Intelligent Design’s math whiz William Dembski Doesn’t Like Straw Men? (E.O. Wilson is in for it!)

Intelligent Design proponent William Dembski thinks that sociobiologist E.O. Wilson is pushing a caricature of his cause.

Does he have a point?

Here’s Wilson:

The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it. The formulation of intelligent design is a default argument advanced in support of a non sequitur. It is in essence the following: there are some phenomena that have not yet been explained and that (most importantly) the critics personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore there must be a supernatural designer at work.

And here’s Dembski…

(1) ID does not argue from “Shucks, I can’t imagine how material mechanisms could have brought about a biological structure” to “Gee, therefore God must have done it.” This is a strawman. Here is the argument ID proponents actually make:

  • Premise 1: Certain biological systems have some diagnostic feature, be it IC (irreducible complexity) or SC (specified complexity) or OC (organized complexity) etc.
  • Premise 2: Materialistic explanations have been spectacularly unsuccessful in explaining such systems — we have no positive evidence for thinking that material mechanisms can generate them.
  • Premise 3: Intelligent agency is known to have the causal power to produce systems that display IC/SC/OC.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, biological systems that exhibit IC/SC/OC are likely to be designed.

As far as I can tell, Dembski is pretty much restating Wilson’s accusation in the form of a logical syllogism, complete with the very same flaws that Wilson pointed out in the first place.

In Premise 1, the main thing Dembski adds is a layer of confusing jargon: the supposedly “diagnostic” concepts of IC/SC/OC. But what are these concepts? Basically all three are, in fact, synonyms for “I can’t imagine how any material mechanism could have done it.”

Irreducible complexity, for instance, is basically the idea that if a system has lots of parts that wouldn’t perform a given function with any one of them missing, then evolution couldn’t have done it. Except that, if this definition is not simply made a useless tautology (i.e. it’s unevolvability is simply a defined characteristic from the start), then we have to prove that it really is truly unevolvable in the first place: and countless scientists from Darwin on have shown that simply observing current complex interdependence isn’t good enough to establish that there are no stepwise evolutionary pathways to get there.

SC and OC are… well, Dembski has never really bothered to explain what they are, not in any technical or “diagnostic” sense, and generally not even in any consistent sense. Attempts to come up with a rigorous definition for how something can be both “complex” and “specified” have floundered in absurdity, leaving Dembski and friends with definitions that boil down to “it’s very complex and it does stuff and we can’t see how that could have evolved.”

None of these things are actually positive measures of design in any case: not even in ID literature. None of them explain how the process of design itself works (and certainly in no way even in the same class that we all would expect evolutionary explanations to both explain and be validated as historical). They are still categories of purported exclusion, not explanation. Until Dembski can show otherwise, it seems like Wilson is dead on with this one.

Premise 2 is even more obviously just Wilson rephrased: it is, of course, Dembski’s opinion that evolutionary explanations have been spectacularly unsuccessful. And it is his opinion, then, that this supposed failure suggests that they never can be successful. Personally, I’ve always thought this opinion to be largely based on confusion. As far as I can tell, evolutionary explanations have been exactly as successful so far as we would expect them to be able to be given the amount of evidence we have available to verify them. For things which we have lots of historical evidence, evolutionary explanations have been spectacularly successful. For things for which we don’t have a lot of historical evidence, we aren’t sure how to proceed or verify the possibilities. The main problem with explaining things like the flagellum, for instance, is that there are countless different ways it could have evolved, not that we can’t think of any (indeed, plenty of folks have proposed all sorts of possible pathways, to which people like Dembski shift the goalposts and start complaining that these are speculative… uh well, yeah, that’s all that’s required to answer a challenge of plausibility, guys). That’s not fundamentally a problem with evolutionary explanation, but rather with the limits of what we can know. As those evidentiary limits have extended, evolution has had, as far as I can tell, great and consistent success.

In any case, I have a hard time seeing what distance Dembski thinks there is between “(they think that) there are some phenomena that have not yet been explained and that (most importantly) the critics personally cannot imagine being explained” and “(I think that) Materialistic explanations have been spectacularly unsuccessful in explaining such systems — we have no positive evidence for thinking that material mechanisms can generate them.” All Dembski has done is make Wilson’s statement personal. But that’s a pretty silly rebuttal: of course Wilson understands that ID proponents think evolution can’t explain those things. How does Dembski repeating it and insisting that he really really does think it after all make Wilson’s claim a “straw man?”

Premise 3 is really sort of a dodge. Dembski knows full well that mere intelligent agency alone is not enough to account for the task of creating life on earth (and if it was, that natural intelligent agency would need an explanation itself anyway). No intelligence we know of and can observe at work can possibly account for life on earth. Worse, the design processes of the only intelligent agents we know of (i.e. humans) leaves all sorts of tell tale traces of the conceptual and construction processes: traces of a sort that just aren’t found in living things. Human designers, for instance, in addition to leaving obvious things like toolmarks and warranty numbers, can also re-use good ideas willy-nilly in any new iterations of something. In fact, human geneticists are, even at our low level of genetic knowledge, capable of splicing genes from one species into another. But in nature, we never see things like that: exact traits, trait patterns, and their exact genetic sequences pass almost exclusively through ancestry alone: they don’t spread like fads from species to species.

Now, if Dembski and company could offer any actual specific design process, tools, and implementation details for the operation of their designer, that would be one thing. But they’ve mostly avoided this like the plague (and in the few half-hearted ideas they’ve suggested, like Behe’s “super-protocell,” their plausibility has been pretty solidly contradicted by the evidence), and the only ideas that ever come close are those which basically have a designer pretty much making it look as much like things had evolved on their own as possible.

So, absent any specifics, what are we really talking about with a designer capable of performing a task we can’t even imagine in a way we can’t imagine? Basically, we are talking about a being which we suppose can do anything at all (no need to call it God, actually: it’s just as scientifically useless no matter what you call it). The fact that it can do “design” too is almost incidental: we can’t even conceive of the level of forethought required to pre-plan biological life: whatever unintelligibly complex “design” ability is necessary simply falls in under the category of “can do anything.” But is that really a satisfying “explanation” of any problem? A being that can do anything at all can, by definition, do whatever particular thing you are wondering about. And since it can do anything, you needn’t even wonder about how it did it!

So what was Dembski saying again? 1) we think some things look designed 2) we don’t think evolution can explain them 3) a unknown being that can do anything can do anything. Conclusion: that being, it sure did it alright!

Seems like Dembski owes Wilson an apology.

But, wait, wait wait: he’s got another complaint…

(2) Wilson’s claim that proving “the existence of intelligent design within the accepted framework of science will make history and achieve eternal fame” is disingenuous. The accepted framework of science precludes ID from the start. Wilson and his materialistic colleagues have stacked the deck so that no evidence could ever support it.

This seems pretty much backwards to me. Of all of ID’s luminaries, Dembski is probably the most fundamentally hostile to the idea of distinguishing real design from apparent design. In his books, for instance, he essentially takes the position that pretty much everything is designed: even if something looks like it evolved, that was really just design smuggled in through the laws of physics allowing for evolution in the first place.

It seems to me that the one absolute knock-dead development ID could hope for is that they could indentify some distinctive and reliable tell-tale difference between things that look designed but really aren’t, and those that look designed but really are. Simply insisting that everything in the universe must be designed in some way or another (from the most chaotic to the most complex) pretty much eliminates any possibility of scientific proof. You’re just tracing everything back to your personal perception of what the way the universe is implies to you. (See my Paul Davies article for where this logic comes from.)

Seems like William Dembski owes William Dembski an apology.

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5 Responses to Intelligent Design’s math whiz William Dembski Doesn’t Like Straw Men? (E.O. Wilson is in for it!)

  1. Efrique says:

    I have some personal experience of the really, really argument. I find it astonishing, but it’s the way some believers (not just religious ones, but woos of many stripes) think.

    “I believe X”
    “Well, okay, but believing something doesn’t make it true. What evidence is there?”
    “No, but I really, really believe it!”

    Not sure what they think is convincing about the last line.

    I suspect it has something to do with the privileged position faith is supposed to be accorded, because faith is supposed to be admirable. More faith is supposedly more admirable, and hence, more privileged. We actually are expected to find that more convincing.

  2. Bad says:

    This is a little different, I think, because of course, Dembski et al. would suggest that their case is and opinion based on an observation of the field. And it could well be without changing my or Wilson’s argument any. The problem for Dembski is that there is no reason to think that Wilson meant that ID folks are necessarily insincere about their opinion on the evidence: he simply and obviously thinks it’s wrong, and his description suggests exactly in what way its wrong (i.e. that this idea is based on their lack of understanding and imagination of plausibility/possibility, and the judgment of pretty much most all biologists in the know is that they’re wrong about it).

  3. slpage says:

    It seems to me that in addition to be being a big argument from personal incredulity, that ID is also a major argument via analogy, which I find to be as pathetic as the argument from personal incredulity.

  4. Jack Stephens says:

    If one analyzes Dembski’s flagellum argument it boils down to this: 1. Remove even one of the amino acids from the structural protein of the flagellum and the organ will not work properly. 2. It is absurd to postulate that such a useless organ would encumber any thriving line of bacteria since it would have a negative survival value, leading to extinction by natural selection. Continue removing more and more of the amino acids and you get a series of useless structures all the way back to the point when there is no flagellum at all. 3. By this demonstration Dembski assumes that he has played the origin of the flagellum in reverse. No natural process (Evolution) could account for the creation of the flagellum by adding amino acids one at a time to generate the needed structural protein, giving rise to series useless intermediary states. The only explanation is that some designer put it all together at one time.
    If one accepts all of Dembski’s assumptions then he is correct, but his unstated assumption is that the whole process is teleological. That is, there is a goal, namely a useful flagellum which guides each step. Such a goal implies the existence of an intelligent being, i.e. a designer. Thus his argument is tautological since he assumes the existence of a designer to prove the existence of a designer.
    According to Evolutionary Theory any structure which might evolve to serve some other function at a later time in the history of a particular line of descent is fully functional at any given stage. Thus the original use of the structure which became the flagellum could have served a different purpose earlier. Therefore, Dembski’s argument, in addition to being tautological, is irrelevant concerning Evolution.

  5. Bad says:

    That was pretty much what I meant when I said that apparent co-dependence is not a reliable guide to whether something is evolvable or not. Another possibility is that the parts were not always so reliant on each other: they at one time played the same function, but independently and of course not as well. Then, over time, they developed additional features that made them work in closer conjunction, and ultimately to rely upon each other.

    Given these possibilities, you can’t simply look at something, decide that it looks very complex and interdependent, and then conclude that it is an example of IC. You actually have to do the gruntwork to show it.

    And that’s what’s so especially odd, because there are in fact all sorts of ways to demonstrate that some feature is evolutionarily inexplicable. It’s just that we don’t happen to find any of them in nature: showing surprise at complexity is, in a way, a sort of last resort.

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