Dumping on Dembski

Having temporarily put aside the MSUP ID anthology, I’ve recently started making a more concerted effort to get through Dembski’s The Design Revolution. I previously posted some thoughts on two especially outrageous quotes I found (upon opening the book to a random page) over at <A HREF=http://evolutionblog.blogspot.com/2004_03_14_evolutionblog_archive.html>EvolutionBlog</A>, in my entry for March 16.

So I came into my office this morning all set to unload a real sockdolager of a post on the sheer, unmitigated awfulness of Dembski’s latest, only to discover that <A HREF=http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000112.html>Jeffrey Shallit</A> had beaten me to it. Sigh. As it happens though, there is so much to criticize in Dembski’s book that Shallit has only scratched the surface.

Here I’d like to comment on one aspect of Dembski’s style of argumentation.

ID proponents make a great many arguments about a great many things. In reply to these claims, evolutionists offer a wide variety of counter-arguments.

Some of the claims that ID’s make are purely scientific. They will say, for example, that irreducibly complex machines can not be formed gradually via natural selection. In reply evolutionists point out that there is certainly no theoretical reason why natural selection can not produce such structures and that for many such structures (for example, the Krebs cycle, circadian clock genes, the blood clotting cascade, and the immune system) quite a lot can be said about how they probably evolved and on a small scale we can see it happen in the lab as described by Ken Miller in Finding Darwin’s God and that artifical life experiments routinely show that irreducibly complex structures can be formed by random variation filtered through selection. Or an ID proponent will say that the NFL theorems challenge the validity of evolution. To which the evolutionist replies that the NFL theorems are irrelevant in this case and here are several ways in which the hypotheses used in the NFL theorem are violated in the biological case and on and on. Purely scientific criticisms of purely scientific points.

But ID proponents also make philosophical claims about how science is blinded by a naturalistic bias. To this we reply in kind that science is fundametally about solving problems and that naturalistic explanations are the sort that help us do that. Perhaps if they could offer some reason for thinking that science would progress by considering supernatural explanations, then we would consider them.

Then there is the cultural aspect of ID. ID’s want to persuade us that their motives are entirely scientific. In this regard it is certainly reasonable to point out (as Jeffrey did in his post) that they clearly have religious motivations and that in spreading their ideas they rely not on the normal channels of scientific discourse, but rather on the mass media.

And then they claim that ID is a scientific theory that helps us make sense of certain data from the natural world. To this we argue that if that is the case then we should take the next step. Having identified ID in the world, we should try to draw inferences about the designer from the nature of the design. But that leads us right into the numerous examples of poor design, which would cast doubt on either the ominpotence or omnibenevolence of the designer.

And on and on and on. But nobody argues that the religious motivations of ID’s by itself casts doubt on their scientific claims. No one says that instances of poor design show that the NFL theorems are irrelevant to evolution. No one says that since ID proponents are asking us to consider supernatural explanations we should simply dismiss out of hand their arguments against natural selection.

But in replying to these charges Dembski routinely presents challenges replying to some specific ID charge as if they were intended to rebut a different charge. For example, consider this quotation:

The word intelligent has two meanings. It can simply refer to the activity of an intelligent agent, even one that acts stupidly. On the other hand, it can mean that an intelligent agent acted with skill and mastery. Failure to draw this distinction results in confusion about intelligent design. This was brought home to me in a radio interview. Skeptic Michael Shermer and paleontologist Donald Prothero were interviewing me on National Public Radio. As the discussion unfolded, I was surprised to find that how they used the phrase “intelligent design” differed significantly from how the intelligent design community uses it. Shermer and Prothero understood the word intelligent in “intelligent design” in the sense of clever or masterful design. They therefore presumed that intelligent design must entail optimal design. The intelligent design community, on the other hand, understands the intelligent in “intelligent design” simply as referring to intelligent agency (irrespective of skill or mastery) and thus separates intelligent design from optimality of design. [Emphasis in original] (P. 57)

Of course, no one thinks that ID entails optimal design. Everyone who has ever looked at an SUV understands that something could be designed by an intelligent agent yet not be optimal. It’s not that complicated a point.

People who bring up poor design as an argument against ID are simply taking ID proponents seriously when they say they want to do actual science from an ID perspective. Surely once you have determined that an object was designed by an intelligence, it is reasonable to ask what can be inferred about the designer from the nature of the design. As soon as we do this all of the well-known examples of poor design seem to point to the stupid designer Dembski admits as a possibility.

The trouble is, ID proponents think they know who the designer is, and stupidity is not one of His attributes. Rather, they believe in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent designer. You would not infer such a designer from nature alone, unless you had a previous religious commitment to such a view.

Not only must ID proponents explain why God (let’s drop the subterfuge, OK?) would design so poorly, they must also explain why so many instances of poor design seem to be just the sort of thing that evolution by natural selection produces naturally. The numerous extinctions recorded in the fossil record look like simple waste as the products if ID, but are the expected outcome of natural selection acting over long periods of time. Our weak back muscles are easy to understand if they evolved among creatures that walked on their knuckles and swung through trees, but hard to understand as products of ID.

Curiously, old school creationists have an answer to precisely this objection. They say that the poor design we see does not reflect God’s intentions, but rather represent the influence of sin in the world.

Dembski hints at this solution himself:

If we think of evolution as progressive in the sense that the capacities of organisms get honed and false starts get weeded out by natural selection over time, then it seems implausible that a wise and benevolent designer might want to guide such a process. But if we think of evolution as regressive, as reflecting a distorted moral structure that takes human rebellion against the designer as a starting point, then it's possible a flawless designer might use a very imperfect evolutionary process as a means of bringing a prodigal universe back to its senses. But this is an idea to be explored in another book. (P. 62)

Leaving aside the fact that this makes no sense (since human rebellion happened after humans appeared, while most of evolution happened before humans appeared, what could it possibly mean for evolution to reflect a distorted moral structure?) it is a blatantly religious argument, and not one that ID proponents usually avail themselves of.

The only alternative is to argue that the instances of poor design that we see actually reflect good design, or at least optimal under the circumstances. That we perceive them as poor design reflects some deficiency in our understanding. Thus they will offer this or that hypothesis about why backward eye-wiring is a wonderful thing or why the panda’s thumb, in fact, could not really be improved. Dembski avails himself of this option as well:

Design is a matter of tradeoffs. There's no question that we would like to add or improve existing designs by conferring additional functionalities. It would be nice to have all the functionality of the human eye without a blind spot. It would be nice to have all the functionality of the respiratory and food-intake system as well as a reduced incidence of choking. It would be nice to have all the functionality of our backs and a decreased incidence of back pain. ...But when the suboptimality objection is raised, one invariably find only additional functionalities mentioned but no details about how they might be implemented. And with design, the devil is in the details. (P. 60)

But this simply will not do. Not as long as we are considering an omnipotent, omnibenevolent designer, anyway. And for an obvious reason, too. There are no constraints on omnipotence. Asking God to make our back muscles a little stronger is not exactly like asking him to build a rock so heavy even he can’t lift it. What engineering constraints exist are there only becuase God made them that way. It is a simple fact that animals endure an enormous amount of pain and suffering every year simply because of their poor design. And if God sometimes intervenes to give animals a useful structure (a flagellum, say, or a blood clotting cascade) then there is no obvious reason why He can’t intervene to prevent a poor structure from emerging. I suspect it is these sorts of considerations that lead many people to theistic evolution.

Thus disteleology is a problem for ID’s because of what it seems to imply about the designer. If ID’s were serious about turning ID into a science they would investigate this question in a serious way. Instead they make irrelevant arguments about suboptimal design not precluding ID.

This is hardly the only example of this sort of argument swapping. Not only do ID’s pull quotations out of context, sometimes they pull whole arguments out of context.