Dembski and “No Free Lunch”, Reprise

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"Intelligent Design" advocate William A. Dembski recently announced his completion of another draft paper. Titled "Searching Large Spaces: Displacement and the No Free Lunch Regress", Dembski's paper is an assertion, with math, that he was right about "No Free Lunch" all along.
An interesting point is that Dembski announced this paper to various critics via an email with the paper attached. I was on this list of email recipients, and am proud to share that place with Eugenie Scott, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and fourteen other critics. Another of the critics, David Wolpert, was a co-discoverer of the "No Free Lunch" theorems. Since I was on the original mailing list, I've been treated to an exchange of emails between Wolpert and Dembski. Wolpert pointed out to Dembski that there were, in fact, "free lunches" in coevolution, and attached a copy of a paper by Wolpert and MacReady on that topic currently in submission. Dembski responded that Dembski's result "subsumed" Wolpert's findings. Wolpert responded to that, asking that Dembski actually read his paper before criticizing it. Dembski responded again, re-asserting his claim and adding the conjecture that Wolpert's status as co-discoverer of "No Free Lunch" might actually be preventing Wolpert from thinking clearly about these issues. This is shaping up as something worthy of a big bag of popcorn, except that my doctor has prohibited that in my case. Another interesting point is how Dembski has gone from trying to appear like he has been responsive to critics to once again giving his critics the cold shoulder. Despite the various commentaries and critiques of Dembski's book No Free Lunch one will discover that only one criticism is acknowledged and referenced in Dembski's new paper. The sole critic to get a mention was Michael Shermer. Here is the passage:

It follows that assisted search, even with so modest a problem as finding a specific protein 100 amino acids in length, requires a considerable amount of information if it is to surpass blind search and successfully locate a target. How are we to explain this net increase in information? One way is to explain it away by suggesting that no targets are in fact being searched. Rather, a space of possibilities is merely being explored, and we, as pattern-seeking animals, are merely imposing patterns, and therefore targets, after the fact (see, for instance, Shermer 2003).

This explanation may work in certain instances where humans make up patterns as they go along. But many patterns-whether in the arts or in engineering or in the natural sciences-are objectively given. For instance, it is an objective fact whether a given polymer has a certain strength and resilience. Thus, searching through a polymer configuration space to find a polymer with at least that level of strength and resilience constitutes a search for an objectively given pattern qua target. If such a polymer is found and if the target within which it resides has small uniform probability, then a considerable amount of information needs to be incorporated in an assisted search for it to be successful, a fact that will be reflected in the information measure I as applied to the canonical exchange probability (i.e., I(µ0|U)).

It certainly doesn't look like Dembski is "answering the toughest questions about intelligent design" here. It looks much more like Mark Perakh is right that Dembski is evading the toughest questions (and, in fact, N-1 of the questions) concerning his claims about NFL, regress, and displacement. And here's a particularly silly piece of prose by Dembski:

Intelligence acts by changing probabilities. Equivalently, intelligence acts by generating information. For instance, a slab of marble temporarily has a high probability of remaining unchanged. Then, without warning, Michelangelo decides to sculpt David, and the probability of that marble slab taking on a new form (i.e., receiving new information) now changes dramatically.

Michaelango did not "act by changing probabilities". Michaelangelo acted by taking a hammer and chisel and whacking off the pieces of marble that weren't David. The statue of David was sculpted by the expedient of physical action, not by "changing probabilities". Michaelangelo could have cogitated all he wanted concerning how he might like the piece of marble to look when he was done without having the slightest effect on the shape of the marble right up until the time he actually applied the chisel to the rock. The "probabilities" are a topic of our analysis, and not a mechanism of action. Dembski has long had a fascination for the assertion that intelligence "generates" information. Yet Dembski has been remarkably reticent about saying how this happens. The whole "apparent CSI" vs. "actual CSI" split of Dembski's turns on Dembski's failure to address the issue of whether information is "generated" when an effective method is applied to a problem. Is information "generated" when an effective method is applied, or only when an effective method first arises? Dembski has never taken up this question and given a satisfactory answer. Part of his reticence may be that if mere application of an effective method does not qualify as "generating" CSI, then the only way left for "generating" CSI by intelligent agents is via irrationality. It is unlikely that Dembski wants to assert the creation of CSI by his preferred intelligent designer comes from irrational processes.

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Dembski's Disembling from Deinonychus antirrhopus on May 29, 2005 12:45 AM

Well, William Dembski is at it again. Coming up with nonsensical responses to critiques of his work. This one is in response to H. Allen Orr's article in the New Yorker. First up is this comment, Orr’s criticisms of Behe’s work are the same ones that h... Read More

Dembski's Dissembling from Deinonychus antirrhopus on May 29, 2005 4:13 PM

Well, William Dembski is at it again. Coming up with nonsensical responses to critiques of his work. This one is in response to H. Allen Orr's article in the New Yorker. First up is this comment, Orr’s criticisms of Behe’s work are the same ones that h... Read More

40 Comments

How dare Wolpert question the ‘Isaac Newton of Information Theory’!

How dare Wolpert question the ‘Isaac Newton of Information Theory’!

Maybe Wolpert is the “Leibnitz of Information Theory.”

I notice that DaveScot is not addressing the effective method issue and its relation to the meaning of “generating information”.

As I already noted, and DaveScot overlooks, probabilities are what we assign in our analysis. Reification does not make a silly statement less silly.

“Intelligence is the ability to take knowledge and experience of cause and effect, form an abstract model of possible futures based on that knowledge and experience, then physically act to change the probabilities to favor a more desireable future.”

You made sense until the point where you just tacked on a nonsensical ending so that it sounds like you agree with Dembski. Can you point us to any place on this site where you have ever mentioned this idea before?

Your argument also reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about for some time: any meaningful definition of intelligence gives us a picture of information management that is FAR more inefficient than mechanisms like natural selection. There are at least two transfers of information even in the most ideal and perfect case, and there is the unbelieveably complex process of modeling and causal prediction.

In short, natural selection, where information about the environment is imprinted on the gene pool directly, without any massive reorganization or transfers, seems far more plausible and information efficient, though slower and highly wasteful of physical resources.

I made it through the first page of Dembski’s screed before I caught an elementary error, so I stopped. Dembski set up his search problem as looking through an entire sequence space of 20100 protein sequences for the single best solution. This means that he does not know, or he ignores, the common idea that evolutionary searches do not converge to a single point in sequence space. Rather, as Sewall Wright pointed out in the last century, evolutionary searches are mathematically landscapes. In other words, there are many local optima.

What we see as a fixed point is simply something a particular peak of the rugged landscape. Unless conditions change, it isn’t going anywhere, because any movement would require a movement to a position of less fitness. This concept has also been applied to, e.g., the protein folding problem, with considerable success.

Redundancy in biology may be related to the ruggedness of the landscape. If solutions are only local optima, then it is likely that other (not directly selected) functions will be retained, hence available for coevolution, another function, etc.

Please, could someone competent tell me if I’m on the wrong track here?

Dembski Wrote:

By intelligence, here, I mean something quite definite, namely, the causal factors that change one probability distribution into another …

Intelligence acts by changing probabilities. Equivalently, intelligence acts by generating information.

…

This definition of intelligence as the causal factors responsible for changes in probabilities or, equivalently, for net increases in information is noncircular and, on reflection, should seem unproblematic.

So, if intelligence is defined as a cause that transforms probability distributions, isn’t a reparameterization intelligent? Here I’m refering to the well-known problem in likelihoodist and Bayesian statistics that simply reparameterizing a variable changes its probability distribution (though not the point of maximum likelihood). For example, taking the square of a value vs. the unsquared value. If nothing else, it appears that Dembski’s def of intelligence has no absolute basis since no given parameterization is absolute.

By the same logic, wouldn’t a Markov chain be intelligent?

And since both selection and mutation (even just purifying selection or completely random mutation) change the probability distribution of a population of alleles, they must also have “Dembskian intelligence”.

Syntax Error: mismatched tag at line 1, column 228, byte 228 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.16/mach/XML/Parser.pm line 187.

While the mathematics is beyond me the arguments vindicate my view that there is no displacement problem - rather a displacement strategy.

Faced with the failure of his attempts to argue against evolution directly Dembski is now arguing that the life’s capability to evolve must itself be the product of design.

Well, when arguing from ignorance it is certainly a good strategy to focus on areas which are less well understood. However, it must be said that this is an apologetic strategy rather than a scientific one. Good science seeks to build on our understanding, not run away from it in order to maintain a preconceived idea.

Theobold Wrote:

And since both selection and mutation (even just purifying selection or completely random mutation) change the probability distribution of a population of alleles, they must also have “Dembskian intelligence”.

Yes indeed, that appears to be the case. Life, even at the molecular scale, exhibits properties of intelligence. The question is at what point is it merely the inevitable result of purely deterministic chemistry and where does self-awareness step in with the ability to use abstract thought to direct physical processes towards desired outcomes. Maybe it never steps in and self-awareness/free-will is just another illusion in the most Dawkinsian tradition of grand illusions. On the other hand, maybe transposable elements in the DNA helix are acting as mutable logic gates in a biological computer and intelligence does arise at a level that basic through that mechanism. The jury is still out.

In Life’s Devices Conway Morris showed the right way for a believer to save his pride, if not his piety, while capitulating to the overwhelming evidence. Simply claim that God designed the nature of things so that natural selection inevitably converges on a handful of solutions, including, of course, intelligent bipeds. That way your theology, like a Murphy bed, swings out of the way when not in use; and you don’t have to waste everybody’s time with a lot of special pleading a la Dempski.

DaveScot: Theobold wrote: And since both selection and mutation (even just purifying selection or completely random mutation) change the probability distribution of a population of alleles, they must also have “Dembskian intelligence”.

Yes indeed, that appears to be the case. Life, even at the molecular scale, exhibits properties of intelligence. The question is at what point is it merely the inevitable result of purely deterministic chemistry and where does self-awareness step in with the ability to use abstract thought to direct physical processes towards desired outcomes. Maybe it never steps in and self-awareness/free-will is just another illusion in the most Dawkinsian tradition of grand illusions. On the other hand, maybe transposable elements in the DNA helix are acting as mutable logic gates in a biological computer and intelligence does arise at a level that basic through that mechanism. The jury is still out.

Yes, of course. And since temperature and pressure affect the probability distribution of the relative positions of a population of water molecules, or carbon atoms, we conclude that even the most trivial chemical-physical phenomenon, not just life, “exhibits properties of intelligence”.

That’s some seminal progress for the ID elimination argument: going from defining intelligence as everything that is not determined by physical law or chance, to re-define it to include physical laws. Next, they’ll re-re-define “intelligence” to include chance, and claim total victory.

Dembski:

“…taking on a new form (i.e., receiving new information)…”

That there provides a fine example of the massive wrong-headedness of Creationist (including ID-ist) thinking about “information”, and just what it is, and just how it plays in this debate.

Haven’t we always been told that randomness and blind selection can’t “create new information”? Well, if taking on a new form is all that’s required, then that’s fairly easily demonstrated as false. But really it just shows that base misunderstanding: information is seen as something (fully, in the hardest sense possible) “out there” in the world, rather than something that is better characterized as being “where you find it”.

Jim, Re “Simply claim that God designed the nature of things so that natural selection inevitably converges on a handful of solutions, including, of course, intelligent bipeds.” Why require it to be bipeds? If the goal is intelligent beings, I’d think the physical shape could be whatever works, whether its erect biped, or Flipper.

Henry

Not to mention that mutation/selection doesn’t have to “create” the information; it simply reads it from the environment. Analogous to a person learning something about the world via the senses.

Henry

What in Dr. Dembski’s mind then is _not_ the result of an assisted search? In particular, what prevents one from always prescribing an infinitely sized search space to any observed phenomena such that the induced uniform probability measure approches zero?

If nothing, Dr. Dembski’s argument is philosophical in nature – he is merely asserting that everything is designed. But that rather renders his conclusions trivial.

A few interesting observations nonetheless. Dembski scrupulously avoids using the variable K1 which is supposed to measure the size of his target space. [K1 = 1 for the space of 100 aa proteins that have a particular function?? some function?? LOL, whatever.] In his proof of this displacement theorem, K1 = K*p, where presumably as K approaches infinity, p approaches zero. But is K1 fixed or can it approach infinity as K approaches infinity? In particular, how does this affect his upper bound estimates? Consider the right hand side on p. 25. It is stated only in terms of p, q, and K. Where is K1? If you do the algebra, it actually exists anytime there is a K*p term.

Also, why should q, the exchange probability of the assited search, remain fixed as K approaches infinity? Coevolution?

Finally, note a parodoxical behavior of Dembski’s probability equation on p. 25. In the limit as q->0, U(T) approaches one. After all, this is just the equation for a regularized incomplete beta function (search Mathworld). When q = 0, then the terms cancel and you get identity. When q = 1, then integral is zero. Further, the integral is a monotonically increasing function of 1-q. This means that as the assisted search becomes worse and worse( i.e. q gets smaller, though still q > p ), the probability of finding one in the higher order search space becomes more and more likely.

But, what does it matter if at the same time K1, the size of the target space, become larger and larger? I guess it means that there are just more targets to search. But in practical matters, there’s no reason to believe that we can’t start arbitrarily close to a useful target in the first place.

Well, I’ve given my morning read of this, and I can’t conclude that this result has any utility in evolutionary research. Anybody else?

My .02.

Fine-tuning and what-not have been put in the “Bathroom Wall” thread. Please pick up the discussion there.

Henry J. Wrote:

Not to mention that mutation/selection doesn’t have to “create” the information; it simply reads it from the environment. Analogous to a person learning something about the world via the senses.

I’ll quibble on this. Mutation/selection isn’t “reading” information. Our descriptions of the environment are long, therefore we assign a high information content to it. But what natural selection operates off of is differential reproductive success, which in evolutionary computation simulations can be done even when the only “information” coming back from an evaluation function (the part of an evolutionary computation that corresponds to the constraints of the environment) is a ranking of candidates (see my draft paper on challenges to evolutionary computation). Simply working from relative data on the current candidates is not information of the environment or information somehow read from the environment.

Andrea Bottaro Wrote:

That’s some seminal progress for the ID elimination argument: going from defining intelligence as everything that is not determined by physical law or chance, to re-define it to include physical laws.  Next, they’ll re-re-define “intelligence” to include chance, and claim total victory.

I think Dembski already has, since chance can certainly change a probability distribution. Random mutation is of course an extremely important cause of change in distributions of allelic populations.

For instance, a slab of marble temporarily has a high probability of remaining unchanged. Then, without warning, Michelangelo decides to sculpt David, and the probability of that marble slab taking on a new form (i.e., receiving new information) now changes dramatically.

Compare two circumstances–Michelangelo’s marble slab, and a marble slab that forms the ceiling of a large room in a cave. Without warning, a little bit more dissolution of calcite removes just a bit more of the rock providing support to this slab, which crashes to the cave floor, dramatically taking on a new form. The new form may not resemble David (although there may be those who swear it’s the Virgin Mary). Now, don’t tell me that the inexorabillity of subterranean erosion means the cave slab already had a higher probability of having its form changed; the fact that a marble slab was quarried and put in a sculptor’s studio means that slab was very likely to change shape.

So is gravity just as intelligent as a sculptor? Is the Creator of the Face on Mars less intelligent because the individual represented by that “sculpture” has not been identified?

Generally Dembski’s paper extends the NFL theorem. His critics seem to have focused on how the theorem does not apply in a specific case (biological evolution). (But how much general can you get?!) Wolpert & McCready have addressed that. Biological evolution is formally equivalent to the average-case they examine. The number of different optimization problems that biological evolution must (can?) solve isn’t even considered explicitly in formal biological theory—except by some rather extreme and unreal simplifications (all of which even Dembski accepts). Can you imagine how many different functions must be optimized in the course of biological evolution?! I’m sorry, but you expect me to accept Wolpert’s paragraph length “criticism”? Wolpert (& McCready) can first respond to his critics. Dembski’s not a critic of NFL theorems. He has extended them.

“It certainly doesn’t look like Dembski is “answering the toughest questions about intelligent design” here.”

I’m not going to address the “tough questions” part. Dembski responds to taunting by not responding. I can understand that. When his critics pose some “tough questions” maybe he’ll respond. Who knows? Only Dembski.

“Michaelango did not ‘act by changing probabilities’.” You’ve made a fundamental mistake in reasoning. Let’s see if the “critics” are capable of criticizing their own reasoning. Tell me what the mistake is.

“Dembski has long had a fascination for the assertion that intelligence “generates” information. Yet Dembski has been remarkably reticent about saying how this happens.”

An argument that I have long repeated. How does evolution “generate information”? It doesn’t. Never. You haven’t read Dembski’s paper or have failed to understand the basic point. “Generate” is too much like “Create” to me. Even though I use both terms. “Generating” information amts to creating energy! You and Dembski don’t accept the same premise do you? Is Wesley Elsberry a “closet creationist”? Are all “evolutionists” closet creationists?! Generate = Create?!

“Effective method”? You mean computable? And how does Dembski not address “effective methods”? If these are also formally equivalent to computable functions.

(Casual readers, partisans and critics alike, should not be discouraged by the arcana of the second half of the paper. This is Dembski working out a problem that would only concern a mathematician. If he hasn’t already solved. LOL Mathematical Proof of the Existence of God.)

It’s no wonder that he doesn’t respond. To respond would be to imply a validation.

There is nothing here to respond to!

[There were some good questions asked by “lurker.” E.g., “In particular, what prevents one from always prescribing an infinitely sized search space to any observed phenomena such that the induced uniform probability measure approches zero?” Except the universe, as far as we know, is finite. And it doesn’t even matter whether it is or not. We are finite. “Finally, note a parodoxical behavior … “ A good question. This means that as the assisted search becomes worse and worse( i.e. q gets smaller, though still q > p ), the probability of finding one in the higher order search space becomes more and more likely.” This troubled me also. Making a “translation” from lower to higher to lower order spaces. Dembski struggles with it. As is plain from the second half of his paper. It is an outstanding problem, but very much explored. He is following Kantorovich if I’m not mistaken.]

Wesley Elsberry’s challenges were inconsequential.]

I asked: “In particular, what prevents one from always prescribing an infinitely sized search space to any observed phenomena such that the induced uniform probability measure approches zero?” Rock ([Enable javascript to see this email address.]), deeming that there is nothing here to respond to, replies: “Except the universe, as far as we know, is finite. And it doesn’t even matter whether it is or not. We are finite.”

Indeed. I would simply restate it as a personal philsophical observation: positing infinite regresses are ultimately neither interesting problems nor interesting solutions. Why should I care about Dembski’ displacement theorem, which is nothing more than a mathematical restatement of turtles-all-the-way-down? Especially, when he doesn’t have a nontrivial answer himself?

The exception that Rock makes for the universe being finite rather renders Dembski’s paper toothless. In order for him to apply a search space “higher” than evolutionary processes, it would imply the existence of other universes over which those “other” search spaces exist. Who would think it – Dembski is a closet believer in multiverses!

On the other hand, if one rejects Rock’s analysis that because the universe is finite, we cannot apply infinite search spaces… then so what? What is the physical significance of Dembski’s ‘higher search space’? Does a water molecule flowing down a river exhaustively search some ‘higher order space’ in the proverbial blink of any eye before it moves an infinitessimal distance in some direction? I claim ignorance. I am simply interested in the point of the paper, if Dembski’s overt conclusion is that everything is designed.

In any case, the jury is still out regarding the mathematics. Dembski has made the argument that he can capture the probability space of all search algorithms by substituting them for induced probability distributions. This seems suspect and I brought this point out in Mark Perakh’s blog entry, posted later.

Let me illustrate by simulating an application of Dembski’s theorem: suppose I want to search for an irrational number on the real number line – say I am happy that it is within some epsilon tolerance of an irrational. According to Dembski: K1 = K*p. What is K1 and K, the size of the target space (i.e. the set of all irrational numbers) and the search space (i.e. the set of all real numbers), respectively? Well they’re both infinite. What is p, then? I dunno. But Dembski seems to imply that as K -> infinity, p always goes to zero. In any case, suppose that I have discovered an algorithm (or rather a process) that result in an irrational number nearly all the time. According to Dembski, then, this would be quite a find – indicative of design! Has anybody heard of a natural process resulting in an irrational number? Perhaps a few?

So… back to my question: What has Dembski demonstrated regarding irrational numbers?

Well, there seems to be no pleasing ID cheerleaders like ARN’s “Rock”. I’ll settle for inducing a state of those-ID-arguments-aren’t-all-they-are-cracked-up-to-be in readers who don’t have the same sort of ideological precommitment.

Dembski’s ill-treatment of critics goes far beyond ‘not responding to taunting’. There’s plenty of serious criticism that Dembski has given the cold shoulder to. As Dembski’s “Backlash” article indicates, Dembski is using a strategy of finessing criticism to artificially make himself look good, and to heck with any sort of accepted standards of scholarship.

If someone can present a convincing argument to me as to why I am in error on some point, I am quite willing to acknowledge that and not use erroneous argument in the future. Contrast that with Dembski’s approach to treating correction, as illustrated back before No Free Lunch was published when I notified Dembski of a problem in his description of Dawkins’s “weasel” program. Dembski said it had three components, and stated each. Unfortunately, two out of the three appear nowhere in Dawkins’s writings. Having brought this to Dembski’s attention well before the publication date of NFL, I was flabbergasted to find that Dembski had retained the erroneous description without change in that book. This wasn’t something that would cause any big shift in Dembski’s argument; as far as I could tell, all Dembski would have needed to do to fix it would have been to write two or three paragraphs of accurate description and delete the criticism that was based upon the erroneous reading of Dawkins. One will see upon reading Dembski’s books that the “notes” for each chapter commonly credit other ID advocates with having clarified some point made in the text; it is exceedingly rare for Dembski to mention a critic in the same fashion.

http://www.antievolution.org/people[…]e_weasel.txt

As far as “challenges” go, I’ve published a specific set of those with Jeff Shallit. It’s section 12 of

http://www.antievolution.org/people[…]sdembski.pdf

or pick up the Reports of the National Center for Science Education:

W. Elsberry and J. Shallit. 2003. Eight challenges for intelligent design advocates. Reports of the NCSE 23(5-6):23–25.

These aren’t outlandish. It’s pretty much a list of stuff that (1) would exist if a real attempt had been made to validate a science-shaking procedure or (2) would indicate that the procedure had some utility in solving outstanding scientific problems.

Sorry, lurker, I still don’t understand the point about an infinite probability space. (Or the argument to irrational numbers either! Seems rather forced, extraneous or tangential at best.) Maybe it’s a question for Dembski; but what exactly would be the important difference between an infinite probability space and an (potentially) infinite number of nested or embedded finite spaces? Is this one of those “Can’t Win 4 Losing” sort of criticisms. Dembski has to do this the way I say it should be done—but if he does what I say I’m going to criticize it. This is what I refer to as “gamesmanship.” I don’t consider it criticism. Also, just for the sake of accuracy, I did criticize glibly Dembski’s paper as a “turtles all the way down” argument. I subsequently retracted the remark, simply on the basis of reflecting on what I myself had said. Rather than respond reflexively all I had to do was give it a little thought and I saw a possible way out of the regress. I did not explain then and I will not now. I wanna see if anyone else gives it any thought or whether its all gonna be knee-jerk reaction.

I suppose I earned the disparaging appellation from Elsberry. But “ID cheerleader”? There are critics and then there are critics. And I’ve been both. Elsberry & Shallit repeat a criticism of ID that I have rehearsed frequently at ARN: Where is the positive theoretical statement of intelligent design? It’s the very first question I posted at ARN some four years ago: Is there a theory of intelligent design? I have never received a very satisfying answer to that question. But my criticism goes much further then theirs. (Yet I’m an “ID cheerleader.”) If Dembski cannot provide a positive accounting of design then surely his critics can. After all, if the basic thesis of these arguments is “Evolution XOR Design?” then someone has to know what design and designing is. Everyone thinks they know something about evolution. Few people seem to be capable of making a positive accounting of design. Why should that be? Human beings are Home faber. We’re designers. Design is an ancient art and craft and a modern science. But it’s the one thing almost no one talks about! So I’ve characterized this debate as a glorified “argument from the ignorance of design.” It’s poor form to argue about something you don’t know anything about. (That never stopped me, however.)

It’s not a question to be glossed or dismissed because for natural scientists to practice natural science they must be able to discriminate positively between the natural and the artificial. No one can be said to be truly practicing natural science (or the sciences of the artificial either) if they don’t know what the difference is. Its just as fundamental a question as that.

Elsberry & Shallit may not think its incumbent upon them to supply Dembski with what he’s lacking—i.e., tell me what a design is. (Dembski saying that a “design” is something that’s incredibly improbable is not an answer to me. It’s a question.) But E & S do graciously take a stab at it. But they provide only a partial answer. We must be careful here, because half-a-truth may be worse than a complete error. In their conception design is effectively equivalent to, reducible to, some “causal-regularity.” (If I got it even half-right, LOL. Assuming the role of a critic is taking a risk–hazarding the possibility that you’ve just idiotically misapprehended everything you’re criticizing. But what can ya do? It’s gotta be done.) If I recall correctly, they wrote something like designers just become another causal regularity. Whatever problems that may pose for Dembski don’t really interest me. All that interests me is that it is only partly correct. Reducing design to “mechanization” is only one aspect of design. Important. But not definitive. Design (like all science) also involves intuition, ingenuity, imagination, creativity. And many other things, not so readily reducible to “causal regularities.” Design science (which is a science, by the way) is mostly about those aspects of designing and designers. Design and designers are the objects of scientific investigation. I suppose if we are to argue meaningfully about such matters, and I think Elsberry & Shallit may agree, we should avail ourselves of such knowledge. But haven’t Elsberry & Shallit opened themselves up to legitimate criticism? Do they sincerely believe that everything about design (that we know) is so reducible. And how might we actually verify that?

Is it possible to explore the matter further? I think so. Elsberry & Shallit, ask questions about “intentions” and “identity.” Well, let’s accept that design is at least partially reducible (Presumably via design and hazarding a step into the infinite regress.) to mechanisms or induced “causal regularities.” Is there anything about designers, their intentions and identities, even if only in a general and speculative way, that we may infer from that? Why are designers so interested apparently in consistently predictable outcomes attributable to known causally regularized (“mechanized”) processes?

Anyone care to guess, speculate, bullshit?

Is it the role of a “critic” to simply fill the air with challenges? If we are going to pose questions as challenges we certainly must have some idea what the answers might be?

I have other problems with the Elsberry & Shallit critique. But it hardly seems worth pursuing since we need to first decide what “design” is. Like I said, I don’t think its what Dembski says it is and I don’t think its what E & S say either. Back to square one. I can think of no better way to criticize Dembski then to do what he hasn’t done yet: Make a definitive statement about design and designing. Something I’ve done repeatedly. Please point me to the critic (or cheerleader) who has done that?

Ya know, lots of problems in communications are solved simply enough by defining your terms. Hardly needs to be said, does it?

I argue that human design could be well understood evolutionarily. No human being designs de novo, and furthermore, most innovative designs are often seen as serendipitous in nature – especially, whenever a surprising discovery of no initial value precedes a novel application. If not serendipitous, then designs are usually variants of, or employ wholesale, existing themes and discoveries. This implies design occurs only in a proper historical context, and often in incremental steps. Rather evolutionary.

The idea that anyone who merely put a truckload of intuition, ingenuity, imagination, creativity, or whatever other vague qualifier of intelligence, could come up with a design is missing the nature of human design. Engineers routinely go through multiple reproductions of a putative design, before settling on candidate drafts. Oftentimes, engineers even concede (if even prematurely) that no design is feasible. And then, when a human design is born, there are no shortages of discoveries that the initial design concept was short-sighted. No rational engineer ever stakes his lot on her design being universal and everlasting. These regular examples of failures, despite the truckload of intuition, ingenuity, imagination, and creativity being applied, illustrate a very evolutionary process. Do engineers not search?

The upshot is that it has never been demonstrated (I)ntelligence is sufficient for design. Depending on which side of the culture war you’re on, you merely assert one way or another. If intelligence is not sufficient, then there are other (preferably physical) processes at play. If it is, then (I)ntelligence is often treated as the magical powder that sprinkled on a problem magically provides a solution. And we don’t want to analyze magical powders too closely – because then they lose their mystique! Unfortunately, the typical arguments harp on whether (I)ntelligence is necessary for design. These arguments then quickly de-evolve into uninformative, tautological statements equating intelligence with designing. Case in point: if evolution designs (a la Dembski by changing probabilities), then coopt evolution as an intelligent process (or even intelligently designed). These restatements are useless.

To see my point, let’s have Rock tell us what constitutes intuition, ingenuity, imagination, and creativity. Rock knows that they aren’t reducible to causal regularities, but that doesn’t tell us what those things are. But what’s the other name for acausal regularities ( or causal irregularities? or acausal irregularities )? Well, so far, I am pretty sure one of them is those damned random processes that no one really likes. Can creative sparks be understood as random with respect to design? Aww… shame on me for using that dirty R word.

Finally, Rock suggests that the world must be understood in black and white / natural vs. artificial. Indeed, natural science, Rock tells us, won’t work without this discriminator. Bullshit. Artificial is merely an anthropocentric label we place on “our” designs (even when so many of them are borrowed from just observing natural phenomena) so that we can make them objects of worship for generations to come, and then marvel at our own ingenuity. Frankly, I don’t think Mother Nature could give a damn about Her artificial creations’ artificial creations, that She could not wipe out with time.

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Well, one obvious model would be if the alleged designer used methods resembling those of human geneticists. In that case I’d suggest looking for sections of functional dna in one clade but totally missing from its closest relative. Or sections of functional dna that matches too closely between species in way different clades.

Re “And we don’t want to analyze magical powders too closely – because then they lose their mystique!” Yeah - consider an ability to try a few billion “experiments” at once to see if any of them work better than average, combined with an ability to “remember” the ones with better results. Granted it lacks the sort of quality control we expect from an engineer, and it lacks the ability to mix and match complex developments from separate lineages, but… well, on second thought, maybe that combination by itself isn’t all that intelligent.

Henry

It is funny, in a way. C’mon, Doc. I imply. You infer. You imply. I infer. Which is it? All I wrote was that you ask the same questions I ask (over the years), express the same frustration with “non-answers.” Yet I’m relegated to the sidelines (as a “cheerleader”) but you’re criticisms demand a response.

I won’t respond to the other misconstruals of what I wrote. Since after all that amts to a trivial test of reading comprehension. But I did offer what I thought may be a substantive criticism of Elsberry & Shallit. Reducing “design” to “causal regularity” reduces design to what scientists have traditionally defined as a “law of nature.” Anyone here prepared to admit design as a law of nature? What kind of “criticism” is that?! Isn’t that what Dembski wants?!

I expected response in kind. A week has gone by and I am prepared to “wait for it.” Will it be eight years or more?

Let me just restate what I thought was basic: “It’s not a question to be glossed or dismissed because for natural scientists to practice natural science they must be able to discriminate positively between the natural and the artificial. No one can be said to be truly practicing natural science (or the sciences of the artificial either) if they don’t know what the difference is. Its just as fundamental a question as that.”

We must know what a design is, and admit/reject it on the basis of what we know. And if not, what is the basis of the “criticism”? Is it just what I said, “a glorified ‘argument from the ignorance of design.’”

It is funny, in a way. C’mon, Doc. I imply. You infer. You imply. I infer. Which is it? All I wrote was that you ask the same questions I ask (over the years), express the same frustration with “non-answers.” Yet I’m relegated to the sidelines (as a “cheerleader”) but you’re criticisms demand a response.

I won’t respond to the other misconstruals of what I wrote. Since after all that amts to a trivial test of reading comprehension. But I did offer what I thought may be a substantive criticism of Elsberry & Shallit. Reducing “design” to “causal regularity” reduces design to what scientists have traditionally defined as a “law of nature.” Anyone here prepared to admit design as a law of nature? What kind of “criticism” is that?! Isn’t that what Dembski wants?!

I expected response in kind. A week has gone by and I am prepared to “wait for it.” Will it be eight years or more?

Let me just restate what I thought was basic: “It’s not a question to be glossed or dismissed because for natural scientists to practice natural science they must be able to discriminate positively between the natural and the artificial. No one can be said to be truly practicing natural science (or the sciences of the artificial either) if they don’t know what the difference is. Its just as fundamental a question as that.”

We must know what a design is, and admit/reject it on the basis of what we know. And if not, what is the basis of the “criticism”? Is it just what I said, “a glorified ‘argument from the ignorance of design.’”

Just to remind everybody: there’s can’t be an absolute distinction between the natural and the artficial unless designers are somehow able to transcend natural laws in creating things. So far as we know, they can’t.

We must know what a design is, and admit/reject it on the basis of what we know.

These ARN rejects are even more pathetic than our usual trolls.

What we know is that we have zilcho zero zip nada evidence that mysterious alien beings flit about the universe designing and creating entire planet’s worth of life forms.

That is why “design” is rejected (along with the fact that ID creationists are about as credible and honest as your typical Sasquatch biologist).

Bye now. Send me your address and I’ll send you my bill and a 1 oz vial in the shape of a cross containing infusion of water from the Red Sea and 2 picograms of Elvis’ belly-button lint – great stuff, cures everything, yours to keep for only $79.95.

Design is the modification of the behaviour of some system. Can we agree on this, Rock?

Modifying the behavior of a system would be engineering. Design would be the planning of the mod prior to actually implementing it. Why do ID people insist on saying “design” when they mean “engineer”?

Just thought I’d ask.

Henry

This is a semantics problem, and I would like a common ground with ID people. But you’ve put the finger on the matter, HenryJ … is the Design that Rock speaks of, is it a particular causal sequence (i.e. “planning”) to the modification of some system behavior, or is it the modification of the system behavior itself?

In the case of the latter, I agree with Rock that it is a trivial act to recognize “design.” Systems change (dare I say evolve) and as a result sometimes their behavior changes significantly. I don’t agree with Rock that explaining these changes in behaviors (i.e. reducing them to causal regularities) necessarily relegates “design” as a “law of nature.” For instance, adding more protons, neutrons, and electrons to an atom during fusion often changes their behavior in room temperature chemistry, but is that observation sufficient to designate fusion a “law of nature”? Perhaps it should. I don’t care – more semantics acting as scare tactics. Noone has argued that Dembski and Rock are not entitled to writing down new laws of nature, even if they are ones nobody in the end cares about.

In the case of the former, I think fph makes a good point that it is not evident why an external teleology or a theory of the mind needs to be invoked, especially with regards to biological evolution. Rock’s list of intuition, ingenuity, imagination, and creativity are mushy phenomena that, though not yet well understood, neurological evidence currently suggests that a significant physical component to them. Rock needs to demystify these four components, rather than appeal to question-begging. For instance in some Far East cultures, the Qi is claimed to be a force that influences human affairs. Is Imagination simply Qi acting through our minds? How does Imagination effect Design? Gene Roddenberry imagined a faster than light method of space travel. Rock, can you show us how to harness Gene’s imagination towards an actual design?

Further, as fph argues convincingly, Rock’s list is rather incomplete. To it we must add the existence of a system whose behavior is to be modified; a history / record of the evolution of this system (whether natural or “artificial”); a selective pressure amongst available designs (i.e. a problem); resources for implementing a change in system behavior, etc. Without any of these additional components, would an unguided application of Rock’s 4 phenomena be _Intelligent_ Design?

To answer your question then, HenryJ, I would think that Design is not about the planning, as the Intelligent aspect of ID then becomes quite redundant (e.g. can planning ever be non-intelligent?). But, really, it doesn’t matter what we think, since we’re not the ones advocating ID as a scientific revolution. I’m merely trying to meet Rock half way. The ball hasn’t left his court.

Finally, Rock expects to be reciprocated “in kind” with the responses. Perhaps, Rock, you means to expect more churlish commentary like “Rather than respond reflexively all I had to do was give it a little thought and I saw a possible way out of the regress. I did not explain then and I will not now. I wanna see if anyone else gives it any thought or whether its all gonna be knee-jerk reaction.” If you mean this to be an exercise in empty posturing, Rock, then I’ll gladly let you respond to yourself in kind.

John Wilkins has just what the doctor ordered: http://evolvethought.blogspot.com/

Wilkins to the rescue!

Adaptation is both the object of design and the outcome of evolution. Adaptation is not a “projection.” Might as well say life is a “projection.” There’s a thoroughgoing “eliminativist” argument! But why stop there?! We can eliminate anything and everything this way. Let’s call this eliminativist idea exactly what it is: It is a denial of science. It’s elimination. After all, why isn’t all science a “projection”? What happens when I eliminate “projection”? “Think of the confusion that would be avoided.” That’s just it though, isn’t it? Avoidance. “Design and its cognate terms are projections. The question is not whether they are projections, but in what circumstances it increases our knowledge of the things we ascribe them to. In other words, when is the function of a model properly applied to the thing modelled?”–Wilkins

Lurker offers, “Design is the modification of the behaviour of some system.” What it lacks is the rationale for the modification. This is supplied by an objective, not “projective,” fact. A biological imperative: Adapt or die. Design (evolution) is the selective modification of the behavior of some system per functional requirements given operating conditions. So Wilkins “argument from the ignorance of design,” that “Design is context-sensitive to the interests of the designer, not the interests of the observer,” whatever that’s so supposed to mean, isn’t true. As with Elsberry & Shallit’s ideas—it’s half-a-fact. Design is context-sensitive. That’s all that’s really said here.

“The answer is a purely epistemic one: when the model successfully describes the thing.”—Wilkins

Spoken like a true philosopher—as usually getting it half-right. The answer is never an “epistemic one.” (Observer-dependent.) It is an empirical one. While scientists practice epistemics and empirics, philsophers pipe and wonder why the scientists don’t dance. What if I made a substitution? Evolution and its cognate terms are projections. This whole Orwellian semanitic “eliminativist” endeavor isn’t going to make either design or evolution go away by policing the language. Biologists will still conduct their discourse in the vulgar tongue.

“Designs are abstractions based on how we model things.” No actually, designs are material objects and systems constructed from theoretically and empirically grounded models. Abstractions are designs. So it amts to saying, designs are designs, designs are abstractions, abstractions are designs, and abstractions are abstractions. I feel all the richer knowing that.

“So I want not just a desert ontology, as Quine proposed, but a rigidly physical one, in biology.” So, we fire all the biologists and hire physicists to replace them. A Human Resources Department solution to an embarrassment of language. What makes Wilkins assume that physicists wouldn’t use the same discomfitting tropes to describe biology as the biologists? Physicists practice physics, biologists practice biology, and when philosophers do either of those things they will decide on what is the “proper language.” Untill then, Go fish!

Here’s an idea—eliminate the eliminativist argument from our language. Problem solved! Free lunch and free desert! All it cost was your brain!

“That’s enough about design. It’s really rather boring.”—Wilkins

I can agree with this much—“Design” as narrowly conceived and explicated by philosophers and theologins, purely in theologocal and philosophical “projections,” is boring and ‘nuff said. By why should I accept theologians’ and philosophers’ “projections”? All they design is philosophy and theology. Castles in the clouds. But on the eliminativist thesis they don’t even do that!

According to Rock, “Design (evolution) is the selective modification of the behavior of some system per functional requirements given operating conditions.”

And yet in the end I don’t believe that he has given us anything more profound than the notions of design provided by Wilkins or myself. Rock thinks Wilkins’ definition is too restrictive (“eliminitavist”), but my definition is too broad. Ironically, he engages in eliminitavist language himself to sneak in teleology back into my original definition of design, using such ambiguous phrases as “selective modifications” and “functional requirements” and “given operating conditions” to constrain our understanding of design. What is selecting the modifications, prescribing the functions and giving the conditions? Apparently, it is this Rationale that exists independently of/external to the system to be modified. Sounds to me that Rock is performing exactly the epistemic juggling act that Wilkins describes. He merely insists that the two ton elephant of cosmic teleology is real.

To be sure, I really do not have problems with either Wilkins’ eliminitavist language or Rocks’ telic (and equally eliminitavist) language. The former pushes the problem of identifying design back to epistemology, the latter to murky, and largely rejected, philosophy. Rock complains that my notion of design lacks “rationale.” That’s fine, so long as he can successfully point out an a priori existence of a Rationale. That is, he needs to demonstrate an external or cosmic teleology. Otherwise, I don’t see how he can dismiss the idea that our rationales are abstractions which we formulate (always incompletely) as design concepts or principles ad hoc.

This argument is captured in what Rock considers a “biological imperative”: “adapt or die.” To me, this is no more illuminating than saying that a system must obey natural law or else… that a system must be or not be… that it must exist or not exist. Teleologic language is tricky! For instance, consider, teleologically speaking, death as a telic state. After all death is indispensable to evolving systems. If all systems become static and self-perpetuating, they consume resources that are no long available to other evolving systems. Thus, the teleologist concludes that in order for there to be dynamic systems, all systems must terminate or die. In other words, however absurd it sounds, a Rationale for systems is to die. This is the murkiness that teleologists swim through in order to transform existential properties of systems into necessary and a priori justifications of their existence.

In the end, Rock continues to treat design as a process that one can use to imbue a system with mystical properties once he summons the proper external influences. To intuition, ingenuity, imagination, and creativity, he adds selection, function, and condition. Pick a selective mechanism, prescribe a function, and give the operating conditions, then use some intuition, ingenuity, imagination, and creativity, and Design will rise. Rock conceives of Design as being irreducible to these mysterious processes, chiding others for not thinking his way. But this is where it makes it difficult to accept Rock’s notion of Design scientifically. Consider for instance Beethoven composing his 5th. If Beethoven’s fifth is to be scientifically tested as a Rock-design (i.e. a material object and system constructed from theoretically and empirically grounded models), then according to Rock, we should all be able to repeat the experiment that is the 5th … that is, once we pick a selective mechanism for choosing among musical compositions, prescribe a function represented by the 5th, give the operating conditions of musical symphonies, and capture Beethoven’s intuition, ingenuity, imagination, and creativity … then, we must compose Beethoven’s 5th. Is this teleological hypothesis testable? If not, does Rock admit that teleology is not scientific/empiric?

What Rock’s modification of my concept of design does is to introduce a barrier between the design (i.e. the system) and the designer (i.e. a force/Rationale external to the design/system). What if we treat the system to include the designer? Then, a system modification includes changes in the behavior of the system *and* the designer. There’s nothing novel about thinking of designs that include interacting systems – indeed this is captured by my original conception of Design. In this framework, then Rock’s design definition is better understood as the modification of some system behavior by another system such that the aggregate system exhibits a novel behavior. Put another way, a designer cannot remain static with respect to his design, nor vice-versa. The act of designing actually designs the designer. Dynamic systems, thus, self-design/self-organize. Hardly controversial ideas.

One route I predict this discussion will take is about the nature of the mind, the system that typically one associates with a designer. Are minds irreducible properties of the universe? Are they indispensable to designs (i.e. system modifications)? The other route is to ask existential questions about the nature of designs. Do designs necessarily procede in constrained paths? Are there universal “laws of design”? These all seem to me to be fruitful areas of inquiry that are beholden to mechanistic/physicalist worldviews than teleological. But, I have jumped the gun.

Look, Lurker, is it possible for me to make an unassuming statement? There really is little prospect of a productive discussion if I have to constantly repeat what I said, and repeatedly defend what I didn’t say rather than what I did say. Is it possible for you to address anything I wrote without wild assumptions of what I may have meant by it? “He merely insists that the two ton elephant of cosmic teleology is real.” I do?! News to me! “That is, he needs to demonstrate an external or cosmic teleology.” I do?! Why do I need to do that? “In the end, Rock continues to treat design as a process that one can use to imbue a system with mystical properties once he summons the proper external influences.” I do? “Rock conceives of Design as being irreducible to these mysterious processes, chiding others for not thinking his way.” In fact I wrote the opposite! Why should have to quote myself? If you just read what I wrote, rather than read into what I wrote: “Reducing design to “mechanization” is only one aspect of design. Important. But not definitive. Design (like all science) also involves intuition, ingenuity, imagination, creativity.” And this simple statement of fact becomes some sort of “cosmic teleology”! (And people wonder why Dembski rarely deigns to enter these kinds of discussions. I don’t blame him! Ironically, he has a “cosmic teleology.” I don’t.) But, I did chide. But not for not thinking my way. But for not thinking. But you’ve supplied me with examples of way “over-thinking.” Your own assumptions have gone beyond grandiose and become truly cosmological! Really doesn’t have much to do with what I wrote. Rather than assume, why not just ask? Seems like the scientific, rational thing to do. Facilitates effective communication—simple thing like asking rather than assuming.

Teleology? “Sneak in teleology”? Did I mention teleology? If “selection,” “function,” and “conditions,” are “ambiguous” then what am I to make of evolutionary thought where these words are central theoretical constructs and empiricisms? You could have assumed that my usage of such terms conforms to how they are defined in the literature (or just a damn dictionary) and conforms with the common usage amongst scientists. But you didn’t assume that. Is evolutionary theory an “epistemic juggling act”? A “rejected philosophy”? I could eliminate them by philosophical fiat. At this point I’m not willing to eliminate design or evolution on the basis of any linguistic ambiguities or philosophical arguments. With a little work we can make our words mean what we mean by them. And for philosophy to be relevant to science it has to state empirically testable propositions. “Mystical properties”? “Mysterious processes”? Are, say, imagination and creativity, intuition and ingenuity “mystical” and “mysterious”? Nyah … I don’t think so. But I really don’t know. But no one, including myself, has much positive to say about such things. Nonetheless, I don’t think its useful to think of them as “mystical” and “mysterious.” They are the objects of ongoing scientific investigation. As I said.

“If Beethoven’s fifth is to be scientifically tested as a Rock-design (i.e. a material object and system constructed from theoretically and empirically grounded models), then according to Rock, we should all be able to repeat the experiment that is the 5th … “ Well, at least this does have something to do with something that I actually wrote. And it’s a good question. Replicating Beethoven’s experiment is unproblematic. Mozart did it. Prokoviev. Simon & Garfunkel. Etc. Etc. It’s called making music. Musicians follow the same basic procedures. Procedures to compose and perform music can be mechanized. So a musician can teach others how to do it. Computer programs can do it. But reproducing the results is not the object of the experiment. Quite the opposite. The object is to follow the same experimental procedures to obtain different results every time. So I make a distinction between replicating an experiment, a set of procedures, with reproducing results. Two different things. (Contrary to popular myth, science is only partly about reproducing results. It’s also about following a generalized set of logically formulated and empirically tested procedures or methods, called experimental, to obtain original, novel results.)

In the end these are “Hardly controversial ideas.” Wonderful! You mostly appeared to be arguing with yourself. Not actually over any thing I wrote or that (I believe) could be reasonably construed from anything I wrote.

Lurker offers, “Design is the modification of the behaviour of some system.” Well, except when design is not the modification of the behavior of some system. So, we’re both wrong about this—because sometimes design (and evolution) hold systems constant. But it just becomes more “ambiguous.” Now its change and not-change. The key, I believe is supplying the rationale. This is just the art of explaining. (I suspect that this is really what Wilkens objects to. This is why I think its ultimately disastrous for scientists—who only became scientists once they decided that the world was rationally comprehensible and that their comprehension could be tested empirically.) One might get the impression from this whole “creation/evolution” controversy that biologists accept as explanations such simple formulae as “Variation and selection.” They don’t. Anymore than they accept “God did it” as an explanation. Instead they provide elaborations (“rationalizations”) on that theme, referring to specific requirements and conditions. And these are provided in theory on a factual (not logical or philosophical) a priori basis. It accepts that life forms exist and that they are required to adapt to conditions. Hardly “profound,” as you say. Accepting the facts at face value probably doesn’t strike anyone as “profound” or terribly “illuminating;” lest we forget. It is a profoundly good policy however. I try to adhere to it.

But I do think there was an apparently controversial matter that happened to be glossed in all that: Design (evolution) is the selective modification of the behavior of some system per functional requirements given operating conditions. Design and evolution. What did I elide? No “categorical distinction”! The dilemma remains. Insofar as this is a reasonable description it intensifies the problem and certainly doesn’t resolve it: “It’s not a question to be glossed or dismissed because for natural scientists to practice natural science they must be able to discriminate positively between the natural and the artificial. No one can be said to be truly practicing natural science (or the sciences of the artificial either) if they don’t know what the difference is. Its just as fundamental a question as that.” I know they do it. How do they do it?

Lurker–“Are [minds] indispensable to designs (i.e. system modifications)?” No. I don’t believe so. Which is why no such “mindful” or personalized designer appeared in my description. Which was inclusive of evolution—which we usually conceive of as being a mindless designer. Like those computer programs that compose music.

(There is an example of a successful and productive “eliminativist” program in science, in mathematics and computer science. This was the effort to reduce (to mechanism) or restrict the ambience of or reliance upon intuition, etc.)

I agree, Rock, that there’s too much reductionism/eliminativism in Wilkins’ design blogs. Not that I fundamentally disagree with what he blogs for the most part, but he seems to be beating a dead horse in the first place, and secondly he seems to be assuming too much possible resolution for the word “design”. (This post is primarily aimed toward Wilkins’ blogs.)

The fact is that “design” tends not to be used in scientific writings except for human productions, and more problematically, for some animal “creations”. Otoh, in a recent Nature I noticed a letter or paper that discussed the results of the “evolution of sperm design” in some set of related organisms. Well, why not? While self-ordering processes are typically depicted as yielding “patterns” and not “designs”, what exactly is one to call the form that results from sperm evolution? “Design” fits well with normal usage of English in this case, and it doesn’t presume that there is some fundamental difference between evolutionary processes and processes of neuron firings that have (partly) evolved. After all, our production of designs has affected our evolution, as well as evolution affecting our designs.

So scientists tend to avoid the word “design” already, but sometimes use it indifferently to refer to evolutionary results which are in some ways analogous with our own “designs”. Only in some ways, of course, but we’re stuck using anthropomorphisms in our speech, so why even pretend that we can get away from anthropomorphism by not using the word “design” outside of a restricted region?

After all, we can treat genetics in a linguistic manner, that is, as a set of “signs” (same root as “de-sign”). In much the same way that we “de-sign-ate” signs signals, semantic patterns, and specific differences in our own “designs”, genetic translation designates and specifies much of what goes on in the body. Dembski turns this specificity to his advantage by not distinguishing between our “intelligent specification” and the various specifications that are possible entirely without any “intelligent design” going on. This also is why he makes the mistake of thinking that what exists organically must have been targeted, because it happens to be “specified”. Indeed, the latter is true, but the former is not. Getting rid of the word “design” will not help with the language problem infecting the ID program.

The real issue involved in ID is the language problem through and through. The word “design” is best used for human “designs”, of course, but however evolved our own thinking processes are, they are built upon animal capabilities for “design” and production, built upon our inherited animal intelligence. And even animal “intelligence” and “design” is specified in part by the genetic specification and “developmental designs” that appear through genetic designations of what appears when. The IDists typically reduce this all down to “design”, probably mostly because they lack a good understanding of what words like “design”, “intelligence”, and “specification” can mean linguistically in the first instance.

“Intelligence, design, and specification” are all meaningful terms, but not one is meaningful by itself. This is the most fundamental mistake made by IDists, their virtually Platonic sense that a word is a form related to a heavenly ideal. “Design” for them relates to a transcendent “designer” (they don’t usually admit the “transcendent” part, but that is all their designer could be considered to be), and not to the various jury-rigged a priori beliefs, education, empirical learning, and limited repertoire of behaviors that go into human “designs”. If they understood design properly, as something that has a shifting meaning that has to be argued endlessly and is never settled finally (any “settled ending” is arbitrarily defined for convenience), they’d realize that design itself is an evolved word that continues to evolve, and quite a bit more quickly than organisms evolve.

“Intelligence”, of course, is something that we anthropomorphically assign to ourselves as if it separated us from the animals. And to be fair, it does in practical usage (we’re certainly more intelligent than other animals in the areas that we most value), but it doesn’t separate us in any hard and fast manner. Again, if the IDists knew this in actuality, they’d realize that “intelligence” cannot be discovered through non-contextual considerations of apparent “design”, but would have to realize that we only can discover “intelligent design” in relation to our understanding of our own productions.

And “specification” is only relative, and is always subject to mistakes. There are varying degrees of specification found in many systems, and we take advantage of the opportunities for specification that appear in the environment in order to produce highly specific designs like computers. Yet our first specified intelligent productions were very crude, much poorer than the specifications made by unintelligent plants and the instinctual “designs” of spiders. So does our intelligence result in specification? Often not, though fortunately, it can. Specification can evolve out of self-ordering systems, however, which is how catalytic polymerization occurs. It appears that a much less straightforward sort of specification evolved on earth in order to produce animals like spiders that can “design” and “specify” productions that shamed early humans in their elegance and specificity.

This is what is important in the ID issue, the entire misuse of language by IDists in an essentially Platonic manner. We on the scientific (and more modern philosophical) side of the issue know that “intelligence”, “design”, and “specification” all break down to more fundamental issues of what is actually meant by such words and the processes that we use those words to describe. Circumscribing the usage of the word “design” beyond its natural haziness will change nothing in the IDist misperception of how words and processes apply in science.

That is to say, we don’t want a creationist-inspired definition of “design”. Leave words in all of their “natural” evolutionary lack of full definition, and point out that “design”, “intelligence”, and “specification” are about as arbitrarily defined as most taxonomic categories (those above the species level) are. Dembski’s greatest sin is in trying to create an a priori and non-empirical measure of what “design is”, and thus has passed not only beyond science, but also beyond any possible meaning that the word “design” can realistically be recognized as having.

Well, Rock, I am glad that you think in the end we don’t disagree on so much, no matter how so much agreement was achieved. Such is the nature of composing web essays (which no one should be mistaking for practicing science). I have no choice but to complete my thoughts based on my perceptions and interpretations, before you can interject your objections, just as you do. You may accuse me of reading comprehension problems just as easily as I may accuse you of problems writing incoherently. In the end mere accusations manifesting as 0s and 1s on some server, reflecting the reality that these are difficult subjects. Nevertheless, if you do in fact reject the same premises that I disagree with, then so much the better. I would have been much more distressed if you had demonstrated that my objections did not follow logically from those premises that I reject. I do not believe you have demonstrated that latter argument. And so I will move along…

I do believe design as a phenomenon does need to have a contrast class. I have no problems thinking that there are systems in some sort of quasiequilibrium, unperturbed, that are not evolving, and not “designing.” Even a designer needs to take a rest. But what causes an initially unperturbed system to be perturbed in such a way that its resulting behavior is modified? Is this perturbation the “rationale?” It is still difficult for me to understand “supplying the rationale” as a causative agent of design (system modification) in nonteleological terms. What is doing the supplying? It seems to me that you are arguing that a rationale, a principle, has independent ontology from the design. Yet you deny that minds are indispensable components of design. Indeed, evolution may be conceived as a mindless designer. But can a mindless process supply a rationale? Or are mindless processes the rationale? Just as you are correct that “selection” “function” and “conditions” need not be understood teleologically, I guess you don’t think “rationales” need to be understood teleologically either. My concern has always been that such sloppy language betray a conclusion that does not reflect reality. This is my excuse for an “overinterpretation” of your response. That biologists or scientists choose to use these words, I attribute to limitations of language. That sloppy language can lead to sloppy conclusions, I attribute to sloppy thinking.

The way, then, to go beyond sloppy language and thinking is to demonstrate the predictive capabilities of the language, to correlate it with reality. Evolution, some may argue is mired with sloppy language. But, despite that (not because of it), evolution has proven itself scientifically, empirically. Is evolution, like all sciences, an abstraction we have designed to understand the world around us? Sure, if one wants to use such language. But that hardly adds to our understanding of design. At the same time, however, I am certainly open to the possibility that human designs may inform our understanding of natural phenomena. This certainly would require design going beyond sloppy teleological language and thinking to demonstrating predictive results in reality. For instance, given properties of two related systems, are there universal principles that dictate how one may evolve into another?

Finally, the distinction between artificial and natural. The distinction seems simple – it merely requires drawing a distinction between known (or at least likely), proximal causative agents. At the root of it, however, I see even the artificial as natural. So does science require this distinction to be useful? Sure. It is often called setting up positive and negative controls. It is the utility of setting up a contrast experiment so that we can be reasonably certain an experimental result is not a proximal result of human intervention. Other manifestations of this include recognizing that mathematical and computational models (artificial) are nearly always approximations of the natural phenomena that they represent (natural). Yet the interesting thing is that natural phenomena does this discrimination as well. Many organisms, for instance, discriminate between self and nonself, and especially the actions of self and other external factors. But this all seems to go back to Wilkins’ point, doesn’t it? The artificial are physical implementations of abstract ideas that have persisted because we discovered their utility. Or is that your point?

It’s been interesting, to say the least. I truly appreciate the responses. But every one of these fora has its own ethos. My object was not to get involved in the whole “war of the worlds” thing; the culture wars. But to attempt to get people to think about what they are thinking about. After all, if you are going to go to war, you’d should have reached some understanding of what you are fighting for.

http://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/creati[…]killers.html

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This page contains a single entry by Wesley R. Elsberry published on March 15, 2005 11:09 AM.

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