Letter to the Editor


On Dembski's Views of  Cognitive Science

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (December 1991): 281.

William A. Dembski's article, "Converting Matter to Mind," which appeared in the December 1990 issue, was stimulating and thoughtful. The major thrust of the article is that cognitive science with its materialist assumption that humanity can be entirely understood in computational terms, is at odds with historic Judeo-Christian theology. I affirm this thesis, but I have a few problems with the detailed elaboration of it in the paper.

At a macroscopic level, I want to take issue with two aspects of Dembski's characterization of the research activities of cognitive science. The first aspect is his argument against "deciding the issue [the relation between computation and intelligence] in advance," which is fine if his intent is to force us to continue to think that there are other options. Surely, though, it is a valid scientific stance to presume that intelligence is simply computation, and to proceed to demonstrate that. I take it that this is the program of cognitive science, and cannot object to it as a scientific program, even though I would not want to adopt it. Dembski accuses cognitive scientists of grandiose ambitions when they take this predetermined stance, but he, too, has his own predetermined position, of course, which he states in his summary:

I am, however, committed to viewing computers and the programs they run as tools for my intellect, much as hammers are tools for my hands, and not as my peers.

The question at issue, surely, is which of these positions is "better."

The second aspect of his characterization of the entire field that troubles me is the suggestion in the abstract and again in the concluding remarks that the program of cognitive science is described as it is "to justify sizable research grants." If this is true (and significant enough in the author's mind to be included in his abstract), it would have been better to present some convincing evidence. I do not see any documentation presented that justifies this imputation of motive, I do not believe that cognitive science is more open to this criticism than is any other field, and I do not believe that it is necessary to hold this to see why cognitive science is attractive to researchers. To me it is an unfortunate incluso that detracts from the paper.

One major thrust of the paper is an attempt to make us comfortable with the belief that humanity is different from machines. The Law of Priority in Creation is said to be found in the text

Jesus has been found worth of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. [Hebrews 3:3]

This is said to teach us that "The Creator is always strictly greater than the creature." I find this problematic. It seems to me to be an abuse (at least a mild one) of Scripture to call this a law. Neither the comparison of Jesus with Moses nor the comparison of a builder with a house seems necessarily to support the generalization Dembski draws from it. Further, since I can certainly make tools that do what I cannot do, why not an intelligence tool? Dembski sees this as virtually impossible, but is it necessarily impossible? If there is to be "encouragement" for those wanting to hold to "the historic position" I think it should not be sought in a broad and loose reading of this text.

In fact, I think the right kind of encouragement for those of us wanting to affirm that humanity is more than computation (intelligence = computation) is to be found in the scriptural emphasis, evident from the creation narratives onward, that the importance of humanity for God is his relationship to it, not its physical manifestation (although this is not insignificant). Cognitive science seems to attack the last bastion of human uniqueness - intelligence. We are not worried when machines move us faster than our legs can, or lift more than our arms can, because we do not see our uniqueness as humans in our physical capacities. It may be frightening to see machines that can think as we do for materialists who see humanity defined by its capacity to reason. This may also be frightening for Christians. However, we should perhaps learn something from the unfortunate history of the church's definition of a God-of-the-gaps, and the entailed series of retreats as the gaps were filled. Let us not have a man-of-the-gaps and another series of retreats. If it were possible to build a model in silicon or gallium arsenide or whatever, of the information processing in our brains, would that necessarily attack our definition of humanity before God? Would it not be possible that a sovereign God might reach out to such a "carrier" of intelligence as he now does - n ways that we do not understand - as the human embryo develops into a human being? Is there anything in the Scriptures that would force us to say now 1) that this artificial intelligence will not be achieved, and 2) that the God of the Bible would not be free to reach out, to endow it with soulhood, perhaps even to redeem it from the penalties of the sin it would doubtless indulge in because of its fallen "parentage"?

Perhaps another way to find the encouragement Dembski wants to give us is to affirm what the Bible affirms and be agnostic with respect to issues and questions the Bible does not attempt to address.

Dr. David T. Barnard
Associate to the Vice-Principal (Resources)
Queen's University
Kingston, Canada K7L 3N6