A Response to William Dembski's essay "ID Coming Clean"
November 26, 2000
A persistent question which arises is that of the mechanism of ID. A common complaint about ID is that no mechanism is proposed. William Dembski, in his recent essay "ID Coming Clean" addresses this issue. In fact, the title of the piece comes from this paragraph, where Dembski acknowledges a critic, Howard Van Till, by writing,
"Van Till likes to put his concern to the intelligent design community this way: Design can have two senses, a "mind-like" sense (referring merely to conceptualization) and a "hand-like" sense (referring also to the mode of assembly); is intelligent design using design strictly in the mind-like sense or also in the hand-like sense? And if the latter, are design theorists willing to come clean and openly admit that their position commits them to extra-natural assembly? "["extra-natural assembly" being Van Till's phrase for supernatural causation]
So, Van Till wants to ask the question represented by the Discovery Institute logo - how does the hand of God reach out and touch the world? What is the mechanism of ID?
Disclaimer: I am going to describe Dembski's answer to this question. I am going to try to be factual and descriptive (except in the conclusion), but I am not going to document my assertions with quotes from the article very often. I believe that everything I say can be backed up with quotes, (although some will disagree with my interpretation,) and I will be glad to provide the same if asked.
So here we go.
1) Dembski believes the designer is the Christian God - an unembodied intelligence which I presume is omniscient and omnipotent. (Dembski dismisses embodied intelligences and panspermia theories from consideration in this essay.)
2) Dembski says that God does not act through miracles. He describes a miracle as a situation where natural causes would have changed event A to event B, but due to the intervention of God (via a "violation, spension or overriding of natural laws"), event C happens instead. Dembski is firm in stating that he does not propose that miracles are the mechanism of ID.
3) Dembski also dismisses "front-loading," - the idea that somehow all the information necessary for life was pre-existent at the Big Bang and then mechanically worked itself out at the proper time. He considers this a "logical possibility", but later dismisses it as deistic.
4) He also objects, correctly I believe, to front-loading and deism because they are based on an outdated, mechanistic "clockwork" view of the universe. We now know that the world is non-determined, because at the quantum level events happen which have no determined cause. [My example: given 100 atoms of a radioactive substance with a half-life of one year, 50 of them will decay in a year. But which 50? Each has a 50-50 chance of decay, but the actual decay event for any atom is uncaused by any prior state.]
5) So how does the designer act if miracles and front-loading are ruled out? Dembski writes of another critic, "Paul Davies expressed his doubts about intelligent design this way: 'At some point God has to move the particles.' The physical world consists of physical stuff, and for a designer to influence the arrangement of physical stuff seems to require that the designer intervene in, meddle with, or in some way coerce this physical stuff."
6) Dembski has a solution. He says that God acts by "imparting information" which affects the world at the level of non-determined events. God acts by adjusting non-determined probabilities at the quantum level. No miraculous extra-natural energy is required, and no particles are moved in contradiction to the laws of nature. Nevertheless, God guides the process, which he identifies as adding information, towards his design.
In essence, Dembski says that ID has no observable mechanism: the *effects* of God's actions can be inferred, but the actual actions themselves can never be observed because they take place at the unobservable level (even in theory) of non-determined quantum events.
7) Although Dembski doesn't explicitly mention chaos theory, he does imply it also as a way in which God can influence the world in non-miraculous ways. Chaos theory states that in certain environments, infinitely small changes in initial conditions can create vastly different results. Since God is both omniscient and omnipotent, he can not only manipulate the quantum probabilities, he can foresee the paths set off by extremely minute changes in those probabilities.
8) Dembski, then, believes that "information" is that which is imparted into the world, and which creates design. However, there is no "mechanism " - no hand of God - that can ever be observed. Design can *only* be inferred - but to ask *how* it happened is a non-question. "Intelligent design" happens, but there is never any particular "design events" that one could point to that would show when or how it happened.
9) Dembski says that Van Till's dichotomy of the mind and the hand of God leaves out a critical third aspect - the Word of God. He says that the traditional Christian trinity of "thought, word, and deed" is a mirror of God's nature, and it is through his Word that information is imperceptibly added to the world.
Demsbki writes, "Words mediate between thoughts and deeds. Words give expression to thoughts and thus bring the self in contact with the other. On the other hands, words by themselves are never coercive (without deeds to back up words, words lose their power to threaten). Nonetheless, words have the power to engender deeds not by coercion but by persuasion.
That is, the Word of God "persuades" the world to manifest design, but it does not "coerce" it by force - it moves no particles. The Word of God mediates between the thoughts of God (the conceptual design) and the deeds of God (the actual world). Without a visible mechanism, the Word of God (acting on the non-determined elements of the world) allows him to bring about his purposes and yet act totally in accordance with natural laws.
10) In a different article, "Signs of Intelligence" in Touchstone's July / August 1999 issue, Dembski is clearer about this. He concludes his article by writing,
"The world is a mirror representing the divine life. The mechanical philosophy was ever blind to this fact. Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's gospel restated in the idiom of information theory"
So there you have my summary of how the "mechanism of ID" problem is solved by Dembski. I believe personally that it is theologically very solid. It also explains why Dembski insists on the design inference as the key to his work, because he believes that in fact that is all you can do from a strictly scientific point of view (since there is no observable mechanism.)
Dembski, like Ken Miller, is invoking the non-determined nature of the world as a key to reconciling scientific and theistic viewpoints . Miller, in "Finding Darwin's God", points to this non-determined nature of the world as the vehicle by which humankind obtains free will. For Dembski, this non-determined nature is the vehicle by which *God* exercises his will, which is of course free also.
However, Dembski also feels that is is legitimate to move quickly beyond that. He wants to discuss the "sacramental nature" of our relationship with reality. In his list of questions that arise "once it is settled that certain biological systems are designed," he mentions that questions of ethics, aesthetics, God's intentions, and ultimately of God himself, while "not questions of science,...arise very quickly once design is back on the table for serious discussion."
Dembski wants to do more than reconcile science with his religion. He wants to subsume science to a more broadly theistic worldview. His claim that design can be empirically detected is, I believe, a first step in trying to claim that similar empirically-detactable conclusions can be reached about ethics, aesthetics, and so on.
In the article "Science and Design" on the Discovery Institute website, Dembski gives this example of applying "intelligent design" to other areas:
"An object that is designed functions within certain constraints. ... Transgress those constraints, and we as well as our society will suffer. There is plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that many of the attitudes and behaviors our society promotes undermine human flourishing. Design promises to reinvigorate that ethical stream running from Aristotle through Aquinas known as natural law."
Dembski and his fellow Discovery Institute colleagues have a clearly stated goal of replacing "scientific materialism" with a theistic science. They see the cultural consequences of the "triumph of materialism" as devastating. They seek to "renew science and culture" by overthrowing materialism and its cultural legacies. The theory of ID presented in "ID Coming Clean" is consistent with this larger goal.