William Dembski’s “Catalog of Fundamental Facts”

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Scanning past Uncommon Descent this afternoon, I noticed a kairosfocus post pointing to the Internet Archive’s stored version of a (now defunct) website called evolutiondebate.info/ where Eric Anderson provided a “Brief Primer on Intelligent Design.” In the second paragraph we read

Rather, this represents my modest attempt to … outline the fundamental central tenet of intelligent design, which is that some things exhibit characteristics of design that can be objectively and reliably detected.

For some reason that reminded me of something William Dembski proposed years ago, a sort of catalog of designs in biology. More below the fold.

Dembski proposed that catalog in his keynote speech at at the so-called RAPID (Research and Progress in Intelligent Design) Conference at Biola University in 2002. In the speech Dembski noted that

Because of ID’s outstanding success at gaining a cultural hearing, the scientific research part of ID is now lagging behind. I want therefore next to lay out a series of recommendations for rectifying this imbalance.

The very first of those recommendations was

1. Catalog of Fundamental Facts (CFF) One of the marks of a disciplined science is that it possesses an easily accessible catalog of fundamental facts. Think of the magnificent star cluster catalogs in astrophysics. ID needs something like this. It would be enormously helpful if we had and could make publicly available a catalog of irreducibly complex biological objects or processes. The catalog should contain as complete a list as possible, organized more or less as a table, with very complete descriptions. Under the bacterial flagellum, for instance, the catalog would list: found in the following; involving these biochemical parts; requiring this level of energy; these substrates, etc. etc. The catalog should move from simple to profound examples of irreducible complexity (such as the mammalian visual system).

According to Dembski’s acknowledgements, that suggestion came from David Berlinski. As far as I can tell, that “catalog” is still empty eleven years later. Dembski lists a number of other recommendations and suggestions for research. I see no progress on any of them in ID literature.

Dembski ended his speech this way:

It’s time to bring this talk to an end. I close with two images (both from biology) and a final quote. The images describe two perspectives on how the scientific debate over intelligent design is likely to play out in the coming years. From the vantage of the scientific establishment, intelligent design is in the position of a mouse trying to move an elephant by nibbling at its toes. From time to time the elephant may shift its feet, but nothing like real movement or a fundamental change is about to happen. Let me emphasize that this is the perspective of the scientific establishment. Yet even adopting this perspective, the scientific establishment seems strangely uncomfortable. The mouse has yet to be squashed, and the elephant (as in the cartoons) has become frightened and seems ready to stampede in a panic.

The image that I think more accurately captures how the debate will play out is, ironically, an evolutionary competition where two organisms vie to dominate an ecological niche (think of mammals displacing the dinosaurs). At some point, one of the organisms gains a crucial advantage. This enables it to outcompete the other. The one thrives, the other dwindles. However wrong Darwin might have been about selection and competition being the driving force behind biological evolution, these factors certainly play a crucial role in scientific progress. It’s up to ID proponents to demonstrate a few incontrovertible instances where design is uniquely fruitful for biology. Scientists without an inordinate attachment to Darwinian evolution (and there are many, though this fact is not widely advertised) will be only too happy to shift their allegiance if they think that intelligent design is where the interesting problems in biology lie.

I see no signs of such a shift, nor of any stampeding on the part of evolutionary scientists. And there sure aren’t yet any identified “incontrovertible instances where design is uniquely fruitful for biology.” ID is still as scientifically sterile as it was in 2002.

155 Comments

FACT #1: If it looks designed to me, it is designed. FACT #2: See Fact #1.

How ironic that Dembski uses as his metaphor a 19th century concept that mammals displaced dinosaurs by competitive superiority. But I think the basic trope can be salvaged. What would be needed for the triumph of ID would be for an asteroid to wipe out evolutionary biology, perhaps in the person of a new American theocracy, allowing ID to radiate into the empty scientific ecospace.

Richard mentioned Dembski speaking at BIOLA University in 2002.

Never forget that BIOLA is a stealth acronym for “Bible Institute Of Los Angeles” - not to be mistaken for an organization that has anything to do with science.

John Harshman said:

What would be needed for the triumph of ID would be for an asteroid to wipe out evolutionary biology, perhaps in the person of a new American theocracy, allowing ID to radiate into the empty scientific ecospace.

… which is more or less where we were a few hundred years ago.

It’s almost been ten years since Wes Elsberry and I published our Eight challenges for intelligent design advocates. Needless to say, not a single one has been answered.

Where’s the list of “incontrovertible instances where evolution is uniquely fruitful for biology”?

Oh, just about everything biologic?

Well, then, where’s the list of “incontrovertible instances where evolution is beyond denial of the IDiots/creationists”?

Don’t have an answer to that, do you?

Glen Davidson

Paul Burnett said:

Richard mentioned Dembski speaking at BIOLA University in 2002.

Never forget that BIOLA is a stealth acronym for “Bible Institute Of Los Angeles” - not to be mistaken for an organization that has anything to do with science.

Or education.…

Fact Number 1: Intelligent Design Creationism is bullshit propaganda.

Fact Number 2: See Fact Number 1.

End of facts.

(such as the mammalian visual system).

Mammalian?

Does he think that birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish deveoped their visual systems indpendently of each other?

This guy really needs to get in touch with his Inner Fish. (Hic! excuse me, seem to have the hiccups.)

Well that’s a literal revolution in Dembski’s mind, where culture is Darwinian and biology not.

Jeffrey Shallit said:

It’s almost been ten years since Wes Elsberry and I published our Eight challenges for intelligent design advocates. Needless to say, not a single one has been answered.

It’s extremely helpful to bear in mind that ID really is an artificial creation, deliberately pseudo-legalistic, obfuscating and dissembling. By “deliberately” I don’t mean consciously, but rather, predictably, in a way related to obvious goals.

Dembski invents mathematical functions from time to time. However, his various functions for CSI and so on are nevertheless always laden with “plausible deniability” mechanisms. The variables to plug in are almost always ultimately ambivalent. He always leaves himself room to claim that anybody who tries to use the formula is using it wrong.

Think about it - ID is always associated with evolution denial, and with narrow sectarian religious claims. If ID were some spontaneous idea that some aspects of life were designed, that wouldn’t be the case at all. A “sincere ID” would still be stupid (why invoke magic to explain the bacterial flagellum when there is no need?), but it would not be associated with global evolution denial (maybe the bacterial flagellum was “designed” but other things evolved), nor with a narrow sectarian social/political movement (maybe Krishna designed the bacterial flagellum to lead people to Hinduism).

Linnaeus, Lamarck, and Darwin saw the hierarchical relatedness of life from the “top down”. “Bottom up” molecular genetic studies confirm the same thing.

Likewise, we can look at ID from the “bottom up” - cdesign proponentists” - and see that it was invented in the aftermath of Edwards to “court proof” sectarian creationism in public schools.

Or we can look at it from the “top down” - the characteristics of total association with a narrow political and social movement, deliberate obfustcation and dissembling, and focus on politics, courts, and the media rather than scholarly venues, give it away for what it is.

Jeffrey Shallit said:

It’s almost been ten years since Wes Elsberry and I published our Eight challenges for intelligent design advocates. Needless to say, not a single one has been answered.

“Waterloo”, indeed. :-)

From that 2002 speech:

Two animating principles drive intelligent design. The more popular by far takes intelligent design as a tool for liberation from ideologies that suffocate the human spirit, such as reductionism and materialism. The other animating principle, less popular but intellectually more compelling, takes intelligent design as the key to opening up fresh insights into nature. The first of these animating principles is purely instrumental – it treats intelligent design as a tool for attaining some other end (like defeating materialism). Presumably if other tools could more effectively accomplish that end, intelligent design would be abandoned. The second of these animating principles, by contrast, is intrinsic – it treats intelligent design as an essential good, an end in itself worthy to be pursued because of the insights it provides into nature.

Looking at that paragraph and the two or three that follow, it is clear the Dembski is engaging in a culture war, with intelligent design as the “essential good” liberating the human spirit from the “suffocating ideologies of reductionism and materialism.”

Further down he argues that having any scientific achievement is not a requirement; it’s about fairness.

Any rule-setting about what intelligent design must accomplish in the scientific sphere before it may legitimately influence the political sphere is arbitrary and betrays a naiveté about the actual workings of science. In fact, any such rule-setting is sure to undermine intelligent design’s progress as a scientific and intellectual movement.

And a little later:

The issue, therefore, before the public square is not in the first instance how far intelligent design has developed as a scientific project but freedom and equity.

So the issue is not scientific – science is bad – it’s political. Dembski is a Culture Warrior.

Hmmm; 2002.

Wasn’t that before Dembski’s “Vise Strategy,” sometime before Dover?

Wasn’t that before Dover in 2005?

Wasn’t that before Dembski’s “Fart Video” of Judge Jones in 2006?

So; how did all that work out?

Chris Lawson said:

FACT #1: If it looks designed to me, it is designed. FACT #2: See Fact #1.

That’s the exact argument Dembski does not propagate (his argument is inferential, not intuition-based); would you like to see some quotes?

Chris Lawson said:

FACT #1: If it looks designed to me, it is designed. FACT #2: See Fact #1.

In fact, that’s the exact argument Paley propagated—an argument that science accepted until the rise of Darwinism (“Scientists Confront Creationism” 2007:16; Petto & Godfrey eds.) and the argument that Darwin himself accepted (Autobio:59) until the watershed years of 1837-38, and the argument I accept: The conclusion (is designed) is supported by the evidence of observing design in nature. Since science is totally reliant on observation, your comment is anti-science.

RM (Paleyan Creationist, species immutabilist)

harold said:

Linnaeus, Lamarck, and Darwin saw the hierarchical relatedness of life from the “top down”. “Bottom up” molecular genetic studies confirm the same thing.

Except neither Lamarck (see reference below) nor Linnaeus accepted common descent as we understand the concept since the rise of Darwinism. And Linneaus, of course, accepted design, special creation, supernatural agency operating in nature.

http://www.victorianweb.org/science/lamarck1.html

David Clifford:

“In 1809 he published his most famous work, Philosophie Zoologique. This volume describes his theory of transmutation. The theory that Lamarck published consisted of several components. Underlying the whole was a ‘tendency to progression’, a principle that Creation is in a constant state of advancement. It was an innate quality of nature that organisms constantly ‘improved’ by successive generation, too slowly to be perceived but observable in the fossil record. Mankind sat at the top of this chain of progression, having passed through all the previous stages in prehistory. However, this necessitated the principle of spontaneous generation, for as a species transformed into a more advanced one, it left a gap: when the simple, single-celled organisms advanced to the next stage of life, new protozoans would be created (by the Creator) to fill their place.”

Except neither Lamarck (see reference below) nor Linnaeus accepted common descent as we understand the concept since the rise of Darwinism

I didn’t say they did. Linnaeus clearly didn’t, but he did recognize the nested hierarchical pattern of relationships in the biosphere. Lamarck obviously postulated common descent (although not necessarily universal common descent); he’s somewhat fairly associated with an ultimately incorrect hypothesis of the mechanism of common descent.

Both of them lived too early to understand biological evolution, but…

Linnaeus, Lamarck, and Darwin saw the hierarchical relatedness of life from the “top down”.

It would be pretty silly to deny that Linnaeus saw that there was a nested hierarchical relationship in the biosphere. That would be equivalent to denying that Gallileo saw that bodies were accelerated by gravity.

So what?

It seems that Nature has take pleasure in varying the same mechanism in an infinity of different ways … She abandons one class of production only after having multiplied the individuals of it in all possible forms.

(Denis Diderot, Pensées sur l’Interpretation de la Nature (1753)

Quoted from p. 137 of Carroll’s “Endless Forms …”

But that is the problem Ray Martinez is unable to face, he turns his back and blind eyes on science and thinks he can falsify evolution by rhetorics.

His problem i that it is not about whether it looks like designed; it is about whether it actually was designed. To a self-declared “brainwashed by the Bible” fundamentalist like RM, the only method of design and implementation (why is the problem of implementation never addressed by the poofists?) over 3+ billion years of life on Earth, is poof. We are waiting for evidence of the poof-machine poof-poofing steadily along all that time.

Poof-poof.

Sounds to me like Dembski’s “Catalog of Fundamental Facts” is just brimming full of what the Intelligent Design movement has to put on the table for their “science-based” arguments. Page after page is chuck full of information gleaned by these sage investigators, and Dembski’s own contribution from the mathematical perspective is underwhelming to say the least. But why then do they use invisible ink to record all their entries?

From the OP:

William Demsbki said:

“However wrong Darwin might have been about selection and competition being the driving force behind biological evolution, these factors certainly play a crucial role in scientific progress.”

Since one can easily find other Dembski quotes that express acceptance of natural selection, can anyone tell me what the above quote might actually mean?

DavidK said:

Sounds to me like Dembski’s “Catalog of Fundamental Facts” is just brimming full of what the Intelligent Design movement has to put on the table for their “science-based” arguments. Page after page is chuck full of information gleaned by these sage investigators, and Dembski’s own contribution from the mathematical perspective is underwhelming to say the least. But why then do they use invisible ink to record all their entries?

I wonder how much of it is “Endogenous Information” and how much of it is “Exogenous Information.” The difference is “Active Information.”

They haven’t been very active in producing “Complex Specified Information” either. In fact, the movement has produced nothing but Shannon “entropy.”

Mike Elzinga said:

DavidK said:

Sounds to me like Dembski’s “Catalog of Fundamental Facts” is just brimming full of what the Intelligent Design movement has to put on the table for their “science-based” arguments. Page after page is chuck full of information gleaned by these sage investigators, and Dembski’s own contribution from the mathematical perspective is underwhelming to say the least. But why then do they use invisible ink to record all their entries?

I wonder how much of it is “Endogenous Information” and how much of it is “Exogenous Information.” The difference is “Active Information.”

They haven’t been very active in producing “Complex Specified Information” either. In fact, the movement has produced nothing but Shannon “entropy.”

In fact, since Dembski is the “Father” of CSI, I propose the term, “Androgenic Information.”

Ray Martinez said:

From the OP:

William Demsbki said:

“However wrong Darwin might have been about selection and competition being the driving force behind biological evolution, these factors certainly play a crucial role in scientific progress.”

Since one can easily find other Dembski quotes that express acceptance of natural selection, can anyone tell me what the above quote might actually mean?

It means that he was talking to an audience that wanted to hear it, so he said it, even though he knew it was just plain wrong. He didn’t care about the truth, he only wanted to pander to the lowest common denominator.

By the way, acceptance of natural selection should in no way threaten anyones religion, so get over it Ray. Stop playing the parrot.

Because of ID’s outstanding success at gaining a cultural hearing, the scientific research part of ID is now lagging behind.

The “scientific research part of ID” has ALWAYS been lagging behind, because the ID crowd have never done any - despite their generous funding, roster of educated advocates and access to vanity publishers.

ID’s success at “gaining a cultural hearing” is because the ID movement is entirely cultural, based as it is on a sectarian fundamentalist desire to entrench their tenets in the public education system (or at least produce scientific doubt of a severity not at all justified). In this they are handily supported by a generally scientifically ignorant base (an ignorance the ID crowd are seemingly all too happy to exploit and encourage) and a clamour of eager shills and ideologues, virtually none of them scientists engaged in biological study.

Unless ID produces some truly startling scientific research which challenges more or less everything currently understood about the biosphere from the molecular level upwards, it will remain an entirely cultural phenomenon and will die a slow, inexorable death as so many cultural phenomena do, fading from memory as its advocates are marginalised and their clumsy/naive/cynical attempts to wedge ignorance into understanding are forgotten. That or it will retreat so far to the fringes that ID will become more a laughing stock than it already is, being referred to with the same raised eyebrows as geocentrism.

Or, quite likely, it will evolve yet again, as did its progenitor, “creation science”, shedding even more of its appeals to god-shaped gaps in our knowledge. If that happens, I have to wonder how far you can actually dilute creationism before it becomes culturally meaningless.

Chris Lawson said:

FACT #1: If it looks designed to me, it is designed. FACT #2: See Fact #1.

Chris Lawson said:

FACT #1: If it looks designed to me, it is designed. FACT #2: See Fact #1.

Fact #3: I can prove it is design by arbitrarily assign a value of a chance occurrence at 1 x 10 to the -151st power. Rather than doing any math, though, I refer you to FACT #1.

mandrellian said:

If that happens, I have to wonder how far you can actually dilute creationism before it becomes culturally meaningless.

Sometimes it feels like a motherless child.

mandrellian said:

… ID’s success at “gaining a cultural hearing” is because the ID movement is entirely cultural, based as it is on a sectarian fundamentalist desire to entrench their tenets in the public education system (or at least produce scientific doubt of a severity not at all justified). In this they are handily supported by a generally scientifically ignorant base (an ignorance the ID crowd are seemingly all too happy to exploit and encourage) and a clamour of eager shills and ideologues, virtually none of them scientists engaged in biological study.

Yes, schools is a major focus, but this too is the reason they focus on and speak at church groups and bible schools, e.g., Biola. There’s nothing scientific about what they say, but they preach to the crowd that wants to hear their anti-science rhetoric, it becomes reinforced in their brains, and why too they write to the conservative papers and Faux Gnus folks. And to continue their cultural war they’ve focused on the Republican led legislatures in so many states who pander to the right-wing folks.

My esteemed colleague and fellow Delta Pi Gamma bro wrote:

It’s extremely helpful to bear in mind that ID really is an artificial creation, deliberately pseudo-legalistic, obfuscating and dissembling. By “deliberately” I don’t mean consciously, but rather, predictably, in a way related to obvious goals.

More eloquent than my crude dismissal of the entire ID (bowel) movement, but nevertheless the same sentiment. ID is a propaganda ploy. The “movement” has no interest in science and I chortle with great amusement as people challenge their “arguments” as if those arguments were real, much less sincere.

Not that long ago Dr. Dr. “Diploma Mill” Dembski rattled on about giving up on the Nixplanatory filter because he could never get it to work, but the ID zombies wouldn’t let it go and Dr. Dr. came back and said, “Well, OK, maybe it might sorta maybe somehow work-ish” thus staving off the ID zombie apocalypse.

All of the ID jargon is totally made up. All of it. There is no point in arguing Dr. Dr. math because it is totally made up. You might as well argue that the mitochondria has X framastats per furlong as deal with Dembski’s insanity.

However, where these morons get into my grill is when they come down to Texas and attempt to water down science education. Now, it’s personal.

When Dembski says “One of the marks of a disciplined science is…”, I cannot shake the image of a child clomping around in over-sized shoes, draped in his father’s clothes, pretending, pretending, pretending.…

I have a brother like William. A nice enough guy, great dad, decent husband, but not too bright. That is he truly loathes academia, in all its forms. Knowledge which is counter-intuitive to that which he ‘knows’, to be selfevident causes him anxiety. I don’t push him too much, it is far to easy to get a rise out of him. Put it shortly, he denies ‘global warming’ because he can’t feel it himself, and there are still terrible winters. He denies evolution for the same lame reasons of all the other denialists. He is 56 and I know his views are set, there will be no enlightenment for him. Basically he sees a group of people, ‘academics’ who have access to awareness, an awareness he knows he will never posess, no matter how successful his successful business blossoms, thus causing him natural frustration; he is successful but does not understand why this material success does not naturally lead to understanding of his natural world. This causes him to develop fear, after all if you are economically, and socially successful, why does he still not grasp the truthfulness of evolution etc? Bill O’reilly is the closest example I can give of the thought processes my brother undergoes. I do love him however; My brother, not O’Relly:)

I reject all evolution, micro and macro.

The validity of a scientific theory does not depend on its acceptance by people who won’t even study the evidence or reasoning that support it, let alone produce anything vaguely resembling an evidence based argument against some portion of that theory.

As for ways to recognize design, well, I know of only one: compare the subject to things that are known to have been constructed by somebody or something, and for which there is a significant amount of knowledge regarding the constructor of the thing, the methods and/or the purpose. Without such knowledge, one cannot rule out production by some thus far unknown natural process, or combination of processes.

Henry

Ray Martinez said:

Creationism is based on evidence, my only point.

No, the ignorance, dishonesty, and mis-usage of scientific terminology by Creationists are not evidence for anything whatsoever.

Ray Martinez said:

I reject all evolution, micro and macro.

Nonetheless, the genome moves.

stevaroni said:

Ray Martinez said:

I reject all evolution, micro and macro.

Nonetheless, the genome moves.

I reject your reality, and substitute my own.

–Adam Savage

Berlinski - is that the same Berlinski that claimed to have “calculated” 50,000 trait changes between a cow and a whale and concluded that whales could not have evolved? A real intellectual, that one…

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