Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dembski: “I’m not denying evolutionary gradualism, challenging common descent or Natural Selection” (!!!!)

William Dembski has something to teach us; pity he's not being listened to!

The above Utube is a talk given by Intelligent Design proponent William Dembski. Unfortunately the sound quality is poor, and I had difficulty separating Dembski’s voice from a background rumble. Nevertheless I think I picked up the salient points, (But don’t quote me! Normally I go through videos like this two of three times, but I couldn't take the ear strain for a second hearing!)

I’ve always thought of William Dembski as a very intelligent and reasonable person. Although he probably classifies as an evangelical Baptist, he’s a moderate and a big point in his favour, as far as I’m concerned, is that he has been criticized by at least one fundamentalist for holding an old Earth position and also for being .....wait for it…..a theistic evolutionist. Referring to Dembski as a theistic evolutionist may actually be justified because in the video he says this (I think!):

We are Not denying evolution or limiting its role as an immediate efficient cause (at 51:50)…….I’m not challenging common descent, not challenging evolutionary gradualism, and not challenging that Natural Selection is the principle reason organisms have evolved (at 55:10)

This may come as a surprise because Dembski is an influential figure amongst what is often a vociferously anti-evolution community. Moreover, he isn’t exactly on the best of terms with theistic evolutionists like Ken Miller, Biologos and the Faraday society. Dembski has also been cold shouldered by the academic community as a whole: As he says in the video: 

 When I first published on the subject of Complex Specified Information I had no problems; it was only when I connected it to evolution that my career went down the toilet!

It seems that William Dembski is to the established academic community as he is to the fundamentalists – a heretic! But just what academic heresy has Dembski committed that theistic evolutionists like Christian Ken Miller et al. haven’t?  One of the problems seems to be that Demsbki, from an academic establishment standpoint, has fallen in with the “wrong kind” of people; in fact he has been taken on board as an intellectual champion by a broad church community that includes a strong contingent of anti-evolutionists who use his ideas to promote their agenda.

But I don’t think this is the only reason why the academic establishment is uptight about Dembski. The other reason is rather subtle. Paradoxically, although Dembski seems to be comfortable with evolution, evolutionists are not comfortable with him. So what’s going on here?

I’m of the opinion that Dembski has an important lesson to teach us, as I implied four years ago when I first looked at some of his work. Dembski has rightly pointed out that complex ordered configurations like living structures are, in absolute mathematical terms, a tiny class of configurations lost in a huge search space. If evolution is to work in realistic cosmic times that search space must be considerably narrowed down, a priori. Ergo, it follows that evolution is a form of computation that requires much on-board information to be built into it. (This information may be down to the precise selection of a very particular physical regime as embodied in our laws of physics - although this is a moot point). As Dembski says on the video, evolutionary algorithms, if they are to work, need to be carefully and correctly in programmed in advance (i.e. carefully and correctly selected). For example, on the subject of mutation as a mechanism that searches the fitness landscape Dembski quotes Stuart Kauffman who asks Where did the fitness landscapes come from?

My interpretation of Dembski is that he is not challenging evolution per se but is challenging any pretension that evolution can work in an information vacuum; mathematical necessity requires that evolution must start with the appropriately improbable preconditions (= high information conditions) and this entails the selection of a rare class of successful search algorithms. Dembski’s core thesis is irrefutable I believe. The information he talks of is to be found either in the laws of physics as we know them or some mechanism layered on top of this physics. (See my discussion here)

I think that Dembski has touched  a sensitive nerve because he has made it clear, as clear could be, that as far as observed cosmic space-time scales are concerned the universe has been set-up with inexplicable brute givens; that is, it has an irreducible load of non-trivial information. This conclusion cuts across any idea that life is an all but trivial logical outcome of informationaless conditions. In absolute terms then, evolution, even if it has occurred in the way the academic establishment would have it, doesn't explain the up-front burden of improbability that is our cosmos.  This is an uncomfortable conclusion begging many questions which have an impact our Weltanschauung. If one wants to explain the breathtakingly unique giveness of the cosmos, something “naturally” eternal has to be assumed. How one handles this Grand Logical Hiatus, whether via a given multiverse or a given intelligence, is the difference between atheists and theists. Dembski’s main academic heresy seems to be that he has used this conclusion to moot the idea of an a-priori intelligence as the source of this logical hiatus. But it is likely that even his undoubtedly correct core thesis that the cosmos and its life forms are far from being trivial logical truisms starts establishment hackles rising because they know what’s coming next!
But having said that all that I have to say (yet again) there is something profoundly unsatisfactory with the Intelligent Design community’s use of Dembski’s work.

At the beginning of his talk Dembski makes a very interesting point. He says that creation and design are two different things: Creation is about the ultimate source of physical ontology and design is about the way in which that ontology is configured. He goes onto say that you can have creation without design and design without creation. Dembski seems to be thinking about two apparently distinct logical possibilities:
a) Creation without design: Here a physical ontology is sourced in some eternal creative agent, but this ontology displays rather boring forms; either very simple high-order or high-disorder. Intuitively we would be unlikely to rate such a cosmos as displaying particularly clever or intelligent designs.  
b)  Design without creation: Here we imagine a cosmos that has always existed (that is, it is an uncreated physical ontology) but which nevertheless displays clever designs taken from a very narrow class of complex ordered structures such as we find in living things.
This looks compelling but I’m not quite sure I can go along with this distinction between creation and design. To my mind a cosmos that doesn't display division, separation and difference is unintelligible: For example, creating matter is to create a demarcation between matter and its space-time theatre; a binary sequence without any bits set - that is without difference - is effectively void. There is no substance without demarcations being made and it is very telling that the early verses in Genesis 1 are largely about the transformation of formlessness and emptiness through the making of separations and divisions. To create matter is to create distinction. To create distinctions is to configure. To configure is to design. Ergo, creation is design and design is creation.

But not all designs are equal: A particular configuration will entail a certain level of computational complexity and this will set a lower limit on the computational resources needed to generate it. Therefore as I understand it Dembski’s “Creation without design” is probably intended to cover the case where we have “simple” designs that set the computational complexity bar rather low, but which actually don''t reveal just what is the upper limit, if any, is on the computational resources available. As for “Design without creation”: Unless we are dealing with an extremely static status-quo where there is absolutely no change in difference and distinction I think it is all but logically impossible to separate design from creation, so I'm not sure if we are dealing with an intelligible concept here.

I'm suspicious of Dembski’s creation vs. design distinction and it is, I suggest, a manifestation of a potential problem: It is a short step from this dichotomy to a dichotomy that sets the substance of nature over and against the designer for whom nature’s substance is the medium on which he or she (usually “he”) works. Nature thus becomes a thing in “her” own right, albeit rather passively receiving the configurations imposed by the will of the male designer. But the irony here is that this dichotomy prompts questions over whether nature is quite so passive. In fact Dembski himself makes the point: He talks about nature and intelligence both being agents that shape matter into configurations. He tells us that nature and design are two different sources for the structuring of matter. He gives us the example of an acorn as compared with raw oak wood. The acorn has within itself the information to construct an oak tree whereas raw oak wood can’t turn itself into a ship; the latter configuration has to be imposed from without by an intelligence, and probably a male intelligence at that.

But if nature has at least a modicum of innate power to organize herself, is it “just” nature that has generated life? Regarding the efficacy of nature to create living configurations Dembski asks:

Is nature complete? Can it bring about the structures of life or does it need more information? E.g. can natural selection do it? Does nature have what it takes?

In the culture in which Dembski moves these questions are likely to be thought of as rhetorical, to be answered in the negative. For if the answer to these questions is “yes” that is very easily read as a case of: “Because nature did it that means God didn’t do it”. If nature, like the acorn, has been appropriately primed and has what it takes then this could be construed as rendering a male creative deity redundant! Thus Dembski is inadvertently helping to promote a dichotomy which, amongst theists, may well encourage a dim view to be taken of attempts to explain living structures in terms of the given cosmic physical regime. In this context it is perhaps no surprise that many North American Christians are vehemently anti-evolution:  For them God is a kind of virile homunculus engineer, an external designer who does things to passive nature much as the potter does to the clay.  But here’s the irony: This kind of deity is on a commensurate logical level to Mother Nature “herself” who, although in a masculine context is likely to be thought of as an inferior passive object on whom things are done, may in a more feminist context become a female goddess with powers of creation in her own right. The way is thus paved for the Nature did it vs. God did it dichotomy. (See also here). Much as I admire the work and undoubted courage of Dembski he’s connected himself with a line of thought here that I’m loath to follow
In order to express the otherwise incomprehensibility of the Divine it is a well-known theological trick to use “paradox”; that is, to keep in one’s head a cluster of different metaphors some of which may appear to be mutually inconsistent: For example, the paradox of God’s simultaneous eminence and immanence can be dealt with using mutually “inconsistent” metaphors. In the book Planet Narnia author Michael Ward discusses C. S. Lewis’ use of the Solar Disc as a metaphor for God’s eminence. According to Lewis this metaphor must be balanced against the metaphor of God as a quasi-tribal deity, in order to convey God's immanent nature. On page 119 of Ward’s book we read:

One of the dangers of solar theological imagery is that it tends toward a kind of docetism, the heretical view that Christ only appeared to be human, and Lewis naturally, as a self- consciously mainstream, orthodox writer, wanted to avoid giving a docetic presentation of Christ. In order to understand his thoughts on this matter it will be worth looking at what he says elsewhere about Akhenaten's Hymn to the Sun  (1400 B.C.).
The Solar monotheism of the Hymn to the Sun seems better, in one way, Lewis argues, than the primitive Judaism we find in the early books of the Old Testament, but it does not follow that 'Akhenatenism' would have been a better  first step in the history of divine revelation. Akhenaten was astonishingly advanced; he did not identify God with the Sun in a strictly heliolatrous way but understood the visible disc as a divine manifestation. This early Egyptian religion, 'a simple, enlightened, reasonable Monotheism,' looks much more like developed Christianity, from one perspective, than those first documents of Judaism in which Yahweh appears to be little more than a peculiar tribal deity. However, Lewis concludes:

“If Man is finally to know the bodiless, timeless, transcendent Ground of the whole universe not as a mere philosophical abstraction but as the Lord who, despite his transcendence, is "not far from anyone of us", as an utterly concrete Being (far more concrete than we) whom Man can fear, love, address, and "taste", he must begin far more humbly and far nearer home, with the local altar, the traditional feast .... It is possible that a certain sort of enlightenment can come too soon and too easily. At that early stage it may not be fruitful to typify God by anything so remote, so neutral, so international and (as it were) so inter-denominational, so featureless, as the solar disc. Since in the end we are to come to baptism and the Eucharist, to the stable at Bethlehem, the hill of Calvary, and the emptied rock-tomb, perhaps it is better to begin with circumcision, the Passover, the Ark, and the Temple. For  “the highest does not stand without the lowest". Does not stand, does not stay; rises, rather, and expands, and finally loses itself in endless space. For the entrance is low: we must stoop till we are no taller than children in order to get in.”

It is Lewis's intention in The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader’ to typify the divine figure by means of the Solar disc, to emphasize his transcendence and universality. Aslan here is very different from the furry beast who romps and battles cheek by jowl with the children in the first two nooks. He floats in and out of this story in intense moments of prayer, reproof, spiritual illumination and mystical ecstacy; he has a rarefied exalted existence, which is constantly at risk of being lost in endless space….
Akhenaten Worshipping the One and Only God. Trouble is, he eventually set himself up as the One and Only Son of God! (How often have we seen that?)

The transcendent vision of God conveyed by Lewis’s Solar metaphor has ultimately been grounded in the human personality of Christ who is portrayed in Colossians 1:15 as the homunculus craftsman of creation:

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. (Col 1:15)

But the Bible itself, in a similar move to Lewis, raids pagan literature to offset the potentially idolatrous literalism of the homunculus vision of God. In his visit to the pagan context of the Areopagus St. Paul sets the scene by a respectful appeal to a common ground theology (Acts 17:24-25):

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

….which contains an idea very close to the pagan Euripides who said (See also Acts 7:48):

“What house built by craftsmen could enclose the form divine within enfolding walls”

St. Paul goes on to say: (Acts 17:26-28):

 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.

Verse 28 here contains a quote taken from Greek literature. These words were put into the mouth of the semi-mythical Epimenides of Crete who legend said erected anonymous altars around Athens. (A legend which Paul also alludes to in his address at the Areopagus – see Acts 17:23).

They fashioned a tomb for Thee O holy and high One
The Cretans always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies,
But thou art not dead; for ever thou art risen and alive,
For in thee we live and move and have our being,
For we are indeed his offspring.
(From the poem on Phenomena by Aratus of Cilicia). (See also Titus 1:12)

Paul connects to his knowledgeable Greek audience by allusions to pagan literature and by endorsing common-ground notions of God. But in doing this St. Paul balances the metaphor of God as a masculine homunculus imposing his will on nature from without against a more feminine nurturing metaphor of God as the womb-like receptacle that sustains our very existence and from whom we are the offspring. St. Paul, like C. S. Lewis, respected pagan views of God.

The masculine homunculus metaphor for God, if used exclusively, is in danger of causing a bifurcation that delivers up a second competing God, namely Mother Nature, the “inferior” co-rival of God himself. In contrast the Biblico-Pagan picture of St. Paul harmonises the masculine and the feminine. 

It is ironic, however, that even in today’s sectarian slanting evangelicalism we can find the “pagan” Solar Disk being celebrated as a metaphor: How many times have I seen the laser projector, which is so central to Christian worship today, throwing up an image of charismatic songs set against a backdrop of a scene flooded with Sun light or whose focus is the Solar Disk?

A Christian worshipping the One and Only God. Trouble is, they so often set themselves up as the One and Only Channel of Truth. (Picture taken from  christalonechurch.com/ )

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