Archive for June, 2009

Intelligent Design – Dembski

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher, attempted to give a rigorous, quasi-mathematical foundation for the theory of intelligent design. In his technical book The Design Inference, revised from his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy and published by Cambridge University Press in a series on probability theory, he proposes the three categories of law, chance, or design. If an event is regular and necessary (or highly probable), then it is the result of law. If an event has an intermediate probability, or if it has a very low probability but is not a particularly special event, then it is the result of chance. If an event has a very low probability, and matches an independently given specification, then it is the result of design. To describe low probability together with an independent specification, Dembski uses the term specified complexity, or complex specified information. Dembski was by no means the first to use the notion of specified complexity. Richard Dawkins himself, explaining why animals seem designed, employed the same concept: “complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.”1 Dembski’s innovation is his attempt to use this notion of complexity to exclude origination through law and chance. In this original work, The Design Inference, Dembski did not apply the principle to natural organisms and events, but in later writings he sought to apply the design inference to nature.

There are several weaknesses in Dembski’s argument. Simply showing that a large quantity of information or complexity is present is insufficient, since complexity can be produced by chance. (An attempt to memorize random series of numbers quickly shows that randomness and complexity go together.) Even showing that the complexity somehow fits an independent pattern is insufficient, since chance together with law can do this. A computer can take random input, and transform it by a regular method, or law, so that the result is unique, or highly complex, on account of the randomness involved, and also highly specified, on account of the regularity involved. Examples of this are solutions to problems that are found by the use of computer genetic algorithms, or unique music that is written by computers. In some cases, computers have even found better solutions to problems than humans did. Dr. Adrian Thompson, for example, by means of a genetic algorithm evolved a device that could distinguish between the words “go” and “stop,” using only 37 logic gates—far fewer than a human engineer would need to solve the problem.2 And while computer-generated music may not yet be great music, it is certainly not mere noise. According to any purely mathematical definition of information, such programs can produce information.3

In order for Dembski to apply the design inference to nature, he needs to exclude such a combination of chance and law, to exclude the possibility of information in the sense of new possibilities being introduced by chance, and becoming specified information by the regular process of natural selection (organisms are matched to their environment by the greater reproduction of those which match it). The only way he can do this is to fall back on Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity.4 That is, he has to posit, implicitly or explicitly, that the specified information must be introduced in one fell swoop; thus it cannot be attributed to chance, since the probabilities are far too small, nor can it be attributed to law, since there is no set law to produce it. Dembski begins his argument with a different concept than Behe does, namely that of “information,” but when it comes to applying the argument to real biological systems, Dembski’s argument more or less coincides with Behe’s.

1Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), 9.

2Clive Davidson, “Creatures from primordial silicon,” New Scientist 156, no. 2108 (November 15, 1997):30–35.

3Dembski addresses a genetic algorithm that learned to play checkers at the expert level, arguing that the information was inserted from the beginning, that the programs were “guided,” because the programmers “kept the criterion of winning constant” (No Free Lunch, 2nd edition [Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007], 223). But while keeping “the criterion of winning constant” may be part of the regularity such an algorithm presupposes, there is nothing more natural than that the “criterion of winning” in checkers should remain constant, and does not indicate any design of the solution to the problem by the programmers.

4See, for example, Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 177, and No Free Lunch, 287 ff. Though Dembski relies on the argument from irreducible complexity, it is not clear whether he perceived its strict necessity for the validity of his argument.

Mary, Mother of the Son, 3 Volume Set

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

>I received this information about this newly published set by e-mail, and pass it on here.

Come closer to the Virgin Mary with a brand-new trilogy.

In a time when the economy and morals—even common sense—are in a tailspin, Our Lady’s intercession is needed in a special way.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Mary, many Catholics don’t have the deep faith and devotion that they should. And Protestants have virtually none at all.

That’s why author and apologist Mark Shea’s monumental work is so desperately needed today.

Whenever crises come upon us, we rightly turn to God. The times we are in now are no exception. In our Catholic tradition, we also turn to the powerful intercession of the Virgin Mary, who has shown throughout history her desire to obtain for us the mercy we seek from her Son.

These days, though, many Catholics have lost the devotion to Mary that used to be so characteristic of the faithful.

That’s why it’s such a blessing that Mark Shea—a former Evangelical who once accepted the all-too-common misconceptions about Mary—has written a comprehensive work that uniquely explains Catholic beliefs about Mary.

This three-volume set is titled Mary, Mother of the Son—and it covers everything about Mary. Best of all, Mark explains Marian doctrines in a clear, supremely understandable way to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

How to Approach Mary

Since Mark Shea is a former Evangelical himself, he knows firsthand what non-Catholics think about Mary. He knows how most Protestants ignore her. And now that Mark’s a full-time Catholic apologist, he also knows what Catholics don’t know about Mary but should.

In fact one of the greatest stumbling blocks that keeps many from investigating and learning more about Mary is the daunting question, “Where to begin?” Volumes about the Virgin Mary have been written. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or discouraged, thinking that we lack the theological knowledge to approach the wealth of material on the subject.

To help Catholics and non-Catholics alike understand and approach Mary, Mark set out to write the definitive explanation of these beautiful Marian truths in a way that everyone can read and understand.

And that’s just what he accomplished. The three volumes that make up the Mary, Mother of the Son set are written in an informative and easy-to-comprehend style—a style that Mark has developed in his many years of writing to make the faith approachable for all.

This historic work was five years in the making, and it is filled with invaluable information, much of which you won’t find anywhere else. By the time you’ve finished reading this exciting trilogy:

  • You’ll have a clear understanding of the Church’s four great Marian dogmas: Mary’s title of “Mother of God,” her Perpetual Virginity, her Immaculate Conception, and her Assumption into heaven—and you’ll be able to explain these beliefs to others like never before.
  • You’ll know why these teachings are crucial to the faith, reveal something vital about Christ, and are deeply relevant to your life today.
  • You’ll see how the denial or neglect of a Marian dogma inevitably leads to a warped understanding of Christ and ultimately, of yourself.
  • You’ll find yourself falling in love with the Blessed Mother—and you’ll understand how a strong devotion to her inevitably leads you closer to Christ.

How to Appreciate Mary More

These three volumes—Modern Myths and Ancient Truth, First Guardian of the Faith, and Miracles, Devotion, and Motherhood—will give you what you need to appreciate Mary’s role in your life and in the life of the Church—and to defend and explain her role to your non-Catholic (and even your Catholic) friends.

What you’ll discover in Mary, Mother of the Son:

  • Apostolic and biblical origins of the Church’s teachings about Mary
  • A simple and compelling explanation of why the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption didn’t become official dogma until 1854 and 1950
  • How relying on the pope’s infallibility is a sign of humility—not arrogance
  • What might have happened if Mary had said “no.” Would God have chosen someone else to be Christ’s mother?
  • Crucial reasons the Church defines something as dogma, something all Catholics must understand
  • How calling Mary the “Mother of God” by itself refutes the Evangelical notion that the Catholic Church is involved in a covert attempt to make Mary a goddess
  • The surprising reason the Eastern Orthodox churches (erroneously) reject the Immaculate Conception
  • How the rosary helps you grow more deeply in the mystical life of Christ and come to love Christ, his Mother, and his people better
  • What the Church requires you to believe about Marian apparitions
  • Major Church-approved Marian apparitions—and the amazing stories surrounding them
  • And much more!

The Virgin Mary is one of the greatest gifts God has given mankind. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to understand the role she plays in your salvation, in your life, and in the life of the Church.

You’ll find no better guide than Mark Shea’s trilogy, Mary, Mother of the Son. It’s all you need to understand the Church’s teaching about Mary and to build a stronger relationship with both her and her Son.

A Standing Ovation for Mark Shea’s Mary, Mother of the Son

“This fine book exploring the Church’s teaching on Our Lady will be a joy to Catholics and a revelation to Protestants. I highly recommend it for both groups.”
—Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R.

Mary, Mother of the Son is a winsome set. Mark Shea is a gracious host, inviting others to explore with him the marvels of the wondrous place he now calls home, the Catholic Church.”
—Fr. Richard John Neuhaus†
First Things

“I am eager to share Mary, Mother of the Son with everyone I know!”
—Johnnette S. Benkovic
Host of EWTN’s The Abundant Life

Intelligent Design – Behe

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Two principal arguments are made for intelligent design: one based on complexity, the other based on information. These arguments for intelligent design may be seen in the work of two key proponents of the theory, Michael Behe and William Dembski. Behe, a practicing Catholic and microbiologist, was for a long time a Darwinist who saw no theological or scientific problems with the theory of the common descent of living beings by a process of random change and natural selection. That changed abruptly when he read the geneticist Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. He describes the experience as world-changing: “When I laid the book down, I lived in a different world.”1 He began reading with a skeptical eye the claims for evolution in the scientific literature, and volunteered to lead a seminar titled “Popular Arguments on Evolution,” in which he and his students read and discussed pro- and anti-evolution books and articles, particularly Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and Richard Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker. The next stage in his engagement with the theory of evolution came when he read the lawyer Phillip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial, which argued that if one did not assume materialism was true, then the evidence for random mutation and natural selection as the explanation of life on earth is very small indeed.2 In the following months Behe became involved in debates on evolution with Phillip Johnson, and worked out the arguments that later became the basis for his own book Darwin’s Black Box,3 arguments that he believed made a unique contribution from the perspective of biochemistry.

The key concept in Behe’s argument is irreducible complexity. The argument begins with two premises: (1) certain parts of organisms, such as the mechanism for blood clotting, or the bacterial flagellum, are complex, that is, they are composed of many different parts; (2) all of these parts are necessary in order to achieve the function; in other words, the mechanism is irreducibly complex; the structure cannot be simpler and have the same function. The second step of the argument is that such an irreducibly complex mechanism cannot be built up gradually, by a process of natural selection. If the mechanism producing the function is irreducibly complex, then intermediate structures would have no function, and thus no value for the organism; they would not contribute to its living or reproducing, and so would not be promoted by natural selection.

The concept of irreducible complexity as an objection to evolution by natural selection is not really new. Darwin himself recognized it: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”4 Behe’s contribution was the application of this idea at the molecular level rather than at the level of large organs such as the eye. Complex bio-chemical processes are supposed to exemplify exactly such a complexity as Darwin spoke of. Behe proclaimed that design is clearly evident at the cellular level, and that this discovery “must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science,” rivaling those of Newton, Einstein, Lavoisier, Schrödinger, Pasteur, and Darwin.5

While the general principle is sound, its application is weak. A “molecular machine” that requires each of its parts in order to perform its function could have been built up from parts with different functions. Indeed, this is just what the theory of evolution would predict! As the ancestors of horses were not simply “imperfect horses,” but were something other than horses, so one could expect the precursor of many biological systems to be not merely imperfect systems of the same type, but systems functioning somewhat differently.

More generally, the argument that some biological system could not have been formed gradually is an argument based on ignorance: we don’t know how, or at least don’t know exactly how such-and-such a function evolved; therefore, it couldn’t have evolved gradually. This argument is weak, unless we suppose that we know biochemistry so well that if there were a gradual way for the function to evolve, we would know it. Since our knowledge of biochemistry remains quite imperfect regarding many detailed points, the fact that we do not know in detail how gradual evolution of various functional systems could have happened is a weak argument that it is impossible. But in fact, possible paths of evolution have been sketched out for the very things, such as blood clotting, that Behe claims are irreducibly complex!6

1Michael J. Behe, “From Muttering to Mayhem: How Phillip Johnson Got Me Moving” in Darwin’s Nemesis, ed. William A. Dembski, 42.

2Ibid., 44.

3Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

4Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ch. 6.

5Darwin’s Black Box, 232–233.

6See, for example, Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000), 134–158.

Intelligent Design Creationism

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Intelligent design creationism is the view that God created the world by “designing” certain structures within it, either at the beginning, or at multiple points in its development. Properly speaking, the theory of intelligent design is not a theory of creation, and does not presuppose a divine creator. It is rather a scientific, or pseudo-scientific, theory that the structure of the world or of living beings shows the working of an intelligent designer. Yet while this designer could theoretically be some finite intelligent agent, such as intelligent extraterrestrials, most adherents of the theory of intelligent design understand God to be the designer. Consequently, intelligent design theory is often associated with creationism.

The popular origins of the term “intelligent design” also demonstrate a link with creationism. The biology textbook Of Pandas and People has been said to be the first to use the phrase “intelligent design” in its present sense,1 and was certainly the first to use the phrase extensively. Early drafts of this book spoke frequently of creation, defining it as meaning that “the various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent creator with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.” It followed what we have called progressive creationism, though allowing for the possibility of a more rapid creation, such as creation in six days. After the USA Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard ruled it unconstitutional to teach creation science in public schools, the book’s authors systematically replaced terms such as “creator” with “intelligent designer.” The previous definition of “creation” was preserved, but was now used as a definition of “intelligent design”!2

1John C. Avise, Adaption and Complex Design (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2007), 298, citing Buell’s preface to the third edition of Of Pandas and People.

2Ibid., 299–300.

Thomas Aquinas on Creation

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

I’ve finished a booklet on evolution and creation, which should be published soon. In the next few posts I’ll be putting up some selections from it.

St. Thomas Aquinas gives precise formulation to the scriptural and patristic teaching: to call God the Creator means that all “being” comes from him, that is, the existence of anything whatsoever comes from God, and depends essentially upon him. “Being” here includes being active, and so the activity and power of everything derives from God’s creative action.

St. Thomas sees the power of God’s creative action not only in making things exist, but above all in making them be causes of other things. The production of one creature by another does not compete with God’s causality, as though a creature had to be either from God or from another creature. Rather, whatever is produced by a creature comes from God as the first and ultimate cause of it, and from the creature as a secondary cause. (We are speaking, of course, about real beings that are produced; sin, as a moral defect and privation, is not from God.) Since God is the cause of all other causes, his causality includes even chance events, which occur by the coincidence of two causes.

St. Thomas sees the ability of one natural being to be generated by another natural being as rooted in “first matter,” the radical possibility of a material being to become one thing or another. When a natural agent forms a structure suited for the living activities of growth, etc., the result is not merely a complex structure, like a machine, but really becomes a living being. Yet while matter is necessary for this change, the change itself cannot be attributed only to the matter, which is merely the inner root of the possibility of being a living being; the change must ultimately be attributed to the cause of matter, which is God. This is true not only of the human soul, which in a certain manner transcends material reality, but of every nature, which is something more than the stuff in which it is found. The existence of a natural being cannot be attributed only to that which materially formed it, but must also be attributed to the author of nature.

Since created things receive from God not only existence, but also the power to be causes of other things, Thomas’s view of creation leaves room for a natural sequence such as evolution in the created world, whereby one type of living being comes from another. We cannot determine a priori the extent to which this can or does happen concretely. We cannot say a priori, for example, that a living being can only produce something essentially like itself, but can only make a judgment about this on the basis of experience. St. Thomas, in fact, following Aristotle and the common scientific opinion, held that simpler living beings are generated by the powers of the heavens (we might say, by “natural forces”) acting upon inanimate substances, while more complex living beings are generated by other living beings like them in kind. He believed this not for purely theoretical reasons, but because he saw it as the best account given the data available. This particular account of abiogenesis (“spontaneous generation”) has been falsified, at least as regards the living beings we see commonly around us. But the general possibility of life being generated through natural forces remains open, as does the possibility of one kind of organism generating another kind. It is the task of empirical science to determine whether, when, and how this actually happens.