Eric Holloway needs our help

A parallel thread to this one will be found at The Skeptical Zone.

At Mind Matters, the blog of the Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence, Eric Holloway has argued that no critic of Intelligent Design has yet refuted William Dembski’s information-theoretic arguments for ID.

The situation sounds dire. He writes:

When I first began to look into intelligent design (ID) theory while I was considering becoming an atheist, I was struck by Bill Dembski's claim that ID could be demonstrated mathematically through information theory. A number of authors who were experts in computer science and information theory disagreed with Dembski's argument. They offered two criticisms: that he did not provide enough details to make the argument coherent and that he was making claims that were at odds with established information theory. In online discussions, I pressed a number of them, including Jeffrey Shallit, Tom English, Joe Felsenstein, and Joshua Swamidass. I also read a number of their articles. But I have not been able to discover a precise reason why they think Dembski is wrong. Ironically, they actually tend to agree with Dembski when the topic lies within their respective realms of expertise. For example, in his rebuttal Shallit considered an idea which is very similar to the ID concept of "algorithmic specified complexity". The critics tended to pounce when addressing Dembski's claims outside their realms of expertise.

Is that really the state of debate about Dembski’s arguments? I’d say that we can point to a number of arguments that Holloway must have missed. Let me list them …

Here is a list of some arguments against William Dembski’s use of Complex Specified Information to validate Intelligent Design:

  1. Dembski's original CSI argument used a Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information (LCCSI) to establish that a population had to be in a state which already had CSI in order to subsequently be in a state which had CSI. In his 2002 book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, chapter 4 was entitled "Life's Conservation Law" and discussed the LCCSI. Dembski said of this chapter that "this chapter is the climax of the book". However ...
    • Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit, in their 2011 paper in the philosophical journal Synthese, noted that Dembski's sketched proof of his LCCSI required that the specification be independent of any mechanisms of change. They pointed out that the actual before-and-after specifications that Dembski used in his LCCSI proof violated this. Holloway, in his Mind Matters post, also states that the specification needs to be independent of any mechanisms of change, but does not explain why Elsberry and Shallit's argument is not then decisive.
    • Erik Tellgren carefully examined Dembski's argument and concluded that Dembski had not proven that the specification that he gave for the generation preceding the current generation satisfied the requirement that it be independent of the evolutionary processes involved.
    • In my 2007 paper on Dembski's arguments, I pointed out that the proof of the LCCSI changes the specification in each generation. But Dembski's objective is to prove that natural selection and other evolutionary processes cannot make the population have high fitness if it originally doesn't, so we need to keep the specification the same before and after. Dembski's ever-changing specification thus fails to show that a population cannot move into a state of higher fitness.
  2. Starting in 2005, Dembski changed the definition of his CSI. He'd say that he clarified it, showing what he had meant all along. But after 2005, his original LCCSI is no longer discussed. Instead he has a new way of proving that CSI cannot be achieved by natural evolutionary forces: he simply refuses to define the population as having CSI if its state can be achieved by natural evolutionary forces! It's only CSI if evolution can't get there. So how do we know that? He doesn't say -- it's up to us to find a way to show that, in order to be able to call it CSI. Which reverses the whole effect of showing something has CSI. CSI formerly was being used to show evolution couldn't get there. Now we have to separately show (somehow) that evolution can't get there before we can call it CSI. Which makes CSI a useless add-on to the whole argument. Dembski's new argument will be found here. It was published in Philosophia Christi in 2005. Some further comments on the new argument by me will be found here (comments are missing as in many older PT threads -- we hope to restore them some day soon).
  3. Then in 2009, William Dembski and Robert Marks rolled out a new argument -- that when natural selection could succeed in increasing fitness, this was only because of the pattern of fitnesses of genotypes. They defined "active information" that came from that pattern of fitnesses. They argued that this information must have been "front-loaded" into the situation by nature. Problem is, this wasn't an argument about how natural evolutionary forces could not increase fitness. Instead it argued that when they could do the job, it was only because a Design Intervention enabled that. Some rebuttal of their argument by Tom English and I will be found here (at The Skeptical Zone).

So only Dembski’s first argument, the one using the Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information, even tried to show that there was some information-based Law that prevented natural selection from putting adaptive information into the genome. And, as we’ve seen, that law does not work to do that. And Holloway seems to have missed that. As he missed all these other refutations of Dembski.

Deja vu

Holloway has had such difficulties before. In August 2011, on the creationist/ID blog Uncommon Descent, Holloway argued that even William Dembski’s critics all acknowledged that his No Free Lunch argument was valid. He wrote that each critic acknowledged that Dembski’s application of the No Free Lunch Theorem was valid, but all of the critics claimed that there was a problem somewhere else – outside of the critic’s domain of expertise.

Dembski’s No Free Lunch argument, put forward in his 2002 book, was not framed in terms of information theory. And it came under immediate, and devastating, attack by many critics, all of whom concurred that the argument failed to show that the 1997 No Free Lunch Theorem of Wolpert and Macready posed any problem for evolutionary biology.

Those devastating responses were:

I have also given what I claim to be the clearest explanation of these objections, in my 2007 article in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Attention called to these criticims

In 2011, after these criticisms of Dembski’s No Free Lunch argument had been available for years, Eric Holloway argued at Uncommon Descent that critics of Dembski had admitted that the No Free Lunch argument applied to biological evolution. Summarizing the state of the debate in a comment in that thread Holloway said:

So, I spent some time reading the critics, and this bore my frustration. I could not find one author who treated Dembski's work fairly! If someone could fairly refute Dembski's work I'd be all over it, but I haven't found anyone! Instead it's all passive aggressive ad homineum and brow beating, with ample burning of strawmen, very tiring to read.

Astonished by this wildly wrong summary of the situation, I posted at Panda’s Thumb arguing that Holloway had missed numerous cogent refutations of Dembski’s use of the No Free Lunch Theorem.

On August 28, 2011 Holloway responded at Uncommon Descent – I thought extraordinarily weakly. He simply said that empirical evidence was that most mutations were deleterious, an observation that hardly grapples with the criticisms of Dembski’s use of the No Free Lunch Theorem.

... all over again

So here we are again, and once again Holloway is not seeing any valid criticisms of Dembski’s argument, and is saying that the criticisms of Dembski’s Conservation Law argument aren’t valid. It is as if the critics and their arguments didn’t exist.

Can we get Holloway to take a look at whether Dembski’s information-theory-based arguments are still standing, unrefuted? As you can see, it’s been hard to get him to acknowledge such things before. It’s deja vu, and all over again.


Dembski W. A. 2002 No free lunch: Why specified complexity cannot be purchased without intelligence. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.

Dembski, W. A. 2005. Specification: the pattern that signified intelligence. Philosophia Christi 7 (2): 299-344.

Elsberry, W. and J. Shallit. 2011. Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski’s “complex specified information”. Synthese 178 (2) 237-270.

Häggström, O. 2007. Intelligent design and the NFL theorems. Biology and Philosophy 22 (2): 217-230.

Perakh, M. 2004. There is a free lunch after all: William Dembski’s wrong answers to irrelevant questions. pp. 121-138 in Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, ed. M. Yound and T. Edis. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.

Rosenhouse, J. 2002. Probability, optimization theory, and evolution. Evolution 56 (8): 1721-1723.