Archaeology and the Explanatory Filter?

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Since I seem to be on a roll, I thought I’d take a look at a claim that’s made frequently by ID proponents, namely that archaeology uses a design detection procedure akin to that allegedly formalized by Dembski’s Explanatory Filter. (Gary Hurd: Feel free to interject/comment/correct at will.)

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Panda's Thumb Posts from De Rerum Natura on May 25, 2004 1:36 PM

There are some interestng posts over at the Panda’s Thumb right now. Evolution of complexity, information and entropy Evolution of complexity, information and entropy Gene duplication versus ID... Read More

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A gedankenexperiment: Can the EF distinguish between the human faces on Mt. Rushmore and the (lamented) Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire? Obviously this has to be without reference to historical information - in other words, can it eliminate the hypothesis that the Old Man was merely a Mt. Rushmore that had weathered for some time?

A gedankenexperiment: Can the EF distinguish between the human faces on Mt. Rushmore and the (lamented) Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire? Obviously this has to be without reference to historical information - in other words, can it eliminate the hypothesis that the Old Man was merely a Mt. Rushmore that had weathered for some time?

I have held off on this topic waiting for the new book edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis, Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism .

But this is too sweet an opportunity to mention the book and a little project of mine.

Let me add to your observation about Dembski’s error concerning “specification.” You point out that he can not use the idea consistently. Tools can only rarely be specified consistently either. Indeed, all the work classifying an object as “natural” or “designed” which Dembski asserts can be done by the Explanatory Filter (EF), is actually done by what he calls “side information.”

Rather that focus on object like the space shuttle, or a tractor on the moon, or a watch on the heath, consider the problem of a stone hammer, or even something as “high tech” as a screwdriver.

A stone becomes a designed object, a hammer, in the instant that it is used to strike an other object. It is detectable as such only in the event that it is used in such a way as to leave some physical trace of its being used. Dembski could not employ the EF to differentiate a hammer from a battered rock from a stream bed.

The screwdriver exposes Dembski’s scheme to the specification error. Make a list of all the a screwdriver’s uses. My partial list begins with twisting screws, but goes on, and on, from a simple lever, to a punch (including several cases I know where a screwdriver was used as a deadly weapon), to part of an electrical continuity checker. The screwdriver is a fine example of an object with many ‘evolved’ functions.

The screwdriver example came to me not long after the final drafts for Why Intelligent Design Fails were submitted. I am planning an extended piece on this that I call, “Dembski: Hammered and Screwed.”

I am planning an extended piece on this that I call, “Dembski: Hammered and Screwed.”

Sound great. I can’t wait to read that!

I do recall that Jerry Don “I am willing to testify about ID in court” Bauer asserted at some point that there were some designed objects which were “too simple” to be detected by Dembski’s filter. Does Dembski include such caveats in any of his comments?

Gary,

Sorry to have anticipated you, but every time I read that claim my teeth start to grind, and I had to get it out of my system.

RBH

Richard, I’d not comment on those parts of your post dealing with archaeology but only on some of your points regarding Dembski’s notorious explanatory filter. You (as many others both among Dembski’s defenders and his detractors) seem to buy his thesis about how the first and the second nodes of his filter are supposed to be used. Indeed, you accept that in the first node we determine the event’s probability and, if it is found to be large, we attribute the event to regularity (necessity, law). This is impossible. To determine that the event’s probability is large, we have to first determine that it is due to necessity (law, regularity), not the other way around. Dembski’s prescription (which you seem to accept) requires to “read off the event” its probability which is impossible. Likewise, in the second node Dembski’s prescription requires reading probability “off the event” (contrary to your rendition, the estimation of probability assuming the chance origin of the event is employed by Dembski not in the second but only in the third mode). The realistic procedure can only be in reverse order compared with Dembski’s senseless prescription. Therefore any discussion of the filter as a triad-like procedure makes no sense since the first and the sedond nodes are fictional. The third node is the only part of the filter that can be discussed on its own merits rather than rejected out of hand (but it is where the senselessness of his specification criterion and with it of his entire scheme is revealed).

Mark,

Thanks for your remarks. I must say that I myself don’t “accept” Dembski’s procedure. I don’t buy his thesis at all.

I was attempting to summarize what he and his followers, like those at the referenced URL, say it’s supposed to be, and hence what he and they claim archaeology’s research program supposedly does (in its sadly benighted pretheoretic way, of course!).

I do have your book on my shelf and I read it! :)

RBH

If Dembski thinks that specification is never a problem then it would have been easy for him to show how the specification of the flagellum meets his formal criteria. That he didn’t makes me think he can’t.

Specification isn’t a problem for any functional system - just describe the function. However, I think that there’s another reason why Dembski didn’t go into detail on the specification of the flagellum.

You see for the explanatory filter to “work” the probability to be calculated is the probability of meeting the specification. By avoiding the details of the specification Dembski avoids dealing with that important element and can simply use his bogus calculation which looks impressive but means nothing.

And this is the biggest fundamental problem with the explanatory filter and CSI. Actually calculating the relevant probability for real biological examples is too difficult. Even if the filter had no other problems that would kill it as a practical method for detecting design in biology.

Paul said: “Specification isn’t a problem for any functional system - just describe the function.” But merely describing the function is a fabrication in Dembski’s scheme because all you’d be doing is reading off the event.

Dene wrote

But merely describing the function is a fabrication in Dembski’s scheme because all you’d be doing is reading off the event.

I provided Dembski’s claim in that respect in the main entry. From No Free Lunch:

Specification is never a problem. The irreducibly complex systems we consider, particularly those in biology, always satisfy independently given functional requirements (see section 3.7). … This is not to say that for the biological function of a system to constitute a specification humans must have independently invented a system that performs the same function. … At any rate, no biologist I know questions whether the functional systems that arise in biology are specified. (p. 289; emphases added)

Sure it’s read off the event, and sure it’s a fabrication. But when did Dembski ever worry a whole lot about consistency?

RBH

Dembski is quite clear that it is legitimate to derive the specficiation from the event. It is however necessary that the specification could be derived without that knowledge. I would say that the function of a system is a legitimate specification.

However, if Dembski uses anything other than the specifciation for calculating the probability then he is using a fabrication.

(And Dembski fails to deal with the problem that the rejection region set up by using after-the-fact specifications consists of the spaces defined by all possible specification meeting the complexity criterion. THere is a missing factor in his UPB calculation).

Paul said: “Dembski is quite clear that it is legitimate to derive the specficiation from the event. It is however necessary that the specification could be derived without that knowledge. I would say that the function of a system is a legitimate specification.”

But only if that function was known in side information before the thing under consideration came to be. It’s all very well for Dembski to say that the specification of the flagellum is an “outboard rotary motor”, but that side information comes from human creations and has nothing whatsover to do with the origin of the flagellum - unless someone wants to argue that God created the flagellum after seeing how humans power boats!

This is a basic problem with Dembski’s scheme when it comes to biology, how can he show that a specification existed prior to the flagellum? A specification must come first otherwise it has nothing to do with the supposed design of the flagellum (or anything else).

Dembski’s method is expressly designed to avoid having to frame any sort of design hypothesis. So according to his method he doesn’t need to consider where the specfication came from. This is one place where Dembski’s method disagrees with the ways we often recognise design.

I believe that Dembski intends specification to simply indicate that the result is sufficiently “special” that it can be considered significant (unlike simply reading off whatever event occurs). I don’t believe that Dembski’s criteria are strong enough but the idea itself is not obviously wrong.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on May 25, 2004 4:10 AM.

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