Review of William Dembski’s Intelligent Design

Review of William Dembski’s Intelligent Design

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The advent of Michael Behe’s book Darwin‘s Black Box was probably one of the most provocative manuscripts to entice scholars in the philosophy of biology community and those in the science and religion dialogue to revisit intelligent design.  William Dembski provides a kind of sequel to Behe’s controversial but respectable work with his new book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.  Dembski is one of the most influential scientists in this area of research.  He holds Ph.D.s in both philosophy and mathematics and he has written a host of articles in journals all over the world on the topic of intelligent design.  I recognized the importance of both his work and Behe’s when I was an undergraduate years ago at the University of Dallas, a Roman Catholic University located in Irving, a suburb of Dallas that contains a number of influential philosophers in residence who have collaborations with Baylor University.  Dembski’s new book is an exceptionally well written manuscript that boasts footnotes that are as illuminating as the main text, so much so that one has to “carefully” read both in order to acquire a full understanding of the text and not remain paranoid that he or she is critically missing a crucial point of the argument being presented.  In addition, he makes good use of diagrams and figures that are rewarding pedagogically. In his eight chapters, Dembski does a superb job of revealing the limitations and erroneous presuppositions of materialistic naturalism.  In addition, he provides an excellent account of the history behind the overthrow of British natural theology and its subsequent substitution with positivism.  Perhaps, the most remarkable realization from Intelligent Design is that we cannot look upon natural laws as a priori existing forces or entities (“Ens” in Thomistic terminology) that are capable of causing relations. Rather, natural laws are “descriptions” of the relationships between causes and effects.  The commonly held Platonic view that there exists some meta-law that explains everything is inconsistent with the arguments put forward against Plato’s realm of the forms.  The most primary cause cannot be a description, but rather a reality capable of controlling itself.  In this sense the nature of primal causality is brought once again to the forefront.  Consequently, Dembski concludes that a strict Darwinism devoid of meaning is inconclusive and contradictory to the wealth of scientific evidence and he proposes a theory of intelligent design in its place.  In his preface, Demsbki reveals that there exist many components to intelligent design:

“Intelligent design is three things: a scientific research program that investigates the effects of intelligent causes; an intellectual movement that challenges Darwinism and its naturalistic legacy; and a way of understanding divine action.  Intelligent design therefore intersects science and theology.” [13]

Clearly, his new book is a tour de force, and one cannot help but admiring Dembski for taking such a confident stand against the obvious deep-seated naturalistic philosophy that permeates the scientific establishment of our day.  For example, he boasts that: “[Intelligent design theorists] begin their critique by arguing that Darwinism is on its own terms a failed scientific research program-that it does not constitute a well-supported scientific theory, that its explanatory power is severely limited and that it fails abysmally when it tries to account for the grand sweep of natural history.” [112]

With such a controversial and daring philosophy it is truly amazing that Dembski has been able to hold distinguished positions at some of the larger, research oriented universities such as M.I.T. and the Universityof Chicago.  Perhaps, as is recognizable by anyone who reads Intelligent Design, the most daring and thought provoking point in the work is the proposal that we as scientists can “empirically detect” design in nature.  Surely most biologists would laugh at such a bold and almost insane idea, but Dembski puts forward some very challenging points that cannot be disregarded so superficially.  He devastates the long held, erroneous belief that if there is any design in nature it must be “optimal” design.  As a Catholic biophilosopher, I can surely agree with Dembski’s position. The Catholic Church as a unity has never stated that there exists a stranglehold on the powers of God when it concerns His power to rule over creation.  This long held belief has come about merely as a mistake on the part of scientists and theologians in other religious traditions to confuse the “will” of God with the attribute of “perfection” of God.  It is surprising and almost embarrassing how such a traditional argument had the capacity to debunk any natural theology or theory of intelligent design in the first place.

In light of the fact that imperfections can exist in the created order due to the will of God, Dembski goes on to explain the criterion for detecting intelligent design, namely his concepts of “complexity” and “specification.”  If we are to ever distinguish intelligent causes from natural causes, I believe Dembski’s parameters do hold up to philosophical scrutiny.  However, if Demsbki wishes to overthrow Darwinism, and therefore any form of theistic evolutionism, he and his colleagues in the area of intelligent design research will more adequately have to deal with some of the other mechanisms proposed for the harmonization of Neo-Darwinian evolution with the scientific evidence.  The most striking example is that of the advent of neutral phenotypes with respect to environmental selection in evolutionary time.  In this situation, morphological or biochemical phenotypes that do not specifically contribute to the reproductive fitness of the individual organism or population AND do not allow for selection against the organism or population can still be maintained in the gene pool.  Due to genetic linkage relationships, such neutral genes may perpetuate in the pool if they are linked to DNA that is important for organismal or population survival (though in a short time frame this linkage may not be necessary).  As a result, any genetic elimination of these genes could be minimized.  It is my impression that critics of both Dembski and his colleague Michael Behe constantly resort to hypothetical situations that involve some version of the neutral phenotype idea or another.  For example, Dembski uses the bacterial flagellum as one example of a biological system that one can infer intelligent design [177-180].

If the geneticist were to perform a gene knockout experiment, he could discover an abrogation of the function of the flagellum that would not be permissible in evolutionary time since such a structure is irreducibly complex.  Both Dembski and Behe have agreed on this understanding of the importance of irreducible complexity.  The problem is contained in the concept of evolutionary time.  A genetic modification experiment today does not reveal to us what would have happened at a previous period in time.  Perhaps, such intermediate structures would be allowable since they are neutral with respect to reproductive fitness.  If those in the neutral-selectionist camp are correct, then intelligent design theorists will be hindered in the progression of their theory.  However, evolutionary biology is more of an historical science than anything else and it may be that biologists and biophilosophers will be left with two competing hypotheses for any given case of proposed intelligent causation, namely intelligent design and neutral phenotypes in evolution that will become adaptive at a later period.

Perhaps, the only way to eliminate one of these theories will be via probability reasoning.  The evidence supporting one of the theories must indicate that it is more probable than not that that particular theory is correct in explaining the advent of a given biological form.  Consequently, it is my conclusion that intelligent design theory cannot be totally ignored, but rather must be refined as much as possible to account for the argument of the neutrality theorists and those scientists aware that the historical record is more one of speculation than clear fact in any given case.  Having stated these important objections, I must also acknowledge, however, that intelligent design will probably have a greater degree of credibility with components of the human condition such as the human mind.  The physical matter of the brain and the evolution of neuroarchitecture will not be easily explained by purely materialistic evolutionary mechanisms or, for that matter, even cultural influence.

As for Darwinism being a failed scientific research program, this is an obvious overstatement to anyone working in molecular genetics or a related field.  Neo-Darwinian theory clearly has provided a reservoir of information that has allowed biologists to make critical intuitive jumps in their attempts at exploring life. In fact, most genetic model organism research would be totally useless without some way of accounting for evolutionary conservation between mammalians and lower eukaryotic life forms.  The evidence, such as the genetic code, is clearly in favor of evolutionary conservation and the theory of natural selection at least to some degree.  Intelligent design needs to be a more robust theory to explain “evolutionary conservation” if it is ever to completely overthrow Darwinian theory, especially now that there are attempts being made in the biological community to integrate different mechanisms of evolution.  Perhaps, intelligent design will one day be integrated into a new comprehensive theory that places less weight on simply selectionist mechanisms.

One interesting point to make about Dembski’s work is that he speaks on the difference between intelligent design and forms of natural theology or theistic evolutionism.  Dembski explains “intelligent design is at once more modest and more powerful than natural theology” [107].  By starting from observable features of the world and not any preconceived ideas of the divine, intelligent design theory specifically reveals the likelihood of intelligent causation in a scientifically robust manner and does not infer any attributes of the intelligently causing agent.  In this sense, intelligent design theory could be compatible with many different theological perspectives.  However, if intelligent design cannot give us any understanding of the attributes of the intelligent causation, its very modesty will simultaneously be a weakness in the sense that some form of natural theology will need to be consulted to answer the remaining, more hierarchical questions.  It is more probable than not that natural theologies or theistic evolutionary concepts will need to be integrated into any comprehensive worldview.

Though Dembski puts forward some good reasons why intelligent design theory needs to be funded [107-109; 120-121; 124-127], I believe that this is one area of the work that needs more emphasis for a number of reasons.  First, it is important to acquire a larger following of scientists in this area if Dembski’s intuition of the importance of design is correct.  Secondly, it is not clear how intelligent design could be important for granting agencies such as the NIH, the NSF, HHMI, etc.  Is it possible that intelligent design could contribute to medical research as opposed to just basic research?  Aside from just expanding our knowledge, can intelligent design be an applied science?  Can the possibility of understanding precisely “how” an intelligently caused structure or system arose have any pertinence to pharmacology or medical procedures?  Can intelligent design theory have any importance for the bioethics debates presently occurring in the country or the world?  Could intelligent design influence the way we think about environmental ethics?  Could intelligent design contribute to signal transduction biology?  Can design reveal any interesting information for the structure and purpose of the genetic material, such as introns, that we do not have clear evolutionary explanations for?  Can design reveal constraints in the physiology of the organism that are important for understanding developmental biological mechanisms and that could have importance for developing medical protocols or provide information that may indirectly enhance the introduction of such protocols?  What about chaos theory in physics?  Can design give us clues in this area?  Or, can design tell us anything about psychology?  Should there be a shift in emphasis for treating psychiatric disorders from one of drug therapy to more communicative therapies by recognizing that a complex structure such as the mind is an intelligently caused thing?  Should we be looking for the intelligence that is behind intelligent design?  Is this possible? If intelligent design theory is capable of answering any of these questions or questions of a related nature, then Dembski and his colleagues will need to clarify what these possibilities are.

After reading Intelligent Design, I was left with the impression that the case for intelligent design as enhancing scientific research is a bit tenuous.  Nevertheless, I suspect that there are many possibilities in this area that intelligent design theorists can improve on over the next several years of research.

In addition to the main text of Intellige t Design, Dembski does deal adequately with some of the traditional criticisms of design theory in his appendix.  The arguments are carefully thought out and he clearly shows the shortcomings or misconceptions of various rebuffs of design theory.  I already gave the example of dysteleology above.  There are others, such as the belief that intentionality and design are inseparable concepts and therefore “there is nothing that can be explained by design.  Design explains everything and therefore explains nothing” [245].  Dembski’s concepts of complexity and specification as two hallmarks for intelligent design handle this criticism quite nicely.  He correctly argues that not everything that is intended is designed.  Things that are intended but not designed lack either complexity or specification, while design reveals both.  There exist other arguments in the appendix, as powerful as this one, that are worthy of further review and reflection.

In conclusion, William Dembski’s Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology is a well written work that should be read because of its interesting insights to anyone interested in the dialogue between science and religion.  It is a critical first step in trying to understand the apparent purpose behind creation, and my impression is that ideas such as Dembski’s will provide some new and surprising clues behind the mystery of this fascinating world of ours.  The ultimate question will be just how far intelligent design can take us on the long an intriguing intellectual journey that the human enterprise is engaged in.