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November 27, 2004

Testing For Design

Can Intelligence At Work Be Detected?

When we come across a sand castle on a beach, we know it wasn't shaped that way by the waves and the tide. A line of Scrabble tiles spelling HAPPY BIRTHDAY didn't just fall out of the box. What is it that we immediately latch onto in recognizing the results of an intelligence at work as opposed to unguided natural forces? Is it possible to define it, quantify it, and measure it? Yes to all three questions is the answer arrived at by William Dembski, research professor at Baylor University with doctorates in mathematics and philosophy, and presented in his intriguing book No Free Lunch. The usual answer most people give is that such examples are "improbable," but this doesn't answer it. The probability of drawing the above sequence randomly is no more or no less than that for any other 14 characters drawn from a set of 26 letters and a space. Improbability is essential, yes, but not sufficient. (Essential, that is, for confidently recognizing a construct that must be the work of intelligence. The converse doesn't necessarily apply. Random drawing will produce short English words like TO and DOG sufficiently often that chance can't be excluded.)

In Kicking the Sacred Cow, a section that has been getting a lot of interest in the way of responses is "Humanistic Religion," which looks at some of the problems the textbooks don't talk about concerning random mutation and natural selection as the driving engine of evolution. In particular, many people seem to want to know where they can learn more about the growing Intelligent Design movement that sees some kind of intelligence being inescapable to explain the intricacies being uncovered at the molecular level, as described by biochemists such as Michael Behe and Michael Denton. Dembski's work would be a good introduction. It also contains some solid refutation of why attempts to demonstrate comparable creativity by natural processes, such as genetic programming or evolutionary algorithms, invariably utilize information smuggled in, albeit often subtly and unwittingly, by the programmer.

The ID movement is currently drawing some ferocious flak from Establishment science and even legalistic quarters for being "creationism in disguise" or seeking to "ban evolution from the schools." Neither allegation is true. The movement includes biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, information theorists, and many others with no religious ax to grind. Not surprisingly, yes, it attracts biblical fundamentalists too. That no more invalidates it (they could be right for all I know) than does the inclusion of UFO-abduction devotees among those who accept that life elsewhere in the universe might exist. There is no valid reason why the possibility of intelligence at work within nature should be excluded a priori. Naturalist-materialists insist that such a hypothesis is unnecessary. ID researchers insist they can show rigorously why that isn't so. It sounds like a fascinating field of study that can only enrich insights and understanding in countless areas. Imposing a dogma in advance that dictates what is acceptable as fact and how the evidence must be interpreted is not the way of science. Good heavens! If this kind of thing gets loose, the kids might even end up thinking for themselves and asking difficult questions!

 
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