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Rosenhouse’s Whoppers: Probability Theory Is Irrelevant

William A. Dembski
Photo: A hawk's eye, by abrinsky via Flickr (cropped).

I am responding again to Jason Rosenhouse about his book The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism. See my earlier posts herehere, here, and here.

The other mega whopper in Rosenhouse’s reply is the claim that probabilities can never be used to assess (and thus potentially to question) how and whether Darwinian evolution can bring about novel biological forms or adaptations. He writes:

We have no probability estimates for the evolution of these systems [such as the eye or flagellum]. That is because probability theory is fundamentally the wrong tool for this particular job. That’s the whole point! Not only can you not rigorously calculate the probability of evolving a particular complex system, you cannot even estimate it in any reasonable way.

And how does Rosenhouse justify such a massive claim? By citing a single sentence from the Harvard biologist Michael Nowak: “You cannot calculate the probability that an eye came about. We don’t have the information to make this calculation.” Now it’s certainly true that if we were at an early point in the history of life, when no eyes existed, we would be in no position to say how likely eyes would be to evolve by natural selection or, for that matter, how likely it would be for a designer capable of producing eyes in fact to produce them. 

Quite Another Thing

But it’s quite another thing to look at existing eyes and ask how probable it would be for them to evolve from various precursors. Such questions may be difficult, especially given the vast complexity of the eye, which is why design theorists like Doug Axe focus on simpler, more tractable systems. But to suggest that probability is inapplicable to such questions of biological complexity is absurd. 

But the problem is worse for Rosenhouse, much worse. All physical processes can be modeled by deterministic or stochastic processes. In fact, stochastic processes subsume the deterministic case by simply collapsing all probabilities to zero and one. The problem, then, is that if you deny that probabilities apply to a physical process (and that includes biological processes such as Darwinian evolution), you’ve abjured science — you no longer have a scientific theory. You are then simply spinning fairy tales, imagining that what happens is what you want to have happen, but with no tether to reality. 

I made this point at the end of a 2014 talk on conservation of information that I gave at the University of Chicago. My former advisor Leo Kadanoff convened that talk, and at the end he backed me up by saying that the ball was in the Darwinists’ court if they wanted to contend that Darwinian processes can avoid the constraints of conservation of information and probability. The talk was recorded and you can watch it here:

Next, “Rosenhouse’s Whoppers: An Appeal to Sanity.”

Editor’s note: This review is cross-posted with permission of the author from BillDembski.com.