Sunday, August 23, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary part 26: ID theorist and Atheists Agree (!)

An agreement shot through with holes.

Another vicious gun fight has broken out between ID theorists and atheist evolutionists. This time the contention is over Dembski’s latest paper on measuring search algorithm information. Anti-evilution references have, according to reviewers, been kept under wraps by Dembski, but needless to say there is an implicit connection with ID theory. Consequently, that the paper has been peered reviewed and published is too easily construed as a vote in favour of ID and this thoroughly annoys the atheists.

In the ensuing fight a lot of time is spent by people saying what they think about one another. (“liars”, “pompous”, “bragging”, “stupid”, that kind of thing) Also, there is much criticism of Dembski for apparently repeatedly misrepresenting Dawkins’ simple “ME THINKS” program. (BTW, I got my view of this program from Dembski). PZ Myers, presumably because this is not his field, links to Mark Chu-Carrol’s blog who comments on Dembski’s latest paper. Uncommon Descent accuses PZ Myers of evading the issue, hinting that it may all be rather over PZ’s head; the subtext here is that PZ is no match for UD’s gallant champion of the ID cause.

Chu-Carrol is a pretty abrasive character and doesn’t mince his words when it comes to expressing what he thinks of people, especially ID theorists. But this is really by the by. Abrasiveness apart Chu-Carrol’s mathematical content is, as far as I can tell, certainly better than passable; but then so is Dembski’s. So, leaving aside personalities and the silly distraction over the trivial “ME THINKS” program what are we left with? I think you will find that Dembski and Chu-Carrol actually agree. In a blog comment about a very similar paper by Dembski, Chu-Carrol comments:

Back at the beginning of the paper, I said that Dembski actually manages to basically refute his own argument - that he shows how evolution can actually work. By now, you should see how that happens: this whole argument comes down to asking what it means to drop the "over all possible landscapes" part of NFL. If you do that, then you end up with a search algorithm that can perform very well on some set of landscapes. Which is exactly what us lousy evolutionists have been saying all along.

What I think Chu-Carrol is telling us here (and I agree) is that evolution is a search algorithm that performs well given the particular fitness landscape of the right physical regime. Translating that to Dembski’s terms it means that for evolution to work a good dollop of active information must be present from day one. Chu-Carrol quibbles about Dembski’s concept of information (quibbles which I actually share), but the underlying lesson agreed by both parties seems clear: Evolution must be hosted by the right physical regime before it has a chance of working. This post on Panda’s thumb sums it up: “….Dembski and Marks’s argument ends up leaving us to argue about where the laws of physics ultimately come from, and most evolutionary biologists will not feel too worried”.

So what is the argument really all about?

At this point I have to confess that Dembski’s position rather puzzles me. He is trying to quantify the kind of resource that everyone agrees evolution needs before it stands a chance of working. But in the ID community this is somehow construed as an anti-evolution argument; perhaps because ID supporters feel that if intelligence is going to resource evolution in order to create life, it may as well create life more directly. But why doesn’t Dembski just come out with it: His mathematics, in the final analysis, is neutral about whether evolution has happened on not.

Then again perhaps Dembski’s position isn’t so puzzling. Frankly, I think it is too late for Dembski to take a stance of more studied detachment. As I think I have said before, the human aspects in this battle are intrusive and dominating. Dembski is the ID clan’s “David” in a “David and Goliath” battle with the academic establishment. Dembski’s friends and mates are looking to him to score points. Many of those loyal and admiring friends may even be YEC’s. The personal aspects have taken over Dembski’s life. He does not have the heart to crush the hopes and expectations of his friends. They alone have given him kudos and status and in return he must act well on their behalf in order to fulfill their expectations. He cannot be a turncoat or traitor; he is too nice a guy for that.

Characters of the Wild Web 17: Mark Chu-Carrol: Good guy, bad guy. We know what Uncommon Dissenters think.

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