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John Mark Reynolds in Touchstone — Out of Touch?

My friend and colleague John Mark Reynolds at Biola University has just published a piece in Touchstone titled “Séances & Science: The Lessons of the Spiritualist Challenge to Darwinism” (go here). The piece is meant as a warning to the ID movement not to repeat mistakes of the past. As a general rule, prescriptions for avoiding mistakes of the past need to be taken seriously, and I myself have given such advice to the ID movement: “Becoming a Disciplined Science: Prospects, Pitfalls, and Reality Check for ID” and “Dealing with the Backlash Against Intelligent Design.”

Even so, I feel this paper by Reynolds may end up doing more harm than good. The comparison of ID with spiritualism and séances seems entirely inappropriate. With spiritualism, the very phenomena it was supposed to study were fuzzy, ambiguous, and open to question. Thus, the interpretation of those phenomena in other than materialist terms (materialists always had a simple explanation, namely, FRAUD!) became doubly fuzzy, ambiguous, and open to question. Spiritualism from the start was therefore hopelessly subjective.

By contrast, with ID, the phenomena under consideration are clear: biological systems. The question is to explain how key features of these systems emerged, and this is where ID proponents engage in a vigorous debate with materialistic evolutionists. The data that ID proponents and evolutionists dispute are objectively given. Moreover, the methods of design detection that we use are mathematically based and have applications that are widely accepted even if their application to biology remains under dispute.

It would have been good if Reynolds had run his essay by some of us who are taking the most heat in the ID movement. I expect that Barbara Forrest and Eugenie Scott will find in this essay plenty of choice quotes that they will use against the ID movement, in effect making life more difficult for us than needs be. The fact is that the ID movement is in much better shape than Reynolds’s essay suggests.

For instance, Reynolds offers the following assessment of my work: “William Dembski is one of the most remarkable thinkers I have ever met, but his particular take on the idea of design and identifying design needs internal criticism. His writing seems to have moved from highly technical to mostly popular, and one hopes that the Discovery Institute or the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which he now teaches, would press him to write a technical follow-up to his seminal work.”

Reynolds here seems out of touch with my current work. My last two books, namely, Uncommon Dissent (ISI) and Debating Design (Cambridge) are academic press edited collections. These are not popular books. Moreover, I have been posting on my designinference.com website technical articles from a proposed monograph tentatively titled The Mathematical Foundations of Intelligent Design. In the last year I’ve written the following technical articles for inclusion in that monograph:

“Information as a Measure of Variation”
“Searching Large Spaces: Displacement and the No Free Lunch Regress”
“Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence”

Each of these articles is technically more demanding than anything I’ve published in the past on design inferences (e.g., The Design Inference or No Free Lunch).

Finally, the worry that ID is not engaging in vigorous internal critique seems misplaced. I find no absence of internal critique in the ID movement. Robin Collins, Tim McGrew, Lydia McGrew and Rob Koons have all offered useful critiques of my design-inference formalism. There are lots of people in the ID movement who are all too happy to stir the waters and bring up internal criticism. David Berlinski is perhaps the most notable of such critics (recall his Commentary pieces two years ago).

But, more importantly, we are experiencing vigorous external critique, to which we are responding (critics like Perakh and Shallit would deny this in my own case, but if they read the above three articles, they will see that their voices have been heard). In general, external critique tends to be more vigorous than internal critique because those in a position to offer internal critique remain nonetheless sympathizers and thus less inclined to go for the jugular.

Reynolds’s essay suggests that he has become an outsider to the ID movement. To be sure, not socially, since he is an incredibly friendly guy and he’s on good terms with ID’s principal players. But when it comes to the cutting edge of ID (e.g., my current work, Doug Axe’s research, developments in engineering sciences that are supporting ID), he seems out of touch. It would have been easy enough for him to get back in touch simply by contacting us. Unfortunately, now his essay is public property.

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6 Responses to John Mark Reynolds in Touchstone — Out of Touch?

  1. I was thinking your exact response in my head while reading the article…basically point by point.

  2. Bill,

    I am sorry you feel this way. I don’t agree (obviously).

    I don’t understand how I could become “an outsider” to the ID movement since I have read the works you cite (the published ones), read ID discusson groups where new ideas are mentioned, read ID web sites, go to ID events (speak at some), read ID critical works and web sites, and teach hundreds of students sympathetic to ID every year.

    Maybe it is because I teach those students, and hear their reactions over time, that I wrote the piece. Much of what I have to say comes from friendly students every year. These are students who are “up” on the latest stuff so far as it goes.

    I stand by my desire to see you publish, not on a web site but publish, advances in your ideas. This is important, not just to our critics, but to the movement as a whole. While (as I state in my article) your public work must continue, it seems to me to be vital that this get done. Will it?

    I am sure it will which is why I am (on the whole) optimistic and not disheartened. I fail to see how a warning of how things COULD go wrong equals a claim that they have gone wrong. Nothing you argue refutes the (obvious) fact that you have not yet published a work with the scope or on the level of the “Design Inference.” I am sure you will, look forward to it, and view it as vital.

    The two books you mention are edited collections. I do not see how the articles in them (many of which are written at a level appropriate to a college course)advance the arguments in the way I was suggesting needed to done.

    Your web articles are fine, do begin to advance the argument and address some critics, but mentioning them in this context is unusual. Is this publication? Maybe I am old fashioned, but it does not seem to be the kind of publication I meant.

    As for internal critique, there is some. However, I was looking for alternative notions to design more than just negative attacks on your own work. Too often these alternatives are not well enough explored because (as in any small counter-cultural) movement there is a great temptation to rally around one idea. In fact, I personally find your own ideas the most compelling yet offered, but wanted to warn against stagnation that can take place in alternative intellectual programs.

    I stand by those worries and a general call for more (and more robust) thought on the relationship between religion and science.

  3. JMNR,

    Since you’ve posted a reply, may I ask you a question? The upshot (this overstating it) of your article seemed to me that you were concerned about: (1) domains: the domain of methodological naturalism, and that of religion; and (2) that the religious dimensions (domain) needed to be more emphasized so as not to fight this issue out on MN’s “turf.”

    So, (1) did I understand you correctly (I have lots of doubts about this); and (2) if I presume that the above is correct, then why would a deeper mathematical defense of ID constitute such an “emphasis”. Obviously the two notions clash; so would you help clarify this for me?

    Thanks in advance.
    PV

  4. A main concern (not the) was that the relationship between religion and science be more carefully worked out. I have no desire to predetermine what that would look like, but I do not think enough work has been done in this area.

    If MN is an iron clad rule in a certain domain, then what is the limit of that domain?

    So I think you did misunderstand me in part. I do not think we need “more religion” so much as a better understanding of religion’s role as a knowledge tradition. In short, I am not presuming any outcome except that religion is a knowledge tradition with some role to play. Those who believe this (as I do) need to do more work to develop these ideas. That does not seem Dembski’s role. . . whatever he believes about this issue.

    A second concern related to a “second generation” of publications as good as the first. ID is (as I pointed out) a broader idea which can even support non-theistic accounts of nature (as some believe they find in Plato. . . see my UPA book for more on this). Dembski doing his thing (bless it!) would not help with my first concern (they are not directly related), but it would deal with a different concern: that ID not stagnate with a list of “holy books.” I don’t think we will. . . but then other movements have. I think it a temptation of the out numbered! (“Rally around the flag boys!”)

  5. JMNR: Thanks for the clarifications.

    I think new books will help. But, frankly, I think that science itself will be the biggest help. The work they’re doing siRNA (I think it translates to “small, interfering RNA) is incredible. It’s opened a whole new chapter in understanding the workings of the cell and the kind of “communicating” that takes place at the cellular level. They’re discovering, you might say, layers of feedback that suggests to them that when working on the cell they’re really dealing with something like a computer. The carry over to information theory and ID is, I think, rather obvious. The scientists themselves continue to think in Darwinian terms, but I just think that science will discover so much, that finally Darwinism will need to be let go of.

    Further reflections on all this takes me in the direction of thinking that ultimately science will discover “blocks” of information (not only genomic, but also in single-stranded RNA systems, too) that are “irreducible.” Then the question will be, Whence comes these blocks?

    As people of faith, the answer will be very clear to us. For those without faith, I strongly suspect that they will just simply continue to believe that “evolution did it.”

    So, will this break the “monopoly” that MN has on our society (which is, by the way, what I suspect you’re more fundamentally concerned with–no pun intended)? Well, I don’t think it will make it go completely away. But I think that Richard Dawkins will no longer feel “respectable” as an atheist–if you catch my drift.

  6. I agree with everything in the last comment. Look, papers are written a year before they are published. I am not thrilled if (because of the timing post Bush) I look like I am piling on Bill. In fact, the piece (I thought) was on the whole praising the work ID folk have done to date. Given my high regard for Bill (which I tried to express), the piece did not seem worthy of passing by his attention. However, on further reflection, since I mentioned Bill by name, I wish I had.

    I am NOT critical of more pop publications. I argued, in fact, that it is necessary for folk like Bill to write this sort of thing (including blogging).

    Sadly for Bill, he has both to be pop “father” (to keep the crazies out if for no other reason)and top flight writing. We are all over worked. Bill has done some top flight writing since his seminal work (work that is not popular level as he mentioned), but I am urging the “follow up.” I am glad that it is coming and believe it is coming. My point was not to doubt it, but to encourage administrators and givers to help to come more quickly!

    I guess I am writing for my students and the next generation. They know we are rag-tag group that is very good and tries to make good arguments. They know we are financially and numerically out-gunned. They also are excited (often!) by our ideas. (I would rather have that than the first!) However, we cannot pretend that they do not wish for more. . . or at least know that we hope for more and are striving for it.

    ID has not yet done the “bad things” I suggest in the article. (The fact that Bill’s monograph is not yet out does not imply it will not be. . . just that we need it!)

    These problems are (I think) always dangers to “fringe” groups, including groups later found to be right. That was my point.

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