Those pesky 'pathetic' details...

Dembski commented on a discussion on the BBC between himself and Ken Miller and attempts to address two issues raised by Ken Miller. As I shall show, in both cases Dembski fails.

Dembski wrote:

(1) The main weakness of evolution is that it is science (yes, Miller actually did say this and went on so long about it that the BBC host could not give me my closing comment as he had intended to) and (2) ID’s main fault is that it proceeds by negative argumentation.

This is going to be interesting. Dembski, who is a philosopher, mathematician and theologian may not be too familiar with the scientific evidence for evolution. As far as how he is going to argue against (2) is beyond me. It’s self evident that ID’s approach is by negative argumentation. In fact when Dembski was asked for details for Intelligent Design he responded

Dembski wrote:

“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.”

So what is Dembski’s argument about evolution and science?

Dembski wrote:

Point (1): The problem is not that evolution is science and therefore rife with open problems. The problem is that it never solved the problem which it set itself, namely the increasing complexification of life over the course of natural history. To be sure, evolutionists claim to have solved this problem by uncovering natural selection and other material mechanisms. But evolutionists have never been able to take these mechanisms and with them provide detailed, testable accounts of how the origination of complex biological systems required for macroevolution could have occurred. Plenty of handwaving, yes; details that would convince and evolution skeptic, no.

However, the bar set by Dembski is not only unreasonably high but while evolution has at least proposed mechanisms and pathways which can be tested, ID basically has nothing more than ‘poof’. In fact, science has proposed many pathways and mechanisms to explain complexity in life. The problem is that Dembski’s definition of complexity is basically the log of the probability, or in other words, something is complex when it cannot be explained by chance or regularity. The moment one explains ‘complexity’ it is not complex anymore. Complexity, as used in science typically looks at other aspects and Dembski conflates the various meanings leading to confusion amongst his faithful as well as amongst unaware citizens and even scientists.

Judge Jones was very critical of this

Judge Jones wrote:

It is appropriate at this juncture to address ID’s claims against evolution. ID proponents support their assertion that evolutionary theory cannot account for life’s complexity by pointing to real gaps in scientific knowledge, which indisputably exist in all scientific theories, but also by misrepresenting wellestablished scientific propositions. (1:112, 1:122, 1:136-37 (Miller); 16:74-79, 17:45-46 (Padian)).

And is Dembski right, has science failed to explain the complexification of life? Has science failed to explain how information can increase in the genome?

On the contrary, people like Tom Schneider or Chris Adami et al have shown how the simple processes of mutation and selection can in fact increase the information in the genome.

T. D. Schneider, Evolution of Biological Information, Nucleic Acids Res, 28, 14, 2794-2799, 2000

Adami, Ofria, Collier Evolution of biological complexity Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci (USA) 97 (2000) 4463

And let’s not forget the seminal work by Lenski et al on the evolution of complex features.

Lenski RE, Ofria C, Pennock RT, and Adami C The Evolutionary Origin of Complex Features Nature, 423:139-144 (2003).

And the work on self organization, self organized criticality, gene networks, and evolvability show countless papers and examples of how science is dealing with these issues. What has ID contributed to this discussion? Poof…

Or lets consider the combination of evolution and development which has led to many more insights into mechanisms and pathways of evolution. Intelligent Design’s Icon, the Cambrian Explosion was once argued to be an example of independent origins. Now that science has progressed and more data becomes available, it is clear that the Cambrian explosion is well explainable in Darwinian terms. James Valentine, often quoted by ID proponents, and a foremost expert on the Cambrian explosion has reached this conclusion.

So let’s visit Dembski’s second ‘argument’ and see if he does any better here.

Dembski wrote:

Point (2): Negative argumentation for one of two mutually exclusive and exhaustive positions is always positive argumentation for the other (the two positions here are intelligent design and unintelligent evolution, i.e., evolution that proceeds without intelligent input). Yes, much of ID argumentation is showing the limits to evolvability of various biological systems given certain material mechanisms. But the charge of negative argumentation applies equally to evolutionary theory: evolution argues negatively against ID. Just as ID hasn’t ruled out all conceivable material mechanisms, evolution has not ruled out all conceivable actions by intelligent agents in forming biological complexity. ID has this advantage, however. We do know that intelligent agents can bring about the types of functional systems we see in biology; we have no evidence that unintelligent evolution can do the same.

This points to a common flaw in Dembski’s argument namely that it is an either or proposition. But as Dembski has argued himself even if evolution happened fully by natural means, it could still have involved (but not necessarily required) an intelligent input. Secondly, Dembski argues that even if Design happened, it may very well be that it can also be explained by natural processes. In fact, unless there is some positive evidence, the approach chosen by Dembski cannot even compete with ‘we don’t know’. That’s because Dembski’s ‘Design Inference’ is basically nothing more than the null hypothesis. There are so many problems with Dembski’s claim here that it is clear that Dembski is approaching this issue from a purely mathematical or philosophical perspective but when it comes to dealing with it from a scientific perspective his arguments quickly are shown to be irrelevant or plain wrong. Let’s for instance look at Dembski’s claim that the Design Inference is free from false positives. Now in theory, this is correct, if and only if all known and unknown hypotheses for chance and regularity have been rejected can one reliably infer not(chance or regularity). But this requires a level of knowledge typically not available to human intelligence. In most cases, especially in the sciences, the situation is not that black or white. Incomplete knowledge, incomplete understanding of the probabilities involved all will lead to inevitable false positives (instances in which design was incorrectly inferred). History has shown us many instances where our ignorance led us to infer ‘Intelligent Design’, only to later be forced to accept a far less reaching conclusion.

So while Dembski originally argued that false positives would render his approach useless, he admitted over time, that false positives were indeed a real possibility. In other words, Dembski himself has come to the inevitable conclusion that his Design Inference is ‘useless’.

See for instance my more in-depth postings on this topic. Icons of ID: Reliability revisited and Icons of ID: Explanatory filter and false positives.

Science however does not rely on disproving all known possible actions by intelligent design agents, and in fact accepts that the intelligent designer proposed by ID, namely God,can never be ruled out. While Dembski argues that evidence in favor of evolution argues against intelligent design, his arguments are illogical and even contradictory to his own arguments. In fact, Judge Jones addressed this confusion when pointing out that evolution and “intelligent design” can co-exist quite peacefully. Exactly because they are NOT mutually exclusive.

Judge Jones wrote:

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

So let’s attempt a little thought experiment that may clarify my position here:

Ask this question of yourself: Would you reject your belief in God just because science has shown that God is not involved in the continuous manipulation of the bodies rotating our sun? Is there really ANY scientific evidence which could lead you to reject your faith in God?

Dembski himself has argued that natural law and chance may very well fully explain complexity in our universe, leaving the origin of such information outside the scope of science.

So how does science deal with this? And why does it deal with it much better than Intelligent Design? Again the answer is trivially simpl: science proposes positive, and testable hypotheses which are consequently subjected to attempts to disprove. The more such hypotheses resist disproof and the more evidence supporting these hypotheses are found, the better these hypotheses will do. Eventually, the evidence may be such that these hypotheses become theories. For instance, in case of evolution, the evidence for Common Descent has been so succesful that by all measures of science, it is a scientific fact. However, how one explains Common Descent, remains an issue of theory and hypotheses.

Note that Intelligent Design does not propose ANY scientifically relevant hypotheses nor makes ANY claim about how to explain a particular feature while science proposes plausible pathways and mechanisms which may thus be subjected to disproof.

Which is why many scientists have come to the conclusion that Intelligent Design is scientifically vacuous. But this conclusion is not limited to scientists, also many religious people have come to a similar conclusion.

Now, of course when one is convinced about the existence of the Intelligent Designer, one may argue that His interactions with His Creation must be detectable. And yet, even Dembski has come to realize that the Designer may have been fully ‘hands-off’ letting chance and regularity processes reign. Such a position would clearly reconcile faith (Intelligent Design) and science as it would place the original action of the Intelligent Designer outside the realm of scientific inquiry. For example, by displacing the origin of complex specified information to a moment before the Planck Time, one can reconcile the scientific facts with the possibility of Design. Or one could argue that a Deity interacts with His Creation via purely natural processes, making such interactions indistinguishable from natural processes.

Dembski wrote:

There is no logical contradiction here. Nor is there necessarily a god-of-the-gaps problem here. It’s certainly conceivable that a supernatural agent could act in the world by moving particles so that the resulting discontinuity in the chain of physical causality could never be removed by appealing to purely physical forces. The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there’s no reason to think that all gaps must give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms may simply not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms.


Dembski does not like this ‘solution’ and thus looks for a different way for the unembodied designer to interact with His Creation.

Now Dembski has tried to resolve this major problem by proposing that such a unembodied designer may transmit information to His Creation via an infinite wavelength.

Dembski wrote:

How much energy is required to impart information? We have sensors that can detect quantum events and amplify them to the macroscopic level. What’s more, the energy in quantum events is proportional to frequency or inversely proportional to wavelength. And since there is no upper limit to the wavelength of, for instance, electromagnetic radiation, there is no lower limit to the energy required to impart information. In the limit, a designer could therefore impart information into the universe without inputting any energy at all.

While mathematically and philosophically interesting since this would make the energy of the signal zero, a scientist would quickly realize the follies of such a proposal. While ID has some interesting philosophical implications, these examples also show how quickly ID becomes scientifically vacuous.

Now, Dembski has argued in the past that complex specified information is a clear indicator of Intelligent Design but as Wesley Elsberry so cleverly showed, Dembski had to admit that algorithms can in fact create complex specified information and concluded that there is such a thing as apparant versus actual complex specified information. Dembski has yet to address this major problem in his logic.

Wesley Elsberry wrote:

If Dembski’s analytical techniques cannot resolve the issue of possible cheating in the “Algorithm Room”, how does he hope to resolve the issue of whether certain features of biology are necessarily the work of an intelligent agent or agents? If Dembski has no solution to this dilemma, the Design Inference is dead.

So in other words: The Design Inference is by virtue of being the set theoretic complement of chance and regularity (also known as appeal from ignorance) inevitably subject to false positives. Complex Specified Information, once touted as a reliable indicator of Intelligent Design, now has two forms “apparant” and “actual”, where the determination of “apparant” is made when it involves natural processes. Of course, how one is to resolve “apparant” versus “actual” is yet another unexplained issue.

There is far more wrong with Dembski’s arguments and I could spend hours discussing the work by Mark Perakh, Wesley Elsberry, Jeffrey Shallit, John Wilkins, Elliot Sober and many others who have shown from various perspectives why Intelligent Design Fails but this seems sufficient to lay to rest Dembski’s confused claims about science and intelligent design.

On UncommonDescent Pmob1 obseves that (since Dembski tends to remove comments which are critical of his position, I have copied the comment below)

D writes: “Negative argumentation for one of two mutually exclusive and exhaustive positions is always positive argumentation for the other (the two positions here are intelligent design and unintelligent evolution…”

I think D assumes far too much in this proposition. I can imagine designed body forms that subsequently develop haphazardly in nature. I can imagine heritable alterations of DNA caused by cellular, extra-cellular or environmental events. I can entertain the idea of speciation of designed forms.

I don’t claim to have empirical evidence of the above. Situation: contingent. State of knowledge: fluid. But please note that D’s proposition implies that he DOES claim empirical evidence, i.e., in his use of the term “exhaustive.” Clearly D has no such exhaustive evidence. Therefore his claim of mutual exclusivity is false. D describes a rhetorical, not a logical, battle when referencing negative argumentations in this instance.