My friend and colleague John Mark Reynolds at Biola University has just published a piece in Touchstone titled “SÃƒÂ©ances & Science: The Lessons of the Spiritualist Challenge to Darwinism” (go here). The piece is meant as a warning to the ID movement not to repeat mistakes of the past. As a general rule, prescriptions for avoiding mistakes of the past need to be taken seriously, and I myself have given such advice to the ID movement: “Becoming a Disciplined Science: Prospects, Pitfalls, and Reality Check for ID” and “Dealing with the Backlash Against Intelligent Design.”
Even so, I feel this paper by Reynolds may end up doing more harm than good. The comparison of ID with spiritualism and sÃƒÂ©ances seems entirely inappropriate. With spiritualism, the very phenomena it was supposed to study were fuzzy, ambiguous, and open to question. Thus, the interpretation of those phenomena in other than materialist terms (materialists always had a simple explanation, namely, FRAUD!) became doubly fuzzy, ambiguous, and open to question. Spiritualism from the start was therefore hopelessly subjective.
By contrast, with ID, the phenomena under consideration are clear: biological systems. The question is to explain how key features of these systems emerged, and this is where ID proponents engage in a vigorous debate with materialistic evolutionists. The data that ID proponents and evolutionists dispute are objectively given. Moreover, the methods of design detection that we use are mathematically based and have applications that are widely accepted even if their application to biology remains under dispute.
It would have been good if Reynolds had run his essay by some of us who are taking the most heat in the ID movement. I expect that Barbara Forrest and Eugenie Scott will find in this essay plenty of choice quotes that they will use against the ID movement, in effect making life more difficult for us than needs be. The fact is that the ID movement is in much better shape than Reynolds’s essay suggests.
For instance, Reynolds offers the following assessment of my work: “William Dembski is one of the most remarkable thinkers I have ever met, but his particular take on the idea of design and identifying design needs internal criticism. His writing seems to have moved from highly technical to mostly popular, and one hopes that the Discovery Institute or the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which he now teaches, would press him to write a technical follow-up to his seminal work.”
Reynolds here seems out of touch with my current work. My last two books, namely, Uncommon Dissent (ISI) and Debating Design (Cambridge) are academic press edited collections. These are not popular books. Moreover, I have been posting on my designinference.com website technical articles from a proposed monograph tentatively titled The Mathematical Foundations of Intelligent Design. In the last year I’ve written the following technical articles for inclusion in that monograph:
“Information as a Measure of Variation”
“Searching Large Spaces: Displacement and the No Free Lunch Regress”
“Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence”
Each of these articles is technically more demanding than anything I’ve published in the past on design inferences (e.g., The Design Inference or No Free Lunch).
Finally, the worry that ID is not engaging in vigorous internal critique seems misplaced. I find no absence of internal critique in the ID movement. Robin Collins, Tim McGrew, Lydia McGrew and Rob Koons have all offered useful critiques of my design-inference formalism. There are lots of people in the ID movement who are all too happy to stir the waters and bring up internal criticism. David Berlinski is perhaps the most notable of such critics (recall his Commentary pieces two years ago).
But, more importantly, we are experiencing vigorous external critique, to which we are responding (critics like Perakh and Shallit would deny this in my own case, but if they read the above three articles, they will see that their voices have been heard). In general, external critique tends to be more vigorous than internal critique because those in a position to offer internal critique remain nonetheless sympathizers and thus less inclined to go for the jugular.
Reynolds’s essay suggests that he has become an outsider to the ID movement. To be sure, not socially, since he is an incredibly friendly guy and he’s on good terms with ID’s principal players. But when it comes to the cutting edge of ID (e.g., my current work, Doug Axe’s research, developments in engineering sciences that are supporting ID), he seems out of touch. It would have been easy enough for him to get back in touch simply by contacting us. Unfortunately, now his essay is public property.