Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Problem of Design

I have been reading up on Intelligent Design for about 4 years. I was drawn to it both as an engineer and as a Christian. The controversy is immense (in the U.S. mainly, not Canada). It seems to boil down to whether design is real in nature and the universe and if so, how can we objectively recognise if something is designed.

To the best of my knowledge, there are currently two attempts at quantifying design in nature: the Explanitory Filter (EF) as proposed by Dr. William Dembski, and the Design Matrix (DM) as proposed by Mike Gene. I will attempt to summarise the EF since I am more familiar with it than DM (I really need to order a copy of The Design Matrix).

There are three filters in EF: 1. contingency/necessity (natural law), 2. complexity, and 3. specification. An event is observed and it's probability of occuring by chance and/or necessity is calculated. How far the event passes down the EF depends on how low the probability is. If the event can be explained by natural law, then it remains stuck in filter #1 and is attributed to necessity (high probability). If the event's probability is less than a value Dembski calls the "universal probability bound" (UPB = 1 in 10^150, very small!!!), then it remains stuck in filter #2 and is attributed to chance (read The Design Revolution to see how Dembski calculated UPB).
The third filter is the most controversial. If the event "matches a conditionally independent pattern", then in passes through the 3rd filter and is called "specified complexity" (another word for design); if the event does not match a conditionally independent pattern, then it is stuck and it attributed to chance.

There is a problem with this last step: how objective is this "conditionally independent pattern"? For a good critique of the EF, read Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science by Del Ratzsch (another book I need to order!). From what I know about the DM, there are also some subjective criteria used to determine the possibility of design.

So where does this leave us? I think we have a good intuition of what a design looks like, but how can we objectively quantify it? It appears that we're not there, yet.

In Part 2, I will ask the question "Did ID skip a step?" and attempt to provide an answer.

In Part 3, I will propose a basic framework for objectively recognising design in nature.


  1. I think you and I view things the same way, based on this nteresting post.

    I will come back and visit again if I may.

  2. William, you're always welcome back at "the asylum". ;)