William Dembski's "Catalog of Fundamental Facts"

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.