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Bill Dembski: Two different concepts of what ID is: Internal vs. external teleology

Continuing with James Barham’s The Best Schools interview with design theorist Bill Dembski – who founded this blog – this time on two different claims for ID, namely, as Barham had put it,

TBS: One way of looking at ID, overall, is as a pairing of two very different kinds of claims. On the one hand, there is the negative claim that the selection-mechanism thesis is false—that the theory of natural selection is wholly inadequate as an explanation of the fantastically complex structure and function of living things. The reason is that the proposed selection mechanism simply lacks the conceptual resources to “save the phenomena.” On the other hand, ID, as usually construed, makes a positive claim, which is an inference from the appearance of design in living systems—together with the impotence of the selection mechanism to explain it—to the conclusion that design has actually been imposed on living matter by an external agent (call this the “external-design thesis”).

It seems to us that these two claims have very different degrees of warrant. Without getting into details, it just seems inherently more plausible that the selection-mechanism thesis is false than it does that the external-design thesis is true. For one thing, lots of scientists agree with the negative thesis, but very few of them agree with the positive one. Could you please comment on this way of understanding ID, and respond to our concern about the epistemic status of its negative and positive claims?

Simply put, why would the inability of a reductionist biology to explain certain examples of biological complexity leave us solely with the conclusion of an external designer (who for most people is God)?

Dembski responds,

“I’m thinking especially of biologists like James Shapiro at the University of Chicago, whose Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press, 2011) is as thorough a dismantling of the selection-mechanism thesis as one will find.”

WD: In answering this question, let’s put the selection-mechanism thesis safely to one side as either false or unjustified. Darwinists will of course demur, but a growing body of biologists who are not favorable to ID would agree. I’m thinking especially of biologists like James Shapiro at the University of Chicago, whose Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press, 2011) is as thorough a dismantling of the selection-mechanism thesis as one will find.

The question, then, is: What replaces it? I would agree that the set-theoretic complement to the selection-mechanism thesis is broader than the external-design thesis, which holds that a designing intelligence operating outside ordinary natural processes was required to build organismal complexity. That said, I don’t see ID as coextensive with the external-design thesis. I’ve argued this in my books No Free Lunch and The Design Revolution, but let me hammer this point home.

“Design” can be a confusing word in these discussions, because historically it has been put in opposition to nature. Things can achieve their form or structure because it is in their nature to do so—thus, they do it internally, as when an acorn grows into an oak tree. On the other hand, things can achieve their form or structure because an external efficient cause acts to bring it about, as when pieces of wood require an external technological agent to form a ship. This distinction goes back at least to Aristotle, who thus contrasted phusis (nature) with techne (which we translate “design,” but is also the word from which we get “technology”).

“‘Design’ can be a confusing word in these discussions, because historically it has been put in opposition to nature.”

Now, my point in No Free Lunch, The Design Revolution, and elsewhere is that ID need not be identified with the design-side of this Aristotelian distinction. And the reason I give is that the materialists have confused the nature-side of this Aristotelian distinction. If nature is understood in materialist and reductionist terms, as is common these days, then we have a far more impoverished view of nature than the ancients had.

“Personally, I think an externalist teleology works better, at least with some aspects of living systems.”

Moreover, if we treat design as the set-theoretic complement of this impoverished view of nature, then we really have a much broader concept of design, one that certainly encompasses the external-designer view, but one that also allows for an internalist or immanent teleology. ID, as I’ve argued, is compatible with either of these approaches. What distinguishes ID is the detectability of design qua real teleology in nature. The precise nature of that teleology is logically downstream.

Personally, I think an externalist teleology works better, at least with some aspects of living systems (I have a hard time, for instance, seeing how an internalist teleology works at the level of inorganic chemicals leading up to first life). But the fundamental issue is teleology. And it does seem to me that if you reject the selection-mechanism thesis, then you will be stuck with some form of teleology.

TBS: Setting aside issues concerning the identity of the external designer, there are an increasing number of scientists—such as, for example, Stuart Kauffman, Terrence Deacon, Mae-Wan Ho, Lenny Moss, Alberto Moreno, Ezequiel di Paolo, and others—who might accept ID’s negative rejection of the Darwinists’ selection-mechanism thesis, and yet deny ID’s positive inference to an external designer as not logically forced upon us. The reason is that, in their view, ID overlooks a third possibility, namely, that life is an inherent attribute of a certain special condensed state—sometimes referred to as the “living state”—of matter. On this hypothesis, what looks to us like externally imposed design is really the result of an active adaptive capacity founded in the physics of living matter. Can you comment on this possibility?

“I’ve always found such self-organizational scenarios unsatisfying, because, to my mind, they don’t really solve anything.”

WD: I allow for that possibility in my answer to the last question. But my worry is with the character of the proposals made by these scientists. I know Kauffman, Ho, and Moss’s work best, and it seems to me that they don’t really give you a robust teleology. Rather, there is a minimalist natural teleology (such as condensation or vaguely articulated adaptive capacities), which then magically gets bootstrapped to things like butterflies.

I’ve always found such self-organizational scenarios unsatisfying, because, to my mind, they don’t really solve anything. Now you might say, how does design solve anything? Well, we know that designers can build some amazing things, like Lear Jets. And so, when we see a butterfly, which is far more marvelous than a Lear Jet, we are extrapolating—reasonably in my view—from the characteristics of designers and design processes that we know. But I don’t see any way to extrapolate reasonably from condensation or criticality or convective processes to butterflies.

Next: What does Dembski think of Abel’s “prescriptive information” theory?

See also:

Pressing Bill Dembski on his conception of ID

Dembski on why ID’s struggle is going to be long and hard

Bill Dembski answers, How do we explain bad design?

Bill Dembski on the problem of good

Bill Dembski on young vs. old Earth creationists, and where he stands

Bill Dembski on the Evolutionary Informatics Lab – the one a Baylor dean tried to
shut down

Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers #1

Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers Part 2

Bill Dembski: The big religious conspiracy revealed #3

Bill Dembski: Evolution “played no role whatever” in his conversion to Christianity #4

So how DID Bill Dembski get interested in intelligent design? #5b – bad influences, it seems

So how DID Bill Dembski get interested in intelligent design? #5a

Bill Dembski: Trouble happens when they find out you mean business

What is Bill Dembski planning to do now?

What difference did Ben Stein’s Expelled film make? Dembski’s surprisingly mixed review

Bill Dembski on the future of intelligent design in science

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