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Uncensoring and Simplifying the Scientific Case for Intelligent Design

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Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy is a book I've long hoped that someone would write. Don't get me wrong -- there are other good books out there that explain the fundamentals of intelligent design (ID) in plain language. But with clarity, elegance, and accuracy, Intelligent Design Uncensored fills this niche better than most. The authors, Dr. William Dembski (an expert in the technical arguments for ID) and Dr. Jonathan Witt (a writer with a strong grasp of the relevant science) -- both Discovery Institute senior fellows -- make an ideal team.

After taking the reader on a tour of molecular machines and cellular complexity, Dembski and Witt condense the scientific thinking behind the design inference into "easy-to-understand" terms, just as advertised:

When we attribute intelligent design to complex biological machines that need all of their parts to work, we're doing what historical scientists do generally. Think of it as a three-step process: (1) locate a type of cause active in the present that routinely produces the thing in question; (2) make a thorough search to determine if it is the only known cause of this type of thing; and (3) if it is, offer it as the best explanation for the thing in question.

(William Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy, p. 53 (InterVarsity Press, 2010).)

Of course, in order to knock down step (2) in this logical argument for design, critics have offered various speculative and outlandish evolutionary explanations for the origin of complex biological features. For example, ID critics often claim that blind and unguided evolutionary processes can borrow, or "co-opt," multiple parts in the cell and suddenly reorganize them into functional, irreducibly complex molecular machines.

Does this explanation deserve our credence? Not if, in other contexts, we don't observe blind and unguided processes spontaneously re-organizing parts into machines. Dembski's technical expertise and Witt's masterly prose shine through in a knockdown argument against co-option: "What is the one thing in our experience that co-opts irreducibly complex machines and uses their parts to build a new and more intricate machine? Intelligent agents." (p. 54)

In addition to summarizing the case for design, ID Uncensored also contributes to ID thinking. For example, it explains how Dembski's method of detecting design using the explanatory filter, and Stephen Meyer's method of using an argument from our positive uniform experience, combine in pointing to design:

[T]here remains one and only one type of cause that has shown itself able to create functional information like we find in cells, books and software programs -- intelligent design. We know this from our uniform experience and from the design filter -- a mathematically rigorous method of detecting design. Both yield the same answer.

(William Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy, p. 90 (InterVarsity Press, 2010).)

If you haven't already figured this out, the greatest strength of ID Uncensored is the way its explains the details of ID in a way that virtually any reader can grasp. One more example will suffice.

I often get e-mails from people making vague appeals to vast eons of time and vast unseen probabilistic resources in the universe to claim that the naturalistic origin of life's complexity is possible. ID proponents have responded by noting that we should not assume that the material causes have the ability to produce life. Instead, we should treat that hypothesis scientifically and test it.

As a result, ID proponents have often discussed a complicated technical concept called the "universal probability bound," which is basically a measure of the probabilistic resources available over the history of the universe. In books including No Free Lunch, Dembski has elsewhere given technical explanations for his conservative calculation of the universal probability bound. Jonathan Witt now translates what was daunting scientific language in remarkably lucid prose:

Scientists have learned that within the known physical universe there are about 1080 elementary particles ... Scientists also have learned that a change from one state of matter to another can't happen faster than what physicists call the Planck time. ... The Planck time is 1 second divided by 1045 (1 followed by forty-five zeroes). ... Finally, scientists estimate that the universe is about fourteen billion years old, meaning the universe is itself millions of times younger than 1025 seconds. If we now assume that any physical event in the universe requires the transition of at least one elementary particle (most events require far more, of course), then these limits on the universe suggest that the total number of events throughout cosmic history could not have exceeded 1080 x 1045 x 1025 = 10150.

This means that any specified event whose probability is less than 1 chance 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.

(William Dembski and Jonathan Witt, Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy, pp. 68-69 (InterVarsity Press, 2010).)

Now that you understand a bit about the universal probability bound, read the book to further see why material causes could not produce life's complexity unless the available probabilistic resources vastly exceeded this bound.

But ID Uncensored doesn't stop at explaining the science -- it also delves into the respective sociological and theological implications of Darwinism and ID. Aware of common fallacious objections to ID, Dembski and Witt explain why broaching these topics does not imply that Darwinism or ID isn't science: "Another argument Darwinists sometimes use is to assert that ID isn't science because it has religious, philosophical, and political implications. The problem is that this standard also disqualifies Darwinism." (p. 38) Instead, they take the higher road, acknowledging that both Darwinism and ID are legitimate scientific projects: "Although Darwinism and intelligent design are both based on physical evidence and standard methods of scientific reasoning, both have profound implications beyond science." (p. 95)

What's revealing about their chapter on theology is that it doesn't try to argue affirmatively for design. Rather, it focuses on addressing theological objections to ID, blowing them out-of-the-water by exposing logical fallacies and self-contradictory logic. But the interesting point is this: Increasingly we see critics of ID arguing on the basis not of science but of theology. As I observed recently, this is amusing since ID's opponents are "openly and unashamedly letting theology stand in the way of scientific investigation--the very charge they constantly levy against [proponents of] ID."

One charge that won't stick against Intelligent Design Uncensored is that it's unclear. This makes the book all the more important, as it will undoubtedly fall into the hands of many students who will quickly find answers to many of the most common objections to ID they are being taught by their largely uninformed professors. This book would make a great graduation present.

Yet it is a book for any reader -- student or otherwise -- who seeks a compelling, accurate, accessible case for intelligent design. It closes with a variety of tips and helpful pieces of advice for anyone seeking to make an impact on this debate. This makes Intelligent Design Uncensored a welcome and badly needed contribution to the literature of ID. Whether you're an ID-guru or an ID-newbie, you will learn something and gain insight from reading this book.