Vacuity of Intelligent Design: Intelligent Design and Alchemy

In an updated paper, Dembski discusses alchemy and describes why he believes evolutionary theory, under certain circumstances, is analogous to alchemy. To appreciate his argument, it helps to realize that on closer scrutiny, Dembski is arguing against philosophical materialism, not evolutionary theory. Secondly, I believe that Dembski has made an excellent case for an analogy between alchemy and Intelligent Design: Namely, both are lacking causal specificity.

The term ‘causal specificity’ means “… specifying a cause sufficient to account for an effect in question” and is used by Dembski to describe to what extent one can specify the pathways and processes through which a particular system has arisen.

Dembski wrote:

Here, then, is the fallacy in alchemy’s logic. Alchemy [ID] relinquishes causal specificity, yet confidently asserts that an unspecified process [design] will yield a desired transformation [complex specified information]. Lacking causal specificity, the alchemist [ID activist] has no empirical grounds for holding that the desired transformation can be effected. Even so, the alchemist [ID activist] remains convinced that the transformation can be effected because prior metaphysical beliefs [Intelligent Design] ensure that some process, though for now unspecified, must effect the desired transformation. In short, metaphysics guarantees the transformation even if the empirical evidence is against it.

Source:: EVOLUTION AS ALCHEMY By William A. Dembski.(Note: I have added my edits in square brackets [….])

Although Dembski is arguing that there is an analogy between alchemy and evolution (or more accurately materialistic evolution), there seems to be a much stronger similarity with Intelligent Design when it comes to the lack of causal specificity. Take for example the following response by Dembski when Rafe Gutman asked him for some specificity in explaining how Intelligent Design explains a particular system:

Dembski wrote:

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.”

Source: ID in their own words: Dembski at Panda’s Thumb

Any more questions? Perhaps “No Free Lunch” should more properly be described as “ID’s Free Ride”. ID has a lot to learn from Darwin, including Darwin’s observations that:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

Charles Darwin, 1871 THE DESCENT OF MAN

More on causal specificity

Causal specificity seems to be yet another buzz word from the Intelligent Design crowd. So let’s explore it in more detail.

Richard Wein

In 2004, Richard Wein discussed Dembski’s usage of this term in his critique The Designer-of-the-Gaps Revisited: A critique of William Dembski’s article “Irreducible Complexity Revisited”. He shows how Dembski’s assertion, that ID is causally adequate to explain design in biology because we are familiar with analogous examples from human design, is flawed.

Wein wrote:

Dembski goes on to argue that intelligent design is known to be causally adequate to explain irreducibly complex systems, based on the assertion that “humans regularly produce machines that exhibit irreducible complexity”. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that humans really do produce machines that exhibit irreducible complexity in Dembski’s sense of the term (though he gives no examples). It does not follow that an intelligent designer could have produced the irreducibly complex biological systems that we observe. Dembski offers no evidence of the capabilities of any designer who was in a position to design biological systems. Nor does he offer any evidence that such a designer could have existed. Thus, Dembski is very far from demonstrating the causal adequacy of his explanation. He is just resorting to an old chestnut of religious apologetics in which divine explanations are invoked while ignoring all the explanatory problems associated with the nature and existence of gods. Replacing “divine” with “design” does not make this style of argument any more convincing.

In other words, instead of demonstrating the causal adequacy of Intelligent Design, Dembski presents nothing more than a lot of ‘just so stories’ but nothing that seems even close to be scientifically relevant.

Allen Orr

Similarly, Allen Orr discussed the flaws in Dembski’s claim of ‘causal specificity’ or lack thereof when discussing irreducibly complex systems. While Dembski concedes the logical plausibility of Irreducibly Complex systems being built via Darwinian pathways (remember: causal adequacy), he still insists that Behe’s argument from irreducible complexity presents real problems for Darwinian theory.

Allen Orr wrote:

Dembski more or less concedes that the above paths show that irreducibly complex machines can be built via Darwinism.16 Despite this, however, he bizarrely concludes that “[t]he challenge of irreducible complexity to Darwinian evolution is real, and to claim that Behe’s ideas have been refuted is false.” I must admit that I re-read this sentence four or five times, searching for signs it reflected multiple typos. But concluding that Dembski meant what he said, I tried to piece together why he still thinks irreducible complexity is a bone in the throat of Darwinism.

The answer is “causal specificity.” The scaffolding and incremental indispensability arguments are not, Dembski says, causally specific. This means they have not, in any particular biological example, been fleshed out in sufficiently gory detail that Dembski can judge their validity. You might think scaffolding, say, can account for the bacterial flagellum but no one has told Dembski just which protein came first and which second:

Indeed, there is no way to argue against a putative transmutation that seems plausible enough to our imaginations but has yet to be concretely specified….This is of course another way of saying that the scaffolding objection has yet to demonstrate causal specificity when applied to actual irreducibly complex biochemical systems. The absence of detailed models in the biological literature that employ scaffoldings to generate irreducibly complex biochemical systems is therefore reason to be skeptical of such models.

This argument is more than a little annoying. Though Behe griped that evolutionists hadn’t faced up to particular biochemical machines, his chief claim was that Darwinism just couldn’t get here from there. He asked “What type of biological system could not be formed by ‘numerous, successive, slight modifications’?” and answered “a system that is irreducibly complex.” He announced that “[i]rreducibly complex systems are nasty roadblocks for Darwinian evolution” and spoke of “unbridgeable chasms.” That’s what all the hoopla was about, that’s why Behe got in Newsweek, and that turned out to be dead wrong. So now the argument shifts. Now the problem is historical concreteness. But to leave readers with the vague impression that nothing’s changed, Dembski brands his point “causal specificity.” But this is a category mistake of the first magnitude. His point has nothing to do with causation. It’s got to do with historical narrative. Which gene begat which protein in which order? Dembski’s bait and switch here is transparent and puerile. If the ID community wishes to be taken seriously as honest intellectuals seeking truth (even if they’re wrong; the two are not incompatible) they must plainly say: “Behe’s chief claim was wrong. Irreducible complexity is accessible to Darwinism.”

The causal specificity argument is also an exercise in nerve. We are, recall, trying to choose between two theories. One says bacterial flagella were built by mutation and selection and the other says they were built by an intelligent designer. And Dembski concludes the first theory lacks historical concreteness? Darwinism suffers a shortage of specificity? When, after all, did Dembski’s designer come up with plans for flagella? Just how did he reach out and shape that flagellum? Which protein did he move first or did he touch them all at once? It is the height of hypocrisy for Dembski to complain that Darwinism lacks causal specificity when his own theory lacks any specificity, including one atom of historical concreteness. Dembski may not have much of an argument, but you’ve got to admit he’s got chutzpah

Source: Allen Orr Book Review: No Free Lunch Boston Reviews

In other words, on the one hand Dembski argues that Darwinian theory lacks in causal specificity but on the other hand, he seems to ignore that ID’s own ‘theory’ lacks any specificity.

Dembski’s ‘response’

Undeterred by the simple facts, Dembski, in his response to Allen Orr’s review of his book, argues that the essential point is “… a demand for details”. Ironically, Dembski does not explain why the lack of details when it comes to Intelligent Design should not be considered a problem.

Dembski wrote:

The charge here is the same charge I’ve been making throughout this paper. I’ve variously tagged it “causal specificity,” “sheer versus real possibilities,” “failure to provide detailed, testable models,” and so on. The essential point behind this charge is a demand for details. The devil is in the details, and ID proponents want to see the details by which the Darwinian mechanism accomplishes the magnificent feats attributed to it. But since those details are neither available nor forthcoming, ID proponents suggest that it is time for Darwinism’s exclusion of design from biology to end.

Source: Dembski Evolution’s Logic of Credulity: An Unfettered Response to Allen Orr

Orr was however correct in his argument to point out that Dembski’s request for causal specificity (detailed mechanisms, pathways etc) was irrelevant to the argument of Irreducible Complexity. Namely that Darwinian mechanisms are unable to explain such systems. And if the charge is one of lack of sufficient detail then ID seems to be ultimately guilty. The main difference is that science is progressing in more detailed hypotheses while ID can only sit at the sidelines hoping that science fails.

Confronted with the scientific vacuity of Intelligent Design, Dembski addresses why he believes Intelligent Design does not have the burden of causal specificity. It seems to me that Dembski forgot his own statement that “The essential point behind this charge is a demand for details”… To explain why ID does not have a similar burden, Dembski has to turn it into a metaphysical concept which lacks a causal chain.

Dembski wrote:

But what about intelligent design? Orr suggests that the same fault applies to it, but it does not. Intelligent design, in contrast to Darwinism, is not a theory about process but about creative innovation. Now creative innovation is not a process. Creative innovation can occur in a process, but even then it is a process where each step constitutes an individual creative act (a micro-innovation, as it were). In our experience with intelligences, creative innovation is a unifying conceptual act that ties together disparate elements into a purposeful whole. The act can occur over time in a process or it can occur in one fell swoop. But in either case, creative innovation is not reducible to a causal chain where one step “causes” the next. Causal specificity is about finding antecedent circumstances that account for and thus predict (whether deterministically or probabilistically) an event, object, or structure. But intelligences are free. In the act of creation they violate expectations. They create as they choose to create. There’s nothing that required Mozart to compose his Jupiter Symphony or Bell to invent the telephone or Shakespeare to write King Lear. And there’s no way to have predicted these creative innovations. Consequently, causal specificity applies secondarily, not primarily, to creative innovation and therefore to intelligent design

In other words “Creative innovation is not reducible to a causal chain”… Weird… while intelligences can ‘violate expectations’ there is still a causal chain, just one which may run counter to the expectations of an observer. But such creative acts can also take place in evolution, so why should evolution be held to a standard to which ID refuses to be held? In addition, note how Dembski switches from a ‘lack of causal chain’ to being unpredictable. Does Dembski realize that even unpredictable things still have a causal chain of events?

Dembski however believes that causal specificity is relevant to the pre and post-creative periods and argues that ID can be relevant in tracing causal specificity in these areas. So far, it seems that ID has remained mostly empty-handed. For instance, lets consider an often quoted example of a Design Inference, namely the Cambrian explosion. Let’s for the moment accept Dembski’s argument and look at the causal specificity of the antecedent circumstances of said explosion. Perhaps Dembski can explain how ID has contributed to our knowledge of causal specificity here? What about the ‘follow-up’ of the Cambrian? What explanations does ID have to offer here?

Dembski wrote:

Causal specificity is certainly relevant to the antecedent circumstances that lead up to a creative innovation. It is also relevant in the aftermath of a creative innovation. Creative innovations, after all, have consequences. Causal chains flow out from them. Causal specificity therefore applies both to the lead-up and to the follow-up of a creative innovation. Indeed, that is where much of the intellectual labor on intelligent design will focus in coming years, namely, in tracing the antecedent circumstances that lead-up to and thereby condition the design of biological systems and then in tracing the impact of those systems throughout the biological world. Causal specificity therefore remains a live issue for intelligent design.

Of course, Dembski realizes that addressing follow-up or lead-up of a creative act is irrelevant until one can establish whether or not something is designed. And even if something is ruled to have been designed, we all know that Dembski has admitted that it need not involve the act of an intelligent designer.

“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).

Nevertheless, without a Design Inference, ID has nothing to argue so the primary focus of ID should be making a reliable Design Inference. And there we come to realize that Intelligent Design has been totally lacking in making any such Design Inference based on the Explanatory Filter. While Dembski describes the steps needed to draw a conclusion of design, ID seems to have failed to apply these necessary steps to any non-trivial example.

Dembski wrote:

But it is not the primary issue. The primary issue is to determine whether there is design (i.e., creative innovation by an intelligence) in the first place. Causal specificity is no help here. For that you need specified complexity. Once specified complexity is identified and design thereby detected, then causal specificity becomes an issue. I indicate how I see this interaction between specified complexity and causal specificity playing out in coming years in the “research themes” portion of my essay “Becoming a Disciplined Science: Prospects, Pitfalls, and Reality Check for ID” (go here for the essay).

Dembski is wrong: the lack of causal specificity in existing hypotheses is used as evidence against these hypotheses and in favor of the hypothesis of ‘design’. As I have shown in the past, specified complexity is a fancy phrase to describe nothing more than that we do not fully understand how something with a function arose. Of course, ID is similarly unable to explain how the system with said function arose, other than by calling it ‘designed’. But that merely conflates design with ignorance rather than a productive hypothesis of design. If Intelligent Design can reject causal specificity for its own claims then requiring it for science seems to be ironic. Until one realizes that causal specificity or lack thereof is an impediment to Intelligent Design since ID is unable to reject said hypothesis based on the design inference. After all, the lack of sufficient detail makes ID impotent in determining the probability (known in ID speak as complexity) of this particular hypothesis. And since ID has no competing hypothesis, it cannot even compare its own ideas to scientific hypotheses. In other words, the requirement for causal specificity is to hide ID’s inability to present any scientifically relevant hypothesis and thus is unable to compete with even our ignorance.

And yet it seems Intelligent Design which refuses to present causally specific data, yet requires such data from evolutionary science. And while science can be observed improving upon its hypotheses (such as for the flagellum), it should be clear that ID remains fully empty handed, by design.

In other words, at every single step, we notice how Intelligent Design sets itself up to be and remain scientifically vacuous.

Dembski does realize that a major task lies ahead for Intelligent Design

Bottom line: Darwinism has a burden of proof that intelligent design does not have. Darwinism is a theory of process and therefore needs to provide convincing evidence that the processes it describes are able to bear the weight placed on them. That weight is considerable – indeed, no less than the whole of biological complexity and diversity. Intelligent design by contrast has a different burden. As a theory of creative innovation, its burden is to show where creative innovations first emerge and then trace their causal antecedents and consequents. Darwinism and intelligent design therefore face fundamentally different tasks, though there will be considerable overlap in their practical outworking (intelligent design, for instance, does not require that every aspect of biology be designed and is fully capable of assimilating the Darwinian mechanism). Ultimately what will decide the controversy between Darwinism and intelligent design is scientific fruitfulness.Darwinism, despite having many bright guys like Allen Orr to plough its fields and despite having all the research moneys you could want and despite having had almost 150 years to prove itself has come up empty in accounting for the emergence of biological complexity. Behe’s book, which was the first major positive statement of intelligent design, was published a mere six years ago. Intelligent design researchers are presently few in number and cannot obtain government funding for their research. That will change. Interest is mounting. And George W. is after all my neighbor.

So far ID’s lack of fruitfulness indicates that the battle between ID and science has been decided in favor of science. Of course, as Dembski seems to suggest, such failures of ID should be blamed on lack of sufficient funding, lack of sufficient researchers. Perhaps it’s time for ID to take responsibility for its own failures? And contrary to Dembski’s rethoric, science has made significant steps forward in understanding how evolutionary processes play roles in the emergence of biological complexity. Of course, we should not confuse, the term complexity as used in science with the term as used by Intelligent Design. If we accept ID’s terminology then of course by definition science will never be able to explain complexity. The moment it explains it, the complexity dissolves….

Howard van Till

Howard van Till also quickly pointed out how Dembski’s demands seem to stop when it comes to explanations given by Intelligent Design.

van Till wrote:

In the absence of full causal specificity (a quality, incidentally, that ID demands of scientific explanations but not of its own explanations) the ID movement does indeed have opportunity to posit its non-natural, intelligent design explanations as logically permitted alternatives. However, each time a new causally specific scientific explanation for one of these biotic structures is developed, the ID explanation for its actualization immediately becomes superfluous.See NFL, p. 364, for Dembski’s acknowledgment of this. “Even if the Darwinian mechanism could be shown to do all of the design work for which design theorists want to invoke intelligent causation…ID’s insistence that its claims can be refuted only by causally specific scientific accounts stands as an open invitation to false positive claims regarding the need for its appeal to non-natural causes.

Source: van Till, The Darwinian mechanism, Meta-Library

The following claims by Demsbki require some comments as they may leave the impression that evolution as a science shows analogies with alchemy when in fact it is materialist evolution which is held culpable. So, let’s remember that Dembski’s arguments are against a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

Dembski wrote:

Evolution, on the other hand, seeks to transform nonlife into life and then organisms into very different organisms, but — when biased by materialism — excludes any place for intelligence or teleology in the transformation. Such a restriction is gratuitous given evolution’s lack of causal specificity in accounting not only for the origin of life but also for the macroevolutionary changes supposedly responsible for life’s subsequent diversification.


Dembski wrote:

Science needs to be a free inquiry into all the possibilities that might operate in nature. Design, therefore, needs to be kept as a live possibility in scientific discussions of biological origins.

Dembski is correct here, science needs to be and actually science is a free inquiry into all the possibilities that might operate in nature. In fact, science has been extremely successful in extending its practices to detect intelligent design as possibilities that might operate in nature. However, Intelligent Design, is not about natural intelligence as it relies on elimination of all (known) natural processes of chance and regularity to infer Intelligent Design (properly capitalized to distinguish it from intelligent design). In other words, science is not rejecting Intelligent Design a-priori but rather it observes that Intelligent Design is scientifically vacuous and thus correctly rejects Intelligent Design a-posteriori as ‘bad’ science. And as far as teleology is concerned, natural selection has been argued, convincingly, to inevitably lead to teleological systems. Dembski himself suggests as much when he argues that ‘function’ in biology is sufficient for specification.

Resources on causal specificity/adequacy

  1. Dembski, Principle of Causal Adequacy and Specified Complexity, ISCID, March 2002
  2. Dembski, Evolution’s Logic of Credulity: An Unfettered Response to Allen Orr December 2002.
  3. Richard Wein, The Designer-of-the-Gaps Revisited: A critique of William Dembski’s article “Irreducible Complexity Revisited”, February 2004