Article on Dembski & Polanyi Center - part 2

From: Keith B Miller (
Date: Thu Nov 02 2000 - 23:00:54 EST

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    >Contact). Even Quincy's forensic science was all about trying to
    >determine whether a death was due to an accident, natural caus-
    >es, or the design of an intelligence.
    >William Dembski puts it this way: "Specified complexity
    >powerfully extends the usual mathematical theory of informa-
    >tion, known as Shannon information. Shannon's theory dealt
    >only with complexity, which can be due to random processes
    >as well as to intelligent design. The addition of specification to
    >complexity, however, is like a vise that grabs only things due to
    >intelligence. Indeed, all the empirical evidence confirms that
    >the only known cause of specified complexity is intelligence."
    >Thus when Dembski observes this specified complexity in
    >DNA messages and protein coding, he infers intelligent design.
    >These patterns give real information in the form of meaning-
    >ful instructions, precisely analogous to language with words, sen-
    >tences, punctuation marks, and grammatical rules.
    >The old "scientific creationism" based itself upon two tenets:
    >a supernatural agent created all things, and the Bible gives us
    >an accurate account of what happened. In contrast, accord-
    >ing to Dembski, intelligent design is built upon three very dif-
    >ferent tenets:
    >1. Specified complexity is well defined and empirically
    >2. Undirected natural causes are incapable of explaining
    >specified complexity.
    >3. Intelligent causation best explains specified complexity.
    >The anti-ID school might argue that in the case of biologi-
    >cal evolution, natural causes do eventually produce the speci-
    >fied complexity we see in living things. Natural selection culls
    >through countless mutations over time, eventually producing
    >specified complexity. As the need for survival helps organisms
    >evolve, new information is created and they ratchet their way
    >up into new forms.
    >The problem with this scenario, according to ID theorists, is
    >that mutations do not produce new information. Natural selec-
    >tion has slim pickin's to choose from, even when it picks the
    >fittest. Without an intelligence to produce new information,
    >no amount of re-shuffling of genes will result in a new organism.
    >Biologist Peter Medawar called this principle the law of
    >conservation of information. Michael
    >Polanyi himself believed that natural
    >selection and mutation, the two mecha-
    >nisms of neo-Darwinism, are inadequate
    >for the task of producing new anatomies
    >or functions in evolving animals. The
    >focus on information theory is one reason
    >mathematicians have often been more
    >skeptical of rigid Darwinist explanations
    >than their colleagues in biology.
    >If the creation of new information is
    >such a problem, you ask, then why isn't
    >this common knowledge in our insti-
    >tutions of higher learning? And if intel-
    >ligent design is such an obvious answer,
    >why haven't we heard more about this
    >before? For one thing, no one's ever
    >gotten far enough along to test it before.
    >But William Dembski is getting close.
    >Bruce Gordon says that design theory,
    >as a scientific strategy, involves two goals:
    >i. to mathematically characterize designed
    >structures (using stochastic processes the-
    >ory, probability theory, complexity theory,
    >etc.) to detect intelligent design, and z. to
    >go into nature and see whether the math-
    >ematical structures map onto the physi-
    >cal structures in a way indicative of design.
    >This, of course, is precisely what
    >Dembski has been preparing to do with
    >his research center. He is laying the groundwork to hire mole-
    >cular biologists to do research on protein structure and pro-
    >tein folding to test ID. "What has to happen," says Dembski, "is
    >that ID has to generate research that's more fruitful for biolo-
    >gy than neo-Darwinism."
    >Can design actually be tested as part of science?
    >"Has ID really been tried?" repeats Eugenie Scott. "I think that's
    >a legitimate question. I don't really think we have an answer yet."
    >"The jury is out on that," says William Cooper, chair of the
    >committee evaluating the Polanyi Center. "The mathematical
    >discussion has not progressed sufficiently."
    >Of course, if the committee pronounces final sentence on the
    >Polanyi Center and ends all discussion now, we'll never know.
    >The hanging will have occurred before the jury comes back.
    >Before Congress
    >On May 10, a month after Baylor's big Polanyi conference, a
    >number of members of Congress attended a three hour brief-
    >ing on intelligent design. William Dembski had been invited
    >to join other ID scientists in the presentation, but the Baylor
    >administration ordered him not to participate. President Sloan
    >wanted to keep Baylor from all appearance of mixing academics
    >with politics.
    >But some Baylor biologists became so concerned about how
    >far the intelligent design message was spreading that eight of
    >them drafted a long letter to Congressman Mark Souder, an Edu-
    >cation Committee member, who had co-hosted the meeting.
    >Their letter was intended to let the congressman know that he had
    >been duped by the ID proponents, and that ID research is not legit-
    >imate science. Their attempt to embarrass the ID people was
    >turned around on them when Congressman Souder responded
    >with his own presentation to the House of Representatives, includ-
    >ing the reading of their letter into the Congressional Record.
    >Using their letter as Exhibit A, he told the House that these
    >scientists were practicing "viewpoint discrimination in science
    >and science education," and that "ideological bias has no place
    >in science."
    >Referring to the letter's frequent use of the phrase "materialistic
    >science" as their noble cause, the congressman told his colleagues,
    >"One senses here not a defense of science but rather an effort to
    >protect, by political means, a privileged philosophical viewpoint
    >against a serious challenge.... As [members of] the Congress, it
    >might be wise for us to question whether the legitimate authori-
    >ty of science over scientific matters is being misused by persons who
    >wish to identify science with a philosophy they prefer."
    >A preferred philosophy? Could it be that it took an outsider,
    >a congressman from Indiana no less, to get an objective fix on
    >the real source of the conflict?
    >Philosophizing Science
    >There is a method used in science today that goes beyond the sci-
    >entific method. It's based on a philosophy called naturalism,
    >defined by Funk R Wagnalls as "the doctrine that all phenome-
    >na are derived from natural causes and can be explained by sci-
    >entific laws without reference to a plan or purpose." It's the "with-
    >out plan or purpose" part that nixes intelligent design.
    >When this philosophy is applied to science, it's called
    >methodological naturalism, and for many scientists today it is
    >an unquestioned assumption.
    >Last spring biology Professor Richard Duhrkopf got his pic-
    >ture in the papers when he accused the Polanyi Center of trying
    >to "change the philosophy of science." But is science supposed
    >to have a particular philosophy attached to it? Many of us laymen
    >have always thought that science was supposed to be about
    >applying the scientific method to observations and measure-
    >ments and gaining as much knowledge of the world as possible,
    >not reaching foreordained conclusions.
    >Methodological naturalism proposes that scientists be provi-
    >sional atheists in their work, no matter what contrary evidence they
    >find. Intelligent design proponents are asking simply that science
    >be purified of all philosophical biases. At least, no philosophical
    >bias should be promoted as scientific. Scientists are welcome to
    >hold to personal philosophies and even have them running in the
    >background, as guiding principles, if they think that helps them
    >do their work. But those personal philosophies should not be
    >confused with science.
    >Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson stated the issue suc-
    >cinctly at the congressional briefing: Americans, he said, must
    >choose between two definitions of science in our culture: i. science
    >is unbiased, empirical testing that follows the evidence wherev-
    >er it leads, or z. science is applied materialist philosophy which,
    >like Marxism or Freudianism, is willing to impose its authority.
    >Being Methodologically Correct
    >"The twentieth century was the high point of methodological
    >correctness," says President Sloan. "We all know that life is
    >more than sociology or history or anthropology. Unfortunate-
    >ly, people have forgotten that the methodological brackets we
    >apply are purely artificial, intended to be temporary."
    >ID keeps an open mind, and is entirely agnostic on the subject
    >of religion. The intelligent design that Dembski hopes to detect
    >could belong either to a Biblical God or to an earlier race of Mar-
    >tians who planted us here (like in the movie Mission to Mars).
    >The idea that life here was seeded from another place may
    >seem pretty far out. But Francis Crick, winner of the Nobel Prize
    >for his co-discovery of DNA'S structure, is one of a number of
    >scientists who have seriously promoted the "panspermia"
    >hypothesis, the idea that life was sent here in the form of seeds
    >from a faraway civilization. The reason for such an idea? Crick
    >wrote that "the probability of life originating at random is so
    >utterly minuscule as to make it absurd."
    >Writing with his colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe, Crick
    >stated: "The theory that life was assembled by an intelligence... is
    >so obvious that one wonders why it is not widely accepted as being
    >self-evident. The reasons are psychological rather than scientific."
    >Asked about the Mission to Mars possibility, Michael Sher-
    >mer replies, "That's a legitimate hypothesis. That's testable,
    >that's explainable. But 'a miracle happened' -- that's different."
    >In other words, design is detectable and testable -- but only as
    >long as you can be sure ahead of time that the designer isn't God.
    >This is less a philosophy than an intellectual straitjacket. By this
    >reasoning, scientists whose findings point to natural causes may
    >proceed unimpeded, while those whose evidence points to a
    >supernatural cause must immediately close up shop and go home.
    >One thing you have to say for Dembski's intelligent design theo-
    >ry: It makes the ultimate questions real, putting them into our own
    >world. By blocking ID research, methodological naturalism
    >becomes not only a method for doing science, but a method for
    >keeping the deepest human concerns a safe distance from our per-
    >sonal lives.
    >On September 8 and q, the peer review committee finally met
    >and even brought in Dembski and Gordon for y~ minutes of
    >grilling. One committee member chastised Dembski for ques-
    >tioning the adequacy of neo-Darwinism. Dembski, however,
    >showed none of the hoped-for contrition. As this issue goes to press,
    >the committee is getting set to announce its recommendation.
    >What will be the fate of Dembski, Gordon, and their
    >Michael Polanyi Center? It's up to one man only -- President
    >Robert Sloan. He can bow to faculty pressure and dissolve the
    >present Polanyi Center, perhaps restaffing it with scholars
    >more to the faculty's liking; or clip Dembski's wings by taking
    >away his ability to raise money to run programs. Or he can
    >stand behind the man he hired, make the case that science
    >should be about facts, not McCarthyite lynch mobs -- and
    >take the heat that will surely be generated by disgruntled fac-
    >ulty and their sympathetic media.
    >Either way, the ultimate victim or victor won't be Bill
    >Dembski, it will be unbiased science and humanity's quest to
    >discover the truth -- wherever that truth leads us.
    >Top 10 Accusations
    >Bill Dembski is guilty of: 9a) Pollitically incorrect thought-crimes.
    >(b) True crimes against science and religion. You decide. Here are the
    >leading accusations- and how the Polanyi Center folks reply:
    >1. It's all a front for the creationists.
    >Lewis Barker: "These people are creationists. They define that as some-
    >one who takes a literal interpretation of Genesis."
    >Reply: ID is a research project to find out if design is detectable.
    >Unlike creationism, it's not concerned with the identity of the design-
    >er. It proposes scientific tests that can be falsified, not presuppositions
    >that must be believed. Bruce Gordon says, "The Polanyi Center has
    >no interest at all in the Biblical literalist approach. I have considerable
    >problems with it. It doesn't do justice to science nor to Biblical
    >2. It's all politics.
    >Michael Shermer: "Their agenda is a re-introduction of Judeo-Chris-
    >tian thought into the public schools. They're carrying out a bottom-
    >up strategy, by starting in the academy."
    >Reply: The Polanyi Center's purpose is research, not getting involved
    >in politics or textbook wars. If ID proves correct, say its adherents, its
    >research results should of course be included in textbooks. But no one
    >at Polanyi is proposing that Genesis be taught in public schools.
    >3. ID is a science-stopper.
    >Complaining Baylor faculty members, says one journalist, "see the intel-
    >ligent design crowd as seeking to put a tourniquet on inquiry."
    >Reply: Dembski says that naturalism often stops inquiry, "such as
    >in its expectation for the uselessness of vestigial organs and junk DNA,
    >whereas intelligent design profitably continues looking for their func-
    >tion." The call for the dissolution of the Polanyi Center is a better
    >example of "putting a tourniquet on inquiry." Even ID proponent
    >Phillip J'ohnson, the Berkeley law professor most abhorred by ID crit-
    >ics, does not advocate the removal of Darwinism from the curriculum,
    >but that schools should "teach the controversy."
    >4. ID doesn't want peer review of criticism.
    >Included in the Baylor biologists' letter to Congress was the claim: "The
    >supporters of intelligent design have never openly presented their
    >Reply: Anyone looking at the list of scientists invited to the "Nature
    >of Nature" conference should be cured of that notion. The majority
    >were critics of ID.
    >5. All they can say is that God did it. And where did He come from?
    >Saying that God did it, writes Darwinist Richard Dawkins, only leaves
    >us with an unobservable cause that itself needs to be explained.
    >Reply: ID, says Dembski, studies the results, the design, not the agent
    >that produced it. Dembski further points out that most new theoretical
    >entities would forever remain off limits if their source had to be fully
    >stood before they could be proposed. Example: Boltzmann's kinetic the-
    >ory of heat, which invoked the motion of unobservable particles (now
    >called atoms and molecules), which Boltzmann could not explain.
    >6. ID can't be quantified.
    >Lewis Barker: 'There is absolutely no prediction Dembski can make. His
    >arguments do not produce a new research agenda."
    >Reply: Lewis Barker should read Dembski's monograph, in which
    >he lays out rigorous, mathematical tests to identify complex specified
    >information and to show how CSI always implies intelligent design.
    >7. All ID can do is criticize evolution.
    >Eugenie Scott: "It is certainly fair to describe them as anti-evolutionists."
    >Reply: In fact, says Bruce Gordon, "intelligent design is compatible
    >with evolution. Many biologists are theistic evolutionists. Design can
    >be understood as built into the initial conditions, so that the subse-
    >quent development was continuous and not interrupted by any tran-
    >scendent intervention. Yet the teleology could still be quantified through
    >the methods of the mathematical techniques of design theory."
    >8. It's bad theology.
    >Eugenie Scott: 'Theologians don't like it because it creates a mammoth
    >'God-of-the-gaps' problem."
    >Reply: If intelligent causes exist (as forensic science and SETI
    >already assume), then it is wrong to assume that all gaps in present
    >knowledge must eventually be filled by non-intelligent causes.
    >9. It's bad science, or not science at all.
    >Reply: Dembski points out that if you say ID is not science because
    >it can't be observed, then we must also toss out theoretical entities
    >like quarks, super-strings, and cold dark matter. If you say it's not sci-
    >ence because the design is not repeatable, then out goes the big bang,
    >the origin of life, and the origin of humans. If you say science must
    >deal exclusively with what is governed by law, then out goes the
    >special sciences that deal with intelligent agents, like forensics and
    >SETI. ID advoca'tes aren't asking to be cut any more slack than
    >10. ID invokes supernatural causes.
    >According to Eugenie Scott and biologist/philosopher Michael Ruse,
    >science studies natural causes, and to introduce design is to invoke
    >supernatural causes.
    >Reply: Dembski says that this contrast is wrong: "The proper con-
    >trast is between undirected natural causes on the one hand and intel-
    >ligent causes on the other. Whether an intelligent cause is located
    >within or outside nature is a separate question from whether an intel-
    >ligent cause has acted within nature. Design has no prior commitment
    >to supernaturalism."

    Keith B. Miller
    Department of Geology
    Kansas State University
    Manhattan, KS 66506

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