Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Intelligent Design Contention: Part 1

The Contention
For some months now I have been reading Sandwalk, the blog of atheist Larry Moran, or as he dubs himself ‘A Skeptical Biochemist’: (He can’t be that skeptical otherwise he would apply his skepticism to atheism and graduate from ‘skeptic’ to ‘doubter’.) One reason for going to his blog was to help me get a handle on the evolution versus Intelligent Design (ID) debate. The ID case hinges on a central issue that I describe in this post.

The ID contention is, in the abstract, this: If we take any complex organized system consisting of a set of mutually harmonized parts that by virtue of that harmony forms a stable system, it seems (and I stress seems) that any small changes in the system severely comprises the stability of that system. If these small changes lead to a break down in stability how could the system have evolved given that evolution is a process requiring that such systems be arrived at by a series of incremental changes?

Complex organized systems of mutually harmonized components are termed ‘Irreducibly Complex’ by ID theorists. The term ‘irreducible’ in this context refers, I assume, to the fact that apparently any attempt to make the system incrementally simpler by say removing or changing a component, results in severe malfunction and in turn this jeopardizes the stability of the system. If the apparent import of this is followed through then it follows that there are no ‘stable exit routes’ by which the system can be simplified without compromising stability. If there are no ‘stable exit routes’ then there are no ‘stable entry routes’ by which an evolutionary process can ‘enter’.

Mathematically expressed:

Stable incremental routes out = stable incremental routes in = ZERO.

In the ID view many biological structures stand in unreachable isolation, surrounded by a barrier of evolutionary 'non-computability'. Having believed they have got to this point ID theorists are then inclined to make a three fold leap in their reasoning: 1) They reason that at least some aspects of complex stable systems of mutually harmonized parts have to be contrived all of piece; that is, in one fell swoop as a fait accompli. 2) That the only agency capable of creating these designs in such a manner requires intelligence as a ‘given’. 3) That this intelligence is to be identified with God.

I get a bad feeling about all this. Once again I suspect that evangelicalism is unrinating up the wrong lamp post. Although the spiritual attitudes of the ID theorists look a lot better than some of the redneck Young Earth Creationists I still feel very uneasy. So much that one is supposed to accept under the umbrella of evangelicalism is often administered with subtle and sometimes not so subtle hints that one is engaged in spiritual compromise if one doesn’t accept what is being offered. I hope that at least ID theory will not become bound up with those who apply spiritual duress to doubters.


Celal Birader said...

If there are no ‘stable exit routes’ then there are no ‘stable entry routes’ by which an evolutionary process can ‘enter’.

I too am a Christian interested in the ID/creationism discussion and have been following the blogs of those who are fundamentally hostile to ID like the chap over at Good Math Bad Math.

Your summary of the ID position looks fair, however, I'm not sure the second part of your statement which I quote above from your post follows on from the first. That would then make the first of 3 leaps you attribute to ID unnecessary.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks very much for the comment Celal. I arrived at the equation “Stable routes in = stable routes out” because I envisaged a kind of “roadway” system in morphospace; if you lay a road to point 'A', then because roads don’t discriminate between traffic directions, a ‘road to point A’ also counts as a ‘road from point A’. Hence 'routes in = routes out'. This seemed a fairly robust assumption, but I welcome any challenges to it, because my proceeding arguments may well depend on its veracity. So if you can tell me why you think this assumption is flawed, please do so as I need to get my founding assumptions right!

Celal Birader said...

Hi Timothy ... What are the implications of your formulation in terms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics ?

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thermodynamics? One thing at a time Celal! I’m not yet at that stage. I regard the whole ID vs. Darwin issue a bit like diffusing a bomb hence the need to proceed carefully and methodically! As you hinted at in your first comment ‘hostility’ seems to be very much part of the scene here! I’ve no intention of getting involved in that, but like bomb disposal the high octane emotions add a bit of excitement to the task – there is that slight risk that someone is going to blow up your face at any moment and that makes the nerves jangle just enough to add that extra dimension of daring to the task!

So, my first stage is to look at the issue of ‘routes’ in morphospace and this starts by considering the enormously large platonic space of all possible material structures. Clearly this space is absolutely enormous and living things are a very small subset in it. Many structures will be sub-viable, (i.e. unstable), but we know there exists a class of stable structures, as the existence of living things demonstrates. Of the class of all possible stable structures it is likely that life as we know it is, yet again, only a small subset.

But if we take the class of all possible stable structures, there is an important question that can be asked: how are these viable structures laid out in relation to one another in ‘morphospace’? Do they form a connected set? That is, by a series of relatively small leapfrogs from one stable structure to the next, is it possible to get from one structure to another that is very different? At this stage no thermodynamic considerations are at issue, as all I am inquiring about is a mathematical property of morphospace – namely, how are the stable structures related to one another?

Now, all that more or less amounts to a brushing away the dirt from the area where I’m going to open the bomb up! Slow progress indeed!

Celal Birader said...

Hi Timothy ... I appreciate your bomb disposal analogy. I see the same kind of attraction.

I was looking into this idea of 'morphospace' a bit. Seems it's something Mr Stephen Jay Gould came up with. The principal message inherent in its orginal formulation, if i have understood it correctly, is the undirectedness of the evolutionary process as Gould understood it. That in itself is problemmatic for me and for many other folk in its dethroning man as the pinnacle of the creation. But leaving that aside for a minute, i don't see that there is much other conceptual or practical benefit to be had by formulation some kind of Cartesian structure like this. Given your background in physics and computer science are you likening this to 'phase space' in some way ?

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks for the comment Celal. It might help to think in terms of a game like Chess. Think of all the possible ways of arranging the pieces on a chessboard. Because chess pieces can only be moved one at a time within a strict regime of rules, then it is clear that a given arrangement of chess pieces will be connected to a subset of other chess arrangements via a set of allowed moves. Thus, the class of all possible arrangements of a chessboard are connected together into a kind of network where the ‘nodes’ of the network are linked by single legitimate moves - actually ‘network’ is a much better term than ‘space’. Likewise, the huge number of possible arrangements of atomic matter are linked together into a vast network where the links are formed from incremental adjustments in atomic arrangements. This is atomic ‘morphospace’ (better: ‘Morpho-net’!). This rather extravagant platonic entity is actually neutral on the ID vs. Darwin issue, as the latter has more to do with the dynamics of the ‘game’ as it were. But as I hope will become clear, ID actually makes implicit use of the ‘morphospace’ concept and effectively makes assertions/assumptions about its structure. Therefore we must stop and ponder this concept.

A particular game of chess will follow a meandering and complex route though the ‘chess network’ and this can be achieved either by making moves at random or by good players doing their stuff. Likewise, it is conceivable that the atomic elements of matter are being shuffled at random or alternatively, according to ID, make giant morphogenic leaps. Let me come clean and admit that although I am a Christian I currently favour the standard evolutionary picture of the dynamics in ‘morphospace’. However, it is possible that I have got something completely wrong.

Celal Birader said...

Hey Timothy thanks for the explanation. I'll be following your blog for more.