The July 2002

Sheer vs. Real Possibilities: A Response to Allen Orr

By William A. Dembski

Allen Orr reviewed my book No Free Lunch in the Summer 2002 issue of the Boston Review. Orr's review is available at The response below is at the request of the Boston Review and will be appearing in a subsequent issue.

Though Allen Orr raises many specific objections to No Free Lunch, they ultimately hinge on a question he addressed to me directly in his review: "What's gained by replacing a mysterious material order with an equally mysterious designer?... It would have been interesting to hear Dembski's [response]." Underlying Orr's question is David Hume's concern that design offers no advantage explaining the organization of a material system when that system can equally well be conceived as organizing itself.

In No Free Lunch I argue that material systems are not capable of organizing themselves into complex specified structures apart from intelligence. In particular, I argue that since biological systems exhibit specified complexity, intelligence is involved in their production (just when and how is a matter for further study). Hume's concern is therefore met with Aristotle's distinction between nature and design. Nature produces things by self-organization and generation; design (the Greek techne, usually translated "art") produces things by impressing form from without. Thus, to use one of Aristotle's examples, acorns have it within themselves to produce oak trees, but raw wood does not have it within itself to produce ships. As Aristotle put it, "The art of ship-building is not in the wood." Indeed, it requires design.

But how can we tell when a material system is capable of organizing itself and when it requires the addition of design? In biology, how can we tell whether the Darwinian selection mechanism is capable of reorganizing existing biological structures into vastly more complex ones? In No Free Lunch I lay out an information-theoretic apparatus for answering such questions. Orr, to be sure, thinks that this apparatus cannot bear the weight I put on it, especially in biology. It is instructive, however, to see why Orr thinks that. Ultimately, we part company over what it means to attribute a capacity for self-organization to material processes (and specifically to the Darwinian mechanism).

Read the entire response at

File Date: 08.08.02