In a Wall Street Journal Editorial titled Misplaced Sympathies Kevin Shapiro outlines the many problems with Intelligent Design.
The notion that Intelligent Design is scientifically vacuous is spreading quickly
Kevin Shapiro Wrote:
Proponents of intelligent design, like the mathematician William Dembski, argue that we don’t understand the origins of various biological systems and never will, because they can’t be broken down into smaller parts that could be explained by natural selection. Therefore, we should give up on Darwin and accept the existence of a designer. Alas, this kind of argumentum ad ignorantium flies in the face of an ever-increasing amount of evidence from molecular biology, and hardly measures up to the neoconseratives’ rigorous intellectual standards.
So how do ID activists respond to these facts? Not too well
ID activists argue that Intelligent Design does present ‘positive evidence’ although when pressed for details, the ‘evidence’ quickly dissolves into irrelevancy.
So let’s look at the ID hypothesis and show why ID cannot make any predictions which follow logically from the hypothesis without requiring side-hypotheses which require additional information about the Designer. In fact, without making assumptions about the Designer, ID predictions remain, as various people have now shown, scientifically vacuous.
Okay, let’s start with how ID tries to infer design, namely by using the Design Inference. In order for something to be designed, it needs to be ‘specified’ and sufficiently ‘complex’. So what is really meant by these terms? Specification basically means that there exists an independent description of the event or system, and as Dembski points out in biology ‘specification’ is trivially met by function. So what about ‘complexity’? Unlike the more common meaning of the term, complexity in ID speak refers to something which cannot (yet) be explained by regularity and/or chance. When these requirements are met, a design inference is triggered. In other words, a design inference bascially states that something functional whose origin we do not (yet) understand and is thus specified and complex, is also ‘designed’. Or to use Del Ratzsch’s description: Design is the “set theoretic complement of the disjunction regularity-or-chance. “. This clearly qualifiies as an argument from ignorance, also known as a ‘gap argument’.
So far so good, Intelligent Design is inferred based on our ignorance not because of what we know. So how do ID activists make the claim that ID is based on ‘positive evidence’? After all, it seems self evident that ID cannot make any predictions or that it is based on ‘positive evidence’. After all, without knowing the intentions or capabilities of the Designer, how can one make any predictions? Anything goes…
So what are some examples of ‘positive evidence’?
“Biological novelty appears in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors. The Cambrian explosion is the prime example”
Although the description of the Cambrian is woefully inaccurate, none of this follows from Intelligent Design. Why would ID expect biological novelty to appear suddenly and without similar precursors? This ‘prediction’ requires additional assumptions such as typically found among creationists who argue that the Cambrian is evidence of God’s ‘Creation’. But since ID insists that it cannot say anything about its Designer(s), any such claims about what a Designer would or would not do or could or could not do are without any merrit.
Intelligent agents ‘re-use’ functional components that work over and over in different systems (e.g., wheels for cars and airplanes):
Again, this requires some assumptions about the Designer, and since ID insists that it cannot say anything about the Designer(s), such claims remain vacuous. In fact, why would Designer(s) be restricted to re-use of components? In fact, in case of a Supernatural Designer (the logically preferred version of ID’s Designer) there is no reason to constrain His capabilities to reuse of existing components. In fact, a truly creative designer would NOT reuse components.
It’s a sad state of affairs when ID activists have to claim that ID critics misrepresent the claims of ID when in fact ID activists seem to be unfamiliar with their own ‘hypotheses’ and its logical consequences.
Many ID critics have already pointed out the vacuitiy of Intelligent Design. For instance Murray remarks that claims about ID being fertile scientifically are misguided
Friends of IDT have suggested some concrete ways in which the fertility of IDT might be manifest in contemporary science. Two recurring examples are: a) it might lead us to think that junk” DNA has some important function after all and b) it might similarly lead us to look for the function of so called vestigial organs.15
While it might be the case that approaching natural science in this way will sometimes yield fruit, the likelihood of red herrings runs equally strong. The reason is that IDT will provide a fertile theoretical backdrop in a certain domain only if (a) we can be fairly confident of what the designer’s intentions are in that domain, and (b) we are sure that the specific matter under investigation is relevant to those intentions.
Since ID activists insist that ID cannot say anything about the Designer, His intentions or motives, it is clear that logically there cannot be any claim that ID is fertile or that ID makes positive statements since none of these statements logically follow from the ID ‘hypothesis’.
Others have come to very similar conclusions. For instance in “The Vacuity of Intelligent Design Theory” Ryan Nichols observes that
In my argument against Intelligent Design Theory I will not contend that it is not falsifiable or that it implies contradictions. I’ll argue that Intelligent Design Theory doesn’t imply anything at all, i.e. it has no content. By ‘content’ I refer to a body of determinate principles and propositions entailed by those principles. By ‘principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue. By ‘determinate principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue in which the extensions of its terms are clearly defined. I’ll evaluate the work of William Dembski because he specifies his methodology in detail, thinks Intelligent Design Theory is contentful and thinks Intelligent Design Theory (hereafter ‘IDT’) grounds an empirical research program. Later in the paper I assess a recent trend in which IDT is allegedly found a better home as a metascientific hypothesis, which serves as a paradigm that catalyzes research. I’ll conclude that, whether IDT is construed as a scientific or metascientific hypothesis, IDT lacks content.
Nichols also reminds us of a major concession by Dembski, often overlooked by ID activists
Before I proceed, however, I note that Dembski makes an important concession to his critics. He refuses to make the second assumption noted above. When the EF implies that certain systems are intelligently designed, Dembski does not think it follows that there is some intelligent designer or other. He says that, “even though in practice inferring design is the first step in identifying an intelligent agent, taken by itself design does not require that such an agent be posited. The notion of design that emerges from the design inference must not be confused with intelligent agency” (TDI, 227, my emphasis).
Of course the best evidence comes from our friend Bill who, when asked to provide ID’s best explanation for a particular system which he claimed was designed, responded
As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.
William A. Dembski Organisms using GAs vs. Organisms being built by GAs thread at ISCID 18. September 2002.
That ID is unable to identify the designer is not without implications, implications which, as Murray so carefully explains, lead ID to be unable to replace methodological naturalism. So what is the problem with ID according to Murray? Simple: ID cannot distinguish between ‘deck stacking’ (aka front loading) and intervention, as such it cannot exclude the possibility that from a particular moment in time the system’s evolution can be explained fully in terms of regularity and chance. In other words, the addition of a designer at the initial time becomes a victim of Occam’s razor. Dembski understands this and for this reason he strongly opposed the theistic position of people like van Till
Design theorists find the “theism” in theistic evolution superfluous. Theistic evolution at best includes God as an unnecessary rider in an otherwise purely naturalistic account of life. As such, theistic evolution violates Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is a regulative principle for how scientists are supposed to do their science. According to this principle, superfluous entities are to be rigorously excised from science. Thus, since God is an unnecessary rider in our understanding of the natural world, theistic evolution ought to dispense with all talk of God outright and get rid of the useless adjective “theistic.”
In other words, if ID cannot distinguish between front loading and intervention and if front loading means that Occam’s razor will remove any appeal to a Designer, which Dembski correctly identifies as God, then ID becomes scientifically vacuous in the sense that it has to concede to methodological naturalism’s regularity and chance processes.
It may take some time for ID activists to come to terms with this. Let me also point out that although Occam makes God superfluous or unnecessary, this does not mean that there is no room for God to have Created, it merely means that His Creation remains ‘invisible’ to scientific inquiry. Praise be to a Lord who in His wisdom has made Faith the center of religion. Imagine a faith which requires that God can be falsified for God to be relevant, imagine the cost to faith when scientific evidence supporting their claims fails and thus Design and the Designer have been falsified?
What a waste to science and religion that would be.
Speaking of scientific vacuity, just read how Witt responds to the find of yet another transitional fossil
If Darwinism is true, not one but millions of transitional species, each slightly evolved from its predecessor, existed between bony fish and land-dwelling vertebrates. Darwinists have neither the fossils nor even a credible description of a hypothetical pathway to support such an evolutionary journey,…
Then again Witt holds a PhD in English which may help understand his unfamiliarity with science. What fascinates me however is that ID activists quickly retreat to their creationist origins when faced with scientific evidence.