Tuesday, April 12, 2005

ID in A Thousand Words

ID proponent Mark Hartwig offers up this explanation of ID “thoery.” It's posted at the website The Reality Check. With a name like that, you just know you're dealing with right-wing cranks.

Anyway, here's an excerpt:

In contrast to what is called creation science, which parallels Biblical theology, ID rests on two basic assumptions: namely, that intelligent agents exist and that their effects are empirically detectable.

Its chief tool is specified complexity. That's a mouthful, and the math behind it is forbidding, but the basic idea is simple: An object displays specified complexity when it has lots of parts (is complex) arranged in a recognizable, delimited pattern (is specified).

For example, the article you're now reading has thousands of characters, which could have been arranged in zillions of ways. Yet it fits a recognizable pattern: It's not just a jumble of letters (which is also complex), but a magazine article written in English. Any rational person would conclude that it was designed.

The effectiveness of such thinking is confirmed by massive experience. As Dembski points out, “In every instance where we find specified complexity, and where [its] history is known, it turns out that design actually is present.” (Emphasis in Original).

From here Hartwig goes on to hit the standard talking points about the flagellum and all the rest.

Actually, Hartwig makes a serious blunder when he says that Dembski's notion of “complexity” has to do with the number of parts a system possesses. In reality, Dembski uses the term “complex” to indicate that the system has a low probability of forming by “chance” (whatever that means). Dembski is quite explicit in his writing that standard Darwinian mechanism can, in principle, craft multi-part systems. Hartwig is confusing Dembski's specified complexity with Behe's irreducible complexity.

This is not a small error, either, since one of the chief problems with Dembski's method is that, as a practical matter, we never have enough information to do a meanignful probability calculation regarding the formation of a complex system. But that is a subject for a different post.

Actually, it was something else that really struck me. Hartwig's essay weighs in at 1048 words. In that tiny amount of space he has managed to explain ID theory in its entirety.

You can read Dembski's collected works and learn nothing about specified complexity beyond what Hartwig describes. The math in Dembski's books is forbidding only because he is careful to make it so. If he explained his ideas clearly it would be obvious to everyone that his arguments are not correct. You can read Behe if you like, but after reading the sentence about how irreducibly complex structures can't evolve gradually you will have absorbed everything he has to offer.

Try to imagine giving a coherent summary of modern evolutionary biology in just over a thousand words. It couldn't be done. Evolution is so rich, rests on so many different pillars, makes contributions to so many different areas of science, relies on so many different methods, and has so much evidence supporting it that you could do no more than give the vaguest outline of what it is all about in so short an essay.

ID proponents have been clamoring for equal time for well over a decade. In all those years their scientific thinking has not progressed beyond what can be explained to laymen in a thousand words. Surely that says everything you need to know about the scientific potential of Intelligent Design.


At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just saw this on the DI website...Nelson v. Shanks on NPR on April 19.



At 9:37 AM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Hi Dr. Rosenhouse,

Just as a point of clarification:

"Irreducible complexity is a special case of specified complexity"

William Dembski
Page 289, "No Free Lunch"

So Hartwig is actually correct, a sufficient but not necessary condition for a system to be specified complex is that it is multi-part irreducibly complex.


At 9:42 AM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Actually, you are, Dr. Rosenhouse, more correct by saying that improbability is the necessary condition for specified complexity. Hartwig's explanation is inaccurate, but not completely wrong.


At 12:31 PM, Blogger Jason said...


No, Hartwig is completely wrong. He was explaining what Dembski meant by the term “complex.” When Dembski uses that term he is referring to probability calculations, not the number of parts in a system. In his world, a multi-part system could still be simple, while a system with one or two parts could be complex.

Furthermore, irreducible complexity has to do with the relationship of the parts to each other (they have to be well-matched and essential for proper functioning). Simply talking about the number of parts does not get at the heart of Behe's idea.

At 7:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What would be a good example of a complex system with few parts. ie 2, 3 or 4??? I am trying to explain this to a class. andrew

At 9:39 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

In light of Dr. Rosenhouse' last post, I will amend my earlier comments.

Irreducbibly Complex objects are also Specified Complex objects. Hartwig's description is not exactly in line with Dembski's writings. Dr. Rosenhouse's points regarding Harwtig comments are substantive, and Hartwig only echoes the confusion about the meaning of complexity that exists among IDists.

Only a handful of IDists really understand Dembski's works. Dr. Rosenhouse understands Dembski's work better than most IDists.

In matters of logic and mathematics Dr. Rosenhouse is usually right.

In answer to Andrew's question, Mark Perakh gave the example of a perfectly smooth pebble as an instance of specified complexity, but which in fact a single part "system". It is K-simple (K-simple is a slang term used by me to mean "not Kolmogorov Complex"), but according to Dembski's writings, it could qualify as an object evidencing specfied complexity.

Irreducibly Complex multi-part systems are also specified complex, but the converse is not true.

Unfortunately the usage of the word complexity in Dembski's definition (complexity=improbability) is at variance with most people's conception of complexity (complexity=many integrated parts). However, most people who are comfortable with information theory (such as Electrical Engineers like myself), don't find Dembski's definition of complexity inordinately orthogonal, but something that simply requires clarification.

At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Paul King said...

Firstly if we are prepared to accept that even a two-part system is "complex" then "irreducibly complex" systems are examples of "specified complexity" in the common usage - but not necessarily Dembski's usage. But then so is any other functioning system with two or more parts. But this is neither helpful to Hartwig who specifically claims that he is repeating Dembski's ideas nor to ID in general (there is no good reason to suppose that evolution cannot produce working multipart systems - and if there were Behe would not need to appeal to IRREDUCIBLE complexity).

Dembski's claim that Irreducibly Complex systems were examples of Specified Complexity is based on the idea that Behe ruled out the possibility of evolution producing Irreducibly Complex systems. Which is a misunderstanding of Behe, since Behe admitted that "indirect" evolution could produce such systems asserting only his opinion that the probability was very low. Dembski, then, by his own method would have to establish a probability bound and show that all indirect routes were usfficinetly improbable that they could be ruled out individually or in aggregate.

Indeed if Hartwig truly understood Dembski's idea he would realise that the flagellum calculation was botched both due to the error listed above and also due to the fact that the probability calculation was not even relevant.

So Dembski misunderstood Behe and Hartwig misunderstood Dembski.

It does not speak well for ID that this issue illustrates two serious misunderstandings between leading figures in the ID movement.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

That IDists may not be in agreement or misunderstand each others' ideas is a fixable situation. I give (not-for-credit) presentations of these ID concepts and the students are able to grasp these clarifications through the course of a little discussion.

What does not bode well for the anti-ID side is that more and more university students and faculty in biology and other scientific disciplines find the Darwinian explanations scientifically wanting.

I asked several bio students (who visit our IDEA meetings) at Dr. Rosenhouse's school about what they knew about Darwinian evolution. I was astonished to hear they learned very little except that there was the idea of common descent and that there were some supposed phylogenetic relationships. Sure they can take the exams and answer the test questions and restate what was written in their textbooks, but in their hearts, they find Darwinian evolution wanting. Several find the ID or even the (gasp) creationist account more palatable.

I'm always happy to refer students to Dr. Rosenhouse's writings as I feel he gives the best critiques of ID and creationism available. He is on the mark many times, and should be taken seriously by IDists and creationists. Dr. Rosenhouse (a mathematician) actually articulates and defends evolutionary theory better than some of the bio professors at his school.

There is an added complication for those promiting the Darwinian evolution versus say ID or creationism. The bio professors are reluctant to alienate their ID leaning or creationists students because creationists are often some of their best and most devoted students.

Thus, the bio professors have not done much to stem the tide of IDists and creationists entering the bio program and graduating as IDist or creationists, nor do they have much inclination to do so.

We have students graduating James Madison Univeristy with degrees in biology who totally disbelieve Darwinian evolution, and several who've never taken a course in evolutionary biology....

I can say the same for nearby UVa where there are also PhD candidates. At my school, George Mason, at least 2 PhD's biologists graduated who don't believe in Darwinian evolution (Standish and Wilson).

At nearby UVa, the founder of the IDEA chapter was a bio student who converted from believing evolution to believing creationism. At George Mason University, one micro-biology professor recently became an IDist. I have reason to believe these are not isolated incidents.

ID may have it's challenges as a theory, but in comparison, there is a growing disbelief in the Darwinian account among the up-and-coming generation of bio students and other students of science. When they are presented with the fact of mountains of peer-reviewed and their own textbook literature, they are only bewildered at the degree of of speculation being peddled as scientific fact. The students respect and learn from their professors about existing, living systems, but find their professors account of origins unconvincing.

If secular institutions are unable to persuade biology undergrads after 4 years of feeding them Darwinian evolution, ID, even with all its definitional disputes and diverse positions, will continue to be a real option for many.

I believe this is a long term trend. Many bio students study the staggaring complexity of the cell and they find insistence by their professors that it evolved with no reference to intelligence unconvincing. Add to that the fact that they know several faculty are sympathetic to their views, and one has ingredients for ID having a lasting place in the future.

We will see. But I don't think ID is going away any time soon, and Dr. Rosenhouse blog will have reason to stay around for a long long time, and I look forward to reading his well thought out commentaries for a long time as well.

At 5:54 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Only a handful of IDists really understand Dembski's works. Dr. Rosenhouse understands Dembski's work better than most IDists.

In matters of logic and mathematics Dr. Rosenhouse is usually right.

I'm always happy to refer students to Dr. Rosenhouse's writings as I feel he gives the best critiques of ID and creationism available.

Salvador, it's a pity you're an ID guy. You're right about so many other things!


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