Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mangling Science Part 5: Two Kinds of Science?.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is 20 odd million light years away. With Jason Lisle’s AiG published ASC model in mind does its study classify as observational science in the present or historical science? Or does it really matter? Don't ask Ken Ham; there is little chance that this fundamentalist will understand that in science the time coordinate doesn't have a fundamental significance; scientific epistemology is an attempt to get data samples about logical structures for which time may be thought of as just one coordinate.

 Below I have published a blog post by Fundamentalist Ken Ham where once again he tries to explain to himself why he is not being anti-science in rejecting historical science. It all swings on Ham attempting to maintain that there is a sharp distinction between "observational" (sic) and historical science. As I have said before in this series this distinction can’t be made because all science is at once both historical and observational. This is not to say, however, that all science is on an equal footing in terms of its observational rigor. The objects science deals with vary in their logical distance from observational protocols and the number of observational samples gathered supporting these quasi-conjectured objects. If Ham had his head screwed on properly he would simply maintain that some scientific objects have a more tenuous basis in accepted observational protocols than others. What the scientifically naive Ham is trying to prove to himself is that there is a fundamental difference in quality between "observational" and historical sciences that provides him with a pretext for writing off historical science as “unobservable”. This is all very typical of the fundamentalist mentality which tends to think in black and white dichotomies anyway. I caught Ham trying a similar trick with his “mature” creation theory where he has a need to decide what objects are permitted to show evidence of a bogus history and those that aren't – that is, the YEC needs to try and decide when and when not to apply the omphalos hypothesis. (See my Beyond our Ken series – links at the end of this post).

Around the Twist World with Ken Ham

ShareThis Published on December 5, 2014 in Current Issues in the World.

I recently saw something in Discovery News that perfectly highlights the difference between observational and historical science.

Common Tenrec (Tenrec ecaudatus). By John Mather (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A study has shown that tenrecs, hedgehog-looking creatures, have an amazing ability to hibernate (observational science) so the scientists inferred that the tenrecs must have hibernated through the dinosaur extinction (historical science)! As I’ve said many times previously, there are two different kinds of science. Observational science deals with the present and is observable, repeatable, and testable. It’s what produces our technology and our medical innovations. Creationists and evolutionists can both agree on this kind of science. Now, historical science deals with the past. It is not testable, repeatable or observable. What you think about historical science is based on your starting point. Do you begin with God’s Word or man’s ideas? Well, I would like to show you how to recognize the difference between these kinds of sciences by looking at this news item that is reporting a scientific study.

My Comment: Notice straight away that this science dunce is imposing a dichotomy on the situation. He thinks that “observational science deals with the present and is observable, repeatable, and testable” whereas “….historical science deals with the past. It is not testable, repeatable or observable”.  It seems well beyond Ken Ham’s mentality to make the fine distinctions needed to understand that in an absolute sense nothing is observable and repeatable and everything is subject to “your starting point”.  Even when testing the present tense continuous objects of physics we can never exactly reproduce test conditions and the test is therefore subject to one’s starting point in terms of fundamental assumptions about the rationality, uniformity and epistemic integrity of nature. Moreover, given that observational protocols quickly pass into history Ken’s so-called “observational science” is bound up with history.  And yet in a relative sense a wide class of objects, including historical objects, are all subject to observation and repeatable tests in as much as, for example, we can go back to check and reinterpret documents and fossils and perhaps even find new documents and fossils. In fact as a rule all science depends on us interpreting signals sent to us from the past; documents and fossils are an example of such signals.

I’d agree with Ken that a lot depends on one’s a priori world view. E.g. one’s view about very fundamental and foundational stuff like whether or not one considers the world to be rational, readable and to have epistemic integrity. But as a hardened heretic hunting fundamentalist Ham ups-the-ante by raising his far less fundamental opinions about Biblical interpretation to the level of fundamental and unreviewable authority. It is on this basis that Ham does his heresy testing: “Do you begin with God’s Word or man’s ideas?” He hasn’t spotted the abstraction that “God’s Word” is a signal and as such must be interpreted.

Observational Science
According to Discovery News, radio transmitters with body temperature loggers were strapped onto 15 tenrecs for a scientific study on hibernation. The tenrecs were then released back into the wilds of Madagascar. The scientists involved learned some interesting things about tenrec hibernation and body temperature. For example, one of the male tenrecs hibernated for nine months with no ill side effects! According to the news report, the information about hibernation from this study, as well as a similar one being done in the United States, “could one day allow researchers to better mitigate the effects of induced medical comas and the ‘hypogravity and/or inactivity’ that would occur during a lengthy trip through space.”
Now, everything from the study so far is observational science based on directly observable, testable, repeatable studies. A creationist or an evolutionist could have done the study and obtained the same data, and either scientist could apply the data to medicine or space travel. But the study then does a huge leap from observational evidence to the unobserved past. They switch from observational science to historical science. And it’s this switch that people need to learn to recognize, as evolutionists do the same sort of switch when talking about origins!
My Comment: This is a case where the tenrec study provided a replete set of data samples about the objects under scrutiny. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is about “direct observation” as Ham would have it. Scientists clearly did not directly observe tenrecs but were engaged in the interpretation of signals sent by them. And no, fundamentalists don’t necessarily agree about “observational” science even with other fundamentalists: Viz: Ken Ham would certainly disagree with fundamentalist Gerardus Bouw about the “observational” science that leads Bouw to propound geocentric theories. And in turn Bouw would disagree with the late fundamentalist Charles K Johnson whose science of “appearances” lead him to propound flat Earth theories. At the most abstracted level there is only one kind of science: Viz: the observed signal and the interpretation of the text it is sending us.
The past is observable in as much as it sends us signals that ultimately result in observational protocols; as does everything else. True, we may not have as many signals as we like returning to us and they may have been a long time in the travelling, but they are observations none the less. Ken Ham just doesn’t seem able to make this theoretical abstraction about signals being the medium of all observation. It is ironic that it was his AiG organization that first published Jason Lisle’s ASC model of the cosmos, a model that so blatantly raises questions about the nature of signaling and by implication just what is “the present” and what is “the past”! But this sort of stuff is well beyond our Ken not to mention his audience of admiring and less than critical followers.

Historical Science
Again, the observational evidence showed that tenrecs have an amazing ability to hibernate (observational science). But the scientists then took the evidence beyond observational science to infer that tenrecs must have hibernated through the dinosaur extinction (supposedly millions of years ago) and that’s how mammals survived to evolve into other mammal species (historical science). Supposedly, dinosaurs “‘intensely suppressed, dominated and bullied’ early mammals, which ‘could never get big in size because then they would not have been able to hide effectively during the day.’ This presumed pressure, combined with seasonally limited resources and other factors ‘may have armed modern mammals with the useful capacity to metabolically switch off.’” It is claimed. So, tenrec ancestors apparently evolved the ability to hibernate for long periods of time because of competition with dinosaurs. And they just happened to be lucky enough to hibernate at the right time to avoid extinction. Now, this is all historical science, and creationists and evolutionists would (quite obviously) disagree here. This jump from the observable hibernation periods of tenrecs to the unobservable supposed dinosaur extinction event is based, not on observational evidence, but on imagination. The study itself shows nothing about supposed tenrec ancestors and the supposed dinosaur age millions of years ago!
Interestingly enough, according to the lead author of the study, “the common tenrec [is] a living Cretaceous fossil, a living critter that has retained the physiological characteristics of our common placental ancestor.” In other words, tenrecs basically haven’t changed since their appearance in the fossil record. The evolution isn’t in the fossils or the tenrecs—it’s in the imaginations of scientists!
My Comment: No!... this evolutionary hypothesis about tenrecs is not in principle beyond observational science because the past sends us signals such as historical documents, research papers, archaeology, fossils, light rays etc. But what I would concede is that in this case the signals are highly attenuated, the observational protocols few and far between and perhaps the gaps filled in with a fair amount of speculation. You see, the issue is not to do with the past per se, but with the comprehensiveness of the sample of observational protocols and their logical distance in terms of adjustable variables from the putative objects they allegedly reveal. This is not an issue of a fundamental distinction in science, but a question of degree of observational support for a hypothesis; true, we can sometimes be tempted to join very few dots with very free format speculation and elaboration.
But Ham being a fundamentalist thinks habitually in dichotomies and not in degrees. Ham wants to portray himself as science friendly and give a pretext based on his dichotomized thinking to justify to himself  his science hostility and scientific ineptitude. He cannot accept that there is a uniformity of principle at stake with all science, historical and otherwise; namely, the interpretation of the signals sent to us from the cosmos near and far. It is simply beyond the mentality of this man to understand the paradox that relatively speaking just about everything is observational and repeatable and yet in an absolute sense nothing is observational and repeatable!


What Does the Bible Say?
Now, the Bible’s account of origins would mean the tenrec kind was created on Day 6, to reproduce after their kind. Tenrecs produce tenrecs (interestingly enough, in nature we see tenrecs producing only tenrecs)! God created animals to fill the earth, so He placed in their DNA the information they would need to produce the wide variety within a kind that we see today so that they would be able to survive as the environment changes. The incredible variety of tenrec species displays God’s care and wisdom in equipping them with the information they needed to fill many niches in the different environments found on Madagascar and in Africa. One of these features is the ability of some tenrec species to hibernate for long periods of time. So this incredible ability to hibernate is just one more example of God’s care for His creatures.
As you read through science news, I encourage you to be discerning, part of which involves learning how to separate observational science from historical science.
In the debate with Bill Nye, I took time to explain the difference between historical and observational science, as once people understand this, they recognize that molecules-to-man evolution is a belief system.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
My Comment: I suspect that Ken’s comments about “Information” are based on the North American taste for a God-of-Gaps theology of evolution. It would simply be too much to expect Ham to attempt to think round these categories to advanced ideas about information generation, so I can’t be too hard on him here. Notice, however, that his main agenda is to impose on his followers his fundamentalist views about a fundamental division in science based on a bogus distinction between observational and historical science. However, I would agree that any signal interpretation is influenced and perhaps even based on a priori belief systems – it’s just that some belief systems, for a variety of socio-psychological reasons, are far more elaborated, baroque, entrenched, authoritarian and unreviewable than others; know what I mean?
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying that Ken Ham will be less of an embarrassment to Christians.

Relevant Links
Mangling Science Series

Beyond Our Ken Series

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A note on the limitations of Dembski’s Conservation of Information

"Conservation of Information" ideas may appeal to "God of the Gaps" thinkers..

Although Intelligent Design Guru William Dembski’s work on the Conservation of Information is, I believe,  entirely correct, the definition of “information” he uses results in his work failing to capture vital aspects of what we would informally associate with the term “information”. The definition of information as used by Dembski can be found in this web site article:
Criticisms I would make of the applicability of Dembski’s ideas are:

ONE: Dembski uses the concept of information as  “– log p”, where p is the probability of an event. From this definition it follows that improbability entails high information. But this measure of information, although fine for the event-centric world of communication is not uniquely sensitive to the quantity of information implicit in a static configuration. The value “p” could be the probability of a simple single event or it could be the product of a complex configuration of independent events such that p = P1 x P2 x P3Pi ….etc. where Pi is the probability of the ith event; in short “high information” in Dembski’s sense doesn't necessarily entail a complex configuration. One way of quantifying the complex information in a configuration is to define it as the shortest compressed string that will describe the configuration in question. Wiki has a similar criticism of Dembski’s use of the term “information”: See here:

TWO: Probability is a function of our level of knowledge and therefore probability changes with knowledge; e.g. if we have perfect knowledge about a complex configuration this entails a configuration probability of 1; that is, a known configuration has a probability of 1 therefore no information. This conclusion makes sense if we are thinking about communication, that is about receiving and registering signals; in this context the reason why a known configuration no longer contains information is because once it is known it is no longer informative. But if this signal oriented concept of information is pressed into the cause of measuring configurational information it tempts some silly conclusions: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that given the size of the visible cosmos along with its constraining physical regime, the probability of life being generated is nearly 1. This quasi determinism implies that life contains next to no information as, of course, a probability of 1 entails zero information. I’ve actually seen an argument of this type used on ID website Uncommon Descent (I wish I had stored the link!). It went something like this:
 “Necessity (=The laws of physics) could not have deteministically generated life because that entails a result with a probability of 1 and therefore zero information. Life contains lots of information, therefore it could not have been generated by necessity!”. 
This bogus argument is not only using an inappropriate measure of information but is also based on dichotomizing “chance and necessity”, another of the false dichotomies habitually used by the de-facto ID movement. (Although this false dichotomy is another a story)

THREE: If for the sake of argument we assume the existence of a sufficiently large super-verse where every conceivable possibility is realized then the communication based concept of information that Dembski is using once again returns a counter intuitive conclusion; Viz, that life has no information because in the superverse Prob(Life somewhere) = 1.

FOUR: In his work Dembski assumes the principle of equal a priori probabilities amongst possibilities for which there is no known reason why any of those possibilities should be preferred. Given that the number of cases favouring life in platonic space is an extremely tiny proportion of all that is possible it follows that the probability of life, p, is very small and therefore life is information packed. So far, so good, I wouldn’t quibble with that. However, I’m currently working on a speculative theory that posits huge (expanding) parallel computational resources as a means of finding living structures: In a parallel scenario where there are multiple trials in parallel, say m parallel trials, then depending on algorithmic efficiency, it is conceivable that the probability of life could be as great as m x p. If m, as I eventually intend to propose, expands rapidly with time, then it follows that the probability of life also changes rapidly with time; ergo, under these conditions “information” as the de-facto ID community habitually understand the term is not conserved.* Moreover, if information is defined in terms of configurational complexity we find that this can be both created and destroyed and therefore it too is not conserved.

Let me repeat again that none of this is to say that Dembski’s work is wrong: In particular his "signal" concept of information. (although inappropriate) is conserved when computing resources are conserved. However, Dembski's ideas, when one starts to move into alternative radical models of computation, fail to capture some important facets of the situation. Let me just say in finishing that I can’t help but feel that the reason why the concept of “Conservation of Information” has struck a chord with the de-facto ID community is because it sits very well with the “God of the Gaps” concepts that are implicit in the North American ID community. (See my series on ID guru V J Torley).

* Assigning probabilities and “Dembski information” to the computational models themselves is difficult because it is difficult to define classes of favourable  cases in relation to total possible cases in the open ended vistas of platonic space.

Relevant Links:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

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

(Picture from )

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.
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:

* 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:

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.
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.

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

* See: and then search for "Ethell"

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.