Dembski babbles on in his own little world, unaware of how ridiculous his strange contortions look. He has a paper out that compares Evolution as Alchemy, attempting to argue that the incompletely described history of life on earth means that evolution is as phony as an antiquated mystical philosophy about chemistry. In his usual turgid style, Dembski struggles to tell us what his gripe with alchemy and evolution is.
What, then, is the problem with alchemy? Alchemy’s problem is its lack of causal specificity. Causal specificity means specifying a cause sufficient to account for an effect in question. Often we can specify the cause of an effect even if we cannot explain how the cause produces the effect. For instance, I may know from experience that shaking a closed container filled with a gas will cause the temperature of the gas to rise. Thus, by specifying the causal antecedents (i.e., a closed container filled with gas and my shaking it), I account for the container’s rise in temperature. Nonetheless, I may have no idea why the temperature rises. Boltzmann’s kinetic theory tells me that the temperature of the gas rises because temperature corresponds to average kinetic energy of the particles constituting the gas, and by shaking the container I impart additional kinetic energy to the particles. Boltzmann’s theory enables me to explain why the temperature goes up. Even so, I do not need Boltzmann’s theory to specify a cause that accounts for the temperature going up. For that, it is enough that I specify the causal antecedents (i.e., a closed container filled with gas and my shaking of it).
He also mangles a Harris cartoon to make his point. The cartoon is clearer than his prose, that’s for sure.
I had to read what he was arguing a few times to puzzle it out, but the analogies he is making are that Boltzmann’s theory is incomplete and like alchemy because it quantitatively describes the behavior and properties of a gas, but it fails to include the man shaking the container as a term. The theory lacks causal specificity as long as it fails to mention a man shaking a container, and the theory is even unnecessary: shaking the container and noticing that the temperature goes up is sufficient.
This is so backwards and so wrong. He’s basically saying that general principles and theoretic mechanisms like the ideal gas law are not what distinguishes modern chemistry from alchemy—it’s the phenomenology of some agent mixing chemicals. He’s going to make a big deal of this “causal specificity” thing, which apparently just means documenting the historical antecedents to a particular event.
So, you see, explaining the effect as a consequence of increasing the mean kinetic energy of molecules in a container is the wrong answer—why, that’s mere materialistic metaphysics. The proper and causally specific answer is to say that some guy shook it up, and therefore the temperature went up. Done. Boy, that was easy. This is going to go over real well in chemistry classes.
I would think this would make evolution easier to explain: matter condensed on a planet, the sun supplied energy, chemical reactions occurred under a selection regime, voila. That’s the “causal specificity,” after all. But no; the point of his cartoon and the rest of his explanation is that biology needs to explain every step and every transition—there are a million causally specific events in life’s history, and we have to tell him who the man shaking the container at every point was. It’s just the same old creationist demand that every “missing link” be found before they’ll believe in evolution, writ with elevated pomposity.
Yeah, he does the usual litany of the gaps, too.
The origin of life is just one instance of evolution without causal specificity. The evolution of human consciousness and language from the neurophysiology of primate ancestors is another. The most widely debated instance is the evolution of increasingly complex life forms from simpler ones. Although the Darwinian mutation-selection mechanism is supposed to handle such cases of evolution, it encounters the same failure of causal specificity endemic to alchemy (see, for instance, my forthcoming book The Design of Life). The lesson of alchemy should be plain: Causal specificity cannot be redeemed in the coin of metaphysics, be it Neoplatonic or materialistic.
Shorter William Dembski: “Well, sure, you’ve got a lot of observations and principles and quantitative mechanisms and all that science stuff, but until you tell me who taught the monkey to talk, I ain’t believin’ you.”
It’s awfully ironic that Dembski is demanding causal specificity of biology, when he’s on the record for insisting on causal ambiguity for intelligent design creationism.
Within biology, intelligent design holds that a designing intelligence is indispensable for explaining the specified complexity of living systems. Nevertheless, taken strictly as a scientific theory, intelligent design refuses to speculate about the nature of this designing intelligence. Whereas optimal design demands a perfectionistic, anal-retentive designer who has to get everything just right, intelligent design fits our ordinary experience of design, which is always conditioned by the needs of a situation and therefore always falls short of some idealized global optimum.
Or maybe we should just open the door to any causal agent we can imagine.
ID is not an interventionist theory. Its only commitment is that the design in the world be empirically detectable. All the design could therefore have emerged through a cosmic evolutionary process that started with the Big Bang. What’s more, the designer need not be a deity. It could be an extraterrestrial or a telic process inherent in the universe. ID has no doctrine of creation.
OK, Bill, show me the man shaking the universe, then I’ll accept your “causal specificity”. Even then, though, I think we’ll still need the ideal gas law to understand the world.