Tonight at the University of Oklahoma there was a debate between Michael Ruse and William Dembski. I must say, it was one of the most cordial events I’ve been at, especially compared to last week’s event, where the question and answer session got pretty ugly. The topic was whether or not Intelligent Design was science. I tried to write down the gist of the debating points, so a summary of the debate follows.
The speaker gave a nice introduction, and pointed out that the arguments of Paley and Darwin go back over a century, and that the topic is still one for controversy even a century later.
Started talking about the “received wisdom” that most of the scientific establishment holds – that Darwin gave biology a sound scientific basis because he used natural rather than supernatural causes. Pointed out that there might be an excluded middle.
Then he talked about non-supernatural design inferences in biology, including Orgel and Crick’s directed panspermia, and Dawkin’s allowance for alien design. He then pointed out that we have real designed genomes in Ventor’s synthetic genomes. Ventor even includes watermarks, so that his designs are detectable. This at least tells us that design inferences in biology at least may be possible.
He then went on to talk about Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and the molecular machines. He mentioned that the cell has robotic manufacturing plants, information-processing systems, nano-motors, transportation/distribution systems, and automated parcel addressing.
Then he asked, how do multipart, functionally integrated, non-simplifiable systems arise?
Historically, ID has been excluded because it was thought that Darwinism makes ID superfluous as an explanation. But, the challenge of nano-machines means that natural selection no longer has the explanatory power it once had. As such, it allows for design to be a non-superfluous explanation.
He then points out that many people in biology, including Dawkins and Crick, have pointed out the appearance of design in biology. He said ID is “cashing out” on this intuition.
He was running out of time, but then gave a short description of design detection and his own work on detecting design.
Ruse was very cordial towards Dembski, even praising his book The Design Inference as a valuable contribution to science.
Ruse then made a distinction between the possibility that ID is “true or needed” and whether it is “science”.
He then goes about defining ID. He starts with Phillip Johnson, who pointed out ID’s complaints with neo-Darwinism (natural selection, origin of life, and the fossil record), and then moves on to Behe, which provides a better account of what ID is (IC and other criteria).
Ruse’s main point was that the design inference, in the case of biology, does not lead to a naturalistic designer, and therefore is not science. It might be true, but it is not scientific because the only available designer would be God.
Ruse also notes that science cannot allow miracles, but that this doesn’t mean that miracles are false. Ruse grants that there are meaningful events that are non-scientific.
Dembski noted that design is the logical counterpart to Darwin, and that evidence in Darwinism is usually given in contrast to design.
Dembski also pointed out that the rules of science have changed repeatedly. He gave the example of quantum mechanics where chance moved from its previous designation as simply an expression of ignorance, to a fundamental part of science.
He also mentioned that ID doesn’t have to be “realist” in order to be useful – it can be useful in an “instrumental” definition of science. [Realism means that the terms refer to real things, and instrumentalism means that the terms are useful description to aid in understanding – his point, I think, was that design is a useful construct for investigation even if you don’t take the designer as a real entity]
Dembski also pointed out that the design argument actually goes back to aristotle, who distinguished between form as a result of internal causes, and form imposed from the outside.
Dembski ended by pointing out that scientists should be seeking the truth and not worrying about philosophical restrictions.
Ruse argued that design was a valid category, and that Dembski’s design inference is a legitimate scientific enterprise, but that ID crosses the line when the designer that it infers only has a supernatural possibility.
I didn’t take notes on the Q&A because I was in line with a question, so I’ll only talk about my own question, although there were many other good questions. I asked Ruse that since he considers the design inference as valid, if it wasn’t dangerous to not allow the application of a legitimate methodology if they don’t like the answer.
Ruse and I went back and forth, and what I think he was getting at was that he didn’t think that Dembski’s design inference was valid to go all the way back to a designer, but was only valid to detect an “appearance” of design. However, he kind of contradicted that when he said that it was valid to infer a designer of, for instance, a microphone. Anyway, that’s how I remember the exchange.