That post was actually made on Sunday the 12th of August. This will be the last post in the series concerning the interview.picture from the linked article
WD the responses by William Dembski and TBD is the interviewer.
The last portion of the interview ended with these words from Dembski:
"Think of the bacterial flagellum. It is irreducibly complex, yes, but it is also dispensable in the sense that bacteria can get by without this motility device. But protein synthesis, which is irreducibly complex, is also indispensable. Evolve into it from something that can’t perform protein synthesis, and you’re dead."
WD: In answering this question, let’s put the selection-mechanism thesis safely to one side as either false or unjustified. Darwinists will of course demur, but a growing body of biologists who are not favorable to ID would agree. I’m thinking especially of biologists like James Shapiro at the University of Chicago, whose Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press, 2011) is as thorough a dismantling of the selection-mechanism thesis as one will find.
The question, then, is: What replaces it? I would agree that the set-theoretic complement to the selection-mechanism thesis is broader than the external-design thesis, which holds that a designing intelligence operating outside ordinary natural processes was required to build organismal complexity. That said, I don’t see ID as coextensive with the external-design thesis. I’ve argued this in my books No Free Lunch and The Design Revolution, but let me hammer this point home.
“Design” can be a confusing word in these discussions, because historically it has been put in opposition to nature. Things can achieve their form or structure because it is in their nature to do so—thus, they do it internally, as when an acorn grows into an oak tree. On the other hand, things can achieve their form or structure because an external efficient cause acts to bring it about, as when pieces of wood require an external technological agent to form a ship. This distinction goes back at least to Aristotle, who thus contrasted phusis (nature) with technē (which we translate “design,” but is also the word from which we get “technology”).
Now, my point in No Free Lunch, The Design Revolution, and elsewhere is that ID need not be identified with the design-side of this Aristotelian distinction. And the reason I give is that the materialists have confused the nature-side of this Aristotelian distinction. If nature is understood in materialist and reductionist terms, as is common these days, then we have a far more impoverished view of nature than the ancients had.
Moreover, if we treat design as the set-theoretic complement of this impoverished view of nature, then we really have a much broader concept of design, one that certainly encompasses the external-designer view, but one that also allows for an internalist or immanent teleology. ID, as I’ve argued, is compatible with either of these approaches. What distinguishes ID is the detectability of design qua real teleology in nature. The precise nature of that teleology is logically downstream.
Personally, I think an externalist teleology works better, at least with some aspects of living systems (I have a hard time, for instance, seeing how an internalist teleology works at the level of inorganic chemicals leading up to first life). But the fundamental issue is teleology. And it does seem to me that if you reject the selection-mechanism thesis, then you will be stuck with some form of teleology.
WD: I allow for that possibility in my answer to the last question. But my worry is with the character of the proposals made by these scientists. I know Kauffman, Ho, and Moss’s work best, and it seems to me that they don’t really give you a robust teleology. Rather, there is a minimalist natural teleology (such as condensation or vaguely articulated adaptive capacities), which then magically gets bootstrapped to things like butterflies.
I’ve always found such self-organizational scenarios unsatisfying, because, to my mind, they don’t really solve anything. Now you might say, how does design solve anything? Well, we know that designers can build some amazing things, like Lear Jets. And so, when we see a butterfly, which is far more marvelous than a Lear Jet, we are extrapolating—reasonably in my view—from the characteristics of designers and design processes that we know. But I don’t see any way to extrapolate reasonably from condensation or criticality or convective processes to butterflies.
WD: I’ve dipped into the book and am familiar with some of the earlier literature on which it is based. So, even though I haven’t read the 500-plus pages that make up this book word-for-word, I think I have a pretty good idea of its content. I’m afraid I don’t share your optimistic view of the book. Which is not to say that I’m unsympathetic with its point of view or many of the arguments it’s making. I just don’t see anything all that original there in terms of fundamental theory, nor do I think it is presenting the most powerful information-theoretic case for real teleology in nature.
I’ve known Abel (left) since 1998. He was back then heading up a Gene Emergence Project, which offered a multimillion-dollar Origin of Life Prize to the first person to make a convincing argument for how life might have emerged by naturalistic means. Abel took this tack on the assumption that, strategically, it’s easier and wiser to defeat the Darwinian naturalist, not by demonstrating design, but by demonstrating the repeated failure of naturalistic processes to bring about life. In fact, at the time, he wouldn’t have anything public to do with me or my ID colleagues, because he wanted to maintain his credibility within the scientific community at large.
In any case, I’m entirely with him that self-organizational scenarios, as they are typically characterized—in that they exclude real teleology—don’t work. But his preferred construct for analyzing such scenarios and making the case for teleology—something he calls “prescriptive information”—strikes me as too fuzzy and qualitative to serve as a powerful analytic tool.
In fact, insofar as this notion can be made rigorous (which Abel never seems to do in his book), it seems that it would be a special case of my own specified complexity. Specified complexity—or “complex specified information” (as I’ve also called it), and especially its most recent incarnation in the form of “active information”—seems to me in a better position to accomplish what Abel wants.
But let readers decide for themselves. Having read his book, let them check out my publications at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab.
WD: I’m afraid I don’t agree with your first premise here. Whenever I set the groundwork for information in a discussion of ID, I make clear that information happens when there is a reduction of possibilities. Initially, there is a range of live possibilities. Later, one of these possibilities is realized. Information happens in that reduction and realization.
Now, the individuation of these possibilities and the causal process involved in their realization need involve no external intelligence. Tomorrow, it may rain or it may not rain. Both are live possibilities, and the fact that they are live possibilities does not depend on my, or any other external intelligence, drawing the distinction between rain and no rain. Moreover, the causal processes responsible for rain do not presuppose an external intelligence (at least not obviously so, though one might argue that if God created the world and providentially guides it, intelligence is involved even in the rain that falls).
So, in answer to your question, nature can produce information and in doing so it need beg no questions about external designers. That said, external designers can also produce information—as I am doing now by typing out my answer to your question. What makes the design inference work is a coincidence between information produced by nature and information produced by designers.
We see such a coincidence, for instance, in the bacterial flagellum. Ostensibly, nature produced it. And yet humans, as designing agents and without knowledge of such systems, also produced bidirectional motor-driven propellers. This coincidence calls for explanation, especially when it is cashed out with the full probabilistic design-theoretic apparatus that I develop. But the bottom line, in answer to your question, is that information, properly construed, is a powerful notion that does not beg the question in the way you suggest.
WD: Yes, I remember reading in Wheeler’s biography that he had his particle stage (everything is particles), then his fields stage (everything is fields), and then his information stage (everything is information). I remember Stanford’s Keith Devlin also making a similar point twenty years ago about information possibly being a fundamental entity (he subsequently backed away from this).
I would agree that information is fundamental entity and am happy to put myself in this company. Perhaps it’s easier to take this view nowadays than in previous generations. We are awash with information. This is an information age. Moreover, we all know about information going through multiple transformations and embodiments.
When you send an email, your fingers type at a keyboard, producing ASCII text. This is then transformed into some other symbol string so that it can be moved across the Internet without error (using error-correcting codes). Then, that information needs to be reconstituted at the other end.
The same sorts of processes are going on in life. Information is transmitted from DNA to RNA to amino-acid sequences. It’s not just that we see alphanumeric-type items arranged sequentially in biology, but that we see transformation from one such sequence to another. Although it no longer surprises us, it should surprise us that there is such a thing as a genetic CODE.
Think about it—to code something is to take a character string in one form and transform it into another character string, where it can be useful in a way it wasn’t before the transformation. Alan Turing, Claude Shannon (left), and others were dealing with and developing the mathematics for such codes in the 1940s, and then, lo, in the 1950s we find that such codes are in all our cells. This is remarkable.
I think we’re just scratching the surface of information in nature. I’ve got a massive, one-volume encyclopedia of physics on my shelf with publication date 1992. Neither among the main entries nor in the extensive index does the word “information” appear. Since then, it’s been gaining momentum. I predict that information will play an increasingly dominant role throughout the natural sciences in coming years.
WD: ID theorists, in developing their views about design in nature, appeal to the full range of mathematical, engineering, biological, and physical sciences. So an ID curriculum will include everything their Darwinian counterparts are currently studying. But there will be more. I can think of ten full-semester college courses off the top of my head that would have significant ID content and could not reasonably be taught from a Darwinian perspective:
(1) Evolvability and Unevolvability (biology)
(2) Conservation of Information Theorems (mathematics)
(3) Bayesian and Fisherian Design Inferences (statistics)
(4) The Failure of Naturalistic Origin of Life Scenarios (chemistry)
(5) Toward a Nonreductive Neuroscience (psychology/neuroscience)
(6) Recovering Free Will (philosophy of mind)
(7) Ethics, Biology, and Responsibility (ethics)
(8) The Comprehensible Universe (cosmology)
(9) The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics (philosophy of mathematics)
(10) The Reductionist Roots of Modern Science (history and philosophy of science)
One thing to understand: ID looks at the very same data that Darwinists are looking at. As Nobelist Lawrence Bragg remarked, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” ID is thinking about the world in new ways. So, one way for ID to get into the lesson plan is simply for textbooks to be rewritten from an ID perspective.
For instance, a standard basal biology textbook will have many facts about biology, but it will also frame those facts within a Darwinian picture of the world. Some of the more recent textbooks will even slam ID. Such a textbook could be rewritten, giving the standard evolutionary accounts, but also critiquing them and indicating the lines of evidence that argue for a design conclusion.
Theodosius Dobzhansky is famously quoted as saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” by which he meant the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. From the ID perspective, life is replete with the marks of intelligence, an intelligence not reducible to Darwinian processes. Perhaps the biggest part that ID will play in most curricula for now, leaving aside courses that deal with its specific contributions in the peer-reviewed literature, is in framing the various disciplines and fields that have been infected with Darwinian thinking.
As for the ID peer-reviewed literature, I wouldn’t say it’s substantial, but it is growing. Ten years ago there was almost nothing. Now, there’s a fair amount. (See, also, here.) There’s a lot also in the pipeline. For instance, I have a very substantial anthology coming out with a major academic publisher, but I’m not at liberty to say where until it actually comes out, because Darwinists have the disturbing habit of trying to get publication agreements for ID-friendly literature revoked.
The case of Granville Sewell is one of the more recent. Briefly, Applied Mathematics Letters agreed to publish an article of his critical of neo-Darwinism, only to revoke it under pressure from Darwinists. The publisher ended up paying $10,000 for Sewell’s legal fees and issued a public apology. Nice of them. But they still didn’t publish his piece—after it had been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication.
WD: G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and C. S. Lewis’ Miracles are high on my list. [Chesterton is pictured at right---ed.] As for learning more about Christianity and theism, I would simply read the Bible. I would also have a look at a classic anthology of Eastern Orthodox spiritual writings called the Philokalia. I very much like Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides had a great intellect.
WD: I’ve read plenty by Christianity’s critics, but I can’t say I’ve ever had the reaction, “Gee, that really throws me for a loop. Now I’ve got to rethink that whole God business.” I’ve enjoyed reading some atheist authors more as entertainment and cultural commentary (e.g., Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens), but I can’t say I was all that impressed with their arguments. And I’m afraid professional analytic philosophy in general these days leaves me cold, so its atheist practitioners who apply their methods to dismantling theism leave me doubly cold. Sorry I can’t be more of help here, or for that matter on the last question. The type of reading I enjoy most and that stimulates me most is of a problem-solving variety, in which hard questions receive ingenious solutions. I guess I’m a mathematician at heart.
WD: I have plenty of anecdotal evidence for the power of intelligent design to shake atheists out of their dogmatic slumbers and bring them to theism. Indeed, by email and at lectures, I encounter people who claim that my own work on ID has played that role. But it would be interesting to have Barna or Gallup do a professional survey in which ID’s role as a corrective to atheism could more accurately be gauged.
As for the apologetic value of ID, I see it mainly as a ground-clearing operation, getting rid of the obstacles that naturalism has placed in the way of people coming to take the possibility of God as a live option. A reductive Darwinian science has, in my experience, been one of the main obstacles in that regard, at least in Western culture. Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett have all looked to Darwin as their patron saint, giving them his blessing to repudiate theism. Dawkins even wrote that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
So, if we think of atheism as a cultural phenomenon that looks to science for backing and if we think of ID as undoing that backing and thus making theism that much more plausible, we have an apologetic rationale for ID.
WD: In answering this question, I’m thinking of where I would send my junior-high children in a few years. It’s a tough question. Back when I was leaving high school, as a non-Christian, my eyes were simply on academic excellence and prestige. I was first in my high school class and would have gone to Harvard or Princeton most likely, but I decided to leave high school a year early without graduating, and thus went to the University of Chicago, which had a program for kids like me. But I’m not sure I’d recommend these schools any longer, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend my motivation.
As a Christian now, I would like to recommend Christians institutions, but I’m dead-set against many of them and ambivalent about most of the rest. Many Christian institutions have an inferiority complex in which they’re trying to ape the secular academy and gain its approval. Those that resist this mentality often adopt a fundamentalist mentality in which they think they’ve got everything nailed down. That may work in the Christian ghetto, but it has no traction in the wider culture.
I’m painting with a broad brush here, and individual faculty at these institutions will vary and some of them will be very fine. But in my view, much of what passes as Christian education is nothing I want my kids exposed to.
That said, I’m aware of a few institutions that seem quite promising: Grove City College, Biola University (left), Union University, Dordt College, Northwestern College (MN), Taylor University, etc. These are just off the top of my head—I’ve spoken at several of these schools regarding ID. There are, I’m sure, many (but not too many) others. And you can rest assured I’ll do my due diligence by the time my kids get ready to ship off to college.
But these days, my first impulse in answering such a question is to recommend that high schoolers go to a solid state school at which there is a healthy campus community that will keep them on the straight and narrow as they face the temptations of college. At least one good local church and some outspoken Christian faculty are, in my view, vital for such a community. Texas A&M University and the University of Georgia at Athens come to mind.
Where would I not send such high schoolers? To campuses with a flaming liberal bias that delights in exposing students to the perversity and decadence of our culture. Schools that offer freshman seminars in body piercing or sex reassignment surgery or queer studies would, for me, be off the table.
Word of advice to parents: Don’t just look at the brochures and catalogs that schools send out and don’t just go where the tour guides take you on your campus visit. Look at the course schedule for a semester and see what’s being offered to incoming freshmen. Sit in on some classes. Sit in on highly publicized lectures. Look at bulletin boards and see what campus groups are prominent (is it the local Intervarsity chapter of the local LGBT caucus?). Go to the campus bookstore and see what texts students are reading. Go to the student center, eat in the cafeteria, and get a sense of the campus culture first-hand. If it leaves you feeling queasy, move on to another school.
WD: Let’s put this in perspective. I’ve had a decent salary all these years, been able to do my research, had minimal teaching, gotten lots of books published, and I now find myself with the respect of a limited but growing community. This is not persecution on the scale of the former Eastern Bloc, where being demoted as a professor meant working as a janitor or being sent off to the Gulag.
So, a lot of people are unhappy with me. Who cares? By and large, not me. I’m not interested in reading the abuse that is regularly leveled against me. The marginalization and ostracism that I experienced, especially at Baylor, was harder to deal with. But I’ve always felt that the best way to get back at my enemies was by being productive and not allowing them to distract me. This has helped. Sure, I haven’t followed my own advice perfectly. And I’ve taken some bruising. But it is really nothing compared to what Christians persecuted for their faith have endured over history. This perspective gives me comfort.
Another thing that has put things in perspective for me is the autism of my son John. My good wife and I have been dealing with this for close to 10 years now. We are still working on getting him well, and there’s still a lot that has to change for that to happen. My son is now 11, still doesn’t speak (though he continues to try), is still partially in diapers. I’ve never had a conversation with him and don’t know if I ever will, this side of eternity.
Because of my son’s plight—and it is a plight; he’s not happy being autistic, dealing with constant sensory overload and the apraxia, aphasia, etc. that are part of his condition—I’ve lost all enthusiasm for engaging in ego contests with critics. I used to do this, but no longer. My interest these days is taking care of my family and being productive without strife or distraction.
WD: The epigraph to my book The Design Revolution is a quote from a short essay of Pascal’s called the “The Art of Persuasion”: “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” When I got into this business, I thought truth and its validation (what Pascal calls “proof”) was enough, or at least close to enough. Now that I’m older and wiser, I see that the majority of people have other priorities. Even those who protest that they love truth (Richard Dawkins is one) will use such protestations to advance their own biases and agendas. Here, I’m addressing myself, as well—certainly earlier in my career, selfish ambition and narcissism were vying furiously in my so-called “quest for truth.” Perhaps I’ve not put these aside yet.
I’ve found self-deception as much among Christians as among atheists and agnostics. In fact, I’ve come to like dealing with secularists better than with the Christians who use religion as a cloak to cover their pride and absence of love. Secularists are at least more likely to admit that they’re being bad. Christians, especially American evangelical Christians, with pietism and puritanism always in the background, have to pretend to be good.
What does all this have to do with your question? It’s this: Whereas a decade ago I was all gung-ho about ID becoming the new reigning paradigm that would replace conventional evolutionary theory, I no longer have that optimism. That’s not to say I’m not going to continue to work toward that end. I will. And I could see ID’s fortunes changing quickly. But I could also see the old paradigm lingering on. The former Soviet Union collapsed very quickly even though it looked invincible a few years earlier. Our banking system, by contrast, has been skirting insolvency for decades and continually seems able to kick the can down the road.
ID, in my view, has the better argument. But as an attorney sitting across his desk from a client put it in a New Yorker cartoon dating back more than 50 years: “You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” I’m not sure how much justice ID can afford. Despite all the publicity it’s gotten, it has few backers. Atheistic evolutionists hate it. Theistic evolutionists hate it. And fundamentalists are also beginning to hate it, because it doesn’t deliver the pat answers about creation that they desire.
Machiavelli got it right: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it” [The Prince, Chapter Six---ed.].
With this preamble, let me answer your questions directly: I don’t see free and open debate regarding evolution coming anytime soon—not until the Darwinists, kicking and dragging, are forced to acknowledge that there is a problem with their view. This may happen with another court case (the Dover case was a loss for ID, but it did not go to the Supreme Court; so, I could see another case reversing Dover).
That said, I put very little stock in court cases. Eventually, the evidence for ID will disseminate widely enough so that Darwinists will not be able to stifle the conversation. For now, however, they can. I think of a story told to me by one Baylor student (this happened after I left): Biology students wanting to do a summer research internship in the Biology Department are quizzed regarding their views on ID. If they are perceived as sympathetic to it, they are denied the research opportunity. For now, that’s how the game is played, and ID is kept at bay.
Ten years from now, I expect still to be working on ID, but I expect to have branched out into economics and the development of social technologies. I have some ideas about developing a strongly encrypted, decentralized, information-based form of money that cannot be proliferated at will, as are our present fiat currencies. I want to write this up and patent it, and then work on disseminating this and other social technologies that advance human freedom.
It seems to me that the greatest challenge to our freedoms—a challenge I see all the time in the ID debate—is the centralization of power. I see my coming years as an effort to unseat these monopolies. I realize this may sound unduly ambitious, but we live in a technocratic age in which the elite think they know what’s best for us—and they do not, the evidence of which is staring us in the face (that’s why we now see books with titles such as When Genius Failed).
Ultimately, I think ID will win. A few years ago, I thought I’d be around to see its victory. Now, I’m not so sure. The Bible actually gives me great comfort in this regard, because one sees in it that God’s purposes are not generally carried out by the flamboyant, well-placed, and powerful. But in the end, the false prophets are always clearly identified, and those who were true are vindicated. ID, in my view, plays a prophetic role for our culture.
In the end, what I see as winning it for ID is the tendency in the long run for reality to vindicate truth. Unfortunately, as Keynes pointed out, in the long run, we’re all dead. I believe the most interesting and fruitful science will in the end be done under ID’s umbrella, because it gets at the truth of the matter—the intelligence that animates nature. When that happens, scientists will vote with their feet, abandoning Darwinism and embracing design. I hope to see this in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath.