Friday, June 27, 2008

Intelligent Design Interview, Part 4

Here's the fourth and final part of my interview with Dr. William Dembski.

RV. Is it possible to "do science" free of philosophical or theological presuppositions. Why or why not?

DEMBSKI. I don't know if it's ever possible to get entirely free of presuppositions. If you're talking theological presuppositions, often people will put those together with metaphysical presuppositions (is there a real world out there? is reliable knowledge of it possible? are our senses giving us reasonably true information about the world?). These are assumptions that we're making. It's not clear that we're ever getting entirely away from assumptions. But it does seem to me that as far as possible we should try to minimize the hold these presuppositions have in relation to our scientific theorizing and also to be aware how they are influencing our theorizing. Even though we can never get away from our presuppositions entirely, we should always be reflective about them and be aware that they are there and try to, in some cases, bracket them or put them on the table for examination as well.

It seems to me that what's driving the Intelligent Design/evolution debate goes well beyond minimal sorts of presuppositions that we need to function scientifically. At issue are some very strongly held worldview beliefs about nature being all there is, about everything operating according to unbroken material laws. Those sorts of assumptions cannot be justified scientifically and yet they do affect our scientific theorizing. If matter operating by unbroken natural laws is all that exists, then any sort of design which transcends material reality can't exist. Science, in that case, can't speak to that reality, so in a sense you have just ruled out that reality apart from any investigation of the world. It seems that a more open philosophy of science would say, let's leave such possibilities open and see where things go.

RV. In relation to support for Intelligent Design (ID), what are some of the most promising new scientific discoveries?

DEMBSKI. I see two streams. On the one hand, there's still continuing work on methods of design detection, the nature of information and the type of information that is exhibited in biological systems and how that information gets transmitted--really the bookkeeping of that information.

One of the fallacies, the grand fallacy of evolutionary biology, is that you can get the type of information you need to build biological complexity for nothing--that biological complexity is a free lunch or that you can get it from scratch. I think the best theoretical accounts that are out there right now are showing that you can't get biological complexity as a free lunch, that it is a theoretical impossibility to get the information you need apart from actual intelligence (you are always paying for it at some level with intelligence).

The other part of ID is the nuts and bolts biology, which is just to look at biological systems and examine their design. There is some very exciting work being done there, such as by a fellow named Douglas Axe. Michael Behe has recently published an interesting article in this vein in Protein Science. We're looking at biological systems and finding their design characteristics.

One important thing to keep in mind here is that Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker, will write on the first page that biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. For Dawkins and most evolutionary biologists committed to a materialistic form of evolution, any design in biology is only the appearance of design. So there's nothing that's actually designed in evolutionary biology.

The ID perspective says, to counter that view, that we don't have to show that every aspect of biology is designed. We can allow that natural selection, random variation of material mechanisms do operate in biology. What we need to do is establish that there are some clear instances of design. That's, I think, where things are going. I think it is going to be the biologists who are going to win the day. My theoretical work is important and has helped clear a path, but it's a path that the biologists need to really start walking on to chart new territories.

RV. You have written or edited a number of books on ID. For someone without a strong scientific background who is interested in the topic for Christian apologetics purposes, could you suggest two or three resources to begin studying the subject?

DEMBSKI. There are any number of books. If you're talking about junior high age, I would start with What's Darwin Got to do with It?. A good high school level book and a good intro just generally to the whole debate is Phillip Johnson's Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. An edited collection by me and James Kushiner, Signs of Intelligence, gives a good overview by a lot of the key players in the ID movement. My book The Design Revolution gives a really good overview of ID issues. Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box is a seminal text of ID. If you want a nice critique of Darwinism as a whole, even though the book is now about 20 years old, Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis is still worth reading.

RV. A few years ago R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, announced the establishment of the Center for Science and Theology and your appointment as the director. What can you tell us about this center?

DEMBSKI. A lot will depend on what sorts of funding can be raised for the Center. Al Mohler has some ideas. Lots of things can be done to further this discussion. One thing that excites me very much about the Center is that it brings a traditional orthodox Christian perspective to the science and theology dialogue which has been dominated it seems by much more liberal approaches to Christian faith. Initially we're going to focus on having speakers come to the seminary to discuss these questions in science and theology. I expect we will also have some symposia and conferences down the road, maybe even a journal that we publish.

RV. Do you think there will be any kind of impact as a result of Antony Flew's conversion to theism (not Christian theism but a sort of deism)? The fact that he states that certain scientific ID-type arguments had an influence on him---do you think that will filter down?

DEMBSKI. I think it's going to have an effect. The way this works, however, is not that there is one decisive event that changes everything. It is, to use a metaphor, as though Darwin were a camel and we're putting straws on the camel's back. Flew's conversion places a good number of straws on the camel's back--but it's still going to take awhile before Darwin's back gets broken.

RV. What do you see as the future of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory in the short term and long term?

DEMBSKI. Long term it has no future. It is just a totally oversold theory. Look at the evidence--the evidence is simply not there for this mechanism to be able to produce biological complexity of any significance. It cannot account for macro evolutionary change. It seems to account for very limited change. I've often conceded that neo-Darwinism's account is just fine for bacterial antibiotic resistance, but even there it's extremely minimal what happens. I think the theory is in terrible shape.

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