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What is Wrong with Sober’s Attack on ID? (Part III): Ignoring the Widely Discussed Positive Predictions of Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

Philosopher Elliott Sober recently published an article entitled, “What is Wrong With Intelligent Design?” which claimed that intelligent design is not testable. In Part I, I rebutted Sober’s early history of intelligent design. Part II explained how Sober made the curious charge that auxiliary prediction weaken the testability of a scientific theory, something which Darwinists are famous for doing. This third installment will assess Sober’s characterization of ID and explain how Sober ignores positive predictions of intelligent design. Sober misses 2 key points about intelligent design, leading him to false conclusions:

(1) It’s simple: intelligent design detects the past action of intelligence, nothing more, and nothing less
Sober states: “We have no independent evidence concerning which auxiliary propositions about the putative designer’s goals and abilities are true.” That’s not correct. While the “goals” of the designer may be beyond the reach of the scientific inquiry, ID does make claims about the “abilities” of the designer. Sober then provides quotes from design-proponents, and he fails to recognize that they always refer to detecting intelligence! We understand the abilities of an intelligent agent and we understand what intelligence produces (discussed below). Sober doubly misrepresents ID: He wrongly expects ID to identify the “goals” of the designer, but then fails to recognize that ID identifies the “abilities” of the designer.

(2) Studies of intelligence show that a unique hallmark of intelligence is its ability to produce high levels of complex and specified information.
Intelligence is a feature we understand and comprehend from our studies of human intelligence in the natural world. From these studies, William Dembski explains that “the primarily, empirically verifiable thing that intelligences do is generate specified complexity.” (Dembski, The Design Revolution, pg. 194). But does the generation of specified complexity make ID testable in a “comparative” sense (see Part II) with respect to neo-Darwinism? Yes, it does.

Dembski explains that natural processes like the neo-Darwinian mechanism do not generate high levels of specified complexity:

[Intelligent design is] a fully scientific claim and follows directly from the complexity-specification criterion. In particular this is not an argument from ignorance. Just as physicists reject perpetual motion machines because of what they know about the inherent constraints on energy and matter, so too design theorists reject any naturalistic reduction of specified complexity because of what they know about the inherent constraints on natural causes. Natural causes are too stupid to keep pace with intelligent causes. Intelligent design theory provides a rigorous scientific demonstration of this long-standing intuition. Let me stress, the complexity-specification criterion is not a principle that comes to us demanding our unexamined acceptance–it is not an article of faith. Rather it is the outcome of a careful and sustained argument about the precise interrelationships between necessity, chance and design.

(William Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, pg. 223 (InterVarsity Press, 1999).)

Thus, according to Dembski, intelligence produces highly specified complexity, but neo-Darwinian processes do not. Sober never mentions specified complexity once in his article, which is strange since it’s such a central component of intelligent design today.

Sober Botches Irreducible Complexity
Similarly, Sober also ignores that irreducible complexity is a unique indicator of intelligent design, but he states that irreducible complexity “does nothing to test ID. For ID to be testable, it must make predictions.” Claiming that irreducible complexity is nothing more than a critique of evolution, Sober writes “The fact that a different theory makes a prediction says nothing about whether ID is testable. Behe has merely changed the subject.” Here, Sober is repeating the Darwinist plaintiffs’ arguments in the Kitzmiller case. But Sober misrepresents ID and ignores the fact that ID theorists have argued extensively that irreducible complexity is not just a negative argument against evolution, but also a positive indicator of design. Behe writes:

[I]rreducibly complex systems such as mousetraps and flagella serve both as negative arguments against gradualistic explanations like Darwin’s and as positive arguments for design. The negative argument is that such interactive systems resist explanation by the tiny steps that a Darwinian path would be expected to take. The positive argument is that their parts appear arranged to serve a purpose, which is exactly how we detect design.

(Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, Afterward, pgs. 263-264 (Free Press, Reprint, 2006), emphasis added.)

Similarly, Scott Minnich and Steve Meyer see that irreducible complexity is a unique, positive argument for intelligent design:

Molecular machines display a key signature or hallmark of design, namely, irreducible complexity. In all irreducibly complex systems in which the cause of the system is known by experience or observation, intelligent design or engineering played a role the origin of the system. Given that neither standard neo-Darwinism, nor co-option has adequately accounted for the origin of these machines, or the appearance of design that they manifest, one might now consider the design hypothesis as the best explanation for the origin of irreducibly complex systems in living organisms. … Although some may argue this is a merely an argument from ignorance, we regard it as an inference to the best explanation, given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes.

(Scott A. Minnich & Stephen C. Meyer, Genetic analysis of coordinate flagellar and type III regulatory circuits in pathogenic bacteria, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Design & Nature.)

Incredibly, Sober makes no mention of the fact that design proponents have formulated irreducible complexity or specified complexity as positive indicators and predictions of design. He completely ignores these in order to make his central point that ID makes no positive predictions.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Elliott Sober