created: 23 February, 2001
last modified: 29 June, 2001
Comments on Dembski's "Intelligent Design" book.
"INTELLIGENT DESIGN - The Bridge Between Science & Theology"
, by William A. Dembski, (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1999). The "Bridge" in the title is meant to be a serious, scientific link between science in theology, restoring theology to its proper place as the "Queen of Sciences". Dembski has developed a statistical test to measure "Intelligent Design". To be honest, I was a bit afraid that a book written by a mathematician would be full of equations and difficult to understand. However, I found it quite easy to read. (After all, this book has an intended audience of the "general reader".)
In the first chapter ("Recognizing the Divine Finger"), he talks quite a bit about the Bible and how people would ask God for signs, and what types of signs are valid. Essentially Dembski thinks he's found a way to PROVE that there MUST have been something outside of nature responsible for "specified complexity". He is quite proud of his earlier, more technical, book on the subject, referring to it (and everything else he's published) every few pages throughout the present work, just to make sure the reader knows that he's published this really important book. Dembski advocates going back to the "pre-modern" view of the world (back in the good ole' days, when all of society believed in God! Or else you were tortured until you DID!).
"The rigorous reformulation of the premodern logic of signs is precisely what intelligent design is all about. The premodern logic of signs used signs to identify intelligent causes. Intelligent design is the systemtaic study of intelligent causes and specifically of the effects they leave behind. From certain observable features of the world (e.g., signs), intelligent design infers to intelligent causes responsible for those features. The world contains events, objects, and structures that exhaust the explanatory resources of natural causes and that can be adequately explained only by recourse to intelligent causes. This is not an argument from ignorance. Precisely because of what we know about natural causes and their limitations, science is now in a position to demonstrate intelligent causation rigorously.(ref)" (page 47)
The "ref" is of course to the really nifty, technical, book that Dembski has previously written about this subject (see the reference below).
The second chapter ("The Critique of Miracles") details the demise of "the rational foundations of Christianity". It all started in 1670 when Spinoza rejected miracles, and culminated with Schleiermacher's Christian Faith, published in 1830. Schleiermacher is "the father of liberal theology", and this is essentially the same as the "modern theology" accepted by many mainstream Christian denominations. (Thus, the reason most major Christian denominations don't have any problem with evolution is that they no longer REALLY believe in miracles.)
The third chapter ("The Demise of British Natural Theology"), is about the unfortunate loss of the idea of an Intelligent Creator God in British Natural Theology. Back in the good ole' days, (e.g., William Paley, late 1790's), British biologists routinely believed in Intelligent Design. Then along came Darwin, and all this got thrown out the window - but it was on it's way out anyway (see the previous chapter). But NOW is the time to revitilise Intelligent Design - and it just so happens that William A. Dembski has written this really good, technical book on the subject, and so the scientific revolution is already starting....
The next chapter ("Naturalism and Its Cure") addresses the problem of our current society, which is essentially worshiping nature or idolatry, according to Dembski. The cure is simple: Bring back Intelligent Design as a serious scientific discipline, and this will set society back on the right track to happiness and morality. By the way, Dembski has written this great, technical book on the subject.
This theme is further extended in chapter five ("Reinstating Design Within Science"), where Dembski advocates going back to Aristotle's four causes - you know, those Greeks were pretty clever, and modern science could learn a lot from Aristotle! The reason modern science leaves out God can be traced to Francis Bacon, who suggested that we focus on experimental evidence. (And just look at the mess that this has got us into now! We can do all kind of silly things like cure diseases and send man to the moon and make computers - but just think - wouldn't it be better if we all sat around praising God for his Wonderful Intelligent Designed things, instead!) But Intelligent Design is a SCIENTIFIC Theory, and in fact can be thought of us a type of Information Theory (chapter 6). Essentially this is a restatement of the Creationinst appeal to incredulity - what are the chances of this protein with a given sequence randomnly forming? It is ten to some very large number - more particles than in the universe, etc. This is so rare, that it MUST have been a miracle! - er, excuse me, I meant EVIDENCE FOR AN INTELLIGENT DESIGNER. The problem is, evolution doesn't say that a protein randomly appears de novo, but rather that it came from a gene coding from a protein ALMOST THE SAME, but slightly different. But where did the first protein come from, then? This is a very good question, and there have been lots of effort and experiments done to try and figure this out. According to Dembski, it is IMPOSSIBLE to EVER figure this out, because a divine spark is needed. (This sounds vaguely like Mike Behe's claim that you simply CANNOT reduce these incredibly complicated protein machines, and, furthermore, no one has EVER published mechanims about their evolution.) In both cases, it is an appeal to gaps in our knowledge. But "not all gaps are equal" says Dembski in his appendix (page 245), where he answers this very charge. These gaps in our knowledge are there, if only we put on the eyes of faith in an Intelligent Designer. But since nasty modern science insists on ruling out theological forces, then we can't see the obvious.
An hisotical aside -
About 15 years ago, Bernd-Olaf Kuppers published a book - "Information
and the Origin of Life". This sounds like something Bill Dembski
should have read carefully if he REALLY wanted to see what other people
have done in the field. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he did indeed site this book - but as proof that "random chance" is not sufficient to account
for the origins of biological information. This is an accurate
statement, but I think it is obvious that Dembski never has actually
read the book. The reason I say this is that Dembski totally ignores
Kuppers "third alternative". Section III of Kuppers' book ("The
Question of the Origin of Biological Information") has one chapter each
for three different perspectives - ch. 6 is "The Chance Hypothesis", and
Kuppers agrees with Dembski on this one - it just simply is not going to
happen on a random basis alone. ch. 7 is "The Teleological Approach",
where he actually takes Michael Polanyi to task for his "irreducible
structures in biology" - this pre-dates Behe, by the way. (Polanyi is
the person who they named Dembski's Institute for at Baylor
University.) Anyway, Polanyi essentially argues that biology CANNOT be
reduced to physics and math. The "third approach" is the idea that
"...biological information has arisen by self-organisation and evolution
of biological macromolecules. It was first developed by Manfred Eigen
and later in mathematical form by Eigen and Peter Schuster..." (here he
gives 3 references, one of which is another book he's written called
"Molecular Evolution", published in 1985). Somehow Dembski seems to
have missed the third approach altogether, and assumes a more simple
EITHER/OR - EITHER it has to be random chance, OR it's a miracle. But
there's a third explanation, called "chemistry" - that says that the
sequence (of DNA or RNA or protein) determines its shape which
determines its function. There are only a relatively small handful of
possible SHAPES, and hence the amount of possible "information" is more
limited than Dembski claims.
Compare 1 in 10^135 vs. 1 in 10^8
Which number sounds more likely to you? The former is the number of
possible SEQUENCES for a protein made up of 100 amino acids. The latter
is the estimated number of different protein shapes that any protein of
100 amino acids could adopt. I agree with Dembski that the former
number is essentially impossible. However, I think he's missing the
point - it is the SECOND number which is important from a structural
perspective - and there is plenty of evidence for the idea that
structure determines function (hence "information") is correct.
Then there's also the problem of whether his starting assumption, that the DNA sequence in an organism can be viewed as a type of computer programme. This is a very common assumption, but as early as 1985, people were already starting to question its validity. An excellent discussion of this can be found in the chapter "Is there an Organism in this Text?", written by science historian Evelyn Fox Keller (from Controlling Our Destinies). See also Susan Oyama's book, The Ontongeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. (Just from the title alone, this sounds like another good book Dembski should have read carefully and discussed (but didn't).
The last two chapters of the book are about the actual bridge between science and theology. Note that the "Bridge" in the title really is intended to be the bridge between [modern, Western Evangelical Christian] theology and Science - not even Science and Religion in general.
By the way, did I mention that Dembski has also written this really clever, technical book on Intelligent Design? In this book, Dembski shows that really complicated things don't happen by chance, and mathematically details the necessity of an Intelligent Designer. You can purchase it and wade through it yourself for a mere $65 U.S. - here's the reference:
The Design Inference : Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction and Decision Theory), by William A. Dembski, (Cambridge University Press, 1998). [Amazon] [Barnes & Noble]
"The Ontongeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution" , by Susan Oyama (Cambridge University Press, 1985). [Amazon]
"Information and the Origin of Life" , by Bernd-Olaf Kuppers (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990; translated by Manu Scripta, Aarhus, Denmark - originally published under the title Der Ursprung biologischer Information: Zur Naturphilosophie der Lebensentstehung, in 1986 by R. Piper BmbH & Co.).
Amazon.dk (original book, in German) Amazon.com (U.S., in English) Barnes&Noble
"The Touchstone of Life : Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life" , by Werner R. Loewenstein (Oxford University Press, 1999). [Amazon]
"Controlling Our Destinites : Historical, Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Perspectives on the Human Genome Project (Studies in Science & the human genome project)"
, edited by Phillip R. Sloan, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2000). This hefty book (more than 500 pages!) is a collection of essays written by philosophers, theologians, and historians. For me this really helped put not only the "human genome project" into perspective, but also provided a wonderful insight into the relationship between theology and modern science.
Links about Dembski's books
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Last modified on: 29 June, 2001 by Dave Ussery