Monday, June 29, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 24: Dembski's Recent Paper

Has Dembski bowled out the evolutionists?

Having completed a first read of Dembski’s paper on “Life’s Conservation Law” I think the essential mathematical lesson is sound - although I haven’t been through the paper with a fine tooth comb. Expressing the main lesson of the paper briefly in my own terms: Given the observable cosmos it follows that probability is asymmetrically distributed over the space of possibility. That is, some possibilities have a disproportionately higher probability than others. If evolution has occurred then it is because this asymmetrical distribution holds in order to considerably enhance the chances of self sustaining structures evolving. This conclusion that probabilities are a-priori weighted in favour of life assumes a “small” universe; that is, a universe where cosmic magnitudes and dimensions are far too small to provide a realistic chance of evolution if probabilities were uniformly (i.e. symmetrically) distributed over the space of possibility. This asymmetrical assignment of probability is what, I assume, Dembski means by information input.

OK, so Demsbki’s basic mathematical lesson looks to be sound, and his work brings out the stark fact that evolution or no evolution biological structures have been resourced by an underserved “free lunch” of highly asymmetrical probability distributions. It gives the lie to the erroneous belief that evolution (if it has happened) is without “direction”; directionality is a form of asymmetry, so in a general sense evolution requires skews and biases in order to enhance the chance of evolutionary developments.

Dembki’s conclusions are, in fact, no surprise even if we assume all that happens under the cosmic Sun is ruled by a standard law and order package. Given that standard science is a descriptive activity which attempts to explicate observations in terms law and disorder objects, then it appears that those objects are an extremely rare class of contingent entity plucked out of the huge space of platonic possibility. Thus, expressing this realization as even-odds probability ratios will lead to minute probabilities unless there is a considerable weighting favouring the physical status quo. Even if we resort to some kind of infinite multiverse in attempt to restore symmetrical distributions of probability we are still left with the implicit asymmetry inherent in the philosopher’s paradox expressed by the question: “Why there is something rather than nothing?”.

The bottom line of Dembski paper is about a logical hiatus that humanly speaking is inescapable. But this stark truth need not be the controversial. Although some atheists may fight shy of Dembski’s maths the strange free lunch that is our cosmos is the same mystery that Paul Davies recognizes and is attempting to grapple with without recourse to theism. What is controversial, needless to say, is the conclusion ID theorists draw from Demsbki’s mathematical treatment; namely that from an apparent undeserved free lunch it follows that a-priori Intelligence must be at the bottom of it all. Atheists, particularly militant atheists, intensely dislike the ID community exploiting highfalutin mathematics in this way. Even as an theist myself, I feel I could not claim on the basis of “No Free Lunch” that the atheist game is up and therefore expect them to follow me into theism; theism is just one time honoured attempt to account for with the problem of the apparent cosmic free lunch. Otherwise I think it is very bad idea to try and intellectually coerce atheists on the basis of an explanatory filter that defaults to Intelligent Design by a process of elimination. True, some atheists are refusing to face their much feared demons by ignoring the meta issues Dembski’s work underlines, but there may be other atheists out there who hold their views with a clear conscience and with intellectual integrity.

But looking at Dembki’s paper it seems that the game is not up for the evolutionists either. In fact Dembski seems to be saying that provided we accept that the cosmos has a considerable burden of “active information” (That is, an asymmetrical distribution of probability) then evolution is a possibility. For example, Dembski quotes a rather puzzled Stuart Kaffmaun who is confounded about the perplexing free lunch that evolution seems to require. As Kauffmann says:

Where did these well-wrought fitness landscapes come from, such that evolution manages to produce the fancy stuff around us?

Dembksi then says “According to Kauffman, ‘No one knows’” and then Dembski goes on to say:

Let’s be clear where our argument is headed. We are not here challenging common descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to a universal common ancestor. Nor are we challenging evolutionary gradualism, that organisms have evolved gradually over time. Nor are we even challenging that natural selection may be the principal mechanism by which organisms have evolved. Rather, we are challenging the claim that evolution can create information from scratch where previously it did not exist. The conclusion we are after is that natural selection, even if it is the mechanism by which organisms evolved, achieves its successes by incorporating and using existing information.

Dembski says here: “we are challenging the claim that evolution can create information from scratch where previously it did not exist”. If evolution has occurred that challenge still holds good in as much as the low probabilities of life can only become high probabilities when conditioned on the contingencies of our particular cosmic particulars. Those particulars in turn seem to have been chosen from a vast space of possibility and this choice constitutes the information input that Dembski requires. But surprisingly it is here that we find Dembski agnostic about just how this unwarranted information might be input, for he is not challenging common descent and evolutionary gradualism or even natural selection as the principle mechanism by which organism have evolved. He is simply telling us (and I agree with him) that if evolutionary mechanisms have resulted in life they can only do so with a considerable burden of “active information”. So the evolutionists are still in bat and have yet to be bowled out yet.

Although Dembksi makes the theoretical concession that evolution can work given the right informational preconditions, we might expect him to not support evolution in practice as the means by which life has come to be. But in this connection Dembski says this:

The search algorithms in evolutionary computing give rampant evidence of teleology—from their construction to their execution to the very problems they solve. So too, when we turn to evolutionary biology, we find clear evidence of teleology: despite Dawkins’s denials, biological evolution is locating targets. Indeed, function and viability determine evolution’s targets (recall section 3) and evolution seems to be doing a terrific job finding them. Moreover, given that Darwinian evolution is able to locate such targets, LCI underwrites the conclusion that Darwinian evolution is teleologically programmed with active information.

Let me get this straight: “when we turn to evolution we find clear evidence of teleology …”? Is Dembski saying that evolution, albeit with the right information conditions, has actually happened? Is Dembski, bit by bit, being taken down the evolutionary path? In the post on Uncommon Descent where Dembski introduced his paper I left a comment that seconded a comment left by another commentator named “Mapou”. Here is my comment:

11 Timothy V Reeves
7:06 am
Thanks very much; this looks very interesting; I’ll give it a good look.
Mapou says at 9:
It seems to me that what this paper is saying is that evolution was designed, and I agree.
…that might be the opinion I’m beginning to form as well.

Immediately after my comment Dembski followed it with this comment:

12 William Dembski
7:33 am
I urge people to read the paper before commenting......

Well having since read the paper, I think I would not amend my first impression!

Whether or not Dembski is a closet or crypto-evolutionist, there is one issue, and very one important to my mind, which Dembski’s paper does not address but which is touched upon in the following quotes taken from Dembski:

It follows that Dawkins’s characterization of evolution as a mechanism for building up complexity from simplicity fails. For Dawkins, proper scientific explanation is “hierarchically reductionistic,” by which he means that “a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization” must be explained “in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy.” Thus, according to Dawkins, “the one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity.”
…..Conservation of information shows that Dawkins’s primeval simplicity is not as nearly simple as he makes out the success of evolutionary search depends on the front-loading or environmental contribution of active information. Simply put, if a realistic model of evolutionary processes employs less than the full complement of fitness functions, that’s because active information was employed to constrain their permissible range.

As I have related in previous posts in this series, it is not clear to me that simplicity of explanation is ruled out by Dembski’s valid point about presence of active information. For it is far from clear whether or not the relatively simple cosmic law and disorder package of physics is one of those rare objects which encodes complexity via simplicity of expression. The complex “front loaded” fitness function which Dembski talks about may be implicit in a standard physics package which succeeds in encoding a reducibly complex morphospace. In this morphospace we may find smooth transitions of self sustaining structures, thus allowing evolutionary diffusion to do its work in creating them.

I don't suppose the evolution/ID debate will ever be Cricket

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