Magazine article Free Inquiry

No Free Lunch for Intelligent Design. (OP-ED)

Magazine article Free Inquiry

No Free Lunch for Intelligent Design. (OP-ED)

Article excerpt

Bill Dembski, one of the leading proponents of modern intelligent design "theory," is an interesting animal. But before turning to him, I should explain why I am telling readers of a freethought magazine about the latest attempt by religiously inspired intellectuals to advance their pseudoscientific agenda. Surely few readers of FREE in would give much credence to whatever Dembski or his colleagues at the Discovery Institute have to say. And therein lies the problem. Too often I have observed that skeptics and freethinkers assume certain positions (such as discounting anti-evolution writings) without knowing the intricacies of the arguments involved. Some of my evolutionary biologist colleagues have made the same mistake, setting out to debate a creationist without any preparation because "surely he is a mistaken fool and it will take just a few minutes to show the audience the error of his ways."

Actually, it takes more than a few minutes. Indeed, anti-science writers are getting more sophisticated in their arguments, which requires correspondingly increased sophistication on the part of skeptics and freethinkers to understand why those arguments are fallacious. After nil, the very difference between our position and the other side is that we strive to consider matters rationally and to do the hard work of refuting rampant nonsense, while most of what they do is to keep producing that nonsense at a fast enough rate to keep their followers from thinking at all.

That said, let us briefly examine one of the latest from Dembski's magic hat of tricks: his idea that the so-called no free lunch theorem (NFL) is a death blow to the theory of evolution by natural selection. Dembski is apparently so convinced of this that he has written a whole book on the topic, a creationist bestseller hailed as the intelligent design movement's equivalent of Darwin's Origin of Species (notice the impilcit recognition of the intellectual stature of the latter).

The NFL is a legitimate, if esoteric, bit of novel mathematical theory elaborated by David Wolpert and William Macready. It says that the average performance of any algorithm over the class of all optimization problems is no better than blind search. Let me unpack the last sentence so that we can see what it means and why Dembski thinks-erroneously--that It refutes Darwinism.

Optimization problems are mathematical problems (with plenty of practical applications) where one is trying to maximize (or minimize) a certain quantity given certain constraints on the factors affecting the situation of interest. One famous example is the so-called traveling salesman problem, in which one has to determine the shortest route connecting a series of cities. For a long time, the goal of researchers in optimization theory was to find an algorithm that would do better than blind search regardless of the particular problem at hand. Wolpert and Macready showed that this, alas, is not possible. …

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