The "Algorithm Room":
Can the "Design Inference"
Catch a Cheater?
Posted May 6, 2002
William A. Dembski's writings claim that algorithms cannot
produce Complex Specified Information (CSI), but intelligent
agents can. A recent posting of Dembski's introduced
qualifiers to CSI, so that we now have "apparent CSI" and
"actual CSI". Dembski categorizes as "apparent CSI" those
solutions which meet the formerly given criteria of CSI, but
which are produced via evolutionary computation. This is
contrasted with "actual CSI", in which a solution meets the
CSI criteria and which an intelligent agent produces. See
The Anti-Evolutionists: William A. Dembski
and follow the link for "Explaining Specified Complexity".
Dembski is also fond of both practical and hypothetical
illustrations to make his points. I'd like to propose a
hypothetical illustration to explore the utility of the
"apparent CSI"/"actual CSI" split.
Let's say that we have an intelligent agent in a room. The
room is equipped with all sorts of computers and tomes on
algorithms, including the complete works of Knuth. We'll call
this the "Algorithm Room". We pass a problem whose solution
would meet the criteria of CSI into the room (say, a 100-city
tour of the TSP or perhaps the Zeller congruence applied to
many dates). Enough time passes that our intelligent agent
could work the problem posed from first principles by hand
without recourse to references or other resources. The
correct solution is passed out of the room, with an statement
from the intelligent agent that no computational or reference
assistance was utilized. Under those circumstances, we pay
our intelligent agent at a high consultant rate. But if our
intelligent agent simply used the references or computers, he
would get paid at the lowly computer operator rate. We
suspect that our intelligent agent not only utilized the
references or computers to accomplish the task, but that he
also used the time thus freed up to do some light reading,
like "Once is Not Enough".
There are four broad categories of possible explanation of the
solution that was passed back out of the "Algorithm Room".
First, our intelligent agent might have employed chance,
throwing dice to come up with the solution, and then waiting
an appropriate period to pass the solution out. Given that
the solution actually did solve the problem passed in, we can
be highly confident that this category of explanation is not
the actual one. Second, our intelligent agent might have
ignored every resource of the "Algorithm Room" and spent the
entire time working out the solution from the basic
information provided with the problem (distances between
cities or dates in question). Third, our intelligent agent
might have gone so far as to look up and apply, via pencil and
paper, some appropriate algorithm taken from one of the
reference books. In this case, the sole novel intelligent
action on our agent's part was looking up the algorithm.
Essentially, our agent utilized himself as a computer.
Fourth, our intelligent agent might simply have fed the basic
data into one of the computers and run an algorithm to pop out
the needed solution. Again, the intelligent agent's
deployment of intelligence stopped well short of being applied
to produce the actual solution to the problem at hand.
Because we suspect cheating, we wish to distinguish between a
solution that is the result of the third or fourth categories
of action, and a solution that is the result of the second
category of action of our intelligent agent. We have only the
attributes of the provided solution to the problem to go upon.
Can we make a determination as to whether cheating happened or
Dembski's article, "Explaining Specified Complexity",
critiques a specific evolutionary algorithm. Dembski does not
dispute that the solution represents CSI, but categorizes the
result as "apparent CSI" because the specific algorithm
critiqued must necessarily produce it. Dembski then claims
that this same critique applies to all evolutionary
algorithms, and Dembski includes natural selection within that
The question all this poses is whether Dembski's analytical
processes bearing upon CSI can, in the absence of further
information from inside the "Algorithm Room", decide whether
the solution received was actually the work of the intelligent
agent (and thus "actual CSI") or the product of an algorithm
falsely claimed to be the work of the intelligent agent (and
thus "apparent CSI")?
If Dembski's analytical techniques cannot resolve the issue of
possible cheating in the "Algorithm Room", how does he hope to
resolve the issue of whether certain features of biology are
necessarily the work of an intelligent agent or agents? If
Dembski has no solution to this dilemma, the Design Inference
Wesley R. Elsberry is a student in Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences, Tx A&M U.