Moving the goalposts: Or a 'puff of smoke'

It seems that Dembski has decided to ‘decisively’ move the goalposts of ID further out and although in earlier writings he did mention the possibility of ‘front loading’, he also considered such possibilities to be unlikely and ‘deistic’ in nature.

Now he may have clarified his position:

Dembski wrote:

Let’s cut to the chase: Is the designer responsible for biological complexity God? Even as a very traditional Christian and an ardent proponent of ID, I would say NOT NECESSARILY. To ask who or what is the designer of a particular object is to ask for the immediate intelligent agent responsible for its design. The point is that God is able to work through derived or surrogate intelligences, which can be anything from angels to organizing principles embedded in nature.

For instance, just because I hold to both Christian theism and ID doesn’t mean that God directly designed and implemented the bacterial flagellum by specifically toggling its components. It could well have happened by a process of natural genetic engineering of the sort envisioned by James Shapiro. The design would be no less real, but God’s role in the design would be distant, not proximal.

Philosophers have long distinguished between primary and secondary causes. The problem is that under the pall of methodological naturalism, secondary causes have been identified with purely materialistic processes. But it’s perfectly legitimate for secondary causes to include teleological processes. I develop all this at length in THE DESIGN REVOLUTION.

Anything from angels to organizing principles, I clearly see the scientific value of ID here. And the logical conclusion from Dembski’s admissions about front-loading is that natural explanations would be able to explain the origin of such features as the bacterial flagellum. Thus, lacking any further evidence, science would be unable to reach a conclusion of ‘intelligent design’ as the evidence would be hidden beyond our observations. In other words, Intelligent Design has moved itself further into the realm of scientific vacuity.

Not bad for a days work though. Boy do I wish Dembski had testified at the Dover trial.

I find it fascinating that Dembski on the one hand seems to be arguing that complex specified information requires a supernatural origin while on the other hand arguing that CSI can in fact be explained by natural law alone. Whether or not a supernatural designer was responsible for the front loading is a question science cannot answer. Which is exactly why Intelligent Design makes for poor science and good apologetics. As such, I start to understand more and more why Dembski has returned to apologetics.

Given the recent scientific progress, it may not come as a surprise to see ID proponents retreat to front-loading.

It’s however quite educational to see what Dembski has written on this topic in the past and how various ID critics have pointed out the problems involved with such arguments:

In earlier writings, Dembski wrote:

When humans, for instance, act as [embodied] intelligent agents, there is no reason to think that any natural law is broken. Likewise, should an unembodied designer act to bring about a bacterial flagellum, there is no reason prima facie to suppose that this designer did not act consistently with natural laws. It is, for instance, a logical possibility that the design in the bacterial flagellum was front-loaded into the universe at the Big Bang and subsequently expressed itself in the course of natural history as a miniature outboard motor on the back of E. coli.

Thus returning to the distinction between apparant and actual CSI, an issue raised by Wesley Elsberry and which Dembski has yet to fully address.

Howard van Till exposes the flaws in Dembski’s stance

Elsewhere in No Free Lunch, however, Dembski makes it abundantly clear that he is no friend of this “front-loading” hypothesis. Dembski’s Intelligent Designer is one who interacts with the universe in the course of time. The design action posited to actualize the bacterial flagellum, as we shall see, is an action that occurs long after the Big Bang. Furthermore, since Dembski argues vigorously that the assembling of E. coli’s flagellum could not have come about naturally, the question is, How could the Intelligent Designer bring about a naturally impossible outcome by interacting with a bacterium in the course of time without either a suspension or overriding of natural laws?Dembski could argue here that the natural assembling of the first flagellum is not absolutely impossible, only highly improbable. While that might be technically true, the whole of Dembski’s argumentation…Natural laws (which entail the probabilities for various outcomes) would have led to the outcome, no flagellum. Instead, a flagellum appeared as the outcome of the Intelligent Designer’s action. Is that is not a miracle, what is? How can this be anything other than a supernatural intervention?

Source: Link

And Jack Krebs points out that:

Krebs wrote:

Dembski also dismisses “front-loading,” - the idea that somehow all the information necessary for life was pre-existent at the Big Bang and then mechanically worked itself out at the proper time. He considers this a “logical possibility”, but later dismisses it as deistic.

Source: Link

See also Dembski: The displacement problem and the law of conservation of CSI

And although Dembski allows for the possibility of front-loading he also seems to reject it based on various reasons.

But simply to allow that a designer has imparted information into the natural world is not enough. There are many thinkers who are sympathetic to design but who prefer that all the design in the world be front-loaded. The advantage of putting all the design in the world at, say, the initial moment of the Big Bang is that it minimizes the conflict between design and science as currently practiced. A designer who front-loads the design of the world imparts all the world’s information before natural causes become operational and express that information in the course of natural history. In effect, there’s no need to think of the world as an informationally open system. Rather, we can still think of it mechanistically–like the outworking of a complicated differential equation, albeit with the initial and boundary conditions designed. The impulse to front-load design is deistic, and I expect any theories about front-loaded design to be just as successful as deism was historically, which always served as an unsatisfactory halfway house between theism (with its informationally open universe) and naturalism (which insists the universe remain informationally closed).

Source: Link

And of course an ironic comment:

Take the Cambrian explosion in biology, for instance. David Jablonsky, James Valentine, and even Stephen Jay Gould (when he’s not fending off the charge of aiding creationists) admit that the basic metazoan body-plans arose in a remarkably short span of geological time (5 to 10 million years) and for the most part without any evident precursors (there are some annelid tracks as well as evidence of sponges leading up to the Cambrian, but that’s about it with regard to metazoans; single-celled organisms abound in the Precambrian). Assuming that the animals fossilized in the Cambrian exhibit design, where did that design come from? To be committed to front-loaded design means that all these body-plans that first appeared in the Cambrian were in fact already built in at the Big Bang (or whenever that information was front-loaded), that the information for these body-plans was expressed in the subsequent history of the universe, and that if we could but uncover enough about the history of life, we would see how the information expressed in the Cambrian fossils merely exploits information that was already in the world prior to the Cambrian period. Now that may be, but there is no evidence for it. All we know is that information needed to build the animals of the Cambrian period was suddenly expressed at that time and with no evident informational precursors.

While at the time Dembski wrote this, there was not much evidence that there were informational precursors, science has since then shown in exquisite detail how evolution ties together the Cambrian explosion. In other words, recent research on the Cambrian may help explain why Dembski may be abandoning his earlier stance on front loading but such a move also serves to further undermine the scientific relevance of ID. Valentine, who is quoted by Dembski, now admits that natural selection very well may explain the Cambrian explosion.

Valentine wrote:

The title of this book, modeled on that of the greatest biological work ever written, is in homage to the greatest biologist who has ever lived. Darwin himself puzzled over but could not cover the ground that is reviewed here, simply because the relevant fossils, genes, and their molecules, end even the body plans of many of the phyla, were quite unknown in his day. Nevertheless, the evidence from these many additional souces of data simply confirm that Darwin was correct in his conclusions that all living things have descended from a commmon anscestor and can be placed within a tree of life, and that the principle process guiding their descent has been natural selection.

The data on which this book is based have accumulated over the nearly century and a half since Darwin published On the Origin of Species, some gradually, but much in a rush in the last several decades. I have been working on this book for well over a decade, and much of that time has been spent in trying to keep up with the flood of incredibly interesting findings reported from outcrops and laboratories. I am stopping now not because there is a lull in the pace of new discoveries (which if anything is still picking up), but because there never will be a natural stopping place anyway, and because the outlines of early metazoan history have gradually emerged from mysteries to testable hypotheses.

(Valentine On the origin of phyla 2004, preface)

Of course Dembski’s solution to God imparting information into His Creation? Using an infinite wavelength (can anyone tell us what’s so obviously wrong with this?)

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.

Or as RBH observes

That is, Dembski invokes a zero-energy (and therefore zero channel capacity) infinite wavelength (and therefore unfocusable) communication channel. One also wonders what sort of modulation of a zero-energy infinite-wavelength signal would encode the ‘information’.

His colleague Behe is far more forthcoming as to the nature of the “ID hypothesis”

On November 11, 2002, Larry Arnhart reported on a lecture by Behe at Hillsdale:

At Hillsdale, after his public lecture, I challenged Behe in a small-group discussion to give us a positive statement of exactly how the “Intelligent Designer” creates bacterial flagella. As usual, he was evasive. But I didn’t let him get away. And finally, he answered: “In a puff of smoke!” A physicist in our group asked, “Do you mean that the Intelligent Designer suspends the laws of physics through working a miracle?” And Behe answered: “Yes.”.

Original source. The date on this quote has since been confirmed by Larry Arnhart. It occurred in discussion after Behe’s talk at Hillsdale College, which was having a series of talks on the “Intelligent Design Debate” [1]

Source: Link

It should be clear by now that the ID argument that God could have front-loaded His Creation saves ID from the embarassment of flawed predictions but also renders it scientifically useless.