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Ruse / Dembski Debate at the University of Oklahoma

Tonight at the University of Oklahoma there was a debate between Michael Ruse and William Dembski. I must say, it was one of the most cordial events I’ve been at, especially compared to last week’s event, where the question and answer session got pretty ugly. The topic was whether or not Intelligent Design was science. I tried to write down the gist of the debating points, so a summary of the debate follows.

Introduction
The speaker gave a nice introduction, and pointed out that the arguments of Paley and Darwin go back over a century, and that the topic is still one for controversy even a century later.

Dembski

Started talking about the “received wisdom” that most of the scientific establishment holds – that Darwin gave biology a sound scientific basis because he used natural rather than supernatural causes. Pointed out that there might be an excluded middle.

Then he talked about non-supernatural design inferences in biology, including Orgel and Crick’s directed panspermia, and Dawkin’s allowance for alien design. He then pointed out that we have real designed genomes in Ventor’s synthetic genomes. Ventor even includes watermarks, so that his designs are detectable. This at least tells us that design inferences in biology at least may be possible.

He then went on to talk about Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and the molecular machines. He mentioned that the cell has robotic manufacturing plants, information-processing systems, nano-motors, transportation/distribution systems, and automated parcel addressing.

Then he asked, how do multipart, functionally integrated, non-simplifiable systems arise?

Historically, ID has been excluded because it was thought that Darwinism makes ID superfluous as an explanation. But, the challenge of nano-machines means that natural selection no longer has the explanatory power it once had. As such, it allows for design to be a non-superfluous explanation.

He then points out that many people in biology, including Dawkins and Crick, have pointed out the appearance of design in biology. He said ID is “cashing out” on this intuition.

He was running out of time, but then gave a short description of design detection and his own work on detecting design.

Ruse

Ruse was very cordial towards Dembski, even praising his book The Design Inference as a valuable contribution to science.

Ruse then made a distinction between the possibility that ID is “true or needed” and whether it is “science”.

He then goes about defining ID. He starts with Phillip Johnson, who pointed out ID’s complaints with neo-Darwinism (natural selection, origin of life, and the fossil record), and then moves on to Behe, which provides a better account of what ID is (IC and other criteria).

Ruse’s main point was that the design inference, in the case of biology, does not lead to a naturalistic designer, and therefore is not science. It might be true, but it is not scientific because the only available designer would be God.

Ruse also notes that science cannot allow miracles, but that this doesn’t mean that miracles are false. Ruse grants that there are meaningful events that are non-scientific.

Dembski’s Rebuttal

Dembski noted that design is the logical counterpart to Darwin, and that evidence in Darwinism is usually given in contrast to design.

Dembski also pointed out that the rules of science have changed repeatedly. He gave the example of quantum mechanics where chance moved from its previous designation as simply an expression of ignorance, to a fundamental part of science.

He also mentioned that ID doesn’t have to be “realist” in order to be useful – it can be useful in an “instrumental” definition of science. [Realism means that the terms refer to real things, and instrumentalism means that the terms are useful description to aid in understanding - his point, I think, was that design is a useful construct for investigation even if you don't take the designer as a real entity]

Dembski also pointed out that the design argument actually goes back to aristotle, who distinguished between form as a result of internal causes, and form imposed from the outside.

Dembski ended by pointing out that scientists should be seeking the truth and not worrying about philosophical restrictions.

Ruse’s Rebuttal

Ruse argued that design was a valid category, and that Dembski’s design inference is a legitimate scientific enterprise, but that ID crosses the line when the designer that it infers only has a supernatural possibility.

Q&A

I didn’t take notes on the Q&A because I was in line with a question, so I’ll only talk about my own question, although there were many other good questions. I asked Ruse that since he considers the design inference as valid, if it wasn’t dangerous to not allow the application of a legitimate methodology if they don’t like the answer.

Ruse and I went back and forth, and what I think he was getting at was that he didn’t think that Dembski’s design inference was valid to go all the way back to a designer, but was only valid to detect an “appearance” of design. However, he kind of contradicted that when he said that it was valid to infer a designer of, for instance, a microphone. Anyway, that’s how I remember the exchange.

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23 Responses to Ruse / Dembski Debate at the University of Oklahoma

  1. I have gone back and forth in my own mind about this. There were times when I felt that it might make ID more palatable if its proponents made the distinction that criticisms of Darwinism on scientific grounds (Denton, Behe, Wells, Axe, etc.) was science, so that scientifically we are left with the same “We don’t know” when it comes to the evolution of life that we are faced with when it comes to its origin. Then when ID is proposed as an explanation, it would be said that we have left the realm of science.

    On the other hand, as Kuhn pointed out, once accepted, a scientific theory is never abandoned until there is another to replace it, no matter how overwhelming the evidence against it. So on balance, my position right now is that it is better to call ID science.

    Ultimately, I believe that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the honest search for truth, whatever you label it. I for one, am convinced that ID is a lot closer to that goal than Darwinism ever was.

  2. Will there be any audio from this debate?

  3. In principle, there is nothing unscientific about investigating various means of detecting design and certainly no reason to object to it or attempt to block it.

    The ability to detect it reliably, however, depends crucially on the assumption that there are properties of design which are common to all examples of it and which distinguish it from that which is not-designed. Man-made aircraft, for example, have properties which distinguish them from birds or fruit-bats which are not man-made. While this assumption may be true, the problem is that, as yet, we only have one certain example of intelligent design on which to base it and that is what we ourselves design.

    As we all know, in William Paley’s famous example of the watch found on the heath, he argued that the traveler would recognize it as designed even if he had never seen a watch before and this is almost certainly true. That recognition, however, arguably depends on two broad observations: the first is that the watch has a number of properties which are very similar to those of other devices designed by humans and different from objects in the natural world which, so far as we know, are not designed by humans.

    A counter-example to Paley’s watch might be to note that in certain TV science-fiction shows like Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 artificial crystals are employed as fictional information storage devices. The question is, if a time-traveler from one of those worlds went back to 18th-century England and accidentally dropped one of those crystals and left it behind on the heath, would the walker who found it recognize it as artificial? After all, crystals occur naturally although not usually in so clean and regular as form as those in the shows. The walker might wonder how the crystal came to be there but might he not conclude that it was just a very clean example of a natural crystal or perhaps just something shaped like that as an ornament by a human craftsman? In other words, although it was designed, it is not so obvious because it is not much like contemporary human artefacts.

    The criticism of Paley’s case is that it proceeds by analogy which, while not a fallacy in itself, is vulnerable to the all-too-human fallacy of selective reporting. In other words, the strength of an analogical argument depends on the extent to which the cases being compared are similar. The problem is that, for whatever reason, we tend to pay much more attention to similarities than to differences. Design proponents, for example, have taken to describing the biological cell in terms of machinery which, again, is an argument by analogy. It focuses on the similarities between the organization of the biological processes in a cell and what we observe in something like a human factory. What is usually ignored, however, are the substantial differences between the cell and human technology which ought to be kept in mind if we are to form a more balanced comparison.

  4. Well done, JohnnyB.

    It sounds like a very cordial debate and Ruse sounds reasonable.

    was that the design inference, in the case of biology, does not lead to a naturalistic designer, and therefore is not science. It might be true, but it is not scientific because the only available designer would be God.

    What about in the case of Pasteur and life only coming from life? Pasteur worked with the assumption that life came from God. If he didn’t have that assumption he (and we) may never have acquired this important and very useful biological principle, one that is exponentially more useful than the ToE.

    What about in the case of physics? Thermodynamics tells us that matter/energy can’t be created. So where did it come from? The only logical source is from something outside of nature.

    ID is a testable, methodological means of describing nature and to say it’s not science is anti-science: i.e. an arbitrary and semantic attempt to hide truth.

  5. Science is a set of guidelines created by humans to try and figure out truth. Before the principles of science became almost universally accepted, there was a different system which was almost universally accepted. It stands to reason that there will be another system after science that will hopefully improve on some of its shortcomings. Deciding whether ID is science or not is mostly political. I keep looking for what makes sense in light of the information we have. Louis Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation (abiogenesis) with his swan neck flask experiment. His theory that life comes from other life has stood the test of time. Evolutionists can say that evolution is still scientific because the system starts after the creation of life. It is science but it doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t explain the origin of life.

  6. When I first encountered Dembski’s EF, it occurred to me that after ruling out natural law, assigning a very low probability, and demonstrating specification, there is one more test which most people apply before they will conclude design, and that is they must believe in the possible existence of a designer. This is, in my opinion, the heart of the disagreement, and why the issue is at its base theological.

    I think that the denial of a possible designer comes in two flavors. One is atheism. The other is a conviction that even if a possible designer exists (God), He has not (and will not) interfere in the workings of nature once nature is started (the Big Bang).

    You can see these ideas play out in the writings of people who are intellectually honest about the failure of the neo-Darwinian synthesis (eg. Lyn Margulis) or scientists who contemplate the problem of information in the origin of life, like Paul Davies. They won’t posit design, so their only recourse is to postulate yet to be discovered laws that will explain the data. I think you see echos of the belief that God hasn’t interfered even in the “front loaders” like Behe and Denton who seem to feel it necessary to assume that there was no input from the designer once life got started.

    For myself, my theology includes the existence of non-physical beings more highly evolved than we who are capable of affecting the physical world (call them angels if you like). I believe that it is quite possible that they are the designers and engineers of life. Thus, I have no problem with the idea that each new form that appears in the fossil record was created at the time it first appeared on earth.

    Also, there is always the possibility that an atheist, in contemplating the scientific discoveries of the last 60 years or so, will change his or her mind. Antony Flew did this, and he is one of my heroes.

  7. Seversky, doesn’t you artificial crystals example pretty describe the situation between the biologists of Darwin’s day and the cell? At the time, the cell was understood as being so simple that most people never considered it as being anything but “natural.” But now, with our advances in technology providing us with the ability to see that even the simplest cell rivals the complexity of a large sophisticated factory, it seems reasonable to recognize that the cell was designed.

  8. Seversky (#3),

    I agree with most of what you say. There was a time when your last paragraph contained a powerful argument. As we have understood more about the cell, the argument has grown weaker, but has not completely disappeared. Outboard motors have many similarities to flagella, but are not exactly like them. One could rationally argue that one of the differences was the lack of a designer for the flagella.

    However, now that we are able to create any genetic code we desire, and put it into cells and have it become functional, the case for there being a possible flawed analogy between life and human inventions has collapsed, at least in the case of genes. The fact is, genes are not just like human inventions like code; they actually can be human inventions. Thus intelligent design is not just a hypothesized, but known, cause of genetic variation.

    That means that unguided evolution must now prove, or more precisely reasonably demonstrate its case. Those arguing for it cannot longer honestly argue that there is no other known process that can account for major genetic variation, so their theory wins by default. From what I have seen, they are not up to demonstrating the adequacy of their case. It is reasonable for someone do believe that intelligent design has more evidence in its favor.

    Bruce David (#6),

    I agree with your post, especially the first paragraph. In fact, you state the base, or heart, of the issue too kindly.

    Detection of design should be uncontroversial. There is a prima facie case for design that can be made. This is recognized by Dawkins, G. G. Simpson, and implicitly Francis Crick. The real problem, as johnnyb summarized Ruse as saying, is that

    Ruse’s main point was that the design inference, in the case of biology, does not lead to a naturalistic designer, and therefore is not science. It might be true, but it is not scientific because the only available designer would be God.

    Those who cannot have a God who interacts with His creation simply cannot accept the design inference, because they are afraid of where it will ultimately lead; to an interventionist God. This is true even if the specific designers of life or its variety are not God. For the question of “Who designed the designer?” now applies in full force (like it doesn’t for an eternal God), and at a maximum of some 20 billion years, and probably earlier, it leaves them with a designer whose intelligence does not depend on the organization of matter inside of our universe. That would mean, in an important sense, a supernatural being.

    That is the reason why they don’t like the space alien theory. Space aliens could be, for all we know, every bit as natural as humans (however natural that is). But if human intelligence required space aliens to start and/or nurse it along, then presumably the space aliens also required an advanced intelligence, and so on until the intelligence clearly becomes supernatural. So space aliens are an intriguing possibility, as long as they are natural and arose by some kind of evolutionary process. But if the evidence points to God, then it must be denied legitimacy,

    If that was really Ruse’s defense, then ID has almost won. Admitting that the ID arguments make scientific sense, but we must oppose them on religious grounds, is a recipe for a collapse of the entire program of naturalism. This is particularly true when the vast majority of the country do not share Ruse’s views on religion. In fact, if this became well-known, the vast majority of the world would not share Ruse’s views. For most of those who believe in naturalistic evolution do so because they believe that they are on the side of science against religion. If they realized it was the reverse, I daresay many would switch sides.

    johnnyb,

    Thanks.

  9. The problem with Ruse’s argument is that ID is about the DESIGN not the designer.

    That DESIGN exists in the physical world and is therefor open to scientific investigation.

    Now if the data leads us to something beyond or before nature, so be it.

    However even Ruse’s position regresses to thta SAME point.

    Just once I would love to see an IDist “hit” their debate opponent with that fact and see what happens.

  10. Isn’t it true that an early argument against the Big Bang theory was that it had unpleasant philosophical and religious implications?

  11. Isn’t it true that an early argument against the Big Bang theory was that it had unpleasant philosophical and religious implications?

    Yes, in fact the term “Big Bang” was meant as a bit of a smear.

    And for a bit of irony it was coined by Fred Hoyle who also gave us the phrase “tornado in a junkyard” that on occasion is referenced here.

    Hoyle was an atheist when he coined “the Big Bang” and eventually came to believe that a super-intelligence was required to make the universe.

    The Big Bang theory, of course, was conceived by Georges Lemaître, who was a Catholic priest.

  12. Something else to ponder — neither Hoyle nor Lemaître won a Nobel Prize.

  13. Even more ironic… it’s possible that Fred Hoyle was the first to use the term “intelligent design” in a manner much like it is used today:
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....s_has.html

  14. 14

    “Kendalf” wrote: “it’s possible that Fred Hoyle was the first to use the term “intelligent design” in a manner much like it is used today…”

    In 1908, a prolific New York author named John Phin wrote a book with the wonderful title “The evolution of the atmosphere as a proof of design and purpose in the creation, and of the existence of a personal God; A simple and rigorously scientific reply to modern materialistic atheism.”

    One of the chapters is titled “Intelligent Design” and contains the sentence “…it must be equally obvious that if we find strong and unmistakable evidence of intelligent and controlling design in the earliest stages of the development of this planet, that evidence applies with equal force to the existence of a designer…” This was written long before Fred Hoyle or Guillermo Gonzalez (“Privileged Planet“) were born.

    (See http://www.bioscience.ws/encyc.....=John_Phin)

  15. Quoting johnnyb paraphrasing Ruse:

    “Ruse’s main point was that the design inference, in the case of biology, does not lead to a naturalistic designer, and therefore is not science. It might be true, but it is not scientific because the only available designer would be God.”

    I am reminded of the following quotation (I keep lists of quotations on my computer, I am a super nerd):

    “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… [and] just-so stories, because we have an a priori commitment…to materialism…no matter how counter-intuitive…Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door,” R. Lewontin, The New York Review of Books 44.1 (1/9/1997), 31

    I find it interesting that Ruse rests an argument on his own presuppositions sans argument for materialism. Thought I’d add someone else’s two cents.

  16. 16

    The thing that always gets me is the term “supernatural.” You notice Ruse didn’t use the word unnatural or non-natural- he said super natural. The universe is an amazingly super place- in that sense of the word. ID points to the amazing system of DNA- to the stars and the fine tuning that allows for life to even exist much less prosper to the extent that it has.

    Higher level thinkers devote their minds almost entirely to the “super” questions – like Dark matter- gravity- and any question we have yet to fully understand. Einstein and in particular Isaac Newton found the world full of a super presence.

    The question here is not whether super natural explanations should be allowed in the science class- the question here is design. Is there room for a design inference? And should people be able to think and say what they naturally want without someone else precedence silencing them?

    The universe IS supernatural. Even the materialists admit matter came out of “nothing”- that there was a beginning to existence. This is not something that can be tested- it is not something that has ever been witnessed- so science itself at its most fundamental level rests on a supernatural model.

    Yet my point is “so be it” its still natural- because its still rational and based upon experience.

    Personally I think Fuller is right when he looks at this debate froma sociological perspective. I think this is an issue of politics more so than science and or religion. ID opens up people’s minds- teaches them how to think forthemselves and not to accept no for an answer- that there can and do exist questions that have yet to be answered.

    It is an issue of freedom.

  17. 17

    The trouble with calling some issue or conflict politics is that politics (which I regard as encompassing all the myriad ways in which groups make decisions or take action) cannot be fully understood unless one understands the underlying motivations of the individuals involved in the political activity in question. These of course run the gamut from the basest to the loftiest motives. So if you call something politics and leave it at that, you have neglected an essential part of the situation–what are the underlying motivations of the actors in the political drama.

    It is my view that on the Darwinist side, one of the major motives is defense of atheism, which in many cases goes right to the heart of their sense of personal identity, which people will usually defend with great passion. There is also a strong need to be right, which in many people is also a very strong motivator. I think that there can be a genuine fear of religion as well–a belief that religion, if not held in check, will limit the freedom of science to pursue the evidence wherever it leads (kind of ironic, wouldn’t you say?). Based on the writings of some Darwinists, it’s pretty clear that many see this as a war between the forces of light (science) and the forces of darkness and ignorance (religion).

    On the ID side, I think that in many cases there really is a genuine desire to discover the truth. I also think that there is often mixed in with this is if not a desire to promote a Christian perspective, at the least a certain glee that the evidence seems to point to the existence of a Creator, and in some cases, there is clearly a desire to forward a Christian renewal in America and the world.

    For myself, being a theist but not a Christian (or member of any religion), I am thrilled that the scientific developments of the last six or seven decades, including but not limited to the failure of Darwinism, point strongly to the existence of God. I think that this is absolutely stunning news, and that it heralds a new birth of spirituality on the planet.

  18. 18

    Bruce David notes: “On the ID side, I think that…there is often mixed in with this is if not a desire to promote a Christian perspective, …and in some cases, there is clearly a desire to forward a Christian renewal in America and the world.

    This has been noticed by others who have also read the Wedge Document. There really should be more separation between Christian apologetics and the science of ID, lest this connection remain too obvious.

  19. Re Seversky, no 3:

    A counter-example to Paley’s watch might be to note that in certain TV science-fiction shows like Babylon 5 and Stargate SG-1 artificial crystals are employed as fictional information storage devices. The question is, if a time-traveler from one of those worlds went back to 18th-century England and accidentally dropped one of those crystals and left it behind on the heath, would the walker who found it recognize it as artificial? . . . .

    The criticism of Paley’s case is that it proceeds by analogy which, while not a fallacy in itself, is vulnerable to the all-too-human fallacy of selective reporting. In other words, the strength of an analogical argument depends on the extent to which the cases being compared are similar. The problem is that, for whatever reason, we tend to pay much more attention to similarities than to differences. Design proponents, for example, have taken to describing the biological cell in terms of machinery which, again, is an argument by analogy. It focuses on the similarities between the organization of the biological processes in a cell and what we observe in something like a human factory. What is usually ignored, however, are the substantial differences between the cell and human technology which ought to be kept in mind if we are to form a more balanced comparison.

    1 –> The design inference explanatory filter is deliberately biased towards false negatives, to enhance reliability when it rules positively. So, that a false negative might occur is irrelevant.

    2 –> Also, in effect the imaginary data crystals store codes. |If we do not recognise a case of coding, we are under no epistemic obligation to try to explain it one way or another. [That is, if you don't see the CODING ASPECT, you are perfectly correct to infer that this is a crystal, and crystals are often formed by mechanical necessity.)

    3 --> But, when we do see an algorithmic digital code,that shifts the issue significantly. So, the "analogy" claim loses any warrant it may have when we see functionally specific digital complex information. And, int eh cell, that is exactly what DNA holds. the coded information in DNA is not "analogous" to a code, it INSTANTIATES a code. (So much so that Ventner recently has used the code to put a watermark into DNA.)

    4 --> To have a code, you must have high contingency -- which is the precise opposite of what natural regularities due to mechanical forces of electrostatic attraction etc do in making crystals. (To get a code into those data crystals will require a technology to impress upon them a meaningful irregularity, e.g. some sort of holographic pattern of point or planar or magnetic bubble etc defects. [Remember magnetic bubble memories?])

    5 –> Such high contingency comes of two known sources: credibly undirected or directed. But to get not only a complex pattern of irregularities but to have them express a meaningful code on the scope of at least 1,000 bits is to go beyond the search resources of he available cosmos to the point where the observed cosmos acting as search engine would not be able to scan as much as 1 in 10^150 of the search space.

    6 –> So if we see functionally specific complex information [FSCI] beyond 1,000 bits of storage capacity, and in light of the routinely observed source of such FSCI, we have good reason to infer per best explanation to intelligent design, i.e directed contingency. And DNA is well beyond that threshold.

    7 –> Now, going further, DNA does not exist by itself. It is embedded in a functional interface matrix, and it works with an array of molecular entities that maintain it, unzip it, template off it, and use the templates to step by step construct proteins. Those are algorithmic processes and those are molecular scale nanomachines — not merely analogically, but functionally — that together constitute a digitally coded, algorithm-implementing device; i.e. a computer. Not an analogy, an instantiation, albeit using a technology far removed from silicon chips and transistor-based gates. [But then, digital computers have been implemented using mechanical gears and cogs etc, relays and even fluidic devices. there is no reason why informational molecules should not be used to do the same.]

    8 –> So, we are not reasoning by mere analogy, we are looking at instantiations of an abstract entity, an algorithm executing device, using various technologies. And in this case, using informational polymer molecules.

    9 –> So, we have stumbled — not on Paley’s watch in a field — but upon a digital, molecular nano-technology computer in the heart of the cell. And embedding digitally coded information far beyond the FSCI threshold where we can be strongly confident that the code is not the result of lucky noise.

    THAT is what has to be faced and squarely addressed, and that is exactly what is not being so faced or addressed.

    Finally, while such diecoveries in the heart of cell based life are not metaphysically decisive — as has been underscored by design thinkers ever since Thaxton et al in 1984 — they do shift the credibiity of live option explanations significantly. And in particular, they make the evolutionarty materiealist account of origins of life and of body plan level biodivrsity, much less the onward claim that that can account for a credible brain electro-chemistry based merely emergent or epiphenomenal mind, that much less credible.

    The tide is shifting as we speak.

    GEM of TKI

    PS: Seversky, I have responded to your claims in the other thread.

  20. PaulBurnett

    And, what then are we to make of:

    We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. [Lewontin, 1997, NY Review of Books. The US NAS has now3 made official statements that "make it official."]

    In short, if you want to play at motive-mongering, that goes two ways. And in this case, the guys with the sticks to beat their opponents down with by force — and a track record of so acting — are not the ID supporters.

    So, let us stick to the merits of the case instead.

    GEM of TKI

  21. Bruce David, nice post at 17.

  22. 22
    George L Farquhar

    Kariosfocus

    And in this case, the guys with the sticks to beat their opponents down with by force — and a track record of so acting — are not the ID supporters.

    Are you saying that physical violence has been used against ID supporters? And on a regular (hence the “track record”) basis?

    If so, I’m shocked. Can you supply further details? This deserves wider publicity.

  23. Was this debate recorded? Where can we find it please?

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