THE Design of Life (William A. Dembski, Jonathan Wells) is the new, comprehensive, textbook presentation of the arguments for intelligent design (ID), updated and combined into a single book. In some ways, I still think that Johnson’s Darwin On Trial is a better way to be introduced to ID, but The Design of Life is more detailed and up-to-date, and contains new ideas not found in previous ID books: For example, the section on protein folding (p. 201) explains what happens when the unit of variation and the unit of selection are not coordinated (evolution doesn’t work).
The problem I have with this book is pretty much the same problem that’s starting to look like a running theme throughout ID works. Their authors want to promote not only ID, but also their favorite ideas that are in fact not logically connected to ID, or even scientifically defensible generally. In order to do this, ID proponents must pull the same anti-logical stunts the Darwinists use in defense of Darwinism.
One of those stunts is to repeatedly mix two ideas together in your writings, in the hopes that they will appear to be a single idea — such as these two:
A. Consistently practiced science shows us that life on Earth was designed, and that the Darwinist mechanism could not have created it.
B. Humans have free will and moral choice; their actions are “more” than the combination of their brains and bodies.
The Design of Life makes no attempt to clearly differentiate these two concepts, and in fact mixes them randomly throughout the book so that almost any reader not sensitized to the distinction will be left with the impression that the two are strongly connected; that evidence for one (i.e. A) counts as evidence of the other (i.e. B). For example:
The [new Kansas Board of Education has] gone further, mischaracterizing science as a reductionist enterprise that “describes and explains the physical world in terms of matter, energy and forces.” By so defining science, the new board has not only defined intelligent design out of existence but has also redefined what it means to be human. In particular, human free will and consciousness, which science studies, must, according to these new standards, be described only by reference to matter, energy, and physical forces. (pp. xiii-xiv)
It’s the same tactic Darwinists use to “prove” their thesis by pointing to flaws in biblical scripturalism:
A. Falsity of religious scripture
B. Truth of Darwinism
When they mix A and B together throughout their arguments, a strong case for A starts looking like a case for B, when it really isn’t. Another Darwinist example:
A. Truth of microevolution
B. Truth of macroevolution
The above example is directly called out in The Design of Life’s special preface, “The Meanings of ‘Evolution.’” It draws attention to the distinction between microevolution (e.g. antibiotic resistance) and macroevolution (e.g. transformation of bacteria to alligators), and to the Darwinist tendency to equate the two.
A. Tree-like classification of life (common ancestry)
B. Mutation/selection evolution
The “Meanings of ‘Evolution’” preface also draws a big distinction between common ancestry and mutation/selection evolution.
You would think, with the Darwinists making so much use of this fallacy, and the ID proponents having to expose it again and again, that the ID people would be especially rigorous in not using it themselves. But you would be wrong.
Pages 12-13 have a section on a university student who has a very thin-layer brain (his brain seems to be mostly missing), yet who appears as mentally functional as his peers. This interesting case is used primarily to argue against the Darwinist idea that larger heads made superior intellect. But the case also seems to serve the function of suggesting to the reader that the human mind and the human brain are two different things; that we somehow think with our souls, not the computer in our craniums. The young man is described as having “virtually no brain” (pp. 12 and 23), and the next discussion question on page 23 begins “Are our cognitive abilities simply a product of brain function? Or, are those abilities not reducible to brain function?” Although there is no direct statement here that the human mind is more than brain function, nevertheless the implication is clear and strong. (E.g., what does “reducible to brain function” mean? Is human brain function simple?)
Page 13 includes this gem:
[T]his materialist assumption (that mind is reducible to brain) remains for now without empirical support. What we have are correlations between brain images and conscious mental states. What we do not have is a causal mechanism relating the two.
Quite the contrary. There are now good reasons for thinking that no such causal mechanism exists and that mind is inherently irreducible to brain. This is good news for intelligent design, which treats intelligence as irreducible to material entities and the mechanisms that control their interaction.
Exactly what does “irreducible” mean, in this context? It might mean “unevolvable,” (i.e. the human brain is not createable via Darwinism), or it might mean “undesignable” (i.e. the human brain, though designed, cannot perform the functions of the human mind by itself). If it means “unevolvable” then the last two sentences translate thusly:
There are now good reasons for thinking that no causal mechanism between brain images and conscience mental states exists, and that the human brain cannot evolve via Darwinism. This is good news for intelligent design, which treats human intelligence as unevolvable via Darwinism.
The last sentence makes sense, but the first one has become a bizarre non sequitur.
Or, if irreducible means “undesignable,” then those sentences translate to:
There are now good reasons for thinking that no causal mechanism between brain images and conscience mental states exists, and that the human brain, though designed, cannot perform the functions of the human mind by itself. This is good news for intelligent design, which treats the human brain as unable to perform the functions of the human mind by itself.
Now the first sentence is repaired and makes sense, but the last sentence has become either nonsense or simply false, because ID is just the claim that life is designed by designers, and could not reach its present state through unaided evolution.
To fix both sentences, you have to take one from each translation:
There are now good reasons for thinking that no causal mechanism between brain images and conscience mental states exists, and that the human brain, though designed, cannot perform the functions of human intellect by itself. This is good news for intelligent design, which treats human intelligence as unevolvable via Darwinism.
Now both sentences make sense, but they have become disconnected; one does not follow from the other. Together, they make another non sequitur. The use of the word “irreducible” in these two sentences is thus exposed as an equivocation. Say... aren’t Darwinists fond of using equivocation to bolster their position when convenient? “Evolution” means micro or macro, whichever works better for deflecting detractors at the moment. Or “evolution” means the theory or the facts, again whichever works better right now to make the skeptical seem foolish.
Things get a little weird when other parts of the book seem to argue that even life-functions simpler than the human brain, such as embryonic development or single-celled life, are “more” than DNA programming. Pages 50-51 strongly suggest that something other than the information content of DNA directs the development of an organism (from conception to infancy). What, pray tell, is that? And on page 257 we hear:
Just because cells have machine-like aspects does not mean that they are machines. Indeed, the intelligent design community regards living forms as much more than machines.
A cell is “much more than a machine?” I’d love to know what that’s supposed to mean. The Design of Life does not elaborate.
On page 261, arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins is quoted as follows:
To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like, “God was always there,” and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say, “DNA was always there,” or, “Life was always there,” and be done with it.
The authors respond to this only by asserting that the simple beginnings (pre-cellular life) in which Dawkins believes may not have existed. But there are much better ways to answer Dawkins:
1. Human science is driven by the human emotion of scientific curiosity, which is simply the pre-programmed desire (in most humans) to know what really happened. Saying “DNA was always there” is indeed lazy from the perspective of satisfying scientific curiosity — but so is any purported explanation that flies in the face of evidence, including Dawkins’s Darwinism. The available evidence refutes both Dawkins’s reductionist evolutionism and the idea that DNA was always there. That leaves (largely unspecified) designers as the only empirically viable explanation.
2. Science has always operated by a slow procedure of learning incremental information about the way things are, and in the process revealing new questions that cannot be answered today. To think that the inability to answer the question “where did the designers come from” somehow neutralizes evidence that DNA did not always exist, or evidence that evolution doesn’t have the creative powers attributed to it, is simply a failure to recognize how science progresses.
3. Dawkins’s “God was [i.e. the designers were] always there” and his “DNA was always there” are not even equivalent: The latter is demonstrably false, whereas the former is a (currently) untestable claim. Why, if we find ourselves advancing an untestable claim, should we think we “might as well” switch to a demonstrably false one? That’s worse. And why, in the first place, do ID advocates “have to say” that the designers were always there? Why doesn’t Dawkins allow them to say that they simply don’t know how long the designers have been around or where they came from — only that they did create us? He really needs to explain this further.
The Design of Life does not respond to Dawkins in these ways because, I think, its authors are committed to the ideas of moral choice and higher purpose, of a form that is not compatible with the idea that humans are simply pre-programmed with scientific curiosity, by human-like designers who may not have always existed.
Another tactic of Darwinists is to appeal to emotions that are irrelevant to finding out whether the claims under discussion are actually true. Might a theory of intelligent design lead down a slippery slope where science gets replaced by superstition, ultimately leading to a nightmarish theocracy? Nobody can prove it won’t — but of course that’s got nothing to do with determining whether ID is correct. With arguments like that being used against them, surely ID proponents, of all people, cannot afford to embrace the idea that scientific questions are answered by appealing to irrelevant fears — can they?
Apparently they can. Pages 17-21 include a discussion of altruism as a problem for evolution, going so far as to declare it “the human characteristic that poses the greatest difficulty for evolutionary theory” (as compared to what — irreducible complexity in uniquely human systems?!). The section climaxes with an analysis of evolutionists’ treatment of the case of Mother Teresa. Evolutionists say that Mother Teresa, through her altruistic works, was in fact selfishly pursuing the Christian reward of heaven, or if not then was a defective, who left no offspring and thus failed to pass on her altruistic genes.
Thus, instead of treating Mother Teresa as a model of goodness to which we should aspire, evolutionary ethics regards Mother Teresa as either a self-serving hypocrite or a freak of nature with no future.
The condemnation of the evolutionary conclusions here seems compelling — until you pause and notice that it contains neither an argument for ID nor against evolution. Instead, the reader is invited to oppose evolution on the grounds that it leads to something repugnant and unnerving.
Pages 268-69 tell of pro-evolution, Scopes-trial lawyer Clarence Darrow defending Richard Loeb by arguing that Loeb was the product of evolution and therefore was not responsible for murdering a 14-year-old boy for the fun of it — to which The Design of Life says only this:
Machines act blindly and automatically — they are not responsible moral agents who can legitimately be blamed for their actions.
Wouldn’t a better counterargument to Darrow’s Loeb defense be to mention that humans’ actions might be strictly determined by brain function whether they evolved or were designed? And that proven thrill-killers need to be expunged, whether it’s “their fault” or not, simply because they’re dangerous? (Duh.) The Design of Life cannot advance these arguments, because its authors seem pre-committed to the religious ideas of free will and moral choice, and to the sentiment that it wouldn’t be fair to socially sanction someone who wasn’t ultimately free to not kill. Darrow cleverly exploited that sentiment at Loeb’s trial, and posthumously continues to exploit it with the willing assistance of The Design of Life’s authors.
To say “machines act blindly and automatically” in this context is disingenuous in the extreme. It obviously depends on the machine. “Blind” is an apt description of an electric can opener, but not a human body and brain. Suggesting that the latter must be no better than the former unless it has “free will” is absurd. (See my prior comments on this subject.)
Why is free will so important to so many design advocates? The idea that we don’t have truly free will is, I suspect, depressing to many. In theory it shouldn’t matter — so we don’t have free will, so what? We can still get on with our lives. Aren’t there lots of things you want to do with your life? Why would I quit the pursuit of my interests and spend all my time staring at the wall if I don’t have metaphysically free will? Why will I lose all my mental faculties and exquisite physical capabilities (maybe morphing into a can opener), if I don’t have truly free will? Something tells me I won’t. The ideas of free will and moral choice are sociologically and religiously entangled with the ID movement — but logically they’re completely separate, and completely unnecessary to ID.
In the middle of a section on the extreme racism of the 1920s textbook Civic Biology (p. 271), The Design of Life says:
Civic Biology also advocated that crime and immorality were inherited and ran in families...
Do the authors of The Design of Life think that strong criminal tendencies are not, in many or even most cases, caused by mutational damage to DNA? If not, why not? They provide no reasoning — just the undefended, presumptive association of one idea (crime-causing DNA) with another (race as an indicator of intellectual superiority). Did a racist, 1920s textbook think that the ideas of racial superiority and crime-causing DNA are necessarily connected? Then it must be so! Good enough for 1920s racists, good enough for the authors of The Design of Life.
Probably the most cherished tool of Darwinists is bluster, the unsupported claim that explanatory detail is at hand or soon will be, when it actually isn’t and very well may not be. Now, ID people just gotta be above this tactic! No? Sigh. Say it ain’t so, Joe.
ID proponents for the most part are religious, and their religion typically teaches that we were created by a singular, omniscient God who knows everything in advance. This belief is not compatible with rampant evidence that shows a process of design that looks very much like human design, in that it seems to feature multiple designers whose goals are not always synchronous, who tinker and experiment with new lifeforms over long periods of time, who make prototype species in anticipation of later releasing the “real thing,” who sometimes arduously perfect a design feature but at other times get lazy and employ a quick-and-dirty kludge that gets the job done.
ID authors try to get around this problem by suggesting that advances in life were somehow pre-programmed from the start of the universe, which if true would preserve a singular creator, require omniscience of some sort, and perhaps even excuse kludges if they can’t be avoided when pre-programming this way. OK, it’s a decent idea at first glance. But it needs work. A lot of work. At the very least, it needs some sort of detailed explanation of how freak events (the appearance of new, highly specified information) can, even theoretically, be programmed from the start in a complex, dynamic system such as our universe. No explanation of that is ever offered — just periodic claims that such a thing “is possible.” Michael Behe’s latest work includes a heavy dose of this stuff — read more about that in my article, The Edge of Religion. The Design of Life carries on the tradition:
Although abrupt emergence is often viewed as a form of miraculous intervention, it is important to see that abrupt emergence is also compatible with a non-miraculous view of life’s origin and subsequent development. As novel organisms and novel biological structures emerge (whether abruptly or not), they are fully capable of having coherent causal histories in space and time.
In particular, intelligent design is not committed to the history of life being a magic show in which at key moments — presto-chango! — novel biological structures and organisms magically materialize without any causal antecedents. Intelligent design is open to the possibility that organisms and their structures have a fully traceable natural history. At the same time, it is open to the possibility that intelligence was integrally involved in that history and played an indispensable role in guiding it. Moreover, it will regard such guidance as detectable in its effects even if not detectable in the process of emergence. (p. 80)
It’s fun to mock a scenario you don’t like with phrases like “presto-chango!,” isn’t it? (The Darwinists have always thought so.) But the “presto” effect may be nothing more than the delight of seeing, for the first time, the product of a lot of hard work that went on somewhere else.
So what is this “guidance?” Looks like intervention to me. If it’s something else, I’d sure like to know what. Maybe the next major ID book will give something more detailed than fuzzy terms like “guidance” and “teleology” — until then we’ll just have to wait. That’s OK; we’re already waiting on convinced Darwinists to deliver detailed, testable scenarios of the evolution of the flagellum. We can wait on this at the same time.
The discussion continues with an analogy to Scrabble pieces moving naturally but forming a coherent sentence. It’s similar to Behe’s pool-ball analogy (discussed here) but is worse because, since Scrabble pieces generally sit there and don’t move, it obscures the fact that rules of natural motion provide no opportunity for intelligent guidance.
[N]ote first that an intelligence that brought life into existence need not be supernatural — it could be a teleological organizing principle that is built into nature and thus be perfectly natural. (p. 262)
Now that was illuminating.
And ID authors are apparently discovering that, lacking any describable scenario of how teleological pre-programming might be possible, it is useful to arbitrarily rule out its opposite:
Supernatural explanations invoke miracles and therefore are not properly part of science. (pp. 13-14)
The Darwinists couldn’t have said it better! Continuing:
Explanations that call on intelligent causes require no miracles but cannot be reduced to materialistic explanations. Indeed, design theorists argue that intelligent causation is perfectly natural, provided that nature is understood aright.
That’s all! No further explanation is offered that might set the reader “aright.”
I should emphasize here — and the ID people really ought to know this — that interventionism (“supernaturalism” or “miracles” if you prefer) does not violate any principles of science. Specific claims that the laws of physics were violated at a particular place and time, unsupported by evidence, are of course unscientific, as are any claims unsupported by evidence. But saying that the bacterial flagellum was created by intervention is not unscientific; it’s the essence of ID, and the most direct inference from the evidence.
Behe, to his great credit, is the first (by my knowledge) of the major ID authors to openly acknowledge that the problem of self-reference is unsolvable, and that neither Christianity nor any other belief system paves a way out. He details this at length in The Edge of Evolution, but his position is nicely summarized by this answer he gave on Point of Inquiry when D. J. Grothe asked him if he could be wrong about ID:
It’s certainly possible that I’m wrong, being human and so on, but I have to make up my own mind about that, ...
Dembski thinks that Christianity solves self-reference, and his influence on that topic shows through clearly in The Design of Life:
On what basis can we have confidence in evolutionary theory if it is the product of a human mind that “developed from the mind of lower animals?” Darwin’s theory, as an explanation of how the human mind arose, is self-referentially incoherent ... unless a designing intelligence specifically fitted our conceptual apparatus to the world around us, the convictions of our mind are inherently untrustworthy ... (p. 16)
This is incorrect. An evolutionary process (provided such can create something as complicated as the human brain at all) might make a human brain that can accurately understand its environment, or might make one that can’t. Likewise, a designing intelligence might design a human brain to understand its environment accurately, or might design a human brain that understands some things about its environment and misunderstands others. The problem of self-reference is not solvable at all, as I explained on pp. 58-67 of Mechanism and as Behe more recently acknowledged on pp. 224-27 of The Edge of Evolution.
The strategy on display here is to switch back and forth between the mutually exclusive assertions, “logic requires design to be true, in order to avoid self-referential incoherence,” and “design is confirmed (and evolution refuted) by the empirical evidence” — a strategy which of course (double sigh) the ID authors know full well is used all the time by Darwinists who advance the mutually exclusive assertions, “science’s principles logically require evolution to be true” and “evolution has been confirmed by mountains of empirical evidence.”
I’d like to end this with a positive quote from The Design of Life:
Our experience of how human intelligence works therefore provides insight into how a designing intelligence responsible for life might have worked. (p. 140)
Amen. All the evidence is pointing in that direction.
Update 2008.01.17 — For readability, “slow process” changed to “slow procedure.”