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126 of 144 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Best book by a creationist I have ever read, May 11, 2001
This review is from: The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction and Decision Theory) (Hardcover)
I just finished a two-month reading group consisting of both supporters and critics of Dembski, so I finally feel competent to review this book.
While I am a naturalist and evolutionist, I greatly appreciate the writing of anybody who is intellectually honest and attempts to be rigorous: at least in this book, Dembski shows these traits with flying colors. 'The Design Inference' is Dembski's attempt to formalize valid inferences about design. That is, how can we validly infer, for any event E, that E is the product of intelligent design? Most people make such inferences all the time (how does the average person explain Stonehenge). What is the logical structure of such inferences?
Despite the math, the argument structure is actually quite simple. The way to infer that E is the product of design is to run it through what Dembski calls the 'explanatory filter.' Try to explain event E according to presently known statistical regularities (e.g., Newton's laws). If event E cannot be explained by any such statistical regularity, then it passes through the explanatory filter, and is therefore the product of design.
This argument structure is the first main weakness in Dembski's book. In employing the explanatory filter, TDI elevates an anachronistic fallacy to an imperative. Simply showing that we can't presently explain a phenomenon is not sufficient to show that it can never be explained! In the nineteenth century, the precession of Mercury in its orbit could not be explained in a well-confirmed classical worldview, but to infer design based on that would not be good science. The problems with this kind of reasoning are made clearer when we consider our early ancestors who made poor design arguments about weather patterns and illness that they couldn't explain based on physical principles.
The inferential strategy outlined above sounds rather simple, so where does all the notorious math come in? It comes in as Dembski attempts to quantitatively unpack just how to demonstrate that an event cannot be explained by a statistical regularity. For those who know some statistics, this is essentially a detailed account of how to rationally generate a rejection region in a probability distribution. The formalism emerges because Dembski's account is idiosyncratic, as he tries to show that you can generate a rejection region even *after* you have already observed the event. Most scientists would balk at this, as it would allow you to retroactively put a rejection region over the event, which to put it simply, is cheating (imagine drawing a bull's-eye around a randomly shot arrow and saying that you hit the bull's-eye by skill).
Dembski claims that it is perfectly appropriate to retroactively generate rejection regions if it would have been *possible* to specify the region before the event E actually occurred. For example, say you see someone shoot an arrow that hits a tree at a seemingly random location where there happens to be a worm. Later, however, you find out and that the person was actually hunting worms and was wearing infrared worm-hunting goggles. In such a case, you would rightly conclude that the worm was hit because of skill rather than blind luck. More importantly, it would have been possible to predict that the arrow would land on tree-worms even if you hadn't seen it happen.
While many people in our discussion group disagreed, I think this is a reasonable way to retroactively reject a chance-based explanation. However, I do *not* think that Dembski is simply describing the rejection of a hypothesis. Rather, he is describing the replacement of one hypothesis with a more reasonable alternative (in this example, the alternative to chance is that the person is a skilled worm-hunter). This leads to what I think is the second main weakness in *The Design Inference*: the engine driving the inference is not a positive theory of design, but simply the elimination of other theories. The problem is that this does not seem to conform to how people do (or should) perform design inferences. That is, people don't run through an explanatory filter, eliminating all possible statistical explanations of something, and then end up with 'design' as the last node in an explanatory filter (or explanatory sink, as I like to call it). Rather, people have a *positive theory* of intelligent agents (i.e., things with desires, beliefs, and certain capacities) and they apply this theory (or network of theories) to explain events in the world. Design inferences are not different in kind from explanations of physical, biological, social, or psychological phenomena. It is the development of such a theory and its predictions which should be the focus for Dembski.
A final note: to those interested in the debate about creationism and evolution, caveat emptor. This book contains very little direct discussion of that issue. Rather, it does what should have been done long ago: tries to outline the inferential strategy people should be employing in this debate.
Despite the two main problems outlined above, I still recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in how we make inferences about design, in particular those interested in the creation-evolution debate. While the book does no damage whatsoever to the evolutionist (partly because, as mentioned above, it does not directly address that debate) it at least makes for stimulating, thought-provoking reading. Most importantly, it will direct the creationists to be more rigorous in their arguments about design.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 6, 2007 11:47:21 AM PST
R. Chase says:
"This argument structure is the first main weakness in Dembski's book. In employing the explanatory filter, TDI elevates an anachronistic fallacy to an imperative. Simply showing that we can't presently explain a phenomenon is not sufficient to show that it can never be explained!" It apparently is OK, though, for the neo-Darwinists to say that, because our [unsupported] theories cannot be scientifically disproven, then they must be true.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 22, 2008 12:24:41 PM PDT
Science Geek says:
While your assertion is beyond the scope of my review (which was merely of Dembski's book, which does not address the topic of evolutionary theory), I find it interesting. Evolutionary theories can be disproven. It predicts the existence of transitional forms in the fossil record (e.g., bird-dinosaur hybrids, cowlike-whale hybrids, H. erectus, A afarensis, etc etc), an ancient Earth, a branching tree of life that can be verified via genetic studies. If any of these predictions weren't true, then evolutionary biology would have some explaining to do! But instead it is one of the best verified (and not yet falsified) theories in science.

That said, there are obviously many things that we don't yet have detailed explanations for. However, if you were to go from this basic fact of all science to design, that would commit the very fallacy I discuss in my review. We can't explain the inversion of the Earth's magnetic field (it happens every few billion years), but is that evidence for design, or for things we just don't yet understand? Dembski's explanatory filter would say it is evidence of design. That is a weakness of his theory: too many false positives.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 7, 2008 11:45:20 AM PST
Thomson,

Thank you for the thorough, honest review. I look forward to reading the book.

As far as applying Dembski's explanatory filter to Mercury's orbit or the inversion of Earth's magnetic field...it seems to me to be very different than applying it to complex, task-specific proteins, for example. If they were to arise by simply Darwinian means, they would have to have a gradual, increasingly beneficial pathway from chaos to machines made of hundreds or thousands of working parts. This seems like a much more reasonable area to apply this explanatory filter than a non-task-specific phenomenon. But, you say that this book does not comment on the evolution-design debate in biology, so perhaps this comment is missing the point. But while the explantory filter seems unreasonable to be applied to *everything* we can't explain by current natural theories, it is safe to say that the area that Dembski intends to apply it to is the origin/evolution of life.

Does the book not talk about irreducible/specified complexity, or anything like that?

Posted on Jan 15, 2009 4:07:17 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 15, 2009 4:12:51 PM PST
Y. X. Muller says:
It should be noted that the person making the review should be commended for his view; that the book stood its ground in the science spectrum, that is, by means of observation through our natural world. The reviewer actually admits there is "presently a phenomenon", but at the same time completely misunderstands Intelligent Design purpose. Intelligent Design has simply said that Darwinian evolution hasn't been sufficient in explaining the current phenomenon, that is, where does information come from?

Intelligent Design understands only that intelligent beings are able to discern design and attribute them to a designer. The reviewer also mentioned that more than a century ago a certain observation couldn't be explained at the time, and seems to imply that if scientist would have inferred design it would have diminished scientific research, but I say on the contrary!

For example, in a documentary called "Science unravel mystery of life's origin" it says, during the 70's many scientist embraced the idea of biochemical predestination brought out by Dean Kenyon, to explain how life began. Ironically, it was those same passions that lead to further investigation that Kenyon himself admits directed him to design in our natural world. So to clear things up ID doesn't suppress, that is, lead to poor scientific research or mediocrity. Oddly enough I haven't read the book but can't help but notice people's lack of understanding Intelligent Design and its purpose.

Posted on Jul 13, 2010 8:43:35 AM PDT
This was a very interesting and well reasoned review. I will confess up front that I have not read the book, but I think I understand the strategic approach behind Dembski's design inference, and I noticed another possible logical weakness in his strategy that may interest the reviewer.

In the most basic terms, the function of a filter is to segregate distinguishing characteristics. It should sort one (or more) classes with the designated distinguishing characteristic from all other classes without the characteristic. If there is not a successful segregation when applying a filter, there is no reason to conclude the filter is functioning at all. Having said this, I think the logical alternatives in this 'filtering' process present difficulties for the ID advocate.

First, if the filter is successful in segregating a designed class, the implication is that the residual is of another class i.e. non-designed. However, the very existence of a non-designed class is problematic for ID theory because the implication is that the intelligent agent is the causal factor for some elements of the natural universe (those portions filtered into the designed class), but it would be unreasonable to conclude the intelligent agent is accountable for the non-designed class. To cast this in theological terms, God would have created some, but not all of Creation. This is a bizarre conclusion to assert, and perhaps even absurd.

On the other hand, if all things in nature can be passed through the design filter and demonstrate elements of design, then it would be difficult to assert that the filtering process actually worked. A filter that does not sort a residual class isn't arguably a filter at all. Instead it would appear that the process is more like the logical fallacy of 'begging the question' or asserting the premise as a conclusion without any reasoning process. A syllogism representing this line of reasoning might go as follows: All things showing elements of design were created; all things do show elements of design; ergo all things were created. This argument does not discover distinguishing characteristics, it would be taking note of common characteristics. Perhaps a fair analogy would be found in this following syllogism: All objects with mass were created; all objects have mass; therefore all objects were created. The fact that having mass is not a distinguishing characteristic but is rather a common characteristic to all material objects reduces these syllogisms to a conclusion that merely paraphrases the premises rather that deriving them deductively; i.e. begging the question.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2011 11:32:53 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 17, 2011 11:36:22 AM PDT
Science Geek says:
Louis Samuels asks about whether irreducible complexity is discussed int he book:

Nope nothing on that.

Then:
"As far as applying Dembski's explanatory filter to Mercury's orbit or the inversion of Earth's magnetic field...it seems to me to be very different than applying it to complex, task-specific proteins, for example."

Interesting point. However, even if we restrict ourself to complex biological systems, the filter still doesn't work. Just look at the history of vitalism. We couldn't explain individual development. Turns out we just didn't know about genes and such. A failure for vitalism, and the explanatory filter which would have supported it.

It's just a poor inference strategy no matter what your target field.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2011 11:34:16 AM PDT
Science Geek says:
Chase wrote:
"It apparently is OK, though, for the neo-Darwinists to say that, because our theories cannot be scientifically disproven, then they must be true."

Nobody has ever said that.

In reply to an earlier post on May 17, 2011 11:38:20 AM PDT
Science Geek says:
XY Muller says:
"Intelligent Design has simply said that Darwinian evolution hasn't been sufficient in explaining the current phenomenon, that is, where does information come from?"

I was only reviewing Dembski's book. He doesn't discuss such things in his book. The book is not about Darwinian evolutionary theories at all, as I tried to make clear in my review. It is more abstract than that.

Posted on Mar 14, 2012 11:19:16 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 23, 2013 7:18:33 PM PDT
Great and honest review E. Thomson.

I read this book and was inspired to note a very good book on principles used in design to help assist others who wish to know more about design in general. Animals do use design principles too, but not as much as humans since they display higher degrees of intelligence capacity.

Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design.

I think many never think deeply about design and what is involved in it or what design can do an achieve. This may help. And also more detailed aspects of design in general can be seen in Systems Engineering and Analysis (5th Edition) (Prentice Hall International Series in Industrial & Systems Engineering).

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 29, 2012 8:26:05 PM PDT
Science Geek says:
Strange place for a commercial on a book that is not relevant at al.
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