My copy of No Free Lunch arrived a few days ago, and there are a couple of posts I want to make about it, but the first thing that struck me, reading the preface, and not for the first time, is how little Dembski (and other Intelligent Design proponents) seem to know about either Intelligence or Design.
As it happens, I have a relevant background in both. I’m a cognitive scientist, and I came into cognitive science from a background in educational psychology, so I’ve always been interested in intelligence – how it works, how it is measured, what factors affect it, etc. And, somewhat unusually for a cognitive scientist, I also have a training in design – I trained as an architect, a design training that is specifically focussed on “problem solving”, but I also applied that training to other “design” modalities, including composing music, and writing children’s books that attempted to explain something, both to commission, and therefore with a “design brief”.
And in both areas, what is abundantly clear, is that learning is critical.
When a child is struggling, cognitively, we say she is “learning disabled”, or is a “slow learner”. When we design a building, or a piece of music, or a piece of writing, we embark on an iterative process in which our output feeds back as input into the process of critical appraisal and re-appraisal that informs sometimes radical, more often incremental, changes to our current creation.
In other words, “intelligent design” is a process in which feedback from the environment, including our own output, iteratively serves as input into the design process. Both intelligence in general, and design in particular, are learning processes.
But to read Dembski’s preface, you would not know it:
How a designer gets from thought to thing is, at least in broad strokes, straightforward: (1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute the plan, the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) Finally the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. What emerges is a designed object, and the designer is successful to the degree that the object fulfills the designer’s purpose.
Well, not exactly, IMO, and the part that Dembski misses (or, at best, glosses over) is precisely the part that most resembles evolution: the iterative feedback from the environment that results in the incremental adjustment of the prototype so that it ever more closely fulfils some function. Not only that, but that function is not by any means always the original one. For a building, typically it is, at least for its first occupants. But buildings that survive the longest and are best maintained are those that are readily incrementally adapted for other functions. And anyone who has ever made a pot, or carved a block of wood or marble, knows that what emerges is the result of a kind of dialogue between the sculptor and the material, and the result may be something very different to what the designer had in mind when she started. Click on my sister’s blog in the blog roll if you don’t believe me 🙂
In fact, I’d go so far to say that the one thing that separates “intentional” design” from, I dunno, “iterative” or “tactile” design is that humans are capable of simulating the results of their iterative design before execution, so that we don’t have to build first, then dismantle. But even then, we actually make models, often very crude models, out of crude materials, in the early processes of a design (well, this is true of architecture any way) – three dimensional back-of-the-envelope sketches, made of corrugated cardboard, bits of mesh, gauze, sponge, silver paper, prototypes we can nudge and fix and re-order and reassemble, according to how well the thing seems to work.
Intelligent design is very like evolutionary processes, in other words. So it’s not surprising that the products of both should show a family resemblance. Oddly, I agree with Dembski that he has put is finger on a kind of pattern that is distinctive, when he talks about “specified complexity”. I just don’t think it has much to do with intention, and everything to do with iterative adjustments in response to environmental feedback.
Biology has all the hallmarks of a learning process, in other words. Evolutionary processes are learning processes, as is human intelligence. Those would seem to be reasonable candidate authors of a pattern that exhibited “specified complexity”. An omniscient and omnipotent creator, not so much.