Saturday was part one of a series on William Dembski, who is one of the movers and shakers of the Intelligent Design movement. Here is a continuation of the interview that is linked on Saturday's blog post. TBS is The Best Schools' interviewer in bolded green. WD is William Dembski in black.
"...TBS: We understand that what many consider to be your masterpiece so far—The Design Inference—is based on your Ph.D. dissertation completed two years earlier at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the period when you were formulating the notions of specified complexity and the design inference, with whom were you in contact? Whom were you reading? What were the main intellectual influences on this seminal work?
WD: I owe specified complexity and The Design Inference to Richard Dawkins and, specifically, his book The Blind Watchmaker. I say this with some irony, but there’s also some truth here. In the late 1980s, I was on my own. I had finished my Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1988, gone to MIT on an NSF postdoc, and sensed that what was fundamentally amiss in the academy was the failure to discern that God was an agent exercising real causal powers in the world. But I had no conversation partners related to this concern.
I therefore decided at MIT, against the advice of my mathematics and physics mentors, that I was going to pursue a second doctorate, this time in philosophy. Why philosophy? I knew that “philosophy of” could be attached as a prefix to just about any field of endeavor, and thus I saw philosophy as an umbrella discipline in which to explore the question of real discernible divine action, though I realized it would need to be cashed out in terms more acceptable to secular philosophers.
As I was pondering this question, I read Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker. I found reading it a galvanizing experience, not because the book fulfilled its promises or warranted the high praises of its endorsers, but because it was so wrong that it provided insight for anyone with eyes to see. At one point in that book, Dawkins writes, “Complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.” Right, random chance can’t do it. But natural selection (or “cumulative selection” as he called it there) could? Really?
As I reflected on his argument, it became clear that natural selection would only have this capacity if it could overcome the improbabilities faced by random chance (hence his 1996 sequel, Climbing Mount Improbable, which nonetheless fails to extend his argument). But what if it couldn’t overcome these improbabilities? Dawkins, without any real argument (the only thing he offered was his ridiculous METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL example), simply asserted that natural selection had that power. And it would have to have that power if naturalism was correct. But the empirical evidence simply does not support the creative power of Darwinian processes. So, the question remained: How to explain specified complexity now that the divide-and-conquer Darwinian strategy—in which natural selection would gradually build up biological complexity—could be seen to have failed?
My field in mathematics was probability, so I developed my critique of Dawkins probabilistically. Some of my critics have argued that probability is irrelevant to these discussions, but in doing so they are either uninformed or disingenuous. Whenever a Kenneth Miller, for instance, cites some experimental evidence for the power of natural selection, he appeals to some experimental set-up in which selection pressure—with high probability—brings about some biological structure/function previously lacking. But if high probability provides confirming evidence for Darwinism, why can’t low probability provide disconfirming evidence? Parity of reasoning demands that if probabilities can support Darwinism, then they can also put it in harm’s way empirically.
So, working alone, with my background in probability, I began to look at the probabilistic hurdles facing Darwinian natural selection and how this might provide a pointer to design. Initially, I didn’t see these probabilistic arguments as making a positive case for design so much as making a negative case against naturalism. Naturalistic processes without teleology are incomplete. But it soon became clear that when probability and specification worked together, they were doing more than underscoring the incompleteness of naturalistic processes—they were pointing to a designing intelligence.
I wrote a long paper outlining the key issues for the 1991 meeting of the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences, which I presented at Wheaton College. It’s in their proceedings volume, though not widely cited: “Reviving the Argument from Design: Detecting Design through Small Probabilities.” What’s missing from this paper is a full development of the concept of specified complexity and, in particular, the specification part, namely an explication of the sorts of patterns needed to infer design.
After that paper and two other things I had written (“Randomness by Design” in Nous and “Converting Matter into Mind” in the ASA Journal), I came on the radar of Steve Meyer and Paul Nelson, who then connected me with the circle forming around Phil Johnson. But before that, I was feeling my way. On the one hand, it seemed clear that my work had connections with Paley-style natural theology. On the other hand, I wasn’t trying to do the traditional sorts of natural-theology things, like drawing conclusions about divine attributes, which seemed to me beyond the remit of my methods.
Two people whom I tried to interest in my work on design prior to joining the circle around Phil Johnson were A. E. Wilder-Smith and John Warwick Montgomery. I had corresponded with Wilder-Smith in the late 1980s. He was in Switzerland, and our Briefwechsel was quite cordial. In the summer of 1990, I went to Montgomery’s summer institute on human rights in Strasbourg. Not that human rights were central to my interests, but I was single, awash in NSF funds, and I wanted to interest Montgomery in these probabilistic arguments, thinking that they had application in the field of legal evidence, a field he had worked in. However, he had no insights to offer me.
Wilder-Smith, who was not too far from some friends of mine in Freiburg, was also no help. He was a young-earth creationist and had some insightful things to say about information theory as it applied to life. But when I laid out my arguments, he was dismissive. Nevertheless, I pressed ahead. I was convinced my approach had merit, and neither Wilder-Smith nor Montgomery offered substantive refutations.
Once I got introduced to Phil Johnson’s circle, however, I did find a terrific group of conversation partners. It was as though God had independently raised up a number of individuals all interested in the question of design and how it might take down Darwinian naturalism. Steve Meyer and Paul Nelson became my closest colleagues, with Jonathan Wells and Mike Behe close behind. And Phil was, at the time, the grand old man coordinating our efforts.
As for Dawkins, I should probably dedicate one of my forthcoming books to him—but that might be misinterpreted.
WD: If you’ve read my book The Design Inference, and can bracket out my subsequent notoriety, you’ll realize that the book is agnostic about chemical and biological evolution. I show, for instance, how this mode of inference applies to the origin of life, but I don’t say that it leads to one conclusion or another.
Specified complexity, as a criterion for detecting design, is a method. Methods get applied to particular problem areas, but there’s nothing about a method that demands it give a particular answer to a given state of affairs. So, by simply presenting the method, but not applying it to controversial areas in biology and not drawing troublesome conclusions, the book neatly sidestepped the controversy that with hindsight we see the book engendering.
Trouble, however, was not long to be avoided. The problem is that within a month of publishing The Design Inference, I also published Mere Creation, the proceedings of a 1996 conference at Biola on creation and design. In that book, I did put my cards on the table regarding where I saw the methods developed in The Design Inference leading. So, Darwinists quickly made the connection and started going after the earlier book.
Another thing that worked against the book is that I was hired shortly after its publication to found and direct Baylor’s Michael Polanyi Center. This gave me national prominence, to the consternation of Darwinists in- and outside of Baylor, and thus incentivized them to refute the book at all costs. When the Polanyi Center was dissolved a year later (more about this below), many who had their finger to the wind and wondered whether to back intelligent design, backed down. I stayed on at Baylor to complete my contract, but was persona non grata the entire time.
In 1999, I could still get a job in the mainstream academy on the basis of my work in The Design Inference. By the fall of 2000, my career was toast..."
So we see some very relevant facts. William Dembski had acquired degrees and had acclaim. To quote his own words. "In the late 1980s, I was on my own. I had finished my Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1988, gone to MIT on an NSF postdoc, and sensed that what was fundamentally amiss in the academy was the failure to discern that God was an agent exercising real causal powers in the world. But I had no conversation partners related to this concern.
Next post we'll then investigate what Dembski decided to do when secular science decided to censor him in every possible way - refuse to hire him, dismiss his work, make derogatory statements about him. They cannot take back his degrees and honors but they can expel him from their inner circles of peer review and acceptance and of course a job in his chosen profession. Those measures they could take against him for daring to reveal the lack of clothing on the Darwinist Emperor they have taken.
Some men might have decided to back down from their stance and retract the idea that design means there is a Designer in order to win back job and acceptance and prominence. But there are those who will continue to go their own way, believing that knowing what is right is more important than money or fame or acceptance. The nightmare of most men in his position is to be denied a job and not attain tenure. But for Dembski his personal need to know truth was far more important than those things. William Dembski is one of those guys who is not afraid to tug on Superman's cape or to go against the wind.
Kind of like the Bob Seger song?
TheBestSchools blog is a very interesting source of scientific discussion. I cannot place it in my links list and perhaps I need to cull that list so there is room?
William Dembski opines on the Uncommon Descent blog. He has an online listing of articles he has written which is found online here. Dembski and I have not communicated yet, although I have corresponded with some of his fellow Discovery Institute members. Once this series is done I will probably reach out to him to ask for his opinion. So far all the scientists I have met or corresponded with who are devoted to science even if it means rejecting Darwinism and the benefits of the "in crowd" have been gracious and in some cases we've developed friendships with the exception of Dr. John Hartnett, who never did answer my questions put to him. That doesn't mean he is not a good guy but simply it may be he is too busy with his work to communicate with random bloggers. For that reason the charges against him stood for far too long before being refuted.
It is rather interesting that both William Dembski and Jonathan Sarfati tend to work off of the output of Richard Dawkins. Whenever Dawkins publishes another book trying to promote Darwinism then Jonathan publishes a book that rips the Dawkins assertions to shreds, not by attacking Dawkins personally but rather dealing strictly with the ideas and the science involved. Now it seems that Dembski has done this as well.
Dr. Sarfati has told me he would be very willing to debate Richard Dawkins and in fact would relish the opportunity. I suspect Dembski would also enjoy the opportunity.
I had the greatest respect for Christopher Hitchens, who welcomed a series of debates with Douglas Wilson on the concept of whether Christianity was good for the world, bringing both philosophical and scientific arguments to bear and also acknowledging the religious implications of the arguments. I do mourn the death of Christopher Hitchens, ironically named for Christ but certainly devoted to arguing against the idea of Christianity. You can access their debates and relationship (because the two men became friends despite their philosophical differences) in the DVD COLLISION which you can obtain on Amazon.com easily.
What if Richard Dawkins or Philip Gingerich sought out a debate against William Dembski or Jonathan Sarfati? Can you imagine how popular a series of debates between such men would be, how many auditoriums and arenas could be filled as the champions of two sides of the worldview debate locked horns? Suppose the proceeds from such debates would be given to charity after a reasonable honorarium was given to both men? It is a pipe dream, I know, because the Darwinists know full well that they cannot stand on science and win minds to their side. They need the help of continual propaganda and they must weed out all dissension as Ben Stein's EXPELLED movie illustrated beautifully.
By the way, I did create an online publication concerning information that sits atop my links list. I call it the !Ultimate Information Post. It is my first (so far) online publication on a subject and I think it is a great overview of the question of information and whether it has a natural source. Darwinist commenters absolutely hate the fact that it exists and complain about it continually. Considering the concerted efforts of Darwinists to propagandize and censor non-Darwinist sources of information (what is the NCSE, after all, but an organization devoted to censorship?) and to try to ruin the careers of scientists and academics and journalists that is still happening today all over the United States and much of the Western world, their discomfort and complaints seem remarkably ironic to me. That I took a set of posts along with their comments threads and converted them into a book that will stand as a monument to the discussions much as COLLISION was a record of Hitchens versus Wilson? It makes the Darwinists so frustrated! For doing that I am called a hypocrite by the very hypocrites who rule the world of science with an iron fist. I probably should wear that label like a badge of honor.
I will stand like a rock on the truth.