Update: Reposted as part of the Darwinian Debating Devices series.
Elizabeth Liddle quotes William Dembski when he writes: “by intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options–this coincides with the Latin etymology of ‘intelligence,’ namely, ‘to choose between'” The quotation comes from “Intelligent Design Coming Clean,” an essay Dembski published in 2000.
Liddle leaps from Dembski’s definition to the following dubious conclusion: “Dembski has produced an operational definition of ‘intelligence’ that does not require ‘intention’ which he specifically excludes as a ‘question of science’.”
Liddle employees two rather clumsy equivocations to misrepresent Dembski’s work. Let’s see how she does it:First, she equivocates on the word “choose” from Dembski’s quote. What does “choose” mean? Let’s go to the dictionary (I’m using the World English Dictionary), and we find “choose” means:
1. to select (a person, thing, course of action, etc) from a number of alternatives
2. to consider it desirable or proper: I don’t choose to read that book
3. to like; please: you may stand if you choose
What do all of these senses of the word have in common? They all presuppose the prior existence of a “chooser,” i.e., an agent who chooses between alternatives, and in context this is exactly what Dembski meant in his essay. I defy anyone to click on the link above, read the essay and come to any other conclusion. He absolutely does NOT have a natural process in mind.
Here is where the equivocation comes in. Liddle says a natural process can “choose” in the way a wire mesh “chooses” between small rocks that it allows to pass through and large ones that it does not (she later even calls this choosing a “filter”). And this is what Liddle means when she writes: “My point is that I think that IF we use Dembski’s definition (which excludes intention as a criterion) then he is correct – there is a characteristic signature of patterns that have emerged from a process that involves “choice between options”. Natural selection is one such process, and I think that’s why it’s products resemble in so many ways, the products of human design.”
Give me a break. Does anyone with even the remotest familiarly with Dembski’s ouvre really believe he would define intelligence in such a way as to include natural selection within the definition? This is not a close question. Liddle’s assertion beggars belief, because the entire thrust of Dembski’s work for the last 20 years is exactly the opposite of what Liddle attributes to him.
But wait. There’s more. One need not be familiar with Dembski’s other work to know that Liddle is misrepresenting him. In the very essay from which Liddle quotes, Dembksi writes: “Intelligent design regards intelligence as an irreducible feature of reality. Consequently it regards any attempt to subsume intelligent agency within natural causes as fundamentally misguided . . . ” In other words, in the very essay upon which Liddle relies, Dembski says her interpretation of his definition of “intelligence” is “fundamentally misguided.”
This brings us to Liddle’s second equivocation. She is quite correct when she states that in his essay Dembski says that the “intentionality” of the designer is not a question for science. Here, however, Liddle equivocates between “intention” in the sense of “ultimate purpose” and “intention” in the sense of “employing means to achieve and result.”
Perhaps an example will make this clearer. Let’s say a car builder (John) decides to build a car. At one level he has an “intention” to “employ means to achieve a result.” In other words, John acquires the materials necessary to build the car and then assembles the materials into a car. At a wholly different level, John might have an ultimate purpose for building the car. Why did John build the car? He built it so he could have transportation back and forth to his job.
When Dembski says that “intentionality” is excluded from science he means that an inquiry into the designer’s ultimate purpose is not a scientific question, and of course he is correct. But Liddle equivocates and attributes to Dembski a statement that again runs counter to his entire ouvre. It is difficult to understand how anyone would expect us to believe that William Dembski does not believe that the process of designing a living thing does not require intentionality in the sense of “employing means to achieve and end.”
In summary, we see that Liddle has not been fair to Dembski’s work and has grossly misrepresented his ideas.