Book Review: Intelligent Design Uncensored

Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy.  By William A. Dembski & Jonathan Witt.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010.  175 pages.  $15.

“Intelligent Design is just ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo’, it’s unconstitutional, ignorant, deceitful, unscientific…[etc]”.  Have you ever been involved in conversations with people who say things like this?  I have.  It’s frustrating.  It’s not frustrating because they don’t accept the biological design arguments (hereafter BDA).  It’s frustrating because most of the time they don’t understand them.  They also don’t understand the many layers to the Intelligent Design (hereafter ID) controversy.  Is it a political debate?  Scientific?  Philosophical?  Cultural?  Is it a non-starter altogether?  These are the questions that this little book sets out to clarify and answer in a straightforward fashion.  Is it a success?  Let’s find out.

The first chapter opens with an illustration to help the audience understand the ID debate.  The second chapter, “The Design Revolution”, sketches the history of Darwinism and ID.  The authors lament what they call philosophical and methodological materialism.  The former is the thesis that the material world is all that exists, while the latter stipulates that one should only invoke material or natural causes when “doing serious academic work” (p. 24).  This seems to rule out a designer a priori (i.e. before even considering any evidence).  They go on to explain the two pillars of Darwinism: random variation and natural selection and how it has, in their view, become academic dogma.  The climate created by methodological materialism combined with Darwinism virtually guarantees ID will not get a proper hearing.  The chapter continues with a list of fallacies opponents of ID use in trying to explain away the fine tuning of the universe, or to denigrate ID as non-science.  The rest of the chapter is devoted to explaining what ID is and shows the difference between apparent and genuine cases of design.

“Irreducible Complexity” is somewhat of a buzzword in BDAs.  Chapter three sets out to explain what it means while dispelling a few myths and objections along the way.  The illustration used by Dembski and Witt is that of the bacterial flagellum motor.  ID opponents insist that the motor was built step-wise like everything else in Darwinian evolution.  ID supporters think the motor is irreducibly complex, that is, it couldn’t have come into existence in a gradual, step-wise fashion.

How exactly do we look for design in the universe?  Chapter four explains the “design inference” as formulated by William Dembski.  The design inference is (roughly) composed of two parts: the designed thing is complex and it fits an independently given pattern, that is, it’s specified.  Dembski notes that this combination is also called complex specified information, or CSI for short (p. 64).  But when are we warranted to make the design inference?  Intuitively, the chance threshold must be set very high to ensure that we aren’t duped into assigning design to something that was merely highly improbable.

How high is high enough?  Dembski sets the threshold at 1 in 10150.  Why this number?  He explains, “Scientists… have learned that a change from one state of matter to another can’t happen faster than… Plank time” (p. 68).  Plank time is one second divided by 1045.  The number of particles in the universe is 1080, and the age of the universe is less than 1025 seconds.  Multiply all of these numbers together and you get 10150.  Thus Dembski:

This means that any specified event whose probability is less than 1 change in 10150 will remain improbable even if we let every corner and every moment of the universe roll the proverbial dice.  The universe isn’t big enough, fast enough or old enough to roll the dice enough times to have a realistic chance of randomly generating specified events that are this improbable (p. 69).

He also notes that this probability threshold is “…the most demanding in the literature” (p. 69).  Well, what about an example?  He offers this one:

Scientists calculate that a cell with just enough parts to function in even a crude way would contain at least 250 genes and their corresponding proteins.  The odds of the early Earth’s chemical soup randomly burping up such a microminiaturized factory are unimaginably longer than 1 chance in 10150… the primordial soup also would have to randomly generate a self-directing and protective structure for the cell at the same time and in just the right place, pushing the improbability still higher… a lowest possible figure [is surpassed by] untold trillions of trillions of trillions of times the universal probability bound of 1 chance in 10150 (p. 69).

The chapter continues on with objections by Darwinists and responses to those objections.  The end of the chapter includes information on current research done by ID supporters such as Guillermo Gonzalez, Jay W. Richards, Jonathan Wells, Douglas Axe, Robert Marks, etc.

Chapter five is provocatively titled “The Poison of Materialism.”  It’s essentially a brief historical sketch of, what is in their view, the evils of materialism.  Chapter six moves on to talk about strategies to “break the spell” of materialism.  They raise an interesting point about a misconception often trumpeted in the public square:

Science, we are told, studies natural causes, whereas to introduce God is to invoke supernatural causes.  This is the wrong contrast.  The proper contrast is between natural causes on the one hand, and intelligent causes on the other.  Intelligent causes can do things that natural causes cannot… Whether an intelligent cause operates within or outside nature (that is whether the intelligent cause is natural or supernatural) is an interesting and important question, but it is a separate question from whether an intelligent cause has operated (p. 129).

ID is often waived off the table of discussion because the opponent to ID simply assumes that the God of the Bible is being invoked to explain something (thus the caricature of ID as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”).  This very well may be the case when all is said and done, but this is not a constraint that ID supporters have to work under when doing their research.  The inference is one of intelligent design.  It’s not one of God.  As the authors stated, it is interesting to raise the question of the identity of the designer, but it’s a separate question altogether.

The Final chapter offers tons of practical advice to those who care about intellectual freedom and want to support ID.  Advice is also offered to the young Christian scientist who wants to go on to do work in ID, but fears academic black-listing by the powers that be.  They have a great piece of advice to those who want ID taught alongside Darwinism in public schools.  Their short answer: don’t insist on that!  Instead, insist the strengths and weaknesses approach.  That is, insist that schools teach the strengths and weakness of Darwinism to allow students to evaluate the data.  This course of action sidesteps all the controversy that crops up when a competing theory is pushed instead.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t know anything about the ID debate, and I do mean anyone.  However, if you’re a Christian who is interested in knowing what the debate is all about, this book is tailored for you.  The advice given at the end is invaluable.  For those who already know a little about the ID debate, you can safely pass on this book as it will be too introductory in nature.  Other, more advanced works like Darwin’s Black Box, The Privileged Planet, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, Mere Creation, The Edge of Evolution, and Dembski’s scholarly work The Design Inference, would be more suitable.


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