Critique of “Science and Design”September 16, 2013
I was in a civil debate with a friend, and he wanted me to take a look at the article Science and Design, written by William A. Dembski of the Discovery Institute. Rather than do a quick review with him, I decided to do a better critique here on my blog.
Understand that I am going to especially focus on scientific accuracy. That’s my “thing”. It is a pet peeve of mine when religious people (of any faith) make scientific claims that are not supported by the evidence. With regard to scientific stuff, I will hold no punches. Deal with it.
When the quantum physics of Bohr and Heisenberg in turn displaced the physics of Galileo and Newton, scientists realized they needed to supplement their deterministic natural laws by taking into account chance processes in their explanations of our universe.
Right out of the gate, Dembski makes a fundamental error in his understanding of science. Newtonian physics (and Galileo too) was not “displaced”. As with most scientific theories, the theories were expanded upon or improved on. We still teach Newtonian Physics in school because it is useful. This is a minor point, and I am being a bit pedantic in pointing it out, but his misunderstanding about science is common and needs to be mentioned.
Today, however, chance and necessity have proven insufficient to account for all scientific phenomena. Without invoking the rightly discarded teleologies, entelechies, and vitalisms of the past, one can still see that a third mode of explanation is required, namely, intelligent design. Chance, necessity, and design—these three modes of explanation—are needed to explain the full range of scientific phenomena.
Dembski puts forth a claim, disguised as a statement of fact. His claim is that Intelligent Design (ID) is required to fill in the gaps in scientific understanding. This is called the God Of The Gaps logical fallacy, essentially claiming that God is behind all that we do not understand.
He does not admit that there is another possible reason that we cannot account for all scientific phenomena: Human Ignorance. Perhaps the most powerful words that anyone can utter is, “I don’t know”. It also takes courage to say that. Proper scientists say it all the time, because it is an important aspect of the scientific method.
For a long time, we did not know what caused the Aurora Borialis. Many cultures and religions placed spiritual significance on that effect. But we now know that there is a perfectly sane scientific explanation for it. Years ago, those who claimed it was proof of God made the same God of the Gaps error. Currently we do not know what Dark Energy is, but it would be foolish for us to claim that it is proof of Intelligent Design instead of just saying “we don’t know”.
The biological community thinks it has accounted for the apparent design in nature through the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection. The point to appreciate, however, is that in accounting for the apparent design in nature, biologists regard themselves as having made a successful scientific argument against actual design. This is important, because for a claim to be scientifically falsifiable, it must have the possibility of being true. Scientific refutation is a double-edged sword. Claims that are refuted scientifically may be wrong, but they are not necessarily wrong—they cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.
I have no doubt that there are biologists out there that are like that, but they are in the minority. Some of them will actually believe that. But most will likely have said something misleading or taken out of context. It is like someone saying, “Oh, I want to kill that guy”. We’ve all said it, but we don’t mean it literally. When talking casually, most scientists and Atheists will say that God doesn’t exist. But when talking formally, or when questioned, will say the more correct statement: “there is no scientific proof for or against the existence of a god/creator/designer”.
Since Dembski doesn’t site sources, we cannot verify this claim. I assert that his claim is a Straw Man logical fallacy. I can certainly say that all of the biologists that I know are not like that. Granted, my sample size is about 6, but I think that the burden of proof is on Dembski.
So even those who do not believe in it tacitly admit that design always remains a live option in biology. A priori prohibitions against design are philosophically unsophisticated and easily countered. Nonetheless, once we admit that design cannot be excluded from science without argument, a weightier question remains: Why should we want to admit design into science?
The problem with his argument here is that it degenerates into a playground level argument: Why is the sky blue? Because god made it that way. Why are there dino bones in the ground? Because god made it that way. The answer, “because god made it that way” is a cop-out answer that can be applied to anything. So long as god is not subjected to the same laws of nature as everything else, then it is impossible to show that god does or does not exist– and arguing for ID in this context amounts to mental masturbation and nothing more.
God is a supernatural being (if she exists at all). Supernatural. SUPER-natural. Meaning that god is above nature. Outside the scope of nature. How can the study of nature ever have anything to say about something that is not nature? It can’t. And scientists understand that. The people that don’t understand that are the religious that keep insisting that there is scientific proof for god.
To put it a different way: It is equally valid to say that our world, and us, were created and governed by our Reptilian overlords. Yet nobody is seriously claiming that we must consider that they be included in scientific research. Or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Or one of the many Hindu gods. Etc.
So to directly address Dembski’s question of “Why should we want to admit design into science?” While the option for ID is always open, given the current lack of evidence for a supernatural creator it is not productive to give it serious consideration in a scientific setting. We would have to spend an inordinate amount of time following all the supernatural red herrings instead of doing more productive work. Things would be different if there were scientific proof of a god. But there isn’t, and there have been scientific studies.
What’s wrong with explaining something as designed by an intelligent agent?
More correctly, his question should be, “What’s wrong with explaining something as designed by an intelligent agent that we cannot show to exist?”
The answer is simple: because we want to actually learn something. “Why is the grass green? Because god made it that way.” Done. Boring. Also, we have not learned anything that might help us. But we could dig deeper and discover that plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight, CO2, and other stuff into energy, etc. Useful stuff! Did we say that god did not create the chlorophyll? Absolutely not! Maybe he did, or maybe he didn’t. But it really doesn’t matter if he did or not. Saying that it was intelligently designed does not help us understand our universe in a pragmatic way.
So long as the hand of god is not visible in how the universe operates, considering ID as an influence is not productive. We might as well believe in fairies or dragons. But if such a time as the hand of god has been shown to actually play a role then the whole game changes. That is how science works.
At this point, Dembski goes on and on about why ID is important. Quite frankly, his analogies are tenuous at best, and most are completely wrong. He says this gem [emphasis mine]:
If [human] design is so readily detectable outside science, and if its detectability is one of the key factors keeping scientists honest, why should [intelligent] design be barred from the content of science?
The answer is obvious: Human design is readily detectable, but supernatural design is not. We have zero scientific proof of intelligent design.
I should also point out that at no time was intelligent design barred from science. It was a theory put forth by some people, and the theory was rejected by rational scientists (a.k.a. scientists) because it didn’t hold up. Should something new come along, like proof of a supernatural creator, then it is welcome to be presented to the scientific community again. But it has not forever been banished.
Biologists worry about attributing something to design (here identified with creation) only to have it overturned later; this widespread and legitimate concern has prevented them from using intelligent design as a valid scientific explanation.
More Straw Man fallacy. Scientists worry about making claims that cannot be backed up with evidence. ID has no supporting evidence. Ergo, scientists won’t attribute something to ID. Dembski says it like it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s a positive thing. It’s how science works.
There now exists a rigorous criterion—complexity-specification—for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. Many special sciences already use this criterion, though in a pre-theoretic form (e.g., forensic science, artificial intelligence, cryptography, archeology [sic], and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The great breakthrough in philosophy of science and probability theory of recent years has been to isolate and make precise this criterion
This is stretching the truth quite a bit. It would take too long to go into each of these so I’ll just quickly cover cryptography. Much of cryptography centers around randomness. Generating true random numbers is critical for making a secure method of communication. Detecting the quality of the randomness is critical for determining the quality of the encryption. The assumption is that the more random something is, the less intelligence there is behind it– but that is false. Pulsars emit a pulse of radio waves that is more regular and accurate than an atomic clock, and is the opposite of random. But a well encrypted communication link looks like perfectly random noise. The opposite is equally true, where radioactive decay is perfectly random but reruns of I Love Lucy are not random at all. So cryptography is not at all suitable for “distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones”. This is similarly true of forensic science, AI, archaeology, and SETI.
At this point, Dembski starts doing what most people in his shoes do (i.e., people who try to prove something god related with science): he starts off on a rant with lots of scientific sounding words that in the end does not mean anything. In this case, it is about pattern matching, and how we might decide that something is of intelligent origin. While I do not claim to be an expert in pattern matching, I know a lot more than the lay person. I also am able to easily follow his text. And I can safely say that the text on pattern matching has zero relevance to his argument– it doesn’t help or hurt his main point that ID is a valid “science”.
Then things go (more) downhill… For the rest of the article Dembski shows he’s more of a philosopher than a scientist, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t like philosophers. Every modern philosopher that I’ve encountered was all show and no substance, and Dembski certainly fits that. Sure, he uses all of the 20-dollar words. I’d call it, “Baffling with bullshit”. But he makes the same old and tired claims that other ID proponents have made. I could go over them all, but it is easier to just give you the Wikipedia link to Intelligent Design. (To be fair, when he made those claims in 1998 they might not have been “old and tired” claims.)
At best, Dembski only provides circumstantial evidence for Intelligent Design being a real factor in the natural world. At worst, he uses most of the known logical fallacies to promote something that in the end is “just faith”. I could summarize his entire article into 5 words– Intelligent Design is just faith– and I would have been a whole lot more accurate too.
I have written before that a pet peeve of mine is when Christians try to justify their faith with “science”. It never ends well. Not only is their “science” bad, but it is completely unnecessary (Hebrews 11:1 and John 20:29) and only makes Christians in general look bad. Plus, I abhor bad science.