Robert Camp:Can Intelligent Design be considered scientific in the same way that SETI is?

Robert Camp in Can Intelligent Design be considered scientific in the same way that SETI is? delivers a fatal blow to the specious claims by Intelligent Design supporters that SETI uses the ‘explanatory filter’ proposed by Dembski to detect ‘design’. In fact, in order to detect design, these sciences all use additional information such as means, motives, and opportunities to reach their conclusions. Since ID wants to avoid dealing with motives, pathways, methods at all cost, ID will remain scientifically devoid of content.

In the next few weeks I intend to show various approaches and arguments which all reach the same conclusion.

Let’s start with Dembski’s claim about Intelligent Design

Dembski wrote:

To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected natural causes. Many special sciences have already developed such methods for drawing this distinction — notably forensic science, cryptography, archeology, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Essential to all these methods is the ability to eliminate chance and necessity.2

Dembski, William. 2003. “Intelligent Design.

Several others have already pointed out the problems with Dembski’s claim but Camp’s analysis is quite excellent and timely as it helps understand why ID id doomed to remain scientifically vacuous.

But first, let me point out that Intelligent Design activists have been arguing that science ‘a priori’ exclude intelligent design and at the same time argue that science already successfully can detect ‘intelligent design’. The only logical conclusion is that they are not talking about the same ‘intelligent design’. The first kind is ‘Intelligent Design’ or the notion of (a) supernatural designer(s), the latter kind is ‘intelligent design’ performed by natural designers. This implicit distinction between the two kinds of designers also helps understand why Wilkins et al concluded that design comes in two forms: ‘ordinary design’ and ‘rarefied design’.

Wilkins and Elsberry in their paper The advantages of theft over toil: the design inference and arguing from ignorance. Biology and Philosophy 16 (November):711-724 show how design in fact can come in two flavors, one is known as ordinary design, the other one as rarefied design. They show how the filter used by Dembski can be improved

Wilkins et al wrote:

So now there appears to be two kinds of design - the ordinary kind based on a knowledge of the behavior of designers, and a “rarefied” design, based on an inference from ignorance, both of the possible causes of regularities and of the nature of the designer

They show that unlike criminology etc, there is no way to inductively generalize rarefied design.

Wlkins et al wrote:

So instead of design being the penultimate default hypothesis in the decision tree, rarefied design becomes, at best, a tenuous conclusion to draw. There is an in-principle difference between rarefied and ordinary design inferences, based on the background knowledge available about ordinary, but not rarefied, design agencies. Rarefied design inferences tell us nothing that can be inductively generalized. Consequently, analogies between artifacts of ordinary design, which are the result of causal regularities of (known) designers, and the “artifacts” of rarefied design do not hold (as Philo noted in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Book V).7 Indeed, we might even conclude that the specified small probability of rarefied design is itself an artifact of our prior expectations. As our background knowledge changes and grows (due to the “irrational” inferences of people like Actual Charles), so too do the specifications, and sp/SP can become HP or IP. Why is there a rarefied design option in the filter at all? Dembski has not dealt with such Humean objections. His a priori expectation is that events of specified small probability (relative to whichever specification) do not happen by themselves through chance or regularity, and hence require some other “explanation”. But if this is merely a statement about our expectations, and we already require a “don’t know” or “don’t know yet” option in our filter, why are we ever forced to a rarefied design conclusion? Surely we can content ourselves with regularities, chance and “don’t know” explanations. Such overreaching inferences as a rarefied design inference carry a heavy metaphysical burden, and the onus is on the proponents of such an a priori assumption to justify it.

Paul Nelson on ISCID objected to the new filter since it would be unable to find the ‘truth’ if the truth involved a rarefied designer. The problem is that a rarefied design cannot compete with ‘we don’t know’. Wilkins described in more detail his views on the issue of the various designer options

Back to Robert Camp, who similarly concludes that the claims by Dembski are fallacious:

Camp wrote:

Dembski clearly believes ID will stand up to, and benefit from, a methodology-level comparison with forensics, cryptography, archeology, and SETI. Unfortunately, the analogy is only useful regarding ID if one understands certain assumptions inherent in these disciplines. With this understanding, however, it becomes clear that the comparison of ID with operational science is flawed.

Camp discusses the explanatory filter and shows the problems with the analogy:

Camp wrote:

For the purposes of discussing the value of an analogy between ID and SETI (and other sciences), however, we can accept for the moment the legitimacy of the EF. It is my intent to demonstrate that the analogy fails because, first, in ID the distinction drawn between necessity/chance and intelligence is a terminus, it is the goal and the end of the process.

Seems that Camp reached the same conclusion as Wilkins et al (see above).

Camp continues to show the distinction between forensices, cryptography etc and Intelligent Design

Camp wrote:

In forensics, cryptography, and archeology this distinction is merely an expedient without which the science itself would not take place. Second, although Dembski wishes to paint ID with a coat of science borrowed from these disciplines, the methodological locus between the two is not analogous. And third, the kinds of phenomena ID investigates are not comparable to those dealt with by SETI, forensics, cryptography, and archeology. ID phenomena are inaccessible to science.

In other words:

  1. For ID, a design inference is the end point, while for science this is part of the ongoing process of scientific inquiry

  2. Dembski is using the references to science to give a credibility to ID although the methodologies used by science differs significantly from the one used by ID

  3. ID phenomena are inaccessible to science

So now we get to the difference between science and ID (and will see how Wilkins et al’s suggestion of a distinction between ordinary and rarefied design is well justified)

Camp wrote:

Forensic science, cryptography, and archeology (hereafter simply “forensics”) have indeed developed “methods for drawing this distinction,” as Dembski says, but the differentiation they draw is a specific one between undirected natural causes and human intelligent causes. As well, the methods developed have been for detection and elucidation of human intelligent causes in particular, not intelligence in general (assuming that there are other intelligences). This is an important distinction to make because it speaks to the nature of empirical inquiry. These disciplines assume that the phenomenon in question is real, obeys natural laws, and is accessible to scientific methodology. These are assumptions ID proponents cannot claim as fundamental to their own methodology.

Or in other words, by limiting intelligent design in sciences to human design for instance, one can generate positive hypotheses of design based on capabilities, motives, means and opportunities. And nowhere in this process does science assume that natural laws have been violated. An unconstrained designer however can explain anything and thus nothing.

Even in the superficial details does the claims fail to hold:

Camp wrote:

The assumption of a particular intelligence — human — is built into the process from the beginning. The initial distinction for forensics, then, is not so much between natural causes and intelligent causes as it is between lack of evidence for human causes and evidence for human causes. This is an important difference as it relates to the analogy Dembski applies.

Camp, after having shown how ID’s appeal to analogies with science are unjustified in areas such as criminology, and archaeology continues to address SETI. The difference between SETI and the other areas of science is that in case of SETI we are dealing with unknown intelligence.

But, in fact, the SETI project investigates phenomena that occupy a category similar to the phenomena investigated by the afore-mentioned disciplines.

In this analysis, phenomena can be classed in the following fashion:

  1. Explained Phenomena
  2. Unexplained Phenomena (consisting of two subsets):
  3. b1. putative natural phenomena
  4. b2. causally indeterminate phenomena (either natural or non-natural)

Camp quickly narrows down on the issue when it comes to SETI and discovers how motive plays a major role in understanding how SETI hopes to detect intelligent life

Camp wrote:

It is my argument that implicit in taking action in this case is the assumption that this signal is empirically investigable. That is, it accords with certain preconditions, those being that it is real, it is derived from natural processes, it abides by the physical laws of the universe, and is accessible to current science. The procedure used by SETI is not some unstructured surveillance of the radio spectrum. SETI searches for specific kinds of signals (narrow band) based on specific assumptions about the intelligence that might send them. A statement from the SETI Institute (webpage FAQ) demonstrates this:

There is relatively little background static from galaxies, quasars, and other cosmic noisemakers in the microwave part of the spectrum. This makes faint signals easier to pick out. Additionally, the microwave band contains a naturally-produced emission line, a narrow-band “broadcast”, at 1,420 MHz due to interstellar hydrogen. Every radio astronomer (including extraterrestrial ones) will know about this hydrogen emission. It may serve as a universal “marker” on the radio dial. Consequently, it makes sense to use nearby frequencies for interstellar “hailing” signals.6

Camp also quotes Cornell astrophysicist Loren Petrich

Cornell astrophysicist Loren Petrich makes this point clearly,

These reasons are very distinct from Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, which focuses on alleged unexplainability as a natural phenomenon; they are an attempt to predict what an extraterrestrial broadcaster is likely to do, using the fact that they live in the same kind of Universe that we do.7

And concludes that

Camp wrote:

This same argument applies to the attempted analogy with forensic science, cryptography, and archeology. All of these deal with investigation into phenomena that are described in “b1,” that of being unexplained but explainable developments. We can be reasonably confident this is so because they exhibit qualities accessible to science; they are of the natural universe. But phenomena found in “b2” are either presently inaccessible to science or unreasonably attributable to intelligence for lack of evidence. While these qualities obviously allow exploitation by ID proponents they also make the analogy with science inappropriate and self-serving. Comparison of “Intelligent Design” with science is a clear category error.

Camp then discusses the issue of the ‘nature of the designer’. ID could at least attempt to rectify the problems with its design inference by making assumptions or inferences about its designer(s). This would include such issues as motives and methods. But ID has made it clear that it is not interested in either motives or methods

The “discovery” of intelligence in “b2” gaps encourages ID proponents to take a pass on attempting to develop any kind of body of work that considers the motives and mechanisms by which an intelligent designer might intervene in the natural world. This endeavor would be directly analogous to the real science with which Dembski and other ID theorists wish “Intelligent Design” to be favorably compared.10 Yet it seems that Dembski would not have us concern ourselves with such inquiries:

What a designer intends or purposes is, to be sure, an interesting question, and one may be able to infer something about a designer’s purposes from the designed objects that a designer produces. Nevertheless, the purposes of a designer lie outside the scope of intelligent design.2

Dembski similarly responded to requests for pathways chosen by intelligent designers by stating that

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.”


But the failure to deal with motives and methods is what makes ID different from criminology or archaeology.

Camp wrote:

But an inference of “something about a designer’s purposes from the designed objects that a designer produces” is exactly what the methodology of forensics is configured to produce. Additionally this is intimately associated with the methods the designer used which are, in turn, intimately associated with the nature of the designer. These characteristics are not mere empirical by-products of forensics, they are a methodological focus. To compare ID to these disciplines without being able to speak of purposes, methods, and nature of the object of investigation is to ignore the cogent part of the analogy.

Camp summarizes:

To summarize, the analogy of ID to forensics, SETI, and science in general fails for the following reasons:

  1. For ID, differentiation between natural processes and intelligence is an end, for the scientific disciplines it is just a beginning.
  2. In those scientific disciplines it is following this point of departure that most of the science is conducted, with the motives and mechanisms of human (or ET) intelligence being of central concern. These questions are purposefully ignored by ID, leaving it with no analogous locus of scientific methodology.
  3. ID and science address phenomena that are etiologically different. Comparison of ID with science is a category error.

Whether one considers the tactic of analogizing ID with SETI and other sciences a cold calculation or an earnest attempt at dialogue, the goal of the argument is to leave science and scientists in a logical conundrum. As one ID proponent noted,

The ID critic cannot have her cake and eat it too. Either she can allow SETI and archeology into her definition of science — and ID along with them — or she must throw them all out. There is no logical middle ground.12

Alder, J. S. 2001. “Is Intelligent Design Science, and Does it Matter?”

But an understanding of the specifics of the analogized methodologies reveals that it is actually the proponents of ID who have an uncomfortable decision to make. Either the phenomena that ID theory purports to discover are empirically accessible to science — and therefore derived from natural processes — or they are forever inexplicable, in which case the analogy with scientific methodology fails by definition. Do Intelligent Design proponents leave ID in this epistemological vacuum where it cannot be falsified by the scientific method, or do they allow, and therefore submit to peer review, that their designer must somehow interact with the natural universe in ways that should be detectable, testable, explicable, and eventually expressive of the nature of the designer?

Gary Hurd addressed the claims of Dembski in Why Intelligent Design Fails: Chapter 8 “The explanatory filter, archaeology, and Forensics”

Beckwith’s position has already been explored by Ian Musgrave

Beckwith wrote:

ID theorists maintain that contemporary science’s repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID’s arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), (n4) an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM),(n5) but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science.(n6) (p. 457, “Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean v. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design.” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 26.2 (Spring 2003: 455-499)