Monday, April 10, 2006

More Catching Up

In 2002, William Dembski wrote the book No Free Lunch, which he subtitled Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Dembski, as you will recall, is one of the prime movers behind the current incarnation of creationism, ID. Dembski is somewhat less strident in his attacks on evolutionary theory than say, Phillip Johnson or the writers of Of Pandas and People, but he does take whacks at it, nonetheless. If you can wade through it, it is a dense but interesting read.

Howard Van Till, professor emeritus of physics and cosmology at Calvin College (from whence a good deal of right thinking seems to emerge) wrote a somewhat lengthy article reviewing Dembski's work. Entitled E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom: bacteria flagella and Dembski's case for Intelligent Design, Van Till enjoins us to think critically about how wise it is to employ certain mathematical models as explanatory tools for biology.

According the Van Till, Dembski and others in the movement argue that design ought to be detectable in the known universe. If it is not, then our notions of God's sovereignty and omnipresence are pointless. On thought, this is perhaps a fair criciticm. On second thought, that seems to be the way the world works. It often seems that, to my way of thinking the world behaves with such natural order that there must be an "economy of miracles." Chairs behave like chairs, walls like walls and such. We can build things to work precisely because all of our experiments on the raw materials turn out the same. The forces of physics do not vary from one place to another. Even though the natural "laws" have probabilities associated with them, the probabilites are so high as to be virtually certain.

It is this "economy of miracles" that has led to the various forms of naturalism in science over the last several hundred years. It has also informed our understanding of the past. Uniformitarianism was proposed simply because examination of present processes always yielded understandable causes and few, if any events could be construed as "miraculous." If present actions can be explained, there is no a priori reason past actions cannot be explained the same way. Onward.

Van Till notes, correctly, that not all proponents of ID are "in full agreement" about what evolution entails. Some reject all of it, others just the macroevolutionary elements. Part of this stems from the fact that the creationism umbrella includes two absolutely dichotomous views of reality: one in which the universe was created 20 million years ago and the other in which it was created 6000 years ago. This is analogous to believing that the moon is either made of rock and dust, or swiss cheese.

Van Till hammers at the central problem in ID philosophy: actualization:

But mind-action alone does not produce a working watch. The watch must also be actualized by hand action. As an artisan, the watchmaker must not only conceptualize the configuration of gears and dials that comprise a watch; he must also form the various parts and assemble them into a working mechanism.

And later, with regard to the formation of the bacterial flagellum, itself:

How, for instance, might an unembodied intelligent agent act on a bacterium with no flagellum to actualize a flagellum where none had been before? How does inteliigence (now meaning the action of an unembodied, choice-making agent) accomplish that? Does the unembodied agent somehow force the various atomic and molecular components into their proper configuration? How does a non-physical agent exert physical forces?

Van Till also notes that the imposition of the NFL theorums does not match biological reality--evolution does not proceed in an all-or-nothing fashion. This is a really good article and I have waxed on too long about it. Read the whole thing.

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