Peter S. Williams & Denis Alexander’s Dialogue on Intelligent Design

In this post, I wanted to draw attention to a particular written dialogue between ID advocate/philosopher Peter S. Williams and biologist/ID critic, Denis Alexander. Both Williams and Alexander are committed Christians (Williams being one of the UK’s foremost Christian philosophers and Alexander being the director of the Faraday Institute for Religion and Science), so in terms of their broader worldviews, they have much in common. Denis Alexander is a Christian neo-Darwinist, which would put his views pretty much in line with the Biologos crowd (in fact he is one of the bloggers at Biologos). Alexander has critiqued various aspects of ID in many publications¹

Back in 2006, Alexander had an article published on the website Bethinking.org called Creation and Evolution?. In it he discusses theistic evolution, creationism, and ID. Subsequently, Peter S. Williams penned an interesting piece in the form of a hypothetical dialogue called Theistic Evolution & Intelligent Design in Dialogue. There are several characters in the dialogue who are coming from various perspectives in the origins debate. This article was written as some form of response to Alexander’s initial article. In response to this, Alexander wrote Designs on Science, an open letter to the characters in Peter Williams’ dialogue, which neatly summarizes some of Alexander’s criticisms of ID. Finally, in response to Alexander, Peter Williams wrote Intelligent Designs on Science: A Surreply to Denis Alexander. This was the concluding part of their dialogue.

It is well worth reading through the dialogue from start to finish. Both authors engage in a polite and cordial fashion throughout, and much ground is covered in great depth. In particular, Williams’ concluding response is very lengthy (25.000 words with almost 300 footnotes) and very well researched, and to my mind constitutes a devastating refutation of Alexander’s objections to design. In addition to this, Williams presents a strong positive case for ID. Of course, Williams doesn’t answer everything that Alexander has written on ID but he deals with the most salient points.

In future, I shall be writing my own response to some of Denis Alexander’s more recent publications on intelligent design.

  1.  Denis Alexander has critiqued ID extensively in books such as Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?The Language of Genetics: An IntroductionRescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain TodayBeyond Belief: Science, Faith and Ethical ChallengesRebuilding the Matrix: Science And Faith In The 21St Century. On top of these, he has published many articles on the topic including Is Intelligent Design Biblical?Intelligent design is not scienceA Critique of Intelligent DesignA Response to Should Christians Embrace Evolution?

 

William Dembski Moves on From ID: Some Reflections

Everyone who has taken part in the intelligent design debate will know of William Dembski. For those who aren’t familiar, Dembski is the primary architect with regard to the theoretical underpinnings of ID. Since his involvement with the movement, he has published extensively in books, papers, and blogs, and has vigorously championed his ideas in many public lectures and debates.(1)

Back in 2005, Dembski wrote a sarcastic blog post on Uncommon Descent, announcing his retirement from ID, due to the ‘rancour and daily vilification'(2) by many critics of his views. Fast forward to ten years later, and again, Dembski announces that he is retiring from intelligent design, only this time it’s no joke.

In November 2015, he refurbished his website and in his first post noted that ‘In the last few years, my focus has switched from ID to education, specifically to advancing freedom through education via technology.'(3) In a revealing interview with Christian apologist, Sean McDowell he also noted that:

With regard to my research, it has shifted quite a bit these days. I’m largely retired from intelligent design. My last serious writing effort on intelligent design was my 2014 book Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. It encapsulates my two decades work on intelligent design, and I’m not sure I have a whole lot more to add.(4)

Finally, in a post in the following month, he clarified that:

I really am retired from ID. I no longer work in the area. Moreover, the camaraderie I once experienced with colleagues and friends in the movement has largely dwindled.(5)

Dembski has held many formal associations with ID organisations, including his Discovery Institute fellowship, but he notes further in the post that he has also resigned from these.

What to make of Demski’s decision? Soon after these remarks were made, inevitably there were several responses from hostile ID bloggers. In one post, the blogger at The Senuous Curmudgeonnot a particularly sensible ID commentator, attempted to speculate about the reason behind Dembski’s decision. The author ponders whether there had been a fallout with the Discovery Institute, financial problems, or he just realised that ID is a dead end. Some even more unsavoury speculations can be found in the comments section, should you wish to torture yourself. Of course, given the hatred directed at Dembski by many critics of this ilk, nobody is content to take him at his word and be happy with the fact that he might have just moved on because he wants to focus on other matters.

There’s no evidence to suggest a fall out or that Dembski thinks ID has had its day. In fact he has stated, ‘I’m not talking about any falling out. It’s simply that my life and interests have moved on. It’s as though ID was a season of my life and that season has passed.'(7) He reiterates that most of the action in ID is in a two-pronged approach, with the information-theoretic work at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab and the molecular biology research at the Biological Institute. As to the state of his work and the ID viewpoint as a whole, he still sees it as being in very good shape, at least in terms of its scientific validity:

I would say that we have by far the better argument. Indeed, the Conservation of Information results described in my book Being as Communion (cited in the last question) and developed at length by me and my colleagues at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab seem to me to show that Darwinism cannot succeed as a complete theory of evolution, and that it requires hidden sources of information that it must smuggle in and that are best conceived as the product of intelligence. So I would say we have shown (as in demonstrated and not merely gestured at) that naturalistic evolution is a failed intellectual and scientific enterprise.(8)

It is clear that Dembski’s ‘retirement’ from ID is fairly mundane. He simply wishes to move on. He gives no indication of repudiating his work or thinking that ID’s present and future prospects are negative. As he notes in some of the posts and the interview I have cited, he’s not completely done yet, and still has a few things yet to be published including second additions of The Design Inference and No Free Lunch, and a new book on evolutionary informatics with Winston Ewert, and Robert Marks. So, still something to look forward too.

Finally, in terms of my own reaction to hearing Dembski’s statements, I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Dembski was almost single handedly responsible for rigorously developing the theoretical foundations for design theory. I for one have enjoyed reading Dembski’s work for several years now. Whether or not you agree with his work, I don’t think it can be rationally denied that he’s produced some highly original, and thought provoking arguments in favour of design. Though he won’t be publishing much else on this topic, he has left behind a pretty substantial body of work that will continue to be argued over for years to come.

References

  1. Dembski’s primary works include his first book, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (IVP,2004), The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), and Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (Routledge, 2014). Much of his other work can be found in various articles and papers, including his more technical work with The Evolutionary Informatics Lab
  2. William Dembski, My Retirement From Intelligent Design, Available at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/my-retirement-from-intelligent-design/
  3. William Dembski, A New Day, Available at: https://billdembski.com/a-new-day/
  4. Sean McDowell, How is the Intelligent Design Movement Doing? Interview with William Dembski, Available at: http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/how-is-the-intelligent-design-movement-doing-interview-with-william-dembski
  5. William Dembski, Official Retirement From Intelligent Design, Available at: https://billdembski.com/
  6. The Senuous Curmudgeon, William Dembski is “Moving on”, Available at: https://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/william-dembski-is-moving-on/#comment-96947
  7. Dembski, op cit
  8. McDowell, op cit

Quote of the Month: William Dembski on the Process of Design

Each month I’ll be selecting a quote that’s relevant to the ID debate. The quote I pick could be supportive or critical of ID. Accompanying each quote will be a few of my own thoughts, but ultimately I’d like it to be a chance to focus on it and get some thoughts from readers.

This week’s quote is taken from William Dembski’s 2002 book, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Here Dembski attempts to give us a general account of the design process, beginning from the designer’s initial end goal and ending with the designed object:

How a designer gets from thought to thing is, at least in broad strokes, straightforward: (1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute the plan , the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) Finally, the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. What emerges is a designed object,…

(William Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Langham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p.xi.)

Dembski notes that this process is uncontroversial in cases of human design at least, and that one of ID’s main objectives is to provide a criteria that we can use to infer design in cases where we lack knowledge of this design process, affectively using effect to cause reasoning.

What do readers think?

Are there additional steps that could be added to this?

And is this a good approximation of the process of design?

Does our knowledge of human design processes permit us to infer it in cases where we know that the designer wasn’t human?

Giving the Critics a Fair Hearing

It goes without saying that ID isn’t the most popular idea in the world. Since its development and increased prominence in western culture, it has been widely derided and criticised. It has many, many critics.

Among those critics are people from a wide range of disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and journalism. ID also has the misfortune of being disliked not only by atheists and naturalists (as one might expect), but also many theistic evolutionists, and even more surprisingly, many young-earth Creationists. There are of course many within those particular groups who take the design view, or are at least sympathetic towards it, but by and large it has critics from pretty much every discipline and metaphysical position out there.

In my own research, I have examined the work of most of the main opponents of design, that is, critics who have publically tried to refute it in books, papers, articles, and debates. My tentative assessment in light of the many criticisms, is that though there are a few minor points that critics get right on rare occasions, the main pillars of ID still stand unrefuted. It’s also clear that most people just don’t even understand what ID is. They fail to make basic yet important distinctions and cannot even represent ID in a manner that truly reflects the theory. Most detractors dismiss it out of hand and don’t engage responsibly with advocates of design. Having said all that, I don’t want to give ID advocates a free pass either. I’m not always happy with the way some ID supporters engage with the opposing side. Some on the pro-ID side can overstate their case and dismiss the modern theory of evolution without fully understanding it. I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand all aspects of evolutionary biology, though I have a fairly decent grasp of it. I’m still learning. I think the key is humility and understanding. The fault can often be on both sides of the debate.

As I’ve said, the majority of the critics do bad job of trying to refute design theory. Are there any serious critics? Yes. But I can count the number of serious, responsible critics (those who offer very strong objections to ID), on one hand.

Though I am an ID proponent, on this blog I aim to take a balanced and honest look at this issue. The last thing this debate needs is a one-sided polemic. The arguments on both sides need to be considered fairly. One way to help aid this spirit of self criticism is to really listen to what the critics say. To make the views of the critics easily accessible, I had the idea of feature a ‘Critic’s Corner’ series on this blog. Each post will focus on a specific critic of ID, and tell you a little about them. More importantly, it will document their published work, providing links to their work relating to this topic. In addition to this I will also document some of the responses from ID theorists to the critics. This, I hope, will make it easier to follow the threads of the debate. Some may object that this will give too much space to those hostile to design. But we must first listen to, and understand them (and in some cases learn from them), before we can refute them. This can only help to improve ID and move knowledge forward.

Why the Question of Biological Origins Really Matters

In the foreword to the intelligent design text, The Design of Life, biochemist William S. Harris notes:

The scientific community continues to wrestle with the deep and fundamental questions: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How did a coded language (i.e., DNA) come to form the basis of life? How could multicellular life have originated from unicellular life? What is the origin of complex molecular machines that are inside every cell and that are necessary for life?(1)

Who cares?

Sometimes we can be too busy arguing with those who hold the opposing view, that we forget why we’re so intellectually and emotionally invested in this area of inquiry. On the other hand, it is lamentably the case that many people don’t even stop to seriously consider these questions. Here I want to pause, take a step back, and consider whether this issue really matters at all. I have always thought it does matter, and I think you should too. Here’s why:

1) It’s a question of historical significance.

As rational creatures, we humans have wondered about our origins for millennia. Even now, we still wonder. Critics of of the modern intelligent design movement would have you believe that this is just a recent controversy initiated in the US by anti-scientific Christian fundamentalists in order to surreptitiously inject creationism into schools. This narrative, however, is completely off the mark and also neglects the crucial point that this is a historically ancient dispute.

Anthony Long points out that ‘much that divides the two sides in modern America was already a major source of debate in classical antiquity, pitting theist Platonists and Stoics against evolutionist Epicureans.'(2) He further argues that ‘The Epicureans are antiquity’s principal evolutionists and opponents of intelligent design.'(3) As for those who argued for design around this period, in his historical survey of the history of arguments over design, Stephen Meyer writes:

Design arguments based on observations of the natural world were made by Greek and Roman philosophers such as Plato and Cicero and by Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides and by Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas.(4)

Moving further on, it continued to be an issue for the founders of modern science such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Philosophers and theologians also eagerly entered the fray. For Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and William Paley, it was an issue that that dominated much of their work.

And here we are, still asking similar questions. Given its turbulent past, and relevance today, this debate isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, discussion around this issue has never been more vibrant and widespread, and its bound to continue on this trajectory. When we enter into this discussion, we aren’t merely arguing over a petty and parochial concern. We are engaging in a historically important and increasingly relevant dialogue, one that has occupied the minds of some of the greatest intellects.

2) Science is interesting.

When asked what his approach was, the former editor of New scientist magazine, Alun Anderson asserted, ‘What’s happening in science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just f*** off.'(5) This comment was subsequently made well known by Richard Dawkins.(6) Of course, I wouldn’t put it in such strong terms, but essentially I think everyone should have a healthy appreciation for science, regardless of ones worldview. I realise that in one sense this is a highly subjective claim, since people aren’t always interested in the same thing, but I think there is more to this point than merely being interested.

If you’re religious, you should be in awe of God’s creative genius and want to understand it in some measure. I use the word should very deliberately because theologically, I think humans have a moral and intellectual obligation to at least reflect deeply upon these matters. If you’re not religious, you may think that perhaps its not as much as an objective intellectual obligation, but rather more an expression of human rationality and curiosity. Either way, whatever worldview we happen to hold, science infiltrates into most areas of our lives. As Jennifer Wiseman explains

Agriculture, entertainment, energy production, communications, and health care are just a few of the ways science and technology shape life for people around the globe, and affect all other life on the planet as well.(7)

In terms of the study of the natural world, science is the most effective set of tools we have. And it’s a truly wonderful human activity.

3) Biology is about life.

The origins debate ‘remains a point of concern and controversy, because it deals with the greatest of all mysteries, our own origins, and our place in human nature.'(8) The good news is that all we have to do to begin a journey of self-understanding (and an understanding of our fellow animals), is to start by looking under our very own noses. The answer is right here in front of us.

David Berlinski highlights the importance of this point well when he notes that ‘There is a wide appreciation of the fact that if biologists are wrong about Darwin, they are wrong about life…’.(9) Biology reveals to us a world of stupefyingly complex living systems. Let us not forget that we are among these perplexing living systems. The debate over intelligent design is vitally important because it is a quest to understand the secret of life.

4) It has many intra and extra-scientific implications.

At the end of the day, does it really matter either way? Well, yes it does. The reason why it matters is that the answers to these questions have far reaching implications. If the truth behind nature is that design is real, it has many implications for science education (it would affect what we teach in the classroom). And some would argue that it would drastically change the way we do science, and how we define science itself.

Even if this is the case, surely there are more pressing issues we should be talking about like climate change and social equality? Indeed we should be talking about these issues, however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about matters concerning origins either. We can and should think deeply about both because:

our concern about humanity’s social ills and our planet’s environmental catastrophes—and our motivation to act—are deeply connected to what we think about human origins.(10)

Our origins outlook also colours our views on religion and ethics, and it no doubt affects several other areas.

On a more fundamental level, one’s views on this subject can affect one’s worldview and vice versa. Stephen Meyer notes that:

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for  poses a serious challenge to the materialistic worldview that has long dominated Western science and much of Western culture.(11)

If you believe life is a product of design, you will see humans and animals in a much different light. Likewise, if you think that life is purely the result of chance and necessity, that will make you see things differently too. Our beliefs about the nature of nature have huge consequences.

5) Science is an inclusive and interdisciplinary inquiry

Science today is a more interdisciplinary endeavour than it ever has been. The bountiful fruits that it has given us has made us realise that nature is far richer and multifaceted that we could have thought. Now we need all the conceptual and practical tools we can muster. Today there is a dazzling multitude of fields and sub-fields within science with many areas overlapping and cross-fertilising. Modern biology in particular takes an integrative approach towards the study of the natural world due to its increasing interdisciplinary nature and this makes for a stunningly powerful research process.

The debate about the nature of biological life is fascinating partly because it touches on so many areas including molecular biology, genetics, zoology, paleontology, information theory, engineering, computer science, sociology, philosophy, ethics, education, politics, religion, history…The list goes on. This is a very inclusive problem, and so people from a multitude of disciplines can weigh in.

Conclusion

For me, the origins dispute has great significance and importance. I hope the reasons I outlined above might encourage you to reconsider this topic and find out more for yourself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is merely a sectarian theological argument over creationism. To be perfectly honest, I often find ‘creation/evolution’ disputes to be quite banal, repetitive, and irritating. Worst of all, too often such discussions rapidly descend into heated idiological slanging matches. As a result, casual observers withdraw and decide to wash their hands of the issue. Understandably, onlookers might conclude that it’s not a dispute worth getting involved in, given it’s often unproductive and unfriendly nature. Speaking as a Christian, many people in my generation see it as a stale and embarrassing sideshow that is primarily the interest of close minded fundamentalists, eagerly wishing to defend their particular interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis.

But in my view, there is another way of looking at these perennial questions. Debates about creationism and evolution often get hopelessly muddled with the issue of intelligent design. This confusion has been encouraged by people on both sides of the debate unfortunately, due to a failure to make basic distinctions and less than savoury motives. Arguments about creationism are primarily theological disputes. And though I wouldn’t say this of all creationists (young and old-earth), many seem to use science merely as a tool to achieve a theological end. However, as I have tried to argue, there’s is much more to this topic than the often stale and unedifying “creation vs evolution” arguments. This is a rich and multifaceted  dialogue, with many important implications. It’s also just tremendously fascinating.

References

  1. William A. Dembski & Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008), p.xiii.
  2. Anthony A. Long, Evolution vs Intelligent Design in Classical Antiquity (2005), Available at: http://muller.lbl.gov/pages/Long.pdf
  3. Ibid.
  4. Stephen C. Meyer, A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design, Religion, Staat, Gesellschaft 7, no. 2 (2006): 12-14, Available at: http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=324
  5. Simon Kirk. Interview with Alun Anderson. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080226010755/http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/alumni/notable_alumni/interviews/Anderson_interview.html
  6. agillesp123 (2006) Dawkins vs. Tyson. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfi
  7. Jennifer Wiseman, Why Should Christians Care About Science?, available at: https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2013/09/24/why-should-christians-care-about-science/
  8. Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God (Cliff Street Books, 1999), p. xi.
  9. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, (United States: Basic Books, 2009), p.186.
  10. Fazale Rana, Why Argue About Evolution? (2015), Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/why-argue-about-evolution
  11. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).