[UPDATE: In this post, Steve Landsburg and I take the argument to depths that only Marvel superheroes could withstand.]
I have known for quite some time that atheist critics didn’t even understand the actual position of ID theorists such as William Dembski, but (per Tom Woods’ suggestion that I check it out) I am sad to say that even Edward Feser seems to have deployed his considerable mental faculties into analyzing away Dembski’s obvious (to me) position.
In the present blog post, I’m not going to defend ID theory per se; I’m merely going to state what it is, since that seems to threaten/anger so many people that they refuse to deal with it on its own terms. It’s really quite straightforward. But first, to get us warmed up, a simple story:
William and Richard are on a ship that sinks at sea, and they wash up on an tropical island. As they explore, they stumble upon a large field with small bushes. The bushes are arranged in such a way that they look like letters, spelling, “STAY AWAY, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.” The following conversation ensues:
WILLIAM: Whoa, we should turn around. We don’t have any weapons.
RICHARD: What are you talking about? I haven’t seen any gorilla droppings or seen any poisonous snakes. What do we need weapons for?
WILLIAM: You’re kidding, right?
WILLIAM: The bushes, the warning, I don’t want to meet whoever planted them.
RICHARD: What are you talking about?
WILLIAM: Someone obviously planted those bushes. And he wants us to stay out. He’s obviously been here a while so he might have prepared weapons.
RICHARD: I’m sorry…did you see anyone planting bushes? As far as I know, we’re the only humans on this island. Did you see a Snickers wrapper or any other evidence of humans?
WILLIAM: You’re kidding, right?
WILLIAM: Well, I mean, the bushes.
RICHARD: Right. Bushes occur in nature. There are a whole bunch of trees in the jungle, too. I didn’t see the trees freak you out. Why are you so terrified of bushes?
WILLIAM: I, I mean, I really don’t know what to say. How can you not see what I’m talking about? The pattern in the bushes clearly shows somebody else is here–or at least, was here.
RICHARD: Hang on a second. Are you telling me that if we go and look at those bushes under a microscope, we’re going to see something that a biologist can’t explain? Is there anything special about those bushes, that wouldn’t be true of any other bush?
WILLIAM: Well, no, it’s not the bushes themselves or their internal operations, I’m just saying it’s the way they’re arranged–
RICHARD: Yes let’s talk about that. How should they have been arranged? What pattern should their location have had, such that you would not now be afraid to keep walking in that direction?
WILLIAM: Uh, if they didn’t spell out a warning, for starters.
RICHARD: And now we see the vagueness of your position. I would have thought you could be a little more specific, if we’re supposed to alter our plans on the basis of your superstitious panic attacks.
WILLIAM: You’re kidding, right?
WILLIAM: OK, let me try it like this. What are the chances that the bushes just so happened to be growing in that pattern?
RICHARD: OK that’s a great question, but I do want to point out just how much ground you’ve already conceded. You’ve already granted that there is no other human on the island necessary to explain anything about the bushes or the environment in which they’re growing. You’ve been reduced to a desperate and ill-defined question about probability over initial conditions. How the heck can we even answer such a question? Your tone of voice makes it sound as if you know the answer is vanishingly small, and yet you don’t know that at all. For all you know, there could have been depressions in the ground, in the shape of letters, and that explains why the seeds originally settled there. I can explain everything just by referring to wind and gravity. Or do you also think wind is evidence of a scary person up over the hill? Maybe when that scary person sneezes, that’s what causes wind? My gosh, I thought people stopped reasoning like you back in the Middle Ages.
WILLIAM: You’re kidding, right?
WILLIAM: Um, OK, let’s suppose we go and investigate, and do find that the ground is depressed in the shape of the letters.
RICHARD: I like it! Actually bringing some empiricism into this discussion. None of this reasoning because of your intuitions nonsense.
WILLIAM: But let me finish. Let’s say we go ahead and do that. Still, that would just mean the guy living on this island used a shovel or something to dig out the ground in that pattern. You’ve just pushed the argument back one step.
RICHARD: You’re kidding, right?
RICHARD: That is the most desperate, anti-scientific Hail Mary pass I’ve ever seen. Of course science can never give the full story, start to finish. But I just solved your initial “this makes no sense, waaaaaah, I have to invoke another human” concern, and instead of admitting defeat like a man, you shamelessly move on to some other objection. First you thought there had to be a guy planting trees, then when I blew up that story with simple biology and physics, you shifted the argument and said there had to be a guy digging holes with a shovel. What’s the point of even continuing this discussion, if you’re going to pull stunts like that?
WILLIAM: I agree, there is no point in continuing this discussion.
RICHARD: And one last thing: Even on your own terms, your position is goofy. Look, you kept saying there was a man or a guy on the island. But it could have been a woman. Or it could have been an intelligent alien who knows English. See what I’m saying? You obviously had this weird psychological need to believe that there was another man on this island, and you grabbed at any old argument to “prove” it, even though the argument you grabbed couldn’t possibly have served the end you really wanted.
WILLIAM: Well, right, sure, the fact that the bushes spelled out a warning just meant there had been an intelligence. I had to bring in stuff that I knew beforehand, in order to speculate on the identity of the intelligence.
RICHARD: Check and mate. You just smuggled in your prior beliefs through an ever shifting and imprecise “argument,” which failed on its own terms and is anyway completely eliminated through Occam’s Razor. Now I’m walking up over that hill.
Moments later, William hears a scream ring out from beyond the hill. He turns and runs in the other direction.
Back to the actual debate over ID: Michael Behe–the guy who (in)famously said that the bacterial flagellum exhibited too much design to have arisen through unguided evolution in the modern neo-Darwinian sense–does not have a problem with the idea that all of today’s cells share a common ancestor. Look, as this website even adds at the end of the discussion:
[QUOTE FROM BEHE]: In summary, as biochemists have begun to examine apparently simple structures like cilia and flagella, they have discovered staggering complexity, with dozens or even hundreds of precisely tailored parts. It is very likely that many of the parts we have not considered here are required for any cilium to function in a cell. As the number of required parts increases, the difficulty of gradually putting the system together skyrockets, and the likelihood of indirect scenarios plummets. Darwin looks more and more forlorn. New research on the roles of the auxiliary proteins cannot simplify the irreducibly complex syetem The intransigence of the problem cannot be alleviated; it will only get worse. Darwinian theory has given no explanation for the cilium or flagellum. The overwhelming complexity of the swimming systems push us to think it may never give an explanation. (p. 73)
[WEBSITE DISCUSSION]: Behe concludes that such irreducibly complex systems were ultimately the result of intelligent design. (It should be pointed out that Behe has no objections to the concept of universal common ancestry. His objections to evolution are limited to the rejection of the neo-Darwinian mechanism as a sufficient explanation for the origin of all biological systems.)
So yes, Behe is fine with the proposition that if we had a camera and a time machine, we could go observe the first cell on earth as it reproduced and yielded offspring. There would be nothing magical in these operations; they would obey the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. The cells would further divide and so on, and then over billions of years there would be mutations and the environment would favor some of the mutants over their kin, such that natural selection over time would yield the bacterial flagellum and the human nervous system.
Yet Behe’s point is that when you look at what this process spits out at the end, you can’t deny that a guiding intelligence must be involved somehow. Now where William Dembski comes in, is that he tries to give operational meaning to terms like “specified complexity,” so that we can objectively study the types of phenomena that are obvious in my story above (about the arrangement of bushes), but apparently not so obvious when it comes to the structure of cells.
UPDATE: In my condensed statement of Behe’s position, I might be confusing him with Dembski a bit. I think it’s more accurate to say that Behe thinks that there could have been a single cell from which all life is descended, but that it was a “supercell” that contained all of the information (for bacterial flagella, the human eye, etc.) already coded inside it, which is just waiting for the right environmental triggers to deploy.
In contrast, I think Dembski with his “no free lunch” arguments is taking an even weaker position, and concedes that the “specified complexity” in today’s cells could have “entered” into organic molecules from the outside environment over time, a la the process of mutation and natural selection. But, Dembski claims, this is just pushing the problem back one step–it means the information containing the designs of the bacterial flagella, human eye, etc. were contained in the environmental landscape, so the Darwinian explanation hasn’t really solved the informational problem.
Now I know that when a believer in the modern neo-Darwinist position hears that, he or she will guffaw. But that was one of the points in my original story: Notice how William in the story is perfectly right in saying Richard has merely pushed the problem back a step, by supposing that there were indentations in the ground such that the wind and gravity could have “mindlessly” spelled out the message with the bushes. That’s what (I think) Dembski is trying to say, when neo-Darwinians say, “The complex structures we see in today’s cells just arose over time because the environment conferred differential fitness on random mutations.”