Are “intelligent agents” supernatural?

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We have recently had the jaw dropping experience of Joe Carter stating that Forensic Science does not use "methodological naturalism" because the mind is a "supernatural" entity. However, this kind of reasoning is used by other ID advocates. Francis Beckwith has written:


ID theorists maintain that contemporary science's repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID's arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), (n4) an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM),(n5) but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science.(n6) (p. 457, "Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean v. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 26.2 (Spring 2003: 455-499)

To paraphrase Mr. Babbage, I cannot apprehend the confusion of mind that would result in the above statement. What do ID "theorists" think that forensic science, anthropology and archeology do if not address intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation? Last time I looked, forensic science, anthropology and archeology were all standard science fields using "methodological naturalism". We've looked for intelligent agency in the origin of the HIV virus (and come up negative). Maybe ID "theorists" object to the fact that they deal with design by human intelligence, but science also deals with design by non-human intelligent agents, as I noted in my comment on the ability to determine that certain stone piles in rainforests were chimpanzee hammer stones, and the investigation of creative tool-making by Pacific Island ravens (Bird Brain will never mean the same thing again). Again they might object that the intelligent agents were all contemporary, and we could observe them, but we can also discern design by long vanished non-human intelligent agents, australopithecines (and Homo erectus, but they are human, although not modern).

As Francis Beckwith visits this blog, and had to discuss this issue with ID "theorists" to write the above paragraph, perhaps he could be so kind as to inform us what ID "theorists" mean by "intelligent agency" that it excludes humans, australopithecines, chimpanzees and Pacific Island Ravens.

31 Comments

Apparently Ian did not read the etirety of the article from which he extracts the above quote. On 478 of the HJLPP piece, I write:

“At the core of ID research is the set of criteria by which its proponents claim they can detect or falsify design. One primary criterion is specified complexity, a concept already accepted as evidence of intelligent agency in other fields, including ‘forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation.’ Thus, Dembski, in proposing that we extend the principles previously proven effective in other fields to the world of the natural sciences, is not suggesting something entirely new.” (note omitted)

Secondly, the quote that Ian reprints on this blog is taken out of its immediate context, which is natural science. Here is the quote in its context:

“The Intelligent Design (ID) movement, has presented an array of sophisticated and empirically grounded arguments supporting the notion that intelligent agency may do a better job of accounting for certain aspects of the natural world, or the natural world as a whole, than non-agent explanations, such as natural selection or scientific laws working on the unguided interaction of matter. ID theorists argue that certain physical systems, including biological ones, exhibit what is known as specified complexity, and that specified complexity is best accounted for by intelligent agency. Moreover, ID theorists maintain that contemporary science’s repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID’s arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM), but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science.” (notes ommitted)

Keep in mind that my project has never been about defending the plausibility of ID. It has been about dealing with what I find to be an interesting question of constitutional jurisprudence. My presentation of, as I note in the texts, has been cursory.

Interesting. So: “… specified complexity, a concept already accepted as evidence of intelligent agency in other fields, including ‘forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation.’” but “ID theorists maintain that contemporary science… [repudiates]… intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation…”

First, as far as I know no one in “forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation” uses Dembski’s specified complexity to detect design. Perhaps Mr. Beckwith would like to provide some specific examples of this supposedly common “acceptance”.

Regardless, those disciplines of course recognize intelligent agency, and have since their beginnings. They also have developed their own specific methods to detect intelligent agency long before Dembski and ID appeared on the scene. Since then, they have shown no interest (again, as far as I can tell, but Mr Beckwith can enlighten me) to adopt ID’s “sophisticated and empirically grounded arguments”.

That science can and does recognize intelligent agency where empirically detectable belies the second claim. Quite simply, I don’t think one can have it both ways.

Francis, please give us a definition of Specified Complexity that leads to a testable hypothesis regarding agency. Thus, for example, could the definition *by itself* lead to an observation or experiment that tells us whether the late and lamented New Hampshire Old Man of the Mountain was due to human agency? (No fair bringing in historical information about Mt. Rushmore; the NH Intelligent Sculptor may simply have been in a hurry, or it might have eroded, as Mt. Rushmore is doing today.)

As I’ve said before on these pages, all the definitions of Specified Complexity seem to presuppose rather than test agency, and are circular for that reason.

The context makes it worse.

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement, has presented an array of sophisticated and empirically grounded arguments

Sophisticated? Empirical? Where? Do those two words mean the same thing to you that they do to me?

supporting the notion that intelligent agency may do a better job of accounting for certain aspects of the natural world…than non-agent explanations

I have seen absolutely no evidence that.

You claim that you are unconcerned with defending the plausibility of ID. Then why are you making false statements about the supposed science behind the ID movement that are in support of its claims?

Francis:

One primary criterion is specified complexity, a concept already accepted as evidence of intelligent agency in other fields, including ‘forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation.’ Thus, Dembski, in proposing that we extend the principles previously proven effective in other fields to the world of the natural sciences, is not suggesting something entirely new.” (note omitted)

Seems that Francis has not only accepted the claims by the ID movement without much skepticism, he also seems to suggest that the concept of specified complexity is used in other sciences. Of course when asked to apply this concept to other sciences, ID proponents remain remarkably silent. Criminology for instance uses motives, means and opportunity to find and eliminate suspects. I guess applying the same concept to lets say biology would be not too much of interest to the ID movement which tries to avoid having to deal with issues of motives. On ISCID ID critics have not only presented a good argument that motives are needed but also have shown that the concept of specified complexity is an unworkable concept.

Beckwith has accepted the ‘innocence’ of his “client”, the Intelligent Design movement, and I understand that this may be common among lawyers to not question the veracity of their clients claims. But in court the prosecution is likely to raise these weaknesses and expose them for what they are. Beckwith can surely work under the assumption that ID has proposed a scientifically relevant concept but he may be in for a surprise when he has to defend this.

I do understand that defending the client is more of an interest than defending the plausibility of one’s client. But both matter and any conclusion based on the latter will make the former more complicated.

Perhaps BEckwith could explain why he seems to accept the claims by the ID movement without much skepticism? Especially when countless evidences exist that seem to contradict ID’s claims?

And I’ve yet to see any proposed way of distinguishing specified complexity from the unspecified kind that’s any more than “I know it when I see it.”

I imagine William Dembski hiking in a forest in northern North America and coming across a dam made out of sticks and mud. “Specified complexity!”, he says, “That dam was intelligently designed!” He studies it a bit more and notices what look like big rats building it. So he concludes that beavers perform Intelligent Design. But do they? Beavers will place sticks and mud wherever they hear rushing water, and doing that long enough will produce a dam. So the most parsimonious hypothesis is that they make dams by instinct, not design.

Yes, in Conservatives, Darwin & Design: An Exchange, Dembski claims that beavers intelligently design their dams.

There is also a serious question about intelligent design: how is it performed? My pet hypothesis is that it’s done by constructing a mental model of what is to be designed, and working from there. Thus, human dam builders picture in their minds where a dam is going to be, how high they want it, what they intend to make the dam out of, etc. They don’t do it by acting on some uncontrollable urge to pick up sticks and mud and place that stuff on rushing water.

There are only a few other species which seem capable of such mental modeling, like chimps. Wolfgang Köhler’s classic work on chimp problem solving features chimps that pause before implementing certain solutions, like stacking crates to reach an out-of-reach banana.

A serious question is how one may detect evidence of such mental modeling. Design is often inferred by analogy with the efforts of known designers, but can one go further than that and identify the result of mental modeling? My best guess at this point would be to look for artwork, especially representational art. Cro-Magnon cave paintings and statuettes certainly qualify; it is interesting that there is no unambiguous evidence of cave paintings or statuettes associated with hominid species other than Homo sapiens (sapiens) – just a rock here and there that might look like a statuette if one stares hard enough at it.

And can such design efforts be seen in the Earth’s biota? Can one deduce that genetic engineers have been at work by studying a genome? Some possible evidence might be an uncompressed raster image stored as a sequence of scanlines, with each pixel being one or a few nucleotides. But keeping such sequences from becoming corrupted beyond recognition would be a serious challenge.

Keep in mind that my project has never been about defending the plausibility of ID. It has been about dealing with what I find to be an interesting question of constitutional jurisprudence. My presentation of, as I note in the texts, has been cursory.

You cannot do the latter without doing the former. To argue that it is consitutionally acceptable to teach it in public school science class as an alternative to evolution, you must first establish that it is not only scientific but moderately accepted in the scientific community.

Defending the plausibility of ID is the entire foundation of any consitutional argument in its favor. In my opinion, the problem with your arguments have always been the uncritical acceptance of the claims of ID activists.

There is no such thing as “supernatural”.

Even in the Judiaic tradition (at least in the Kabbalistic version) G_d withdraws part of itself to allow the existence of timespace dimensions of a universe (within itself). No part of this is something other than G_d; so either nothing or everything is “supsernatural”.

[blockquote]”At the core of ID research is the set of criteria by which its proponents claim they can detect or falsify design. One primary criterion is specified complexity, a concept already accepted as evidence of intelligent agency in other fields, including ‘forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation.’ Thus, Dembski, in proposing that we extend the principles previously proven effective in other fields to the world of the natural sciences, is not suggesting something entirely new.” (note omitted)[/blockquote]

Beckwith’s assertion that “specified complexity” is a concept employed by forensics etc. is quite properly enclosed in quote marks as these are merely assertions made repeatedly by Dembski. Dembski also includes archaeology, and likes to mention SETI in the same context.

Responding to this false assertion is a bit difficult for me as I am a forensic archaeologist with some years experience in insurance claims investigation. The fact that it is false is not difficult to state. The difficulty is being measured in my language.

Let me share one of my first insurance personal injury cases. A man was in a car that was struck by another car. He suffered a back injury. He claimed that the pain from the injury prevented him from working, and was receiving disability payments. I took a video camera and recorded him taking out trash on trash day, mowing lawns, washing cars and so on, for about a month. This isn’t too complex. A simple materialistic hypothesis is made: If his back hurt too much to go to his office, it hurt too much to allow him to do many other activities. We know this because because thousands of people in regular pain avoid these activities. We know this by personal history. This is what Dembski called “background knowledge.” He did these activities regularly ergo he was not in regular pain. Simple.

We can point to many problems when analysing Dembski’s proposal of the “explanitory filter.” Is is far easier to deal with the fact that none of the ordinary sorts of activities like archaeology or forensic science employ Demski’s concepts. All the real work in these fields takes place in what Dembski calls “background.”

So, I give to Beckwith the claim that this is the “core” of intelligent design creationism. The simple reality is that there is no “there” there (with apologies to Gertrude Stein and the NCSE).

Reed: Defending the plausibility of ID is the entire foundation of any consitutional argument in its favor. In my opinion, the problem with your arguments have always been the uncritical acceptance of the claims of ID activists.

I agree. I have read a few of Beckwith’s papers and although I am not a lawyer and thus cannot comment on the legal foundation of his arguments, I do feel that his premise is quite shakey and thus any conclusion based on the premise is suspect.

Andrea does the same thing that Ian does. She takes the second quote out of the context of the paragraph in which it is inbedded, and that paragraph concerns “natural science” and the arguments offered by ID advocates to account for phenomena in this area. Instead of saying, “Geez, Ian misrepresented Beckwith’s position; so, perhaps I should critique him on other grounds,” she takes the vice of Ian’s uncharitable reading of my work, repeats it with a slight alteration, and then concludes her artistry with the “he can’t have it both ways” mantra. I give up. If she can’t detect the nuance and distinctions I make in the paragraphs I reproduce above, I can’t help her. I’m a busy professor and author; I don’t have time for remedial work.

P.Z.–whose spunk and spirit I admire–seems to miss what I was trying to do in the section of my article from which he extracts the above quotes. What I was doing was presenting what ID advocates maintain to be the case (just as when I review the work of their opponents; I try to present the view in all its glory). I do think the arguments are sophisticated and empirically grounded. I think we have different understandings of both these terms, largely because we come from different disciplines. To me, “emprically grounded” means that the data that a theory is attempting to account are observable or experienced either through our senses or through instruments. Clearly, the ID advocates are trying to account for empirical phenomena, whether its the apparent design of the universe for the arrival of human life (the fine-tuning argument), the bacterial flagellum (Behe’s case), human genome (Meyer’s argument), etc. Now, do their arguments work? I frankly do not know, though I think they are better than you think. Since I have never been a “creationist,” and since I have no problem with many forms of theistic evolution, I don’t lose sleep over this stuff. I must admit though that I find the whole thing extremely interesting and intellectually intriguing. As I have said on several occasions, I find design arguments to be the least impressive of all the “theistic proofs”. This is why I think the most important insights that design theorists can contribute is in the area of philosophy of science and critiquing the triumphalism of materialism as an account of everything including morality, politics, law, etc.

As far as bringing up flaws in ID, I do cite ID critics and point out in a rather lengthy footnote–both in my Notre Dame article and in my book–that work supportive of ID (broadly defined) by ID advocates in peer-reviewed biology journals is pretty thin.

As far as examples of employing specified complexity in other fields (which some have raised above), I give three illustrations in my book: the SETI example (I can hear the groans!), the Yick Wo v. Hopkins 19th century Supreme Court case, and a case of plagiarism detection. I have not read everything by Dembski, but I have read the Design Inference. What he is trying to do is to offer a conceptual model that explains how forensic scientists, etc. detect intelligent agency in their disciplines. It’s very similar to when philosophers try to answer the question–What makes murder wrong?–and they come up with some theory, e.g., “to deprive a being of a future like ours,” as Don Marquis has argued. It is not that legislatures and police departments consciously think of murder in that way, but rather, that conceptually that is doing the heavy lifting. That’s the way I understand Dembski’s thesis: he is offering an account of the detection of agency in other areas of study and then, in later works, applies it to natural phenomena. So, when I write that Dembski says that specified complexity is employed in other disciplines, I understand him to mean that the concept is what is doing the heavy lifting even if the scientists are not aware of it. His explanatory filter–like Marquis’ theory to account for the wrongness of murder–is an attempt to offer a theory that Dembski believes he has adequately extracted from the practice of these scientists. Maybe my reading of Dembski is wrong, but that seems to me to be a fair way to read him. So, just as you are not going to find the facts of a particular murder case when reading Marquis’ philosophical account of the concept of murder, you are not going to find in Dembski a narrative of the work of forensic scientists and others since his interest is in establishing a conceptual framework to account for the practice itself.

You guys are wearing me out! I really can’t do this much longer. I will, however, post a comment in reply to a query by a Timothy S. about the apparent inconsistency between my jurisprudential conservativism and my view on the NCSE/Berekely website. I promised Timothy I will reply. I hope to post that tonight on the appropriate thread.

BTW, there is going to be a conference at Biola University April 22-24 called “Intelligent Design and the Future of Science.” (See http://www.biola.edu/id/index.cfm). I was invited to participate in a session on politics and law. It would be great if some of you could show up. I would love to meet you in person.

Warmly, Frank

“I’m a busy professor and author; I don’t have time for remedial work.”

Heh, heh.

By my count at least five (excluding you) are also busy professors and authors. Reed is a doctoral student and so is actually busy. I would suggest that the lack of time you have for remedial work is perhaps a more serious problem than you think.

Dembski has never published a considered analysis of how a forensic investigation is conducted or how an archaeologist determines if an object is “built” or otherwise modified by an intelligent agent. I can state this with considerable assurance because Dembski has never partisipated in, or apparently even made a serious study of any of these activities. Also, I have read, if not all, a vast majority of what Dembski has published. It gets easier over time because he mostly repeats himself.

Dembski’s source for this notion of ID creationism being logically related to archaeology, etc. is in fact from Walter L. Bradley and Charles Thaxton (1994:198–201). This is a key paper influencing both Dembski and the larger ID movement, and has an extended discussion of the analogical method in scientific reasoning. Their thesis, based on that of Thaxton et al. (1984), is that the origin of life is too improbable to be accounted for by any scientific explanation, so there must have been a creator. They cite archaeology, forensics, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) as ordinary scientific endeavors that detect (or search for) intelligent action; they claim to apply the same reasoning to argue for a creator of life. This claim has been taken up as a mantra by Dembski.

Bradley, Walter L., Charles B. Thaxton 1994 “Information and the Origin of Life” in The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for the Intelligent Designer, J. P. Moreland, (ed). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press

Thaxton, Charles B., Walter L. Bradley, Roger L. Olson 1984 The Mystery of Life’s Origin 1992 reprint Dallas: Lewis and Stanley

Mr. Beckwith: for someone with not enough time for “remedial work”, you sure seem to enjoy spending large numbers of words evading the issue.

Frankly, I may be obtuse, but I see no “nuance and distinctions” in your quotes above (then again, I am not famous for “nuance”). Your first sentence plainly says that several scientific disciplines routinely use intelligent agency as a causal mechanism (leaving aside the claim about specified complexity, which judging from your later examples you are unable to meaningfully support). The second one says that “science” (no qualifiers) repudiates intelligent agency because of its supposed allegiance to MN. Even assuming you meant “natural sciences”, you’d still be ignoring natural sciences like anthropology or ethology, which routinely consider and detect intelligent agency. Perhaps you may want to further amend your second sentence to specify “evolutionary sciences”, but then you’re left with the task of explaining why MN has this specific nefarious effect on evolutionary biology, compared to other scientific disciplines equally committed to MN.

I honestly think you have inadvertently bitten on a piece of classic DI misinformation, and thought it could be turned into some reasonable legal argument, before you actually tried to chew on it for a little while. It happens.

If you find the time, please do come back. We are always willing to offer remedial science lessons!

I know for a fact that Dembski is dead wrong about SETI. Its strategies are set up by imagining that ET’s want to contact us while having the most detected signal per unit transmitter power. Since they live in the same Universe we do, one works out that microwaves ~ 1 GHz are the best medium, and that the signal ought to be very narrowband, say 1Hz. This severely limits the possible communication bitrate, but that is a tolerable tradeoff.

The ~1 GHz is from considering the radio-background noise and quantum limits (much better than for visible light), while the narrowbandedness is to reduce the amount of noise in the signal’s frequency range.

There was a famous supposed detection of ET broadcasts – radio pulsars. The first ones were named LGM-1, LGM-2, LGM-3, and LGM-4, after “little green men”. But studies of them revealed:

* The only orbit effect on those pulsars’ precise timing is due to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun; there was no evidence that they were orbiting Sunlike objects in Earthlike orbits.

* Their clock frequencies are slowly declining, which is odd behavior for an artificial clock.

* Some of the higher-frequency ones are inside supernova remnants.

* Some of them have been found in binary-star systems, enabling measurement of their masses: ~ 1.4 solar masses.

All these features are much more consistent with the hypothesis that pulsars’ radio emissions are produced by the magnetospheres of spinning neutron stars; though the precise mechanism is not very well understood, there are various theoretical hints as to what it might be.

Aside from that riddle, the other features are consistent with the neutron-star hypothesis; the frequency decline is due to spinning down, the masses are consistent with expected neutron-star masses, etc.

But to take a creationist approach, one might say:

* “I see Specified Complexity in pulsar pulses! Astrophysicists push the neutron-star hypothesis because they are blinded by their materialistic presuppositions!”

* “Astrophysicists haven’t worked out exactly how pulsar pulses are generated according to the neutron-star model, therefore, pulsars are ET transmitters!”

Mr. Beckwith said: >>Keep in mind that my project has never been about defending the plausibility of ID. It has been about dealing with what I find to be an interesting question of constitutional jurisprudence. My presentation of, as I note in the texts, has been cursory.

The question before courts has almost always been whether any proposal urged as a substitute for evolution has “plausibility” as defined by science – which includes experimental results that produce data which support the proposed substitute.

Whether ID is plausible is the entire game. If plausibility is not established, there is no legal question. One does not teach known untruths as known truths in a science class under a claim that the Constitution might allow it. There is no Constitutional protection for falsehood in such circumstances. The Fifth Amendment cannot apply.

As I’ve argued on the ReligionLaw list several times before, these are issues of evidence, not of philosophy. Philosophically, any hare-brained idea should be allowed into science classes, and would be, so long as it is supported by experimental evidence or observation in the wild. Scientists are the first to quote Haldane’s famous line: “Now my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” (Possible Worlds, 1927)

But first there must be evidence. Wegemann’s ideas about continental drift are taught, not because they support evolution or because they meet some test of scientific dogma, but because they explain what is actually observed. Quantum physics is taught, not because it is orthodox, but because it works in the lab. Atomic theory is taught, not because it’s the “in” thing to do, but because it explains what is observed (although Mach’s warning about why he could not put stock in atomic theory is still accurate: No one’s ever seen an atom, he explained. Other experimental results verify it.)

The answer to the question about whether one should study “intelligent design,” whether a website is religious that points out ID’s fallacies, or whether the mere hint of intelligent design should justifiy misteaching evolution theory to innocent school children, all revolves around whether the concept of intelligent design is demonstrably plausible, whether it is plausible when tested in the lab, whether it is plausible in relation to observations in nature.

If it is not plausible, there is no issue to discuss, especially in jurisprudence. An attorney who would bring such an issue to a court would be liable for disciplinary action.

The question we all should be asking ourselves is how could people as intelligent and learned as Prof. Beckwith ever blithly accept the ID agitprop that “contemporary science repudiates intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation”?

IMO the answer — We’re all victims of a theologian’s rhetorical choice.

Well-meaning theologian Nancy Murphy coined both the term “methodological naturalism”(MN) to describe science and its non-partner “philosophical/ontological naturalism”(PN) in the context of the creationism/evolution debate as far back perhaps as several decades ago (of course the distinction in concepts are centuries old). Straight out of the Christian supernatural/natural dicotomy.

A great number of folk – including the NSCE & Eugenie Scott – seized on this MN/PN phraseology as the magic Slogan of Distinction. It’s very effective and easy to understand blurb which appeals to the intuitions of school boards, judges and Da Public. “Hey, science is just about this method of studying Nature, you can’t put God in a test tube or under a microscope, we’re just learning how the heavens go, not how to go to heaven, yada yada.” Very simple, intuitive, appealing.

Unfortunately, “naturalism” is a word which comfortably and meaningfully stands alone all by itself, signifying an ontology (of some ambiguity}. This has allowed Phil Johnson and the Wedgies to perform the conflating of MN&PN, alleging athieistic bias and prejudice, and to endless rounds of who’s conflating what. And eventually to ID & Beckwith & “intelligence is supernatural”.

Imagine that Nancy Murphy had instead retired early to the French Riviera and everyone had decided the term of art describing science was, say, something like “Methodological Fertile Explanations” – where would we be?

Picture this alternate Eugenie Scott in front of a ID-friendly general audience saying: “Science is about MFEs. Its Method involves cycles of controlled and uncontrolled observation, classification, hypothesis and prediction, with none of these as the necessary starting point. So it uses reason and empirical evidence. Its method also include social norms like open communication among knowledgeable people, substantive response to criticism, honesty and a few others. It looks for Explanations addressing at least several of the terms “what”, “when”, “where”, “who”, “why” and “how”, and the relations between them. It requires from these explanations either a track record of past fertility or current & future prospects of fertility or both. By Fertility, I mean generating new successful hypotheses and fruitful scientific research programs and perhaps the mating of different explanations from different scientific fields in consilience.”

Audience member with the killer question: “Are you saying only science provides “methodological fertile explanations? What about religion or supernatural ideas?”

Scott: “No, I’m saying appropriate explanations that are/were fertile and use the method I described are science. I’m not saying anything about religion or the supernatural.”

Aud: “But aren’t you an unbeliever? Don’t you believe in naturalism? “

Scott: “Well, in an alternate universe I was persuaded by a theologian that I should use the word a lot. But since we don’t know what we don’t know, in this universe I’ve decided I don’t know exactly what “naturalism” means. All I’m talking about today is science, which is just one kind of explanationism.”

Aud: “So you mean science can address “why” questions? Questions about intentions?”

Scott: “Why not, appropriately? Some people actually do psychology. Even on African Grey parrots.”

Aud: “How about “Why is the universe the way it is?””

Scott: “If you think you can generate a MFE for that, go ahead.”

Aud: “Since you think scientific explanations can address “who” and “why”, this is great news for the teleological ID movement!! Praise MFEism!!!”

Scott: “As long as the Explanation is explanatory, uses the techniques and norms of the method and is fertile, ID is science. But the official policy of the ID movement is that the “who” and “why” are off the table. And Explanations have to be genuine explanations that employ terms that do more than restate descriptions. The claim “Because God… err… the ineffable IDer wanted it that way.” means “The infeffable IDer exists and things exist the way they exist.” and is not an explanation.”

So in tribute to What Might Have Been, I propose that henceforth anyone on this blog who uses the terms like “supernatural”, “naturalism/istic” (with any adjective like methodological or otherwise) be required to accompany them with “(pbtnm)”, for Praise Be To Nancy Murphy.

And I recognize that Wilkens and the other philosophers have long ago stopped reading my above screed and reassumed their somnolent state, since they have said it all before, more concisely and much better.

As far as examples of employing specified complexity in other fields (which some have raised above), I give three illustrations in my book: the SETI example (I can hear the groans!), the Yick Wo v. Hopkins 19th century Supreme Court case, and a case of plagiarism detection. I have not read everything by Dembski, but I have read The Design Inference.

Prof. Beckwith, you are making one of the same mistakes Dembski did in TDI. In your three examples, you do not have merely a negative argument – against “non-design” – based on improbabilities, but you also have some positive theory of the putative existing designers, regarding or constraining at least one of their available means or motives or opportunities. The unique claim of Dembski’s version of ID is that one can know absolutely nothing about the designers –except that they design/purpose– and then conclude design based on some improbability calculation.

IMHO this can be done only in extremely unique circumstances, circumstances that will not apply to any deep aspect of biology for decades, if ever.

Do you recall Dembski’s Caputo case in TDI? Caputo was the Democrat election officer convicted of ballot rigging for always placing Democrats first on the ballot. Dembski claims the judge concluded “design” because of the improbability of that occuring by chance, but Dembski ignores the fact that the judge also has a very robust “theory of Caputo”, his motives, methods and opportunities. If Caputo had been a Republican (assuming for some idiotic reason he was tried), would the judge have concluded “design” in the ballots? Perhaps the table software Caputo was using was auto alpha ordering the ballots by party, and he never noticed before he e-mailed them to the printer. A regularity.

To conclude “Design” based entirely on a negative argument requires probability estimates of high confidence, probability estimates that can take into account nothing about the designers and nothing about the causal history of the design. . As Dembski himself says, you “must sweep the field clear of all “chance” (and regularity) hypotheses.”

Since according the Science Citation Index Dembski’s The Design Inference has been referenced non-negatively exactly twice in the entire scientific literature in the last ~7? years (once in passing, the other is not about detecting “design”) , I hope Prof. Beckwith stays to make his case for the unique utility of Dembskian specified complexity.

Here’s a choice bit of creationism from Dr. Dawkins:

“Here’s one guess as to how flying got started in birds. The hypothetical ancestor, which we can imagine as a small, agile dinosaur, runs fast after insects, leaping in the air with its powerful hind legs and snapping at the prey. Insects had evolved into the air long before. A flying insect is perfectly capable of taking evasive action, and the leaping predator would benefit from skill in mid-course correction…You could move your head or tail, but the obvious bits to move are the arms. Now, once the arms are being moved for this purpose, they become more effective at it if they develop surfaces to catch the air. It has also been suggested that the feathers on the arms originally developed as a kind of net for catching insects. This is not so far-fetched as it sounds, for some bats use their wings in this way. But, according to this theory, the most important use of the arms was for steerage and control. Some calculations suggest that the most appropriate arm movements for controlling pitching and rolling in a leap would actually resemble rudimentary flapping movements.

The running, jumping and mid-course correction theory, when compared with the tree-gliding theory, reverses the order of things. On the tree-gliding theory, the original role of the proto-wings was to provide lift. Only later were they used for control, and then finally flapping. On the jumping for insects theory, control came first, and only later were the arms with their surfaces commandeered to provide lift. The beauty of this theory is that the same nervous circuits as were used to control the centre of gravity in the jumping ancestor would, rather effortlessly, have lent themselves to controlling the flight surfaces later in the evolutionary story. Perhaps birds began flying by leaping off the ground, while bats began by gliding out of trees. Or perhaps birds too began by gliding out of trees. The debate continues.”

And on the seventh day, Dr. Dawkins rested. He would need to after six days of such hard scientific effort. But of course none of it matters since Dr. Dawkins is merely a designoid. The appearances of intelligent design are there but don’t be fooled - it’s all just an illusion.

Still, I’m not taking any chances. I’m jumping up and down and flapping my arms for five hours every day. I know it won’t do me any good but I’m thinking of my great-great-great (x10,000) grandchildren.

Jack: of course, there are beautifully preserved fossils of small, slim, feathered dinosaurs with rudimentary wings which go a long way demonstrating that Dawkins’ scenarios are not as far-fetched as you make them (and apparently would like them) to be.

Furthermore, those scenarios (tree-gliding vs leaping) can be empirically tested on the basis of anatomical evidence from existent and hopefully future fossil findings. That’s, after all, how science works.

Andrea: I’m sure the fossils are there and would like to know their names. But I would like to know even more what stimulus at the microbiological level would produce the first incidence(s) of a scaly creature producing feathers and how in the primary “rudimentary” stages these would provide a selective advantage, as presumably they would be small, nearly undetectable wispy bits of next to nothing. I don’t mean simply “a mutation”, I mean specific cascades of genetic information within germ cells maintaining over generations the consistent reaffirmation and improvement of the emerging trait, in this case “feathers”.

As you can see I’m finding it difficult to conceive how a “random” mutation consistently amplifies a specific, potentially advantageous trait over the hundreds, or thousands of generations required until the “jumping dinosaur” becomes a “flying bird” without genetic reference to the undoubtedly useful trait itself. Because if the trait is self-referential it can no longer be considered “random”. If the trait is not self-referential, nor in its “rudimentary” stages does it confer an advantage then what form of faux scientific creationism consistently hits the “improve this trait” target every time? I’m not claiming there are no gliding feathered dinosaurs. I’m just curious to learn the nature of each step of the climb up Mt. Preposterous, not just the first and last steps viewed from afar. Wasn’t it Newton who said “God is in the details”? I guess by this he meant don’t look at the details or else you might find some answers that might surprise, perplex and ultimately disappoint. Perhaps this is why Dr. Dawkins prefers to create his own cozy but unconvincing designoid world. But I remain open to persuasion if the microbiological evidence which the good Doctor does not supply is there.

While we’re at it, at what point does the gliding dinosaur become a different species, a bird, and what are the microbiological procedures which enable this to occur? And, since all genetic transformation is via random mutation, when speciation occurs is it in a single individual? And if so what does he/she breed with? Or do random mutations always come in male/female pairs? Who somehow find each other across the crowded room? Or do speciation events occur simultaneously across large segments of a population, thereby destroying all notion of “randomness”? It would seem that speciation in a single individual, as it would have to occur in a haphazard, random event, would be a surefire way to ensure that one would be selectively pressured out of existence forever.

I have no doubt these questions have all been answered many times before and are perhaps tedious to scientists like yourself but would in any case appreciate some enlightenment. It’s a fascinating field of enquiry.

What in the world do fossils have to do with Beckwith’s support of intelligent design creationism? We are well aware that in the absence of any scientific hypothesis generated by IDC they only fall back on vapid attacks on biology (or other sciences). But, this is not Paleo 101.

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“To argue that it is consitutionally acceptable to teach it [ID] in public school science class as an alternative to evolution, you must first establish that it is not only scientific but moderately accepted in the scientific community … Defending the plausibility of ID is the entire foundation of any consitutional argument in its favor.”

–Posted by Reed A. Cartwright at April 10, 2004 10:35 AM

Be careful here. Assuming that disputes about teaching ID in public school science classes follow the jurisprudence developed in the “creationism” legal cases (a decent assumption), the potential (US) constitutional problem is if ID is too “entangled” with religion (and thus is an “establishment” of religion). “Bad science” (or “not science at all”) may be relevant to this, but not likely enough. There is no general (US) constitutional prohibition against lousy teaching in public schools – a bad idea, surely, and maybe against various education laws, but probably not unconstitutional for that reason alone.

Gary Hurd said: “What in the world do fossils have to do with Beckwith’s support of intelligent design creationism?”

One of the fiercest criticisms of ID is that design is defined as something you know when you see it (IOW, reasoned from the fact rather than posited before the fact is gathered). I think Jack just wants to point out that arguing from the feathers backwards *appears to share the same failing*. It might seem obvious to you why this isn’t so but since when were blogs (or any form of discussion about science) solely for the converted?

To Francis Beckwith:

I understand that you are addressing the teaching of ID theory as an interesting exercise in consitutional law. However, as soon as you describe ID theory in terms such as “sophisticated and empirically grounded” you are making value judgements about the quality and the nature of the science in ID. When you say, “specified complexity [is] a concept already accepted as evidence of intelligent agency in other fields, including ‘forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation,’” then you are making a testable statement.

Is it sophisticated? Well, it may look sophisticated, but Dembski’s argument was derived from a 1997 computer science paper called “The No Free Lunch Theorems for Optimization.” Dembski misrepresented the paper and applied it in a manner that was expressly cautioned against in the original paper. When one of the original authors, David Wolpert, reviewed Dembski’s book, he titled the review “William Dembski’s treatment of the No Free Lunch theorems is written in jello.” Which ought to tell you how sophisticated specified complexity is.

Is it empirically grounded? No, it is not. You said that “To me, emprically grounded means that the data that a theory is attempting to account are observable or experienced either through our senses or through instruments. Clearly, the ID advocates are trying to account for empirical phenomena, whether its the apparent design of the universe for the arrival of human life (the fine-tuning argument), the bacterial flagellum (Behe’s case), human genome (Meyer’s argument), etc.” But your mistake here is in assuming that because a theory *attempts* to explain observable data, that it is automatically empirically grounded. This is not so. To be empirically grounded, a theory must be *demonstrably* explanatory. Einstein’s theory of special relativity could not be described as empirically grounded until all of its key predictions had been experimentally verified, and that took many years after publication. In contrast there has not been a single published paper in which Dembski’s specified complexity has been experimentally tested and Dembski himself resists any attempt to experimentally verify his theory. Therefore it is not empirically grounded.

Is it a concept already accepted in other fields? No, it is not used in forensic science, cryptography, or random number generation, and I would be mightily surprised if you could find a single reference to specified complexity in intellectual property law or insurance investigation. You have mentioned three examples in your book, but none of them holds any water: SETI does not use specified complexity; the 19th century Supreme Court case predates Dembski by about a century and therefore cannot use his concept; and as for the “case of plagiarism detection”, of which you specify no further details in your post, I can virtually guarantee that neither Dembski nor his theory set foot in the courtroom. You seem to be equating Dembski’s “specified complexity” with *any* scientific method for detecting human agency. This is a confusion that Dembski has not gone to much effort to clarify. But Dembski is *not* merely extending existing scientific principles. He has proposed a specific probabilistic test that he claims is capable of detecting design independent of any background information. According to Dembski, you simply apply his algorithm to a sequence of data and his test will tell you if that sequence was designed or not. This is most certainly not an old idea given new wings, and if it actually worked it would be a major breakthrough. Quite frankly, if Dembski’s algorithm did what he said it does, he would be a shoe-in for a Nobel Prize.

Unfortunately, the only way you could come to these conclusions is if you are not well versed in science. This is not intended to be an insult – I am certainly not well versed in US constitutional law – but I would think twice before telling a specialist in constitutional law that he doesn’t understand the Fifth Amendment whereas you have essentially told a group of professional biologists that they don’t recognise sophistication and empirical grounding in an evolutionary theory. Given that you are publishing law papers on the subject, I think you would be well advised to put your opinions to professional biologists and knowledgeable non-specialists (and this forum is as good as any other) before setting them in perpetuity. Getting it right in the first place is a tedious process, and made doubly difficult by not being trained in evolutionary science, but it’s a lot less painful than making retractions later.

regards, Chris

P.S. If you want a more detailed rebuttal of Dembski, including an explanation of how he misrepresented the No Free Lunch theorems, you can find it in an essay called “Evolutionary Pressure on Creationists” in my collection WRITTEN IN BLOOD, which can be ordered through MirrorDanse Books. Please forgive the self-promotion, but I really believe that it would help your understanding of the “science” behind specified complexity and I’m not going to replicate 10,000 words of argument in this forum.

Dr. Zen: no one is arguing “backwards” as far as feathers are concerned. As I said, there are dinosaur fossils that show very primitive feathers, and some that show very primitive wings. So, that “half-feathers” and “half-wings” actually existed is no speculation or fantasy. That these trnasitional forms had been predicted on the basis of evolutionary theory is of course a measure of its success and power as a theory.

On the basis of those fossils, one can also make hypotheses and draw inferences regarding functional properties: were those wings suitable for gliding, or flapping? Did the anatomical features of the organisms bearing them suggest they were tree-climbers, or runners? Did the primitive feathers’ size and distribution suggest a role in thermoregulation (eg, they were diffuse all over the body), or in display (they were primarily at exposed sites: the head, back, tail etc)? That’s how science works.

As for the “microbiological” (of course, Jack meant “molecular”) aspects of feather development, although these studies are barely a decade old quite a bit of progress has been done as well. We know for instance that chicken scales can be turned into feather buds by expression of certain genes, and that there are conserved structural and regulatory features in the development of scales and feathers in birds and reptiles. Of course, since we have barely started to learn how feathers develop in living birds, figuring out how they evolved in dinosaurs with the high degree of detail Jack seems to request may be quite a challenge. That’s going to be fun, I am sure.

That said, Jack’s arrogant tone and obvious complete underlying ignorance of the subject suggests he was just a creationist troll looking for a fight, and engaging this kind of poster is generally hopeless, and certainly not the goal of this blog. Besides, given the pace evidence is accumulating, I am sure there will be chances to discuss bird and feather evolution in a more appropriate thread.

Thanks for posting. A

Andrea: I never claimed that there are no signs of the evolution of scales to feathers or dinosaurs to birds. And I never denied that there may have been animals with “half feathers” and animals with “half wings”. A gliding bat or lizard or snake can be considered “half-winged” if you like. I have no problem with the existence, past or present, of animals or plants with apparently transitional characteristics. I have no problem with chicken scale genes being triggered to produce feathers. But the evolution science you describe is anatomical (that scale genes can be altered in a single chicken does not mean that they will continue to do so over time in an ever-upward climb). The evolution science I am looking for is developmental. The “how (over many generations)” rather than the “what (over many generations)”. Because this is where the problems seem to lie with a theory which posits random mutation as the source of all initial modifications. I have no problem with “mutation” and I have no problem with “evolution”; I have huge problems with “random”.

This is the main thrust of the questions I asked, which you left unanswered, presumably because they are the very questions which continue to vex evolutionary biologists. I repeat them:

1. How does a rudimentary trait, produced by a random mutation, continue to be amplified by random genetic mutation over the many successive generations required for a full-blown trait to emerge? This “hitting the target every time” seems to argue against randomness though it does not argue against mutation as a shaping force. One imagines that to make lightning strike in the same place millions of times in succession you would have to do an awful lot of preplanning and aiming at the lightning’s source; or produce a target that attracts lighting. In either case something must be specified: “hit this thing”, and then we must ask the question why “this thing” is given such preferential treatment, since there can be no such preferences in a truly random system. Is the watchmaker really blind orare those dark glasses there just to fool us? (Amusingly, there is still a “Watchmaker” and not a “Blind Watch”) Yes, of course “lightning” doesn’t have to strike in each generation but it does have to hit the same spot thousands, perhaps millions of times. Actually the number of repeated hits must be virtually incalculable since evolution events proceed independently yet somehow, consistently, seem to hit their targets with astonishing repeatedness and precision. 2. What selection advantage is conferred upon an organism exhibiting a new trait when this rudimentary trait will presumably be a nearly-invisible departure from the norm (“evolution” taking a very long time, “creation” being instant or nearly instant (in some, but not all, creationist models). A bit of fluff on our “jumping dinosaur” will not confer any real insect-catching advantage, though it might make our jumping dinosaur more attractive to his/her fellows. 3. How does speciation take place in a random genetic world and how does it confer a selection advantage? It would seem, to an unlightened intellectual mercenary like myself, that this would be an extremely complex and dangerous transition for an organism to make. Hybrid animals are sterile, at least in mules and ligers. This does not bode well for future generations. Also if speciation emerges as a random mutation what will our lonely fluffy dinosaur mate with? If he retains the ability to reproduce with his unevolved, unfeathered friends, the literature seems to indicate that the offpsring produced are invariably, phenotypically, weaker than the original pure form. They would get the selection knife and go to the paleontological wall.

I do not mean “molecular”, I mean “microbiological”. The one thing which impresses me about Michael Behe’s work (and where Dawkins depresses me) is that he reveals that at the level of cellular organization we are dealing not merely with molecules we are dealing with molecular machines. Molecules will aggregate from elements under certain conditions, even some very complex molecules (though there are limits, as even Crick abashedly acknowledges). I am not aware of molecular machines being derived in this way. And as for the organization of many different molecular machines working in synchrony in the cell in ways which we can only marvel at . …I leave it to you to enlighten this poor creationist troll so that he may climb the Great Mountain like all the rest and become the hobbit wizard he is accidentally destined to be.

One aspect of rudimentary, unevolved “creationism” is that it asks us to take entirely on faith that which cannot be explained and in principle rejects all interrogationwithout assessment of merit. One aspect of rudimentary, unevolved neodarwinism is that it asks us to do the same. I fail to see the distinction between the two and find both postures abhorrent.

To label all who seek to modify neodarwinist evolutionary theory by asking probing questions “creationist” is no different from labeling all who seek to modify the more speculative tenets of organic chemistry “alchemists”. Or astronomers/astrologers, surgeons/bloodletters, Mahatma Gandhi/George Bush. There are refinements over time to all beliefs/knowledge systems and we should deal with specifics, not generalities. As Newton meant: “The Answer is in the details.”

And where did that damn singularity at the root of the Big Bang come from? Ah yes, the indeterminate sea of potentiality that is the quantum vacuum. To be continued … forever.

Yours, Jack

PS-Apologies for sticking this oar into an inappropriate thread. Please redirect if the discussion is seen to have any merit, or extinguish if it contains no selection advantage. It is random, like everything else, and will submit to weighing in the scales of natural law.

Jack: why don’t you repost your comment on the AntiEvolution Discussion Board? I’ll be glad to answer your questions there. Thanks A

Andrea: Where is the AntiEvolution Discussion Board? Your link took me to “404”.

http://www.antievolution.org/cgi-bi[…]konboard.cgi provides a place for topical resources to be collected collaboratively.

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I’ve added a comment to another thread regarding Francis Beckwith’s argument about “natural science”. Francis, if you are still following this discussion, would you please refer to my comment at http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000161.html

Also, though it may not be relevant to the main point of this thread, I’d like to note a logical fallacy in the quoted passage from your article:

“At the core of ID research is the set of criteria by which its proponents claim they can detect or falsify design. One primary criterion is specified complexity, a concept already accepted as evidence of intelligent agency in other fields, including ‘forensic science, intellectual property law, insurance claims investigation, cryptography, and random number generation.’ Thus, Dembski, in proposing that we extend the principles previously proven effective in other fields to the world of the natural sciences, is not suggesting something entirely new.” (note omitted)

Your conclusion that Dembski is “not suggesting something entirely new” does not follow from the previous sentence as your “thus” implies. Your argument requires the additional premise that Dembski’s assertion is correct. You have failed to justify that premise, and most of us here would argue that it is false, i.e. that Dembski’s methodology is not used (let alone generally accepted) in the cited fields.

Although your argument is fallacious, I would actually agree with its conclusion: Dembski is not suggesting anything substantially new. His methodology is just the old god-of-the-gaps methodology in disguise. But, as this methodology has not proven effective, it should not be adopted either by “natural” science or by the other fields you cite.

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This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on April 10, 2004 6:25 AM.

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