Monday, August 24, 2009

William Dembski: Curiouser and Curiouser

Characters of the Wild Web: Academic fugitive Billy the DembskID is proving difficult to nail.

William Dembski has given a brief reply (here) in response to reactions to his latest paper. Here is the bulk of Dembski’s reply:

One criticism is that it at best is consistent with theistic evolution but does not support ID. I think this is a mistake. I’ve said for over a decade now that ID is consistent with the most far-flung evolutionary change. The key contention of ID is that design in nature, and in biology in particular, is detectable. Evolutionary informatics, by looking at the information requirements of evolutionary processes, points to information sources beyond evolution and thus, indirectly, to a designer. Theistic evolution, by contrast, accepts the Darwinian view that Darwinian processes generate the information required for biological complexity internally, without any outside source of information. The results by Marks and me are showing that this cannot be the case. The paper just published is only the first installment. It essentially lays out our accounting procedure for measuring the information in evolutionary search. We have two forthcoming papers that flesh out our larger project (available at, showing that attempts to account for the information internally, without an external information source, all founder.

I’m confused to say the least.

As my previous blog post suggests, even atheists like Mark Chu-Carrol and Joe Felsenstein on Panda’s thumb would accept that evolution only works if resourced by the right physical regime. In the sense that this physical regime seems to just one possibility singled out from a huge space of apparent possibilities it thus appears as a precondition of very remote probability. Hence, using Dembski’s measure of information (-log[p]) evolution requires, accordingly, a very high a-priori information content, Without getting into quibbles over Dembski’s use of the term “information” one might wonder just what distinguishes Dembski’s position from these atheists; both accept that (very) special conditions are required to resource evolution. Of course, the real difference is just where the respective parties go from there: The atheists believe that the apparent fortuitousness of the right physics is no argument for God/Intelligence. (I personally don’t think it is right to start accusing atheists of the unforgivable sin if at this point in the argument they want to say “Hold on a minute, this doesn’t necessarily follow”)

However, while the atheists stop and think about that one let me run with William Dembski.

Firstly, another quibble: Is the notion of probability applicable to the “brute” givens of the physical regime? In physical theory such as quantum physics, probability is a quantity defined within the confines of a given system that generates frequency profiles. In contrast the brute givens of the physical regime are meta-features that don’t find context within a system of frequency profiles and so this raises questions about the applicability of probability to the physical regime itself.

But however we settle that quibble, I for one will accept that there is no getting away from it: The apparent logically unwarranted nature of the cosmic set up seems a remarkable brute fact and for theists like myself and William Dembski, this is seen as evidence of providence, so in this sense I can run with William Dembski’s design views. As a tentative evolutionist this makes me, presumably, a theistic evolutionist.

But Dembski pins theistic evolutionists to a straw man: “Theistic evolution, by contrast, accepts the Darwinian view that Darwinian processes generate the information required for biological complexity internally, without any outside source of information.” I just can’t buy that. Even atheists, as we have seen, accept that evolutionary theory doesn’t explain everything, (especially the conditions that resource it) and that it leaves a sort of “informational” loose end, although of course atheists wouldn’t accept that this loose end should be tied up theistically.

Now Prof William, I can’t speak for other Theistic Evolutionists but correct me if I am wrong; I thought that Theistic Evolution was precisely the belief that God creates and sustains the required preconditions that considerably enhance the chances of evolution working. If Christian theistic evolutionists really believe, as you suggest, that evolution is tantamount to an ex-nihilo creative agency and therefore does not require any outside agency why, oh why are they Christian theists rather than Yin Yan or Gnostic dualists?

OK there may be quibbles about your concept of information but my understanding is that Theistic Evolutionists would broadly agree that evolution is providentially supplied with the right resources to work; that is, evolution is no logical necessity and as such needs some far deeper necessity to create and sustain the conditions it requires. If that’s what you mean by Darwinian evolution not creating information I can run with that.

So just where do you stand William? You say “I’ve said for over a decade now that ID is consistent with the most far-flung evolutionary change”. So given that we accept the necessity of “active information” to resource evolution does this mean that you can affirm that evolution is not necessarily inconsistent with ID? Does this mean that one can be an evolutionist AND an ID theorist? Do you have any ID evolutionist friends? And what are your views on YEC theory?

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