Thursday, December 11, 2008

On the Shoulders of Gnats

I no longer blog much on the strange happenings at Uncommon Descent. Like many others I've become desensitized. It's like Benny Hinn or Al Gore—the cerebral circuits that fire when pondering their antics no longer, from overuse, lead to feelings of amusement.

Except when they outdo themselves—opening up virginal neural pathways for exploration, cultivation and exploitation.

Such a case is currently on display at the New and Improved (even more advertisements!) Uncommon Descent.

This Comedy in Three Acts begins in ancient territory: Dembki’s Explanatory Filter. For those who don't know, the Explanatory Filter is inspired by the common-sense way humans perceive design.

For example, suppose that while strolling along the Plain of Nazca we encounter, right there on the ground, an autographed Bill Buckner baseball card. We would, probably subconsciously, reason: a) No natural law produces autographed Bill Buckner baseball cards, b) an autographed Bill Buckner baseball card is very unlikely to have arisen by chance, and c) though complex, an autographed Bill Buckner baseball card fits a pattern that is simple to describe: It looks a picture of Bill Buckner in a Cubs uniform with his name scrawled across the foreground.

We would then conclude, reasonably, that some intelligent agent produced the baseball card. That is, it was designed.

In truth, Dembski's Explanatory Filter (EF) is not inspired by this common sense approach—it is this common sense approach. What Dembski does is wrap horse-sense in a façade of obfuscatory mathematics and call it science—when all it is is the everyday approach that works only for objects that have a resemblance to things that we know men can make. They are either immediately recognizable—a watch or a Terracotta soldier, or they bear some resemblance to things we make—they are machined, have gears, lights, hinges, inscriptions, etc.

Making it sound all sciency, Dembski then claimed that the EF can be applied to objects that a) do not resemble anything we have ever made, b) we don't know how to make them, and c) they are alive, or parts of living creatures.

It doesn't work. When you are dealing with something alive, or a component of something alive—how do you rule out natural causes? You can't. You might not believe that evolution explains something—say the bacterial flagellum, but the present lack of a satisfactory natural explanation is not proof that there will never be such an explanation.

Even worse, the EF ultimately rests on the concept of complex, specified information (CSI). This is the, once again, common sense idea that if the object is complex and yet fits a simply described pattern, it is a strong candidate for design. And once again Dembski takes a reasonable concept and pretends he can put it on firm mathematical footing. He can't. Nobody knows how to calculate the CSI of, say, blood clotting—and so Dembski's CSI and his EF remain Mathstrology—they sound mathlike, they make bold claims regarding their calculability and applicability, but ultimately they are not even "not even wrong."

Virtually anyone with any mathematical savvy has been saying the same thing for years. But Dembski would not back down.

Until a week ago.

Then in the internet equivalent of a marginal note, with no fanfare whatsoever, Dembski announced in a comment—not even a dedicated post:
I’ve pretty much dispensed with the EF. It suggests that chance, necessity, and design are mutually exclusive. They are not. Straight CSI is clearer as a criterion for design detection.
Well alrighty then. It's a bit like, in the midst of a Kidney Pie throwdown with Bobby Flay, Richard Dawkins mentioning in passing that he had become a Christian, and then in his next breath explaining that the secret to a tasty entrée is to use only the freshest marjoram.

That was Act II. The final act was a Dembski post that appeared on Uncommon Descent yesterday.
In an off-hand comment in a thread on this blog I remarked that I was dispensing with the Explanatory Filter in favor of just going with straight-up specified complexity. On further reflection, I think the Explanatory Filter ranks among the most brilliant inventions of all time (right up there with sliced bread). I’m herewith reinstating it — it will appear, without reservation or hesitation, in all my future work on design detection.
You simply can't make this stuff up. You can't even tell if Debmski is serious—though personally I think he is. His, um "humor" usually takes the form of flatulence jokes, grotesque photo-shopped images, false prophesies of scientific victory, legal advice, Sir Robbining, posting home addresses and phone numbers of people he doesn't like, bragging about his influence on President Bush's science policy, developing complex legal strategies, turning people in to the Department of Homeland Security, etc. This, if it is a joke, would be a little bit high-brow for Dembski.

But you just never know.

UPDATE: Dembski gives his reason for the Deng Xiaoping-like rehabilitation of the Explanatory Filter following a one-week exile:
William Dembski


12:59 am
DaveScot: Right. I came up with the EF on observing example after example in which people were trying to sift among necessity, chance, and design to come up with the right explanation. The EF is what philosophers of science call a “rational reconstruction” — it takes pre-theoretic ordinary reasoning and attempts to give it logical precision. But what gets you to the design node in the EF is SC (specified complexity). So working with the EF or SC end up being interchangeable. In THE DESIGN OF LIFE (published 2007), I simply go with SC. In UNDERSTANDING INTELLIGENT DESIGN (published 2008), I go back to the EF. I was thinking of just sticking with SC in the future, but with critics crowing about the demise of the EF, I’ll make sure it stays in circulation.
Not a scientific reason--but because his critics are "crowing about the demise of the EF." (The EF cannot, it would seem, distinguish between crowing and mocking.)

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