Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stephen Barr: "The End of Intelligent Design?"

Over at First Things, Stephen Barr has a post titled The End of Intelligent Design? His opening paragraph is brutal:
It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.
Equally problematic is the fact that, as practiced, Intelligent design functions more as an anti-science than science. One of the principle goals of science is to posit hypotheses that can be tested to see if they are supported by the available evidence. Intelligent design, on the other hand, simply states that if hypothesis x is wrong, then hypothesis y must be correct. That is not how science works. Maybe hypothesis x is wrong, but we don't know whether or not hypothesis y is correct. This is especially a problem if hypothesis y is not testable. Barr very eloquently describes this conundrum:
But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.
What is also typically not mentioned by those who are promoting ID is that only some of the created order is subject to the ID interpretation. As Denis Alexander points out:
One of the movement’s most influential spokespersons, Bill Dembski, specifically distinguishes the central core of ID from the historical design arguments alluded to above. For whereas traditional design arguments perceive the whole universe to be designed by God, ID proponents argue that certain components of the world around us are designed whereas others are not. Dembski suggests that the universe may be likened to an oil painting. Some parts of the painting result from ‘natural causes’ whereas other parts are due to ‘design’. The designed components correspond to various biological systems which, it is suggested, could not have arisen by ‘chance’ and are therefore characterised by ‘irreducible complexity’. Dembski suggests that “there has to be a reliable way to distinguish between events or objects that result from purely natural causes and events or objects whose emergence additionally requires the help of a designing intelligence…at issue is whether natural causes are supplemented or unsupplemented by design.
In order for this model to work, those promoting ID would have to say that, while there are some areas of creation that don't look "designed," they are and that God chose only to make certain areas of His creation look "designed." This, of course, means that there may be areas of creation that look "designed" but aren't. Numerous theological problems begin to emerge from this kind of thinking and, as Barr notes, this perspective has not changed the minds of scientists a bit, only annoyed them. Science certainly cannot function in such an atmosphere. Read the whole thing.

Now playing: Tony Banks - The Border
via FoxyTunes


  1. Thanks for the introducing me to that article. Really good stuff.
    Reading your comments got me thinking.. I don't think I know any real intelligent design supporters. I know a lot of creationists that talk about intelligent design, but none of them actually support what Dembski, Behe and friends talk about. I think they use "intelligent design" as a designation for the divine creative action that supposedly happened 6000 years ago, not for various instances of irreducibly complex phenomena in an otherwise perfectly natural, non-designed universe. I don't think I've ever really come across anyone who seriously defended this position. Maybe I just know the wrong people..

  2. I'm just starting to read Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker. What's fascinating to me is that in the first chapter he notes that, in biology, the things that are in need of explaining are complex and specified in advance. He uses those words exactly. The rest of the book, of course, is dedicated to demonstrating the sufficiency of natural causes to develop complex, specified structures.

    I wonder if Dembski has never read The Blind Watchmaker, or if he cribbed from it?

  3. Arni,
    What is odd is that, although the Discovery Institute promotes ID and the writings of those at the DI exemplify that teaching, I don't think that your average Christian is in tune with the differences between ID and YEC.

    I know one guy that supports ID and claims he isn't a YEC. He is the only one. Most of the people that I know who are not evolution supporters are YEC supporters, although most don't know quite what the YEC model proposes and don't know anything about evolution or the evidence for the age of the earth.

  4. Reading William Dembski, it is difficult to believe that he has read any Dawkins simply because he completely misunderstands evolutionary theory and, despite being corrected to that effect, persistently gets basic concepts in evolution wrong.

    I have often been told that mathematics and science are not the same because math deals in absolutes, while science does not. Dembski approaches evolutionary theory like a pure mathematician (unlike Pearson, Wright and Haldane in the 1920s and 1930s) and so cannot see how it can be used to explain population genetics. It is like the Sidney Harris cartoon where two mathematicians are looking at a proof on the blackboard and one says the other "And the beauty of it is that it has no practical application, whatsoever!" Neither do Dembski's approaches to evolutionary theory.