Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Dembski on Disembodied Designers There is something else we know from our collected experience with intelligent designers. Specifically, every instance of intelligence that we know of requires a physical body. In other words, as far as our experience tells us, intelligence is something that happens when you have neural wiring of sufficient complexity concentrated within the confines of an animal's body. For all we know the phrase “unembodied designer” might simply be an oxymoron.

One critic who has made this point is political scientist Larry Arnhart. In this 2000 article from the magazine First Things he writes:

This confusion in intelligent design theory both affirming and denying recourse to the supernatural arises from equivocation in the use of the term “intelligent design.” Both Dembski and Behe speak of “intelligent design” without clearly distinguishing “humanly intelligent design” from “divinely intelligent design.” We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of humanly intelligent designers. But insofar as we have never directly observed a divine intelligence (that is, an omniscient and omnipotent intelligence) causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divinely intelligent designer from our common human experience.

Note that Arnhart's objection here is that when, for example, we look at Mt. Rushmore and infer that human intelligence was responsible for it, we have more information to work with than Mt. Rushmore itself. We also know that human intelligence exists and is capable of carving faces into mountains. We know from experience what human design looks like. We have no comparable experience with divine intelligence.

In TDR Dembski replies to this point as follows:

Larry Arnhart is another critic who remains unconvinced that a design inference can validly infer an unembodied intelligence. Arnhart maintains that our knowledge of design arises in the first instance not from any inference but from introspection of our own human intelligence. Though at first blush plausible, this argument quickly collapses when probed. Jean Piaget, for instance, would have rejected it on developmental grounds: babies do not make sense of intelligence by introspecting their own intelligence but by coming to terms with the effect of intelligence in their external environment. For example, they see the ball in front of them and then see it taken away, and they learn that Daddy is moving the ball-thus reasoning from effect to intelligence. Introspection plays at best a secondary role in how we intially make sense of intelligence and design. (P. 193)

You will search Arnhart's writing in vain for any mention of introspection. You will also search in vain for any suggestion that concluding that intelligent agency was responsible for a particular event is not based on an inference (upon what else could it be based?). At issue is what our experience tells us about what intelligence can and can not bring about. The baby who infers that his father is messing around with the ball is aided by the knowledge that his father actually exists and occasionally removes balls from view. An inference to design is always based on more than the features of the event or phenomenon to be explained. They are also based on our experience with what effects can arise from various sorts of causes.

Children might attribute to Santa Claus the presence of their gifts under the tree. Teenagers who persist in doing so despite having been presented with the more reasonable explanation that their parents placed the gifts under the tree ( Santa Claus may exist, after all), are generally regarded as people in need of counselling. ID proponents regard them as scientists.

Dembski goes on to write:

I therefore continue to maintain that intelligence is always inferred, that we infer it through well-established methods and that there is no principled way to argue that the work of embodied designers is detectable whereas the work of unembodied designers isn't. (P. 194)

Except that embodied designers are known to exist while disembodied designers are not known to exist. It is possible that someday we will be confronted with an event so utterly resistant to any naturalistic explanation that we are forced to conclude that disembodied intelligences exist, but the complexity of living organsims is not even close in that regard.

As for intelligence always being inferred, I assume he means that if we are confronted with an event for which we have no direct knowledge of its cause, and we use what facts we are given to conclude that it was the result of intelligent design, then that conclusion is an inference. Has anyone ever suggested that intelligent agency is not inferred? I can't imagine what Dembski is trying to say here.

Alas, the entire book follows this pattern. Dembski offers no satisfying reply to the many cogent criticisms that have been offered of his work. Instead he distorts what others have said and knocks down strawmen that exist solely in his imagination.


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