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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Dembski extrapolates out of his ass

Despite the fact that I have a friggin' Ph.D. defense to prepare for on Wednesday, I feel compelled to comment on some recent idiocy posted on Bill Dembski's ID blog, Uncommon Descent. Excuse me if this is choppy, I'm under a bit 'o' stress here.

Dembski writes:

My good friend and colleague Jeffrey Schwartz (along with Mario Beauregard and Henry Stapp) has just published a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that challenges the materialism endemic to so much of contemporary neuroscience. By contrast, it argues for the irreducibility of mind (and therefore intelligence) to material mechanisms.

A bit of background: properties of a system are emergent if they arise via interactions of the system's components, but cannot be predicted by understanding the behavior of individual parts of said system. For example, knowing all there is to know about water molecules doesn't explain the property of "wetness". Likewise, the taste of salt can't be inferred from knowing every chemical detail about sodium and chloride. Emergent phenomena are supervenient* upon their components, which basically means they can't be explained reductively. (Whether supervenience qualifies as irreducibly complex in the Intelligent Design world I don't know, since ID'ers don't give a good, consistent, workable definition of irreducible complexity.)

Note that an emergent phenomenon is no less a part of the material world just because it isn't reductively explained predicted (changed per suggestion in the comments--good catch!). Bill makes precisely this error of generalization, because nothing in the abstract he links to says anything discredits all materialism, just reductive materialism. Bill apparently has never heard of "emergence" before.

A look at the abstract, so we can see where Dembski is going with this:

Neuropsychological research on the neural basis of behaviour generally posits that brain mechanisms will ultimately suffice to explain all psychologically described phenomena. This assumption stems from the idea that the brain is made up entirely of material particles and fields, and that all causal mechanisms relevant to neuroscience can therefore be formulated solely in terms of properties of these elements.

If you just appended that segment with "or interactions among these elements", you would have an accurate statement that I could agree with. As it stands, Schwartz is pretty much spot-on.... for 1950. Neuroscience is no longer filled with reductionists, although the bulk of us need not look past reductionism to explore the subfields in which we specialize.

Schwartz goes on to make a rather nasty error in the next part of the abstract:

Thus, terms having intrinsic mentalistic and/or experiential content (e.g. ‘feeling’, ‘knowing’ and ‘effort’) are not included as primary causal factors.

Bzzzzzt. The reason mental events are not included as primary causal factors is because they're frickin' hard to study. This doesn't make them intractable, and indeed there are studies out there which looks at mental events as causal events which Schwartz acknowledges at the end of the abstract! Once again, the ID cheerleaders are trying to take credit for another first down.

The rest of the abstract is more of the same, pretty ho-hum. Schwartz covertly bloviates (is that possible?) about the need for a paradigm shift when our perspective has been changing already, so the ID crowd certainly can't take credit for it. But Schwartz is correct on one thing: reductive materialism likely can't explain all brain phenomena. This does not invalidate all naturalistic explanations, as Dembski falls just short of suggesting (and can you just sense him dying to type "NATURALISM"), just the reductive materialistic ones. Property dualism, for example, would still be fair game**.

The strategy looks pretty plain to me: equivocate irreducibility with Irreducible Complexity (IC) to make an argument for ID. One problem is the lack of an argument in support of ID-style Irreducible Complexity here, as you can remove parts of brains and they still function just fine. (In fact, if you grab 'em young enough, you can cut out an entire hemisphere and the child will grow up to be normal, for all intents and purposes.) Another problem is that concluding ID from an irreducible structure is a non-sequitur; it simply just does not follow that a designer had any role.

Bottom line, Bill needs to keep it in his pants; this angle is going to fall prey to all the same old criticisms of every IC incarnation. It seems there's nothing new under the sun here, just more ID supporters trying to appear ahead of the game and take credit for something, when in fact they're still playing catch-up. Hopefully the article itself will prove to be more intellectually stimulating.

*50 cent word.
**not to be construed as an endorsement of property dualism.


  • I read it twice. I need more IQ points, to understand it. Is he saying that the human brain is like like a computer? All the pieces are understood, so he can predict behavior? If he believes that he has less education, than I do. Traumatic injury, enviornment, hormonal state, stress levesl, etc. will change future thinking and how you gathere data. Much like when you buy a certain model car; your brain will start to find and locate the 'same car' your are driving, automatically. I dont see how he can predict the future, the brain is not static. I probably didn't even understand the abstract properly.

    Good luck, on your PHD defense.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/15/2005 04:53:00 PM  

  • good luck on the defense! i'm trying to get my own done before the summer's over, so i sympathize.

    as for your post, i might quibble a bit, as for example when you say,

    Note that an emergent phenomenon is no less a part of the material world just because it isn't reductively explained.

    are you be equating prediction with explanation? it seems like the emergent mental properties are explained by virtue of their reduction to material components, even though they cannot be predicted by those components and their interrelations.

    but this is a bit besides the point; either way, dembski has no support. it seems like his strategy is to say that mind (and therefore intelligence) are not reducible to `material mechanisms' [??], and therefore if we have reason to think that `intelligence' (whatever that means) plays an organizing role in the development of matter, then that intelligence itself cannot originate in the matter. but, of course, this is ridiculous; not only do we have no reason to think that `intelligence' (whatever that means) plays the organizing role that ID folk think it does, we also (and this is the important point) have no reason to think that the `irreducible mind' of neuroscience (which, except for quibbles over vocabulary, i'm happy to grant) has anything to do with the `intelligence' of the ID world. and this is due in no small part to the fact that the ID folk have still not come up with a decent understanding of `intelligence', a point you make when you criticize dembski's attempt to tie this all in to `irreducible complexity'.

    one more point i would make: i can't imagine that dembski would really think that causal laws in every scientific discipline will eventually be stated in terms of elementary material objects and their interrelations. does any serious scientist, or philosopher, think that? i'm imagining dembski sitting around in his study, realizing that we can't do neuroscience at the level of elementary material objects, and deciding that this means that `macro-evolution' must not have occurred. bizarre.

    By Blogger randall, at 7/15/2005 07:02:00 PM  

  • ah, and one more quibble. i'm not sure that the supervenience of mental properties on physical properties means that the former can't be reductively explained in terms of the latter, so much as it talks about the relationship between the two. saying mental properties supervene on physical properties means that you can't change facts about mental properties without changing the facts about the physical properties. or, in other words, if we have different mental properties, then we must have different physical properties; two identical creatures, with the exact same arrangement of their physical stuffs, must have the same mental properties. this is compatible, as far as i can tell, with the claim that mental properties are completely reducible to physical properties; some purely physical properties, for example, might supervene on other purely physical properties, even though they are reducible by physical laws.

    this quibble affects nothing significant about your post, of course, which i continue to think was quite good.

    By Blogger randall, at 7/15/2005 07:28:00 PM  

  • Thank you for the insightful comments. I'm not quibbling your quibbles, as I did fire this off in about 20 minutes during a hectic day. ;)

    By Blogger Evil Monkey, at 7/15/2005 10:49:00 PM  

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