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“Intelligent Design”: Philosophy of Science Issues. Wesley R. Elsberry Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences Texas A&M University. “Did you hear about the Aggie professor…?”. Problems With “Intelligent Design” Arguments.

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Intelligent design philosophy of science issues

“Intelligent Design”: Philosophy of Science Issues

Wesley R. Elsberry

Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences

Texas A&M University

Problems with intelligent design arguments
Problems With “Intelligent Design” Arguments

  • Use of “marker of intelligent agency” approach is invalid in principle (Irreducible Complexity & Specified Complexity)

  • Mistaking criticism of Darwinian theories for a positive case for “Intelligent Design”

  • Making unsubstantiated or overblown claims

  • False claims of “scientific” status

  • Poor track record of following scientific practice in pursuing Intelligent Design arguments

Dembski s explanatory filter design inference ef di
Dembski’s Explanatory Filter & Design Inference (EF/DI)

  • Explanatory Filter: Supposed to capture the essential features of how humans already make design inferences

  • Design Inference: Supposed to make the argument of the Explanatory Filter rigorous

  • Argument by elimination of alternatives

  • “Design” is a residue

  • Going from “design” to agency is based upon induction

Criticism of dembski s ef di invalidity
Criticism of Dembski’s EF/DI: Invalidity

  • In spite of limited publication venue of EF/DI, it has attracted significant criticism

  • Several critics contend that Dembski’s basic arguments are invalid

    • Fitelson & Sober, 1999

    • Ellery Eells, 1999

    • Massimo Pigliucci, 1999

    • Eli Chiprout, 1999

    • Richard Wein

Criticism of ef di improper procedures
Criticism of EF/DI: Improper Procedures

  • The methods deployed in Dembski’s EF/DI have come under criticism

    • Elsberry, 1999

    • Wilkins & Elsberry, (in press)

    • Ivar Ylvisakar

Criticism of ef di interpretation
Criticism of EF/DI: Interpretation

  • Some critics contend that even if basic EF/DI is a valid argument, that certain interpretations made do not follow

    • Elsberry, 1999

    • Wilkins & Elsberry, (in press)

Criticism of ef di theology
Criticism of EF/DI: Theology

  • Criticism of Dembski’s EF/DI on theological grounds

    • Howard Van Till

    • Edward Oakes

    • Nancey Murphy

Criticism of ef di methodology
Criticism of EF/DI: Methodology

  • Bill Jefferys’ point that DI is not predictive

  • Proper practice of natural science

    • Show the work before making public claims

  • No significant empirical testing of EF or DI

    • Is DI even subject to empirical test? (Dembski 1997)

    • Dembski has thus far only proposed a verificationist program

    • Historical review (“regression testing”)

      • Does DI put fairies in the fairy rings?

    • Look where the evidence is, not where it isn’t

      • Examine Krebs’ citric acid cycle, mammalian middle ear, etc.

The ordinary the extraordinary
The Ordinary & the Extraordinary

  • Humans & certain animals executing plans to a purpose are within our empirical experience, and hence are ordinary

  • Action of God is not within the same scope of empirical experience, hence extraordinary

    • “This cell made by YHWHä” example

      • Naturalizes God, result is a “God who is not very Godly” [Pennock]

Design inferences the ordinary the rarefied
Design Inferences: The Ordinary & the Rarefied

  • Inference to Ordinary Design: a class of causal regularity warranted in cases of known agency

  • Inference to Rarefied Design: a class of causation based solely upon characters of artifacts examined

    • The color “Red” as an invalid marker of Rarefied Design

    • CSI as a(n invalid) marker of Rarefied Design

  • Mnemonics[*]

    • Ordinary Design, DAWKINS: “Design As We Know It, Not Supernatural”

    • Rarefied Design, DEMBSKI: “Design (Exclusively Maintained By Scanty Knowledge) Inference”

[*] Acronyms due to John Wilkins

The pitfalls of inferring intelligent agency
The Pitfalls of Inferring Intelligent Agency

  • The question is not really over “design”

  • The point of the ID movement is to infer “intelligent agency” (IA) as a cause for biological examples

  • “Design” has simply been a means to this end

  • Replacement of “artifact” with “event”

  • What does an inference to “intelligent agency” require of us?

Finding the action of an intelligent agent
Finding the Action of an Intelligent Agent

  • Desired class of events

    • “Intelligent Agency” (IA)

      • Sufficient grounds: We observe the agent produce the artifact

      • Epistemological warrant often occurs via multiple independent lines of evidence which imply existence and/or establish the identity of the agent causing the artifact

      • Artifacts classed in IA because of evaluation of all the relevant evidence & consideration of the plausibility of agent causation

      • Are we limited to “ordinary design” in assigning an artifact to “IA”? I argue “Yes”.

Are we limited to ordinary design in assigning an artifact to ia
Are we limited to “ordinary design” in assigning an artifact to “IA”?

  • Consider an “IA” inference by looking at sets via Venn diagrams

    • Set view shows problems in the generalized logical argument:

      • Instances of artifacts with attribute X are in IA

      • No instances of artifacts with attribute X are not in IA

      • Thus, attribute X is a reliable marker that an artifact is in IA

    • Call such classes “Marker of Intelligent Agency:X”

The id treasure map the search for a reliable marker of intelligent agency
The ID “Treasure Map”: The Search for a Reliable Marker of Intelligent Agency

  • Argument from design advocates have searched exhaustively for their own “treasure map”

  • No map so far has gotten them to a reliable means of inferring rarefied design

  • “Specified Complexity marks the spot”

    • Latest “treasure map” features statistics

    • Same old conceptual problems remain

Reliability of Intelligent Agency

  • Claim by Dembski that his EF/DI makes no false positive attributions

    • Ignores a priori biases in application

    • Ignores reliance upon current ignorance

    • No test procedure yet given by an ID advocate

  • Claim by Dembski that his EF/DI finds design in biological systems

    • Where are the calculations?

    • No fulfillment of requests for the work

Marker of intelligent agency an invalid approach to infer ia
Marker of Intelligent Agency: An Invalid Approach to Infer IA

  • “Marker of Intelligent Agency:X” (MIA:X) is then taken to imply IA without reference to plausibility of the designing agent or other evidence of an event

  • Inductive basis of argument provides no warrant for claims of reliability of any MIA:X approach, whatever “X” instantiates

  • MIA:X is an attempt to conclude IA on the cheap

Mia x is an appeal to current ignorance
MIA:X is an Appeal to Current Ignorance IA

  • Consider “red color” as a possible marker of intelligent agency

  • Small enough experience favors view that MIA:RED is a proper subset of IA, and thus warrants inferring that event E in MIA:RED -> IA

  • Examples: Red flashlight, fire truck, toolbox, fire hydrant

Intelligent Agency


Induction means that mia x is inherently unreliable
Induction Means That MIA:X Is IAInherently Unreliable

  • View that MIA:RED is a proper subset is based inductively

  • Testing status are done by reference to empirical data

  • Logic is insufficient to establish warrant for use of MIA:RED

  • Asymmetry: can establish that MIA:RED is not a proper subset, but cannot establish that it is a proper subset

This ->






Or this ->

Dembski markers
Dembski & Markers IA

  • “In The Design Inference (Cambridge, 1998) I argue that specified complexity is a reliable empirical marker of intelligent design.”

  • “Thus a likelihood analysis that pits competing design and chance hypotheses against each other must itself presuppose the legitimacy of specified complexity as a reliable empirical marker of intelligence.”– WA Dembski, Another Way to Detect Design?

Mia sc is an unreliable basis upon which to infer ia
MIA:SC Is an Unreliable Basis Upon Which to Infer IA IA

  • MIA:SC fares no better than any other MIA:X

  • Quantitative difference, not qualitative difference

>=50 bits

>=100 bits

Intelligent Agency

>=250 bits



MIA:SC >=500 bits




Mia ic is an unreliable basis upon which to infer ia
MIA:IC Is an Unreliable Basis Upon Which to Infer IA IA

  • Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity” (IC) is yet another case of MIA:X, & has the same problems

  • Examining MIA:IC

    • Given a mousetrap & knowledge of mousetrap makers, make ordinary design inference to IA (IC attribute is superfluous)

    • Given a defective mousetrap & knowledge of fallible mousetrap makers, make ordinary design inference to IA (non-IC does not interfere with ordinary DI)

    • Given sealed box labeled, “Contains IC widget”, have no warrant to make either an ordinary or a rarefied design inference to IA (IC attribute is uninformative regarding IA) [Behe’s “black box”]

Falsifiability IA

  • Popperian concept of “falsifiability”

    • What is falsifiability?

      • Theory X implies class of observation Y

      • If there exists y in Y such that ~y, then ~X

    • Need to state “theory” as a specific proposition

      • For example, “Flight” is not specific enough, but “All birds fly” is a falsifiable proposition

      • Finding a flightless bird falsifies the proposition

      • A “basic statement” which contradicts the theory is a falsifier

    • Nothing in there about somebody else’s idea

Dembski falsifiability
Dembski & Falsifiability IA

  • Dembski’s claim that Darwinian explanation of bacterial flagellum would falsify “specified complexity” as a marker of intelligent agency (2001/04/25) reveals confusion

    • No entailment, and thus no consequences for SC

    • Can simply say, “OK, what about this other example?”

    • Not really falsification

Behe falsifiability
Behe & Falsifiability IA

  • Claim that IC as a marker of intelligent agency would be falsified by a Darwinian explanation of a bacterial flagellum

    • Same problem: no statement of a specific proposition & implied class of required consequences

    • Same confusion: the validity of another proposition in no way constitutes a falsification of the proposition being tested

The excluded muddle
The Excluded Muddle IA

  • EF/DI as an argument by elimination has practical as well as philosophical problems

    • Relies upon current ignorance (like all “marker of intelligent agency” approaches)

    • Relies upon completeness of generation of alternative hypotheses (regularity or chance)

    • Relies upon accurate assessment of plausibility of causation by regularity or chance hypotheses

      • Begging the question by broaching hypothesis, but not correctly assessing its ability to cause the event

      • EF/DI is a conduit for a priori biases

Real design inferences are ordinary design inferences
Real Design Inferences Are Ordinary Design Inferences IA

  • Properties of warranted design inferences

    • Use “design” as an independent category, not a residue of elimination

    • Evaluate plausibility of agent causation

    • Compare evidence & plausibility with respect to various causal hypotheses

    • Allow uncertainty to lead to categorization in “don’t know yet/get more data” bin

      • World is open, not closed

Real design inferences are ordinary design inferences1
Real Design Inferences are Ordinary Design Inferences IA

  • Where the Rubber Meets the Road

    • Dembski’s examples of existing DIs are examples of Inference to Ordinary Design

      • Includes SETI, “Made By YHWHä” examples

    • Dembski’s real-world examples include the properties of warranted design inferences & use of ordinary design inferences (last slide)

  • Dembski extrapolates “ordinary” design inferences to “rarefied” design inferences

    • Not warranted

Summary 1
Summary (1) IA

  • Inductive arguments from a “marker of intelligent agency” give no warrant for either ordinary or rarefied design inferences

  • Ordinary design inferences remain our only reliable approach to inferring intelligent agency

  • Critics have argued variously against Dembski's underlying logic, his procedures, and his interpretations of results

Summary 2
Summary (2) IA

  • Dembski has consistently failed to properly subject his ideas to effective empirical test

  • Dembski has put little effort into explicating DI methodology in the peer-reviewed scientific literature

  • Dembski has failed to fulfill requests from his colleagues for data and work underlying publicly-made assertions

  • Dembski’s implication that his EF/DI is something that re-invents the basis of doing science is hype

Dembski the genome
Dembski & the Genome IA

  • Features of genome due to “de-evolution” (U. Georgia lecture, 2001)

    • TDI says that the specificity of information can imply plagiary

    • Why is the specific information of dead viruses, parts of bacterial genes, and transposable elements not evidence of copying?

Dembski id activism
Dembski & ID Activism IA

  • “Though design theorists believe Darwinism is dead wrong, unlike the creationist movement of the 1980's, they do not try to win a place for their views by taking to the courts. Instead of pressing their case by lobbying for fair treatment acts in state legislatures (i.e., acts that oblige public schools in a given state to teach both creation and evolution in their science curricula), design theorists are much more concerned with bringing about an intellectual revolution starting from the top down. Their method is debate and persuasion. They aim to convince the intellectual elite and let the school curricula take care of themselves. By adopting this approach design theorists have enjoyed far more success in getting across their views than their creationist counterparts.” – WA Dembski, What every theologian should know about creation, evolution and design

Dembski on criticism
Dembski on Criticism IA

  • "I would go further than that and say that I value objective peer review. I always learn more from my critics than from the people who think I'm wonderful."

    - William A. Dembski as quoted by Fred Heeren

Dembski on visceral responses
Dembski on Visceral Responses IA

  • "If we're generating such strong, visceral responses, we must be doing something right."

    • William Dembski as quoted by Lynn Vincent

      Does this imply that when critics evoke a strong, visceral response from Dembski, that they too are doing something right?

Who is wesley r elsberry 1
Who is Wesley R. Elsberry? (1) IA

  • Wesley’s allocation of scholarly effort

    • Let’s look at the publications & participation from the time of the NTSE conference…

      • (+) Enterprising science needs naturalism, 1997

      • (+) Optimality book, co-editor, INNS series, 1997

      • (+) First audiogram of a marine mammal at depth, JASA, 1997

      • (+) TTS in delphinoids, JASA, 1997

      • (+) U.S. Navy technical report #1751 on TTS, 1997

      • (+) Letter responding to TTS comments, JASA, 1998

      • (+) Dolphin dorsal fin morphology poster, 1998

Who is wesley r elsberry 2
Who is Wesley R. Elsberry? (2) IA

  • Wesley’s allocation of scholarly effort

    • More publications and participation

      • (+) Simultaneous digital data of physiological & acoustic signals during dolphin biosonar, poster, 1999

      • (-) Review of TDI by William A. Dembski, 1999

      • (+) Review of Tower of Babel by Robert Pennock, 1999

      • (+) Dissertation research (intranarial pressure and biosonar click production in bottlenose dolphins), 1999-present

      • (+) Multiple sound sources in the bottlenose dolphin, JASA, 2000

      • (+) Deep Hear paper, J. Exp. Biol., in press

      • (-) Wilkins & Elsberry, Biol. & Phil., in press

Who is wesley r elsberry 3
Who is Wesley R. Elsberry? (3) IA

  • Wesley’s allocation of scholarly effort

    • Other activities

      • (-) Dembski commentary on the Internet (, web page, other fora)

      • (+) Non-Dembski EvC discussion on the Internet

Dembski markers 1
Dembski & Markers (1) IA

  • “When SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) researchers attempt to discover intelligence in the extra-terrestrial radio transmissions they are monitoring, they assume an extra-terrestrial intelligence could have chosen any number of possible radio transmissions, and then attempt to match the transmissions they observe with certain patterns as opposed to others (patterns that presumably are markers of intelligence).” – WA Dembski, Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information

Mia csi is an unreliable basis upon which to infer ia
MIA:CSI Is an Unreliable Basis Upon Which to Infer IA IA

  • MIA:CSI fares no better than any other MIA:X

  • Proper subset?

    • Examples known

      from IA are expected;

      this does not

      validate inference to



MIA:CSI >=500 bits

Mia csi is an unreliable basis upon which to infer ia1
MIA:CSI Is an Unreliable Basis Upon Which to Infer IA IA

  • MIA:CSI fares no better than any other MIA:X

  • Assertion that no example is outside IA

  • Current ignorance



MIA:CSI >=500 bits

Mia csi is an unreliable basis upon which to infer ia2
MIA:CSI Is an Unreliable Basis Upon Which to Infer IA IA

  • MIA:CSI fares no better than any other MIA:X

  • What about “local small probability bounds”?

>=50 bits


>=100 bits

>=250 bits



MIA:CSI >=500 bits


History arguments to from design
History: Arguments To & From Design IA

  • Paley’s watch and watchmaker

    • The artifact implies an artificer

  • Paley and criticism

    • The Pre-criticism of Hume

      • The insufficiency of analogy as a warrant

    • Darwin & alternative explanation

      • The sufficiency of natural causation to explain adaptation

    • Dawkins and the “Blind Watchmaker”

More on paley
More on Paley… IA

  • A “Sober” Re-evaluation of Paley

    • Elliott Sober’s classification of Paley’s argument as abduction

  • Paley Redux: The “Intelligent Design” Movement

    • The rehabilitation of “natural theology”?

Dusting for fingerprints
Dusting for Fingerprints IA

  • Forensics & fingerprints

    • Trace evidence implies existence of an agent

    • Trace evidence can identify the agent

    • This trace evidence is in the form of physical artifacts

  • The search for God’s fingerprints

    • A popular theological pastime

    • 100% failure rate so far

    • Track record commends modesty in claimants

Why do we find man s fingerprints not god s
Why Do We Find Man’s Fingerprints & Not God’s? IA

  • We know the features & actions of our fellow humans by our sense experience & intersubjective critique

  • God has not yet deigned to be examined under the microscope