Robust Formational Possibilities

Robust Formational Possibilities

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Since my name and views were often engaged in Bill Dembski’s Metaviews #098 essay, here are a few comments and clarifications as part of the continuing conversation.  For convenience I will use Bill’s numbering system for my comments on selected segments of his essay.

1. Cards on the Table

Bill, I’m glad to see this heading for a portion of your concerns (I have requested something like this many times), but I am somewhat puzzled at its contents.  Your response to the question, “Am I a creationist?” seems to be, “No, I am not a young-earth creationist.”

You are, of course, justified in denying any necessary connection between the ID movement and the young-earth version of creationism, but my concern has always been the larger question, “Is your vision of ID rooted in an ‘episodic creationist’ concept of divine creative action?”  Here “episodic creationism” is any portrait of the Creation’s formational history (regardless of its time frame) that includes, as essential elements, occasional episodes of form-imposing divine intervention as the only adequate means of actualizing at least some species or biotic subsystems.  Denying your acceptance of the young-earth version alone does little to answer the full question.

The question that remains to be answered is this:  “Does the action of intelligent design fall into the category of ‘form-imposing intervention’?”  This will come up again in relation to your consideration of mind-like action, hand-like action, and word-like action.  As you correctly note, I have for years been asking, without a satisfactorily candid reply, “What do you mean when you say that X is (or has been) intelligently designed?  What kind of action, and by what kind of agent?”  This is the question that I will continue to ask until I get a candid and substantive answer.

3. Intelligent Design as a Positive Research Program

(1) You say, “…the intelligent design research program begins with the commonsense recognition that humans draw design inferences routinely in ordinary life, explaining some things in terms of purely natural causes and other things in terms of intelligence or design (cf. archeologists attributing rock formations in one case to erosion and in another to design — as with the megaliths at Stonehenge).”

This quotation is illustrative of a problematic feature of ID rhetoric that I have long called to Bill’s attention: there is an intolerable (and, I presume, intentional) ambiguity in the way in which proponents of ID use the very word that names their movement–“design.”  In modern usage “design” is an act of mind–the conceptualization of something for the accomplishment of a purpose.  Wholly distinct from this mindful and purposeful action of design is the additional action of actualizing what was first designed–the formation of parts and/or the assembly of component parts into a system that functions to accomplish the original purpose.  This action of forming/assembling is not mind-like, but hand-like.  In other words, forming/assembling is an act of intervention.

For years I have been asking the proponents of ID to make the necessary distinction between the mind-like action of design (using this word in its contemporary sense) and the hand-like action of forming/assembling.  That distinction must be made before anyone can begin to evaluate the standard claim that “we have positive empirical evidence that X must have been intelligently designed.”  One must know whether one is evaluating evidence that something was (a) thoughtfully conceptualized, or (b) formed/assembled by non-natural means.

Furthermore, since ID’s standard form of argumentation from empirical evidence is that, “given the particular structure of X (complete with its particular degree of irreducible/specified complexity), it could not be the case that X came to be formed by natural means,” I have no choice but to conclude that some general requirement (even if many options regarding particulars are left open) about the means of forming/assembling has been included in the operational meaning of “X was designed.”  I believe that the proponents of ID have failed to give this inclusion adequate public recognition.  Furthermore, I believe that when proponents of ID say that “X was intelligently designed,” some form of divine intervention is almost always presumed.  The proponents of ID have every right to build a case for an interventionist concept of divine creative action, but something as important as that should, I believe, be candidly acknowledged.  Put your theological cards on the table with courage and confidence.

(4) Bill states, “Once it is settled that certain biological systems are designed [whichever meaning is here intended, hvt], the door is open to a new set of research problems.”  A listing of several possible categories of research follows, including the “construction problem.”  But a major narrowing of options has already been eliminated by fiat: the construction must be accomplished by non-natural means.  Some extra-natural agent must perform an action that causes one particular structure to be actualized–a structure that the universe’s natural formational capabilities are presumed to be unable to actualize.  In the context of much of the ID literature, this requirement for some act of “extra-natural assembly” is equivalent to a requirement for a divine act of form-imposing intervention.  This state of affairs needs to be far more candidly acknowledged than has been the case so far.

4. Nature’s Formational Economy

By the “formational economy” of the universe I mean the set of all of the universe’s resources (like fundamental particles and their properties), potentialities (say, for sustaining functional structures), and capabilities (say, for organizing/transforming the available resources into functional structures/organisms) that have contributed to its formational history.  Most presentations of ID build on the presupposition that the universe’s formational economy (especially its menu of formational capabilities) is inadequate to account for the formation/assembly of some particular biotic structures or organisms.

My own expectation, based not on theological considerations alone (as Bill suggests), but on a confluence of my theological inclinations and the historical record of science’s growing awareness of the universe’s formational capabilities, is that the universe’s formational economy is sufficiently robust to account for the formation of all of the structures/organisms that have appeared in its formational history, without need for supplementation by occasional acts of form-imposing divine intervention (extra-natural assembly).  I have never claimed to “know” this with certainty, but I have been candid to say that “this is the horse I’m betting on.”

By the way, I have used the term, “extra-natural assembly,” not as a concept different from (miraculous) divine intervention, but simply as a way to accommodate the ID movement’s rhetorical strategy of choosing to refrain from naming their Designer.  However, since an essential claim of ID is that the universe’s formational economy is NOT sufficiently robust to make possible the natural formation of certain biotic structures (like the bacterial flagellum), one is left with little option for “extra-natural assembly” being anything other than “form-imposing divine intervention.”  In this context talk about the “front-loading” of design (whatever “design” means this time) at the Big-bang in such a way that specific structures (like the bacterial flagellum again) are sure to appear seems silly to me.  Other writers have ascribed the concept of “front-loading” to me, but I have never employed this term, certainly not in this deterministic manner.  My concept of a universe optimally-gifted with a robust formational economy includes the expectation that the Creator’s broad intentions will be actualized in the course of time, but I believe that authentic contingencies must be given far more recognition than is connoted by a term like “front-loading.”

While I’m at it, let me comment on two other matters of word choice.  Bill expresses his dissatisfaction with my characterizing ID as equivalent to a proposal for “punctuated naturalism” or as a vision that invites the “celebration of gifts withheld.”  I don’t blame him for finding these characterizations unpleasant, but I judge them to be wholly deserved.  In much of the literature of ID, perhaps most commonly in the writings of Phil Johnson, one finds the following sentiment expressed in one way or another:  “If atoms, molecules and cells can actually accomplish all of the formational wonders that biology now expects is within their capabilities to accomplish, then no designer action is necessary and naturalism is more likely than theism to be true.  But ID theorists have empirical evidence that atoms, molecules and cells do NOT have sufficient formational capabilities, so the historical stream of natural formational processes (of the sort envisioned by naturalism) must occasionally be punctuated by episodes of extra-natural assembly.”  That’s the vision that I call “punctuated naturalism.”  And when I see the extraordinary and enthusiastic emphasis in ID literature placed, not on the bountiful and remarkable formational capabilities that the universe DOES have, but rather on the purported empirical evidence for a few particular ones that it does NOT have, I call that practice the “celebration of gifts withheld.”  I want no part of a movement centered on the refrain, “Look what the universe is NOT capable of doing; it must, therefore, be designed!”

Bill responds to this charge by suggesting that perhaps the universe is not at all like a clock (for which occasional winding and setting actions might be treated as interventions that could have been avoided by a more robust provision of self-winding and self-setting capabilities by the clock’s designer/maker), but more like a musical instrument that must, of course, be played.  “Change the metaphor from a clockwork to a musical instrument,” says Bill, “and the charge of ‘withholding gifts’ dissolves…Thus, if the universe is more like a musical instrument than a clock, it is appropriate for a designer to interact with it in ways that affect its physical state.”

First, I agree with Bill that the clockwork metaphor is radically inadequate.  From my point of view it is far too mechanical, is wholly deterministic, and lacks far too many of the vital qualities of the universe to be an adequate metaphor for its workings.  But I must admit that I find the musical instrument metaphor to be even less satisfying.  Gregory’s lute, for instance, is an entirely passive structure. It has no capabilities fordoing anything on its own.  All it can do is respond to mechanical action by an external agent.  Its strings must be coerced into vibrating.  The sounds it makes are entirely dependent on the vibration-imposing intervention of the player that Bill here calls a “designer.”  Once again, notice that Bill’s “designer” is one who employs hand-like action to coerce the instrument into making a particular response.

The piano metaphor strikes me as being no better.  The piano is just as passive and just as dependent on hand-like intervention as the lute.  What about a player-piano?  In this case there is some internal provision for deterministic self-actuation, but it falls far short of deserving to represent a universe filled with life and open to a rich array of authentic contingencies.  If we nonetheless were to employ the piano metaphor, I would be inclined to suggest that the universe envisioned by ID is something like a player-piano programmed to play only 85 of its 88 notes.  In other words, it has an incomplete note-playing economy.  Its inability to play 3 particular notes represents a gap in its note-playing economy that must be bridged by occasional acts of note-playing intervention by an external designer/musician.

Bill continues in this section to answer my charge that the ID universe can be characterized as one from which a select few “gifts” have been withheld.  He does so by means of an analogy to his giving gifts to his daughter at various stages in her life.  I find it difficult to find any useful comparison here between the “gifts of being” (formational capabilities to be specific) that I speak of and the sort of gifts (toys, I presume) that a father gives his baby daughter.  Given the multiple meanings of the word “gifts,” I think Bill and I are simply talking past one another here.

Is the Robust Formational Economy Principle consistent with methodological naturalism?  Bill says that it is, and I agree, provided that the term “methodological naturalism” is stripped of its common rhetorical (guilt by) association with ontological naturalism.  Is it also consistent with “traditional Christian theology,” asks Bill?  That depends, of course, on precisely what concept of divine creative action is included in traditional Christian theology.  Two brief comments here:  1) The RFEP applies only to events that contribute to the universe’s formational history, and does not necessarily apply to other aspects of the Creation’s history, and 2) The RFEP does not proscribe any form of divine action, but says only that form-imposing interventions are rendered unnecessary by the Creator’s willingness to grant the universe all of the requisite formational capabilities.

Having said that, however, I would also say with candor that I think that the concept of divine action in the universe needs far more theological attention than it typically receives in the evangelical/reformed community.  Is the distinction between creative action and redemptive action valid?  Is God’s action in particular providence radically different from God’s action in general providence?  Some of these term and distinctions were crafted several centuries ago.  Are they still valid today?  I’m willing to consider the likelihood that they are in need of a substantial overhauling in light of what we have learned about the character of the Creation and its formational history since the dawn of modern science.

5. Can Specified Complexity Even Have a Mechanism?

Bill says that “…we are fast approaching the place where the transformation of a biological system that doesn’t exhibit an instance of specified complexity (say a bacterium without a flagellum) to one that does (say a bacterium with a flagellum) cannot be accomplished by purely natural means but also requires intelligence.”

A number of questions come immediately to mind when I read a statement like this.  Do you really mean to say, Bill, that the formational history of the bacterium requires a designer only if it is equipped with a flagellum?  Is the garden variety bacterium so lacking in wondrous qualities that we can rest assured that no intelligence was required to conceptualize a formational economy to actualize it?  I don’t believe that for a moment.  Is the “intelligence” to which you here refer needed only for the assembling of the additional propulsion system?  What does this “intelligence” do?  What kind of “intelligence” is it?

A bit later Bill acknowledges that the “intelligence” of interest to most of us in this context “would in all likelihood have to be unembodied.”…”But how does an unembodied intelligence interact with natural objects and get them to exhibit specified complexity. We are back to Van Till’s problem of extra-natural assembly.”  We are indeed! How does a non-physical agent move the various component parts of an “irreducibly complex” structure into the specified sites?

6. How Can an Unembodied Intelligence Interact with the Natural World?

Bill’s puzzle:  “Although a non-physical designer who ‘moves particles’ is not logically incoherent, such a designer remains problematic for science.  The problem is that natural causes are fully capable of moving particles.  Thus for a designer also to move particles can only seem like an arbitrary intrusion.  The designer is merely doing something that nature is already doing, and even if the designer is doing it better, why didn’t the designer make nature better in the first place so that it can move the particles better?  We are back to Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle.”  I agree, and I’m pleased to see that Bill recognizes this as a substantive problem.

Bill’s solution:  “But what if the designer is not in the business of moving particles but of imparting information?  In that case nature moves its own particles, but an intelligence nonetheless guides the arrangement those particles take.”

Sorry, Bill, but that strikes me as little more than a verbal distinction without anything resembling an actual difference.  I can see no difference between “guiding the arrangement of particles” and “moving particles into a particular arrangement.”  Furthermore, the fact that in some of the systems under consideration the requisite guiding action may require relatively little energy is irrelevant.  I still see no substantive proposal regarding the form or manner in which configuration-determining information is transmitted from an “unembodied intelligence” to a material system in which information is resident in the configurational sequence of its constituent parts.

You propose that the designer subtly, with only an infinitesimal expenditure of energy, “imparts information” to a material system.  But what is the form of that information?  How is it transmitted from designer to material system?  How does the material system perceive the reception of that information?  Noting that there is no upper limit on the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation, and therefore no lower limit on photon energy, you claim that “In the limit, a designer could therefore impart information into the universe without inputting any energy at all.”  Sorry, Bill, but proposing to encode configurational information on zero energy photons (a.k.a. “nothing”) and to transmit this from an unembodied intelligence to a material system makes no sense to me whatsoever.  I suppose this could be, as you suggest, a failure of imagination on my part (and, as instructed, I did not take this as a compliment) but your proposal strikes me as pure imagination that is wholly without substance (and you need not take that as a compliment either).

As noted earlier, I have often asked proponents of ID to specify whether design, as an action, is mind-like action or hand-like action.  False choice, says Bill, because there is a third possibility–perhaps design is a “word-like” action that communicates information.  Comparison to the manifest influence of human verbal communication is offered to illustrate the effective power of the spoken word.  But here’s the rub.  We know what it means for a human to speak a word.  It involves, among other things, the generation of phonons of non-zero energy.  Those energetic phonons must then be transmitted by a material medium to another human equipped with an appropriate receiving device (ear) and an information-processing system (brain) in order to complete the process of “imparting information.”  So we know how to speak about an embodied intelligence imparting information to another embodied intelligence, but that does not necessarily give us the requisite conceptual vocabulary to speak meaningfully about an unembodied intelligence imparting information to an insentient material system.  In fact, I would say that the comparison clarifies absolutely nothing.  For instance, how would a bacterium without a flagellum get the message from an unembodied intelligence to add a flagellum to serve as its outboard motor?

Or are you, Bill, here proposing something like what some process theologians call “non-sensory perception”?  Do material systems have the remarkable capabilities to perceive the reception of information by some non-sensory means?  (This seems even more remarkable than my proposal for a robust formational economy.)  In the absence of any other ID explanatory hypothesis for the manner in which a material system detects configurational information transmitted to it by an “unembodied intelligence,” process theology appears to be the only systematic and substantive attempt to talk about ongoing divine creative action and particular providence.  If this is what you have in mind, Bill, you should be forewarned that your evangelical Christian supporters will not be too thrilled to find this out.  Process theology may well represent the best modern effort to date to speak of “variable divine action” that affects events here and now, but this theological banquet table is set with many dishes that evangelicals would be unwilling even to taste, let alone to swallow.

7. Must All the Design in the Natural World Be Front-Loaded?

As I indicated earlier in these comments, all of this talk of “front-loading” information into the universe at the beginning of the Big Bang leaves me with little more than a puzzled feeling.  It seems to be a concept ascribed to me by some writers, but I have no recollection of ever using in anything that I have written.  Furthermore, it connotes in my mind a rather deterministic vision of a preprogrammed system that then just grinds away on a fixed course of actualizing precisely what the program called for.  The “front-loaded” information metaphor has little of the dynamic drama of the universe’s actual formational history, and it offers no suggestion of the novelty and limited predictability present in a formational drama laced with the authentic contingencies that I believe are characteristic of the manner in which particular forms became actualized in time.  So, Bill, I just don’t see the concept of a universe front-loaded with information “couched” as a Robust Formational Economy Principle actually in my perspective.  I guess I’m not as “rhetorically shrewd” as you seem to think I am.

What do I find more fruitful than the “front-loading” metaphor?  Here are two concepts that I find particularly helpful in trying to reflect on the historical actualization of novel forms in the universe without resorting to the traditional supernaturalist vocabulary of form-imposing intervention:  From “the beginning,” two vital aspects of the universe’s being are (a) its “potentiality space” of viable structures and life forms, and (b) its robust menu of formational capabilities for moving through portions of that potentiality space as particular structures and life forms are actualized in the course of time, without need for occasional episodes of extra-natural assembly (form-imposing interventions).  Given the presence of authentic contingencies in the universe’s formational history, Stephen J. Gould may be at least partially correct in suggesting that “replaying the tape of evolution” would produce formational histories with differing particulars each time.  I presume that the universe’s potentiality space (symbolic of the creativity and generosity of its Creator) is sufficiently rich with possible life forms that the Creator’s intention for life could have been accomplished in numerous ways.  In that context, the idea of “front-loading” information that would be expressed as particular life forms later hits me as far too mechanical and deterministic.

Respectfully submitted,

Howard J. Van Till