From: Morgan Grey <>
To: <>
Reply-to: <>
Date: Sun Oct 21, 2001 5:44 pm
Message: 22008
Subject: ID-Commentary: "Who's Got the Magic?"


This is my fifth commentary on texts written by
leading IDers. My last such post can be found at .
This week, I'm commenting on Dembski's "Who's Got the
Magic?", posted to Metanexus at
(also online at ).

Dembski's post is a response to Pennock's criticism of
Johnson's "supernatural theistic science", as found in
Pennock's "Tower of Babel". Following that is a
criticism of what Dembski sees as "bargain-hunting",
where "scientific naturalists" are trying to get
"something for nothing".

Pennock has written a reply, which can be found at .
Although quite long, it raises some good criticism
of Dembski's essay, and should be read by everybody
interested in the issue (if only for the fun of being
able to say "hare designer" out loud).

042: Who's Got the Magic? by William Dembski
Metaviews 042. 2000.04.25. Approximately 2286 words.

BG> In the posting below, William Dembski from the
BG> Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University offers
BG> a critical review of Robert Pennock's book "The
BG> Tower of Babel." In so doing, he argues again on
BG> behalf on "Intelligent Design Theory," which he
BG> distinguishes from "Creationism." In my view, the
BG> debate would be improved, if both terms were more
BG> carefully defined, rather than assumed.
BG> In any case, Dembski argues that the "something
BG> for nothing" thinking which characterizes
BG> scientific materialism approach to evolution is
BG> akin to "magic". "Pennock and his fellow
BG> scientific naturalists," writes Dembski, "are
BG> bargain hunters" (i.e. looking for something for
BG> nothing.) "They want to explain the appearance of
BG> design in nature without admitting actual design."
BG> Dembski and the Polanyi Center have been in the
BG> news recently with 1) a very ambitious conference
BG> on Naturalism in Science held two weeks ago
BG> involving a broad spectrum of thinkers, and 2) a
BG> recent vote by the faculty senate at Baylor
BG> University seeking to close the one-year old
BG> center (see the Chronicle of Higher Education on
BG> 4/19/00).
BG> I am grateful that these debates can also take
BG> place on Meta and welcome your comments and
BG> feedback.
BG> -- Billy Grassie
WAD> =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From:
WAD> (William A. Dembski)
WAD> Subject: Who's Got the Magic?
WAD> In criticizing Phillip Johnson's "intelligent
WAD> design creationism," Robert Pennock raises a
WAD> particularly worrisome legal consequence of
WAD> Johnson's view. According to Pennock, Johnson
WAD> insists "that science admit the reality of
WAD> supernatural influences in the daily workings of
WAD> the world." But what if the same reasoning that
WAD> Johnson is trying to import into science were
WAD> adopted in Johnson's own area of specialization
WAD> -- the law (Johnson is a law professor at UC
WAD> Berkeley)? Here's the concern as Pennock lays it
WAD> out in _Tower of Babel_ (p. 295):
WAD> [[indent]] "For the law to take [Johnson's view]
WAD> seriously as well, it would have to be open to
WAD> both suits and defenses based on a range of
WAD> possible divine and occult interventions. Imagine
WAD> the problems that would result if the courts had
WAD> to accept legal theories of this sort. How would
WAD> the court rule on whether to commit a purportedly
WAD> insane person to a mental hospital for self-
WAD> mutilation who claims that the Lord told her to
WAD> pluck out her eye because it offended her? How
WAD> would a judge deal with a defendant, Abe, accused
WAD> of attempted murder of his son, Ike, who claims
WAD> that he was only following God's command that he
WAD> kill Ike to prove his faith?"
WAD> Implicit in this passage and throughout Pennock's
WAD> book is a forced choice between mechanism and
WAD> magic: Either the world works by mechanisms that
WAD> obey inviolable natural laws and that admit no
WAD> break in the chain of natural causation, or all
WAD> hell breaks loose and the world admits
WAD> supernatural interventions that make a hash of
WAD> science and our understanding of the world
WAD> generally (and legal studies in particular).

This is not "[i]mplicit" at all. Pennock is in fact
quite forthcoming about the reality of this "forced
"Without the binding assumption of
uninterruptible natural law there would be
absolute chaos in the scientific worldview.
Supernatural explanations undermine the
discipline that allows science to make
progress. It is not that supernatural agents
and powers could not explain in principle, it
is rather that they can explain all too
easily." (Pennock, R.T., 2000, "Tower of
Babel", pp. 294)
What might come as a surprise, I partially disagree
with Pennock on this point. When Pennock says that
"[s]upernatural explanations undermine [science]", he
is supposing that the there is such a thing as a
"natural explanation". However, I have often found
that since this term has been used by so many authors
in so many contexts, its meaning has been diluted to
the point of being useless in any discussion about the
philosophy of science.

Many IDists (most notably, Johnson) have taken
advantage of this fact, claiming that since "science
only considers naturalistic explanations", any form of
intelligent design is excluded from considerations a
priori, when no such thing is (or should be) the case.
Even a wide definition of "natural" like "consisting
of a form of matter and/or energy" is too limiting,
since we have no way of knowing if explanations
involving other substances will one day be feasible.

In the place of "naturalistic", I offer "knowable".
Although not all scientific explanations should
necessarily use known mechanisms (dark matter being a
substance about which we know very little), they
should all use explanations, in which the mechanisms
are *knowable*.

The reason I only "partially" disagree with Pennock,
is that for all intents and purposes, "*super*natural"
equals "*un*knowable". Putting aside fortune tellers
and mediums, all claiming to "know the mind of God",
everyone agrees that any knowledge about the
supernatural is impossible, even in principle.

As Pennock writes:
"God works, as they say, in mysterious ways.
We cannot have any privy knowledge of God's
will, and those who have tried to claim it are
quickly brought back to earth. When the
complex Ptolemaic epicycle theory of the
planetary system was explained to Alphonso X,
King of Castile, with its equant points,
eccentrics, deferents, and epicycles -wheels
upon wheels within offset wheels- he is
reported to have commented that "if God had
consulted him at the creation, the universe
should have been on a better and simpler
plan." Defending the complexity of his
theoretical models from another critic who
made the same point, Ptolemy is said to have
replied, "You may complain that these models
are not simple, but from the point of view of
God, who knows what is simple?" And, of
course, Ptolemy was right; we cannot say that
our notion of simplicity is at all relevant to
what God's might be, or even if God values
simplicity at all. Scientific models must be
judged on natural grounds of evidence, for we
have no supernatural ground upon which we can
stand since any such ground is necessarily a
mystery to us." (Pennock, 2000, pp. 290)
WAD> Pennock is offering his readers mechanism.
WAD> Johnson is offering them magic. Any reasonable
WAD> person knows which option to choose.
WAD> But as with most forced choices, there's a
WAD> tertium quid that Pennock has conveniently
WAD> ignored, and that when properly understood shows
WAD> that the real magician here is in fact Pennock
WAD> and not Johnson. The tertium quid here is
WAD> intelligent design, which is entirely separable
WAD> from creationism. But Pennock, as a trained
WAD> philosopher, knows that design is an old notion
WAD> that requires neither miracles nor a creator (F.
WAD> H. Sandbach's _The Stoics_, for instance, makes
WAD> this abundantly clear).

That "intelligent design" is a "tertium quid" is quite
correct! And, in this case, also a straw man erected
by Dembski.

Pennock never claimed that the by Dembski quoted
argument was directed at some generic version of
"intelligent design"; in "Toder of Babel", he clearly
identifies it as being among "Prospects for a
Supernatural "Theistic Science"" (the *heading* of the
paragraph in question).

If Dembski doesn't consider "intelligent design" to be
identical to Johnson's "theistic science", he should
not set up Pennock's criticism of the latter as a
criticism of the former, but instead openly
acknowledge the difference.

However, there is much evidence that Dembski *doesn't*
think that there is such a difference:
"Intelligent design is three things: a
scientific research program that investigates
the effects of intelligent causes; an
intellectual movement that challenges
Darwinism and its naturalistic legacy; and a
way of understanding divine action.
Intelligent design therefore intersects
science and theology." (Dembski, W.A.,
1999, "Intelligent Design", pp. 13)
"The crucial breakthrough of the intelligent
design movement has been to show that this
great theological truth -that God acts in the
world by dispersing information- also has
scientific content." (Dembski, 1999, pp. 233)
For the sake of the argument, I have no trouble
accepting that inferences to design does not need to
involve supernatural or unknown agency (in fact, I
often find myself having to remind IDists that
archaeologists have been detecting intelligent design
for ages without Dembski's filter, and that his
attempt to "reinstate design within science" is
completely unnecessary).

However, since the leading members of the ID-movement
often seems to "forget" that the alleged designer need
not be God (especially when talking to their
supporter[s]), I feel perfectly justified in pointing out
this inconcistency.

WAD> Intelligent design is detectable; we do in fact
WAD> detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting
WAD> it (cf. my _The Design Inference_); and its
WAD> detection involves no recourse to the
WAD> supernatural. Design is common, rational, and
WAD> objectifiable.

Dembski is here falling into what Lamoureux calls "the
problem of conflation of ideas" (although in a
situation involving conflation of other ideas):
"A significant factor in the acceptance of
Johnson's "Darwin on Trial" (1991) and "Reason
in the Balance" (1995) in the North American
evangical community relates directly to the
way he presents his arguments. His three
foundational principles are so tightly
interwoven throughout his writings that it
becomes nearly impossible for the reader to
distinguish them, and this opens the door for
the problem of the conflation of ideas. When
this happens a poorly rationalized idea can
be "justified" simply by being placed
alongside a powerful truth. ... This
phenomenon of the conflation of ideas is
operating in Johnson's writings with regard to
his three foundational principles. As I
affirmed earlier, with qualification,
Johnson's first two principles are powerful
and clearly welcomed by all Christians: (1) an
attack against naturalism and materialism, (2)
support for intelligent design in the
universe. However, I caution readers not to
conflate these two powerful ideas with
Johnson's third foundational principle -the
complete failure of the modern theory of
biological evolution." (Lamoureux, "Evangicals
Inheriting the Wind: The Phillip E. Johnson
Phenomenon", in Johnson, P.E. & Lamoureux,
D.O. et al., 1999, "Darwinism Defeated?", pp.
25, 26)
In Dembski's case, it is the conflation of the reality
of detection of design and Dembski's "explanatory
filter" as a reliable design-detector. It doesn't
follow from the fact that we can detect design that
Dembski's filter is the most reliable way to do this.

In fact, as I argued in my third ID-Commentary, two
weeks ago, in most of the cases were we detect
intelligent agency, we do so on the basis of the
explanatory power in asuming that the object in
question was brought about by a specific intelligent

E-mails, watches, and the Rosetta stone are all
instances where we use our knowledge about specific
designers to explain why, say, the three texts,
written in three languages on the Rosetta stone all
mean the same when translated, or why the symbols on
the face of a watch all resemble Arabic nummerals.

Even Dembski, when discussing his favorite example of
design-detection, the Caputo case, uses knowledge
about the designer (Nicholas Caputo) in constructing
the pattern needed for his explanatory filter:
"Now consider a human subject S confronted
with sequences (A) and (B). S comes to the
these sequences with considerable background
knowledge which, we may suppose, includes the

(1) Nicholas Caputo is a Democrat.
(2) Nicholas Caputo would like to see the
Democrats appear first on the ballot since
having the first place on the ballot line
significantly boosts one's chances of
winning an election.
(3) Nicholas Caputo, as election commissioner
of Essex County, has full control over who
appears first on the ballots in Essex
(4) Election commissioners in the past have
been guilty of all manner of fraud,
including unfair assignments of ballot
(5) If Captuto were assigning ballot lines
fairly, then both Democrats and
Republicans should recieve priority
roughly the same number of times.

Given the background knowledge S is in a
position to formulate various "cheating
patterns" by which Caputo migh attempt to give
the Democrats first place on the ballot."
(Dembski, W.A., 1998, "The Design Inference",
pp. 16)
But no such things is possible when dealing with the
unknown designer of the ID-movement. Not only because
the designer is unknown, but also since much suggests
that it is *unkowable*. As Dembski tells us, "[w]e
cannot predict what an inventor would do short of
becoming that inventor." (Dembski, 2001, "Is
Intelligent Design Testable?", )

And this is exactly the point of Pennock's criticism:
"The appeal to supernatural forces, whether
these are taken to be divine or occult, is
always available for we can cite no necessary
constraints upon the powers of supernatural
agents. This is just the picture of God that
Johnson presents. He says that God could
create out of nothing or use evolution if He
wanted; God is "omnipotent." He says God
creates in the "furtherance of a purpose," but
that God's purposes are "inscrutable"
and "mysterious." A god that is all-powerful
and whose will is inscrutable can be called
to "explain" *any* event in any situation, and
this is one reason for science's
methodological prohibition against such
appeals. Given this feature, supernatural
hypotheses remain immune from
disconformation." (Pennock, 2000, pp. 291-2,
original emphasis)
WAD> How, then, is Pennock a magician? There are at
WAD> least three forms of magic. One is the art of
WAD> illusion, where appearance is carefully crafted
WAD> to distort reality. As entertainment, this form
WAD> of magic is entirely unobjectionable. Another
WAD> form of magic is to invoke the supernatural to
WAD> explain a physical event. To call this magic is
WAD> certainly a recent invention, since it makes most
WAD> theists into magicians (Was Thomas Aquinas a
WAD> magician for accepting as a historical fact the
WAD> resurrection of Jesus? Was Moses Maimonides a
WAD> magician for thinking that his namesake had
WAD> parted the Red Sea?).

Dembski, knowing that he can't contest Pennock's
argument against the explanatory power of using
supernatural explanations in science, instead starts
Appealing to the Gallery (see ).
And since about 90% of the population in USA are
Christians, Dembski will get plenty of support if he
can convince his audience that accepting Pennock's
argument means that they are inconcistent Christians
(curriously absent from Dembski's essay is the mention
that Pennock himself is a Quaker). But the validity of
an idea has nothing to do with whether we like the
consequences or not. All that matters if it is *true*.

However, I shall argue that Dembski is wrong in
claiming that Pennock's argument "makes most theists
into magicians", and that Christians in fact have no
problem accepting a science using knowable
explanations as well as the historical reality of

We must recognize that there is a profound difference
between believing in the historic reality of an event
and believing that science can explain it. A
distinction Dembski blurs when he equates Aquinas' and
Maimonides' beliefs in miracles with his own claim
that they believed that those events could be
scientifically explained by invoking the supernatural.

It might very well be the case that a man named Jesus
was resurrected, almost two thousand years ago, or
that the Red Sea parted to let Moses and the Jews
pass, even longer before. A scientist observing those
things happening would have no reason to deny the
reality of those things. And even if they had not been
observed, their historical reality could be inferred
from the traces those events had left, as witnessed by
YEC flood geologists trying to find evidence for a
supernaturally caused Flood in sediments and
"polystrate" fossils.

But, for the reasons outlined above, science would not
be able to show that these events was caused by a
supernatural entity with an "inscrutable" purpose,
since such a claim is necessarily untestable. People
believing that this really *was* the case, should find
support for this elsewhere (theology or philosophy).

WAD> According to Pennock, intelligent design
WAD> creationism is guilty of this form of magic. Deep
WAD> down, though, Pennock must realize that
WAD> intelligent design (leaving off the creationism)
WAD> can avoid this charge.

It is not a coincidence that it is said of Intelligent
Design that it "says one thing one day, and then seems
to say a different thing the next."
( )

As per the quote above, Dembski has been claiming that
ID has shown "that this great theological truth -that
God acts in the world by dispersing information- also
has scientific content", yet now he is saying that his
theory need *not* invoke the supernatural.

Again, I have no problem with intelligent design not
supporting any theologic claims, but I would wish that
leaders of the ID-movement themselves would be more
forthwright about the things they think ID actually

WAD> Pennock is guilty of his own form of magic,
WAD> however. The third form of magic, and the one
WAD> Pennock and his fellow scientific naturalists are
WAD> guilty of, is the view that something can be
WAD> gotten for nothing.

Of course, whether or not something is "from nothing"
is absolutely irrelevant. All that matters is if it is
*true*. In determining this, it might be useful if
Dembski could bring himself to comment on the evidence
that has been presented to him as disproofs of
ID-claims about the capability of evolutionary
algorithm in solving difficult problems, such as the
answer to the 500 city Traveling Salesman Problem,
presented by Wesley Elsberry in .

WAD> Even so, the scientific community continues to be
WAD> skeptical of design. The worry is that design
WAD> will give up on science. In place of a magic that
WAD> derives something from nothing, design
WAD> substitutes a designer who explains everything.
WAD> Magic gets you something for nothing and thus
WAD> offers a bargain. Design gets you something by
WAD> presupposing something unimaginably bigger and
WAD> thus asks you to sell your scientific soul. At
WAD> least so the story goes. But design can be
WAD> explanatory without giving away the store.
WAD> Certainly this is the case for human artifacts,
WAD> which are properly explained by reference to
WAD> design.

Again Dembski confuses the issue. Noone contests that
explanations involving human designers (whose
intentions are both knowable, and in most cases,
*known*) really *are* good explanations. What is at
issue is whether the *unknown* (and, most likely
unkowable) designer of ID allows us to explain
anything at all. Just referring to the explanatory
powers of invoking *human* design is nothing but a red

WAD> Nor does design explain everything: There's no
WAD> reason to invoke design to explain a random
WAD> inkblot;

Another red herring. That "design" is a bad
explanation in cases where we know the causal story
not to involve intelligent agency is obvious. What I
(and other ID-skeptics) want to know is how to
determine if "design" is a good explanation when we
*don't* know the causal story.

WAD> William Dembski Baylor University
META> =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Footer
META> information below last updated: 1999/12/10.
META> Copyright 1999, 2000 by William Grassie. Copies
META> of this internet posting may be made and
META> distributed in whole without further permission.
META> Credit: "This information was circulated on the
META> Meta Lists on Science and Religion
META> <>."


"Creationists say--"Welcome to the war. We are eager to
join battle, for we have the truth on our side, and the
consequences are as important as life (eternal life) and
death."" (Gish, D.T., 1993, "Creation Scientists Answer
Their Critics", pp. 249)


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