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Unsophisticated and Outdated Scientific Critiques of Intelligent Design in Synthese

Casey Luskin

We’ve discussed how articles critiquing intelligent design (ID) in the latest issue of Synthese could not rebut the theory without blatantly misrepresenting what ID says. There are a couple of papers in the issue, however, that discuss scientific matters.

In fact, I’d like to start on a positive note and say that the one article in this issue which I found to be highly civil in tone and thoughtful was Bruce Weber’s. He provides a thorough and educational history of arguments involving design and teleology, and he attempts to distinguish between “design” and “teleology” as follows:

Although both teleology and design are explanans of the explananda of natural phenomena that exhibit organized, functional complexity, they can be distinguished in the following sense. Explanations and arguments based upon teleology are predicated on there being purpose or some sort of goal, those based upon design assume that there is a specific intention for the detailed arrangements of the structure or process. Design explanations will inherently be also teleological ones, but many teleological explanations, such as those based upon the action of natural laws, can be advanced without assuming a crafting of the specific ends by a designing craftsman.

Weber argues that ID has the same problems as Paley’s arguments, but he never addresses Behe’s response to this objection:

The most important difference [between modern intelligent design theory and Paley’s arguments] is that [intelligent design] is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo.

(Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pg. 165, emphasis added.)

Weber, who is a biochemist at Cal State Fullerton, claims that arguments based upon teleology could be viable, but arguments based upon design are defunct. He quickly dismisses ID arguments by citing to a chapter he wrote in the book Debating Design and another obscure publication. A critique of Weber’s prior chapter is beyond the scope of this rebuttal; however, it’s worth noting that he cites dubious rebuttals to Behe such as the RAG-Transposon Hypothesis and highly speculative arguments involving self-organization.

I would have hoped that if Weber, a biochemist, was going to refute intelligent design, he would have provided more detail. Weber might protest that such an argument would be more appropriate to make in a scientific journal rather than a philosophy journal. What are we to make, then, of the fact that Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit have a technical and scientific response to William Dembski in the issue of Synthese?

It turns out that Elsberry and Shallit have a sophisticated but extremely out-of-date contribution in the issue which seems based upon their old 2003 article, “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s Complex Specified Information.” In fact, their piece in Synthese has exactly the same title as that old piece. This out-of-date paper has only one citation post 2004, and it isn’t to a paper that deals with the work of Dembski. In terms of their citations to Dembski’s work, their latest citation is 2004, despite the fact that Dembski has published multiple peer-reviewed papers in recent years studying the origin of information.

I’ve heard Elsberry complain in the past that Dembski doesn’t respond to critics or that Dembski makes out-of-date arguments. This is ironic given how out-of-date Elsberry’s own paper is. In any case, a fairly extensive response to Elsberry and Shallit’s old paper, which serves as a fairly relevant response to their “new” paper as well, can be found at: “Intelligent Design Proponents Toil More than the Critics: A Response to Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit.”

Finally, James Fetzer’s piece in the issue is largely a response to non-ID theologian David Ray Griffin. Only towards the end does Fetzer get into intelligent design. He can’t even bring himself to treat Bill Dembski with any measure of respect, calling him a “dubious source” and engaging in motive-mongering: “Dembski’s motivation appears to be religious, which ought to come as no surprise. Nevertheless, even a dubious source might have arguments that are worth considering.” Fetzer completely dismisses Dembski’s scientific arguments because part of a mouse trap can serve as a doorstop or a tie clip. You heard that right:

And Dembski’s (P3) conception of “irreducible complexity” has been exposed as a blunder, since a change in one or more properties of an organism simply changes the functions it can perform. Consider a mousetrap, often offered as an example of irreducible complexity. Even when it is broken, it can still serve functions, such as those of a doorstop or even of a tie clip (Miller 2007). A broken mousetrap is not thereby rendered incapable of any function at all, as Dembski contends.

So there you have it: Because a mousetrap can be a doorstop of a tie clip, ID is fully wrong. That’s the level of sophistication we’re finding in this issue of Synthese.


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.