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.


Anonymous said...

>>> Please can you explain using simple language what are the parts of the "ID theorist’s negative challenge to evolution that are compelling"? <<<


Timothy V Reeves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy V Reeves said... a rough rule any problem that evolution has not yet solved and/or is finding difficult to solve. These problems are a bit like open wounds that attract a shark-like feeding frenzy of anti-evolution criticism.

For example:

1. See this recent post where William Dembski quotes some research relating to the great difficulty in synthesizing RNA. This area has implications for origins of life (OOL) research as one theory of OOL suggests that RNA replication antedated DNA replication. Needless to say OOL as a whole is an area of difficulty for evolution.

2. The paucity of the fossil record and lack of transitional forms to the extent that Stephen Jay Gould mooted his concept of punctuated equilibria.

3. Human evolution; not many transitional fossils in an area obviously very relevant to human interests.

4. Protein functionality fails if protein sequencing is amended above a certain threshold. But if this is true how could proteins have reached their current form by a series of incremental evolutionary steps and carry out a function at each point?

5. Haldane’s dilemma; see wiki for this. This argument goes back and forth.

6. The difficulty in showing organic structures to be reducibly complex, given that prehistory's meanderings are going to demand very "narrative intense" descriptions.

7. The argument from gut feelings: The highly complex cybernetic organization of living things mooted as an end product of a kind of “random walk” process is counter intuitive.

The list goes on and on. Not that there aren’t answers to these problems. Perhaps the anti-evolutionists and the evolutionists are working together well as team: One side is well motivated to flag problems and the other well motivated to go looking for solutions. Together they might succeed.

Here we have an area of genuine unsolved problems. Don’t you think that’s great? History in the making! Continents of unexplored evidence and anlysis! Trouble is some people like you to think it’s all in the bag one way or the other.

Timothy V Reeves said...

... Oh, one thing I do need to say here: The second law of thermodynamics in and of itself is not a challenge to evolution.