Re: Dembski and Nelson at MIT and Tufts

Allan Harvey (
Fri, 02 Apr 1999 08:44:02 -0700

At 06:54 AM 4/2/99 -0800, Massie wrote:
>Howard J. Van Till wrote:
>> Members of both the ASA and Evolution listserves were recently informed of
>> upcoming presentations by Bill Dembski and Paul Nelson at MIT and Tufts. I
>> will not be able to attend either of them.
>> I presume that these speakers will argue either: 1) that there is empirical
>> evidence in support of the thesis that certain species or biotic subsystems
>> have been "intelligently designed;" or 2) that a thesis of this sort
>> should at least be given respectful consideration by the scientific
>> community.
>> However, before either of these arguments can be evaluated, the key term,
>> "intelligent design," must be defined with clarity and candor. The
>> operative definition is *not* self-evident.
>> If anyone on this list chooses to attend either of the presentations
>> announced, I would be interested to know what the speaker offers in answer
>> to the following question:
>> Precisely what does it mean "to be (or have been) intelligently designed"?
>> I presume that this term refers to some category of action performed by
>> some type of agent. So, perhaps the answer to the question could be put in
>> the followiing form:
>> To be (or have been) 'intelligently designed' is to be (or have been)
>> ____________________________________ [decribe the category of action here]
>> by __________________________________________________ [identify type of
>> agent here].
>> Once the operative definition of "intelligent design" is publicly stated
>> with clarity and candor, the merits of the theses stated above can be
>> fruitfully evaluated by all interested parties.
>> In the interest of clarity,
>> Howard Van Till
>Certainly you jest. This is not mathematics. Would it be so nice that
>neat little definitions could be generated. Philosophical arguements do
>not have that nature and the view that nothing can be learned because we
>can never well state definitions is not an acceptable result either.
>When we examine the universe and life we see a great deal of
>information. We cannot readily see how a mechanistic process could have
>generated the information or the results which are very irreducibly
>complex. In fact, based on our knowledge of statistical processes, we
>find that life, the earth, etc, are improbable (this is based on what we
>do know). And the arguement is not just a little improbable but a lot
>and then we consider joint probability of things. The aguement is
>therefore that "just right" and "irreducible complexity" have to come
>from an external source and the external source has to have
>intelligence. Therefore, "intelligent design" is an hypothesis that
>deserves favorable consideration.
>"Intelligent design" does not tell us what agent did it only that
>naturalism alone cannot get the job done.
> <SNIP>

I'm with Howard on this. By some definition, all Christians believe God
has "intelligently designed" things. But the ID movement usually *seems*
to mean something different -- not just "intelligent design" but more
like "intelligent assembly", where God's original design required
additional supernatural interventions during the course of natural
history. Which may be a valid hypothesis, but they need to make clear
what they mean (maybe not with mathematical precision, but at least
enough to allow for rational discussion) by "intelligent design" in order
for people to accurately judge its theological and scientific merits.
Without *reasonably* clear definitions, all our talk is just striving
after wind.

What *I* wish somebody would ask them is something like the following:
"Suppose that, as more scientific evidence comes in, it turns out that
you are wrong and 'natural' [not to be confused with the "naturalism"
Massie mentions above] mechanisms are shown to account for the evolution
of life. Would this entail the absence of God, or does your conception
of God allow Him to work through 'natural' means? Put another way, is
your conception of "intelligent design" primarily a way of doing science,
or is it primarily apologetics in that the truth of theism is made
dependent on whether your ideas about an intelligent agent being
responsible for specific gaps in natural history are correct?"

I asked essentially this question to Phil Johnson a while back. He
mostly dodged it, but his writings seem to indicate that, for him, if God
does things through "natural" means that doesn't really count, or is at
best a second-rate mode of operation. I think such a view of God's
possible ways of working in the world is unbiblical, and I would hope
Nelson and Dembski don't fall into that error.

| Dr. Allan H. Harvey | |
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| National Institute of Standards & Technology | government for what I |
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