Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Dembski rolls snake eyes
William Dembski himself now responds to the debate between “Intelligent Design” theory (ID) and Aristotelico-Thomism (A-T) that has been raging recently at this blog and others. But I’m afraid he seems only to have made his position even less coherent than I gave it credit for in my original post.
Dembski insists that “nothing about ID need be construed as inconsistent with Aristotle and Thomas.” Indeed, “ID is happy to let a thousand flowers bloom with regard to the nature of nature provided it is not a mechanistic, self-sufficing view of nature.” Hear that? Not only is ID not incompatible with A-T, it even rejects a mechanistic conception of nature no less than A-T does! Time for a big ID/A-T group hug, right? Not so fast. Because here is what Dembski says ID is really all about:
ID’s critique of naturalism and Darwinism should not be viewed as offering a metaphysics of nature but rather as a subversive strategy for unseating naturalism/Darwinism on their own terms. The Darwinian naturalists have misunderstood nature, along mechanistic lines, but then use this misunderstanding to push for an atheistic worldview.
ID is willing, arguendo, to consider nature as mechanical and then show that the mechanical principles by which nature is said to operate are incomplete and point to external sources of information… This is not to presuppose mechanism in the strong sense of regarding it as true. It is simply to grant it for the sake of argument — an argument that is culturally significant and that needs to be prosecuted.
This is not to minimize the design community’s work on the design inference/explanatory filter/irreducible-specified-functional complexity. ID has uncovered scientific markers that show where design is. But pointing up where design is, is not to point up where design isn’t.
For the Thomist/Aristotelian, final causation and thus design is everywhere. Fair enough. ID has no beef with this. As I’ve said (till the cows come home, though Thomist critics never seem to get it), the explanatory filter has no way or ruling out false negatives (attributions of non-design that in fact are designed). I’ll say it again, ID provides scientific evidence for where design is, not for where it isn’t.
And regarding ID’s theological implications, Dembski says:
ID’s metaphysical openness about the nature of nature entails a parallel openness about the nature of the designer. Is the designer an intelligent alien, a computional [sic] simulator (a la THE MATRIX), a Platonic demiurge, a Stoic seminal reason, an impersonal telic process, …, or the infinite personal transcendent creator God of Christianity? The empirical data of nature simply can’t decide. But that’s not to say the designer is anonymous. I’m a Christian, so the designer’s identity is clear, at least to me. But even to identify the designer with the Christian God is not to say that any particular instance of design in nature is directly the work of his hands.
Here, then, are Dembski’s key claims:
(1) ID ultimately rejects a mechanistic conception of nature.
(2) ID does nevertheless operate with a mechanistic conception of nature, in a “for the sake of argument way” intended as a means of subverting Darwinian naturalism on its own terms.
(3) ID provides scientific evidence for the existence of a designer.
(4) ID takes no stand on the identity of this designer.
So, what’s wrong with all that?
Where do I start?
How about here. Consider first the radical implications of Dembski’s claim (1). ID defenders like Lydia McGrew and Steve Fuller have acknowledged that ID is mechanistic and thus incompatible with A-T. Their approach, accordingly, is to argue that mechanism is true and that A-T is therefore simply wrong. Given what Dembski now says, however, their position is actually at odds with ID, at least as Dembski defines it. Moreover, the great figures of the past who argued for a designer on the basis of a mechanistic conception of nature (a conception they also regarded as true, not as something to apply in a merely “for the sake of argument” fashion) – thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and William Paley – must all be regarded as at odds with ID. Got that? Now it’s not only Dawkins and Feser who are (albeit from very different directions) kicking poor Paley; it’s William Dembski too! In order to salvage his big tent, Dembski has to burn most of it down.
Second, for all that, Dembski’s point (2) makes ID and A-T incompatible anyway (thus leaving Dembski all alone in what’s left of his big tent). For as I have said many times in previous posts, ID’s mechanistic approach puts it at odds with A-T even if that approach is taken in a merely “for the sake of argument” way. The reason is that a mechanistic conception of the world is simply incompatible with the classical theism upheld by A-T. It isn’t just that a mechanistic starting point won’t get you all the way to the God of classical theism. It’s that a mechanistic starting point gets you positively away from the God of classical theism. Why? Because a mechanistic world is one which could at least in principle exist apart from God. And classical theism holds that the world could not, even in principle, exist apart from God. So, the views are flatly inconsistent. And so, if you start with a mechanistic conception even just “for the sake of argument,” you will never get one inch, one millimeter closer to the God of classical theism. Instead, you will have ruled that God out from the get-go. (It’s like saying “Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the killer could not have been a man. Now, was it O. J. Simpson? Let’s weigh the evidence.”) Indeed, you will not get even one millimeter beyond the natural world if you assume a mechanistic starting point (again, even just for the sake of argument). For that reason, the methods of ID cannot possibly pose a challenge to naturalism per se; the most they can ever do is pose a difficulty for one version of naturalism (viz. Darwinian reductionism). I have explained all of this at length in previous posts (e.g. here and here).
Third, and for the same reasons, Dembski’s claim (4) is false as well: The methods of ID may not tell you exactly who the designer is, but they do entail that it is not the God of classical theism, because ID’s methods are mechanistic, and mechanistic methods can never get you even an inch toward classical theism, but only away from it.
“But Dembski just got done saying that mechanism is false anyway!” True enough. But that brings us to the fourth and perhaps most serious problem for Dembski’s position. Dembski says that ID assumes mechanism only for the sake of argument, and that mechanism isn’t really true. In other words, he admits that the very premises on which ID rests are false. Now, this would not necessarily be a problem if all ID were trying to do is to undermine Darwinian naturalism via a reductio ad absurdum strategy (though as I have said, even if successful this would not falsify naturalism per se). But ID is claimed by Dembski to do more than that. ID, Dembski and others never tire of telling us, is a “new science” that will “revolutionize” the way we do biology. Moreover, ID is claimed to provide “scientific evidence” for the existence of a designer. But how can it do either if the mechanism that it presupposes is mistaken? Dembski is saying, in effect: “We can show that the existence of a designer follows from these premises! This will revolutionize biology! Oh, and by the way, the premises are false.”
How to untangle all of this? Well, there does seem to be some potential ambiguity in the way Dembski uses the term “mechanism.” At one point in his post he appears to contrast mechanism, as I would, with the A-T view that final causes exist everywhere in nature. But later, in a quote from his book The Design Revolution, he alludes to some related but distinct definitions of “mechanism” given by Michael Polanyi. He doesn’t clarify the relationship between these senses of the term. But perhaps Dembski would say that the “mechanism” he rejects is not the same kind of mechanism that McGrew, Fuller, Boyle, Newton, Paley, et al. are committed to. Yet the latter kind of mechanism is included in what A-T opposes – in which case Dembski will still not have explained how exactly his position is compatible with A-T.
As I noted in my earlier post on Dembski, one of the problems with his work is a frustrating imprecision and even incoherence, which results from the ad hoc way in which he responds to various challenges to ID. His latest statement seems to re-apply this strategy, with predictable results. Dembski is like the gambler who, convinced that his luck now simply has to change, rolls and comes up snake eyes.