Discovery Institute Descends into Incoherence

The long, slow demise of a foolish movement isn’t pretty to watch. Those who cling to a nonsensical doctrine can seem like they’re suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, drooling and endlessly repeating their prior babblings. But when it happens to a movement like the Discoveroids’ cult of the intelligent designer, it’s a good thing, so we shall document it.

The latest mess of Drool at their creationist blog is Intelligent Design on Target. It has no author’s byline. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

In his second major treatise on design theory, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, William Dembski discusses searches and targets.

You know who William Dembski is. We’ve posted about him a time or two — for example, see Intelligent Design’s Brief Shining Moment, and also Dembski’s Creationist Revival Meeting. He recently announced that he’s abandoning the Discoveroids’ movement — see William Dembski Is “Moving On”.

This is the Amazon listing for Dembski’s “major treatise”. The only time we ever wrote about that book was when Casey quoted from it — see Casey Defines “Complex and Specified Information”. This is what the Discoveroids tell us today:

One of his [Dembski’s] main points is that the ability to reach a target in a vast space of possibilities is an indicator of design. A sufficiently complex target that satisfies an independent specification, he argues, creates a pattern that, when observed, satisfies the Design Filter.

Uh huh. However, it’s well understood that evolution can reach a “target” (described as such only with the benefit of hindsight) with no design whatsoever — see our three-part series beginning here: The Inevitability of Evolution (Part I). Let’s read on, as the Discoveroids quote from Dembski’s “treatise”:

[Suppose] the archer paints a fixed target on the wall and then shoots at it. Suppose the archer shoots 100 arrows, and each time hits a perfect bull’s-eye. What can be concluded from this second scenario? Confronted with this occurrence, we are obligated to infer that here is a world-class archer, one whose shots cannot legitimately be attributed to luck but rather to the archer’s skill and mastery. Skill and mastery are, of course, instances of design.

[*Begin Drool Mode*] Ooooooooooooh! [*End Drool Mode*] We continue:

So when we see evidence of skill and mastery that could not be attributed to luck, we have a reliable indicator of design. Everyone “gets” the design inference in the archery illustration, and since target shooting is popular and fun, it gives us a great way to explain design principles. You could try this in the context of a family discuss [sic] with your kids.

Yes, it might work with kids. But don’t try it in the company of evolutionary biologists. We have to skip a lot, because the Discoveroids’ post is genuinely incoherent, but here’s a bit more:

[T]o conclude, we need to consider the cases where we didn’t observe the target being hit. This is where we can use the design inference for life, the Earth, and the universe.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! When we don’t see the designer — blessed be he! — doing his magical work to hit whatever it is we describe as the target (and we never do see him, do we?), then we can use Dembski’s wondrous inference and simply assume that the designer is responsible for hitting the target. Arbitrary target, arbitrary designer. Neat theory! Then the Discoveroids give examples of their “theory” in actual use:

The key to this design inference is to characterize the “reference class of possibilities” Dembski spoke of. When you have a large range of possibilities, but only one or a few that will work, you can infer design when you see something that is working:

1. Of the possible amino acid sequences, only a small number will fold into a functional protein.

2. Of the possible orbiting bodies, only a small number can support complex intelligent life (see our film Privileged Species for examples).

3. Of the possible parameters of physics, only a small number can support a habitable universe.

Yes! We’re here, so if we arbitrarily call that the “target,” the Discoveroids’ “theory” says the target was hit because of Oogity Boogity! Are you convinced yet, dear reader? Well, it’s complicated. In the Discoveroids’ final paragraph, they sympathize with your struggle to understand it:

Rigorous evidential, mathematical, and philosophical justification for the design inference is published in scholarly books by Dembski, Meyer, Wells, and others. It’s necessary to have that foundation for intelligent design to be a scientific theory, but some of it is above the pay grade of the layman. Consider using pithy illustrations like target shooting to help a range of people, including your kids, “get” the meaning of intelligent design.

So there you are. The Discoveroids’ “theory” may be a bit beyond your ability to understand, but they’re trying to help. If you’re still not convinced, then there’s no hope for you.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Discovery Institute Descends into Incoherence

  1. We already know what kind of “design” this argument is:

  2. 2. Of the possible orbiting bodies, only a small number can support complex intelligent life.

    Weird, because I thought it was that only one orbiting body can support any life.

  3. So, if the archer misses the bulls-eye a few times, that means the bulls-eyes were luck instead of skill?
    And what about all those times the Blessed designer misses the target (deleterious mutations), what does that say about the him/her/it ?

  4. Charles Deetz ;)

    Just watching the bullseye means you don’t see how many misses there were, or if the shooter was just reaching over and plunking the arrows in place. Or if there was an archer and it was just the wind. (And again, an analogy that doesn’t use a medium of water where things flow on their own is disingenuous. )

  5. Wouldn’t it be easier to shoot an arrow and then draw a target around it afterward?

  6. ladyatheist, that’s what William Tell did with his son.

  7. We’ve said this before, but it fits here. Consider your own existence to be the “target.” Human conception is preceded by the release of roughly 20 million sperm per milliliter, and the number of milliliters varies with age and other factors. The average for a healthy young male is estimated to be 300-500 million spermatozoa, per, ah … event. To be on the conservative side, let’s say that a specific human zygote has less than a one-in-100 million chance of being conceived. Considering the odds against your turning out to be precisely you, it’s obvious that your existence is quite improbable. Nevertheless, there you are. The designer hit the target!

  8. As far as I can figure out from Dumbski’s analogy, the only “design” the archer did was draw a target. The rest is practice. Or as John McEnroe said when a commentator asked him how a player could hit a serve like that, “it helps if you practice six or seven hours a day”.
    And as for his silly list:
    1. amino acid sequences that don’t yield useful folds are weeded out by natural selection.
    2. it’s not known how many planets and moons in the entire universe could or do support life. (I assume he’s not thinking of electrons in the class of “orbiting bodies”) So what?
    3. we know the set of physical parameters in our universe allows it to support development of (in some cases) intelligent life. We don’t how many other sets might support some form of life.

    And, of course, we have no clue that the good luck that we happen to exist in this universe means it is a target for anything. But I believe… I’ll have a beer.

  9. Derek Freyberg

    The DiscoDumpsterDivers must be pretty hard up for something to write if they’re commenting on a book published in 2001, and probably recycling what they said about it at the time.

  10. Are they really that dim-witted at the Discovery Institute to think that the archer-target analogy is valid?? Or are they just stupid enough to think anyone would buy it??

    No wonder no one wanted to put a byline on it.

  11. The “design” of the laws of nature are so far from hitting the target of life, that it takes more “design” to produce life.
    Only an extremely part of the “designed” universe meets the “Goldilocks” criteria for life. (For example, look at the small part of the Solar System which can possibly support life.)
    But even there, according to “design” claims, life does not exist unless the “designers” do their magic stuff. That’s how pointless the “design” of the universe is. (Even on the carefully designed Earth, life, we are told, is virtually impossible. That’s how poor the aim of the designer of Earth was.)

  12. I think they’re missing out by not using a fishing analogy.

    Years ago at a company picnic they had a fishing event. I stood next to a co-worker (or cow-orker, whichever) with identical rods, hooks, bait and pond. I threw my line in, the cork bobbed and I pulled up an empty hook. He threw his line in, the cork bobbed and he pulled out a fish.

    That’s the way it went for an hour: me empty hook, him fish.

    I said, “Wow, you are one master fisherman!”

    He replied, “Well, it’s all in how you bait the hook.”

    So, I guess that would make him a …

    Really, do I need to finish this?

  13. Eddie Janssen

    Completely off topic: Where is BA’77?
    Banned, seriously ill or even worse?
    He had a bit of a disagreement with VJ Torley, but not serious enough I think for any form of trouble.

  14. I thought BA’77 was Barry Banhammer his own self.

  15. Eddie Janssen


  16. Eddie Janssen asks: Where is BA’77? Banned, seriously ill or even worse?”

    I don’t know who that is.

  17. Eddie Janssen

    Uncommon Descent follower. Copy and paste guy and almost always 90+% of copy and paste completely off-topic.
    But since a couple of weeks missing. If you never read any of his comments try a few, It might even result in a (few) blog item(s).

  18. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the discoveroids collective decent into madness entertaining but it’s just getting sad to watch. They’re about two steps away from being that crazy guy that lives in the park who babbles about black helicopters and the illuminati.

  19. @docbill1351: Um, master hooker? Master worm impaler? Master minnow murderer? But then, maybe your co-worker just had a stroke of good luck…

  20. One of his [Dembski’s] main points is that the ability to reach a target in a vast space of possibilities is an indicator of design. A sufficiently complex target that satisfies an independent specification, he argues, creates a pattern that, when observed, satisfies the Design Filter.

    The assumption here is that the “target” is life, and beyond that intelligent life, and beyond that, good od Homo sapiens. But the universe could just as easily have gone on life, or without intelligent life–and it certainly didn’t need us. But to creationists, the universe did need us–it was created just so it could support humans, the image of God.

    Given the broad range of possible targets, it was inevitable that Dumbski’s archer would hit something–just not necessarily the world we know.

  21. “the archer paints a fixed target on the wall”
    Not science.

  22. This “major treatise” was the one that was described by one of the discoverers of the eponymous NFL Theorems as “written in jello”: “There simply is not enough that is firm in his text, not sufficient precision of formulation, to allow one to declare unambiguously ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when reading through the argument. All one can do is squint, furrow one’s brows, and then shrug.” ( )

  23. Dembski’s God must be an incompetent creator if he can only create complex life on a small percentage of planets, in only a small percentage of possible universes.

    If we found life in a non-privileged habitat, would that disprove Dembski’s hypothesis? Or will he just move the goalposts?

  24. @Paul D.
    If we found life in a non-privileged habitat …
    Would that show that the habitat was designed for life?
    If we find life in a privileged habitat, we are told that even there it takes design to produce life.
    What does it mean for there to be a privilege for life? Does privilege place limits on the designers of life? On the other hand, without limits, what need is there for design?
    Surely, God could have caused birds to fly with their bones made of solid gold, with their veins full of quicksilver, with their flesh heavier than lead, and with their wings exceedingly small. – Galileo

  25. For what it’s worth, the argument shows the very opposite of Dembski’s claim. Mutations occur, accumulate if not bred out, and then some may find themselves part of a suite of alleles with a function. So yes, the arrow does draw its own target

  26. TomS wonders, “Does privilege place limits on the designers of life? On the other hand, without limits, what need is there for design?”

    Well, it’s possible the Designer(s) created the limits first, then worked within them. Perhaps they did it for amusement, the way people created the rules of football to constrain what players can do. Without those constraints, the game would not exist.

    Don’t tell the Discover Institute about this possibility. It sounds almost reasonable enough for them to adopt. Then again, probably not. Nobody at the DI wants to raise the haunting view that we are but playthings of the gods.

  27. @Retired Prof
    It sounds almost reasonable enough. One doesn’t want to encourage reasonableness, does one?

  28. If the “intelligent design” creationists define a privileged habitat as any that happens to have life, then the definition is completely circular. For the term to have any meaning, it must be independently defined such that (1) we can also describe what a privileged habitat without life might look like, and (2) what life in a non-privileged habitat (however unlikely) might look like.

    An “intelligent puddle” advocate who claimed that the divine Weatherman designed holes of precisely the right shape to fit mud puddles would face a similar challenge.