William Dembski, pictured in Fig. 1, is a mathematician, philosopher and theologian. He is a prominent supporter of Intelligent Design (ID) and has championed a feature he calls “specified complexity.” Dembski was born in Chicago in June, 1960. He has training in psychology (an undergraduate degree from U of Illinois – Chicago – IUC), a master’s degree in statistics, PhD degrees in mathematics and philosophy (from the University of Chicago and UIC, respectively), and a Master of Divinity in theology from the Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dembski became convinced that the theory of evolution was deficient, and he was attracted to a group of scholars who were trying to replace “materialist” science with an alternative that allowed for supernatural causation. In March 1992, Dembski participated in a conference at Southern Methodist University that eventually led to the “Wedge Document” (which we have described in detail in our post on Phillip E. Johnson). Until 2016 Dembski was a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, which has adopted the wedge strategy to promote ID.
With degrees in the fields of math, philosophy and theology, Dembski has been active in both the theological and pseudoscientific wings of the Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. We will review his career and will focus on two of his books and the hypothesis of specified complexity that he has championed.
After completing his theology and philosophy degrees in 1996, Dembski was unable to secure an academic position. So for the next few years he was supported as a postdoctoral fellow at the Discovery Institute. There, he worked on his hypothesis that one could develop a method that would determine whether an entity was the result of guided design, or whether it could arise by processes such as random events and natural selection.
In 1999 the president of Baylor University, Robert Sloan, invited Dembski to establish the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor. This was an unusual move for several reasons. First, the salaries of the staff at the Polanyi Center were paid by the John Templeton Foundation. Second, the Center seems to have been established by Sloan with little if any consultation with Baylor’s faculty. Third, the purpose of the Michael Polanyi Center was to establish an Intelligent Design center at a major research university. However, the Center had very little contact with Baylor’s religion, philosophy or science departments. Finally, Baylor already had an Institute For Faith and Learning (Baylor has a working relationship with the Baptist Church and Sloan was the first Baptist minister to serve as Baylor’s president in 30 years), and many at Baylor felt that the Polanyi Center was redundant.
In April 2000 the Polanyi Center held a conference on “naturalism in science” that was supported by the Templeton Foundation and the Discovery Institute. Many of Baylor’s faculty refused to take part in the conference, and immediately following the conference the Baylor Faculty Senate voted 27-2 to dissolve the Polanyi Center and merge it with the Institute for Faith and Learning. A committee was formed to review the Polanyi Center, and it recommended dissolving the Center and absorbing it in the existing Institute. The Baylor administration acceded to these requests.
In response, Dembski issued a statement that “the committee had given an ‘unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design,’” that its report “marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry” and that “dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.”
Many at Baylor protested that the university had not endorsed intelligent design. President Sloan asked Dembski to withdraw his statement but Dembski refused. Dembski was then terminated as director of the Polanyi Center. For the next five years he was placed on administrative leave and did not teach any courses at Baylor. These events turned out to be typical of Dembski’s aggressive and combative personality.
After a year at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Dembski took up a position at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas. There, Dembski became embroiled in a controversy over fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. He authored a paper which claimed that Christians could accept the mainstream scientific consensus that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old. In the same paper, Dembski suggested that the Flood described in the Bible might have been a local event in the Mideast, rather than a worldwide deluge.
These statements caused a major controversy at the school. Many of the SWBTS theology faculty were Young Earth Creationists, and they believed that Dembski’s remarks were heretical. He was called to a meeting with the president and several administrators of the seminary. They claim that Dembski admitted that he erred in doubting explicit statements from the Bible.
In 2001, Dembski founded the International Center for Complexity, Information and Design. He served as Executive Director of this Center and editor-in-chief of the Center’s journal, Progress in Complexity, Information and Design. The last issue of this journal was published in 2005.
William Dembski has published a number of books advancing his claim that it is possible to determine whether or not a system or set of circumstances has arisen through purposeful design. The two books that we will refer to here are his 1998 The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (see Fig. 2), which was published by Cambridge University Press and became a best-selling book, and his 2002 book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, published by Rowman and Littlefield.
Dembski focuses on the notion of “specified complexity,” a term he helped invent. According to Dembski, a specified pattern is one that admits a short description, while a complex pattern is one that is highly unlikely to arise by chance. Dembski further argues that the existence of specified complexity in living organisms means that some intelligent agent must have participated in their development.
Although Dembski refuses to name the “intelligent guiding force,” there is no doubt that he is referring to the Christian God. In 2007, Dembski told the group Focus On The Family that “The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.” In Dembski’s book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, he states “The conceptual soundings of the [intelligent design] theory can in the end only be located in Christ.”
Dembski’s arguments are highly technical, and his books are filled with complicated mathematics and logic. Dembski claims that all phenomena can be placed in one of three categories. The first category arises by chance. A second category includes events that occur with high probability from a given set of initial conditions; Dembski calls this “regularity.” Dembski then defines a third category: this is composed of processes that occur with very small probability, but which display recognizable, meaningful patterns that are independent of the phenomenon under investigation. Dembski asserts that such processes display what he calls complex specified information; they cannot be the result of either chance or regularity.
Dembski claims to have developed a foolproof system to determine whether events are due to chance or regularity. Events that do not fit into either of these two categories must of necessity display complex specified information; and those processes must be the result of design by an intelligent agent. Dembski’s claims raise several questions. First, is it true that all events must fit into one of his three categories? And if so, has Dembski really formulated a foolproof method that will invariably recognize whether events have been designed? The Design Inference sets out Dembski’s claims regarding complex specified information and the theorems that supposedly enable him to determine whether a system has been designed. No Free Lunch is a rejoinder to the critics of Dembski’s design theory. The latter book contains long digressions on probability theory, and also applies his methods to some of the systems that Michael Behe claimed were “irreducibly complex.”
If Dembski’s ‘proofs’ were correct, they would revolutionize fields such as biology and information theory. In fact, his books have made essentially no impact on any of these fields. Researchers who have reviewed Dembski’s work in detail level harsh criticism of his work. For example, computer scientist David Wolpert, co-creator of the No Free Lunch theorem that formed the basis for one of Dembski’s books, characterized his arguments as “fatally informal and imprecise” and “written in Jello.”
Data scientists Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit remarked: “Dembski’s work is riddled with inconsistencies, equivocation, flawed use of mathematics, poor scholarship, and misrepresentation of others’ results.” Shallit further commented: “The field of artificial life evidently poses a significant challenge to Dembski’s claims about the failure of evolutionary algorithms to generate complexity. Indeed, artificial life researchers regularly find their simulations of evolution producing the sorts of novelties and increased complexity that Dembski claims are impossible.” Dembski has responded to such rejections of his technical arguments, in part, by claiming that he is not “in the business of offering a strict mathematical proof for the inability of material mechanisms to generate specified complexity.”
In a review of Dembski’s 1998 book The Design Inference, philosophers Branden Fitelson, Christopher Stephens and Elliott Sober summarize: “Dembski’s book is an attempt to clarify these ground rules [for the design inference.] He proposes a procedure for detecting design and discusses how it applies to a number of mundane and nonteleological examples, which more or less resemble Paley’s watch …. In what follows, we will show that Dembski’s account of design is deeply flawed. Sometimes he is too hard on hypotheses of intelligent design, at other times he is too lenient. Neither creationists nor evolutionists nor people who are trying to detect design in nontheological contexts should adopt Dembski’s framework.”
In addition to his claims of proofs for intelligent design, Dembski has also published prolifically on information theory (IT). In his review of Dembski’s contributions to IT, Rich Baldwin states: “Dembski assumes that, if a pattern exists prior to a possibility being actualized, it must be causal … [But] correlations do not imply causality between the correlated variables. For example, the correlation between malaria and swamps was observed long ago. The disease malaria was incorrectly attributed to the bad (mal) air (aria) near swamps. The correlation was correctly noted, but the assumption of causality was flawed. While a correlated pattern and actualized possibility may have a related cause, one cannot assume the pattern caused the actualized possibility. Accordingly, this proposal for detecting design is highly suspect. This is a critical error.”
Dembski has been quite aggressive in responding to critics. First off, note that he is not publishing in reputable peer-reviewed publications in his fields of specialty. He either publishes them in books or in journals known to be sympathetic to the ID community. He uploads his rejoinders on his own Web site or on sites committed to religiously-affiliated organizations. Dembski frequently claims that his critics have not read all of his work, or he asserts that whatever problems might arise in his current work will be corrected in the future.
Dembski makes no attempt to collaborate with his critics, or to work with them to demonstrate that his work is correct. Forrest and Gross state that critics of ID find themselves on a “response and counter-response treadmill.” The proponents of ID keep answering (or failing to answer) criticisms until the mainstream scientists simply stop responding.
Here is a typical response by Dembski to his critics. “The implications of intelligent design are radical in the true sense of this much overused word. The question posed by intelligent design is not how we should do science and theology in light of the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. The question rather is how we should do science and theology in light of the impending collapse of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. These ideologies are on the way out. They are on the way out not because they are false (although they are that) or because they have been bested by postmodernism (they haven’t) but because they are bankrupt. They have run out of steam. They lack the resources for making sense of an information age whose primary entity is information and whose only coherent account of information is design.”
These are strong words from someone whose work has had no significant impact on the fields of biology, physics or information science. However, they are typical of claims by the staff at the Discovery Institute. Phillip Johnson never failed to claim that evolution was a theory “falsified by all the evidence” and whose “logic is terrible” (see our blog post on Prof. Johnson). Michael Behe also claimed that his books clearly demonstrated the failure of the theory of evolution and the triumph of intelligent design. This despite the fact that essentially no mainstream scientists accept Behe’s arguments, and that Behe’s testimony supporting ID in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education case was widely considered to be disastrous.
With perhaps one exception, all of the Discovery Institute staff seem to be conservative Christians who are pursuing the goals expressed in the “Wedge Document,” namely that they are attacking the theory of evolution in an attempt to replace what they see as a “materialistic” society governed by non-theistic science, and replace this by a Christian theocracy. Make no mistake, the “theistic realism” advocated by the Discovery Institute would lead to the end of basic science as we know it. Once one accepts supernatural explanations for events (“this is just how God made it”), this precludes any further efforts to understand phenomena by natural means.
2. Public Acceptance of Anti-Evolutionary Claims in the U.S.
The situation with respect to the Discovery Institute (DI) and the Center for Science and Culture is a complicated one. The DI goal to make intelligent design the dominant paradigm in biology has been a complete failure. Although there are a handful of intelligent design proponents at respected secular universities (e.g., Michael Behe at Lehigh University), they are by and large isolated. In fact, Behe’s colleagues in the Lehigh biology department uploaded a statement on their Web page that states: “intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.” Similarly, there are a small number of Young Earth Creationists (YEC) who have faculty positions at secular universities. Claims made on behalf of YEC have been soundly refuted by mainstream scientists (see our post on YEC).
Anti-evolutionists have made several attempts to insert creationist materials into public school science curricula, either through adoption of creationist textbooks or by altering the standards for instruction to include material that challenges the theory of evolution. So far (as we describe here) many of those attempts have been defeated, including most recently and most thoroughly the Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Board of Education et al. case in Pennsylvania in 2005.
On the other hand, the U.S. is an outlier among developed nations in the large percentage of the population that accepts creationist alternatives to the theory of evolution (people either reject the notion of common descent, or they favor “guided evolution” notions that posit divine intervention in the development of homo sapiens). Figure 3 shows public acceptance of the notion of “common descent” from evolution, for various Western countries. The U.S. has the lowest percentage of people who agree with the statement “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” with the exception of Turkey. Figure 4 shows the percentage of people who accept this statement plotted vs. the per capita Gross Domestic Product of the U.S., European and Asian countries. The U.S. is a dramatic outlier on this graph, combining the 2nd-lowest acceptance of evolution with the 2nd-highest per capita GDP.
In this regard, the ceaseless attacks on evolution and the scientific method by DI staff have been partially successful. Their books have been widely read, and they generate significant publicity for their views. Dembski and other Discovery Institute Fellows maintain close ties with churches and in particular the evangelical community. This is part of the “Wedge Strategy,” which called for “apologetics seminars” that provide their Christian base with arguments against evolution. Since 2005, Dembski has been on the faculty of a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, so he regularly communicates with Christian fundamentalists.
With respect to both evolution and young Earth creationism, one strategy has been to brand the mainstream scientific consensus as atheistic, in an attempt to convince conservative Christians that their faith requires them to accept pseudo-scientific hypotheses such as “intelligent design” and “young Earth creationism.” Presumably this strategy has been successful, and this helps to explain why the U.S. is such an outlier regarding the public acceptance of evolution, as shown in Figs. 3 and 4.
Wikipedia, William Dembski:
Wikipedia, Specified Complexity
Wikipedia, The Wedge Strategy:
National Center for Science Education, The Wedge Document:
Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Rich Baldwin, Information Theory and Creationism, TalkOrigins.org Web site.
William Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
William Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased Without Intelligence ( Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).
William Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (press, 2002).
Lehigh University Biology Department, statement on intelligent design.