critics, Robert Pennock, ed.) He was actually replying to an essay written by Phillip Johnson, but the point he was replying to is the same as Dembski's (ID's are very good at staying on message):

Johnson's argument is based on some obvious fallacies, such as information requiring an intelligent author.
The pattern of slow-moving waves in sand dunes records information about what the wind has been doing lately. Their shadow pattern observed late in the day is information about the structure of the dunes and less directly about the wind. The only author here is the wind. Similar patternings must arise in any complex molecular mixture, including the prebiotic. If one kind of molecular pattern influences others in ways that increase the incidence of that pattern, a hypercycle subject to natural selection has arisen. This would be analogous to some pattern of dune shadows making it more likely that the responsible winds would occur more frequently. That the author of genetic information is as stupid as the wind is apparent in the functionally stupid historical constraints discussed in chapter 6 of my 1992 book.

That Dembski would actually use the phrase ``theoretical and applied intelligent-design theorists'' is one more piece of evidence that he is, indeed, a threat to himself. Let's go back to his essay:

The No Free Lunch Principle led to a massive change in scientific perspective. One notable consequence for biology was a thoroughgoing reevaluation of experimental work on prebiotic and biotic evolution. Invariably, where evolutionary biologists reported interesting experimental results, it was because "intelligent investigators" had "intervened" and performed "experimental manipulations" that nature, left to its own devices, was utterly incapable of reproducing.

Nothing much to reply to here, but why the sneer quotes? Is Dembski suggesting that the investigators are actually not that intelligent? That would seem to hurt his case, wouldn't it? Did they only sort of intervene? Were the manipulations not really experimental?

This led to an interesting twist. Whereas Darwinists had been relentless in disparaging intelligent design as a pseudoscience, Darwinism itself now came to be viewed as a pseudoscience. Intelligent design had been viewed as a pseudoscience because it refused to limit nature to the operation of blind material processes. Once it became clear, however, that material processes were inherently inadequate for producing biologically significant information, the Darwinian reliance, and indeed insistence, on such processes came to be viewed as itself pseudoscientific.

Case closed. Get this man a straight jacket. ID is viewed as a pseudoscience because its chief claims are false, it offers nothing useful that can be brought into the lab, and survives only through generous helpings of arrogance, puffery and propaganda. If the entire modern theory of evolution collapses tomorrow, ID will still be pseudoscience.

What would you think of a chemist who thought that all explosives were like TNT in that their explosive properties had to be explained in terms of electrostatic chemical reactions? How would such a chemist explain the explosion of a nuclear bomb? Would this chemist be acting as a scientist in requiring that nuclear explosions be explained in terms of electrostatic chemical reactions rather than in terms of fission and fusion of atomic nuclei? Obviously not.

Scientific explanations need to invoke causal powers that are adequate to account for the effects in question. By refusing to employ intelligence in understanding biologically significant information, the Darwinian biologists were essentially like this chemist, limiting themselves to causal powers that were inherently inadequate for explaining the things they were trying to explain. No wonder Darwinism is nowadays considered a pseudoscience. It does not possess, and indeed self-consciously rejects, the conceptual resources needed to explain the origin of biological information. Some historians of science are now even going so far as to call Darwinism the greatest swindle in the history of ideas. But this is perhaps too extreme.

Dare I state the obvious? Fission and fusion of atomic nuclei are themselves material processes and as such are amenable to scientific study. The chemist trying to explain a nuclear bomb via chemical reactions would indeed look pretty foolish, but so would the ID theorist trying to explain a nuclear bomb in terms of poltergeists.

Maybe I'm being too hard on Dembski. I mean, look how gracious and magnanimous he is in that last sentence.

The information-theoretic perspective did not just come to govern biology but took hold throughout the natural sciences. Physics from the time of Newton had sought to understand the physical world by positing certain fundamental entities (particles, fields, strings), specifying the general form of the equations to characterize those entities, prescribing initial and boundary conditions for those equations, and then solving them. Often, these were equations of motion that, on the basis of past states, predicted future states. Within this classical conception of physics, the holy grail was to formulate a "theory of everything"-a set of equations that could characterize the constitution and dynamics of the universe at all levels of analysis.

But with information as the fundamental entity of science, this conception of physics gave way. No longer was the physical world to be understood by identifying an underlying structure that has to obey certain equations no matter what. Instead, the world came to be seen as a nested hierarchy of systems that convey information, and the job of physical theory was to extract as much information from these systems as possible. Thus, rather than see the scientist as Procrustes, forcing nature to conform to preconceived theories, this informational approach turned the scientist into an inquirer who asks nature questions, obtains answers, but must always remain open to the possibility that nature has deeper levels of information to divulge.


Nothing of substance from the previous "mechanistic science" was lost with this informational approach. As Roy Frieden had shown, the full range of physics could be recovered within this informational approach (Physics from Fisher Information: A Unification, Cambridge University Press, 1998). The one thing that did give way, however, was the idea that physics is a bottom-up affair in which knowledge of a system's parts determines knowledge of the system as a whole. Within the informational approach, the whole was always truly greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole could communicate information that none of the parts could individually.

The primacy of information throughout the sciences has had profound consequences for religion and faith. A world in which information is not primary is a world seriously limited in what it can reveal about God. This became evident with the rise of modern science-the world it gave us revealed nothing about God except that God, if God exists at all, is a lawgiver. But with information as the primary stuff, there are no limits on what the world can in principle reveal about God. Theists of all stripes have therefore found this newfound focus of science on information refreshing.

Since we have already established that information can come about via purely material forces, it is not clear how Dembski's information-theoretic viewpoint, to the extent that it is coherent, tells us anything about God.

The recent propaganda of ID proponents has been so strident and silly that I actually find myself vaguely encouraged. They seem to have abandoned the idea of doing serious scientific work altogether, and seem content to deal in propaganda and bloviation. They are quickly de-evolving back into the nothingness from which they came.


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