Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Intelligent Design Interview, Part 1

A few years ago I interviewed Dr. William Dembski on the topic of Intelligent Design. Over the next few days I'll post the interview in segments, as it's rather long. Here's part one.

RV. What is Intelligent Design?

DEMBSKI. Intelligent Design is the science that tries to understand or study signs of intelligence. There are lots of special sciences already that are dedicated to that. Think of, for instance, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Is that radio signal that's coming in from outer space the result of just purely natural forces--there are a lot of radio signals that are just naturally produced--or is that signal the result of an intelligent agent. The movie Contact gives a good example of that distinction. The movie itself gave an example that was really a lot more flamboyant than what the actual SETI researchers are looking for. The actual SETI researchers are looking for narrow bandwidth transmissions, which are indicative of the sorts of signals we have on earth--signals that humans send. In the movie it was actually a long sequence of prime numbers, which is a lot more structured information than what the SETI researchers are looking for.

But we do this all over the place, not just in SETI. Archaeologists will ask questions like the following: Is this an arrowhead or is this just a random chunk of rock? Is that a burial mound or is it a naturally formed mound? ID is asking these kinds of questions, typically in biology. In biology it asks: Are there systems that exhibit clear markers of intelligence? If there is real design in biology, then who or what could be the designer? ID very quickly raises some questions of metaphysical and religious interest. But the key question it raises can still be posed as a purely scientific question, namely, is there an intelligence responsible for this sort of complexity and information that we see and can we do science with it--can we gain scientific insights by pursuing this line of inquiry?

So that's what ID is looking for--signs of intelligence, and specifically in biological systems. Where it's gotten its traction most recently is in two places. One is in formalizing methods of design detection (that's been largely my research over the last decade and a half), laying out how we actually do it. We do this all the time. We carve up reality in terms of things that are the result of randomness, accidents, chance, on the one hand, and design, purpose, intelligence on the other. How do we do it? Can we do it reliably? Can we do it scientifically? It appears that in fact we can. We do have good methods for design detection.

Then the question becomes, how do those methods get applied to biology? What should we be looking for in biological systems? This is where Michael Behe's book on irreducible complexity comes in. Behe is looking at systems of great complexity at the sub-cellular level. These are molecular machines composed of proteins that do some really marvelous things. These are the sorts of systems that he's looking at. These are the systems which these design detection methods are telling us are designed.

My own research focuses on what I call specified complexity. Objects that exhibit specified complexity are highly improbable on the basis of material mechanisms and chance processes. Also, they possess an objectively given pattern, what I call specification. The role of such patterns is essential because highly improbable things do happen just by chance. But when those highly improbable things also match an objectively given pattern--a pattern that's independently given--that we say an object is designed.

RV. What is your response to the charge that ID is really only "creationism" or what is sometimes termed "scientific creationism"? This appears to be the take in the book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, for instance.

DEMBSKI. You can just look at the definitions--look at the intellectual projects the two are engaged in and you'll see that there is a huge difference. ID is looking for signs of intelligence. It's not speculating about the nature of that intelligence. By creationism usually what is meant is a literal six-day account of creation where you are trying self-consciously to harmonize science with the Bible. Also you've got a doctrine of creation working for you here. A doctrine of creation is always about the source of being of the world--where did everything come from?

ID takes an already given universe and asks, are there patterns in it that can point us to intelligence? The thing is, if you think of it that way, you could have creation without design and design without creation. Aristotle would have been a design theorist, but he was not a creationist. On the other hand, you could have a creator God that creates a world that gives no signs of being designed. It can work both ways. I think most creationists hold that God did leave fingerprints or footprints in the creation, where God made his activity in the world evident. Because of that you find that many creationists do think that ID has something going for it.

I've found that there tend to be two types of creationists. One type, what I might call package-deal creationists, basically take Genesis literally, reading it as teaching that creation took place in six literal 24-hour days, for instance. They regard ID as a component of their position, but one that does not go nearly far enough. If you're just teaching ID, they say, you're misleading people because you are not giving them the whole truth.

The other type of creationist takes a more incremental approach. They'll say, look, ID isn't the whole story, but it's good for what it does. It dislodges Darwinism and unseats naturalism. It does a lot of good work culturally. Sure, we need to go beyond it. But it's a gift to our cause.

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