Mechanism -- The Ugly Truth That Nobody Wants To Know (Chapter 2)
©2005 Darel Rex Finley
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ID and the Entertainment Inference
I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I just said it would be the truth.
—Morpheus, The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski
IN HIS ANALYSIS of fellow Berkeley professor John Searle’s advocacy of Darwinism as the “universal acid” (i.e. the reductive explanation that says all human intellect is a product of the Darwinian process of survival of the fittest), Phillip
Johnson employs a delightfully clever metaphor:
[Searle] is so skillful in argument that he almost holds his own even after leaping
gratuitously into a pool of universal acid — but why accept the disadvantage? —Objections Sustained, p. 66
Johnson’s image is illustrated in Figure 2-1. It seems like a winner until one contemplates a simple question: If a pool of acid is sitting around in a localized and
highly avoidable spot, waiting for some persons to jump in while others don’t,
can that acid truly be called “universal?” And if it’s not universal, then it’s not
the acid to which Searle was referring — therefore, on what grounds does Johnson depict Searle as needlessly flinging himself into it? Johnson seems to want to
believe that a universal acid can (and does) eat its proponents while leaving its detractors untouched.
Universal acid either exists, or it does not. If it does, then, as pictured in Figure 2-2, it dissolves everyone, including Phillip Johnson (and Darel Finley, for that
matter!). Such an acid makes no differentiation between those who advocate for
it and those who don’t; it simply dissolves everyone’s position with equal thoroughness. On the other hand, if the universal acid does not exist (see Figure 2-3),
then it dissolves no one: not Johnson, and not Searle. It fails to damage either person in the slightest, again independent of who may be advocating for its existence — because if it doesn’t exist, it can do no harm at all.
If the acidless Figure 2-3 is the accurate metaphor, then Johnson cannot claim
that Searle’s arguments are eaten away by universal acid — but at least he can
claim that Searle is wrong about one narrow point: the existence of the universal
acid. But what if the universal acid does exist? As excellent exemplifiers of the
dichotomy of the day, Johnson (the Christian) wants to believe that, thanks to the
reliable authority of our creator God as the ultimate source of all truth and
knowledge, there is no universal acid, while Searle (the atheist) wants to believe
that the universal acid not only exists, but eats everything it touches down to
meaningless mush. Both are wrong.
The universal acid exists, but it is not Darwinism; our designers cannot protect us from its effect; and it does not disintegrate everything it touches — instead, it merely strips every arguer of the veneer of infallibility. The universal
acid is self-reference — the same self-reference that Johnson chided Stephen
Hawking for failing to fully come to grips with in Hawking’s A Brief History of
Time. Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t fully come to grips with it either.
[Hawking] recognizes that a physical theory of everything is inherently self-referential and hence potentially incoherent. The enterprise of science assumes that
human beings — or scientists, at any rate — are rational beings who can observe
nature accurately and employ logical reasoning to understand the reality behind
the appearances. If a theory of everything exists, however, the laws it describes
determine even the thoughts and actions of the scientists who aim to discover the
theory. How then, wonders Hawking, can the scientists trust their own powers
of reasoning? How can they know that the laws of physics predict or permit the
discovery of a true theory?
Naturalistic philosophy offers one line of escape from this conundrum, and
Hawking takes it. The only validation of the mind’s reasoning power that science can provide is Darwin’s principle of natural selection, which explains all
adaptive features of organisms in terms of reproductive success. The theory posits that evolution rewarded those organisms that were best at drawing correct
conclusions about the world and acting accordingly to escape predators, find
mates and so on. Right-thinking organisms would presumably excel at surviving and reproducing, and hence would leave more offspring than competitors
who were more inclined to err. Eventually the ability to come to correct conclusions would become widespread in every population. In Hawking’s words,
“Provided the universe has evolved in a regular way, we might expect that the
reasoning abilities that natural selection has given us would be valid also in our
search for a complete unified theory, and so would not lead us to the wrong conclusions.”
But one cannot avoid the problem of self-reference by invoking another theory
in this way. Darwin’s theory is just another product of the human mind, whose
reasoning is still governed by the hypothetical theory of everything, so the problem of reliability is merely displaced rather than solved. —Reason In the Balance,
This issue is clarified with diagramming in the next several figures. Figure 24 illustrates the fundamental problem that Johnson identifies. We see that
Hawking’s assertion that the human mind is an accidental, undesigned device is
itself a reference to Hawking’s mind: the same mind that just made that pronouncement. Hence, how can we know that Hawking’s accidental, undesigned
mind renders accurate statements? Hawking’s way out is to invoke Darwinism
as the reliable creator of accurate minds, and Johnson is quick to point out the error of this logic, as illustrated in Figure 2-5. But Johnson fails to take the next
step, which is to apply the same logic to himself, as illustrated in Figure 2-6. Instead, Johnson implicitly exempts himself from the problem of self-reference:
Logic tells us how to get from premises to conclusions but not how to know
which premises we can rely on. If we try to derive our ultimate premises by reasoning from other premises, as modernists have been taught to do, we only make
ourselves captive to circular reasoning. If reason is to be a reliable guide, it must
be grounded on a foundation that is more fundamental than logic and that provides a basis for reasoning to true conclusions about ends. Instrumental reason
is not enough. That is why the fear of the Lord is not the beginning of superstition but the beginning of wisdom. —The Wedge of Truth, p. 176
Imagine the reaction of his publisher if Crick had proposed to begin his book by
announcing that “I, Francis Crick, my opinions and my science, and even the
thoughts expressed in this book, consist of nothing more than the behavior of a
vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Few browsers
would be likely to read further. —Reason in the Balance, p. 64
The story of the great scientific mind that discovers absolute truth is satisfying
only so long as we accept the mind itself as a given. Once we try to explain the
mind as a product of its own theories, we are in a hall of mirrors with no exit.
—Reason in the Balance, p. 62
But any theory of human origins advocated by a human (such as Johnson) —
whether that theory be Christian, Darwinist, or something altogether new — is
an attempt to “explain the mind itself as a product of its own theories.” Johnson’s “hall of mirrors” is one in which everyone resides, if they dare to opine
about human origins at all. Even worse, Figure 2-7 shows that the problem of
self-reference is completely general, and can be applied to any mind making any
assertion. And of course, I, the author of this book, am no exception, as illustrated in Figure 2-8.
The problem of self-reference is simply unavoidable. It is a truly universal
acid — but does that mean that all our arguments are utterly unreliable? I propose that it does not. Instead, it just means that we can never be 100% certain
that we are not mistaken, or insane, or otherwise in error. It means that you simply have no choice but to presume your own rationality (as did Descartes) and
proceed from there. That presumption might best be diagrammed as in Figure 2-9.7
The good news is that the universal acid doesn’t destroy the validity of our arguments; it just disallows us from having absolute confidence in them. No matter how good your logic seems to be, you always have to wonder if you are
crazy, dreaming, or just overlooking some crucial mistake. What this means in
practice is that each of us can doubt or disbelieve the validity of the arguments of
others, but not our own, which we can only presume correct until and unless we
Immediately after painting his fallacious picture of declining to follow Searle
into a pool of universal acid, Johnson says that “Science is a wonderful thing in
its place.” But he neglects to spell out exactly what that place is. Is it the place of
science to negate Darwinism and then quietly bow out of all discussion of human
origins and purpose? That would be a very selective use of science — as selective as using the gazillion-universe hypothesis to negate a cosmological design
conclusion and then quietly omitting that hypothesis from all other scientific
pursuits (that one prefers not to negate). As Johnson himself has gone to great
pains to point out, Darwinism can be a very powerful religion, and if it can be defeated only by insisting that questions of humanity’s existence be strictly subjected to the scientific method, then that method cannot be treated as a handy device for defeating Darwinism, but instead must be followed to its full set of logical conclusions, even if those prove satisfying to neither side of today’s culture
war. Johnson seems to think that having discovered a way to neutralize Darwin,
we can now revert to what was widely believed before Darwin came onto the
scene. That is incorrect; Darwin’s defeat brings about its own set of discoveries,
and paves the way for a new paradigm. Remember that Darwin wasn’t wrong
about everything — just about his central thesis of mutation and selection as full-
blown designer. Many other facts that fall under the loose umbrella of
“evolution” are not defeated by ID, because they were never logically tied to the
blind-watchmaker thesis in the first place.
To underscore the point: In pre-Darwinian times, Christianity controlled the
subjects of human reason, purpose, and morality. Johnson apparently believes
that if ID can just get Darwinism off the table, then things can return to the way
they were before Darwin — but they cannot. ID (in its modern, Darwin-negating
form) wasn’t on the table in pre-Darwinian times, and now that it is, it has to be
taken to its conclusions, whatever they may be. ID cannot be used as a convenient weapon for zapping Darwinism, then stashed away in a closet, safely out of
sight. Because once ID is tucked away, Darwinism just jumps right back on the
table again, undeterred! No, ID is not like a screwdriver that can be gotten out
and applied whenever convenient. Rather, ID is a like a cat you adopted to get
rid of mice that had invaded your house. It worked; the cat is efficiently annihilating the mice to your great delight — but now the cat is here to stay, and if you
weren’t expecting that, you might be very disappointed.
— • —
Neo: “This isn’t real?”
Morpheus: “What is real? How do you define real?”
—The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski
As Johnson has faded from the leadership role in the ID movement, William
Dembski has emerged as his successor. Although also coming from a Christian
perspective, Dembski avoids overt attempts to reinstate the (Figure 1-4) scriptural approach to human knowledge, and instead has focused on developing the
ID argument in a rigorous, mathematical form, that the Darwinian establishment
cannot easily dismiss as mere rhetoric or subjective opinion. However, like Johnson, Dembski still seems to suffer from the desire to selectively apply his anti-
Darwin arguments; using them to negate Darwinism and then quickly stopping
before they also negate things that Dembski perhaps doesn’t want to see negated.
For example, Dembski, like Johnson, appears to believe that the problem of self-
reference — of verifying one’s own reliability — hurts the materialist position,
but can be solved by referring to the Christian religion, which as we have seen
above is no more a solution than is an appeal to Darwinism:
The only way around these strong finiteness limitations on human experience is
for humans to transcend their biology. Christian theology holds such a promise
by resurrecting and thereby transforming our physical bodies into spiritual bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15). The materialist, however, doesn’t have that option.
—The Design Revolution, p. 121
Self-reference aside, Dembski’s main thesis is CSI. He identifies CSI — Complex Specified Information — as the reliable indicator of intelligent action. Information is simply data in any format, such as the bits in a computer’s memory, or
the nucleotide sequences in a DNA molecule. Information is complex if it contains at least enough bits of information to be beyond the scientifically reasonable
reach of chance in the context within which the information resides (Dembksi
calculates this at 500 bits for our universe), and is specified if it is non-repeating
yet conforms to some independently identifiable pattern or goal.
I basically agree with Dembski’s CSI thesis. It supplements Behe’s irreducible
complexity with a firm statistical foundation. But Dembski’s arguments, like
Johnson’s, are infected with a basic confusion over the definition of intelligence.
Recall Johnson’s assertion that few people would bother to read further if Crick
began a book with the sentence “I, Francis Crick, my opinions and my science,
and even the thoughts expressed in this book, consist of nothing more than the
behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Now,
I think it very possible that Johnson’s entire intellect is such an assembly of nerve
cells and molecules; nevertheless I read his book cover-to-cover. And if all humans are such assemblies, how would that cause them to suddenly lose interest
in reading each other’s books? Johnson doesn’t explain this, and I am left to conclude that he is simply confusing intelligence with free will, thinking that entities
who do not freely choose — in the most metaphysical sense of the word “free” —
cannot be intelligent, and thus cannot be the producers of interesting books. The
easiest way to refute such a sentiment is to note that the very sentence with
which Johnson proposes Crick begin his book, “I, Francis Crick, etc.” is not producible without considerable intelligence, and would indicate to the typical readers that the book in their hands is indeed the work of an intelligent mind.
In the case of Johnson this is just an interesting, if revealing, side note concerning one little comment he made about Crick. But Dembski takes the same
belief to a whole new level, claiming frequently that true choice and intelligence
are somehow inextricably wedded. To counter this assertion, I posted an article,
Complex Specification, on Dembski’s own ISCID website,8 in which I suggested
that any piece of CSI can (and should) be logically separated into measurable
quantities of pure specification and pure (unspecified) information. For example,
suppose that for some reason your communications are limited to a single, five-
letter, English word, and you choose to send the word “night.”9 Since there are
26 letters in the English alphabet, and we have five letters to work with, the number of different sequences is 265, or about 223. Hence, one five-letter sequence
constitutes approximately 23 bits of data. But since there are only about 10,000
five-letter words in the English language, which is about 213, then if we are further limited by the specificational context of English we are, in effect, choosing
only 13 of those 23 bits. The other ten bits are the specification.
I then went on to assert that only the pure specification measure is useful for
identifying acts of intelligence, and that the pure information measure is not useful for identifying intelligence, and in fact represents only the functionally random whim10 of the intelligent agent. In our example where we sent the word
“night” over a channel that required the use of a single, five-letter, English word,
the data breaks down as depicted in Figure 2-10.11
Once the distinction between the specification content and whim content of a
piece of data is drawn, it becomes immediately apparent that some of Dembski’s
statements regarding intelligences do not make sense. Dembski repeatedly says
that the defining quality of intelligent agents is that they contingently choose between available options:
Before Darwin, the ability to choose was largely confined to designing intelligences, that is, to conscious agents that could reflect deliberatively on the possible consequences of their choices. —The Design Revolution, p. 263
The root l-e-g has several variants. We’ve already seen it as l-o-g in logos. But it
also occurs as l-e-c in intellect and l-i-g in intelligent. This should give one pause.
The word intelligent actually comes from the Latin rather than from the Greek. It
derives from two Latin words, the preposition inter, meaning “between,” and the
Latin (not Greek) verb lego, meaning “to choose or select.” The Latin lego stayed
closer to its Indo-European root meaning than its Greek cognate, which came to
refer explicitly to speech. According to its etymology, intelligence therefore consists in choosing between. —Intelligent Design, p. 228
The principle characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we
call choice. Whenever an intelligent agent acts, it chooses from a range of competing possibilities. This is true not just of humans, but of animals as well as of extraterrestrial intelligences. A rat navigating a maze must choose whether to go right
or left at various points in the maze. In trying to detect an extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI researchers assume such an intelligence could choose from a range of
possible radio transmissions, and then attempt to match the observed transmissions with patterns regarded as sure indicators of intelligence. Whenever a human
being utters meaningful speech, a choice is made from a range of possible sound
combinations that might have been uttered. Intelligent agency always entails discrimination, choosing certain things and ruling out others. —The Design Inference,
Separating specification from whim, however, reveals that the defining characteristic of intelligences is their ability to match a prior specification, an ability that
involves no contingent choice at all. Contingent choices (when available) may be
expressed only in the whim portion of the data, which is useless for identifying
This easily can be seen in the everyday world around us: IQ (intelligence
quotient) tests offer no contingent choice whatsoever — the correct answers are
entirely specified, and high intelligence is indicated by matching the answer key
precisely. And mediums of expression that consist nearly entirely of contingent
choice, such as extremely abstract art, are such poor indicators of intelligence that
it can be difficult to tell whether a work was created by a four-year-old or a forty-
In the third Dembski quote above, he says that an extraterrestrial intelligence
would choose a transmission, and then we would recognize its intelligence by
matching it to “patterns regarded as sure indicators of intelligence.” But the recognition that one of those patterns has been matched would have nothing to do
with the ETI’s choice of one pattern over another; the mere fact that any one of the
specified patterns was sent is the indicator of intelligence.
And John Leslie’s example of shooting flies on a large wall illustrates the principle nicely: Suppose, on a very large wall, there are three flies, substantially far
apart from each other. If you are watching the wall (and not watching me), and I
can fire but a single shot at the wall, where must I shoot to convince you that my
shot was not random? At one of the three flies, of course — they are the specification. However, I can choose among the three flies. Now suppose I shoot one of
them; you hear the shot and see a fly get hit by a bullet. You are convinced that
the shot was not random because the three flies constituted a very information-
rich specification against the huge background of the wall. But what can you determine about the fact that this particular fly was hit, as opposed to either of the
other two? Nothing — my contingent choice of one fly over the other two was
What if there is only one fly on the wall, and I shoot it? You will be equally
convinced that the shot was intelligently planned, even though there was no contingent choice involved — I simply had to shoot that fly to convince you my action
was intelligent. Or, what if the whole wall is covered with flies, and I mentally
select one of them, then carefully aim and shoot it? You will be unable to conclude that the shot was not random, because there was no specification to be
matched.13 That example seems to illustrate the vulnerability of Dembski’s explanatory filter to false negatives, as described by Behe and Dembski in the following passages:
On the campus of my university there are sculptures that, if I saw them lying beside the road, I would guess were the result of chance blows to a piece of scrap
metal, but they were designed.
The upshot of this conclusion — that anything could have been purposely arranged — is that we cannot know that something has not been designed. —Behe,
Darwin’s Black Box, p. 194
Consider first the problem of false negatives. When the complexity-specification
criterion fails to detect design in a thing, can we be sure no intelligent cause underlies it? The answer is no. For determining that something is not designed,
this criterion is not reliable. False negatives are a problem for it. This problem of
false negatives, however, is endemic to detecting intelligent causes. —Dembski,
Intelligent Design, p. 140
Actually, these are not false negatives, and in fact Dembski’s explanatory filter is
not susceptible to false negatives. How so? Steadiness holding and firing a gun is
not really a function of intelligence, and can probably be performed better by a
simple V-shaped gun cradle and a slow-pressure device between the trigger and
trigger guard. Intelligence is in recognizing the specification; i.e. identifying the
one (or three) flies as distinct from empty expanses of wall. Shooting one of the
flies is just a way of showing the observers that the specification has been intelligently recognized. When the wall is covered with flies, I can either pop off a shot
at the wall without even taking aim, or I can mentally select a fly at random and
then take careful aim at that fly and shoot it. But either way, the selection is random, and does not represent intelligence. The intelligent part of my mind — the
part capable of recognizing specifications — cannot be employed when there is
no specification to recognize. Or to put it more generally, an intelligent agent
such as a human being is not always a generator of intelligence-signifying actions, but is also often a generator of random actions.
Not that he intended to be, but notice that in the above quote, Behe is ambiguous about exactly what might cause “chance blows” to a piece of metal. Perhaps
they would result from a human hitting the metal randomly with a hammer?
Behe classified the chance-blows scenario as non-design, without specifically requiring that the blows not come from a human. Even if the blows are human
generated, the object would not really be “designed” though its shape was indirectly determined by the actions of a human. Likewise, the precise temperature
of your laptop computer, measured to an accuracy of ten digits, is not designed
even though an agent capable of intelligence (you) has just now touched several
of the laptop’s keys, significantly affecting the value of that ten-digit number.
The sound of snoring is not designed (at least not by the snorer). Random data
can flow through agents capable of intelligence, bypassing their intelligence
partly or entirely.
Why would Dembski incorrectly identify contingent choice as the key characteristic of intelligence, and fail to notice that his explanatory filter is not susceptible to false negatives? Most likely because of a prior commitment to the Christian concepts of free will and an omniscient God as the ultimate sources of CSI.
Throughout his comprehensive ID defense, The Design Revolution, Dembski variously refers to our designers as “unevolved,” “unembodied,” and “irreducible to
material mechanisms.” Admittedly, these descriptors are used ambiguously
enough so that he might simply mean unembodied in this universe and irreducible to Darwinism. But that is never made clear, and the reader is left with the
strong impression that Dembski believes in a designer who is unembodied anywhere, and whose mind has no stochastic mechanism, but is simply an undefinable
magic from whence flows CSI.
... But that is precisely the point at issue, namely, whether intelligent agency reduces to or transcends material mechanisms. —The Design Revolution, p. 193
No, it isn’t — the point at issue is simply whether material mechanisms can produce specified complexity from scratch (as implied by Darwinism), and I agree
with Dembski that they cannot. But it doesn’t follow that intelligence is not composed of a mixture of CSI and stochastic mechanisms. What if our designers are
embodied, mechanistic intelligences, who made our universe as a total fabrication within their own? In that case, the Pac-Man analogy shifts into sharp focus,
and the Christian God scenario, with all its ever-puzzling, tautological,
“theodicy” excuses, becomes unnecessary. When we played Pac-Man, we called
it “good” when we were able to evade the monsters and eat all the dots, and we
called it “bad” when we got killed by the monsters. Occasionally, we inserted a
coin only to have our Pac-Man get killed with ten seconds of the beginning of
game play, in which case we might have commented angrily, “That was evil!”
The good and evil of the things that happened during the Pac-Man game were
not unreal qualities, but their reality was confined to the context of the game itself;
the good and evil were not metaphysical absolutes that somehow transcended
their context. Some will say, “If this life is all just a game, then it doesn’t matter
what happens, does it?” But when you played Pac-Man, you knew it was “just a
game” — but did it not matter whether or not you got caught by the four monsters in the maze? It did matter, and you tried your best to prevent it. A brick
wall drawn on the page of a book is of no consequence to the owner of the book,
who can turn the page effortlessly, but to the characters in the book, the wall is as
real as can be, and restricts their actions according to the rules laid down by the
We like to say that evil should be altogether stopped, but what would life be
like without it? Probably a lot like a game of Pac-Man in which the monsters
could never hurt you. In other words, very boring. So boring, that you would
likely walk away after one or two plays and not come back. In the early 1980s I
enjoyed — as an exercise in reverse-engineering — hacking into home computer
games at the assembly-language level, and modifying them to make my character invincible. But having done this, I played only a few minutes as an indestructible terminator and then moved on to some other pursuit. I spent far, far more
time playing the game in its normal mode (i.e. without invincibility), because it
was so much more exciting that way. The character of Agent Smith captures this
fact nicely in The Matrix:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?
Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No
one would accept the program. Entire crops [of humans] were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming knowledge to describe your perfect world.
But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. —Andy and Larry Wachowski
In other words, life is a puzzle, a game, and the richness of the experience is in
figuring out what you can accomplish and how long you can last. An allegedly
ancient curse14 says “may you live in interesting times.” Calling this wish a
“curse” implies that what we all really want is to live in a nirvana of perfect happiness and contentment. But in reality, that is like wishing that all puzzles were
solved and there were no more left to conquer. When we solve a puzzle, we are
trying to get to the solution, but the reason we’re trying to get there is not so that
puzzles can be eliminated from our lives. Our joy at solving one puzzle quickly
gives way to the desire to find and attack another.
Dembski’s religion implies also that we were created by a designer who
knows everything there is to know about what kind of organisms could be made
within this universe, and contingently chooses to make only some of them. But
in our experience with computers (our only birds-eye encounter with a law-
based reality synthesized by intelligent beings), we find that all possibilities are
not known — not even by the persons who defined the physical laws of the system. John Conway’s “Life” comes to mind. His system consists of a grid of
squares, each of which may be empty or occupied; in other words, each square is
a bit. Every cycle of the simulation, the bits change according to a simple pair of
rules (the action is illustrated in Figure 2-11):
• If a bit contains 1, and the eight surrounding bits total to a number other than
2 or 3, then the bit will change to 0 at the next cycle.
• If a bit contains 0, and the eight surrounding bits total exactly 3, then the bit
will change to 1 at the next cycle.
This set of rules, Conway discovered, provides a rich set of opportunities to build
interesting structures. In fact, it has been shown that any computer system made
by humans can be simulated within this environment. Once, many years ago, I
tried making arbitrary changes to the rules to see if I got other, interesting environments, rich with possibilities. I found that I did not. Instead I got environments in which the data exploded outward uncontrollably, or in which it died off
rapidly or tended too easily to sterile repetition. My analysis was by no means
exhaustive, but my random trials suggested that useful sets of rules (like Conway’s) are unusual exceptions — but not so unusual that Conway couldn’t find a
good one by experimenting a little. Conway did not possess prescient knowledge of everything that could be built in his system, and it took more tinkering
by Conway and many other Life enthusiasts to discover just some of the lifelike
machines that can be constructed within that system.
The same is true of the desktop computer itself. The rules of its processor
provide a flexible, general-purpose algorithm that allows a wide variety of interesting programs to run, but were invented by humans who could not predict in
advance every possible program. A good processor was devised by tinkering,
and then the programs that run on that processor were devised by further tinkering.
Is this same tinkering scenario at work in the design of our universe (the analogue to the computer), and ourselves (the analogue to the applications)? In the
following passage, Dembski seems about to embrace such a model, but then
finds a way to avoid it:
Most design critics, by conflating intelligent design with [scriptural] creationism,
see intelligent design as committed to a designer who always designs from
scratch and has to get everything right the first time. TRIZ [a Russian study of
technological evolution that reveals strong similarities to biological progression
on Earth], by contrast, bespeaks an evolutionary process that as much as possible
takes advantage of existing designs but then at key moments requires a conceptual breakthrough to move the process of technological evolution along. On this
view, the process of technological evolution is itself designed. What’s more,
within that process, designing intelligences interact with natural forces. Does
this mean that the designer (or designers) is making things up as it goes along?
Not necessarily. The conceptual breakthroughs needed to drive technological
evolution can be programmed from the start. —The Design Revolution, p. 313
Programmed from the start? I very much doubt it. My deep skepticism of this
concept would be abated if I had ever heard of humans “programming from the
start” freak accidents of specified complexity in even very modestly complex deterministic systems (not to mention stochastic systems). My intuition tells me that
the Law of Conservation of Information makes such a scheme effectively impossible.
Whether there is some ultimate super-being at the very top of the worlds-
within-worlds hierarchy, and whether that entity has prescient, total knowledge
of all that can ever be, is a question that inspires wonder and awe in the minds of
many, myself included. However, if such a mind exists, it might easily reside
multiple levels above our universe, and the science of ID probably can make inferences about what lies just one level up from here; not many.
And what does the evidence say about what lies one level up? Dembski correctly identifies specified complexity as a reliable indicator of design, and arrives
at that conclusion via the scientific inference to the best explanation. That is, since
every time we encounter specified complexity, and have access to its causal history, it is always designed, then when we find specified complexity for which the
causal history is inaccessible, we are scientifically justified in drawing the conclusion that designers are responsible.
This conclusion of design derives not from an overactive imagination but simply
from following the logic of induction where it leads: In cases where the underlying causal history is known, specified complexity does not occur without design.
—The Design Revolution, p. 99
But the evidence goes further than that. Quite a bit further. In the case of specified complexity in life on Earth, the causal history is not utterly unknown. Many
things can be observed and noted about the nature of life on Earth and its history
— do those observations tell us only that life was designed, leaving all further
questions to a religion like Christianity? I propose that they do not.
A minority of Christians adhere to scriptural literalism, and in service of that
allegiance must oppose evolution as incompatible with the story of Genesis. But
for the mainstream Christian who is unwilling to defend scriptural literalism,
evolution is actually a very good second choice, because it is compatible with the
scenario of the Christian God creating a universe that he knows will evolve humans automatically.15 For Christians, admitting that the story of Genesis is not
literally true, and embracing evolution as its logical alternative, is a nice compromise that preserves the most important tenets of their religion. And so despite
the likes of Dawkins and other hardline atheists at the forefront of the Darwinist
campaign, we see many evolutionists reacting indignantly at any accusation of
atheism, quickly pointing out that they are in fact mainstream Christians. Dembski is trying to forge a third way for Christianity, a scientific, non-scripturalist
route which allows Darwinism to be doubted and even defeated, while holding
onto the idea of a singular, omniscient creator who judges us as individuals.
Dembski’s efforts are doomed — no such third way is possible. The evidence of
ID, followed in the way of the scientist, leads us straight out of Christianity into
something that isn’t even vaguely compatible with it.
Whenever we encounter a synthesized, simulation-style world, in which multiple autonomous agents roam about, like players in a game, competing for control of their environment — in which some players get shafted rapidly and others
are lucky and long-lasting — and the causal purpose of that world is known: It
is always a videogame or a movie — i.e., a form of entertainment. So the very same
method of inference-to-the-best-explanation that leads Dembski to detect design
in life, also leads to the conclusion that this life in which we find ourselves is a
form of entertainment.
And, by the same token, we can infer that this life is simpler but more rapid-
fire and intense an experience than our lives outside of it. Just as a movie compresses a long sequence of interesting events into a two-hour window, and a frenetic game of Quake keeps us alert and on our toes even during its relatively
slow moments — but both the movie and the game of Quake are significantly
simpler than the universe in which we live — we can infer that when we die will
walk out of the metaphorical theater to a richer, more complex, but slower-paced
and more cerebral life, from which we are currently taking an entertaining break.
This is in sharp contrast to the Christian claim of the nature of the afterlife, which
even in its most watered-down, non-fundamentalist renditions, clearly claims
that the joys and pains of this life are insignificant in their intensity when compared to what awaits us in the afterlife.
To make sure that videogames and movies are not too selective a choice of
known cases, we should ask ourselves: Do we have examples of human-synthesized experiences that match the Christian model of life as a test, our reactions to
which will make a huge difference in our enjoyment of what comes next? Indeed
we do. The lie detector test and the college entrance exam are prime examples of
this kind of construction. A lie detector test (officially called a “polygraph”) is
intended to (indirectly) decide which subject winds up strolling the shopping
mall for cool, new products, and which subject winds up going crazy in a metal
cage. Likewise, the entrance exam indirectly decides which subject will have a
rich, rewarding career, and which will have a life characterized by financial hardship and serial frustration. But upon comparing these two examples with our
universe as a whole, we find grave dissimilarities. Both the lie detector test and
the entrance exam are performed in controlled atmospheres, in which the individual being tested is not interacting with other testees. The length of the test is
highly regulated, and usually uniform across testees. And both tests are
shrouded in cerebral stillness and formality. None of this looks like the world
we live in, which instead resembles a free-for-all, a videogame, a movie.
Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design
A major mental obstacle to seeing life as a videogame free-for-all is the fear that
such a discovery would lead to global, catastrophic chaos. People would rush to
the gun stores, load up on weapons and ammunition, and run amok in the
streets, shooting each other like a colossal game of Quake. Billions would die,
and the survivors would live lives of constant fear in the burned-out shell of civilization. But I think this sort of fear is just not realistic. Modern society has very
refined mechanisms for dealing with crime, and people who want to play Quake
can generally be expected to fire up their computers and play an actual game of
Quake.16 The game of life is much more subtle than Quake (which is, after all, a
videogame fabricated within this life). The competition for wealth, the pursuit of
physical gratifications or satisfaction through beneficence, the complex interplay
of minds in human relationships — these are the primary activities of the game
we are playing here. Intense, life-or-death combat is part of this game, but only
for a very small subset of humanity on any given day. And as modern technological civilization sweeps around the globe, mopping up the last vestiges of the
ancient world, frequent war may become a thing of the past.
A more serious block to accepting the videogame scenario comes in the form
of suicidal massacres. The technology of solving crime may be advanced indeed,
and improving every year, but the suicidal individual who knows that life is a
big game isn’t very worried about being caught by the forensic sleuths — or even
escaping the scene of the crime, for that matter. He simply wants to kill several
ordinary people in rapid succession and then kill himself. These events are a reasonable worry, and the subject of what can be done about this phenomenon will
be discussed at length in the next chapter. For now, let me just say that it is by
no means certain that the entertainment inference will encourage the murderous
motive in persons who are capable of such an act. For example, Mark Chapman,
influenced by the condemnation of phoniness in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the
Rye, killed John Lennon because he couldn’t deal with the immense phoniness
and hypocrisy he saw after hearing Lennon sing alluringly of a world with “no
possessions,” and then hearing about the lavish mansions Lennon owned. Chapman felt that by killing Lennon, he would be sending a powerful message about
how society needs to stop being phony, hypocritical, and massively unfair.
Chapman said in an interview, “a large part of me is kind, but a small part of me
can’t understand why the world is the way it is.” If Chapman had been made
aware that this life is a competitive, adventurous entertainment, then he might
have realized that Lennon’s imaginary nirvana-world was irrelevant, and interpreted Lennon’s hypocrisy as just a successful strategy to make money and enjoy
life. He might have realized that “phoniness” is just the natural tendency to present one’s best face to others. Seeing this world as an enjoyable puzzle, Chapman might have lived a life rich with exhilarating personal experiences, instead
of rotting in prison, having sent a popular musician to an early grave.
As exemplified by Chapman’s inability to deal with the inequalities of this
world, probably the most pronounced difficulty with acceptance of the video-
game model of life is the craving of cosmic justice for the pronounced sufferings
that befall significant chunks of the population. For example, most people draw
a great deal of comfort from the belief that Adolf Hitler is screaming his head off
in unbelievable agony while being slowly clawed apart by hideous demons, and
that he will be subjected to such tortures over and over, for a literally endless period of time. The idea is that if the suffering inflicted by Hitler on his Earthly victims is insignificant compared to what he is being made to endure in hell, then
we can put one foot in front of the other and get on with our post-Holocaust,
post-World-War-II lives. Another example: Many religious believe that patiently enduring poverty in this life, even while others are enjoying great wealth,
will be fantastically rewarded in heaven, while those wealthy people will probably go to hell. Again, a great injustice — poverty — can be mentally grasped if it
pales in significance to the reward for having humbly accepted it and lived out a
life of destitution with dignity.
I don’t think there’s much I can say to those people who can deal with the
great inequities of human history and society only by believing that such conditions will be massively retaliated in the next life. Such people are functionally
analogous to sore losers. Part of playing this game is understanding that you
may not score at the top of the heap, but you’ll still have a lot of fun. If you
really can’t tolerate losing, you can end it at any time. The fact that you haven’t
done so suggests that for you, playing the game of life is rewarding even in its
most difficult struggles and miseries, and the fight against failure is intriguing
enough to continue.
Sharon Rocha, mother of murder victim Laci Peterson, gave an interview
shortly after Scott Peterson’s conviction, in which she hoped that Scott would
“burn in hell for all eternity.” The desire to cast the Scott Petersons of this world
into hell is a useful emotion for ensuring that our elected politicians do not waver in their determination to see persons such as Scott permanently exiled or destroyed, which of course is good for the safety and productivity of society —
both from the standpoint of protecting people from killers such as Peterson and
also by deterring many other would-be Scott Petersons from killing in the first
place. But such emotion is not useful for scientifically exploring the purpose of
this life and what comes next. The price of satisfying scientific curiosity is that
we have to put aside strong emotions of what ought to be done to heinous criminals or the pampered rich, and ask instead where the empirical evidence leads.
If life is a videogame, then presumably we get to play many times. (It’s a lot
like reincarnation, but without the involuntariness and judgment aspects taught
by Hinduism, nor the Shirley MacLaine-style memories of past lives.) Christianity teaches us that we live in this world but once, and evolutionists passively go
along with this dogma when they argue dysteleology via injustice. Only the entertainment scenario suggests that you chose to experience a human’s life, and
have probably done so before, simply for the richness of the experience.
To avoid the decidedly non-Christian inference that this life is a form of entertainment, Dembski softly endorses the same false dichotomy that grips most evolutionists and antievolutionists alike:
Theism (whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim) holds that God by wisdom created the world. The origin of the world and its subsequent ordering thus result
from a designing activity of an intelligent agent — God. Naturalism, on the
other hand, allows no place for intelligent agency except at the end of a blind,
purposeless material process. Within naturalism, any intelligence is an evolved
intelligence. Moreover, the evolutionary process by which such intelligence developed is itself blind and purposeless. As a consequence, naturalism makes intelligence not a basic creative force within nature, but an evolutionary byproduct.
In particular, humans (the natural objects best known to exhibit intelligence) are
not the crown of creation, not the carefully designed outcome of a purposeful
creator and certainly not creatures made in the image of a benevolent God.
Rather, humans are an accident of natural history. —The Design Revolution, p. 22
If a “benevolent God” is the presumptive alternative to “an accident of natural
history,” then the ID movement is in deep trouble — and Hunter wrote Darwin’s
God entirely in vain. The Darwinists could scarcely have asked for a more ringing endorsement of their precious dichotomy, or a riper invitation to skewer anti-
Darwinism with dysteleology.
Worse yet, Dembski implicitly endorses full-blown naturalism by describing
quantum randomness as an opportunity for a designer to intervene in the world
without violating the laws of physics. Even presuming that quantum randomness is really random (an ascientific proposition if ever there was one17), what is
wrong with simple, external interference with the laws of physics? We manipulate the contents of our computers’ memories regularly in ways that totally violate the normal rules of memory change as defined by the processor. To think
that the makers of this universe would be incapable or unwilling to act similarly
is downright silly, but Dembski thinks it likely:
According to design critic Edward Oakes, intelligent design makes the task of
theodicy impossible. Why is that? Because, he claims, intelligent design is wedded to a crude interventionist conception of divine action and to a mechanistic
metaphysics of nature. —The Design Revolution, p. 25
Rather than rebuke Oakes for pointlessly calling intervention “crude,” Dembski
passively goes along with the charge, and cooks up a quantum conduit for CSI
injection. What’s crude about intervention? Dembski doesn’t elaborate, but it is
certainly worth noting that quantum CSI injection is very friendly to two major
Sunday School-type concepts:
1. God is so perfect that his actions must be characterized by the most extreme subtlety imaginable, and
2. God is not just a species creator, but acts frequently throughout human
history, and is probably acting today to guide and steer our lives (but in a
way that is undetectable by our clumsy science).
In another passage, Dembski attempts to explicitly deny miracles (i.e. interventionism) by example, and gets it completely wrong:
[L]et us first of all be clear that intelligent design does not require miracles in the
sense of violations of natural law. Just as humans do not perform miracles every
time they act as intelligent agents, so too there is no reason to assume that for a
designer to act as an intelligent agent requires a violation of natural laws. —The
Design Revolution, p. 189
Actually, humans’ experience with their own created realities says that it is miracles: For example, as I type this book into my computer, I am miraculously creating content that the laws in the computer’s processor cannot. If left to its own
devices, without outside intervention, the processor’s rules acting on the memory of the computer would never have created this document, precisely because
of the Law of Conservation of Information which Dembski champions. Perhaps
in the above quotation Dembski is referring to the musical instrument analogy
(his current favorite) — but probably everyone would agree that your computer,
not your guitar, is the true analogy to a fabricated world with content governed
by pre-coded laws.
Design has no prior commitment against naturalism or for supernaturalism.
Consequently, science can offer no principled grounds for excluding design or
relegating it to the sphere of religion. —The Design Revolution, p. 189-90
ID, by inference-to-the-best-explanation with computers and videogames, does
suggest supernaturalism (i.e. interventionism), and it’s unclear why Dembski
thinks that such would be grounds for excluding design from science in the first
The idea that our designers are the equivalent of game programmers, and that
the purpose of our lives is to have a fun adventure, is simply not in line with
Dembski’s religious beliefs, and while his evasions of the non-Christian inference
are far more subtle than Johnson’s heavy-handed evangelisms, they nonetheless
amount to the use of blinders to steer his readers to the conclusions at which he
would like them to arrive. Dembski finds the Christian motif attractive, and he is
not too shy to frankly expound on the importance of such attractiveness:
[T]his book aspires to provide a powerful new vision of science and the world,
one that people will want to pursue because they find it so attractive. ... For
ideas to prosper, they must satisfy. —The Design Revolution, pp. 27-28
Process theology’s faulty doctrine of creation has some deeply unsatisfying theological implications. For instance, process theology leaves us with an existentially disturbing explanation for the apparent ontological difference between
good and evil. (Within process theology, evil is simply the cost of nature’s
freedom.) Also, by presenting us with a God who means well but may not have
the power to pull off his good intentions, process theology leaves us with no assurances for the future (except perhaps that God is trying his best and feels our
pain). —The Design Revolution, pp. 175-6
But the history of science shows that scientific discovery can be counted on to
satisfy one and only one human emotion: scientific curiosity. Scientific curiosity is
closely analogous to desiring to know how a magician’s illusion was accomplished. The illusion is attractive when you don’t know how it was done, and becomes far less attractive — even disappointing — when you find out. Satisfying
scientific curiosity entails sacrificing the attractiveness of the thing under study,
for the sake of understanding it better.
Despite his Christian perspective, Dembski comes tantalizingly close to recognizing the inference-to-entertainment in the following passage, where he explains why a designed world would not exhibit unlimited improvement of organisms:
Our view of design is shaped too much by sports competitions. We always want
to go faster, higher, longer and stronger. But do we really want to go faster,
higher, longer and stronger without limit? Of course not. It is precisely the limits on functionalities that make the game of life interesting. (That’s why many
games employ handicaps.) A five-hundred-pound, seven-foot-six football player
with the strength of a gorilla and the speed of a cheetah would instantly be
banned from the sport, because just by playing the game to the best of one’s ability, such a player would maim or kill all normal players who got in the way.
Fans might show up to such a game for the novelty of it or out of bloodlust, but
a player like this would destroy the competitive drama of the game. Indeed, before long this super-player would destroy or run off anyone willing to play the
game. Likewise, such a predator in an ecosystem would wipe out all the prey,
after which it would go extinct. Or if the super-creature were omnivorous, it
would reproduce optimally (like rabbits? like bacteria?) until it wiped out all life,
after which it would again go extinct (unless it became an autotroph and could
manufacture its food from scratch as do some single-celled organisms).
Biology is, among other things, a drama. Interesting dramas require characters
who are less than optimal in some respects. In fact, authors of human dramas often consciously design their characters with flaws and weaknesses. Would Hamlet be nearly as interesting if Shakespeare had not designed the play’s lead character to exhibit certain flaws and weaknesses, notably indecisiveness?
I’m not saying that weaknesses or flaws in the design characteristics of organisms or ecosystems can be the basis for a design inference. ... —The Design Revolution, pp. 61-62
Weaknesses and flaws may not be the basis of a design inference (which results
instead from specified complexity), but they are certainly compatible with, and
perhaps even point to, designers who are trying to create an exciting drama.
That is a perfect answer to all the Darwinists’ arguments from dysteleology, but
Dembski must instead resort to an incredibly weak answer, full of the usual theodicy gobbledygook:
Critics of intelligent design repeatedly claim that no expert designer would have
created all the evolutionary dead-ends we see in the fossil record. One of my
critics asks, “What might be the intelligent purpose for creating species doomed
for extinction? Or why would an intelligent designer create humans with spines
poorly adapted for bipedal locomotion?” If we think of evolution as progressive
in the sense that the capabilities of organisms get honed and false starts get
weeded out by natural selection over time, then it seems implausible that a wise
and benevolent designer might want to guide such a process. But if we think of
evolution as regressive, as reflecting a distorted moral structure that takes human rebellion against the designer as a starting point, then it’s possible a flawless
designer might use a very imperfect evolutionary process as a means of bringing
a prodigal universe back to its senses. But this is an idea to be explored in another book. —The Design Revolution, p. 62
We cannot know in advance what Dembski’s upcoming theodicy book will
contain, but his article, Intelligent Design: Yesterday’s Orthodoxy, Today’s Heresy
(April 3, 2005) gives us a good sample of his firmly Christian interpretation of
this life. Unfortunately, the article plays directly into the false dichotomy by silently assuming Christianity to be the lone alternative to pure naturalism/materialism. Dembski analyzes those two options with a set of four questions which a
“worldview” must answer:
1. How did we get here?
2. Why are we in the mess we are in? Why do we have problems?
3. What is the solution?
4. Where is all this going?
Naturally, Christianity gives much more satisfying answers than does materialism. But how does the entertainment model answer these questions? Fairly
1. You chose to play this game. Your memories of having done so are temporarily cut off; you will regain access to them again when your time here
2. We have problems because the challenge of trying to solve them makes
this life exciting and worth playing.
3. The solutions to our problems are various and must be discovered on a
case-by-case basis. There is no “solution” to the general fact that we have
problems at all, but if you really find the challenges of this life too discouraging to bear, you can always suicide — many people do.
4. Presumably this universe will continue until it runs out of places where intelligent agents (humans) can survive. That is of no concern to you, as
your life and that of the next several generations of humans will surely be
long over by that time.
To some, these answers will seem a little bleak and cynical, but that is more a
function of the questions being asked than of the answers. Dembski’s set of four
“worldview” questions is based on the fundamental premise that it is some sort
of bizarre tragedy that we have problems and challenges in this life, and that
those problems are comprehensible only as reflecting some deep flaw in the nature of our universe; a universe that we should eagerly anticipate departing.
Such a gloomy outlook disappears if you ask a different set of questions such as,
“What sophisticated challenges will I face in this life?” and “Will my life be an intriguing drama, rich with intense and fascinating experiences?”
Dembski may not realize it, but he and most other religious are expressing a
feeling that coincides very closely with that of most Darwinists: the idea that this
world is some kind of big accident or mistake, instead of a purposely rugged adventure. The Pac-Man analogy says no, this world is not a mistake, it’s supposed
to have problems; that’s what makes it an exciting place to be. From that standpoint, the idea that this world is “imperfect” is largely meaningless. Ask yourself: Is the game of Pac-Man perfect? The machine freaks out and becomes unplayable after wave 255 (the maximum value of an unsigned byte) because the
author didn’t think anyone would last that long; so maybe that’s an imperfection.
But are the monsters that chase you around the maze an imperfection? No, of
course not. They’re there intentionally. They make the game a game. To argue
that the game would be more “perfect” if it had no monsters, or if they couldn’t
hurt you, would be to fundamentally misconstrue the purpose of Pac-Man.
Dembski’s promised theodicy work is going to have to be a lot more substantive than anything he has presented thus far, if it is to have even a chance of outweighing the direct, evidentiary inference that this universe — contrary to the
Christian model of deservedness-testing — is instead a form of vacation: An entertaining, breathtaking, intriguing adventure to be enjoyed in all its highs and
lows, in its moments of frenetic action and contemplative stillness, in its risks,
victories, and defeats, until your five senses shut down and the phrase “Game
Over” or “Created By...” signals that the fun has ended — at least for now.