The man has chutzpah

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.


  1. says

    “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.”

    Which is only made more ironic if you remember the original text in the cartoon: “Then a miracle occurs.”

  2. says

    Well, reading that paper is 15 minutes of my life I’m never going to get back. How does he manage to always miss the point so consistently and thoroughly? You’d think he would occasionally figure out something about how science works, just by chance, but instead it’s like he’s insisting on taking the set complement of reality.

  3. James R says

    There is good that comes out of this. Even those who WANT to believe in ID are at times sufficiently educated to say; “Even I know that is wrong”. The more and harder they try the more likely they are to go too far and alienate their base. Thankully. Woo can’t get any wooier.

  4. Caledonian says

    How does he manage to always miss the point so consistently and thoroughly?

    Easy: he’s not aiming for it. You’re presuming that he’s acting in good faith; there’s a great many reasons to believe that he is actively trying to prevent his readers from grasping the nature of the scientific process, especially since his thesis is obviously invalid from that perspective’s viewpoint.

    One might as well ask why advertisements for brands of tobacco fail to express what an unhealthy and addictive product they’re selling.

  5. says

    instead it’s like he’s insisting on taking the set complement of reality.

    That, RavenT, is fantastic. ;-)

  6. No One Of Consequence says

    My understanding of the first paragraph you quote is a little different –

    Alchemy’s problem is [it doesn’t specify] a cause sufficient to account for an effect in question.

    So he is saying that if you don’t know what caused the outcome, your theory is no good. He believes [incorrectly] that we don’t know what causes evolution —

    (Mutations caused by an imperfect copying process + localized environmental differences) ^ (millions of generations) = evolution of species.

  7. says

    Even worse than being wrong in his explanation, he’s basically wrong in his example as well. For oxygen at room temperature, the RMS velocity is 482 m/s, or 1726 km/h. Shaking a container won’t increase the temperature in any measurable way at all. It would work better with something solid or liquid in there, so you could get bulk kinetic energy effects. Of course, then you can’t use Boltzmann…

  8. says

    Its [sic; ID’s] only commitment is that the design in the world be empirically detectable.

    And it is. That is self-evident. Things that are designed must be crafted, and the crafting process inevitably leaves tool markings that are empirically detectable. Biological life, of course, has no such markings.

    If we limit the analysis to pure rhetoric, ID’s main problem is in that it insists, a priori, that absolutely everything in the world is designed. It is a textbook circular argument (“everything was designed, therefore everything was designed”). Even if we were to grant the premise, the argument is still logically empty.

  9. reason says

    My issue here is why does think the problem with alchemy was the lack of causal specificity? I thought the problem with alchemy was that it simply didn’t work.

    Of course, being specific about causes is a bit difficult in the case of stochastic processes anyway.

  10. George says

    Dembski: “Science needs to be a free inquiry into all the possibilities that might operate in nature. Design, therefore, needs to be kept as a live possibility in scientific discussions of biological origins.”

    Theology needs to be a free inquiry into all the possibilities that might operate in people’s heads. Flying Spaghetti Monster, therefore, needs to be kept as a live possibility in theological discussions of creation myths.

  11. Ed Darrell says

    Blake Stacey: Yes, Harris may sue. The work is under copyright. There wouldn’t be much in the way of damages, thought, I’ll bet: Dembski doesn’t get paid much for his drivel. It might be entertaining to see a seminary professor called to task legally for such an ethics violation, but it’s unlikely.

    However, I wonder what would happen were Harris to sue for libel — the changing of the drawing makes Harris out to be anti-science, and since his stock in trade is jokes about science, done accurately, it could damage his income.

    Or, just pie-in-the-sky speculation, what would happen were someone to charge Dembski with obscenity? Such bowdlerizing of popular materials, making them unsuitable for children among many other uses, certainly is obscene . . .

    Heck, if I needed the pro bono hours, and if I had the money, I might take such a case, just for the fun of depositions.

  12. s_hohum says

    Good point, jfaberuiuc. I was also struck by the absurdity of the example–shaking is a singularly ineffective method of adding heat to a gas. More likely the temperature rises as heat is conducted through the container from his hands. Pretty pathetic when even trivial thought experiments are wrong.

  13. says

    First of all, Sir Isaac Newton, champion to Dembski & the IDers for his rigid Christian faith (though they conveniently overlook his heretical denial of the Trinity), practiced alchemy. So, what does that make evolution–isn’t that rather a compliment in Dembski’s world?

    Yes, I know, it’s useless to apply logic here.

    But I leave you with this Dembski declaration, in which while he insists that scientists connect the dots, no such requirement must ever be placed upon him:

    “You’re asking me to play a game: ‘Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.’ ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots.”

    In other words, crooked is straight, superstition is science, and gapliness is next to godliness.

  14. cm says

    1) PZ, out of respect for all the scientists who struggle to publish good papers in refereed journals, please don’t call this piece “a paper”. Let’s call it an essay/trainwreck.

    2) Here’s an interesting cart-before-horse from Dembski:

    But the alchemists of old never specified the precise causal antecedents that would bring about this transformation. Consequently, they lacked any compelling evidence that the transformation was even possible.


    So he’s saying that no observation of some feature of the world counts as compelling evidence unless one already knows what caused the feature? So I find footprints…but they cannot be considered evidence because I don’t know who caused the footprints? That’s terrible.

    3) Dembski shamefully conflates evolution with biogenesis.

    4) In the end he basically says we shouldn’t rule out any and all possible explanations for anything, and if we do (in limiting it to only materialist causes) we are being intellectually dishonest. This move is precisely one thing by Dembski: throwing out Occam’s Razor!

    5) Dembski is in some respects a quite intelligent person, so in this regard is an exemplar of “localized retardation”.

  15. cm says

    (I should not have used “biogenesis” above but “the origin of life on Earth”. My mistake.)

  16. ohadam says

    Dembski’s argument isn’t new. That he reconfigures and republishes it, even though it has been repeatedly confuted, shows he’s marking time until a better idea strikes.

    Here’s the heart of it:

    “[I]n the absence of causal specificity, there is no reason to let materialism place [] restrictions on scientific theorizing. It is restrictions like these–typically unspoken, metaphysically motivated, and at odds with free scientific inquiry–that need to be resisted and exposed. Science must not degenerate into applied materialistic philosophy, . . . hold[ing its] views not on the basis of empirical evidence but because of a prior metaphysical commitment to materialism.”

    The entire paper boils down to this one argument: Modern scientific inquiry is constrained by metaphysical materialism.

    Phillip E. Johnson spent an entire book forwarding this argument. (Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education.) Robert T. Pennock spent a good portion of his book refuting it. (Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism.)

    The refutation is simple: Science is not philosophically materialistic, but methodologically materialistic, and this not “arbitrarily,” for “no reason” (Dembski), but necessarily, for an excellent reason: Scientific inquiry is constrained to methodological materialism because only natural (material) phenomena submit themselves to scientific inquiry (the method). God refuses to hold still for experiments, you see, and apparently he has told the angels they don’t have to, either.

    The argument is not new, but after Kitzmiller it’s the best the creationists have. They’ll restate it in dressed up prose, with new analogs and metaphors (alchemists today, astrologers tomorrow), until Johnson thinks up a new argument the rest can bandwagon onto.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Dembski’s latest piece is a failed philosophic take on science. It is remarkable how Dembski consistently fails to use or describe science. This time he removes the idea of general theories and replaces it with an insufficient call for “causal specificity”.

    Shaking containers is a bad illustration of the insufficiency, though using a flexible container will give him even less of the imperceptible heating he wants to demonstrate. But change his causal specifity to dropping things – that can produce drastic different results depending on if there is a surface beneath, the weight/wind factor, the local gravity, et cetera.

    So, another vacuous creationist concept. Since Dembski is the main producer I propose the Dembski measure: the number of nonvacuous concepts/the number of concepts. Dembski himself has produced at least CS, CSI, EF, NFLE (No Free Lunch vs Evolution), LCI (Law of Conservation of Information), and now CaS. Everyone has been shown to be empty of content. The canonical Dembski measure, applying it to himself, gives Dembski a big fat 0.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I forgot to note that the insufficiency in “CaS” is due to his wish to introduce frontloading, not only in evolution, but in physics. Frontloading the universe or the pieces that humans affects is doomed due to random processes and other influences on specific situations.

    But as noted above, Dembski wouldn’t continue with the failed strategy to base his attempts to scientific concepts on his specific world view without reason.

  19. PaulC says

    As far as I can tell, his criticism of alchemy is also misguided. If alchemy were merely a collection of empirically tested recipes, it would still be a scientific model, just an inferior one to chemistry as we know it today: with its predictive power limited to specific cases and with virtually no explanatory power at all. The main problem with alchemy from a scientific standpoint is that it added entirely bogus theoretical elements that might lead people to suppose it was possible to do something like turning lead into gold even though there was no reasonable induction from the body of tested knowledge that would lead you to think that was a worthwhile expenditure of effort. It was getting wrapped up in mystical interpretations that led alchemists astray, not a process of cataloguing cause and effect.

    Actually, many sciences are empirical. When systems are sufficiently complex, the theoretical model is likely to be intractable; many mechanisms are hidden and some kinds of data are impossible to collect. That doesn’t stop you from doing science. You can still formulate a hypothesis and test it repeatedly. Lacking a complete explanatory model, you do have to be wary of exceptional cases, but it is still a sufficient basis for making reasonable inferences about what to expect.