Responses to Dembski

Responses to Dembski

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Metaviews 005. 2001.01.30. Approximately 3103 words.

There were a number of responses to Metaviews 004 by William Dembski.In the first message, Todd Moody, a philosopher at St. Joesph’sUniversity in Philadelphia challenges my characterization ofintelligent design and Darwinism as both irrefutable metaphysicalsystems. In the second message, John Gaffin from Myer Flat, CAchallenges Dembski to stop nourishing fundamentalist dreams aboutcreationism. In the third message, Bryan Cross writes from thePhilosophy Department at St. Louis University to argue that themetaphysics in fact can be sorted out from the scientific questionsin considering intelligent design theory. Finally, Stan Tenen writesfrom the Meru Foundation to point out some errors of omission inthe discussion. Tenen appends a letter-to-the-editor submitted toThe Mathematical Intelligencer in response to Granville Sewell’srecent essay on A Mathematical View of Evolution.

— Billy Grassie

From: Todd MoodySubject: Re: [METAVIEWS] 004: Is Intelligent Design Testable?, by William Dembski

On Wed, 24 Jan 2001, Billy Grassie wrote:

> Dembski’s essay is broken down into sections on Falsifiability,

> Confirmation, Predictability, and Explanatory Power, in which he
> contrasts intelligent design with natural selection. There is a lot
> to digest here, and well worth a careful read, but one comment stood
> out to this reader. Dembski acknowledges that intelligent design is
> an irrefutable metaphysical commitment, not unlike his own critique
> of Darwinism:
> What I want to focus on here, however, is not the testing of
> Darwinism and design against the broad body of biological data, but
> the related question of which theory can accommodate the greater
> range of biological possibilities… First off, let’s be clear that
> design can accommodate all the results of Darwinism. Intelligent
> design does not repudiate the Darwinian mechanism. It merely assigns
> it a lower status than Darwinism does. The Darwinian mechanism does
> operate in nature and insofar as it does, design can live with its
> deliverances. Even if the Darwinian mechanism could be shown to do
> all the design work for which design theorists want to invoke design
> (say for the bacterial flagellum), a design-theoretic framework would
> not destroy any valid findings of science. To be sure, design would
> then become superfluous, but it would not become contradictory or
> self-refuting.
> How then do we adjudicate between irrefutable metaphysical systems
> for which the evidence is always underdetermined? I can see that
> this makes a difference in the science-culture wars, but I’m not sure
> what difference intelligent design would make to what research is
> funded or published.

I believe you have misunderstood the significance of what Dembski issaying here. Particular design inferences stand or fall onparticular bodies of evidence. Regarding the flagellum, forinstance, Behe has argued that it appears to be designed, because itappears to be irreducibly complex, and irreducible complexity is atleast one reliable mark of intelligent design. So, given the currentstate of the evidence, it is reasonable to make a design inference.

Suppose that next week someone is able to offer a supportablenaturalistic scenario for the evolution of the flagellum, showingthat it is not in fact irreducibly complex. In that event, asDembski writes, the design inference would have to be withdrawn, andin fact the design hypothesis would be rendered superfluous. Theevidence for design would have been undermined, but as every logicstudent learns, this does not demonstrate that the claim that theevidence was supposed to establish is false. In short, to show thatthe design inference in a particular case is no longer warranted isnot the same as showing that it is false.

To deflect another possible misunderstanding, neither Dembski noranyone else (that I know about) is arguing that particular designinferences should be maintained even if supportable naturalisticexplanations are worked out.

A comparable case is vitalism. Vitalism was never *refuted*. Itbecame superfluous and just dropped out of the scientific discussionas more reductionistic explanations of life functions becameavailable. The same *could* happen for any given design inference.What Dembski and others are arguing — correctly, I believe — isthat it is a mistake to drop them out *before* the naturalisticexplanations are forthcoming. It is a relatively simple inductivestance, not an irrefutable metaphysical program. If something appearsto be designed, where it is understood that the absence ofsupportable naturalistic explanation is constitutive of theappearance of design, then it is reasonable to infer that it isdesigned. If and when a supportable naturalistic explanation isdeveloped, that counts against the appearance of design and it isreasonable to withdraw the design inference.

Todd C. MoodyAssociate Professor of PhilosophySt. Joseph’s UniversityPhiladelphia, PA

From: J.M. GaffinSubject: On Intelligent Design

Having read the most recent piece by Dembski on the relativetestability of Darwinism and Intelligent Design, I sense that alayman’s view may be in order. I am struck by the lack ofdiscussion regarding the socially most significant part of the wholecreation issue, in this article and all previous that I have read.Namely, the relation between humans and the other primates. Itseems to me that this is important, as much of what both Dembski andhis critics have written has been aimed at a popular audience thatis bemused by the implications of Darwinism (and Intelligent Design)for human existence.

I daresay that amongst the vast majority of the general public thatis attracted to Dembski’s critique of Darwinism, the primaryinterest is in refutation of the evidence that man has evolved bynatural selection from an ancestral primate. By comparison, thematter of whether or not bacterial flagellum (or any other aspect ofbiological phenomena) is irreducibly complex is a matter of marginalintrinsic interest to them.

Dembski has said in this most recent article;

First off, let’s be clear that design can accommodate all theresults of Darwinism. Intelligent design does not repudiate theDarwinian mechanism. It merely assigns it a lower status thanDarwinism does. The Darwinian mechanism does operate in nature andinsofar as it does, design can live with its deliverances.

Presumably, the relatively small genetic change that has beennecessary to move from earlier primates to humans qualifies as aninstance of one of those areas of gradual Darwinian evolution thatdoes not rely on a transitional form that prompts the identificationof that which may be irreducibly complex. If this is so, then itshould be recognized and communicated for the socially (religiously)significant fact that it is; that Darwinism is not being challengedon the matter of immediate human ancestry. If Dembski disagrees,then he should explain which part of the process of human (primate)evolution requires the intervention (participation) of adisembodied designer. Fundamentalism and rabid creationism wouldthen be free to go on their way, and the discussion of whether ornot intelligent design is a part of the creation of life on thisplanet can return to the realm of science, where it belongs. Dembskiclaims that he does not want to be encumbered with the perceptionthat he is nourishing fundamentalist dreams about creationism.Here’s an opportunity for him to clarify his perspective on thesingle most critical element of those dreams.

John M. GaffinMyers Flat, CA

From: Bryan R. CrossSubject: Re: [METAVIEWS] 004: Is Intelligent Design Testable?, by William Dembski

Billy Grassie wrote:

> Dembski’s essay is broken down into sections on Falsifiability,
> Confirmation, Predictability, and Explanatory Power, in which he
> contrasts intelligent design with natural selection. There is a lot
> to digest here, and well worth a careful read, but one comment stood
> out to this reader. Dembski acknowledges that intelligent design is
> an irrefutable metaphysical commitment, not unlike his own critique
> of Darwinism:

> . . .
> How then do we adjudicate between irrefutable metaphysical systems
> for which the evidence is always underdetermined? I can see that
> this makes a difference in the science-culture wars, but I’m not sure
> what difference intelligent design would make to what research is
> funded or published.

At least in philosophical circles, ‘superfluous’ implies ‘can berejected, should be rejected, and is therefore rejected’, since theprinciple of parsimony is assumed. By missing that point youapparently concluded that ID-theory is solely a metaphysical systemthat would stand unscathed should unintelligent causes turn out to becapable of explaining all of reality. This conclusion is deeplymistaken. The whole point of Bill’s article is to challenge E.Scott’s claim that ID theory is not testable by showing that it iseven more testable than Darwinism, and that it is not a metaphysicalclaim. Moreover, although in the broader context ID-theory may (andin my view does) have metaphysical implications, ID-theory per serequires no metaphysical commitments. That is an importantdistinction, the former being a posteriori, the latter being a priori.

There are some interesting allusions in Bill’s article to therelationship between ID-theory and metaphysics: for example, the talkof unembodied designers. In the last paragraph of the article Billin passing used the phrase the metaphysics underlying such a [ID]theory, which could have been taken to imply that ID-theory rests ona particular metaphysic. But Bill sought to separate the metaphysicsfrom the scientific aspect of ID, writing,

Specified complexity confirms design regardless whether the designerresponsible for it is embodied or unembodied. In what sense doesmetaphysics, or a particular metaphysic, underlie ID theory? Thedesign inference *per se* does not entail any metaphysical baggagebeyond that contained in the concept of an intelligent agent. Even ifit turns out that strict materialism lacks the capacity to accountfor all the properties of intelligent agents, materialists can and domake legitimate design inferences every day. A design inferenceproduces metaphysical implications beyond those contained in theconcept of an intelligent agent only when supplemented with certainother data and premises.

So if study of the flagellum leads to a design inference, there areno immediate metaphysical implications since this design could be thework of extra-terrestrials. But if it is true that an effect neverhas more specified complex information (SCI) than its cause, [and theno-free-lunch principle with respect to SCI seems to entail this],and if an infinite regress can be ruled out, then wherever alegitimate design inference is made, even where human intelligentagency is the cause, there are definite metaphysical implications,albeit a couple of syllogisms away. In that case, if a person acceptsthese syllogisms and thereby sees these metaphysical implications,and if that person also rejects the possibility of such a metaphysic,then as Bill points out that person can by anticipatory modus tollensreject a priori the possibility of legitimate non-human design. Thatperson cannot even consider the possibility of inferences tonon-human design, and therefore for individuals believing there to bemetaphysical implications of design inferences, a certain sort ofmetaphysical position (i.e. an openness to the possibility ofaccepting a non-materialist metaphysics) is a necessary condition formaking such design inferences. But I don’t think metaphysicsnecessarily underlies ID-theory.

In my view, panspermists are ID-theorists even if they arenaturalists. This is because claiming that there are entities onEarth that are intelligently designed but not designed by humans is asufficient condition for being an ID-theorist, even if the personmaking this claim is a materialist, and even if the claim inconjunction with other true premises entails the falsity ofmaterialism. In other words, a person can be opposed to thepossibility of an unembodied designer, and yet still be anID-theorist. Therefore, even though ID-theory may (and in my viewdoes) have metaphysical *implications*, ID-theory is definitely not ametaphysical commitment, since a person need not even make any sortof metaphysical commitment to be an ID-theorist.

ID-theory should be distinguished from the metaphysical*implications* produced by certain design inferences in conjunctionwith other empirical data and rational principles. The designtheorist’s task is to search out and if possible discover andsubstantiate the presence of design in nature. It is not the designtheorist’s problem if a particular design inference in conjunctionwith other data and evidence has metaphysical implications. To decidewhether design is present in an entity based solely on themetaphysical implications of making that design inference isclose-minded and methodologically flawed, like examining one’sempirical data before deciding how to analyze it. Correct scientificmethod should not rule out any metaphysical position a priori.

– Bryan

Bryan R. CrossGraduate FellowPhilosophy Dept.3800 Lindell Blvd.P.O. Box 56907Saint Louis UniversitySaint Louis, MO 63156-0907tel: (314) 977-3149fax: (314) 977-3696

From: Stan TenenSubject: A Response to Dembski

It’s always worth the time and effort to read Prof. Dembski’s perspective.

Both the design perspective and the creationist perspective arefascinating. But as presented, they are based on simple errors ofomission.

Creationism, per se, is manufactured from whole cloth. As I havepointed out in the past, there is no creationism in the Hebrew Bible.Translations of the Hebrew Bible among some Christians leave theopportunity for the presumption of creationism. Therefore, strictlyspeaking, creationism is not Bible-based, and is, as Prof. Dembski’stells us, a function of _particular_ Christian faith.

The basic error of omission in the Intelligent Design hypothesis isrelated to boundary conditions. Boundary conditions provideintelligence in the form of information intrinsically available dueto the space in which the information is organized. To date, I havenot seen any discussion of this form of intelligence.

Below is a letter I wrote in response to an essay in TheMathematical Intelligencer. I don’t know if the Intelligencer willpublish it, but it might be of some interest here. I’d alsorecommend reading the original essay, A Mathematician’s View ofEvolution, by Granville Sewell, which prompted my response.

Best,Stan TenenDirector of Research,Meru Foundation********************************************

31 December 2000


I would like to offer an alternate opinion to that expressed byGranville Sewell in his essay A Mathematician’s View of Evolution,in the Opinion column in Volume 22, Number 4. In mathematicalabstraction we have an unlimited space of however many dimensions wewould like. This means that the boundary conditions imposed by ourobserved 3-D physical reality can be easily overlooked.

In the late ’70’s I received a beautiful videotape of fractalgeometry from Homer Smith of the Artmatrix Company (an enterprisespun off from the Cornell community). Smith included a one-pageessay on embryology. It is Smith’s thesis that the initial stages ofembryological cell division are not determined by genetic coding.Instead he proposes that it is the geometric – spatial – boundaryconditions in which the blastula develops that determines its earlystructure and the biochemical gradients that initiate celldifferentiation. (A current essay The Cell and the Womb, by HomerWilson Smith can be found at:)

We begin with a symmetrical situation: A single spherical egg in anegg sack. The single cell divides and we have two spherical cells inthe egg sack. They continue to be in a symmetrical environment. Eachcell contacts both the other cell and the egg sack.

Next, in this idealized scenario, we have 4-identical cells in asymmetrical situation. Each cell contacts the other three and theegg sack in exactly the same way. (This forms a tetrahedralsphere-pack.)

Next we have 8-identical cells. Now, some symmetry is lost becausethe closest packing of 8-spherical cells in a surrounding sphere isnot a perfect cube, but a twisted cube. Although the 8-cells arestill undistinguished from each other, their arrangement has taken ona new feature with a square-ring-like structure. It is a bit flat,and it has an axis and the potential for rotation and handedness.Nevertheless, each of the 8-cells is still in an environment that isexactly the same as all of the others.

However, in the next stage of 16-identical cells, we observe anovelty with consequences. The closest packing of these 16-cells –
within the constraint of the 3-D spherical egg sack – causes thecells to separated into two distinct classes. Some cells are in themiddle of the sphere-pack having contact only with other cells.Other cells are located between the middle sphere-pack of cells andthe egg sack and have contact with both. Some cells are inside andsome cells are outside.

Now the biochemicals in this egg sack are no longer uniformlydistributed over all of its cells. An Inside-Outside gradient formswhich affects the two classes of cells differently.

Eventually this gradient, geometric asymmetry, and continued celldivision lead to invagination (inside-out folding archetypal of theformation of the neural tube), and embryology proceeds throughgreater and greater cell differentiation.

My point is simple. The sun-sky contrast that provides negentropy tothe plants (and all life on earth) does not take place in an abstractspace of n-dimensions. It takes place within explicit, and potent,boundary conditions – in this example, the 3-D sphere of the egg sack.

Evolution can be understood (in part) as an expansion on theblastula-in-egg-sack scenario. When negentropy is supplied, theavailable organizing information needs be no more than simpleduplication (the life-cycle) constrained within 3-D or 4-D space-time(and other real world boundary conditions) in order to account forevolution. This may not be what Darwin had in mind and it may noteven be punctuated evolution, but it also implies that there is noneed to believe that Clearly something extremely improbable hashappened here on our planet, with the origin and development of life,and especially with the development of human consciousness andcreativity.

In order for mathematical arguments with regard to evolution to bemeaningful they must include at least a minimal representation of thedimensional, geometric, and other boundary conditions in which lifeis found. When boundary conditions are neglected, evolution canappear to be magickal and extraordinary. Boundary conditions, suchas a fixed dimensionality, must be included because they are also aform of negentropy. The interplay between the genome’s program toreplicate and the resistance and dynamics of the environment iswhat determines, restrains, and drives evolution. There should bemathematics that can demonstrate the elegance of this approach.

Yours truly,Stan Tenen,Director of Research,Meru FoundationPOB 503Sharon, MA 02067

Meru Foundation

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