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He read the Scriptures, trying to understand the faith. And he read creationist literature, trying to understand the world around him. He had always had a sneaking suspicion that Darwinism was an inadequate theory, and although he could not believe the doctrine of literal creationists, their criticisms of evolution fueled his active young mind. He went back to school, studying statistics at the University of Illinois and adding that knowledge to his developing disbelief in Darwinism. It seemed to him statistically improbable that natural selection could produce the diversity of life all around him. Still, he hadn't come up with an alternative theory.
Then in 1988 he had a eureka moment. At a conference on randomness at Ohio State University, a statistician concluded the event by saying, "We know what randomness isn't. We don't know what it is." It made sense to Dembski. If God is the creator of the universe, then there should be order in the world, not randomness. Darwinists were having so much trouble defining the randomness inherent in evolutionary theory because life was essentially not random. It was designed. And randomness could be understood only in terms of that design. "That insight really has propelled me all these years," Dembski says.
Armed with a Christian faith, Dembski found that he could be happy in the world of academia. In fact, he's been there ever since his religious conversion. In all, he has earned a BA in psychology, an MS in statistics and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois; a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago; and a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has also done postdoctoral work in mathematics at MIT, in physics at the University of Chicago and in computer science at Princeton. But his relationship with academia would not always be pleasant. Dembski's theories were taking him farther and farther afield from mainstream science. His mathematics were leading him to the same place that his faith had. To his colleagues, this wasn't science, it was religion.
We distinguish between intelligent and natural causes every day -- every time a detective investigates a possible homicide, every time an archaeologist picks out an arrowhead from a pile of rocks, every time radio astronomers at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence listen for patterns in the noise coming from outer space. In these cases, modern science doesn't have a problem assuming some intelligent being is responsible for the evidence -- a human, even an alien. But if you try to distinguish between intelligent and natural causes in basic biological systems, things get a little messier. If you find intelligence in biology, then who or what was the intelligent designer? It's a question science doesn't want to pose, let alone answer.
But Dembski contends that if he can codify the process by which we recognize intelligence in other fields, he can justifiably apply that process to biology. If he can codify that process, he says, intelligent design is not a matter of religious belief but a matter of following the evidence wherever it leads. Such a codification is Dembski's contribution to the intelligent-design movement, and his claim to fame. It is an explanatory process that can be used for judging objects, events and information. It begins by ruling out chance and natural law as explanations, and then infers design.
The first step in the process is what Dembski calls contingency. In other words, something that is designed must be compatible with natural law but not required by it. Something that is required by natural law leaves no room for the choices inherent in design. It is just following orders.
The second test is for complexity. Here, Dembski turns to the sci-fi movie Contact, based on a novel by Carl Sagan, for an example. In the movie, Jodie Foster and her radio astronomer friends at SETI receive a signal of 1,126 beats and pauses representing all the prime numbers from two to 101. They interpret the signal to be a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence. But if they had received a sequence of only the first three prime numbers, they would not have jumped to the same conclusion. Any random radio signal might happen to emit this sequence by pure chance. Mathematically speaking, this is a probability argument. The short sequence is simply not complex enough to be improbable as a result of chance.
But complexity by itself isn't enough. The final filter is for specification. Any particular sequence of 1,126 beats and pauses is highly unlikely. The sequence in Contact was special, not just because it was complex but because it contained an independent pattern: increasing prime numbers.
Voilà. If something is contingent, complex and specified, according to Dembski, we can infer that it is the product of intelligence. Dembski calls it the specified-complexity criterion.
The next step for intelligent-design theorists is to apply the criterion to biological systems. They start small, with bacteria and their proteins, to keep the probability computations manageable. But the idea is that if they can prove that life's subsystems are designed, then they can prove the whole system is designed.