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Beating a Dead Straw Horse

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In a recent series of posts here at Evolution News, I answered objections to arguments for intelligent design based on specified complexity and conservation of information (see here, here, here, and here). The series, in turn, provoked responses that I would like to address now. Over at Panda’s Thumb, University of Washington geneticist Joe Felsenstein declares that it is “Game over for antievolutionary No Free Lunch argument.” At Evolution Blog, mathematician Jason Rosenhouse takes issue with me in “Ewert Explains ‘Specified Complexity,’ Part One,” and “Part Two.”

In both cases, the authors claim I’ve essentially admitted that the arguments behind specified complexity and conservation of information were incorrect. Both accordingly declare that the arguments we have made are now vanquished. But this is simply not true. What I’ve called false is the straw-man version of these arguments, which our critics chose to attack over the real ones. And I haven’t “admitted” this so much as done my best, repeatedly, to clarify the difference between the straw man and genuine arguments for ID.

Specified complexity has always required the calculation of probability. It has never been based on assuming that every outcome was equally probable. I documented this in the first post I wrote at Evolution News (“Information, Past and Present“). I said it again in my exchange with Elizabeth Liddle (see especially “Elephants Sold Separately: Understanding the Design Inference“). And I have written similarly at Uncommon Descent (“Where do we get the probabilities?“, “The Circularity of the Design Inference,” and “Has Specified Complexity Changed?“).

Yet Rosenhouse insists that specified complexity required calculation assuming every outcome is equally likely. For support, he points to a section of a critique of No Free Lunch by Richard Wein (“Not a Free Lunch but a Box of Chocolates“), describing this as an exhaustive documentation for his claim. But Wein himself describes the evidence as inconclusive. Wein points to examples and arguments that he thinks imply uniform probability, but he ignores the places where William Dembski explicitly states that the calculation has to be done according to the hypothesis under consideration.

The Law of Conservation of Information has never claimed that active information automatically implies design. In reply to Felsenstein’s criticisms, Dembski wrote here (“Responding to My Talk at the University of Chicago, Joe Felsenstein’s Argument by Misdirection“):

Marks and I do think that insofar as evolutionary processes produce specified complexity, this is ultimately due to a designer fine-tuning the evolutionary process. But our actual work on Conservation of Information only shows that any evolutionary theory is necessarily incomplete and cannot account for the creation of the information that the evolutionary processes limned by the theory supposedly outputs.

I repeated this in my own post, “These Critics of Intelligent Design Agree with Us More Than They Seem to Realize.” I continued in my recent series, most particularly in “What Does ‘Life’s Conservation Law’ Actually Say?” The documentation on this point would, then, seem to be complete, with quotes and references going back to when the arguments were first presented

I have repeatedly attempted to correct these misconceptions. We have not made the absurd arguments attributed to us by our critics. Nobody has attempted to dispute my documentation. Instead, they have chosen to simply ignore what I wrote.

Felsenstein, for example, characterizes me as making emergency modifications to our arguments. He quotes me as follows:

We disagree in that I do not think that is going to be a sufficient source of active information to account for biology. I do not have a proof of this. But neither does Felsenstein have a demonstration that it will produce sufficient active information. What I do have is the observation of existing models of evolution. The smoothness present in those models does not derive from some notion of weak long-range physics, but rather from teleology as explored in my various papers on them.

He describes that argument in these terms:

As always, the ID objections to evolution, when stripped of pseudo-technical camouflage, boil down to “I just don’t buy it because (gut feeling).”

Yet at no point in the quoted passage, nor in any of my posts, do I appeal to anything that might be described as a gut feeling. In the quotation that Felsenstein points to, I do explicitly appeal to the existing models of evolution. Those available models are teleological, and I base my argument on that observation, not a subjective “feeling” that evolution wouldn’t work. My claim is based on observation, and is falsifiable. Furthermore, despite Felsenstein’s attempts to dismiss this as an emergency modification, I documented that this line of reasoning goes back to the paper “Life’s Conservation Law” by Dembski and Marks.

In my most recent discussion of specified complexity, I quoted Rosenhouse, which prompted his responses. His primary objection is that I’ve quoted him out of context. I quoted his presentation of the argument that improbable events happen all the time, but did not reference his later discussion of specified complexity.

The fact is, Rosenhouse has misread the context in which I discussed him. I dealt there with a particular objection to specified complexity. Felsenstein had claimed the correct version of specified complexity was useless. It is not useless, because specified complexity justifies rejecting an explanation that assigns too low a probability to the outcome it purports to explain. If I win the lottery every day for a month, you are entitled to conclude that I was not playing fairly. The objection is raised that this is plainly obvious, and it is sometimes suggested that no reasonable person would ever raise this objection. But they have indeed done so.

In quoting Rosenhouse and the others, my purpose was not to make them look bad or to suggest they don’t understand specified complexity. My point was to show that people do actually raise this objection. Critics point out that low probability events happen all the time, and that this undermines rejecting an explanation on improbability alone. This objection, a valuable one, was not a figment of Dembski’s imagination. It’s a real argument that needed to be addressed.

But enough of this. Neither Rosenhouse nor Felsenstein acknowledges that I’ve disputed their rendition of our arguments, instead simply pretending that I’ve admitted that they were right. No amount of beating a dead straw horse will change the fact that we never said what they say we did.

Image: � georgina198 / Dollar Photo Club.