YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL
Q&A with Dr. William Dembski
July 27, 2008
In the final message of this series, Ben Young interviews Dr. William Dembski. Dr. Dembski is a mathematician and philosopher and is a senior fellow with Seattle’s Discovery Institute. Dr. Dembski has published articles in mathematics, philosophy, and theology journals and is the author/editor of more than a dozen books. In The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), he examines the design argument in a post-Darwinian context and analyzes the connections linking chance, probability, and intelligent causation. Through a question and answer session, Dr. Dembski will discuss divine intelligence, creationism, the existence of God, how to reconcile science and the Bible, and the problem with evil and suffering.
YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL
Q&A with Dr. William Dembski
July 27, 2008
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about questions, doubt, certainty and uncertainty. It’s interesting when you look back into the Scripture and the Jewish tradition; both are steeped in asking questions, questions, and more questions…
When Jesus came onto the scene in the 1st century, people had a lot of questions for Him. As a matter of fact, if you read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you’ll find that Jesus was asked 183 questions. In return, He responded with 304 questions of His own!
So questioning is a part of the Christian and Jewish traditions. That is what we’re here to do today. We are here to have a time of asking questions; a time of question and answer, and hopefully giving some good direction. To do that this morning, I’ve asked a friend of mine to come and help me out, Dr. Bill Dembski. He is a research professor of philosophy at Southwestern in Fort Worth. He is also a senior fellow with The Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. He has taught at Northwestern University, Notre Dame, The University of Dallas, Baylor and Southern. He is a graduate of The University of Illinois with a BA in psychology, and a Master’s in statistics, along with a Ph.D. in philosophy. He holds a Doctorate in mathematics from The University of Chicago, a Master of Divinity from Princeton, and has done post-doctoral work in mathematics at MIT, physics at The University of Chicago, and computer science at Princeton. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine, BBC, NPR, PBS, C-Span, CNN, Fox News, ABC Nightline, and The Daily Show with John Stewart. He has written over ten books, and we can find many of them in our bookstore or on Amazon. His new book is called Understanding Intelligent Design. I call it Intelligent Design for Dummies. Some of those other books I’m sure you are familiar with are Intelligent Design, The Bridge Between Science and Theology, and No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence.
Welcome Dr. Bill Dembski!
Ben: What’s up? There will be no free lunch! Sorry to embarrass you with that Bill, that bio bit! It is
what it is!
Bill Dembski: It’s…got to live with it!
Ben: But it was good though! It didn’t make sense, because we’ve known each other for quite a while now, and I never figured out—how can you get all these degrees, and yet still be so young? Then at the earlier service, you said that you started at The University of Chicago at age 16. So that makes sense!
Bill Dembski: Well, that didn’t buy me too much. I think not getting married until I was 36 helped!
Ben: Not getting married until you were 36?
Bill Dembski: Ha, ha, ha! I don’t recommend that generally!
Ben: But some people need that to focus! What I want to do here is have a time of open questions and answers. We’re not going to go to that right this moment, because I want to ask Bill my own questions to start things off. If you have a question for Bill, we will have microphones you can run to, or you can text-message your questions.
I realize, given the nature of what we talked about in the past couple of weeks—maybe you’re here, and you consider yourself a hard-core skeptic; perhaps you would not want to stand up and ask a question. You can, I don’t care if you stand up and do it! Feel free to do that; but if you feel more comfortable sending a text-message question, you can do it that way.
Before we go into our Q & A, Bill, tell us a little bit about your own story and your own journey to the Christian faith. How did that happen?
Bill Dembski: I was raised in a very nominal, Catholic family. We went to church just a few times a year. I did go to Catholic schools in 7th and 8th grade, and also in high school. There I had to go to Catholic church services more often, but it was very nominal. I did not believe that Jesus was God, so I wasn’t a Christian. I remember a Catholic priest once really laying it on us in a Sunday sermon saying, “You must believe that Jesus is God to be a Christian.” I thought to myself, “I don’t believe this.” A year later, I went off to college. They asked for religious preference, and I put down Hindu! It was crazy, but this was before New Age was popular. That is basically where I was in my thinking. It was about two years later that my mother became a Christian and started praying for me, giving me lots of Christian literature.
I was pretty resistant to it, but I think what was really the turning point for me was God dealing with me and showing me just what it meant for Jesus to become human so that God could really relate to us and understand what we were going through. I was going through a hard time in my life, and I just didn’t see how God and I could connect. I always believed that there was a God, but I just didn’t see how to make that connection in Jesus, in the Incarnation, God taking on human form and suffering and what we were going through. That was really the turning point.
So it wasn’t intelligent design. My dad was a biologist. At the time I became a Christian, I believed in evolution; but it was after that I started investigating. But it was really the personal connection with God that made the difference.
Ben: All right, I want to ask a question to kind of get this out of the way, because there is a lot of confusion on this. What is the difference between intelligent design and creationism? Sometimes in the mainstream media, they want to equivocate creationism with intelligent design.
Bill Dembski: Yeah, in fact, they’ll even put them together—intelligent design creationism. That’s a buzz phrase out there. But they are different. Creationism certainly commits you to a doctrine of creation. You believe that God is the source of being of the world. Then when you add the “ism” on it, usually it means you take a particular interpretation of Genesis. Usually, when you hear creationism, it is young earth creationism. So God creates the world in six, literal twenty-four hour days, and the earth is only about 6,000 years old. That’s what is usually meant by creationism.
Now intelligent design, if I had to give you a definition, would be the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence. So what you’re doing is looking for signs of intelligence in the world. There are lots of things in the world that when we look at them, we don’t think that there is any intelligence necessarily behind them. You are driving through some mountains, and you see rock formations, for all you know, wind and erosion could do that. But if you’re driving through southwest South Dakota and you see a rock formation that looks like Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, you’re not going to say, “Oh, isn’t it amazing what wind and erosion can do?” You know that there is intelligence behind that.
Likewise, there are lots of special sciences where we make that distinction between what are the effects of material causes, and what are the effects of intelligence. Archaeology says, “Is that a random chunk of rock, or is that an arrowhead?”
The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence says, “Is that radio signal coming from outer space the result of random radio noise, or is there intelligence behind it?”
Now it gets dicey when we apply that same question to biology, and that is where I apply it, because you ask, “Well who or what could that intelligence be if we’re finding patterns in biology that point us to intelligence?” Unlike these other cases where the evolutionist could say, “Well, that was just an evolved intelligence.” In biology, if there is a designer behind things, that would be an un-evolved intelligence. That shakes up the materialist band wagon. That’s why they come after us!
Ben: Viciously, I might add!
Bill Dembski: Well, yes, but that just makes the victories that much more fun when it happens.
Ben: That’s right! All right! Let’s open it up for Q&A. We have some microphones and some spotters here who will come to you. We also have text messages already coming up on our screen here. Let’s kind of limit our questions to theology and apologetics—questions related to the existence of God and the truthfulness of Scripture; how do you reconcile science and the Bible; and the problem with evil and suffering. As opposed to, “Should I be going out with Bill, or Christy?” That’s a worthy Q&A, which I am more adept at handling than Bill, I hope. We’ll do that another time. But right now, we’re going to try to limit our questions to theology, apologetics, science, if you would.
Ben: Let’s start off with a text message. Question: Does the Divine proportion mean anything?
Bill Dembski: Well, yeah! I’m assuming that the question has to do with this limit of basically Fibonacci numbers where you take, and you get. It seems to appear in a lot of cases and a lot in nature as well. I think they made a lot out of it in The Da Vinci Code. So yes, it means something. Does it indicate some design behind the world? Perhaps. That’s not really where I take these arguments; but it’s interesting that you have all these nifty things, these things we come up with mathematically as it were in our studies—just playing with numbers. Then we find that they are actually reflected in nature.
Audience Question: One of the main arguments I’ve heard against intelligent design, is that it can’t be science because it requires supernatural intervention.
The argument says that you can’t prove that with a scientific method. Therefore, intelligent design can’t be science, and it has to be banished to the realm of philosophy or religion. How do you counter that argument?
Bill Dembski: Yeah, that’s a common objection. I think you’ve got to distinguish effect to cause, and cause to affect reasoning. What we’re doing is looking at patterns in nature and then asking, “What’s going to be required to explain those patterns?” If you see the rock formation, Mount Rushmore, you know that you’re dealing with intelligence, even if you don’t know what the causal story is. We happen to know that Gutzon Borglum, an eccentric artist, spent the greater part of his life doing this. But even if you didn’t know that, you’d know there was intelligence behind it. Now the nature of that intelligence—really intelligent design doesn’t speculate about that.
It’s interesting, in the movie Expelled, Richard Dawkins, the arch-atheist in the English speaking world allows that we might be, or that life on earth might be, designed by space aliens. It can’t be God. That’s out of the question; but it could be space aliens. So intelligent design allows that, and I think it really requires prior philosophy to say that intelligent design can’t be science.
I think often the way it’s put in the press is that, “Oh, these things are too complicated; therefore, we have to invoke God.” So it’s kind of a God of the gaps. But really, what we’re finding is that material processes can only generate so much information; and so you need an information source. If you put it in information theoretic terms, I think it becomes straight-forward science. The nature of that source is something we can debate, but even that can be made sense of, I think, in scientific terms.
Audience Question: In an argument, how do you reconcile the time line in Genesis with dinosaurs, and prehistoric man?
Bill Dembski: There seems to be two approaches among creationists, now thought of broadly, people who hold to Christian doctrine of creation. One is an old earth approach, which basically takes the more recent view of science, which is that the earth and the universe is older. Usual estimates are about 4.5 billion years for the earth, and about 13 billion years for the universe. That’s where I come down largely for scientific reasons. The young earth approach would take a more literal six 24 hour days which translates to about a 6,000 year old earth. I think there are certainly theological arguments to be made on both sides. Probably the theological case is stronger on the young earth side.
I mean, if you look at the history of Biblical interpretation through the Reformation, from the church fathers, scholastics, through the Reformation, they were young earth creationists, by and large. The science is pushing me to an old earth view, but we are all committed to a doctrine of creation. How to make sense out of it? I think you have to do something like either day age, or go more figurative, or some sort of literary approach. One thing you do see in the Genesis account is that days one through three seem to correspond to days four through six. Day one, light is created. Day four, sun, moon and stars which reflect the light, and which would give the light are brought into being. Day two, you’ve got the separation of waters. Day five, you’ve got the beings that live in the waters above, which is the sky, the birds; and then below, the fish. Day three, we have the separation of land and waters. Day six, you’ve got the creatures that creep that are on the land. So there seem to be some literary things going on, even in Genesis 1. I think there is quite a diversity of opinion about how to interpret that.
Ben: Okay, let’s go to a text message question here. How do people before the birth of Jesus get into Heaven?
Bill Dembski: Well, I think Christian theology, and I think the Scriptures themselves seem to indicate that it is in virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In a sense, the effects of the cross are trans-historical. They go forward into the future. We’re saved on the basis of that historical event; but also it moves into the past. So the Old Testament saints are saved because they looked forward to Christ.
Ben: Wouldn’t you say too, their understanding was dimmer than ours; not that we have an exact certainty here 2,000 years after the event, but theirs was a little dimmer as far as understanding who the Messiah would be, and what He would be like.
Bill Dembski: Sure! In terms of their knowledge, they glimpsed these things as you said, dimly. But I think the requirement for faith and belief in God it seems was there, and walking uprightly…But certainly, the just shall live by faith. Abraham was justified by faith; so all of that seems to be reflected in the Old Testament, but finds fulfillment in the cross and Resurrection.
Ben: Right, and covenant theology would say that there are basically two covenants in Scripture. You have the covenant of works, which were Adam and Eve before the Fall. In other words, they had to maintain their righteousness given to them by their works.
Then there is a covenant of grace and that is every covenant subsequent to the Fall, which basically God is having to intervene on our behalf, culminating, of course, in the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Audience Question: In geology, they were basically telling us that the first creatures on the earth were trilobites, or some old, ancient form of bacteria; and then humans later evolved millions of years later. I just want to know, how is it that in creationism, or intelligent design that humans are about the same age as the trilobites?
Bill Dembski: Well, intelligent design isn’t committing itself. It really doesn’t speak to the age of the earth question. I would say probably most of the intelligent design proponents I know insofar as they’re Christians, and not all of them are Christians, are old earth creationists. There are some young earth creationists. But we’re looking for evidence of design, and in a sense, the design problem doesn’t go away if you’ve got 6 thousand, or 6 billion years. With the young earth creationists, if they can make the case for a young earth, in a sense evolution dissolves, because there just wouldn’t be enough time for it. But even if you give it a lot more time, the design problems are so intense for them that they’re going to have problems with it as well.
Now in terms of the history of life, if you look at it from a more standard geological perspective, it seems to be that you’ve got an earth that comes into being about 4.5 billion years ago. It is extremely hot, tempestuous, and can’t support life. After about 500 million years, life becomes a possibility. Within 100 million years, life as we know it—cellular life, with all its tremendous complexity—the whole DNA, protein, and that whole protein synthesis apparatus metabolism, all of it—everything that we see in life is there. I think most materialistic scientists who work in chemical evolution or origin of life will say it’s remarkable! How did it happen? There is no good theory of origin of life, materialistic origin of life theory. If they want to look for the place where God intervened, that would be the best place. Then for about 3.5 billion years, you’ve got just cellular life. There are single-celled organisms, and then you get multi-cellularity. You get animals with the Cambrian explosion. That happens real quickly in terms of geological time, about 5 to 10 million years. So you’ve got all these multi-celled organisms which are suddenly there.
So the evolutionist has a hard time. Our typical conception of evolution is sort of this gradual melding of one thing into another. The fossil record doesn’t seem to support that at all.
Ben: All right, let’s get a text-message question. Can you explain these statistical limitations that make evolution difficult to defend?
Bill Dembski: Well, that’s a good question, because I think that’s what really drove me to this whole debate. It’s what’s within the reach of chance; what’s outside the reach of chance. We all have intuitions about that. One way I try to illustrate what is going on in evolutionary theory, and why they think intelligent design is so crazy, is by imagining that you’ve have a million people. What’s the big park here? Memorial Park! If we fit a million people in there, and we were going to play a little statistical game—everybody has a coin, and they flip it. They’re standing, and if they flip heads, they remain standing. If they flip tails, they sit down. They keep doing this. What happens? The first time around, about five hundred thousand sit down. The next time around, about two hundred and fifty thousand. Next time, a hundred and twenty-five thousand. They keep doing it, and at the end, after about twenty flips on average; you’ll see one person standing. Now you don’t go to that person and say, “Wow! You’re really an amazing coin flipper! What’s your secret? How did you do it?” It’s just given the way things were set up; given the statistics of it; somebody was bound to get twenty heads in a row. It probably has never happened that any of you in this room have gotten twenty heads in a row, but it would very likely happen under those circumstances.
So likewise, the evolutionist says, “Given the properties of matter; given the evolutionary process; beings like ourselves are going to pop out, given enough time.” So they’re making in a sense a statistical argument. Well, if you’re going to make a statistical argument though, you’ve got to then start doing the actual analysis. It’s one thing to have toy problems, toy examples like this, but actually start looking at biological systems and seeing what is within the reach of chance and what is beyond the reach of chance. The burden on the intelligent design person is not to show that everything in biology is design. It’s just enough to show that some aspects of biology are designed.
Another challenge here is to take systems that are manageable. If you look at something like an eye, or some organ or something in your body; those are so complex though to get a handle on the design there is actually pretty hard, the statistical obstacles, as it were. So what we’re looking now at are much simpler systems; individual enzymes and proteins, and showing what would it take to evolve one protein into another. Evolution works by borrowing. Things can’t magically materialize. One thing has to transform into another, and then we can start asking, “How improbable is it?” What we’re finding are some vast improbabilities.
A colleague of mine at Biologic Institute outside of Seattle has done this analysis on a protein fold for one type of enzyme, and he’s getting improbabilities on the level of 10 to the minus 60, and 10 to the minus 70. So those are very, very small probabilities. The thing is, these improbability arguments are very important. We’ve all heard about the God of the gaps—we don’t know how something happened then we just invoke God! Well, you can do the same thing with chance. How do we discipline our use of chance? Well, small probabilities end up helping us to discipline chance. Now you’ve got to be careful there. Highly improbable things do happen. You get out a coin and flip it long enough and you’ll participate in the highly improbable event. But when that event also is some way specified, when it exhibits some salient pattern, and then we can’t refer it to chance. In biology, what makes something salient is biological function. So that’s a big argument. You’ve opened a whole can of worms, but that is very central to what we do in intelligent design.
Audience Question: How does the evolutionist deal with the science of DNA; that the single-cell amoeba became both the cockroach, and the blue whale? As you said a moment ago, how do they deal with the fossil records of a horse becoming something else, or the transition of it?
Bill Dembski: Well, it’s a good question. I think what drives this is not so much the scientific evidence as the philosophical presuppositions. I think prime philosophical presupposition is that God didn’t have anything to do with it, so let’s tell the best materialistic story. But the problem is, the best materialistic story doesn’t seem to match up with the evidence. There are these huge problems and gaps in the theory.
First is getting the ball rolling at all. How do you get life? That’s probably the biggest problem in science. How do you get brute matter? It is a revolution in this history of matter to get the first living form. What happened there?
There are scenarios out there—RNA worlds, various self-organizational scenarios, but they don’t begin really to grasp the complexities of what’s going on there. So then there are all these big jumps. How do you go from single cell, to multicellularity? How do you go from multicellularity to things like us with backbones? How do you get this great diversity of life forms? It remains unaccounted for!
There’s a standard story you have to tell if you’re a Darwinist. Everything has to be filtered through this natural selection, random-variation mechanism. So they can tell stories; they can tell imaginative stories. For instance, how did the eyeball evolve?
Well, it started as a light-sensitive spot. Then it cupped. That gave it selective advantage, because then you could see what direction the light was coming from. Then eventually it cupped enough so you got a pinhole camera, and this could get some sort of primitive image. Then finally you got a lens, and you got the full vertebrate eye, but you know that’s a just-so story. Eyes have to be built in embryological development. You have to have a whole bunch of new genes to build these things. Eyes don’t exist by themselves. They have to be integrated into a whole nervous system with a brain that can process the images. So all of that has to be there, and all of that is left by the way. But it seems that if you can find a club to beat belief in God, just about anything will do. This is the best they’ve got, but it’s not very good.
Ben: I saw a text message here on the screen. This is a good one here! Can you explain the Trinity?
Bill Dembski: Ha ha! I didn’t see that question on the screen.
Ben: You think I’m making that up! It was on there!
Bill Dembski: One of my strengths is that I know my limitations! I’m not going to go there!
Ben: Okay, I can accept that!
Bill Dembski: Micro and macro evolution is more manageable. Yeah, but uh…Actually, this is an interesting point: The difference between micro and macro evolution. There are evolutionary changes…
Ben: Oh, so you’re skipping the Trinity. You’re going to micro and macro evolution which you feel like is easier to answer than the Trinity? I can appreciate that!
Bill Dembski: Yes!
Ben: I appreciate your honesty! Thank you, Bill!
Bill Dembski: All right! So, may I answer the…
Ben: Yeah, you sure can! Yeah, I’ll answer the Trinity thing next week! Go ahead!
Bill Dembski: Well, there is an interesting distinction of micro and macro evolution because it is actually a distinction that was introduced by evolutionists around the 1930’s, or 1940’s when there was this big new theory of Darwinism, or this upgrade of Darwinism called neo-Darwinism. The thing is, we are able to observe small scale changes. That’s what micro evolution is referring to in organisms, so you can see for instance insects developing insecticide resistance; or bacterial developing antibiotic resistance; or finch beaks—finches on the Galapagos Islands—if there is a drought, their beaks will tend to get stronger and bigger so they can break the nuts that are harder, because there is not much water around.
But the interesting thing for evolution of course is not how you get bacterial resistance to antibiotics or finch beaks getting stronger; but how do you get those beaks in the first place? How do you get the finches in the first place? That is what evolution is supposed to explain. That’s the macro evolution. From an intelligent design perspective, there’s just this huge disconnect between the two. What the evolutionists are doing is just wildly extrapolating micro evolution to macro evolution.
Now if you turn this around and you speak to most evolutionists, they’ll say, “Well, they’re on a continuum, and that’s actually a bogus distinction because macro evolution is just micro evolution given a long enough time.” Well, you see where the argument is. I think there is good reason to think though that the extrapolation is not adequately supported at this point.
Audience Question: Being a parent, I’m going to bring it down just a couple of levels. We believe that God is all knowing, that He is the Creator of all things. Our nine-year-old son was reading one day, and he asked me why God created the Devil? He said if there was no Devil, then there would be no evil, and wouldn’t it be okay?
Bill Dembski: Actually, that is a good one. That may be above my pay grade, but it’s one I’m willing to go with, because I’m writing a book on it actually, the problem of evil. It’s called The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World. It’s under contract with Broadman and Holman. I think what you’d have to say, in terms of classical theology, is that God did not create the Devil to be evil. But then the question remains, “How is it that a good God creates a being with free will which misuses that free will?” Christian theology has always taught that there are angels that never went bad and never did fall. So why did that happen? I think at some level, it’s a mystery. But I think perhaps the best thing we can do is offer a psychological explanation. I think there is always going to be a temptation in creature-hood, if you’re a creature, to realize that you’re not God. Also, as a creature, you’re limited.
So the question will arise, “Well has God withheld something from you which He might have given you?” I think that was the temptation in the Garden. God withheld that apple, or whatever the fruit was from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve felt cheated, and that was the occasion for her sin. No doubt, the Devil felt the same way.
So I think that gives us at least perhaps some insight; but why that should happen I think is a mystery. But once it does happen, once the creature does rebel, all Hell breaks loose. Then I think there are basically two options. God can either erase the problem, but in a sense that’s an admission that He didn’t know what He was doing in the first place. So then the challenge is rather to redeem that situation. Redemption it seems is not just going to be a quick fix. It’s because the creature is then complicit in its own fall and has to be brought to a place where the creature can see what he or she, or it did, and then return to God freely. The creature freely fell; it must freely return. It seems that is what Christ then accomplishes on the cross. This is very thumbnail; but I think it’s a very difficult problem theologically. Still more manageable though, I think, than the Trinity.
Ben: Right—I understand.
I want you to bow your heads and pray with me if you would for a moment. I know that it is Bill’s desire, as well as mine, for people to come to know the personal God who made them, and has provided a way for them to be redeemed and brought back to Him, and that is through Christ.
I know there are some people here today who are ready to stand up and walk down the aisles and say, “Yes! Yes, I believe in Christ. I believe God revealed Himself to us fully in Him, and I want to trust in Him, and I want to be brought back to God!” There are others here who are still in process. Or maybe you are like Bill was years ago where you are still asking questions and are still investigating. You find it to be intriguing, and you’re still questioning. Father, I thank You that You tell us to, “Come, let us reason together,” not come let us park our brains! Thank You that we can come to You with our questions as we quest, as we seek for truth, as we seek for answers, as we seek for a way in this world to live a life of meaning and purpose that would honor You…we pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.