Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Western Dualism in the North American Intelligent Design Community. Part 4

(Picture from http://www.faradayschools.com/re-topics/re-year-10-11/god-of-the-gaps/ )

In this post I will complete my series showcasing Intelligent Design guru V J. Torley’s implicit God of the Gaps dualism as it appears in a post on Uncommon Descent. In his post Torley is reacting to Orthodox theologian David Hart’s objection that de-facto ID theology entails a “divine tinkerer”.

Now I’d like to ask Dr. Hart two questions. First, does he think that God could, if He wanted, give pieces of wood the power to assemble themselves into a ship? Second, does he think that an affirmative answer to the first question entails that the highly specified complexity which we find in living things could (in principle) have arisen from particles of non-living matter that initially lacked this specificity, via a series of law-governed natural processes?
Regarding the first question: one could perhaps imagine embedding the various pieces of wood with homing devices and identity tags, and even some switches to guarantee that they assembled in the right sequence. But it would be a fool’s enterprise: designing a ship that could assemble itself would be even more work than the task of assembling it oneself. With living things, the problem is much, much worse. ……..Now try to imagine designing a program for bringing all of the chemical building blocks for this bacterium together, assembling these building blocks in the right way and in the right order, and dealing with all the unplanned contingencies that might conceivably upset the assembly process. Dr. Hart says he doesn’t like a tinkering Deity. Methinks his Deity will have to do a lot more tinkering than mine.

My Comment: Here Torley continues with his caricature of the alternative to the divine tinkerer –  that of a universe whose parts have been contrived to come together in a preordained way, where the solution to the problem of generating life is effectively front loaded into the cosmos and is then set going.  This concept of an imperative algorithmic system unwinding to reveal an implicit front loaded solution very much contrasts with my declarative programming paradigm where the generation of life is the subject of a proactive teleological search for a solution (See my Melencolia I series)

In other words, what Aquinas is doing here is sketching an Intelligent Design argument: the complexity of perfect animals’ body parts and the high degree of specificity required to produce them preclude them from having a non-biological origin. The only way in which their forms can be naturally generated is from the father’s “seed,” according to Aquinas. (We now know that both parents contribute genetic information that helps build the form of the embryo, but that doesn’t alter Aquinas’ key point.) From this it follows that the first “perfect animals” must have been produced by God alone.
Rather, what Aquinas taught was that some changes – in particular, the generation of complex organisms – require so many conditions to be satisfied in order to occur, that they are beyond the power of Nature alone to bring about: they require a special act on God’s part.

My Comment: Ibid: “….preclude them from having a non-biological origin”, “….the first 'perfect animals' must have been produced by God alone.” What Torley identifies as an Intelligent Design perspective derived from Aquinas has a very “God of the Gaps” flavor about it. It is difficult to know whether Torley supports a similar view, but it has a good fit with the North American explanatory filter epistemic, an epistemic which makes a sharp distinction between natural forces and input from intelligent agency. It also has a good fit with Dembski’s ideas about the conservation of information; as I hope to eventually show the concept of conservation of information is best suited to imperative parallel computing but not the declarative computational paradigm.

While Aquinas might well have admired the ingenuity of the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, he would also have pointed out that our modern understanding of genetics has exacerbated the problem of accounting for complexity to the n-th degree: living things are far, far more complex than he imagined them to be, in the thirteenth century. In other words, the number of conditions required to make a complex organism – or a lowly bacterium, for that matter – is orders of magnitude greater than what Aquinas supposed it was, in his day. In order to account for this complexity, then, we need a theory of evolution that is orders of magnitude more efficient than former theories. And it is precisely here that evolution’s Achilles heel becomes apparent. In my post, At last, a Darwinist mathematician tells the truth about evolution, I explain why according to Professor Gregory Chaitin’s calculations, Darwinian evolution should take quintillions of years, rather than billions of years, to generate the life-forms we see on Earth today. And that assumes that you have a living thing, in the first place. Professor John Walton, a Research Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrews University who holds not one but two doctorates, has explained why he believes Intelligent Design is the only adequate explanation of the origin of life, in an interesting online talk.

My Comment: Chaitin is probably right! But what if you have available a processing power that is the equivalent to quintillions of years of computation?

But as we have seen, that’s not what Aquinas holds: for him, each and every species of organism “generated from seed” requires an act of God to account for its origin. What’s more, for Aquinas, gaps of this sort are good gaps, since God’s power and voluntary agency “can be manifested in no better way … than by the fact that He sometimes does something outside the order of nature.” I can only conclude that Aquinas’ thinking is very much at odds with Dr. Hart’s, on the subject of Intelligent Design.

My Comment: More God of the Gaps from Aquinas… sorry, I should have said God of the good Gaps. Of course we can’t blame the medieval theologian for this kind of concept, but his ideas are no model for the post industrial revolution 21st century, nearly 800 years later.

Aquinas responds that some material changes are beyond the power of Nature to produce. In this passage, Aquinas even likens the production of Adam’s body from slime to the miracle of raising the dead to life, showing that he regarded it as clearly beyond the power of Nature:

My Comment: If Torley is right then we see in Aquinas a fine example of  what is so easy to read as “this is the bit that God did!” theology.

 I use the term “act of God” here, because it is not my intention to argue in this essay that biological Intelligent Design requires a supernatural miracle (although Aquinas apparently thought it did). We can suppose – as I do – that living things share a common descent, without committing ourselves to the assumption that natural processes lacking foresight (e.g. random variation culled by natural selection) are sufficient to generate life in all its diversity. Exactly how God guides these processes to generate creatures is none of my concern. What matters to me is that an Infusion of Intelligence is required, in order to generate the life-forms we find on Earth today. The question of whether God used a miracle to generate life is a secondary one.

My Comment: Presumably a “supernatural miracle” is something that overtly transcends the normal operation of the cosmos, so I guess that Torley is allowing for the possibility that God does his stuff in a more covert way than the occasional mega intervention. This is a step in the right direction but even so Torley still doesn't escape from thinking in dichotomies: He contrasts “natural processes lacking foresight” against “an infusion of intelligence”. It is ironic that it is precisely because those processes lack foresight that a declarative search is the way the operation of an immanent intelligence manifests itself. Torley may or may not rule out mega interventions, but the theological damage has been done. Torley promotes a view of creation that emasculates the potency of natural forces and so everyone now reads “Intelligent Design” as a de-facto God of the Gaps creation paradigm.  Nothing Torley has said heads off this bad theology and his promotion of Aquinas doesn't help.*

To sum up: the use of the word “program” to describe the workings of the cell is scientifically respectable. It is not just a figure of speech. It is literal. Additionally, the various programs running within the cell constitute a paradigm of excellent programming: no human engineer is currently capable of designing programs for building and maintaining an organism that work with anything like the same degree of efficiency as the programs running an E. coli cell, let alone a cell in the body of a human being.

My Comment: To sum up: It is ironic that in spite of his observation of what the imperative cellular program is capable of  Torley has no vision of how “natural forces” might be capable of finding and maintaining life.
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The de-facto ID community continues to implicitly promote God of the Gaps thinking. It is paradigm that is also very clear among fundamentalists like, say, Stuart Burgess who in his book “He Made the Stars Also” tells us that the Bible describes God as “master craftsmen” and  then concludes:

The description of God as a great craftsman measuring out the dimensions of the foundations of the Earth supports the conclusion that God did not use evolution because a craftsman carries out instantaneous  and deliberate actions whereas evolution involves a long random process. (Page 31).

Burgess doesn’t see that the Biblical metaphor fails to support his case. Real craftsmen are not magicians bringing about instantaneous actions of creation, but they are workman seeking answers to technological problems; this involves experimental searching and much thinking round possibilities. Real craftsmen seek solutions and build bit by bit.  In contrast the God of this kind of fundamentalism is a magician and not a workmen , a magician who "speaks" stuff into existence “Hey presto”,  just like that!

The other parts of this series:

Relevant Links:

Footnote: 
* As an illustration of the ease with which V J Torley is interpreted as a God of the Gaps theologian see the following post by atheist biochemist Larry Moran:
http://sandwalk.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/an-intelligent-design-creationist.html

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Melencolia I Part 4: Generating Complexity with Parallel Processing


For this latest part of Melencolia I I'm releasing this paperBelow I publish the introduction as it appears in the paper.
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This paper is part of my “Melencolia I” series, a series where in the first part I introduced a very speculative essay called “The Great Plan”. This essay was an impressionistic picture of God’s relation to our world and it was followed by further blog posts where I tried to sharpen the focus. Viz:

This set of essays and blog posts don’t come as a completed work or thesis but more as an unfolding exploration, a journey rather than a destination; perhaps a journey to nowhere!
In this latest paper I continue the Melencolia I  project, although as far as throwing light on the generation of life is concerned I have to admit I’m still very much in the uncritical and deliriously creative world of Melancholia I; as Durer’s Melencolia I print shows the tools that connect us with the world of experience are laid on one side whilst the contemplator has a flight of the imagination, although rightly the products of the imagination must ultimately submit themselves to criticism; but  criticism first needs something to criticise and only the imagination can provide that.
However, this particular paper is, in fact, more about criticism than creativity. In it I look critically upon the idea that ordinary parallel processing of the power we typically conceive has the computational efficacy to generate life. Although I by no means have an absolute proof, the evidence I present here suggests that this parallel processing is unable to deliver the goods. This is not to say, however, that I intend to promote the kind of “God of the Gaps dualism”  seen amongst the North American Intelligent Design community; I propose, rather,  that we need to think again about just what natural processes are and just what they are capable of.
From the perspective of the theist philosophical dualism is a ticking time bomb; it is a philosophy which takes it as granted that “natural forces” and God are two distinct and conflicting paradigms of creation. The logical kick-back of this philosophy is that if so-called “natural forces” can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt to be able to generate life then this will likely as not be read by Western dualists as refuting the case for God as Creator.
Many Western Christians have unconsciously committed themselves to the tinkering, eminent, quasi-deist God (sometimes vaguely referred to as an “intelligent agent” distinct from “natural forces”) who makes the occasional visitations to download a piece of his mind into the cosmos thereby disambiguating his creative effort from profane “natural processes”, processes which otherwise are thought to behave in a quasi-autonomous if unintelligent way.  It is therefore no surprise that for some dualistically minded theists evolution really does feel like evil-ution because it appears to them as a “naturalistic” creator-pretender.
Although I loathe the implicit dichotomy, if I had to make a choice within the Western dualistic paradigm I would say that my money is, in fact, on “naturalism”; that is, I believe our cosmos is sufficiently endowed by an immanent, and sustaining providence to generate life. This is not necessarily to say that I think current scientific concepts are sufficient to explain the generation life; in fact my gut feeling is that there is much more to uncover on this subject.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Cry for Help


A comment on fundamentalist’s Jason Lisle’ latest blog post (Research Update 20 August) caught my eye. It’s from a fellow fundamentalist who is clearly having trouble with the star light problem:

David Ethell says:*
Dr. Lisle,
I greatly appreciate your work in biblical apologetics and specifically in astrophysics. I was a Physics major from a Christian college, yet the college taught theistic evolution and I spent much of my time there defending a young earth view. Naturally, one of the consistent hammers used by my professors was the problem of starlight and time.
I read one of your comments recently about the SDSS [ Sloan Digital Sky Survey] survey and a study from a colleague of yours about the evidence from super nova remnants for a young age of distant objects. I’ve been in regular discussions with atheist or agnostic physicists about the age issue and am myself trying to get my head around using General Relativity to explain long ages for the distant objects. It sounds from your recent statements, however, that you are not relying on time dilation to account for these distances and ages if you are noting that the super novae remnants, for example, point to < 10,000 year ages of these objects.
Do you have a recent update on your hypothesis or understanding of the ages of these "distant" objects? If these novae are truly the same age as our local system then how do we explain the red shifts?
I have been trying to use a model similar to Humphries white-hole cosmology but find it falling apart in my discussions due to the shear forces that would be present on the Earth in such a gravity dense situation. I can't see the Earth surviving its exit from such a system. So while in theory that system "protects" the earth from aging while the rest of the universe goes about the billions of years of expansion, it seems to fall apart when we look at the shear forces that would tear the Earth apart in that environment.
Thanks for your time in responding to all these comments and for your work for Jesus Christ in the exciting realm of science.
David Ethell


No reply from Lisle yet. Russ Humphreys' model does at least try to stay true to science by committing itself to the outcome of physical laws and minimizing special “God did it” pleading, although of course it miserably fails to account for the distribution of matter in the heavens (as Ethel hints). Also, Humphreys positing a universe billions of years old (except in the near vicinity of the Earth, of course) contradicts Lisle's "Young" Universe outlook.  David Ethell is in for a shock when he realizes that Lisle’s model by and large goes back to the old in-transit-signal-creation concept, but obfuscates this fact with his coordinate transformation sophistry. Ethell has come to the wrong guy if he doesn't want to be baffled by casuistry.

Some relevant links
http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/yec-star-light-travel-time-if-at-first.html


* See: www.jasonlisle.com/2014/08/20/research-update/comment-page-2/#comment-39179 and then search for "Ethell"

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dembski and Felsenstein: Part II



This is part 2 of my series (first part here) on William Dembski’s talk given to the Computations in Science Seminar at the University of Chicago. In this part I want to look at Joe Felsentein’s comments about this video. Below I follow my usual practice of quote followed by my comment.

Felsenstein: Did he (Dembski) present new evidence? There was no new evidence…. the arguments are not new.

My Comment:  True, but at this stage I don’t think Dembski should present anything new as it seems to me quite hard work just getting people to take on board the significance of what Dembski is saying. In fact as far as I could tell Dembski was simply doing his best to convey the gist of his one main thesis; namely, that for evolution to work, the fitness surface needs to have a very particular and rare form; that is, fitness space must be front loaded with the right information. In this sense evolution is a kind of linear time “decompression” operation revealing information already present.

Felsenstein: They then argue that choosing a smooth enough fitness surface out of all possible ways of associating the fitnesses with the genotypes requires a Designer.
But I argue that the ordinary laws of physics actually imply a surface a lot smoother than a random map of sequences to fitnesses. In particular if gene expression is separated in time and space, the genes are much less likely to interact strongly, and the fitness surface will be much smoother than the “white noise” surface.
Dembski and Marks implicitly acknowledge, though perhaps just for the sake of argument, that natural selection can create adaptation. Their argument does not require design to occur once the fitness surface is chosen. It is thus a Theistic Evolution argument rather than one that argues for Design Intervention.

My Comment: My reading of this situation is that both Dembski and Felsenstein would agree that it is the nature of the fitness landscape (or “surface”) which determines whether or not evolution can happen. In fact Felsenstein says that for a randomly scrambled “white noise” fitness landscape the evolutionary process will frequently get stuck. True! But Felsenstein believes that the right kind of fitness surface is implicit in the laws of physics; he might be right, but I’m not sufficiently familiar with Dembski’s writings to know whether or not Dembski also thinks that these laws imply an evolution friendly fitness surface. Notice, however, Felsentein’s implicit deism: For him “Theistic Evolution” means that once the surface is set up the designer can withdraw and no longer needs to “intervene” in the natural process. As far as his theological concepts are concerned Felsentein appears to be a dualist in as much as he demarks a clear distinction between “Design Intervention” and the workings of the natural order once the design has been laid down (unlike myself who sees cosmic activity as the very process of design taking place).

Felsenstein: Dembski and Marks’s argument involves defining a new form of information, showing that it is conserved. Evolution can succeed only if this information is already present, so therefore evolution does not bring about new information. In Dembski’s case he goes on from that to make a theological argument (in his recent book), which I gather is basically “In the Beginning is the Information”.

My Comment: Obviously, I can’t speak for Dembski, but Felsenstein appears to be describing the kind of theology which motivates believers to find a logical hiatus and then declare that “This is the bit God did”. It is a theology that is very difficult for Westerners to think round and it is part of the mind set of both theists and atheists alike. But Dembski’s mathematical conclusion, a conclusion that is based on the standard classical physics understanding of evolution, remains true: From a classical evolution perspective the universe has a mysterious burden of information and this information is found in the implicit fitness surface.

Felsenstein: Dembski and Marks have a simple model with genotypes and fitnesses. Of course it is overly simple, but all models are. It is worth examining, because if evolution is in trouble in such a model, we need to know why.

My Comment: I’m not sure whether or not Demsbki and Marks are saying that their work implies evolution has a problem or is in trouble. In my reading of Dembski all he seems to be saying is that the fitness surface required for evolution to work is a very rare object in the huge space of mathematically possible fitness surfaces. Given its rarity and assuming equal a-priori probabilities it follows that the required fitness surface has a huge amount of information. The simplicity of Dembski’s mathematical model is not necessarily a limitation of his model but an intended feature, in fact a sign of its great generality rather than limitations:  Very general mathematical models of this kind intentionally abstract out large amounts of detail that are immaterial to the final mathematical conclusion. The sort of mathematics Dembski is dealing with stipulates very general conditions that any classical computation is logically bound by regardless of many otherwise irrelevant details. In effect Dembski is giving us the mathematical bounds or performance envelop that any classical computation is logically constrained to work within.

Felsenstein: What a mutation does: What if, instead of changing one base, we took the drastic step of mutating all of the bases in the genotype at the same time? If the Bernoulli Principle applied, we would get to a genotype whose fitness was also chosen at random. So in that case, on average, that would be no better and no worse than changing just one base. In other words, when fitnesses are randomly assigned to genotypes making a single typographical error is exactly as bad as changing every letter in the text.

Real biology doesn't work anything like that. Making one mutation in one of my genes will on average make it worse, though sometimes not. If it produces a protein, a single amino acid change often leaves the protein still functioning. But making changes in every site of its DNA is the same as replacing every protein by a random string of amino acids. Which will be a complete disaster.

Similarly, in statements in English, one typographical error might change “to be or not to be that is the question” into “to be or not to de that is the question”. Changing all letters would give something like “bdglvwujzib lxmoxg rjdg a ohlowugrbl owj”. It should be obvious that the latter is far less functional. The comprehensibility of English sentences is more like the actual fitness of organisms, and not like the fitness of the organisms Dembski and Marks imagine.

My Comment: The foregoing is part of the thesis that Felsenstein develops: His thesis is that in real biology the fitness landscape is smooth – that is, small incremental changes don’t drastically change the fitness of an organism. Felsenstein puts this down to the laws of physics which are based on localized interactions implying continuity of change rather than sudden jumps; this in turn leads to smoothness of the fitness surface and this smoothness is one of the conditions needed for a surface that is transversable by classical evolution. In this respect I believe Felsenstein is right – in fact, I believe he is as right about this as Dembski is about his conclusions. So what are Felsenstein and Dembski disagreeing about?

As I said in part I Dembski and Felsenstein are talking past one another. In spite of Felsentstein’s (valid) inference about the nature of fitness space Dembski's thesis still holds good because it is a general theorem about the mathematical envelope of total possibility, an envelope which encloses real biological space as one of the possibilities but says very little about the specifics of that space. The mathematical fact is that smooth fitness spaces are extremely rare beasts indeed when measured up against the totality of what is possible. It is this rarity (taken together with the assumption of equal a-priori probabilities) which implies that a fitness spaces favouring evolution pops out of Dembski’s equations as objects of very high information. But as Felsenstein tells us that information traces back to the givens and contingencies of our very particular set of physical laws. Of course, real biology doesn't work with a white noise fitness space! But that is precisely the point; given that white noise is the overwhelmingly typical fitness surface, Dembski’s thesis is simply telling us that in the mathematical platonic realm of possibility the real (smooth) fitness surface of a workable evolution is highly a-typical; it doesn't follow that this means evolution is necessarily in trouble. I certainly don’t read Dembski as necessarily implying that the fitness surface has got to be a white noise surface!

Felsenstein: It is notable that Dembski and Marks’s argument is not actually an Intelligent Design argument. It argues that a Designer is needed to explain the shape of the fitness surface, but once that surface is smooth enough, natural selection and other evolutionary forces do the rest. So there is no Design Intervention needed.

My Comment: Here we have a very clear statement by Felsenstein of dualistic, deistic, God of the Gaps theology: According to Felsenstein, once the right fitness landscape has been set up God can then back-off and let “natural forces” do their stuff. As I have already said I can’t say that I’ve read enough Demsbki and Marks to say whether or not they are God of Gaps theologians but the fact is the North American ID movement has a susceptibility for an implicit “God of the Gaps” theology. If according to this theology physical determinism means that once that determinism has been set up God can withdraw and let natural processes “do it” then this view becomes problematic in the light of nature’s chaotic regime which is constantly perturbed by apparently random quantum events; down at the microscopic level some kind of  “new” information is being created all the time.


Felsenstein: In the No Free Lunch argument the performance of the search that moves uphill on the fitness surface is extremely poor if averaged over all possible fitness functions. This is the same as its behavior on a typical randomly-chosen fitness function. At least seven major criticisms of Dembski’s No Free Lunch argument have objected that white noise fitness functions are not realistic (links to their articles and posts are given in my 2007 article and in a summary I wrote here at Panda’s Thumb). The criticism goes back to 2002 and has been voiced by all these authors.…….But whether or not that theorem is proven, the point remains that evolution will do badly almost all the time on a white noise fitness function. So a smoother fitness function is required. But, as we have seen, the laws of physics make a white noise fitness function unlikely. This is true whether or not the HNFL theorem can be proven rigorously.

My Comment: I have no argument with this except to say that if Dembski’s theorems are correct then they shouldn’t be interpreted as necessarily contrary to the biological facts about the nature of fitness space; the white noise  model is not a challenge to biological realities but tells us something about the huge mathematical envelope of possibility within which real biology is just one possibility. From these theorems we begin to appreciate that actual biology (which is constrained by physical laws in the way Felsenstein has identified) is an extremely rare case. Although some might over interpret it as if Dembski’s theorem is an anti-evolutionary gambit it is in fact just telling us that evolution is a rarity in the relevant mathematical regions of platonic space; although Dembski's ideas could be used as an anti-evolutionary gambit if someone reasoned fallaciously along these lines: The conditions needed for Evolution to work  are such an improbable rarity that it couldn't have happened that way. Wrong.

Felsenstein: The point about physics and the unlikelihood of white noise fitness functions is also true however we define information, and it is true whether natural selection “creates” information or whether it takes existing information that is implicit in the smoothness of the fitness surface and repackages it in the genome. I suspect that Dembski and Marks’s “active information” will end up not being a helpful concept, but for the purposes of my present critique that issue is not central.

My Comment: If evolution works in the way experts like Felsenstein say it does then I would certainly go along with the foregoing. Felsenstein accepts that, depending on one’s definition of information, evolution appears to be “converting” the up-front information implicit in the fitness surface into genomic information. In this sense Felsenstein appears not to be necessarily at odds with Dembski’s mathematically abstract conclusions. However, I think that Felsenstein is probably right in anticipating that “Dembskyism” may not, in the long run, be that scientifically helpful, particularly to biologists. These biologists are concerned with the actual details of the fitness surface that makes or breaks evolution, rather than very general mathematics that simply abstracts away those vital details. But where Dembski does score is, I believe, is in the area of world view synthesis where questions of the enigmatic and very particular contingency (= information) of our world  leads to strenuous and sometimes bizarre attempts to explain it. (See Max Tegmark in this blog post)


Felsenstein: Is Dembski’s theology of information central to his argument about evolution?
No, because he’s got to end up arguing that, for the laws of physics to be the way they are, requires some active Design. But once the laws of physics are admitted, how they got that way is just not part of any argument about evolution. Biologists will certainly decide not to waste time on the issue and to leave it to cosmologists.

My Comment: Yes, the given burden of information that evolution requires, if physics is accepted as the depository of that information, is more than just biology. But this just moves the problem on! As Pauk Nelson has said "Filling one hole by digging another!".

Final Comments and Reservations.
I don’t want to fall out with either Dembski or Felsenstein; both of them earn my respect; tough luck that they inhabit respective sub-cultures that have come to loath one another. Felsenstein might be right about the laws of physics providing the up-front information needed to define the fitness landscape; after all, he is a biologist and in what is probably the computationally irreducible world of natural history no amount of analytical reflection is likely to compensate for hands on biological and paleontological experience. Someone like Felsenstein will have a good feel for natural history and his practical knowledge will (and perhaps should) trump theoretically reflected opinion (But then perhaps I ought to mention someone like biologist Cornelius Hunter of the North American ID community!)

But allow me a little doubt about Felsenstein’s convictions. Mere continuity of the fitness landscape is not enough; continuity doesn’t guarantee two further essential mathematical features that are needed to get classical evolution to work: I call them connectedness and linkage. If the landscape at a fitness peak plunges continuously into unfitness on all sides evolution will not go any further than the peak; If the fitness peaks are isolated islands surrounded by unfitness then evolution will not go far. What are required in the landscape are not peaks of stability but connected ridges of stability that provides pathways for diffusional migration, a migration that effectively defines evolution in its generalised sense. In fact if OOL is to work there must be a network of connected ridges of stability in fitness space that run all the way from inorganic matter to human beings. But something else on top of this ridging is needed. If the ridges are too thin (that is, if the linkage is too tenuous) then the number of ways an organism can plunge into unfitness (and extinction) will be far too great to give evolution a realistic probability. So, all in all, the question of whether standard evolution is viable could still go either way from a theoretical perspective.  Biologist Cornelius Hunter seems to have an intuition for the huge exponentiating space of possibility evolution has to  traverse, even given our own very restrictive laws of physics:
(See here for context o fthis quote )

And of course these designs are observed by us only because they were the evolutionary winners. They are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. For every winner there are untold myriad losers. The designs that produced some other chemical rather than benzyl acetone. The designs that detected chemicals that the caterpillars don't secret. The designs that didn't couple with the detection system. The designs that produced secretions that had no effect on the caterpillars. The designs that wreaked havoc on the flowering process rather than merely altering the flowering time. And so on, and so forth. The plant must have been a veritable idea factory, churning out all manner of mostly useless Rube Goldberg devices.

I have my doubts that the fitness surface is sufficiently connected and linked to allow classical evolution to work. Also, it seems strange to me that a cosmos where neither purpose nor teleology are thought by some to be meaningful,  we should find the solution to life encoded in the implicit fitness surface from the outset, a surface that in effect provides the front-loaded information for what is tantamount to a linear time “decompression” that reveals life. In response to my doubts my current avenue of probing/speculation can be seen in my Melencolia I series..

We don’t know in advance if physics effectively front loads evolution friendly information in the fitness surface. We certainly don’t know how many suites of physical laws define an evolution friendly fitness surface, so we don’t know the chances of happening upon a physical regime that is evolution friendly. If we were to start from this position of not knowing we would be unable to front load a “life-solution” into the cosmos from the outset. Instead we would have to search for the solution from scratch; trouble, is an ordinary linear time search is simply unable to traverse such a huge exponential space in a realistic time. What we would need is a system with sufficient processing parallelism to match the exponentiating vistas of configuration space. That kind of computational potential is hinted at in quantum mechanics. Quantum physics, I’ll hazard, is constraint, search mechanism and construction set all rolled into one package. In the light of this potential power it seems strange that evolution, as currently conceived, is an entirely (slow) classical process that doesn't exploit Quantum Mechanics 

But to think along these lines one has to entertain the idea that one’s anthropic gut feelings about teleology, purpose and aversion to pointlessness might be a reliable guide after all. To do otherwise is a bit like trying to decode some enciphered text without attempting to make a connection with the culture and thinking of the encoder, thus denying oneself possible access to valuable information. If one can’t make the assumption that we have some a priori anthropic insight into the nature of the cosmos there is no reason to think one is going to go anywhere very fast; what intellectual hope is there of making sense of insentient meaninglessness? The temptations of nihilism rear their ugly heads if a meaningless pointless cosmos is our starting point. However, one might have a chance of decoding and untangling the nature of nature if there is an anthropic agenda behind it. Atheists, of course, would eschew any entertainment of anthropic ideas. Fair enough; I’m not expecting anyone to follow suit – they are more than welcome to try and press ahead with their world view and see where it takes them.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Dembski and Felsenstein: Part I



In the above video William Dembski gives us a digest of his mathematical work and what it means for evolution. It attracts the notice of Joe Felsenstein on Panda’s thumb and also PZ Myers who quotes Felsenstein. Myers seems too jaded and tired to engage the video properly and so hands the issue over to Felsenstein after declaring Dembski as “still wrong”.

Felsentein does give Dembski a fair hearing and that’s what Dembski deserves: In Dembski we are not taking about the abrasive and judgmental fundamentalist lunatic fringe: In my view Dembski has done some worthy work, work that deserves proper scrutiny. Moreover, Dembski, to me at least, always comes over as a nice reasonable guy who is not going to threaten anyone with divine judgment if they don’t agree with him. Unfortunately the creation question has been blighted by fundamentalist crank science and the resultant polarisation hasn’t helped the cause of evangelical moderates like Dembski.  

Between them Dembski and Felsenstein both provide some great food for thought, a veritable intellectual feast in fact. However, my overall assessment of the situation is that Dembski and Felsenstein are talking past one another: In the final analysis Dembski is talking about mathematical generalities and Felsentein more about biological specifics (as one might expect from, respectively, a mathematician and biologist). As I have said before on this blog, Dembski’s mathematical points are irrefutable, but they are very general and they don’t directly address the specifics raised by Felsenstein. But the social backdrop is that the Intelligent Design vs. atheism debate has set up such a strong polarizing field that even someone like Dembski will be demonized.

Dembki’s Video:
Twenty seven minutes into the video Dembski throws up a quote by Stuart Kaufamnn which includes the following statement:

Where did those well-wrought fitness landscapes come from such that evolution manages to produce the fancy stuff around us? No one knows.

Yes, the giveness of the requisite fitness landscape is a critical and enigmatic feature of evolution: The fitness landscape is the equivalent of my connected sets of stable organisms : Viz: for evolution to work the class of stable structures must form a continuously connected set in configuration space…. but not only that, the number of ways these structures can be slightly altered must be limited enough for the jump to the next stable structure to not be swamped by the number of possible changes that destabilize the structure. Taken together these two conditions of connectedness and limited “modification linkage", allow conventional evolution to diffuse through the class of organic structures.* Let me just say in advance that over the course of several years I have toyed with the idea of the kind of fitness landscape that would facilitate evolution, but I now doubt that the right landscape has a mathematical existence – I will say more about this in due time.

It is the rightness of the fitness landscape that is the essential abstract structure that would have to guide the standard evolutionary search. If we are to arrive at a working version of evolution we must first get this structure right; or as Dembski expresses in computational terms we must search for the search. The self-maintaining structures of biology are extremely rare in the huge space of absolute possibility; to locate these structures in relatively few algorithmic steps implies an algorithmic starting point that is itself of an extreme rarity (and by implication, also of extreme improbability); in terms of absolute possibilities the smooth fitness landscapes that would render evolution viable are themselves extremely rare beasts. On this point Dembski is irrefutable; in fact he quotes Paul Nelson who says that evolutionary theory fills one hole by digging another (31:20). Moreover, as Dembski hints, people seem unable to see this enigmatic entity of the fitness landscape. This is probably because it is an abstract object which exists in mathematical space as a background controlling structure and this is not easily seen or imagined. In as much as the requisite “fitness landscape” is itself a very rare structure Demsbki’s mathematical point about the projection of one seeming improbable outcome onto another is - I say it again -  irrefutable:  (See also here, here  and here)

Dembski doesn't just provide food for thought for evolutionists; he also says something that ought to pique the interest of the North American dualist ID movement. At 32:30 he says this

So many ID arguments look for discontinuity in the evolutionary process (as opposed to the chance of finding a result given the method of search )…[they] look for evidence for discontinuity.
But I’m going to give you evolution and common ancestry but what I’m interested in is the probability of success using this method of search

At this stage Dembski is neither attacking evolution nor common ancestry; rather he is concerned with the initial “information” required to get standard evolution to work as a process. In the above quote Dembski contrasts his approach with the dualist IDists who are enthralled by the thought of “magical” looking discontinuities existing in natural history. However, I’m not sure whether Dembski is just putting on his evolutionary cap for the sake of the argument and neither am I sure just how far he might support evolution as a process that has been “front loaded” with the requisite fitness landscape information in order for it to work (See also this blog post of mine where I comment on another video in which Dembksi says something very similar). But I’m gratified that Dembski has implied that his work does not necessarily support those “God of the gaps” ID arguments which  very much hang on discontinuities in natural history. Dembski may or may not support evolution but what he has done is that he has made clear just how mathematically “front loaded” the cosmos must be for evolution to work.

By way of conclusion  (at 49:20 and 50:18) Dembski says this:

Darwinian search works because its carefully fine-tuned to work …… Darwinism is the teleological search for teleological  systems.


My comments, reservations and trial conclusions
Dembski’s theorems have their origins in a fact that is agreeably intuitive; namely, that self-maintaining, self-replicating structures as a class form a negligibly minute proportion of the huge space of possibility. When these kinds of proportions are expressed in terms of ratios (e.g. such as the size of the class of organic configurations to the total mathematically possible configurations or the organic class to the physically constrained possibilities) then this will give us probabilities. In fact Dembski’s Conservation of Information (CoI), a theorem that he introduces in his video in probabilistic terms, can be illustrated with a poor man’s mathematically impressionistic proof as follows (But see Dembski for the McCoy version):

Let T be the total conceivable possibilities available to configuration space and L be the number of organic life forms in that space. Thus, assuming equal-a-priori probabilities then the probability of life given T is,

p = Prob (Life | T) =  L/T

Now let us assume that a physical constraint is applied to the space of possibility which reduces the physical possibilities down to C and that we know living structures are a subset in C.  The probability of finding life given this constraint then becomes

q = Prob (Life | Constraint) = L/C

Let us make the not unreasonable assumption that the probability of finding the constraint class is proportional to its size C given T. It follows then:

Prob (Constraint | T) = C/T  = L/T  x C/L   = p/q

That is, the probability of finding the constraint class is equal to the ratio of p/q. This is not a rigorous proof**  by any means but it conveys the idea of CoI in broad brush terms: To increase the probability of finding life to the value q ( > p) we first need to find the constraint. But the above equation tells us that the probability of finding this constraint is proportional to the extremely small value of p. Therefore if we want a large value of q then the probability of finding the constraint is going to be very small; in short the low probability of finding what we want (i.e. life) cannot be removed. According to Dembski the major computational problem of finding life must be effectively solved before we do any “evolving”.

Of course, in the real world the laws of physics provide the kind of constraint which reduces the search space, but it is not at all clear whether or not these laws imply a sufficiently connected and low linkage set of self-sustaining structures to give standard evolution a realistic chance of finding life. If the known laws of physics do facilitate standard evolution then the cosmos has been effectively “front loaded” with information in the form of the right physical regime. At one time I favored this possibility but now I have my doubts – my reasons are to do with the nature of quantum mechanics; it is both a constraint and potentially a way of making huge numbers of computational steps; if this potential is used then there is no need to front load the search with q (See my Melencoli I series). 


Under quantum circumstances information, in the way Dembski has presented it, is not necessarily conserved. Conservation of Information only applies to small space, short time algorithmics where we envisage computation very much limited by Dembski’s computational upper bound. Keeping within that bound we find that either the result sought for is highly improbable or the search used to find it successfully is improbable; improbability ( = information) swaps from one to the other and we can’t get rid of it; it almost seems to have a conserved property, hence Dembski's CoI. But if that upper bound is taken away it’s a bit like saying that the Cosmos has unlimited energy available: If the processing potential of Quantum Mechanics is accessible, then the upper bound is removed: Without that upper bound huge computational resources turn improbabilities into high probabilities and information seems to just come out of the “vacuum” so to speak. (My pro tem conclusion is that the cosmos is immanent intelligence in action, an intelligence we see only at the low level, much like looking at the neurons of the human brain.)

In the next part of this series I will look at Joe Felsenstein’s reaction to Dembski. I’m not giving away much in saying that his basic argument is that the laws of physics do provide sufficient front loading to make the search for life a realistic option. In my view he is both right and wrong; right because, yes, the laws of physics flow out of quantum mechanics and it is quantum mechanics that does the trick. But he is wrong in that physics hasn't been front loaded in the way Dembski’s work suggests. Rather, if quantum mechanics is the search engine it has such huge processing potential that a smooth fitness landscape would not needed to be front loaded into the cosmos. However, I’m not pushing this as a likely idea, but rather as an avenue to be explored; and yes it could be a dead end.

Footnotes
* Complicating this concept of the fitness landscape is the fact that an organic regime becomes a very important part of that landscape itself and therefore a feedback occurs which will mean that evolution is non-linear.

** This proof is based on the assumption that the cases in favour of life are a subset of the search cases. However, in general the two could simply intersect in which case we find:
Prob (Constraint | T)  < p/q

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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Right Wing Cranks.

Seeing the world in black and white

This latest post adds to my collection of hysterical email shots I sometimes receive from the ultra-right-wing magazine “Townhall”. Some of those emails in my collection can be seen here:

The latest email I publish below. As will be seen the usual melodrama, hyperbole and anti-superlatives are laid on in buckets, in this case by the aptly named Michael Savage. So, what is their beef this time: “Horrific predictions for 2012”?  The end of the Mayan calendar apocalypse? The one world government secret agenda?  Obama’s war on religion?  No, this time it’s the coming civil with Obama as “the driving force behind it”!

Now, in normal politics one might accuse the opposition of incompetence, ignorance, sleaze, pride and, if you have the evidence, even of corruption; after all, politicians are all epistemically challenged sinners like the rest of us. But no, the extreme right wing like to explain it all in terms of scheming evil intelligences who are intent on bringing ruin, and apocalypse - perhaps they are even in league with Satan himself! To me this is lunacy; in fact, even worse than that; it's the William Tapley zone. It’s fanciful, demented, cranky and insane; the world doesn't work in this baroque way except in the human imagination.

Savage is an interesting case; he claims not to be particularly religious but his message has the touch and feel of the apocalyptic. His vehement expressed belief in a society divided between the dark forces of intentional Machiavellian subversion (all on the left, of course) and those who stand for the plain truth (on the ultra-right, of course) has a very fundamentalist flavor*. This suggests to me that “fundamentalism” is part of a more general psychological complex than just religion. But religion or not, fundamentalism of all shades has the finger prints of its epistemically and morally flawed human origins all over it, Given that the generalized fundamentalists see the world through such a paranoiac vision, it is no surprise that  when they are religious theirs is the God of judgement and wrath.

There is a section of the population for whom this extreme apocalyptic thinking has a deep appeal; they much prefer to see their woes, problems and angst caused by the machinations of a malign intelligentsia, the schemes of all powerful conspirators, world take-over attempts, demons, and Satan. I suppose it has the advantage of giving some dignity, meaning and significance to their struggles, as opposed to seeing those struggles apparently trivialized by their being the outcome of rather ordinary, rather squalid human sins…that and blockheaded stupidity!

Relevant Link: Kennedy assassination: "Lone nut" or dark conspiracy?
http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/the-first-conspiracy-theory-kennedy.html

Footnote:
* Extreme Marxist "sects" invert this, of course. There are some points in common with ultra-left Marxism and the polarized fundamentalist world view. Viz: the polarized workers vs. owners divide with the owner class forming an undercurrent of conspiracy that supports ideas that obscure the existence of the class conflict. These Marxists also have a kind of "end time" eschatology involving judgment "when The Revolution comes",


A Wake-Up Call


Michael Savage, a prolific New York Times bestselling author and popular radio talk show host is issuing a severe warning to Americans: There is a civil war brewing in our country. There is a great divide growing at an alarming rate between the ideologies of the left and the right. And there is something even more sinister about it - Obama is the driving force behind it.

A year ago, many would find it hard to believe a President would intentionally ruin a country. But in light of his actions - it is apparent how tirelessly he is working to divide our country. There are those who remain committed to freedom and courage of conviction. They stand committed to our nation's founding principals and are tired of people who seek to undermine the values that established our great country. And then there are those who will stop at nothing to destroy all the principals upon which our country was founded. The rift between the left and the right may be irreparable. Savage wants to warn Americans that we have people in our country who are enemies of our way of life. There is a difficult path ahead, but we must act now in order to save our country.



Citing recent events in America, Savage explains “as I see it, the forces of the left are attempting nothing less than a socialist takeover of the world economy and global politics. ” Savage took it one step further explaining "this is the most divisive administration...Could this be the most racist administration in American history?"

He also asks questions including: Why have so many of our top military commanders been summarily pushed aside, after years of brave service? How is Obama's feckless foreign policy not just weakening us in the world, but actually endangering our security at home as well? Savage continues on explaining how the Ebola crisis is the latest result of Obama's open-borders policy.

According to Savage, if Obama is allowed to continue our country will not survive. Order your copy today to find out what moves the lefties are making to deceptively destroy our country. We must act now if we are going to save the country we love! 


**********

Townhall Magazine is exclusively in print and coverage features investigative journalism, in-depth reporting, heavily researched analysis, interviews with the heavy hitters and powerful exposes--all exclusive to the magazine.

No other magazine offers you this brilliant combination of smart, conservative, in-depth reporting and opinion that truly reflects your values.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Wrong Scent

Well done Brian (Cox): You are helping to put people off the scent. You really don't want to follow this one!

This news item on UD by Denise O’Leary is worth mentioning: She quotes a BBC web site article where Brian Cox was quoted:

“That there’s an infinite number of universes sounds more complicated than there being one,” Prof Cox told the programme.
“But actually, it’s a simpler version of quantum mechanics. It’s quantum mechanics without wave function collapse… the idea that by observing something you force a system to make a choice.”*1
Accepting the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics means also having to accept that things can exist in several states at the same time.
But this leads to a another question: Why do we perceive only one world, not many?

I think I probably would go along with the sentiment of Denise’s comments here: If we are allowed to play the game in terms of what theoretical concepts make sense*2, then I have to say that for me the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory makes very little sense indeed, and that’s because for me the cosmos is starting to look like a declarative programmer's paradise  (See also: http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/melencolia-i-part-3-sharpening-focus.html )

The question about why we don’t see those many worlds is very telling: In the many worlds view ancillary devices have to be added to explain why the macro world doesn't manifest quantum ambiguities; after all, chaos will insure that these ambiguities get magnified up to macro level. Moreover, decoherence ideas don’t fit very well with those quantum experiments where there is a null result but where the implication is that the quantum state vector still jumps in a discontinuous way and in a way that implies non-locality.
The article linked to by Denise finishes with this statement:

 Brian Cox supports the many worlds interpretation and, he believes, more and more physicists are now subscribing to this view.

Suits me! That should keep them off the scent and off my heels for a bit! I need some of space. In any case I’m a crank – who’d want to follow a crank, eh? So please don’t follow me, I've probably picked up the scent of a skunk.

Footnotes:
*1 Cox's sentiment of "simplification" of choice, if taken to its uttermost, leads to Max Tegmark's  Mathematical Universe where every mathematically coherent alternative has been selected for reification, thus doing away with any hint that there is some enigmatic agency out there actually making a very particular and special selection from platonic space.... although there is one choice left; namely, the choice between everything and nothing; Max doesn't tell us why everything rather than nothing has been choosen! See here: http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/contingency-and-grand-logical-hiatus.html
*2 In the final analysis “making sense of evidence” is all theoretical narratives can do  – this is because evidence is never inductive, but rather abductive .



Once upon a time in the Web 
A story from of Wild Web


Smells like a skunk: Quantum Theory looks a bit mad.


Brian Cox isn't Clint Eastwood so there's no competition in town.

Closing in on our wanted man.

But we haven't nailed him yet!

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