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!


Greame Gordon said...

Hello Timothy. Your blog came up when I hit Richard Dawkins in the search box. Judging by what you've written your position to be, I have this question. In The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins uses the TH Huxley typing monkeys analogy and sets his monkeys to type the Shakespearian phrase from Hamlet, “Methinks it is like a weasel”. This phrase has 28 letters (including spaces) with a monkey on each letter with a typewriter able to punch 26 letters and one space. Apparently the probability of the monkeys punching out Methinks it is like a weasel by random hitting of the keys in a billion goes is 1 in 10 raised to the power 31, ie incredibly small. However Dawkins little stratagem noted above has the monkeys going the job in 43 goes!

Remember what it claims to show – that natural selection – a blind, mindless, unguided process – has the power to produce biological information. But it shows nothing of the kind. Dawkins has solved his problem, only by introducing the two very things he explicitly wishes at all costs to avoid. In his book he tells us that evolution is blind, and without a goal. What, then, does he mean by introducing a target phrase? A target phrase is a precise goal which, according to Dawkins himself, is a profoundly un-Darwinian concept. And how could blind evolution not only see that target, but also compare an attempt with it, in order to select it, if it is nearer than the previous one? Dawkins tells us that evolution is mindless. What, then, does he mean by introducing two mechanisms, each of which bears ever evidence of the input of an intelligent mind – a mechanism that compare each attempt with the target phrase, and a mechanism which preserves successful attempt? And, strangest of all, the very information that tit mechanisms are supposed to produce is apparently already container somewhere within the organism, whose genesis he claims to be simulating by his process. The argument is entirely circular.

This is one of my term papers so in your opinion why is the above view point inconsistent with a cumulative selection that although non-goal oriented is DEFINITLY still able to produce life as we see in evolution?

I don't share your view that God is behind all this (I'm atheist) but would appreciate your take on this.

Yours truly


Greame Gordon said...

Just to make it clear Timothy, where this came from, this is the blog of yours that popped up in my search, specifically to my interest is here----

///////Dembski goes onto to apply the active information concept to other systems: in particular the “partitioned” search of Richard Dawkins infamous and trivial “Me Thinks It is Like a Weasal” program. This program randomly shuffles letters in a sentence: when by chance one the required letters makes an appearance in the right position it is locked into place. The object of the exercise was to show that by this means otherwise very improbable arrangements can be found relatively quickly. The program has been criticised (rightly so) for “front loading” the required configuration into the program from the outset and thus being completely vacuous.

The “partitioning” dynamics of Dawkins program is basically the idea of having a ratchet built into the search: if the system happens to move in the direction of certain classes of outcome it has a high probability of not moving back; hence there is a progressive drift toward an “end result”; if one of the required letters pops up by chance, it is locked into place and this event is prevented from being undone. Clearly as, Dembski shows quantitatively, the ratchet probability of getting the required configuration of letters is much greater than the probability of “Me thinks it is like a weasel…” appearing spontaneously. As a rule spontaneous probabilities associated with large configurations are negligibly different from Zero.////

My point is that the "ratchet built into the search" may have been loaded by Dawkins, but I don't see how this is contrary to natural selection - as the combination lock bit by bit stepping towards life + more complex life seems to be what Darwinian natural selection is all about === no goal but it still produces life, yes?

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi Graeme, thanks for the visit and comments.

Firstly I must get the record straight and be fair to Dawkins: It turns out that Dawkins' METHINKS program is not as simple as locking the letters in place when they are found (as I claimed in the blog post your search returned). My excuse for getting this wrong is that I picked up this view of the program from ID theorist William Dembski. Dembski’s initial misrepresentation of the program has been used by his enemies as a pretext to pillory him, but to be fair to Dembski it seems that information about the exact workings of Dawkins’ program were difficult to come by. But in the polarized and poisoned environment of the evolutionist versus ID theorist debate no one is in the mood to listen to mitigating circumstances. I touch on the matter in this post , but really for people like you and I, who are simply trying to get a handle on the idea of evolution, this storm in a teacup is a time waster.

The fact is, however, that there are more subtle ways of programming the METHINKS programming than just locking the right letters in place when perchance they arise. As you probably appreciate the general workings of the METHINKS program involve random incremental changes in the lettering of the string. If these changes are in right direction then the program assigns such changes with a high probability of being selected or persisting. This means that there is a very high probability of the random incremental changes slowly drifting the string toward its goal. But the concept of “changes in the right direction” doesn’t necessarily entail straightforward character locking.

But really this is by the by. Whatever the exact programming of the METHINKS program it must under any circumstance be able to sense when an incremental change is toward the required string and consequently the goal of the program is effectively implicitly built into the program from the outset (as you suggest).

Once again we must be fair to Dawkins. He admits that his METHINKS program has its goal “frontloaded” into the program, although he then goes on to say that real evolution has no such frontloaded goal.

But to cut a long story short I have been unable to confirm Dawkins' opinion that evolution requires “no frontloading”. It seems to me mathematically impossible to produce a system that arrives at highly improbable configurations without the presence of some kind of physical regime of laws (or whatever) that effectively “frontloads” the system in such a way that certain selected partial results have a high persistence probability; this distribution of enhanced persistence probabilities allows the random walk of evolution to creep toward otherwise highly improbable configurations. In fact Dawkins himself effectively admits to the existence of this “frontloaded” landscape of persistence probabilities by requiring the existence of gentle “slopes” that facilitate the incremental “climbing of mount improbable”. One doesn’t have to be a theist to understand that a biasing in some kind of abstract mathematical "landscape" is required to make evolution work. The question is then less “where did life come from?”, but “where did these Dawkins slopes come from?”

Thus, the question of the origin of life is pushed back into an abstruse logical hinterland that somewhat obscures the fact that life’s evolution requires a mathematical bias in the first place.

Now, one may be an atheist or a theist, but it seems to me that either way this mathematical bias must be present. Just how that bias got there in the first place is clearly a matter of debate; different people will have different answers about how it got there, but there it must be. This question really represents just where things are currently at for me personally. Although I favour theism that’s not to say there are no attempted non-theistic explanations of this mathematical skew.

James Knight said...

Hi Tim and Greame,

Nice to see the blog backwaters contain these interesting debates. Greame, if the "METHNKS" analogy does not help you then I wouldn't worry too much about it. The purpose of an analogy is to make a complicated idea easier to understand; if it fails in that then the analogy serves no purpose (for you) and there is no need to try to defend or resurrect it.

To get right to the heart of the issue we can review what Darwin's discovery required:

-Variation: There is variation in traits.

-Inheritance: These variations can be passed on to offspring.

-Differential survival(/reproduction): Given the reproductive potential of most organisms a population should be able to grow exponentially, but this is not what we see. Actual population growth is far below that potential. Many individuals do not survive to reproductive age and/or fail to reproduce.

-Natural selection those with heritable traits that make them more likely to survive by passing on genetic material.

The above example of METHINKS is not illustrative of how natural selection works; rather it is illustrative of how cumulative selection can lead to rapid change over a short period of time. That is an important purpose of the analogy, but that is it only purpose - it would still be as blind as natural selection. The analogy was used to answer the criticism that there has not been sufficient time for particular structures to evolve by "random chance." The analogy shows that random variation CAN lead to rapid organisation of structure provided that there is selection for the structure. The analogy defends the 'rapid' part, not the 'selection' part.

James Knight said...

Bah, there's a letter limit. Let me add something else if I may. A specific complex sequence, such as 'METHINKS' corresponds to something complicated, like a human eye. The chance of hitting the sequence such as 'METHINKS' by chance alone is very small, 1 in 209 billion (1 in 26 to the power of 8, for this 8 letter sequence, drawn from an alphabet of 26 letters). Similarly, conjuring up a human eye out of nothing also has a vanishingly small probability, it might as well be zero. This is a poor analogy for evolution, because evolution acts as a 'ratchet', so when a correct letter clicks into place, it stays there (as indicated by capital letters), so it can achieve the target phrase in much fewer attempts, say 40:

1) 'sgfcsgo' ...
10) 'fETopcrS' ...
20) 'xETrINsS' ...
30) 'METoINKS' ...

Now the question is, doesn't there have to be an intelligence to compare the target sequence 'METHINKS' against the sequence that evolution is trying out, or comparing the 'proto-eye' to the target eye that is evolving? Tim and I believe that God is behind the running of evolution, but one is not going to find intentionality or DESIGN at that zoomed in level (nor an absence of design either, after all, one can't prove an existential negative).

But on purely evolutionary matters; in evolution, intermediates give advantages. By this model above, the first attempt corresponds to being totally blind. The 10th try might correspond to a patch of photosensitive cells, so the organism can know if it is light or dark. The 20th try might correspond to ridges forming around these cells, so they are in an indentation, and the shadows of the ridges could give some information about which direction the light is coming from. The 30th try could correspond to the ridges starting to close up, so the light comes only through a small hole, so that the organism has much better information about the direction of the light, like a pin-hole camera. The last, 40th try, could correspond to a lens forming over this hole, which focuses light onto the photosensitive cells, resulting in a high quality image. The point is that 1% of an eye is better than no eye, and 50% of an eye is better than 20% of an eye, and so on. At all stages, this extra light information available to the organism improves its survival value, and so the genes for making 1%, or 20% or 80% or whatever, is preferentially passed on to future generations. So, it's not as if an intelligence compares 20% of an eye to a complete human eye, and said 'ahh, this is better than its cousin, with 15% of an eye, I will let it pass on its genes for making this eye', but simply that when a predator comes along, it will see it before its cousin sees it, so its cousin will get eaten and not pass on its genes for making the 'inferior' 15% eye, but the 20% eye individual will pass on its genes. Of the offspring, some might have 19% eye, others might have 21% eye. Then the 21% eye will be more likely to survive, and its offspring might have 22% eye and so on, all the way from humble beginnings until a complete, complicated and accurate eye is formed.

James Knight said...

There is also artificial intelligence of course; an intelligence selecting the target is also a good one. Imagine that Tim gives an eye test to each of the organisms, then only lets those with the best eyes have offspring. After a number of generations, the eyes would also be better than the starting individuals. However, unlike nature selecting the individuals that are most likely to survive (as with natural selection), it would be Tim that selects for the best eye test (artificial selection). This is how the Dutch make such a wide range of flowers. They might start with a red rose, but they will only breed the ones that seem slightly more orangey. The next generation would be less red. They could repeat this process time after time, until they end up with yellow roses. This, again, is artificial selection. A similar thing could be done by natural selection, if there was an animal that ate red roses, the more orangey ones would preferentially survive and over time, the roses could evolve to become yellow. A different set of roses, however, could use a different strategy, such as becoming really thorny. Hence, the original species of red rose could split into two different species: the yellow rose and the thorny rose. The target sequence just corresponds to something that helps reproduction, whether it’s Tim or a Dutch man that intelligently chooses the characteristics they like, or whether it's a characteristic that endows the living thing with a better way of attracting mates, or avoiding predators, or getting more food and so on...

Hope that helps.


Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks James for that clarifying contribution. I think you well summarise the status of the "METHINKS" programs when you say:

The analogy (i.e. "METHINKS...") defends the 'rapid' part, not the 'selection' part.

Greame Gordon said...

Thanks Timothy and thanks James for your responses. That makes it a lot clearer. I've realised I was getting the selection part and the rapid-time part mixed up. Much obliged. Greame