Monday, November 30, 2009

From Spears to Aircraft

A Sophisticated Flying Machine: A series of incremental technological changes has brought this configuration into existence.

This post by GilDodgen on Uncommon Descent gives an indication of the central place that Irreducible Complexity (IC) has in the ID theoretical canon; everything in ID theory seems to be either an aspect of this principle or a detail. This is what GilDodgen says:

The more we learn the more it appears that almost everything of any significance in living systems is irreducibly complex. Multiple systems must almost always be simultaneously modified to proceed to the next island of function. Every software engineer knows this, and living things are fundamentally based on software.

Evolution in the fossil record is consistently characterized by major discontinuities — as my thesis about IC being a virtually universal rule at all levels, from the cell to human cognition and language, would suggest — and the discontinuity between humans and all other living things is the most profound of all. Morphological similarities are utterly swamped by the profound differences exhibited by human language, math, art, engineering, ethics, and much more.

GilDodgen then goes on to suggest that the vast differences between human beings and other primates are evidence of the discontinuity imposed by IC.

In biological terms the crucial concept is structural stability; that is the ability to self perpetuate. But this is only possible if the components of a biological structure serve to promote self perpetuation and they can only do this if they work; that is if they function correctly.

Crucially for ID, GilDodgen assumes that functionality only comes in absolutely isolated islands; that is any change of a structure that goes beyond a certain small threshold entails a loss of functionality and thus a non-viable unstable structure. Thus if IC is true then there are no incremental entry points in or out of a stable structure. Thus IC structures (by definition) have no stable precursor structures incrementally separated from them. Ergo, evolution cannot happen.

The inverse of the notion of IC is Reducible Complexity (RC); RC requires that the domains of functionality/stability are so connected that there exist ways of incrementally modifying a structure and yet a stable structure being the result. The RC conjecture is that there is class of functional/stable structures that form a fully connected set and that a broad range of structural complexity is found in this set; if such exists then a barrier to evolution is lifted.

Of great significance to ID theory is this quote from GilDodgen: “Multiple systems must almost always be simultaneously modified to proceed to the next island of function”. That simultaneous modification is the only way to reach the next island of stability is, in the mind of the ID theorist, sufficient evidence of the complete isolation of islands of stability in a huge sea of non-viability; for to jump the gap between islands of functionality using random changes would require the simultaneous adjustment of several features in just the right way. The probability of these changes coming together is utterly negligible and thus a barrier of improbability isolates the islands of stability. The only thing that we know capable of jumping the space between the islands is intelligence.

Currently I have several issues with the concept of IC. The following points are really areas of research rather than killer arguments against IC.

1) If the only way to reach a near neighbor stable structure is by a very rare simultaneous change of features, then the IC case holds. However, if a route exists to a stable neighborhood structures via a “path” consisting of a series of incremental changes to single features ,each of which results in a stable structure, then we have a Reducibly Complex connected set of structures. However, these "single feature change" pathways are likely to be a relatively rare occurrence in the space of all possible changes, thus giving the impression that they don’t exist.

2) Human technological advance has only been possible because the limited quantum of human intelligence (call it i) can leap the gap between islands of functionality. But, and here is the important point, i is not large enough to leap the gap between stone age spears and GilDodgen’s aircraft in one leap. However, it is clear that the islands of functionality in technological configuration space are close enough so that given the quantum of human intelligence, i, the human mind can leap the gaps in functionality leading up to an sophisticated flying machine. It is conceivable that there are structures out there that can never be reached by the human mind because they are effectively irreducibly complex with respect to the quantum of human intelligence i. Nevertheless, it is clear that given human technology, large parts of technological configuration space are connected enough (i.e they reducible complexity with respect to i) to make technological evolution possible. It seems that IC and RC are not binary opposites but come in degrees. Fortunately for us technological configuration space is reducibly complex with respect to i. But, and this is the 64 billion dolllar question, is biological configuration space sufficiently connected with respect to the blind watch maker?

3) Human Intelligence itself appears to employ a kind of evolution; it makes a series of incremental adjustments to its concepts, concepts that are either selected or rejected; search, reject and select is the general evolutionary algorithm.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Serpentine Logic

That devolved legless reptile is doing its damnedest to stay in the picture

Interesting is this post on Uncommon Descent concerning ID guru William Dembski’s book “The End of Christianity, Finding a Good God in an Evil World”. This is what Dembski says about the book.

My book attempts to resolve how the Fall of Adam could be responsible for all evil in the world, both moral and natural IF the earth is old and thus IF a fossil record that bespeaks violence among organisms predates the temporal occurrence of the Fall. My resolution is to argue that just as the salvation of Christ purchased at the Cross acts forward as well as backward in time (the Old Testament saints were saved in virtue of the Cross), so too the effects of the Fall can go backward in time. Showing how this could happen requires extensive argument and is the main subject of the book. As for my title, “End of Christianity” involves a play on words – “end” can refer to cessation or demise; but it can also refer to goal or purpose. I mean the latter, as the subtitle makes clear: Finding a Good God in an Evil World.

The link to the interview with Dembski also worth looking at.

Some comments

1. Although he minces his words and hedges (Not surprisingly given his particular Christian sub-culture) my guess is that Dembski is an “Old Earth” believer; otherwise his attempt to explain pre-fall evil as a “retroactive” result of an anthropocentric fall would seem rather futile.(Note: If the act of God in Christ is a powerful symbolic declaration of covenant by God and revealed in the fullness of time, then its ability to dispense grace retroactively is less enigmatic, whereas I can make little sense of a retroactive fall in this light)

2. In line with Young Earth Evangelicalism’s world view Dembski assumes evil and suffering to be largely sourced anthropocentrically. And yet the serpent in Genesis 3 could be construed as a symbol of the presence of extra-human evil. The person(s) who penned Genesis 3, as is the wont of arcadian folk, would be ever aware of the lurking presence of evil in an unseen world. There is also the question over the interpretation of the enigmatic Romans 8:18-23 , a passage which hints that the cause of evil and suffering is not quite so crisp and clear cut as traditional Young Earth Evangelicalism would have it.

3. The problem Dembski is addressing comes out of contemporary Young Earth Evangelicalism’s world view and is thus very pressing in his own intellectual circles. Some of us, such as myself, who feel that there are deeper mysteries surrounding the source of suffering and evil have a less pressing need to explain pre-fall suffering. According to my concordance the word “good” of Genesis 1 is not quite the same as the word perfect (~ completion). I wonder what Dembski teaches his seminary students?

I have been a close witness of evangelical philosophy for over thirty years and its sometimes cursory and shallow treatment of suffering and evil is not its only short fall. So much about standard evangelical explanations fail to make sense of the world around us, not to mention its inconsonance with aspects of my own personal experience. It’s no wonder that when pressed the fallback position of many evangelicals is fideism: Viz: “Faith is not always logical, if it was it would not be faith.” In the fideist mind the ability of faith to accommodate mystery is conflated with the ability to swallow illogicality. But I’ll hand it to William Dembski, he is brave guy (and a nice guy as far as I can tell) and he is making a very valiant attempt at being be logical. Pity about some of his fellow pilgrims.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

World Beater

I must admit that I share some of Denise O’ Leary’s doubts about the democratic intentions of the “new atheists”. Stalinist atheism is to liberal atheism as Inquisitional Christianity is to liberal Christianity. Is “new atheism” a Stalinist form of atheism? Well, as far as I’m concerned that question remains to be answered. Given the insults, accusations of “scientific heresy” and unreason screamed out by some “new atheists” (even to fellow atheists) I have to say that I’m not at all confident that democracy would be in safe pair of hands should they gain exclusive political control. They are reminiscent of the revolutionary Marxists: “If you are not for us you are against us; we will see to your ‘re-education’ after the revolution.” The best complexion I can place on it is that in the wider social economy Stalinist atheism and Inquisitional Christianity are a reaction of one to the other and that somehow they cancel out. Hopefully.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Left Out in the Cold

This post by William Dembski may give some indication of the social circles he is connected with. I’m not going to comment on the issue of what Dembski calls anthropogenic global warming (except to say notice “anthropogenic” here – does that mean that global warming is less the issue than is the cause of global warming?), but the post does provide insight into the human and political dimension of the ID/evolution debate.

Ever the malaise of those who feel unjustly marginalised, I get a whiff of conspiracy theory when Dembski quotes from an article on global warming found in a newsweb of the religious right.

“It is not hard to think up ways to scare people into handing over more of their cash via taxes, insurance, inflation, etc. You just have to think of the right nightmare, publicize it, politicize it, turn it into curriculum, and sooner or later people will gladly hand you loads of moola with tears in their eyes.”

This right wing newsweb promotes “What the bible says about creation” over and against what “science says”. Given this polarised notion of "bible vs. science" I think we can guess what their views are. (see here)

And yet I sympathize with Dembski when he says:

"How, in other words, to create a scientific climate in which anyone who disagrees with AGW [anthropogentic global warming] can be written off as a crank, whose views do not have a scrap of authority.” Where have I heard that sort of thing before?"

It’s no surprise that Dembski identifies with the anti-anthropogentic global warming lobby given how he has been treated over his evolution/ID work.

William Dembski and friends have been left out in the cold - no wonder they don't believe in Global Warming

Friday, November 20, 2009

So Long Pilgrim

This post on UD publicizes a new book called “Should Christians Embrace Evolution”. The post says:

Believers in a God-guided Darwinism are preaching that Darwinism is a fact and that the Bible can be reconciled with it. This new book comprehensively refutes both ideas. Far from necessary, theistic evolution is both bad theology and bad science.

Firstly: It is impossible for evolution to be “a fact” in the sense that gravitational theory is “a fact”. Gravitational theory deals with a relatively simple mathematical object, whereas evolution, if it has occurred, may be computationally irreducible. So to be fair, all due allowance must be made for evolution’s level of epistemological intractability; just as one must make epistemological allowance for something as complex as deity. I would classify evolution less “bad science” than “difficult science”. And let's not forget that we must also make all due allowance for the scientific difficulties ID theory itself faces. For there is a very wide range of theories held by ID theorists; from those who accept an evolution of sorts from common descent to those who believe God "poofed" the whole cosmic show, as seen, into existence 6000 years ago. So it is clear that ID theory has at least as great epistemological difficulties as evolution. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Secondly: What about bad theology? Well, the prodigal son went through a process of incremental learning and development and yet there came the time when he was self aware enough to willfully reject the right way. Moreover, the environment in which he was reared was good but not perfect.

Looking through the list of book contributors I get a distinct whiff of raw evangelicalism here and there. This does suggest that I am unlikely to be comfortable with the religious culture of many contemporary ID supporters. And yet ironically I accept the general notion of design; namely that the elemental must have its source in a-priori complexity; I personally identify that a-priori complexity with a personal God. But it seems to me that for most contemporary ID supporters the bear and general notion of design is less important to them than a very vocal and specific anti-evolutionism. In fact it even seems that theism is less important to them than anti-evolutionism. In this connection I wasn’t aware that Steve Fuller is a theist, anymore than I was aware that David Belinsky is a theist, but these people connect very well with contemporary ID theory’s prevalent culture of de-facto anti-evolutionism. As I endeavor to be a non-aligned party in the ID/evolution debate I find I cannot support the raw emotionalism and an anti-evolutionism that is so often bound up with the vested interests and crowd dynamics of contemporary ID culture. In many respects ID culture has burnt its boats. It has passed the point of no return.

As I explore links between evolution, quantum theory, algorithmics, intelligence and learning it looks as though I’m on a very different pilgrimage to many contemporary ID theorists.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nothing is Simple. Something is ... well, Something Else!

I recently heard an argument to the effect that there is no problem in the universe coming from nothing because current cosmological evidence points to a flat universe; in such a universe positive energy is completely cancelled by negative gravitational energy and therefore the universe could have come from nothing. (I suppose a similar point could be made about cancelling electric charges)

Now, I think this mathematical jiggery-pokery was all rather tongue in cheek and not meant to be taken seriously. So with my tongue also firmly in my cheek let me engage in a little mathematical sleight of hand.

Let me define a quantity that I call the quadratic field operator. This operator takes a differentiated field of energy and sums up the squares of the energy components. If we start with absolutely nothing at all then clearly the quadratic field operator returns zero (=nothing). No problem. But as soon as there is any differentiation of energy into a field of cancelling negative and positive energy components the quadratic field operator quietly slips past the outer parentheses into the field of energy and hey presto you end up with a finite quantity (=something) Thus, if absolutely nothing suddenly resolves itself into a field of canceling energy terms the quadratic field operator reveals that something has come from nothing. Tough luck! We are back to square one! (or should that be square zero?)

Of course, all this by passes some rather abstruse philosophical questions: Do the “laws of physics” have any real meaning unless they are reified on an existing material ontology? What comes first; the laws of physics or the stuff whose patterns of behavior those laws describe? Does the description of an ontology proceed the ontology it describes? Do ethereal immaterial laws actually bring something into existence? Can existence be treated as a mere property that may be attributed or unattributed to an entity, or is it a fundamentally different category all together? I seem to remember that Anselm’s ontological argument foundered on this latter question!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Darwin Bicententary Part 28: The Mystery of Life’s Origin, Chapter 8

Continuing my consideration of the three online chapters of Thaxton, Bradley and Olson’s book “The Mystery of Life’s Origin”

As far as chapter 8 is concerned I can cut a long story short; Thaxton, Bradley and Olson calculate the Gibbs free energy associated with the formation of the information bearing bio-polymers essential for life. They come to the conclusion that this free energy is positive - as one would expect from a process involving a polymerization that uses energy to form the required molecular bounds and also to work against entropy in order to secure the right molecular configuration. I can see no fundamental flaw or controversy in TB&O’s conservative estimates. At the end of the chapter 7 they draw the conclusion that life’s information bearing bio-polymers are not going to form in near equilibrium conditions. However, they make this final comment:

In the next chapter we will consider various theoretical models attempting to show how energy flow through the system can be useful in doing the work quantified in this chapter for the polymerization of DNA and protein. Finally, we will examine experimental efforts to accomplish biomacromolecule synthesis.

Thus, TB&O leave us with the same cliff hanger that I felt I was left with in the previous chapter: If life has any chance of forming naturally that chance will only be found, if it is to be found at all, in disequilibrium conditions where there is an energy flowing through a system’s subsystems. Thus, it may be possible that this energy flow can be used to produce organic structures with high Gibbs energies …. or perhaps not.


Chapter 8 has a more promising view of the nature of living configurations than the previous chapter. In the previous chapter (as I said) TB&O seem to conflate complexity and order, but in this chapter they tell us (rightly I believe) that living structures are neither highly ordered nor highly disordered and thus classify as something else. They note that the aperiodicity of bio-polymers resemble the aperiodicity of random arrangements of bases, both of which are very different from the high order of crystals, but TB&O then go on to tell us just what distinguishes bio-polymers from random polymers:

Only certain sequences of letters correspond to sentences, and only certain sequences of sentences correspond to paragraphs, etc. In the same way only certain sequences of amino acids in polypeptides and bases along polynucleotide chains correspond to useful biological functions. Thus, informational macro-molecules may be described as being and in a specified sequence. Orgel notes: “Living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; mixtures of random polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity”

However, in my view TB&O are still presenting a rather obscure answer to the question of just where living configurations stand in relation to order and disorder, referring only to a mysterious property they call “specified complexity”. To try and clarify this they say:

Yockey and Wickens develop the same distinction, that "order" is a statistical concept referring to regularity such as could might characterize a series of digits in a number, or the ions of an inorganic crystal. On the other hand, "organization" refers to physical systems and the specific set of spatio-temporal and functional relationships among their parts. Yockey and Wickens note that informational macromolecules have a low degree of order but a high degree of specified complexity. In short, the redundant order of crystals cannot give rise to specified complexity of the kind or magnitude found in biological organization; attempts to relate the two have little future.

In referring to a specific set of spatio-temporal and functional relationships among their parts TB&O may be trying to tell us that informational macromolecules are only one component taken from a wider system, a system that as a whole has a configuration that is both highly ordered and yet highly complex. Taking one component out of that system such as an informational macro molecule, yields something that in a standalone sense is highly disordered and yet when placed within the context of the whole working system it is seen to be part of a highly organized system. Thus “specified complexity” is not a vitalistic property intrinsic to a sequence, but a property bestowed extrinsically by virtue of that the sequence having a well defined and orderly role in a much larger spatio-temporal configuration that certainly does not classify as disordered. “Specifity” is itself a configurational property that comes out of the configurational relations between an informational macromolecule and the spatio-temporal configuration in which it is embedded. Hence, we are back to where we were in my post on chapter 7: Biological structures are configurations in time and space, but they are neither highly ordered or nor highly disordered – they inhabit the space between the extremes of order and disorder. Perhaps the terms “complex organization” best describe these configurations. But although crystals are far too an elementary form of organisation to make a close comparison with life, there is, in spite of what TB&O say, a close relation between the process of crystallization and the conjectured process of evolution. But more about that another time.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Mystery Deepens

I was fascinated to read this post on UD where William Dembski appears to disassociate himself from Young Earth Creationism (At least that’s how I read it). He suggests that attempts to conflate ID and YEC are motivated by a desire to discredit ID by associating it with YEC. Surely Dembski isn’t hinting that YEC is a bad thing to be associated with?

Once again Demsbki stresses that “ID, per definitionem, is the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence.”

He also tells us:

It [ID] rests on two pillars: (1) that the activity of intelligent agents is sometimes detectible and (2) that nature may exhibit evidence of intelligent activity. How anyone gets young-earth creationism from this is a mystery.

I may agree with that, but since evolution would also classify as a pattern of nature (assuming nature exhibits such a pattern) then using the very criteria employed by ID theorists for identifying the work of intelligence doesn’t it also follow that the very peculiar and customized patterns required by evolution are arguably also the work of intelligence? So why doesn’t Dembski give more credence to evolution as at least a candidate pattern displaying evidence of Intelligent Design? What is different about evolution in the eyes of the ID/YEC axis? Is it because both hanker after an “in yer face” supernaturalism? How anyone gets antitheism from evolution is a mystery.

Characters of the Wild Web No. 18: Billy the DembskID - “The man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done (sic )....but one time he could-a been the champion of the world"