Sunday, May 31, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 21: Stuff the Politics and Stuff the Crusaders.

This tank gun doesn't go "Bang", it goes "Bong".

This post on Uncommon Descent links to a story about the “endless culture wars over evolution and other volatile topics” that have lead to some vicious political infighting in the state of Texas. It’s an indication of how politicized the ID/evolution debate has become in America. Nearer at home we have this article on Network Norwich & Norfolk where we read about some Norfolk church ministers engaged in an anti-evolution campaign and who intend to send an anti-evolution pack to all British MPs. Bundled with this pack is a copy of the booklet “The Delusion of Evolution”. This campaign is disturbing on at least two counts: One: The ministers are quite sure God is on their side because “We feel that the Lord has placed this campaign on our hearts”. Two: I have grave doubts about the booklet’s editor to competently handle the material in his charge, scientifically, philosophically and theologically, without recourse to religious intimidation and authoritarianism. These people are pressuring us into accepting their self appointed role by claiming that they have a leading of God to free the world from what they emotively label a “delusion”.

But some of us want some space, some time, some quietness and tranquility in which to ponder the problem undisturbed, and not be rushed into premature conclusions by those who, on the one hand, may charge us of courting superstition and scientific heresy and on the other hand by those who apply religious duress in order that we may play second fiddle to a crusading bunch of campaigning incompetents.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 20: Does Evolution Violate the 2nd Law?

All anti-evolutionists that I have heard commenting on the Second Law of Thermodynamics claim that evolution violates this law. This assertion is a slogan that does the rounds in the anti-evolution community and is second only to the cry that information cannot be created. It is likely that both slogans are popular because they give the appearance that rigorous science is being employed to refute evolution. The ID community who host many anti-evolutionists cannot now backtrack on this slogan without considerable loss of face and consequently they put up a stiff fight in its defense. But is the second law really the killer argument against evolution?

My sixth attempt to get this graph right (Click to enlarge)

The above graph represents the increase in disorder of an isolated system of cosmically significant dimension. The disorder is shown as capital Z (Note: I don’t have an “omega” character available just at the moment). The value of Z at time t represents the huge number of possible microscopic combinations that are consistent with a system that has been developing for time t. (Entropy S, by the way, is given by S = k Log Z).

On the same graph I have superimposed another graph for the quantity I call w. This quantity represents the number of microscopic combinations taken from the huge set of combinations enumerated by Z which have the property of containing life. I have shown this graph as a hump because it is likely that at the extremes of order and disorder life is impossible. Hence I conclude that there is a limited time window during which life can exist, a window which I have marked as “Life’s window”.

Now, the evolutionist’s conjecture is that without resort to anything more than the “law and disorder” normalcy of the physical universe, there is a realistic chance of organic structures evolving in the life time of the universe. A necessary condition of this conjecture is that the ratio w/Z is significant enough to ensure that a cosmos containing a sufficient number of these quasi isolated systems will return a realistic chance that life will evolve somewhere. The ID theorists, on the other hand, are effectively telling us that this is nonsense and that w is far too small in relation to Z to return a realistic chance of evolution in spite of the size of the universe. In other words, ID theorists are telling us that the hump I have drawn is of negligible height.

Looking at the graph of Z one thing is clear; the system represented by the graph must be under a very tight physical constraint. This fact is evident from the smooth increase in Z; the system clearly cannot make sudden random leaps to anywhere in the space of possibilities. It follows that the behavior of the system in time is highly constrained, preventing such disordered jumps. In fact the behavior of Z is consistent with a system that makes incremental steps according to some variant of random walk. This ordered dynamic in no way contradicts the second law. It hardly needs be said that the meta-constraints of physical law, which are responsible for this continuity of change, are not subject to the second law, as the latter describes behavior within these constraints.

In the light of the foregoing it is clear that if evolution is to work its success must be encoded in the meta-constraints of physical law; this follows because only the constraints of physical law can sufficiently limit the value of Z in order to raise the ratio w/Z to a magnitude which returns a realistic probability of life evolving. Under these conditions evolution, far from being a violation of the second law, would in fact be an outcome of the second law. This is because the second law is the engine that forces the exploration of system possibilities, thus ensuring evolutionary outcomes receive their share of the probability on offer which, provided w/Z is sufficiently large, will have a significant value. In short, provided w/Z is great enough, the second law does not prevent evolution; in fact it does the very opposite: it facilitates evolution. Evolution is only a violation of the second law if w/Z is too small for the evolution of life to be realistically probable. But without specifying this variable it is wrong to claim that evolution is an in principle violation of the second law.

The general conclusion that under the right conditions the second law must be the engine of evolution rather than a block to evolution, does not mean to say that in practice evolution is possible given the particular set of laws and constants that govern our own cosmos. Those laws and constants may not set a sufficiently high value of w/Z to favour evolution. Moreover, ID theorists Abel and Trevors, in this paper, contest the idea that physical law of any kind can be the logical source of evolution. Abel and Trevors tender two challenges to the notion of some kind of physical law being the putative logical source of evolution:

a) Simple algorithmic laws generate monotonous simplicity like, for example, crystal lattices, and cannot source the complex structures of living things.

b) If simple algorithmic laws determined the structures of life then those laws would prohibit the degrees of freedom needed by life’s information bearing media like DNA, thus rendering those media useless. According to Abel and Trevors, life’s information bearing structures are “dynamically inert” in that their configuration is not determined by physics and chemistry and necessarily so according to them.

Abel and Trevors’ very interesting and probing paper really needs its own post to do it justice, something I hope to do at a future date. However, here are my first reactions to the above two points:

a) Simple to complex mappings are possible. Short algorithms can generate complex configurations, including, to a good approximation, random sequences; although admittedly with respect to the huge number of possible complex objects, the number of algorithmically reducible objects is very small.

b) If basic physics and chemistry implicitly encode the highly complex forms of life, then this encoding must be embodied in a morphospace containing reducibly complex organisms. Thus physics and chemistry is not required to directly generate the appropriately encoded information bearing structures of life, thus limiting their degrees of freedom. Morphospace is a static platonic object with no degrees of freedom and is given once and once only. As such it does not require the degrees of freedom needed for reuse in order to store new information. Therefore it does not need to be, as Abel and Trevors put it, “dynamically inert”.

If evolution has happened then its deeper cause traces back to the complex platonic object of an algorithmically reducible morphospace implicit in the laws of physics and Chemistry. It is this object that guides evolution via its available pathways of reducible complexity. This object, then, must be reducible on two counts: 1. It must be algorithmically reducible and 2. It must be reducibly complex in the sense that it must contain pathways along which the random walk of evolution can diffuse. Such an object is not entirely unprecedented: Human progress has been fed by a “Technological Morphospace” that is also implicit in the laws of physics and chemistry and contains artifacts that are reducibly complex with respect to the given human quantum of intelligence (see part 18 of this series).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 19: Dembski's Active Information Continued...

Characters of the Wild Web Number 11: "Satisfactory Mathematical Proofs required", but Billy the DembskID is still not wanted by the evolutionists.

Continuing my look at Dembski’s “active information”….

Dembski’s paper on active information describes the Avida experiment in evolutionary computation. This experiment evolves the complex XNOR logical function from the random shufflings of elementary NAND gate components. The XNOR function consists of a hierarchy components and sub-components that all ultimately break down to elemental XNOR gates. Avida evolution works because it assigns a high probability of persistence to the components in the component hierarchy of the XNOR function. This creates a system of stratified stability or a kind of ladder up which Avida evolution can climb. As Dembski rightly points out this assignment of persistence probabilities has to be conferred in advance and thus Dembski’s case for “active information” is clinched; if that’s what active information is.

Dembski’s active information works as follows. We imagine a system where a selected outcome or selected range of outcomes has a probability of p of making an appearance. In the sort of system Dembski has in mind p is usually tiny because the class of selected outcomes is very, very small compared to the total number of possible outcomes, and also because the system is assumed to have and even distribution of probability amongst the vast number of possible cases.

We now imagine that we apply some kind of physical constraint on the system that effectively redistributes the distribution of probabilities amongst the possible outcomes so that they are no longer even. I call this a “constraint” because the system no longer has a full range of possibilities open to it; probability is being lost on certain outcomes in favour of others. Given this new distribution of probability, the probability of the selected outcome(s) of interest becomes q and we assume that q is much greater than p. The information value associated with the outcomes before and after the introduction of the constraint is –log(p) and –log(q) respectively. The system has effectively lost information, because we now know more about its outcomes and therefore their ability to provide us with information is lessened. The information has passed from the system to our heads. Thus, the loss of information to the system is –log(p) – [ –log(q)] = log (q/p). This value is called the “active information” by Dembski, and although it entails a loss of information to the system, it represents a corresponding gain in information to us as observers of that system.

In the case of Avida the probability of the XNOR gate evolving is considerably elevated by the assignment of high persistence probabilities to the components and sub components of XNOR. Hence these persistence probabilities have the effect of introducing a constraint that lowers system information in favour of observer information, thus in turn introducing active information. As have I said in the previous posts on Avida these persistence probabilities have been put in by hand, and it is in this respect that the active information has been removed from the system in order to redistribute the probabilities over the possible cases in favour of the evolved outcome.

Some Comments

1. Fitness Functions.
The constraint applied to a system like Avida is crucial; without it Avida would fail to produce an evolutionary result in realistic time. This constraint is often called a “fitness function”. The fitness function is itself an item that is chosen from amongst many possibilities. In his recent paper (which I hope to look at in more detail later) Dembski attempts to quantify this choice by showing that evolution of the Avida type is only highly probably because it depends in turn on the selection of a highly improbable choice of fitness function taken from a huge class of spurious possibilities. I think that Dembski’s analysis is one way of telling us that whatever way we look at it, our universe, although to us humans having apparently enormous space-time resources, is negligible in size when compared to the vast combinatorial space from which the relatively tiny class of complex cybernetic structures are taken. On this matter Dembski is almost certainly right.

2. Mathematical Constraints vs. Fitness Functions
I am not very keen on the term “fitness function”; it smacks too much of a commitment to evolution by selection. It is more general to refer to constraints; a constraint is a mathematical stipulation that redistributes probability over set of possibilities unevenly, and so as I have suggested above probability is lost on certain outcomes in favour of others. Ironically in showing us Avida Dembski is showing us how, given the appropriate constraints, an evolution of sorts can happen. But his main point is that it can’t happen without a constraint, a constraint which sufficiently alters a level distribution of probabilities in order to make the chance of evolution realistic. This point is, I feel, unassailable. But the big question for me is whether such constraints can be embodied in a succinct system of short algorithmic laws rather than be applied by hand as in the case of Avida. In real biological connections this conjectured constraint would imply “reducible complexity”, the opposite of the ID community’s “irreducible complexity”. Reducible complexity is the necessary condition needed to raise the probability of evolution to realistic levels. Evolutionists assume that this constraint is embodied in the basic laws of physics, which of course can be expressed in short algorithmic form. I suspect that ID theorists would much prefer the view that such constraints are inherently mathematically complex and therefore cannot be expressed in short algorithmic form and thus have to be put in directly by an intelligently guided hand. But then why shouldn’t the appropriate short algorithm, if such exist, also be sourced in intelligence?

3. Conservation of Information?
“You can’t create information!” is the moral boosting rallying cry of the ID community. If nothing else this slogan is very evocative. It is a hook for people who have some training in the physical sciences and who will remember the conservation laws of mass and energy. Didn’t these people suspect all along that something was missing from the physical sciences, something to do, perhaps, with that intuitively sensed property of organization? So how appropriate then that this intuitive “something” should be captured in a conservation law, thus completing a triune of conservation laws encompassing mass, energy and information. It’s all very compelling. If you say something like “Evolution breaks the law of conservation of Information” it certainly sounds as though you have just said something rigorous, scientific and unassailable. It helps raise the kudos of ID with the suggestion that a strict scientific law is at its heart. And it’s all backed up with some mathematical theorems by the brilliant William Dembski; difficult to understand perhaps but it must all make sense because he is an academic and a professor. All in all it gives the impression that at last ID supporters have rigorous science on their side and therefore something they can shout from the roof tops and be proud of.

And yet it is all rather ill defined and slippery. As I have indicated in a previous post, Shannon’s notion of information is liable to betray the ID community; it can unexpectedly appear and disappear and things that seem to have a lot of information turn out to have no information, and vice versa. It also fails to be sufficiently expressive of the surprising fact that simple to complex mathematical transformations that can take place: Although the vast majority of complex forms are algorithmically irreducible we know that a limited class, albeit a very limited class, of complex forms can arise from simple conditions and algorithms.

In the light of the foregoing are we to conclude that the ID community’s favourite mantra means anything? Actually I think it does mean something; it expresses the intuition that our universe is wholly contingent; it is the “something” in the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and so the cosmos comes to us with Shannon’s “surprisal” value. This intuition can be placed on a (slightly) firmer footing with a little bit of hand waving as follows: If the universe could be shown to be a logical necessity then one might interpret this as the universe having P(Universe) = 1*. But nothing we know about the universe allows us to conclude P(Universe) = 1. In fact as Dembski’s analysis suggests our particular universe has been taken from an immense class of possibilities, and from a very small class within that great space of possibilities at that. Hence, if it is meaningful to apply probabilities in this extreme outer framing context (a maneuver that is not beyond criticism) we return a P(Universe) with a value a lot less than 1. Hence –log P(U), the information in the universe, is very large and thus the information value of any outcome conditioned on U will be large. The ID community may yet have the last laugh.

Stop Press 3/6/9
William Dembski has recently posted this reaction to some of the criticism he has received regarding his “Conservation of Information”.

*Presumably because of God’s Aseity, only P(God) = 1. But if P(God) = 1 then from Shannon’s definition of information God contains no information! This is yet another surprising result that is a product of ambiguities in the application of probability and its meaning.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 18: Time to Cash in Evolution?

Characters of the Wild Web Number 10: Johnny Cash is currently performing in the UD Saloon

With evolutionary theory I have good days and bad days; in fact I’m having a bad time with evolution at the moment. Some parts of the ID theorist’s negative challenge to evolution are compelling, although I have to say that as a positive replacement to evolution I also get bad days with ID theory. The trouble is, I never seem to get any good days with it. As ID theory effectively employs complex a-priori explanatory objects intermediate between law and disorder (i.e. intelligence), ID theory seems theoretically and epistemologically so utterly intractable. In this sense ID theory reminds me of YEC theory. When I first became a Christian the intimidating suggestion was that YEC theory is a necessary part of the religious package; reject it and imperil one’s salvation and standing before God. But the stickler was that whenever I visited a site of geological interest I could make little sense of it with YEC theory. For example, what sense did YEC theory make of the huge chalk deposits of Alum bay (Isle of Wight), superimposed on which are hundreds of yards thickness of coloured sand sediments and then all these beds tilted to the near vertical? God knows! In fact that was the YEC answer: "God knows and we don’t, so shut it."

However, this post on UD has helped a little to assuage my doubts about evolution. Here William Dembski published a YouTube song performed by Johnny Cash entitled “One bit at a time”. The song tells the story of a Detroit Cadillac assembly line worker who smuggles out a miscellany of components bit by bit in his lunchbox and cobbles together his own botched up Cadillac at home. Artistic license allows Cash to get away with questions like just how does one get an engine block into a lunch box, but Dembski uses the song anyway to lampoon evolution’s bit by bit strategy. The underlying irony is that the car hides an evolutionary metaphor. Development of the automobile truly has been one piece at a time. In fact here is the comment I added to Dembski’s post.

I enjoyed the song but “One piece at a time” may not be so far from the mark.

The wheel, the wheeled chassis, the leaf spring, glass, various electromagnetic devices, pistoned heat engines, bulbs, not to mention agriculture, cities and writing which set the social base for industrialization etc, were all invented/discovered without the car being conceived or envisaged as a goal. This example sets the precedent for a form of reducible complexity at least to an extent which allows limited human intelligence to make advances with a piece meal divide and conquer strategy, and achieve results beyond that available to a single act of inventive foresight and goal formulation.

The artifacts generated by human culture must form islands of innovation in “configuration space” sufficiently close together to enable limited human intelligence and prescience (let’s represent that by “i”) to jump the gaps between these islands of functionality.

Now I would not be so brazen as to suggest that “i” could be reduced to zero and hey presto you have mindless, goalless evolution (I realize there are lots of robust challenges to that, thanks to you excellent folk), but the human technological model does indicate that limited foresight and goal perception can generate functionality beyond itself if some measure of reducible complexity holds in “technological morphospace”. If this were not so then human technological progress, with its ability to create unforeseen, unimaginable artifacts well beyond single quantum flashes of inventive genius will come to a standstill, limited by its ability to see ahead and formulate goals. Such is the Creator’s grace bestowed upon finitely endowed humanity.

Basically the message is this: Technological artifacts are reducibly complex with respect to the quantity “i”. Without that reducible complexity human culture could not develop highly sophisticated artifacts like cars, jet aircraft and computers. Human beings are simply not intelligent enough to invent in one flash of inspiration something as sophisticated as a modern car or a jet fighter. Moreover, there was a time in the past when artifacts, like say computers and the internet etc, couldn’t even be conceived as goals let alone invented, and yet human progress was working toward them in spite of there being no discernible purpose in that progress. Such artifacts were not purposefully being sought for, but the components and sub components of which they are composed were prompted by the next inventive step that could be made within the range of human inventive skills given the technological milieu of the day. What actually drove this “one piece at a time” inventiveness were not long term projects that envisaged these technical marvels as goals but short term goals such as immediate convenience and profit.

So, if humans are not intelligent enough to build the sophisticated machines around us, or even to conceive them as targets, where then is the intelligence and direction that has built these machines? Ultimately it is in the abstract platonic realm of technological morphospace that juxtaposes the objects of innovation in such a way that limited human intelligence can leap the gaps between them; this is basically analogous to the evolutionist’s assumption of reducible complexity.

With these thoughts in mind here is a thought I once posted somewhere else and then decided to delete:

We zoom in on the particulars of the process of evolution in our minds eye and all we see is the 'purposeless' shufflings of fragments of 'dead' stuff. Where’s the mind in that? Where’s intentionality? Where’s the purpose? But don’t expect to see intentionality, intelligence and purpose down at that level, any more than expect to see intentionality down at the neural level if someone zooms in on the human brain with an electron microscope – individual neurons work blindly and know no purpose – to suggest neurons know purpose would be a repeat of the homunculus fallacy. The mystique of intentionality and purpose (if they are to be found at all) are only likely to be found on the level of the whole system.

Clearly some things, such as computers, aircraft and cars, are describable as organizations of interacting of parts. One doesn’t find “computerishness”, “aircraftness” or “carness” in individual components, but in the organization of those components. Perhaps intelligence and purpose should also be thought of in these terms. Whether human intelligence and intelligence in general can ultimately be described as an organization of parts really remains to be seen, but if it is describable in system terms then intelligence and purpose will be found on a system level and not at the component level.

So far I have had no response on UD to my comment. In fact at the time of writing William Dembski’s Johnny Cash post has attracted less that 10 short comments. Perhaps this is no surprise; everyone on UD is taken up with the next post which publicizes PZ Meyers’ provocative challenge to the ID community to come up with evidence of a designed gene. This latter post has attracted in excess of 100 comments. And yet under the very noses of the ID community is an issue that is potentially subversive to their core thesis of irreducible complexity; for just how far can “i” be reduced? In fact if intelligence is descriptively reducible then at the elemental level “i” must be near zero because intelligence and purpose are clearly not going to be found in the elementary components of which intelligence is composed. The irony is that both PZ Meyers and his ID critics may both be unable to see the wood from the trees and perceive the intelligence that might be staring them in the face.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Gun Fighting Partnership

An evolution vs. anti-evolutionist gun battle has erupted over on Network Norwich. James Knight, Network Norwich columnist has been taking a fairly strong and competent pro-evolutionary line. This, unfortunately, has brought out the religious authoritarians witch hunting for heresy. I’ve might have been humming and ahhing about the mechanism of evolution and been a doubting evolutionist of late, but I’ve had to shelve all that and weigh in on James side in defense of freedom of conscience and make a stand against spiritual bullying. These spiritual bullies force you to reach for your gun – they give you no choice.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Who Shot TVR?

Characters of the Wild Web Number 9: Who is he (she?) and what direction did the shot come from? Where’s lawman Larry when you need him?

Somebody has taken a pot shot at my last post, presumably a Wild Web Winchester Wielding sniper (see above). Here’s the comment followed by my reply.

Well it could be worse, we could be dealing with Pandeism, which proposes a God that is a quite logical and scientific entity which engineered a Universe that is truly random, and lacking in any of that unacceptable tinkering....
2:12 PM, May 07, 2009

Thanks very much for an intelligent comment!

Hhmmm… whom have I got here? An atheist who doesn’t like any form of theism or a theist who is not keen on my brand of theism? Probably the latter as my commenter seems to regard Pandeism as even worse than my own theological ramblings; for Pandeism is likely to be slightly more acceptable to an atheist than my own views. Moreover, that sardonic use of “truly random” and “unacceptable tinkering”, could be a sign that I have here an ID supporter; perhaps even an evangelical ID supporter?

Why not declare yourself? I won’t bite. I have plenty of time for ID supporters, because who knows, those one-off “unacceptable tinkerings” may well pop up here and there in the history of the cosmos and supplement the more “acceptable” and epistemologically tractable “tinkerings” of “law and disorder”. Perhaps ID supporters can teach us a thing or two on this score? I know I’m playing a dangerous game here with people like lawman Larry around; he might accuse me of conspiring with those who subvert scientific law and disorder.

But I just don’t take a hard line on such matters. After all, as far as humanity is concerned all those “tinkerings”, whether law and disorder or other, in the final analysis present themselves as patterns, and that really also includes “randomness”; although I much prefer the term “disorder” to “randomness” because it emphasizes “pattern” rather than “process” or “dynamic”. "Process" and "dynamic" are terms that are more likely to get loaded with emotive and metaphysical associations to do with a preconceived primary ontology. Hence we hear expressions like “truly random” – what’s the difference between “random” and “truly random”? The difference is, of course, that the word "truly" signals a difference in an ulterior weltanschauung and beliefs about just what is the primary engine creating (and destroying) the patterns of our cosmos.

As for the nature of God and how he relates to the cosmos: Yes I’m sure like everyone else I’m pretty much groping on this matter and like the rest of humanity bound not to get it quite right. Although I do have some sympathy with the Pandeist efforts to grapple with God, with them the divine personal element largely seems to be missing as you may agree.*

I remember reading an article in an evangelical publication entitled “Heresies Ancient and Modern”. What interested me was that amongst some of the more gross heresies it listed many were actually quite subtle differences from the authors own views on the Trinitarian Godhead,derived from his particular interpretation of Scripture. I was left wondering why he could be so hard on quite subtle departures from his own opinion given the Grace of God and human epistemological difficulties.

As I have said what seems to be missing from much Pandeism is the personal element, and, I would add, that it is also missing even from some forms of evangelicalism. For if God exists and we succeed in making that “Abba Father” (Roms 8:15) connection with Him, then why all the fuss about our approximate and sometimes downright erroneous renditions of the nature of God and how He relates to the cosmos? Isn’t God Gracious? When I was young my connection with my mother was such that I might have thought of her as literally being made of sugar – clearly an erroneous idea, but it didn’t stop her from mothering me, or me using that metaphor to validly convey something about our relationship. No doubt other children would have poured scorn on the idea, especially those who were of the opinion their mothers were made of cotton wool.

We’ve just got to give people the security of allowing them to take risks and allowing them to be wrong and mistaken when working in such difficult and speculative areas. We must get away from some of these high passion and ill tempered debates that are doing a disservice to a perennially difficult subject, a subject that calls for some delicate and risky maneuvering.

I hope to shortly continue my Darwin Bicentenary series by continuing to look at William Dembski’s “active information”.

* Footnote 9/5/9
What I should have made clear is that I make a sharp distinction between Aseity (=God) and the contingent cosmos Aseity creates, sustains and destroys (effectively a distinction between necessity and possibility). I am inclined to eschew supernatural vs. natural dualisms that implicitly posit a three tier system consisting of God, the supernatural world and the natural world, with man a hybrid of the latter. This three tier system is often the de facto scheme found amongst evangelicals and it has some resemblances with preliterate religion (see However, the last thing I would want to do is to try and bully people into my own point of view by suggesting that they must be evil and malign idiots simply because they don’t follow my own opinions in this very speculative area of study. It is quite possible that the pandiests are working their way toward God (see .

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Atheist Atheology

Atheist anti-theology is getting into a tangle over on Sandwalk

Francis Collins' take on theistic evolution is creating a poser for scientific lawman Larry Moran. Is Collins breaking scientific law or not? To this end atheist Larry Moran does a spot of theology, (or perhaps I should call it anti-theology). That Larry Moran is an atheist is immaterial: what I am putting under the spotlight here is his notion of God, a notion he must in some measure have assembled in his mind in order to test it against experience and rule out as an extant ontology. As we shall see, basically his concept of God is that of an interventionist God, a concept closely linked to dualism. But in the apparent absence of a cosmos being nudged and knocked by an interventionist God the conclusion is that either God is making himself scarce, or perhaps simply doesn’t exist. Needless to say Larry believes the latter; who can blame him if God’s only mode of working is that of intervening, because just where are those so called interventions?

Characters of the Wild Web number 8: Is Francis Collins good, bad or ugly? He certainly looks shifty but can lawman Larry bring him to book as a scientific law breaking baddy?

Here are some of Prof Larry’s comments on Collins' views, followed by my own comments.

Larry Moran: Theistic Evolution is a form of creationism that limits God's involvement in the creation event. The chief limitation is that most of God's activities have to be consistent with the facts of evolution.

Comment: Given that there is a very wide spectrum of views running all the way from Big Bang creationism, through Intelligent Design’s second creative dispensation, to Young Earth Creationism, the main function of the term “creationist” is to define a category that lumps together a wide diversity of philosophies into one in order that Larry can identify who the law breakers are. It cleans up reality into clear cut opposing camps, and makes it easier to identify targets to shoot at. You know you are on wrong side of the law if you are labeled a “creationist”, and this readily paves the way for further emotive terms like “superstitious”.

The phrase “limits God’s involvement in the creation” makes sense in the light of Larry’s interventionist notion of God; for between limited “interventions” the cosmos is likely to be conceived as an entity that runs itself under a regime of quasi-autonomous “law and disorder”* normalcy. Law and disorder normalcy allows the interventionist to distinguish between two further contrasting categories, namely that of natural action and supernatural action, the latter transcending what is expected under natural law and disorder. In consequence interventionists have a tendency to gravitate toward a natural vs. supernatural dualism. However, I wouldn’t disagree with Larry’s observation that God’s activity, or whatever deeper ontology underwrites cosmic contingencies, must be consistent with the facts of evolution. (if indeed they are facts)

Larry: Many of us have difficulty understanding how a personal God can be involved in guiding evolution without violating the laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, how is Theistic Evolution/BioLogos compatible with science?

Comment: Why a personal God? Does the opposite of an impersonal God provide any less difficulty in understanding how deity might “guide” evolution? I put it to Larry that some theological complex is lurking under the surface here that explains this nuance, perhaps to do with the problem of pain and suffering, although, of course, this would be strenuously denied. As for “guiding evolution without violating the laws of physics and chemistry” that, I submit, betrays some rather crude theological anthropomorphisms also lurking under the surface. Viz: Humans create highly organized structures like clocks, engines and computers, by imposing an organization on preexisting matter which, given a preexisting regime of natural laws, then run themselves, apart from, perhaps, some “guiding” maintenance to keep them on track. I suggest that it is this kind of anthropomorphic picture that informs Larry’s concept of Divinity; that is, he sees the physical regime running itself according to the patterns of normalcy unless tampered with by deity; but since we don’t see many such tamperings the conclusion is, understandably, that “God probably doesn’t exist so stop worrying and enjoy life”.

It is this “engineering” anthropomorphism that also seems to be at the bottom of deism; the thought is that God is some kind of supernatural engineer who builds mechanisms which he then leaves to run themselves, although perhaps he might pop back from time to time for some guiding maintenance or, if we are lucky, to give us a miracle or two.

If there is a God it is not at all clear that this engineering anthropomorphism works. The ex-nihilo creation (and destruction) of mass-energy and its sustained existence have no known inherent logical necessity and presumably are supported by some deeper logical necessity. If God exists then it is likely that God should be identified with this logical necessity, rather than a part time anthropomorphic creator who merely reorganizes what’s already up and running, occasionally nudging and knocking it, but who is otherwise a divine slouch who loafs off and largely forgets all about it.

Larry: According to him (Francis Collins), Christians believe in creation and a strictly scientific explanation of evolution seems incompatible with this belief.

Comment: Seems incompatible with what belief? Let me submit that what Larry means here is that evolution is incompatible with his preconceived notion of an interventionist God. Standard evolutionary theory uses the known processes of law and disorder to explain the history of life. Using the engineering anthropomorphism the deist is inclined to believe that these processes have a self sufficient autonomy enabling them to continue unless tampered with by the Divine hand. In the absence of evidence of interventions the deist has little choice but to serve a redundancy notice on his part time God or perhaps even come to the conclusion that absence of evidence of interventions is evidence of God’s absence. Hence belief in evolution could be construed as a process, if not incompatible with an interventionist God, not exactly supportive of it.

However, if “creation” is understood not as an interventionist act but rather as the underlying logical necessity that creates and sustains the fundamental constituents of the cosmos and their patterns of behavior, then the interventionist argument against God’s existence collapses. If God is identified with the underlying supporting Aseity sustaining and creating a contingent cosmos, then sheer existence becomes the continuous present tense evidence of God’s reality. It is nonsense to say that this kind of God intervenes any more than it is right to say that Quantum Mechanics intervenes too create the observable world, or that an author intervenes in the book he is writing, or that a computer intervenes in the software it is running.

Larry: Collins makes it clear that theism is not deism and his view of Theistic Evolution/BioLogos is not deistic. So how does he solve the problem?

Comment: What problem? Larry once said that deism is the only view of God that is compatible with science, so let me suggest that what he means here is that if you are not a deist then theism is a problem for science, because it otherwise entails “unscientific” divine interventions. But a deist is essentially an interventionist who has served a redundancy notice on God’s interventional activity and an atheist like Larry is essentially a deist who has served a redundant God with a death certificate. Therefore it follows that Larry Moran is an interventionist who has concluded that the interventionist God doesn’t exist. Ironically I agree with that conclusion.

Larry: If science says that evolution obeys the laws of physics and chemistry then there's no room for an interventionist God without violating those rules. And if your God does that then there's a conflict between science and religion. They are not compatible.

Comment: That really sums up Larry’s view, but let me spell it out: Like I said, Larry’s notion of God is that of an interventionist Deity who is patently not intervening because the law and disorder normalcy of the universe suggests no interventions are taking place. Those interventions are not taking place because, in Larry’s view, God doesn’t exist; no make that “the interventionist God doesn’t exist”.

Larry: What to do? Miller and Collins, and many other theists, opt for a solution where God can intervene at the quantum level without ever being detected. Thus, nature only appears to obey the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry because God is clever enough to disguise his interventions.

Comment: Crafty that – God encoding his interventions by embedding them in randomized patterns thus making them all but undecipherable. With this and the butterfly effect boosting things up to macro level just about anything could be a “supernatural” intervention. This is no doubt what is really worrying atheist Larry. If the dog next door barks, who knows, it might be message from God tripped by some quantum intervention amplified by a chaotic neural state. This leaves us with an ontology that could be classified as “unscientific” because it presents an epistemologically intractable object – the “enciphered” intervention. I have no principled objections to people positing epistemologically intractable ontologies, but they can’t expect them to be classified as science given that methodological decisions about what constitutes science are usually based on epistemological tractability.

However there is a philosophical/definitional problem here: My understanding of the interventionist concept of an intervention is that, based on the anthropomorphic engineering analogy, an intervention entails a departure from the patterned normalcy of the cosmos – a departure from the so called fundamental laws of physics and chemistry (ibid). But since quantum reality appears to be obeying statistical laws its failure to depart from statistical norms could be construed as also a lack of evidence of divine intervention. Why should statistical patterning be any better evidence of interventions than the high order patterns of simple algorithmic laws?

Larry: On the surface it seems to work since, by definition, all of God's interventions and guidance are undetectable. Therefore, there can't be any obvious conflict between the purely modern scientific view of evolution and creationism.
Personally, I don't think you can have your cake and eat it too. Once you start attributing events to God's intervention you are conflicting with a strictly materialistic interpretation of those same events. It doesn't matter whether your God is extremely careful to fool scientists into thinking that evolution is natural. The very act of postulating divine intervention in the natural world is not compatible with the scientific way of knowing.

Comment: “…it seems to work”: Really? Without those so called interventions causing transcendence from normalcy (a normalcy which includes conformity to statistical patterns), can we deem the interventions to have happened? But if we do allow quantum events to be classified as possible interventions where do we stop? Since life is an aggregate of quantum events perhaps anything and everything is an intervention. Moreover, if we allow statistically conforming events to be interventions then why not also the events constrained by the patterns generated with deterministic algorithmic laws as well? And what if it turns out that quantum disorder is not absolute but caused by the chaotic effects of a deterministic decoherence? Would this disprove all possibility of Collin’s conjectured interventions?

Judge’s Summing Up Comments: It’s no wonder that lawman Larry is having trouble pinning the charge of heretical superstitious scientific law breaker on Collins; lawman Larry 's prosecution case is all but unintelligible. All Larry can come up with is that Collins can’t have his cake and eat it, because somehow Collin’s conjectured interventions are “conflicting with a strictly materialistic interpretation of those same events”. But just what is a “materialistic interpretation” of those same events? What property is Larry attributing to these same events that are different from that of Francis Collins? Just what are “materialistic interpretations”? Do they enlighten us to the conjectured fundamental logical necessities that underlie the cosmos? Charges of violating “strictly materialistic interpretations” are just too woolly to enable scientific lawman Larry to pin anything on Collins. After all, how does one submit the notion of “materialistic interpretations” to the vaunted "scientific way of knowing" in order to clinch the case against Collins? How does one go about testing “materialistic interpretations” scientifically? Such interpretations have the character of preconceptions which is fair enough as long as they are acknowledged as such. Otherwise Larry's case looks to leading us up the garden path.

Where I would agree with Larry is that there is little or no evidence of God that is amenable to a scientific methodology and its affiliated scientific institutions, but unfortunately that doesn’t help much because many questions in history and prehistory cannot be settled by scientific methodology; some objects are just too complex and remote, like for example a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Flintstone circa 10,000 BC. So for me the question of God is not just an open one but also an active area of seeking. This is where Prof Moran and myself go our separate ways, just as we must go our separate ways on a "way of knowing" that presumptuously declares objects beyond its remit and capability as unreal, not to mention those woolly “strictly materialistic interpretations” that escape critical scrutiny, and above all on the mindset of interventionism. For it is clearly meaningless to say that substrate ontologies intervene in the phenomena they generate and support.

Characters of the Wild Web: Sheriff Larry Moran; (over) enthusiastic guardian of scientific law and disorder

“Law and Disorder” is the phrase I use to refer to the physical sciences almost exclusive use of two sorts of explanatory object Viz. simple deterministic algorithmic laws and statistics.