Re: Critique of ID & No Free Lunch

From: Terry M. Gray (
Date: Sat Aug 31 2002 - 11:43:19 EDT

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    Howard (and list),

    Two thumbs up! Highly recommended reading.

    There's hardly anything I can quibble with here (except for maybe
    your classification of naturalisms, but that's a side issue IMO, but
    see a bit below).

    If I may take the liberty to underscore a couple of points....

    1. You point out the difficulty in calculating the probability of
    these designed items occuring by "the chance mechanism." I have never
    been convinced that these calculations are any more than stabs in the
    dark (or built on completely fallacious assumptions). Sometimes they
    remind me of the Drake equation for extra-terrestrial intelligence
    that Carl Sagan used to promote. I have the same problem with some of
    the cosmological fine-tuning arguments. But correctly calculating the
    very low probability is *essential* to the ID enterprise. So the
    whole idea is built on a calculation that we don't (or even can't)
    know the answer to.

    2. You also discuss the possible functional precursor to the
    flagellum in the type III secretory apparatus. (To be fair it must be
    recognized that the secretory apparatus may have evolved from the
    flagellum rather than vice-versa, but the jury is still out on this
    last i heard.) But, as you point out, the mere possibility of a
    functional precursor undoes the probability calculation based on the
    flagellum being a "discrete combinatorial object". If there is a
    functional precursor on the way to being a irreducibly complex thing
    then the probability calculation fails. This is the argument from
    pre-adaptation or exaptation that I and other critics have made
    against Mike Behe's argument now for about 10 years (and is what
    Dawkins' *Climbing Mount Improbable* is all about).

    I see this faulty probability calculation most commonly used in
    creationist and ID circles in the calculation of probabilities for
    functional proteins. They calculate 1/20 to the nth power where n is
    the chain length. Sometimes, more subtly, they change the 1/20 to
    5/20 or 10/20 or 19/20 for a given position depending on that
    positions tolerance to amino acid substitutions as suggested by
    sequence comparisons or mutagenesis experiments. But I and many other
    have no doubt that this calculation is wrong because that's not the
    way function proteins came into existence. The fluidity of the genome
    (lateral gene transfer, exon-shuffling, gene duplication, chromosome
    duplication, etc.) has severe consequences for that type calculation.
    Also, our ignorance of minimal structure to produce minimal function
    is a big unknown (because most well-studied biological systems have
    been fine-tuned to produce near-optimal structure for the now
    selected for specific function). Finally, such calculations seem to
    suggest a mechanism of protein assembly (random assembly of amino
    acids into a chain) that doesn't seem right if there is any kind of
    templating or reproduction of sequence (either in the modern sense or
    in some more esoteric version as speculated by some origin of life

    I always wonder what's the motivation here. Why are we so keen to
    speculate on the probabilities to meet the "specified complexity"
    criterion? Why "give up" the search or the hard thinking about
    options (the broad outline of the answers, though certainly not the
    detailed answers, are there--the critics of ID have been pointing
    them out as long as the arguments have been made)?

    I do think that in answering these questions Howard's discussion of
    flavors of "naturalism" come into play. Phil Johnson once called our
    "theistic evolutionist" claims vacuous because they looked no
    different than full-blown (maximal) naturalism. While I'm not totally
    comfortable with the terms "naturalistic theism" and "minimal
    naturalism" or the way they are defined in Howard's paper or Howard's
    aversion to "coercive supernatual intervention", I am comfortable
    with a version of God's action in the world that can be described
    without reference to God's direct action (or injection of
    information). The scholastic (?) doctrine of concurrence as part of
    the doctrine of providence sees God's action as neither coercive nor
    interventionist. It fully gives account to the character of the
    creature to behave according to its God-given abilities. As such, it
    can be described in terms of those creaturely capacities without
    reference to the enabling and concurring and providential work of God
    (this by the way is how we normally do science, history,
    jurisprudence, etc.).

    Thanks, Howard, for you work on this.


    >Various persons on this list have expressed an interest in Bill Dembski's
    >latest book, No Free Lunch. For a variety of reasons I decided to give this
    >book a thorough read and to evaluate both its rhetorical strategy and its
    >scientifically-relevant claims. The resulting review essay is now posted on
    >the AAAS web site at:
    >To whet the appetite of ASA listserve members, here is the title and
    >abstract info:
    >Bacterial Flagella and Dembski's Case for Intelligent Design
    >Howard J. Van Till
    >Professor of Physics and Astronomy Emeritus
    >Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546
    >Draft 7/22/02, as submitted for posting on the AAAS website, DoSER section.
    >ABSTRACT: The Intelligent Design movement argues that it can point to
    >specific biological systems that exhibit what ID's chief theorist William A.
    >Dembski calls "specified complexity." Furthermore, Dembski claims to have
    >demonstrated that natural causation is unable to generate this specified
    >complexity and that the assembling of these biological systems must,
    >therefore, have required the aid of a non-natural action called "intelligent
    >design." In his book, No Free Lunch, Dembski presents the bacterial
    >flagellum as the premier example of a biological system that, because he
    >judges it to be both complex and specified, must have been actualized by the
    >form-conferring action of an unembodied intelligent agent. However, a
    >critical examination of Dembski's case reveals that, 1) it is built on
    >unorthodox and inconsistently applied definitions of both "complex" and
    >"specified," 2) it employs a concept of the flagellum's assembly that is
    >radically out of touch with contemporary genetics and developmental biology
    >and 3) it fails to demonstrate that the flagellum is either "complex" or
    >"specified" in the manner required to make his case. If the bacterial
    >flagellum is supposed to demonstrate ID, then ID is a failure.

    Terry M. Gray, Ph.D., Computer Support Scientist
    Chemistry Department, Colorado State University
    Fort Collins, Colorado  80523
    phone: 970-491-7003 fax: 970-491-1801

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