Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 6: The Demand for Xplanation

“Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” says Richard Dawkins evolutionary evangelist and atheist extraordinaire. Why has evolution enabled Dawkins to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist? What has changed since Darwin? Whatever this change may be, it is surely ironic that the Intelligent Design theorists seem to agree with Dawkins: they attack the theory evolution at every opportunity, presumably in order to make way for Intelligent Design and undermine evolution’s ability to intellectually fulfill. What is it about evolution that in the minds of atheists and perhaps also in the minds of the ID theorists, supports atheism?

At first sight science seems to be in the business of
explanation rather than mere description, but very early on in my contact with science it became clear to me that theories which purport to explain the state of affairs in our cosmos are not fundamentally different from descriptions. In the process of theorizing a conjectured explanatory ontology is postulated to exist behind the experimental and observational protocols, an ontology like, for example, atoms or planetary orbits. This background ontology is not directly observable and the relevant experimental and observational protocols only constitute a mere sample delivered to our senses from this posited ontology. Science proceeds by describing the patterning of this background, but what makes scientific description (at least in physics) more than just linear descriptive narrative is that the postulated high order of the background ontology will make it amenable to what I call theoretical compaction, a form of data compression. (See Chaitin who is very good on this subject). For example, in mechanics the dynamics of particles can be described with the relatively few descriptive bits embodied in Newton’s laws of motion. On the other hand highly disordered objects, like random sequences, are not subject to theoretical compaction; other than describing them bit-by-bit random sequences, in general*, can only be described statistically. And of course there are other objects out there that are somewhere between the mathematical extremes of high-order and high-disorder like, for example, human brains, whose full description is likely to be a blend of elegant theoretical principles and linear narrative.

Successful description, especially a successful description that brings about a theoretical compaction, can considerably satiate the need for explanation, perhaps because it reduces what otherwise appears to be a profusion of unrelated data down to the manifestation of some relatively simple principles that can be easily held in the mind. This, then, seems to be in part the psychology of ontological satiation that is at the heart of Dawkins intellectual fulfillment over the question of the origin of uncountable species. However, I stress “in part”, because I think it goes much deeper than this.

It is a human instinct that things don’t just happen. (Hence the difficulty in coming to terms with quantum indeterminism). We are inclined to believe that our observational protocols are part of some wider ordered ontology; that is, we are likely to believe our observations are somehow juxtaposed with the elements of a background ontology whose general organisation ‘justifies’ the existence of our observational particulars. If a particular observational item wasn’t as it was then it would disrupt the patterned scheme of the background ontology behind it. Hence, when seen as the outcome of a theorized ontological background our observations no longer seem arbitrary because they are part of a much broader context of order conferring on those observations an inevitability. In the case of evolution each species no longer need to be posited as coming into existence “just like that” in some arbitrary way, for it is now possible to relate (at least tentatively) the appearance of a species to a background history
described by familiar laws and statistics.

If one accepts evolution it is very tempting for one’s curiosity about origins to end there. But our intuition that things don’t “just happen” must ultimately engage the mathematical inevitability that mere patterning, in the final analysis, will also deliver that “just there” feeling. As Hume made clear; whilst the ordered patterning of a set of juxtaposed elements may make them mentally tractable and amenable to theoretical compaction there is no logical guarantee for the continuance of that pattern. Likewise, the logical fabric of evolution may successfully put a conceptual wrapper round biological variety in a way that seems to explain that variety, but inevitably there remains the meta question of what explains the Gestalt of evolution; that is, like any other natural pattern, the moment by moment continuance of the physical patterns claimed to underwrite evolutionary mechanisms have no apparent means of logical support. Once we accept an overall physical pattern as “law” the elements of that pattern impinging upon our senses seem to gain an inevitability; but they are only inevitable given the postulated pattern; for the pattern itself remains an “unexplained”; any further attempt to explain the patterning simply embeds the pattern within a larger pattern and thus begins a regress as explanatory context is embedded within explanatory context, with no end in sight. As the saying goes “It’s tortoises all the way down”

Atheists deride theists who use “God of the Gaps” apologetics, because in the face of an ever encroaching and successful scientific description of things, especially in the area of the evolution of life, these atheists claim that the "gaps" are constantly narrowing. It is ironic that in some ways ID theorists lend credence to the view that the pressure is on for the “God of Gaps”, because the intellectual goal of ID theory seems to be that of showing how evolutionary theory fails to close the gaps in the history of life. For the ID theorist those gaps are thought to be found in the form of amazing discontinuous leaps of biological design, leaps that can only be put down to the intervention of some super intelligence. If the ID theorists are right they are effectively rooting for a God whose occasional “interventions” are manifested by the odd gap or two in the natural order: a leap there, a miracle here, an interruption in the natural pattern there. The irony is that many atheists share this notion of a God who can only be known via interventions: in their opinion there is no God because they see no gaps, they see no leaps, no miraculous interventions, and no strange interruptions in the natural order. This then may be the deep reason why Richard Dawkins finds evolution intellectually fulfilling; for him evolution is a process of biological creation that makes no recourse to the inexplicable gaps that betray the presence of a lurking deity.

But the lesson of Hume’s argument is that an ontology that follows an uninterrupted, regular and simple patterning doesn’t imply logical self-sufficiency; we won’t find Leibnitz sufficient reason in mere mathematical patterning; all we find is data compression. Data compression as we know it is unable to provide us with a deep ontology that addresses the questions of asiety and self explanation. Those who are looking for a deeper rationality and fail to get philosophical satisfaction from atheists who either ignore or wave past profound questions of Aseity may bank their intellectual investments elsewhere; perhaps even looking to theology. Moreover, as theologians point out we don’t necessarily need the design leaps of the ID theorists to find God, because if Hume is right then there is a logical gap at every place and at every moment. Yes, if God exists He may indeed be a “God of the Gaps”, but it seems that He must be everywhere and everywhen, because the gaps are everywhere and everywhen. Theologically speaking God fills the interstices in the logic of our world: “He is not far from each of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27&28) This is what an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God does for a living.

Deism is a philosophy that taps into the intuition that natural patterns which are regular as clockwork need no management and need no support. This intuition traces back to an anthropomorphism; that is, in our human context experience suggests that simple systems with regular behavior tend to “work by themselves” whereas in contrast radically complex behavior is the hallmark of intelligent agency. Ergo, if the universe works like clockwork it needs no maintenance; if it displays no radically complex departures from normalcy then there must be no intelligent agent behind it. Deism is not a logical argument, but an intuition born of fuzzy associative logic learnt from the experience of everyday life. Ironically it seems to be an intuition shared by atheist and ID theorist alike, the only difference being that for atheists deism serves a redundancy notice on the traditional creating intervening Deity, whereas for the ID theorist it is imperative to show that God still has an interventional role, a role evidenced by complex irregular design leaps that are not easily explicable in terms of elementary clockwork.

But in modern science there is another twist to the theology of deism. Given that science is now faced with what appear to be the intrinsically random inputs of Quantum Mechanics, the clockwork universe paradigm is now a thing of the past (but see quantum decoherence). Unless concepts like quantum decoherence or hidden variable theory reinstates determinism, then it really does look as though there are events out there that “just happen”, unjustified by a wider context of order. In order to come to terms with pure happenstance and rescue the theology of deism our physical intuitions kick in again; as a general fuzzy rule our contact with the real world suggest that the presence of disorder and muddle, just like the presence of the opposite of high order, is a sign of lack of interference by intelligence; intelligence tends to create structures that are neither too simple nor too muddled; in a sense intelligence reconfigures matter after its own image of being neither simple nor muddled. It is no surprise then that in the postings of Uncommon Descent one finds frequent affirmation that chance and necessity (that is randomness and physical law) alone cannot create life. But the ID theorist’s all consuming attention on the middle ground between randomness and law is at the expense of questions over the origins of randomness and law. This creates a seeming silence over these origins that can so easily be read as playing into the hands of atheists who take it for granted that the mathematically tractable domains of randomness and law are the hallmarks of the absence of sentience.

If evolution is right then the ID theorists, in their search for incontestable evidence of divine intervention, have been too quick to import their interventional gaps in the form of discontinuous leaps of design, too quick to employ the inscrutable manipulations of a mysterious intelligence. But whether ID theory is right or wrong it appears to be based on the perception of a general idea that is correct; namely that at some point we must engage a logical hiatus and a contingency barrier of fact that seems to hang in mid air, unsupported. That this problem ultimately lies in wait for us is perhaps obscured by the data compression activity of scientific description; science considerably reduces the number of given facts we need to know and understand the universe, thus giving the impression that logical contingency will ultimately be completely expunged. But, of course, a science based on data compression can never compress the kernel of fact to nothing at all.; in the final analysis a core of brute fact must remain. In this respect the ID theorists have perceived a problem that often stultifies the curiosity of the average atheist, the problem of an ulterior “design” mystery waiting for us when all has been said, done and described. Metaphorically then, ID theory points the way to issues of self-explanation and asiety. It alerts us to an exotic ontology that must be lurking in the background of our contingent cosmos, an ontology which creates it, supports it, and sustains it, in ways we may never fully understand.

The dichotomies of automata versus sentience, of mechanism versus mind have a history going to back to at least the early industrial age. My own view is that these dichotomies are not a category distinction based on the respective absence or presence of some vitalistic property, but rather a distinction based on vast differences in complexity. Mechanism and automata are low end phenomena, a product of a relatively simple application of deterministic patterns and (nowadays) straight forward statistically quantifiable stochastic processes, whereas sentience and mind are applications that knit together the right qualities in a vast nexus of complexity. But the 64 trillion dollar question is: what is cosmically primary? Mechanism or Mind? Automata or sentience? Do the primary and fundamental cosmic processes exclude the middle ground between high order and low order and only generate organized complexity after a laboriously long application of “chance and necessity” alone? Why should the fundamental and primary creative processes abhor the vast region between the two extremes of order and disorder?

There seems to be no a-priori answer to the foregoing questions, although, needless to say, convinced answers are supplied to us by the emotionally committed communities of atheists and ID theorists. Those who try to hammer out an atheist world view are likely to draw only on the patterns of chance and necessity, giving little cognizance to the vast regions of unexplored complexity between these extremes. This is because those middle regions are dangerously suggestive of intelligence and sentience, regions blighted in atheist opinion by the intellectual forays of the ID theorists with their vociferous attacks on the science of evolution. The entrenched interests and group identifications of both parties muddy the waters considerably. I am suspicious of getting slanted information from either side – it’s not so much what they tell us that is the problem, but rather what they are not telling us - even worse - what they may not be telling themselves.

See this short article for comment on the relation of evolution and the interventionist God.

* Footnote: In general random sequences can’t be compressed. However a small subset of random sequences can be described by compression under circumstances I have investigated.

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