Friday, April 17, 2009

Dembski's Argument for Intelligent Design

This is a little off-topical from what I want to blog about, as it relates to biology, but I recently read Dembski's paper "Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information". It's an older paper (1998), but it attempts to justify Intelligent Design as a proper scientific theory of biology. Now, I am no biologist -- I have a general working knowledge of biology, but far from in depth -- but I am a scientist (in training), and have a more firm, if not complete, grasp of science, the scientific method, and the philosophy behind science, and my critique of Dembski's paper relies on these concepts.

I don't expect everyone to read the entire paper, but the critique makes more sense if you're at least passingly familiar with it. As such, I present the abstract here:

For the scientific community intelligent design represents creationism's latest grasp at scientific legitimacy. Accordingly, intelligent design is viewed as yet another ill-conceived attempt by creationists to straightjacket science within a religious ideology. But in fact intelligent design can be formulated as a scientific theory having empirical consequences and devoid of religious commitments. Intelligent design can be unpacked as a theory of information. Within such a theory, information becomes a reliable indicator of design as well as a proper object for scientific investigation. In my paper I shall (1) show how information can be reliably detected and measured, and (2) formulate a conservation law that governs the origin and flow of information. My broad conclusion is that information is not reducible to natural causes, and that the origin of information is best sought in intelligent causes. Intelligent design thereby becomes a theory for detecting and measuring information, explaining its origin, and tracing its flow.
Dembski is essentially setting out to scientifically prove two points, all the while using those two points to "Science-ify" ID.

Next Dembski defines information as "...the actualization of an event to the exclusion of other events". He compares this to the common sense definition, namely, that information is "the transmission of signals across a communication channel". He references two philosophers whose work, related to this paper, is in the philosophy of the mind. And, yes: The mind, when presented with information, has to tune out of the majority of the massive amount of information being presented to it by the senses in order to properly function and focus. At the end of this section, Dembski states:

"Information needs to [be] referenced not just to the actual world, but also cross-referenced with all possible worlds."

He builds to this subtly, all the while making, more or less, low-key insightful definitions of what information is, and what we may need to consider when considering how information behaves. But this is the first statement that bespeaks the nature of Dembski's argument; it is philosophical, not scientific. Namely, the reference to all possible worlds, as concieved in Anslem's ontological argument for the existence of God, is in no way scientific, or even related to science. No matter what may have happened in our world, one core assumption in science is that the natural universe is deterministic: the entire natural world follows laws, and those laws are immutable. We may not know, exactly, what those laws are, but that doesn't change the laws' status with regards to existence. In addition, just because we have a model of probability, that does not change the determinist assumption core to scientific inquiry. For example: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that we can never know both the location and momentum of an electron, and the quantum model of the atom relies upon the idea that an electron exists in more than one location at one time, and uses probability to describe how likely an electron will be at one location at a certain time. That does not change the idea of the universe being deterministic. These are models of the physical world -- a statement of "is", a model attempting to understand an absolute certainty of how probable the electron will be present at a certain location, and the ability to predict how the atom will behave based upon that probability. It's still determinist -- it's just unfamiliar to how we usually think of determinism. Secondly, in the grand metaphysical sense there are other possible worlds: But there is no way of understanding those worlds, no matter how close they relate to ours, in a scientific way. Science delves into the natural world, and the natural world only. The natural world is the one we live in, the one where the things that happen in the realm of our senses is the only one we study. Even in a possible world where, everything else being the same as ours, a quarter flipped a year ago lands heads up instead of tails up is a world that science does not and can not understand, as we have no way to sense that world.

The next two sections of the paper delve into more definitions that are attempting to link information theory to the study of biology. First, Dembski derives a method of measuring information, as measurements are necessary to science. He uses the analogy of a deck of cards and poker hands. His example states two possibilities: a royal flush, and all other possible hands. He then goes through some probability mathematics and applies information theory concepts to show that there is more information in knowing that we obtained a royal flush than there is in knowing we obtained one of the other possibilities. The argument follows. Intuitively, if you have a hand of "one of every other possibility", there are any number of hands you could possibly have, while the specifications of "Royal Flush" require exact cards, so you actually have more information by knowing you have a royal flush as opposed to a set consisting of several possibilites. There is also a definition integral to his argument, namely, "Complex Information". Complex information is information similar to the Royal Flush -- it has a larger magnitude of information than "Simple Information", and that complexity indicates some sort of correlation between possible events. Dembski states at the end of the first section:

This notion of complexity is important to biology since not just the origin of information stands in question, but the origin of complex information.
He has yet to establish the connection between complex information and the study of biology. Earlier in the paper, he quotes the honorable Biophysical Chemist Manfred Eigen (Who is a Grade A scientific bad ass):

In Steps Towards Life Manfred Eigen (1992, p. 12) identifies what he regards as the central problem facing origins-of-life research: "Our task is to find an algorithm, a natural law that leads to the origin of information." Eigen is only half right. To determine how life began, it is indeed necessary to understand the origin of information. Even so, neither algorithms nor natural laws are capable of producing information.
But that still doesn't establish the link between information theory and biology. Also note that Steps Towards Life is a popular science book which, while probably insightful, can easily be taken out of context. In addition, it is the opinion of a man that, while blazingly brilliant, can still be wrong, and also has not established the link between information and biology, scientifically speaking. I don't mean to demean Manfred Eigen in any way with this -- but, that's the process. Opinions are wonderful to debate in a philosophical sense, and can often inspire people in many ways, both scientifically and otherwise, but opinion does not equate to science.

The next portion distinguishes between "Specified Complex Information" and "Unspecified Complex Information". He uses the example of an archer shooting at a wall so large that he can not miss, but gives two pertinant scenarios: One in which the archer paints the target before he shoots and hits a bulls eye, and one in which the archer paints a target after the arrow hits the wall and makes it look like a bulls eye. He covers some other possibilities, but essentially, the scenario where the archer shoots the arrow and then hits a bulls eye is equatable to "Specified Complex Information", and it is the type of information that can lead us to scientifically understand that the archer is a good archer.

Dembski then continues by generalizing the above scenario: Basically, that patterns established before they are tested, but then verified by tests, are the type of patterns one knows to be linked to causality. The patterns established after having witnessing an event may be causally related, but they may also be fabrications, similar to the scenario with the archer painting a target around his arrow. He then compares this generalization to the study of life, as life obviously can't formulate a hypothesis about itself before it exists. In this paragraph, he states:

But what about the origin of life? Is life specified? If so, to what patterns does life correspond, and how are these patterns given independently of life's origin?
Which needs more clarification as to what exactly he's asking for. How is it conceivable to separate the patterns of life from their origin, and why is that necessary? Dembski seems to be critiquing all of scientific inquiry here because it is formulated a posteriori -- but that's what all scientific inquiry is based upon. It is only through experience that we gain ideas of how the world works, then through experimenting with those ideas that we confirm that they are, indeed, good scientific ideas. Newton was inspired by the movement of planets. Dalton was inspired by the formation of storms. While a fair amount of theoretical reasoning has to go into science, theory is nothing without experimentation -- which Dembski acknowledges, but he's rejecting the thought of basing theory upon experience on the sole basis that then the theory is more likely to be favored. It's a great question to pose, for the philosopher of science, but it is this subjectivity that the scientific method attempts to overcome. Bringing up a difficulty in performing scientific inquiry to critique a theory derived from performing that scientific inquiry is, still, not scientific, but philosophical. Dembski is free to reject the confines of the scientific method, but if he does so, he can not then claim to have a scientific theory, as he did not reach that theory through the process of science.

The next paragraph, which I will quote in full, is where Dembski argues for the link between information theory and biology, as well as science in general:

Information can be specified. Information can be complex. Information can be both complex and specified. Information that is both complex and specified I call "complex specified information," or CSI for short. CSI is what all the fuss over information has been about in recent years, not just in biology, but in science generally. It is CSI that for Manfred Eigen constitutes the great mystery of biology, and one he hopes eventually to unravel in terms of algorithms and natural laws. It is CSI that for cosmologists underlies the fine-tuning of the universe, and which the various anthropic principles attempt to understand (cf. Barrow and Tipler, 1986). It is CSI that David Bohm's quantum potentials are extracting when they scour the microworld for what Bohm calls "active information" (cf. Bohm, 1993, pp. 35-38). It is CSI that enables Maxwell's demon to outsmart a thermodynamic system tending towards thermal equilibrium (cf. Landauer, 1991, p. 26). It is CSI on which David Chalmers hopes to base a comprehensive theory of human consciousness (cf. Chalmers, 1996, ch. 8). It is CSI that within the Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory of algorithmic information takes the form of highly compressible, non-random strings of digits (cf. Kolmogorov, 1965; Chaitin, 1966).
So, essentially, Dembski is claiming that all science can be modeled by information theory. But he has no scientific basis for this -- only a philosophical argument, which, again, is not science. It's true that science deals with information, mathematical models, and computer programs to better understand the world. But that still does not establish a direct scientific connection between information theory and all other areas of science. Furthermore, if a scientific connection were established between information theory and, suppose, just biology, then unless there was a reason to reject the theory of evolution and replace it with information theory, then information theory's model of biology would conform to the model of evolution. By analogy, we don't have a sub-atomic particle model of how an animal behaves at the moment, but unless evolution were somehow disproven, then the sub-atomic model of population shifts would conform to the evolutionary model.

What Dembski claims is that information theory is superior to all other sciences, and thereby claiming that any law formulated in information theory will trump all other scientific laws. This, also, goes against a basic philosophy of science concept: Theories are not proven, only disproven. Unless we have a reason to reject a scientific theory, we continue working with it. There is no superior science -- the natural world is deterministic, we study the natural world, so all conclusions, no matter what facet of that natural world we study, will, in the end, match each other. In science, one does not see all the theories before them, and then start a new theory that needs to be worked out. The scientific world would forever be reformulating ideas and starting the work of Newton over again if that were the case. One builds upon the ideas that have so far shown to be good scientific ideas. One is right to question assumptions or ideas that have come before them, but if there is not scientific evidence, or, essentially, a reason to reject those ideas, then those ideas are assumed to be correct for the purposes of building a body of knowledge related to the natural world.

The next section is titled "Intelligent Design". Here, Dembski states:

In this section I shall argue that intelligent causation, or equivalently design, accounts for the origin of complex specified information.
He continues to describe how a psychologist determines whether or not a rat has learned how to navigate a maze. The maze must be complex, in order to eliminate the chance of the rat solving the maze by shear luck, and the rat then must demonstrate that it has memorized the series of turns it takes to get to the other end of the maze. This is a method for determining if the rat has learned, and thereby, demonstrate that it has made an intelligent choice. There is also an analogy drawn to the difference between writing a sentence, and spilling a bottle of ink on paper. In one case, someone directs the pen, in the other, the ink randomly spills out. For further clarification, Dembski also references a story about an American listening to someone speak Chinese: There is design, but it is incomprehensible to the American, simply because he lacks the knowledge of the Chinese language. But this does not stop it from being an Intelligent choice. Then Dembski states:

The actualization of one among several competing possibilities, the exclusion of the rest, and the specification of the possibility that was actualized encapsulates how we recognize intelligent causes, or equivalently, how we detect design. Actualization-Exclusion-Specification, this triad constitutes a general criterion for detecting intelligence, be it animal, human, or extra-terrestrial. Actualization establishes that the possibility in question is the one that actually occurred. Exclusion establishes that there was genuine contingency (i.e., that there were other live possibilities, and that these were ruled out). Specification establishes that the actualized possibility conforms to a pattern given independently of its actualization.
Dembski then states that this pattern for recognizing intelligent causation exactly matches up to the criteria for recognizing CSI. Implicitly, because of Dembski's claim to linking CSI to to all of science, and because the confirmation of CSI follows exactly how psychologists confirm that an acting being intelligently makes a choice, it follows that then what science studies, CSI, is generated from an intelligent cause.

The problem with this argument is that he has not properly established a link between CSI and all other science. Further, he has not established even a philosophical argument for the link between a psychologist determining whether a mouse has learned, and the determination of CSI. Technically, if the confirmation of CSI were grounded in scientific inquiry, then it's painstakingly obvious that it would follow the same pattern that a psychologist uses to determine if a mouse has learned a maze: They'd both be scientific. In addition, just because a process can be formulated in such a way that they are seemingly the same, does not mean they pertain to the same things -- in one example, a psychologist determines how a mouse learns, and attempts to generalize those findings to other mice and, ultimately, other animals. This has nothing to do with an intelligent causation to explain the existence of life, and everything to do with how animals learn. Dembski fails to establish a philosophical bridge, as well as a scientific one, from mouse to, essentially, God. So, his conclusion does not follow from his premises, a textbook non sequitur error.

Further, the first statement demonstrates how this argument is not a scientific one: That intelligent causation accounts for CSI. Even if his argument had followed, it would not matter. One can rationalize a good many things with complete validity, and still be wrong. An argument can have validity, but no experimental support. Here Dembski presents an a priori rationalization for an intelligent causation to the origins of life. Even had it validity, it would not have experimental support, which is essential to the process of science.

The final paragraph outlines Dembski's postulated Conservation Law. In it, he critique's Eigen for attributing the origin of CSI to natural causes, because, in his opinion it can not be explained by natural causes. He then claims, because he has proposed a law of conservation, that information theory as applied to biology is a scientific theory. He continues to argue that pure chance -- the type of randomness proposed by Epicurus, where the universe follows no law other than randomness -- can not account for CSI. He continues to argue that neither can a Darwinian approach account for the existence of CSI (and, hence, life) because Darwin's theory only deals with how life changes over time, not how it was initially generated. Finally, because of this, Dembski concludes that natural causes can not account for the existence of CSI, and goes on to expound upon the implications this holds for scientific inquiry. Namely, in analyzing the origins of CSI, Dembski uses a systems-surroundings model, defines his system as the natural universe, which contains CSI that can neither be generated or destroyed. Because CSI can neither be generated or destroyed, it must have come from somewhere which, in Dembski's view, is the surroundings: The intelligent causation.

This parellels both Paley's watchmaker argument, as well as Aquinas' first cause argument for the existence of God. I, personally, disagree with both arguments, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Dembski continues to make a priori rationalizations for the existence of an intelligent cause, all the while claiming that his argument is a scientific one. This is patently false. There is no method, there is no experiment, there is only suppositions. As beautiful as philosophy is to study, masking it as science because you disagree with the conclusions of science is not science. The fact that Dembski spends roughly half the paper talking about probability mathematics and another third of the paper referencing basic psychology and some concepts related to information theory does not change the fact that Dembski is, essentially, making an ontological argument for the existence of an intelligent designer. Dembski demonstrates this when he claims that the origin of life can not be explained through natural causes, as science only deals with natural causes.

Also, I want to briefly address a philosophical point: Namely, the social implication that science and religion are somehow at odds. I claim that they are in no way related. As I critique Dembski for attempting to apply the scientific method to the existence of God, I similarly critique Dawkins. Not that this necessarily bolsters my argument, I'm only claiming consistency. God is a metaphysical question. Science is an epistemic method to understanding the natural world, and only the natural world. God, by most definitions, is somehow outside the natural world. Therefore, science can say nothing about God, or, as Dembski puts it, an intelligent designer. If God is, by definition, the natural world, then and only then can science interpret God, and those conclusions will be unaltered by this Spinozan derived definition of God.

Because science has nothing to do with God, you can go on believing whatever it is you will with regards to God no matter the conclusions of science. Just realize that making claims about the natural world because of supernatural reasons, such as dating the world 6000 years old because of biblical record, will not be taken seriously by anyone who accepts the scientific method. After all, as the scientific method has nothing to say about God, God has nothing to say about the natural world, aside, possibly, as an a priori rationalization for the existence of it.

Basically, I'm just stating that questions of science and questions of God mix like oil and water. It is your personal conviction that determines their relative densities.

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