[asa] Wesley Elsberry: A Capsule Summary of the Status of Dembski’s Explanatory Filter

From: PvM <pvm.pandas@gmail.com>
Date: Fri Jan 02 2009 - 00:36:20 EST

On AntiEvolution.org, Wesley Elsberry blogs on Dembski's explanatory filter

Dembski's "explanatory filter" (EF) has been offered as a "rational
reconstruction" of how work gets done in various scientific fields. However,
it does not actually comport with such work. A direct refutation can be
found in Gary Hurd's chapter in "Why Intelligent Design Fails" from Rutgers
University Press.

Taken at another level, Dembski's EF has fundamental problems. See the paper
by Wilkins and me from 2001, available online
Dembski's arguments for making a category of "design" a default choice fail
to live up to the "rational" part of rational reconstruction. The problem of
limited information is not satisfactorily handled by Dembski: on the one
hand, he claimed that sufficient knowledge was in hand in 1998 to analyze
the examples provided in biology by Michael Behe via his EF and that the
results demonstrated "with the weight of science" that "design" was found,
yet more recently he has admitted that even his one attempted explication of
applying the EF to a bacterial flagellum was flawed by the problem of
obtaining accurate probabilities. One wonders where the ensemble of
calculations Dembski implied had already been done in 1998 had disappeared
to. Despite the lack of consideration in Dembski's framework for changes in
knowledge sets driving decisions in the EF, Dembski repeated claims of
absolute reliability, while inconsistently also claiming that partial
function of his EF was only to be expected for a procedure in the natural
sciences. Further, the issue of lack of warrant for extrapolating ordinary
design inferences to rarefied design inferences has not been adequately
addressed by Dembski. In "The Design Revolution", Dembski manages only a
handwave in response, saying why accept the framework in which the criticism
of his work is made at all? Yet Dembski has been eager to utilize that
inductive framework when he believes that it favors his argument, as in
various books and articles where he claims that the successes of various
"special sciences" provide support for his "rational reconstruction" via the
EF. Applying Dembski's own words to himself is apropos: "This is known as
having your cake and eating it. Polite society frowns on such obvious bad

It seems obvious that despite the problems in the logic of the EF that there
was something of interest in the concepts that Dembski brought up. Humans do
go about distinguishing between and eventually favoring particular
explanations for phenomena. So what might be at the basis of interesting
cases, and how is it that explanations come to be preferred? Jeff Shallit
and I took that up in an appendix to an online
wrote back in 2002. Therein we described the
*universal distribution*, an application of algorithmic information theory
to the problem of inductive inference, and showed how it could be cast in a
way that corresponded to the tool that actually provides a rational
reconstruction of work done in the sciences to achieve ordinary design
inferences. We called it "Specified Anti-Information" or SAI to, so far as
possible, utilize the terminology Dembski had provided. SAI differs from the
EF in many important ways: it is not based on probability assessments, it is
simple to apply, and it is based upon solid work in information theory.
Perhaps the most important difference, though, is that the inference that
application of SAI leads to is not to an overarching notion of "design", but
rather to the inference that a phenomenon is best explained as the result of
a simple computational process. SAI is not burdened with the baggage Dembski
loads upon his EF of not merely sorting explanatory categories, but also of
standing in for an argument that would lead to an inference of an agency at
work. SAI cannot, and does not attempt to, distinguish between a
computational process crafted by an agent and one where no originating agent
is apparent. This contrasts sharply with Dembski's long-term fascination
with a split between "apparent" and "actual" categories of "complex
specified information". For any phenomenon that might be explained as due to
chance or not due to chance, any apparent success of Dembski's EF can be
more parsimoniously explained as a "pre-theoretic" approach to the far more
applicable, reliable, and useful rational reconstruction of the SAI.

To summarize, the issues with Dembski's EF are many and well-documented.
Dembski's EF fails to achieve its claimed status as a "rational
reconstruction" of how humans empirically approach the problem of sorting
competing explanations for natural phenomena. Better methods exist that
serve as descriptions of how humans can "eliminate chance" in preferring
alternative explanations for phenomena in the natural sciences.

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Received on Fri Jan 2 00:36:34 2009

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