Intelligent Design

SSDD: Shallit and Elsberry’s Equivocations and Bluffs

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(adapted from: Analogy, Induction, and Specious Arguments.)

Equivocation is a powerful technique if one has an indefensible position. For example, here is a way that one can argue that feathers cannot be dark:

A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

Around 2003, Shallit and Elsberry put together a paper attempting to refute ID’s claims. They did not succeed in their attempt, but in the process they left behind a legacy in the art of equivocation and bluffing.

In their paper Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s Complex Specified Information they claim “naturally-occurring tools” can create CSI (complex specified information). If that really is so, then ID’s claims have failed. To argue their point, they resort to equivocations of the word “natural”:

Dembski’s inference of design is then undermined by the recent realization that there are many naturally-occurring tools available to build simple computational processes. To mention just four, consider the recent work on quantum computation [42], DNA computation [47], chemical computing [55, 89, 74], and molecular self assembly [79]. Furthermore, it is now known that even very simple computational models, such as Conway’s game of Life [3], Langton’s ant [26], and sand piles [33] are universal, and hence compute anything that is computable. Finally, in the cellular automaton model, relatively simple replicators are possible [5].

The phrase “naturally occurring” was being equivocated here. What do you think when you hear the phrase, “naturally occurring”? Is it consistent with the way Shallit uses the phrase, “naturally occurring”?

Shallit’s usage of the phrase “naturally occurring” (along with a long list of peer-reviewed papers) can leave the impression that such “naturally occurring computations” can arise naturally– as in mindless forces in the natural world being the sole cause for a computation’s existence. Or he could have meant “natural” as in a natural consequence of computer design, in which case he completely invalidates the point he was trying to make, namely, design is not needed.

Let’s explore the possibility he meant natural, as in undesigned, natural world processes. Shallit cites DNA computing, but a simple investigation will reveal that DNA computers are the result of design. Thus, DNA computers are anything but naturally arising (unless one includes living cells, but then that’s what is at issue in the first place!). See: DNA computing.

Then Shallit refers to Quantum Computers. But here as well, Quantum Computers are anything but naturally arising. Sure, there is a thing called “natural computing series”, but look at the book which Shallit cites as proof of his claim:

Quantum Computing : Natural Computing Series

If one looks at the description of the book, “natural computing series” has nothing to do with undirected nature creating computational processes. Such equivocations are little better than arguing: “computers are natural because they can process ‘natural numbers’, therefore computers are naturally occurring, therefore, Blind Watchmakers of nature can create computers….”

Next Shallit cites Molecular self-assembly. But Molecular self-assembly is a pre-programmed design for nano-molecular machines to self-assemble. Those cannot therefore be used to remotely suggest undirected natural forces cause nano-molecular machines to “self-assemble” without intelligent design.

Shallit and Elsberry used similar equivocations with Sand Piles,
Langton Ants, Game of Life, and chemical computing.

Finally, to finish off their theatrical show, Shallit and Elsberry give a list of technical literature supposedly justifying their claim: “there are many naturally-occurring tools available to build simple computational processes“. However, upon tracking down the citations, they were just “literature bluffing” and equivocating the concept “natural”.

This paper reminds me of a literature bluff Elsberry perpetrated against Stephen Meyer as documented in One Long Bluff.

Shallit and Elsberry’s critique of Dembski follows the same pattern of what was concocted against Stephen Meyer, it followed same story line, just a different Design-proponent. Same thing with Ken Miller’s misrepresentations under oath against Michael Behe. In sum, we find a reliable habit of misrepresentation by the critics of ID — Same Stories, Different Design-proponents (SSDD).

I will go into detail of Shallit’s equivocations regarding genetic algorithms in another thread.

Cells are arguably DNA computers, but asserting that cells are proof that computers can “naturally” arise is circular reasoning.

11 Replies to “SSDD: Shallit and Elsberry’s Equivocations and Bluffs

  1. 1
    GilDodgen says:

    As usual, Salvador is very perceptive. Equivocation is the ubiquitous stock in trade within the Darwinian establishment. Equivocation might best be described as shifting definitions of terms designed to suit one’s apologetic purposes.
    The most virtuosic equivocators are the folks at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) who are advertising for a Faith Project Director, whose duties will be to defend the teaching of “evolution” in the public schools and be a liaison to the faith community.
    But what does the term “evolution” mean? If it means that living things have changed over time, no one would have a problem with it. What they (the NCSE and the Darwinian establishment in general) really mean by “evolution” is a purposeless, undirected, purely materialistic process that did not have human beings in mind — or anything else for that matter. They know that this will not sell to the general public, who have enough common sense to perceive that evolution in this sense is nihilistic philosophy masquerading as science, so they must equivocate, and pretend that they are not trying to sell metaphysical snake oil.
    P.S.: I have virtually all of the qualifications requested for the position of NCSE Faith Project Director. Would anyone be willing to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf? 🙂

  2. 2
    scordova says:

    Thank you Gil. It seems to me a lot of these “papers” are like negative Amazon book reviews, designed to stop communication between ID proponents and prospective audiences. Upon scruitiny of these negative reviews, it becomes apparent they were baseless and disingenuous.

    By the way, I’ve heard several amazon reviews appeared denouncing pro-ID books which hadn’t even been published but were set up with place holders in amazon. The Darwinbots swarmed the place holders with negative reviews of things they had not even read. :=)

    I’m sure the Friends here at UD would be glad to right a letter of recommendation for you. :=)

  3. 3
    steveh says:

    “Cells are arguably DNA computers, but asserting that cells are proof that computers can “naturally” arise is circular reasoning.”

    Cells are only arguably computers now? Back in
    you stated it as fact

    “Extending these ideas, can we in principle detect nano-molecular designs such as a nano-molecular computer? If we find a physical molecular artifact conforming to the blueprints of a computer, should we infer design?

    With that question in mind, I point to the fact that biological systems are computers, and self-replicating computers on top of that! This fact was not lost upon Albert Voie who tied the problem of the origin-of-life to the fact that the physical artifacts of biology conform to a known blueprint, namely, a self-replicating computer. I commented on Voie’s landmark outline of the origin-of-life problem here.”

    No circular reasoning there, I take it.

  4. 4
    Jon Jackson says:

    For those of us without the benefit of your prodigious reasoning abilities could you point out the circular nature of scordova’s argument? Because your post left me with the usual ‘duh-wha?’ feeling I get whenever I encounter a superior intellect.

  5. 5
    steveh says:

    Jon Jackson,

    I do not consider myself to be a “superior intellect” and I am sure you agree with me on that. I suspect you are playing on, or trying to reinforce, the “evolutionist are arrogant” stereotype. FWIW, I am scraping a living as a lowly computer programmer, never worked for Dell, and am by no means any sort of authority on anything.

    I’m not sure there is circular reasoning in Scordova’s argument. I just don’t see any real difference between what he implies evolutionists do in his P.S. and what he did in is earlier post. There may be a fundamental difference, but at the moment I don’t see it, which may, or may not be, a failing on my part.

    It seems to me, he accuses evolution supporters of arguing “Cells may be computers. Cells are natural. Therefore computers may be natural” while arguing himself “Cells are computers. Computers are designed. Therefore cells are designed”. As I see it, neither is more or less circular than the other, but are of roughly equal merit. To be properly circular he (or we) would need to say something like “Cells are computers, , , therefore cells are computers”. My own view is that if cells are computers, they are in no way comparable to the computers that we build. Does the cell computer have consistant defined instructions? What are they? There may be some equivocation on “computer” on both sides here.

    I do wonder why he has switched from ‘fact’ to ‘arguably’, which one is it?

  6. 6
    scordova says:


    Thank you for participating. Let us for the sake of arugment say cells are computers. Is it then appropriate to call then “natural” or “designed”?

    I was merely pointing out if Shallit calls cells computers, and then says cells are natural undesigned entitities, then that is merely a prejudicial characterization, not a provable assertion. He would actually have to demsontrate cells are undesigned to appeal to them as undesigned.

    In contrast, I demonstrated ALL his other examples were designed, and thus automatically disqualified. Here are some I didn’t cover which I’ll now include in my post.

    Sand Piles

    Langton Ants

  7. 7
    scordova says:

    My own view is that if cells are computers, they are in no way comparable to the computers that we build.

    Here is a different look at the convergence of man-made DNA computers and ID-made DNA computers: How DNA Computers Will Work

    You won’t believe where scientists have found the new material they need to build the next generation of microprocessors. Millions of natural supercomputers exist inside living organisms, including your body. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecules, the material our genes are made of, have the potential to perform calculations many times faster than the world’s most powerful human-built computers. DNA might one day be integrated into a computer chip to create a so-called biochip that will push computers even faster. DNA molecules have already been harnessed to perform complex mathematical problems.

    Ahh, but again, this article could be used to prejudice the discussion since the whole issue is whether “natural” computers in the cell are actually designed. Thus, if Shallit appeals to living cells, his argument is disqualified as circular reasoning.

    I do believe cells are designed computers, but I don’t use that argument against Shallit. Instead, I only assert that he cannot use the argument that “living cells invalidate the design inference because they are undesigned natural computers.” He must argue his case via another route.

  8. 8
    steveh says:

    Thanks for the link, it made interesting reading, but I guess I should return to the subject when I’m feeling a little more fresh. My first impression is that they are attempting some sort of brute force approach to the travelling saleman problem which gives a good one-iteration solution. As the numbers of nodes increase, I suspect the amount of DNA you need will increase beyond what is physically possible, unless some form of “selection” is introduced. But this is only a cursory introduction, my head is “done in”, and I’m probably missing something somewhere. I’ll try again anon.

  9. 9
    Jon Jackson says:

    Arguable is an adjective that can either mean ‘something that can be argued about’ or ‘something that can be supported by argument’. In the former sense it can connote something that one is not sure about. Arguably, on the other hand, is an adverb that means ‘something that can be supported by argument’. When scordova says that a cell is arguably a computer he isn’t implying that he has doubts but rather that there are arguments to back up his assertion.

  10. 10
    tribune7 says:

    Great post, Salvador

  11. 11
    scordova says:

    Why thank you tribune7.


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