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Calling Dennett’s Bluff

When it comes to the evolution-ID controversy, Daniel Dennett seems to forget that he is a philosopher, foregoing rigorous argumentation for bold, but unsupported, assertions. In his recent New York Times piece (“Show Me the Science,” 28Aug05, go here), he remarks:

William Dembski, one of the most vocal supporters of intelligent design, notes that he provoked Thomas Schneider, a biologist, into a response that Dr. Dembski characterizes as “some hair-splitting that could only look ridiculous to outsider observers.” What looks to scientists — and is — a knockout objection by Dr. Schneider is portrayed to most everyone else as ridiculous hair-splitting.

The rhetoric of “knock-out objections” is unfortunately all too common in this debate. Let me encourage readers to check things out for themselves. You can read what Schneider was arguing here. For my refutation, look at chapter 4 of my book No Free Lunch. I’ve since shown how Schneider’s claims fail much more generally (go here). Ian Strachan, an expert in computational intelligence, has written the most detailed refutation of Schneider’s work to date — go here (note that Schneider has never adequately responded to it).

For more on calling Dennett’s bluff, go here.

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19 Responses to Calling Dennett’s Bluff

  1. The particulars of your and Strachan’s exchange with Schneider are beyond my sphere of competency, but the main thrust of Dennett’s critique interests me (though I generally disagree with most of Dennett’s writings on evolution; “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” for example, is of little value, see Plantiga’s review at http://id-www.ucsb.edu/fscf/li.....nnett.html).

    It is not enough to refute Darwinism (e.g., Behe). There must be positive evidence for design. Perhaps your design inference accomplishes that, but I have not fully digested the argument yet (the deficiency being entirely my own). But even assuming the soundness of your argument, can any verifiable predictions be made? Doesn’t science involve predictions derived from theory? What are ID’s predictions?

  2. I’m sure someone more competent than I can respond to Ariston’s question about predictions, but I’ll give a short response that immediately comes to mind. Consider SETI. If a radio message was received by SETI researchers that was undeniably of intelligent origin, there very well may be nothing that could be predicted on the basis of the message. It would depend on the content of the message, now wouldn’t it? And yet, irrespective of whether predictions could be made, SETI researchers would be able to make a valid inference of design. I don’t see any reason why ID should be held to any higher standard. Whether or not design can be reliably detected in biological systems is the issue — no matter where that takes you (or doesn’t take you). Furthermore, I think it is premature to decide now that the detection of design in biology would have no application or would allow no predictions. It depends.

  3. Behe showed that irreducible complexity is a reliable hallmark of intelligent design. Irreducible complexity is, therefore, positive evidence for design.

    Denouncing ID for lacking predictive power commits a category error. Perhaps you could likewise show predictive power for any evolutionary hypothesis, other than “some genes mutate, some individuals die, QED?”

  4. Behe showed that irreducible complexity is a reliable hallmark of intelligent design.

    In 1918, Hermann Muller predicted IC as a consequence of evolution. See Genetic variability, twin hybrids and constant hybrids, in a case of balanced lethal factors, Genetics 3:422-499. From p.464:

    thus a complicated machine was gradually built up whose effective working was dependent upon the interlocking action of very numerous different elementary parts or factors, and many of the characters and factors which, when new, were originally merely an asset finally became necessary because other necessary characters and factors had subsequently become changed so as to be dependent on the former. It must result, in consequence, that a dropping out of, or even a slight change in any one of these parts is very likely to disturb fatally the whole machinery;

    Perhaps you could likewise show predictive power for any evolutionary hypothesis

    How about: living beings can naturally be classified using a nested hierarchy. This nested hierarchy is the same whether one studies homologous forelimb bones, differences in the gene for Cytochrome C, or non-coding DNA.
    How about: evolution (allele frequency change over time) occurs more rapidly in smaller populations.
    How about: if a population is split in two, and the two sub-populations are kept in identical environments but separate from each other, then after N generations or so, genetic drift will prevent the two subpopulations from interbreeding, even if they are reunited.
    How about: if one discovers a new flower with nectar at the bottom of a 6″-deep narrow cup, it is likely that in that same area, there lives a species of insect with a 6″ proboscis.
    How about: the brain structures used for speech in humans also exist in other species, but are used for a different purpose.

    Now, what predictions does ID make?

  5. “It is not enough to refute Darwinism (e.g., Behe). There must be positive evidence for design.”

    Yes and no. Actually, the evidence for design is so overwhelming that almost all authors (including even Dawkins) mention how much the animal world looks as if it were designed. I don’t think that there’s anyone who disagrees with this. Therefore, the burden of proof goes to those who say there is no design. Without any mechanism that can produce complex design on its own, the proof goes overwhelmingly in the direction of design. The only thing that makes the evolutionist’s “no design” idea hold water is that they supposedly have a mechanism that can do this. Without that mechanism there is nothing at all that refutes what nearly every biologist has written about the appearance of design in living organisms.

  6. 6

    Given that there are really only two options, I would think refuting Darwinism would be enough.

  7. Dennett is a science wannabe. It’s interesting… I thought you were not supposed to comment on the evo debate unless you had PhD in Biology?


  8. Hello chums! I just posted on the previous post, but I don’t know who looks at what.

    I’m taking a look at boths sides of the debate, and I was just wondering if any of the folks round here can help with something that occurred to me with Dembski’s cutting up of Dennett’s position:

    1) Ok – I read, on this site,that the Designer must be non-embodied – I don’t understand that. If it’s nonembodied, how can it communicate its intentions to the “flesh”? Isn’t this just reproducing an old problem, Descartes dualism? What are its “hands,” i.e. – how does the Designer get its Design into organisms, if it itself has no body. Please, I’m not being sarcastic! I don’t get it. We are trying to avoid the idiocies of the dogmas of metaphysical naturalism, but at the same time trying to do some science. So what is the scientific way to answer this dilemma? I know we can’t import God or Spirit, etc, but there’s got to be a way to give an answer that is falsifiable.

    If we cannot, then it seems we are criticising small minded evolutionists for introducing metaphysical absurdities (mere chance + natural selection can produce apparently designed creatures), with another metaphysical absurdity (the Designer has no body, and is some Aristotelian demiurge or disembodied Intellect without a nervous system,yet still interacts with matter/life and can ‘touch’ it somehow, etc).

    I guess it seems possible that we could argue that the latter paradox is less of a paradox than the former, and thus although neither side is perfec, the ID position requires the least violation of reason or logic.

    Shorter version: I am very interested in this Desinger, and good science simply doesn’t stop with Its mere existence. Kant tried to stop with the Thing in itself, and ran into all sorts of silliness, and I know we can avoid his goofs.

    thanks, Chumley.

  9. Sorry about my bad spelling. I will avoid it in the future. The font is a little tough to read, I keep adjusting it.

    If I have to keep my comments strictly to Dennett’s mistakes, I apologize. I’m brand new here, and I didn’t see any rules. But the responders here seem pretty informed. And after all, professor Dembski is onto something…

    thanks, Chumley

  10. 10

    On prediction

    I’d appreciate a little help with a couple questions.

    First, with macro evolution we are dealing with alleged past historical events. When lay people talk about “predictions,” they almost always are thinking about future events. So I think [please correct me here] that when scientists talk about theories predicting something, they are not trying to predict what happened in the past, but rather they are predicting what evidence will turn up—if certain currently unknown evidence is ever found.

    If I’ve got that about right, then when conducting debates in front of lay people, I urge folks to either use some different terminology, or else be clear and repetitive in defining ‘predictions.’

  11. 11

    On predictions about genetic changes and the evidence needed for proof—

    The ‘nothing but particles and physics’ crowd never talks in anything but vague generalities. I believe the most effective tactic with lay people is to focus on specifics. Doing that will make the ‘nothing but particles and physics’ crowd squeal and squirm.

    What exactly is predicted about feasibly-obtainable evidence that will prove the following series of historical events actually occurred as I describe them?

    1. At some time millions of years ago, a species of critters lived that totally lacked vision [Critters V.1].

    2. One day a momma critter got pregnant, but in the process a foul up occurred in the DNA copying or some other inheritable code and the baby critter [Critter v.2] was born with a birth defect. This DNA defect [to pick at random one of the 22 or so steps that Behe describes; by my count, the step I next describe is number 4; the photon hitting the retina being step 1] caused transducin molecules (at least those located where the eye will eventually evolve) to, from then on, “let go” of a GDP molecule to which transducin is tightly bound, if transducin is ever bumped into by a protein called metarhodopsin II, which has not yet evolved.

    3. The baby Critter V.2 grows up to have babies, and passes along the changed DNA, and these babies and their descendants with the changed DNA survive to their child-bearing years at higher rates than the non-changed descendants of Critter Alpha. They survive at higher rates because the thing that happened to the transducin molecules either helps the Critter better fight off predators, or survive better during climate changes, or survive better during a famine, or something like that.

    4. For some reason, eventually all the Critter V.1 die out and the only form remaining is Critter V.2.

    5. Some years later, a Mother Critter V.2 gives birth to a Baby Critter who has a birth defect [Critter V.3]. Let’s at random pick what, by my count, is step 15 or so in Behe’s explanation. Specifically, a defect in the DNA causes a protein called guanylate cyclase to (a) respond when calcium levels fall below a certain point [but such changes in calcium levels may not have yet evolved] and (b) then go and resynthesize cGMP [which also may have not yet evolved—but once it does evolve, the guanylate cyclase will be ready to do the resynthesizing, whatever that means].

    6. The baby Critter V.3 grows up to have babies, and passes along the changed DNA, and these babies and their descendants with the changed DNA survive to their child-bearing years at higher rates than the non-changed descendants of Critter V.2. For some reason, eventually all the Critter V.2 die out and the only form remaining is Critter V.3.

    7. This evolutionary process continues until all 22 or so steps have evolved, at which point “vision” is ready to occur. This assumes the other components of vision not described by Behe have already also evolved; if not, this 22-step evolution will have to wait until the rest evolves before Critter V.1,000,000—the final form—has vision.

    Is this what the ‘nothing but particles and physics’ crowd believe happened in history. If not, what–at the same level of specificity–is what they believe? What exactly are we supposed to teach in biology about RM and NS if not this?

    When I asked John Derbyshire about my Critter evolution scenario February [and I see that he is debating someone from Discovery on September 14] his response was:

    “I have no idea.

    “The best theories of mutation are much more subtle than that, essentially involving “side-effect” changes in gene drift (sickle-cell anemia is the classic case). As I said, the mechanisms are not well understood, though they are being clarified all the time by work on genetics. I should say that standard-model evolution is in much better shape at the moment than atomic theory was in 1905.

    “None of which has much to do with the fact that “God made it happen!”, while it might be plausible metaphysics, is not a scientific theory.”

    Notice how totally vague this is!! What is the ‘theory’ that nearly all scientists are absolutely certain about?

    Of course, there is not a shred of “observable” evidence on which these convictions and hope-to-Darwin it better be true beliefs are based.

  12. Chumley here:

    Are there any open threads? I’m curious, do we have any problems with Plate Tectonics or other branches of the life sciences. I mean, we all know the issues with radiometric dating. Why couldn’t the lack of a suitable single law for Non-Newtonian fluids be itself evidence of the Designer? Netwonian fluids seem acceptably defined, but I tell you – something as simple as Jelly poses big problems for physics.
    And blood is critical biological entity.

    Does the Design Inference only apply to Life? Need it be so restricted? I think it would very informative to extend the Inference and see evidence of irreducible complexity in situations as simple as jelly, blood flow, and other Non-Newtontian fluids, to give one example. Another might simply be Schrodinger’s wave equation – unsolvable. After all, if quantum physicists are reduced to truly absurd statements such as light is either a wave, a particle, or the Cat isn’t alive or dead until an observer looks – sheesh!

    Forget evolutionists! The King of the Sciences, Physics, seems a joke! NOw, I realize one could respond by asserting the Universe is too complex for humans and that its laws are irreducibly complex, too, but maybe we can do something with quantum physics as well. Such intellecutal shoddiness in physics shouldn’t slide. But I digress, I’m sure I will be told that we are only targeting biology. But if the Designer set up the laws or somehow created life forms, he is interacting the laws of physics to accomplish this. So I would think we owe the metaphysical naturalists an account of how the Designer interacts with the Laws of Physics.

    thanks, Chumley

  13. [...] Recently Dr. William Dembski wrote “Calling Dennett’s Bluff” http://www.uncommondescent.com.....chives/282 [...]

  14. What’s really amusing is the number of evolutionists that point me to this post on the eye:


    If you read closely, he believes that you can truly go from “eyespot” to eye in TWO mutations. This is cited by Talk.Origins here:


    which I find quite amusing. Apparently if you are willfully ignorant of eye biology and genetics, you can believe that they eye could easily evolve multiple times, and this makes you more “scientific”.

  15. Chumley

    Where did you read that a designer must be non-embodied? That is a mistake. Nothing in ID characterizes the designer. ID is about detecting design not describing methods of design.

    However, if one demands hypothetical mechanisms for accomplishing design I might suggest reading up on genetic engineering. Science has demonstrated many ways in which genetic information can be manipulated for a specific purpose by intelligent agents. Viral vectors are one of those routes. Ostensibly a designer need only introduce a virus into any given population to effect widespread genetic change.

  16. DaveScot-

    Thanks for the reply.

    Here is Dembski’s quote:

    Darwinists take this present lack of insight into the workings of an unembodied designer not as remediable ignorance on our part and not as evidence that the designer’s capacities far outstrip ours, but as proof that there is no unembodied designer (at least none relevant to biology).http://www.arn.org/docs/dembsk.....stable.htm

    I haven’t read the whole thing, so perhaps the unembodied bit is just to make a point.

    My point, however, is clearly that we cannot convince anybody that we’re doing SCIENCE if we start using this kind of language. If the Designer is a Spirit, cool. But let’s just be honest. Not all skeptics hate Truth, they just want their science in the realm of the testable. An ultra-competent designer that conveniently happens to be disembodied causes so many metaphysical problems that are just completely unnecessary to do biology, and I fear it confirms that we are smuggling religion into science, not proving bona fide alternative science that fits the facts.

    We must be honest, and yes, evolutionists are smug and condescending, etc, but we must speak plainly: it is a shortcoming in our theory if we postulate some Designer and then, in principle, refuse to discuss It/him/her any further. It’s not science. I’m a little surprised. I thought we’d done more on this option. After all, natural selection, however timid and flimsy a mechanism, is quite transparent in its assertions, and each can be verified independently. That’s cool, we can simply show the inadequacy of their mechanism.

    Now, on your second paragraph, you mention that there are ways that Science has demonstrated many ways in which genetic information can be manipulated. You’re fully right. I’m nervous, though, because it is not Science that has done it, but evolutionists, and they have used the scientific method. So you’re leaning on their work to make a point that is criticizing their approach. I’m a little uncomfortable with this. The more they learn and accomplish, we can simply piggy back on them and claim our Designer could do it too. As science progresses, will this simply be our tactic – to point to any of their work and say, “yup, the Designer did it.”

    The Design Inference may indicate design, but if all we can do is insist on principled agnosticism as to anything further, this seems like a bad road to go down. We have the facts, we have the science. It is lying there, waiting to be done. So let’s do it and not hide behind artificial lines drawn in the sand. Criticizing their mechanism is not enough to be science. We must pick up their issues and questions, and answer them. Answering questions and pushing boundaries with our way, not theirs. Then we are meeting and beating their science, and we win, and we should win.

    Any good science owes its users a ruthlessly lean set of axioms and principles. The Designer, as is, is invoked but is not defined in any conceivable way that could lead to something scientifically useful. To say that Occam’s razor requires the Designer’s existence to be merely shown and then silence ensues – well, I don’t know of any field that would accept this tactic as science. Again, I’m a bit disappointed, I thought we had a bit more work done on this point. If this is our best answer, THIS is the gaping chasm in our theory and it has to be admitted. It’s not going to lead to any articles, journals, etc. It’s the Truth, but scientifically, I fear it’s a dead end. Help me out, if you could.

    Lastly, if the Designer is embodied, then are we saying that it’s NOT Spirit? Pneuma? Soul? I’m afraid that making the Designer embodied, to allow testability, would indicate that perhaps the Designer himself/itself was designed? Subject to physical laws? It’s just a mess, far as I can see. Refusing to study the Designer is no answer at all. Personally, I am thrilled at the idea – and would love to see if there are clever designs that could be thought up to probe this area. Look at the marvelous ingenuity in the Design Inference – you’re telling me that we can’t study the Designer in some capacity? We have opened ourselves up – if we claim a Designer with intent – then we owe it to our students to specify what Intent is, or what its consciousness is, where it is, how it designs. I’m afraid we’ve reduced Biology to Psychology, and psych ain’t such a great science to begin with …

    I know this is a bit of a ramble. I apologize. Just rasslin’ with these ideas…
    thanks, Dave.

  17. Mtreat:

    About SETI, my first reaction is: NOBODY at SETI would assume an infinite intelligence, or supernaturalism in the origin of the message,etc. They’d just think, Great! Aliens are real! Let’s find a way to talk back.” And they would continue at every point of the way to assume standard metaphysical naturalism. So the analogy isn’t really that helpful, I think. Nobody would say “My goodness, its the Designer!”

    Your point reminds me of Searle’s infamous Chinese box/cards analogy, where the person reading the cards has no idea who/what is on the other side.

    I agree, it is premature to settle the issue. But it is not the evolutionists who must track down the Designer, WE must. (First of all, they don’t believe it, secondly, their frames are all askew, they wouldn’t know how to.)

    Otherwise, they can rightfully gripe that we’re just shooting bullets from the sidelines. It’s interesting to say, “We’ve got Design!” But not enough for science. It’s a wonderful platform. But it is still not science. We need more. And I think we can do it! But hope is not a plan, nor is it an epistemology. So we need to get crackin’ and publish more on this. Til then, we just can’t claim parity with the Other Side.

    My general opinion is that ID should be patient. We’re not there yet. We haven’t a corpus of findings yet, and I think we’ve got to streamline our definitions (see post below) before we start bringing sticky concepts such as consciousness, goals, intent, and even desire into biology’s mechanism.

  18. Dear arensb,

    I fail to see those as predictions of Darwinism. Perhaps you could humor me and lay out the logical structure of those claims. For example, try “Because of random mutation and natural selection, , we would expect .”


  19. “Because of random mutation and natural selection, [insert causally specific account here], we would expect [prediction logically predicated on causally specific account].”

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