Saturday, December 15, 2007

Grumbling Under Dembski's Big Tent

Over on the "tracking thread" for Uncommon Descent at, "csadams" noticed this article, a recent interview with William Dembski geared at promoting Bill's new book. "csadams" highlighted a key statement in the interview:

I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.
That comment was posted Thursday afternoon. By late evening, the folks at UncommonDescent had a post up, working the damage control buttons and levers over this quote. Clearly, someone at Uncommon Descent was monitoring the conversation at, and realized this was something to get out in front of.

Dembski's PR blunders and self-defeating attempts at satire are now something of a low-level legend in this debate, but while Dembski comes across as decidedly tone-deaf in the wider battle for "hearts and minds", Dembski's been a master of playing both sides of ID movement, internally. On one hand, when speaking to Christian groups, he's the faithful creationist, taking up the sword and spear of his two PhDs and charging forth to battle the demon hordes of Darwinism. On the other hand, when speaking "out in the open", in scientific circles or public fora, he's a mathematician philosopher, whose scientific genius has led him to the discover of emergent properties in nature that objectively implicate an Intelligent Designer.

While that has long seemed somewhat duplicitous, and transparently so, Dembski has made it work, and work well. Dembski continues to enjoy wide and growing support from creationist Christianity, and at the same time, he's been able to construct a "big tent" theme, a loose coalition of sorts committed not so much even to ID specifically, but to the destruction of "Darwinism". Just from looking at the regulars at UD, you can see an array of non-Christians congregating under the safe, challenge-free tent of the blog.

If you read the interview, it's puzzling that Dembski offered this quote up where he did, and in the way he did. Here's the wider quote:

4. Does your research conclude that God is the Intelligent Designer?

I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.

The focus of my writings is not to try to understand the Christian doctrine of creation; it’s to try to develop intelligent design as a scientific program.

There’s a big question within the intelligent design community: “How did the design get in there?” We’re very early in this game in terms of understanding the history of how the design got implemented. I think a lot of this is because evolutionary theory has so misled us that we have to rethink things from the ground up. That's where we are. There are lots and lots of questions that are now open to re-examination in light of this new paradigm.

I note here as an aside that Dembski doesn't answer the question. The interviewer is asking about current conclusions as a matter of research, but Dembski isn't listening; he has something else he wants to say.

As has been noted both at and in the comment stream for UD's damage control post, Dembski doesn't qualify the second sentence there with an "I believe". As I read it it, it's fairly implied, and anyone who's read Bill on this subject before knows he's accustomed to making these distinctions. ID is science the proves the existence of an Intelligent Designer, but nothing more about Designer than simply he/she/it is capable of designing organic life. Dembski's identification of that Designer as the Christian God as just his personal belief, beyond any implications of ID.

And insofar as the ID supporters have understood this, it hasn't been a problem. But the implication has always been that this is about the science as science first and foremost, and as for the "who is the Designer?" question, Dembski's got a right to speculate outside of the confines of the Design Inference as anyone. But this quote here seems to go a little farther, and gives the sense that Dembski starts with the conclusion that God is the Designer, and ID is just so much "working the numbers backwards".

This has been the heart of much criticism level at the Intelligent Design movement. Science is supposed to go wherever the evidence leads. In contrast, ID, like creationist arguments before it, is something more like lawyering; given a conclusion, arguments are built up underneath it to support it.

Here's an example of the kind of grumbling Dembski's statement is likely to generate from "big tent ID supporters":

“The Designer of intelligent design, is, ultimately, the Christian God.”

Umm, that bothers me. This founder of the movement is not saying, “ID proves design, and in my opinion the designer is Jesus,” but, as a fact, the designer is Jesus. As you know, I’m a pagan ID supporter. Where does this leave people like me — as well as the scores of Jews, Muslims and atheists who support ID?

Here's another complaint:

Silly old me, I was always under the impression that ID was cold, hard science. ID had nothing to do with god. Time and time again Demski and others have denied religious motive. Oh well, guess I was wrong
That captures the basic objection. However, this particular complaint should be taken with a grain of salt here. I don't know this poster "dave557" to be a sockpuppet -- an ID critic posing as a (nominal, at least) ID supporter as a means of discrediting ID -- but my money's on the guess that he is. He continues by providing a long-ish quote from PZ Myers about Dembski's book. Not something you'd expect from anyone but the Banninated™.

Another poster sees a problem with this from a "textbook" angle:

The problem here is this. If dembski goes down as saying that the designer is the “christian” god then i dont see how this is going to get tought in any public school.
Dembski weighs in with his own comments:

William Dembski:
In the context of the review, I was saying that I — personally — believe the Christian God is ultimately the designer behind the world. I’ve also written elsewhere that the Christian God might use teleological organizing principles to implement his designs (e.g., that God does not need to specifically toggle the bacterial flagellum). And I’ve stressed throughout my writings that there are alternative philosophical frameworks for making sense of ID. None of these considerations undercuts the scientific core of ID.

Come on folks, it’s no secret that I’m a Christian and that I have various motivations for pursuing ID (if you want to put me on the couch, please do the same with Dawkins).

The reader can be the judge as to Dawkins' sincerity in this, but I'd bet Dawkins would disavow the idea that he has "various motivations" for assuming his conclusion -- that no god exists -- on an a priori basis, external to the scientific investigation of the matter. Isn't that quite different than what Dembski is admitting here for himself? It sounds like he's projecting his own worldview on to Dawkins, and everyone else: believe whatever you believe, for whatever reason, then work backwards toward a supporting case for it.

Dembski here seems close to openly owning up to his "working backwards". If so, I'd say that will continue to not only produce more grumbling the Big Tent of ID, but will give ID opponents some strong philosophical grounds to reject ID as not just "non-science", but "anti-science". Working backwards from an a priori conclusion towards a constrained supporting argument is polemic, the antithesis of scientific inquiry.

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