Tuesday 14 June 2011

Dembski claims to identify design — we're still waiting

Are we on to the big guns yet? Maybe, maybe not. William Dembski's first contribution to his book Evidence for God (co-edited with Michael Licona) is "Intelligent Design — A Brief Introduction". SETI, Mount Rushmore, the bacterial flagellum — all the old favourites are lined up to illustrate the contention that intelligent design "...purports to find patterns in biological systems that signify intelligence. ID therefore directly challenges Darwinism and other materialistic approaches to the origin and evolution of life." (p 104.)

Hang on a minute. Dembski is clearly saying that ID is a challenge to "materialistic approaches". That means he's proposing an immaterial intelligence. He's going beyond what ID proponents normally admit, which is that ID doesn't say anything specific about the designer. ID proponents say that the designer isn't necessarily God — it could be aliens, but presumably these aliens would be material aliens. Dembski is saying, however, that the designer is — or could be — outside the material realm. Therefore, for ID to be science, and for the designer to be at the same time immaterial, science needs to be able to say something about the immaterial realm — such as, that it exists. Science of course says no such thing; speculations about the existence or non-existence of an immaterial realm are beyond its remit.

Dembski's problem is this, which he acknowledges in his third paragraph:
What has kept design outside the scientific mainstream since Darwin proposed his theory of evolution is that it lacked precise methods for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. For design to be a fruitful scientific concept, scientists need to be sure they can reliably determine whether something is designed. (p 104-5.)
For ID to be scientific, it needs to be able to distinguish actual design from the illusion of design. Dembski claims that this can be done, but examination reveals only buzzwords and vague promises. He's constantly running up blind alleys:
As a theory of biological origins and development, ID's central claim is that only intelligent causes can adequately explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable. To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected material causes. (p 105.)
The problem, however, is that these well-defined methods are ... never defined. Dembski repeats that there are methods to detect design, but again and again these methods are revealed to be nothing more than, "If it looks designed, it must have had a designer."

That Dembski includes SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, as an example of design detection, is surprising, because SETI researchers are emphatically not looking for patterns in radio signals from space. What they're looking for is a narrow-band signal — any modulation of a potential carrier wave is expected to have been smeared out with time and distance, so there's likely to be no information present.

Dembski elaborates on his favourite buzz-phrase, specified complexity:
Within the theory of intelligent design, specified complexity is the characteristic trademark or signature of intelligence. It is a reliable empirical marker of intelligence in the same way that fingerprints are a reliable empirical marker of an individual's presence at the scene of a crime. Design theorists contend that undirected material causes, like natural selection acting on random genetic change, cannot generate specified complexity. (p 106.)
Unfortunately he never elaborates on how to identify specified complexity, other than variations of "if it looks designed, then it must have had a designer."

At the top of this post I wondered if we were on to the big guns. Apparently not, for this pea-shooter consistently fails to fire:
ID's chief claim is this: the world contains events, objects, and structures that exhaust the explanatory resources of undirected material causes and can be adequately explained by recourse to intelligent causes. Design theorists claim to demonstrate this rigorously. (p 107.)
That's what they claim, but they don't do it — not rigorously, or at all.