We’ve been pointing out highlights from James Barham’s The Best Schools interview with design theorist Bill Dembski – who founded this blog – about why he decided to take aim at the Darwin frauds and their Christian enablers, and how he got interested in design.
TBS: We understand that what many consider to be your masterpiece so far—The Design Inference—is based on your Ph.D. dissertation completed two years earlier at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the period when you were formulating the notions of specified complexity and the design inference, with whom were you in contact? Whom were you reading? What were the main intellectual influences on this seminal work?
WD: I owe specified complexity and The Design Inference to Richard Dawkins and, specifically, his book The Blind Watchmaker. I say this with some irony but there’s also some truth here. In the late 1980s I was on my own. I had finished my PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1988, gone to MIT on an NSF postdoc, and sensed that what was fundamentally amiss in the academy was the failure to discern that God was an agent exercising real causal powers in the world. But I had no conversation partners related to this concern.
I therefore decided at MIT, against the advice of my mathematics and physics mentors, that I was going to pursue a second doctorate, this time in philosophy. Why philosophy? I knew that “philosophy of” could be attached as a prefix to just about any field of endeavor, and thus I saw philosophy as an umbrella discipline in which to explore the question of real discernible divine action, though I realized it would need to be cashed out in terms more acceptable to secular philosophers.
As I was pondering this question, I read Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker. I found reading it a galvanizing experience, not because the book fulfilled its promises or warranted the high praises of its endorsers, but because it was so insightfully wrong. At one point in that book Dawkins writes, “Complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.” Right, random chance can’t do it. But natural selection (or “cumulative selection” as he called it there) could? Really?
As I reflected on his argument, it became clear that natural selection would only have this capacity if it could overcome the improbabilities faced by random chance (hence his 1996 sequel, Climbing Mount Improbable, which nonetheless fails to extend his argument). But what if it couldn’t overcome these improbabilities? Dawkins, without any real argument (the only thing he offered was his ridiculous METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL example), simply asserted that natural selection had that power. And it would have to have that power if naturalism was correct. But the empirical evidence simply does not support the creative power of Darwinian processes. So, the question remained: How to explain specified complexity, now that the divide-and-conquer Darwinian strategy—in which natural selection would gradually build up biological complexity—could be seen to have failed?
My field in mathematics was probability, so I developed my critique of Dawkins probabilistically. Some of my critics have argued that probability is irrelevant to these discussions, but in doing so they are either uninformed or disingenuous. Whenever a Kenneth Miller, for instance, cites some experimental evidence for the power of natural selection, he appeals to some experimental set-up in which selection pressure—with high probability—brings about some biological structure/function previously lacking. But if high probability provides confirming evidence for Darwinism, why can’t low probability provide disconfirming evidence? Parity of reasoning demands that if probabilities can support Darwinism, then they can also put it in harm’s way empirically.
So, working alone, with my background in probability, I began to look at the probabilistic hurdles facing Darwinian natural selection and how this might provide a pointer to design. Initially, I didn’t see these probabilistic arguments as making a positive case for design so much as making a negative case against naturalism. Naturalistic processes without teleology are incomplete. But it soon became clear that when probability and specification worked together, they were doing more than underscoring the incompleteness of naturalistic processes—they were pointing to a designing intelligence. (To be continued)
See also: Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers #1
Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers Part 2
Bill Dembski: The big religious conspiracy revealed #3
Bill Dembski: Evolution “played no role whatever” in his conversion to Christianity #4
Comment on Dembski interview here.