Detecting design: Specification versus Likelihood

This is a guest appearance of Mark Frank. It is his first appearance on the Panda’s Thumb. Mark Frank offers his take on the concepts of specification and design inference. In certain aspects Frank’s ideas seem to jibe with the appoach adopted by Elliott Sober, but also seem to add some substantive nuances.

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement proposes that it is possible to detect whether something has been designed by inspecting it, assessing whether it might have been produced by either necessity or chance alone, and, if the answer is negative, concluding it must have been designed. This means there is no need to make any commitments about the nature of the designer.

This approach relies heavily on the concept of specification. The proponents of ID have made various attempts to define specification. A recent attempt is in a paper written by William Dembski in 2005 which is clearly intended to supersede previous attempts. This essay examines this revised definition of specification and highlights some issues in Dembski’s paper. It also proposes that our intuitive understanding of when an outcome is implausible is much better explained by a comparison of the likelihoods of different hypotheses. Finally the essay considers some of Dembski’s objections to the comparison of likelihoods and Bayesian approaches in general.

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