asa1logo.jpg (5657 bytes)

Issues related to Human Nature


Response to William Dembski's "
Converting Matter into Mind"

Gregory A. Clark

1228 Elmwood 1W
Evanston, IL 60602

From PSCF 43 (June 1991): 103-106.

William A. Dembski's article of December, 1990 "Converting Matter into Mind: Alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone in Cognitive Science" quite nicely pointed out the dangers that accompany the confusion of natural science and poorly done philosophy. I endorse that general thrust of his paper but would like to suggest that his arguments may fail to establish his point.

The heart of the matter concerns the notion of value. Dembski's article insists that "the chief difficulty with semi-materialism is that from God's perspective it trivializes man" ( p. 216).

Assuming with Dembski that God ultimately decides the value of his creation, why does semi-materialism trivialize people? I think that I can fairly state Dembski's basic argument as follows: (1) What is valuable is valuable to God. (2) In a finite universe, God most highly values intelligence.1 (3) Thus, the "only reason the universe is interesting to God is because there are intelligent beings" (p. 216).

Dembski gives two arguments for the claim that God most highly values intelligence. These two arguments correspond to two different notions of  "value." To be valuable can mean "interesting and novel" (p. 217) or "meaningful and purposeful" (p. 205). Both notions of value, Dembski thinks, imply some "extrinsic intelligence."

Pages 216-217 present the argument that the valuable is the interesting and the novel. I have reconstructed the argument as follows: (a) What is valuable is what God finds interesting. (b) What is interesting to God is novelty and thrills.2 (c) Novelty must come from "outside  "the universe. (d) We act novelly only through intelligent action. (e) Therefore, intelligent action must come from outside the universe.

Premises (a) and (b) would require a theological debate (with process theology?) which would lead us too far afield. For the purposes of argument, I am willing to grant the truth, or at least the interesting nature, of (a) and (b).3 Here we must question premises (c) and (d) as stated below.

To us a cube in a box is only interesting when an intelligence other than ourselves uses it to communicate with us. The same holds for the material universe and God. The only reason the universe is interesting to God is because there are intelligent beings, namely us, who express themselves through the universe, namely the matter that constitutes our bodies. If these intelligences are not external to the universe, then we land in ... a toy universe populated by toy people subject to a bored God who cannot be amused .... There are no other possibilities (p. 217).

Is this a good argument? Dembski claims that "To us a cube in a box is only interesting when an intelligence other than ourselves uses it to communicate with us. The same holds for the material universe and God." I suggest that the words "the same" are out of order here as there is no proper analogue between human experience and the relation between God and his creation. If Dembski's argument works, it only works by analogy. To the extent that God's experience of the material universe is analogous to our experience of a cube in a box, must intelligence be either external to the universe or operate on the model of a mechanical toy?

In answer to this revised question, Dembski presents us with two problematic notions. First, he appeals to the "outside" or to the "extrinsic." As far as I can tell, Dembski understands novelty as externality. Premise (c) would seem to be a matter of definition. The novel event is external to the object to which it is novel. To recognize novelty, one must recognize more than the simple relation of self-identity which allows for no "outside." However, "outside" nd "extrinsic," on Dembski's reading, are relative to a "physical system" or those principles sufficient to constitute such a system (p. 205). Furthermore, this system causally interacts. Hence to acknowledge a cause from the outside will mean that, in principle, we should be able to subsume the event into a cause-effect framework. Does Dembski think that we can develop a more inclusive system which could, through a more adequate view of causation, account for the actions of intelligence and, by analogy, of God? The alternative to a more inclusive system would need to attack not merely the limited materialism of the system but the notion of a "causally interacting system" itself as adequate to reality.

Dembski, as far as I can tell, takes the former option in arguing for a teleological view of the world and intelligence. Teleology, thus, would be a more inclusive system than one based merely on mechanical laws of motion. Our second difficulty, then, concerns the "come from" of premise (c). How does one provide a causal account of what are apparently "products" of intelligence? Novelty implies a lack of self-identity relative to a pre-defined physical system or set of principles. A more inclusive set of principles allows us to preserve the self-identity of the system, and overcome the "relatively" novel. Once we have made the move to teleology in order to account for intelligent actions, premise (c) "Novelty" must come from "outside" the universe, contradicts premise (d) which states "We act novelly only through intelligent action.4 If the argument from novelty is to work, it must operate at the level of the absolutely novel which is irreducible to any possible system or set of principles.

Let us, then, turn to Dembski's argument on pages 203-205 that meaning and purpose establish value. There Dembski offers two examples, the Parable of the Cube and Huxley's simian typists. Both examples intend to demonstrate that, if we begin with only matter in motion as our guiding principles, we must infer an "extrinsic" intelligence to account for the example. "In both cases we have physical systems which express intelligence, but which fail to supply an adequate causal account of the intelligence they express" (p. 205).

How does one provide for a causal account of intelligence? The ancients claimed that "nothing can come from nothing." An actual intelligence could only be produced by another actual intelligence. Those philosophies which admitted movement and change as realities claimed that the production of intelligence was a gradual process. Becoming an actual intelligence would be described as the goal of a process which began with only a potential intelligence. The changing object moves from potency to act, from an unformed state to an enformed state. However, just as an acorn, a potential oak tree, could only come from a mature, actual oak tree, so only could an actual intelligence create a potential intelligence. Actuality is prior to potentiality. This structure of causation was developed into a Christian metaphysic. Thus, Dembski asserts his Law of Priority in Creation: "The creator is always strictly greater than the creature. It is not possible for the creature to equal the creator, much less surpass the creator .... Bootstrapping has never worked" (p. 222).5 Must all Christians commit themselves to this kind of metaphysic?

Darwin's theory of evolution seems to upset this vision of the world. According to Dembski, "Darwin's theory of speciation by natural selection sought at all costs to avoid teleology. The appeal of Darwinism was never, That's the way God did it. The appeal was always, That's the way nature did it without God" (p. 204).

Dembski, here, joins a long list of philosophers who commonly read the history of the theory of evolution as Darwin against Religion.6 Nevertheless, James R. Moore's The Post-Darwinian Controversies7 successfully argues that the differing ways in which intellectuals responded to Darwin can be seen as a function of divergent theological commitments.

Darwin only opposes a form of teleology that insists that the purpose for which something was made be evident in history- Darwin claimed that the purpose of history can't be read on its sleeve. Those theological types who insisted on treating history as a single subject with its own goal and who insisted that the purpose of history was evident in its "forward march," introduced a valuational element into evolutionary theory not present in Darwin's theory. If one believes in a loving, good God whose purposes can be seen on the surface of the historical process, then Darwin represents a challenge to Christianity. If a species dies off, God does not highly value it. By contrast, those Calvinists who maintained a connection between God and the world such that God could value things in the world, but at the same time held to a distinction between God and his creation such that God's judgment was not identical with the judgment of history, were able to accept Darwinism in unmodified form.8

With this historical point noted, we can face a host of assumptions which Calvinism helps us to call into question. If a Christian is not committed to a teleological view of the world such as Darwin challenges, then what are the options? Is it necessary to the purposes of God that those purposes be evident in nature? Must human intelligence be understood within a teleological framework? Does God's valuation of humans refer to human intelligence?

I take it as safe to claim that while God does work in history, his purposes are not, thereby, evident even to those whom he uses. God's use of Assyria, Cyrus, and those who crucified Jesus are stock examples. It strikes me as simply absurd to say that God values more highly whoever emerges at a given point in history as the victor- much less that this was his purpose all along. Such historical processes can only be taken as a provisional statement in an ongoing battle between good and evil. Whatever the relation between God's purposes and the actual historical process may be, it would seem difficult to establish any strict correlation. Thus, I am very suspicious of teleological notions of world history based on the claim that God has a purpose for history.

Must intelligence be understood from a teleological framework? I am willing to assume that all operations of the human mind are intentional, that they are directed toward something.9 I am likewise willing to accept a definition which entails that such intentionality is necessary to "meaning."

This position on the directedness of the human mind, however, in no way entails an Aristotelian teleology or final causation. Dembski, on pages 203-205, simply assumes that intent is the same thing as Aristotelian teleology and then attempts to prove that teleology is necessary to meaning. Even here, were we to grant this unwarranted assumption, his arguments, in opposition to the Parable of the Cube and Huxley's monkeys pounding on the key boards, come up short.

Huxley's argument seems to be that an effect which appears to be the product of intelligence may, given a vast amount of time, result from random processes. According to Huxley, an effect may be greater than its efficient cause. Dembski's first objection claims that there must be an intelligence to judge whether an intelligent product has been created. Without intelligence presumed, nothing can be cut to its measure. Dembski, here, provides a proof not for teleology, but for formal causation. Hamlet must pre-exist the monkeys' typing of it and only that original form will provide the standard to judge whether "To be or not to nznxcmnv" actually counts as a line in the play. It does not take Shakespeare to judge whether a bunch of monkeys were able to produce Hamlet, it only takes someone who knows the work, or the order of the characters which appear on the page. "Meaning and purpose" are quite beside the point. (If Huxley had argued that his monkeys could produce a work that had the same meaning and purpose as Hamlet, then, perhaps, we would need Shakespeare to judge.) Monkeys may produce Hamlet but, contra Huxley, this does not mean that some form of intelligence is not required, though not as an efficient cause. But, Dembski's first rebuttal of Huxley does not establish a teleology, but only a hierarchy of creation which says that nothing can come to be unless it already exists.

Dembski's second argument against Huxley appeals explicitly to the nature of "meaning and purpose."

Humans naturally see meaning and purpose in a work of literature like Hamlet,just as they see meaning and purpose in the organisms of nature. What Huxley hoped to show was that such meaning and purpose, Aristotle's teleology and final causes, were in fact illusory .... Huxley's example presupposes an intelligence familiar with the works of Shakespeare. At the same time Huxley wants to demonstrate that random processes, the typing of monkeys, can account for the works of Shakespeare. Thus Huxley's example is supposed to show that the works of Shakespeare can be accounted for apart from the person of Shakespeare. Huxley wants it both ways (pp. 204-205).

He seems, here, to equate meaning and purpose with teleology and final causes. Thus, he now considers the person of Shakespeare and the claim that an author's work can only be explained by reference to the author.

As with the difficulty in relating the historical process to God's intentions, the relation of an "author" to his or her "work" is extremely vague. On the one hand, the "author" may refer to the body which actually, mechanically produces an article. But this can be done by monkeys. On the other hand, it may refer to the creative intelligence which intended to use language in a particular way. Dembski's words seem to suggest a theory which claims that the meaning of a work is identical to the author's intent. Presumably, a bunch of monkeys may produce the proper order of characters on a page, but the work would be without meaning if they did not intend to produce those characters in that order.

Let me note two simple problems with the claim that this sort of intention of an author is necessary to the meaning or value of a work.10 First, it is particularly difficult when one considers the nature of language which the author employs. The proposition "I say what I mean" is not identical to the proposition "I mean what I say."" Why, you might just as well say that `I see what I eat' is the same as `I eat what I see'!11 The intention of the author and the meaning of his language are not simply identical. Second, we need to note that human subjectivity and intentions are subject to time. Because human authors change, forget, and work on different problems, it is not clear that they will have any special privilege in getting at the intent of something they may have written years ago. Plato, in his Ion, noted that the poets were often the least able to interpret their own poems. Are we to conclude that Plato's poets wrote meaningless poems or that a work loses its meaning as the author changes? Or are we to say that the meaning exists still but we cannot get at this meaning because it is  locked in the past in the mind of the author at the time he wrote the work? In either case, it is problematic, at best, to claim that teleology is necessary to establish "meaning."

Finally, our last question, does God's valuation of humans (i.e., does being made in the image of God) refer to human intelligence? This, I take it, is still an open theological question. In any case, Dembski does not argue the point.

I have not provided the reader with an alternative notion of value. Rather, my point is simply that Dembski has not proven that, from God's perspective, to be valuable is to be intelligent.

As one trained in philosophy, I find the general thrust of Dembski's article, that one should not confuse philosophy and science, appealing. However, it also seems to me that philosophers ought to have better things to do with their time than patrol their borders looking for illegitimate trespassers. Might not philosophy be better served by expanding its borders through alliances with neighboring disciplines and practices? Many "advances" in knowledge occur outside the field of philosophy. Philosophy tends to arrive late on the scene to assess what, if anything, has occurred which might be assimilated for philosophy. Other fields- in particular artifical intelligence and medical technology- are engaged in projects with properly philosophical import. Surely, if philosophy is to advance it will not be by trotting out the old philosophical analyses of causation but through its ability to participate in novelty.


1I have added the qualifier "most" to this premise. Dembski does not seem to have this qualifier in mind on page 217. He uses the qualifier "only" in the conclusion. If we state this premise in theological terms, however, not only its questionableness but the need for the qualifier is apparent. In theological terms, the premise would read as two premises. (2a) What is [most] valuable to God is made in his image. (2b) Intelligence is the image of God. (2a) needs "most"as a qualifier because the rest of creation is still "good,"even prior to the creation of man, according to the first chapter of Genesis.

2Does Dembski mean to imply that God is uninteresting to Himself?

3"But in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true." Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Edited by Griffin and Sherburne, The Free Press: New York, 1978.

4More strictly, if we read the "come from" of premise (c) as "is caused," and "novelly" as "external" then premise (c) is self-contradictory.

5The claim that "nothing can come from nothing" or that "nothing is in the effect which is not first in the cause" is not identical to the claim that the universe is teleological in nature. Parmenides and Plato could ascribe to the first statements but not to teleology. Dembski's Law of Priority in Creation only implies a hierarchical structure of the universe in which nothing absolutely new ever appears - for it would violate the principle of causation. A teleological view of the universe accepts this general structure of the universe but tries to give time, movement, and change its due. Thus, things have potencies, characteristics which are not nothing, but which are not actual.

6See John Dewey, "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy," T he Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. New York: Peter Smith, 1951 (1910).

7The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

8Darwinism did have an impact on theories of the mind. In particular, it heavily influenced William James and, thus, American Pragmatism in general. On this view, the mind is a bodily organ which aids in survival. The fact that we survive may be evidence that it is well suited for dealing with this "blooming buzzing world" in which we live. It need not be the product of another mind. It is interesting to note, however, that James argues for a view of the mind which is intentional. See his Principles of Psychology, particularly Vol. II, chapter 28, "Necessary Truths and the Effects of Experience.<170>

9By "intentional"I mean that all consciousness is consciousness of something.

10For some more serious and devastating difficulties with the notion of authorship, see Michel Foucault, "What is an Author," The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

11Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland, ed. Donald J. Gray, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., p. 55.