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The Critic's Resource on AntiEvolution

Criticism of Dembski's "Explanatory Filter": Vindicated

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I’ve been saying that there were problems in William Dembski’s “explanatory filter” for a long, long time. Dembski has finally admitted that was the case.

At the February 1997 NTSE conference, when I brought up the “traveling salesman problem” solved by genetic algorithm as an example that countered Dembski’s EF, he responded that his logic was sound and his premises were true, therefore his conclusion followed. Dembski in that instant dismissed empirical data as having any bearing on his work. It only took the better part of twelve years for Dembski to repudiate the soundness of his logic presented then.

I published a book review of The Design Inference back in 1999 that included the following:

According to Dembski, because humans identify human agency using the explanatory filter, the explanatory filter encapsulates our general method for detecting agency. Because TDI is equivalent to the explanatory filter, the conclusion of design in TDI is equivalent to concluding agency. Dembski specifies a triad of criteria – actualization-exclusion-specification – as sufficient for establishing that an intelligent agent has been at work, and finds that design as he uses it is congruent with these criteria.

However, Dembski’s triad of criteria for recognition of intelligent agents is also satisfied quite adequately by natural selection. “Actualization” occurs as heritable variation arises. “Exclusion” results as some heritable variations lead to differential reproductive success. “Specification” occurs as environmental conditions specify which variations are preferred. By my reading, biologists can embrace a conclusion of design for an event of biological origin and still attribute that event to the agency of natural selection.

John Wilkins and I took up criticism of Dembski’s “explanatory filter” in our 2001 peer-reviewed paper, The advantages of theft over toil: the design inference and arguing from ignorance, finding that Dembski’s supposedly fixed and mutually exclusive categories didn’t work so well when one took care in examining how he proposed to place instances in those categories.

Did Dr. Dembski thank me or us for getting that right? No, don’t be silly. But get it right we did, and there is an admission that the “explanatory filter” doesn’t work from William Dembski.

(1) I’ve pretty much dispensed with the EF. It suggests that chance, necessity, and design are mutually exclusive. They are not. Straight CSI is clearer as a criterion for design detection.

“Straight CSI” does not offer any improvement; after all, CSI was what the “explanatory filter/design inference” was supposed to identify. But I guess when it comes to Dembski recognizing faults in his work, we will have to be satisfied with baby steps.

Lots of critics have told William Dembski that his “explanatory filter” didn’t do what he claimed over the intervening years. This is a long-awaited moment for all of us.