Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Trouble Hunter

Characters of the wild web No 19: Cornelius Hunter trouble shoots evolution. But if you succeed in shooting down evolution, what have you got left?

If you are looking for interesting and robust challenges to conventional evolution Cornelius Hunter is the man to see.

In in this post he raises a subtle point regarding the philosophy of science: Just what is Methodological Naturalism? Cutting a long story short it seems that there are implicit self referencing problems in the concept. If we claim to be methodological naturalists we are presumably restricting ourselves to a particular epistemological method. But an epistemology only works given, a-priori, a particular model of ontology. Thus to use a particular epistemological method successfully we require a particular kind of underlying ontology to support it. The question then naturally arises: Can we use methodological naturalism as an epistemic method to check for the existence of an ontology that favours that method? That is, can we use methodological naturalism to validate methodological naturalism? But if we attempt this then we are, (as Hunter points out) carrying out the investigation because we don’t know in advance what the answer to this question is. But in that case methodological naturalism could, for all we know, be based on a false concept of ontology. If methodological naturalism is based on a false ontology, how then can we rely on it to return a reliable answer about itself? Seemingly, then, there is an impasse here whose only solution is to hope that the methods we are using come up trumps in kind of self-affirming feedback cycle. Does this amount to a kind of gambler’s winning streak, a faith even?

This post from Hunter is more a direct challenge to evolution. He remarks on the sophistication of flowering plants’ defense systems against bug infestation, and then goes on to ponder the possible evolutionary scenario. He thinks, however, not just about the “winning” path of change that has lead to the final system but the myriad failed trials en-route:

And of course these designs are observed by us only because they were the evolutionary winners. They are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. For every winner there are untold myriad losers. The designs that produced some other chemical rather than benzyl acetone. The designs that detected chemicals that the caterpillars don't secret. The designs that didn't couple with the detection system. The designs that produced secretions that had no effect on the caterpillars. The designs that wreaked havoc on the flowering process rather than merely altering the flowering time. And so on, and so forth. The plant must have been a veritable idea factory, churning out all manner of mostly useless Rube Goldberg devices.

This line of thought can be applied in general: Every organic structure we see has, according to conventional evolution, come at the expense of a myriad failed “experiments” along the way; the structural dead ends, the routes that go nowhere are many, perhaps just too many for the random agitations of thermodynamic diffusion to successfully explore and give us a successful result in “polynomial” time. Although, this is a hand waving argument, it nevertheless comes over with intuitively compelling force and it is one that is worth pondering in relation to every organic structure we see. Hunter is right to bring it to our attention: It is not at all clear that physics applies enough constraint on morphospace to prevent the thermodynamic “search algorithm” being exponentially swamped by too many dead end structures; in other words the pathways linking a reducibly complex set of structures in morphospace may be far too “thin” to be probable routes of change. Or perhaps the morphospace of our physical regime may not even be populated by a reducibly complex set of stable/self perpetuating structures.

But as is often the case with the anti-evolution ID theorists they are open to the criticism of only being negative: Cornelius Hunter’s blog largely deals in anti-theory; he is an anti-theorist; that is, his main aim is to shoot down evolution, but as far as I can tell he provides no alternative history of origins that in turn can be shot down by a stalking assassin.

Evolutionists: What do they aim at if they've got no targets?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Up Front Front Loading

Spot the front loading is this theory.

This post on Uncommon Descent has proved interesting. Below I’ve quoted parts of it and added my own comments:

I have argued before that the core of ID is not about a specific theory of origins. In fact, many ID’ers hold a variety of views including Progressive Creationism and Young-Earth Creationism.

Comment: I understand the above to mean that in the poster’s opinion ID concerns not a history of origins but the ultimate source of information (which is identified with intelligence). Well, I suppose somebody from the anti-evolution ID community would have to say this because, as we know, there is little consensus amongst them on the course of natural history: There’s a lot of difference between an Old Earth theory of common descent and Young Earth Creationism. In fact as far as an account of natural history is concerned those ID theorists who believe in an Old Earth and common descent are closer to standard evolutionists than they are to YECs! But presumably this UD poster regards belief in the ultimate cause of life a more important category marker than which story of natural history one believes. But at UD the ironies and paradoxes abound: In this post I comment on a UD post by William Dembski where he appears to distance himself from the YEC community.

But another category that is often overlooked are those who hold to both ID and Common Descent, where the descent was purely naturalistic. This view is often considered inconsistent. My goal is to show how this is a consistent proposition.

Comment: The author then goes onto to consider a form of genetic “front loading” as evidence of the work of intelligent agency in the history of life. As this front loaded genetic information is implemented by life at different junctures in prehistory it results in a bifurcating tree of common descent. (Although the author is careful to state that he himself does not hold this view)

Behe’s actual view, as I understand it, actually pushes the origin of information back further. Behe believes that the information came from the original arrangement of matter in the Big Bang.

Comment: That’s what you might call the ultimate "up front" front loading into matter. Notice a habit of mind in operation here: It is taken it for granted that front loaded “information” will be reified in a complex arrangement of matter; in this case the arrangement is envisaged to be implicit in the arrangement of matter in the “cosmic egg” of the Big Bang; it’s either that and/or a given arrangement of atoms in a very large genome.

And, as hopefully has been evident from this post, the mode of evolution from an information-rich starting point (ID) is quite different from that of an information-poor starting point (neo-Darwinism).

Comment: This is where he goes wrong in my view: One can analyze neo-Darwinism in the same counterfactual way that this UD poster is considering genetic (an even Big Bang) front loading and thus come to the conclusion that if neo-Darwinism has happened then it can only have done so because of an information rich front loading; in this case the front loading would be found in a reducibly complex arrangement of structures in morphospace (See my last post). Ergo, a working conventional neo-Darwinism becomes just as much a form of front loaded ID as genetic front loading. The reason why it is difficult to spot “Darwinism” as a front loaded system is that the information has no material reification in the form of an arrangement of “solid matter”; instead it is to be found in the platonic realm of morphospace.

In Darwinism, each feature is a selected accident.

Comment: “A selected accident” – precisely; something is doing the “selecting” and that something is the “information source” and that information source is found in the arrangement of morphospace. However, that arrangement would have to be implicit in the laws of physics. But I suspect that the anti-evolution community would take exception to that suggestion because they have a low view of the complexity generating powers of algorithms and laws. (Note: I said “complexity generating powers” and NOT “Information generating powers”)

I think that agency is a distinct form of causation from chance and law. That is, things can be done with intention and creativity which could not be done in complete absence of those two.

Comment: “Chance and Law”; well that’s a step in the right direction – it’s much better than “chance and necessity”, although I think “Law and Disorder” is even better. Yes I agree that the a-priori complexity of intention and creativity can reach solutions that are practically unreachable to law and disorder. However if this UD poster is a theist why would he want to draw a sharp distinction between agency (=Divine Intelligence) and “chance and law”? If he is a theist then wouldn’t he believe that “chance and law” are ultimately sourced in divine agency and thus the ultimate cause of all that chance and law generate is to be found in that agency? Aren't "chance and law" a theory of origins rather than an ultimate cause? Is he underestimating what divine intelligence, the ultimate cause, can achieve through law and disorder? In my view “chance and law” are a description of the status quo, a theory of origins, and as such they are not causes in and of themselves.

Final Comments:

1. As I have remarked before the anti-evolution ID community seem confused about the difference between information and complexity: They expect high information objects to be complex (That need not be the case as I have already suggested in previous posts) and therefore the mantra that “you can’t create information” translates to “you can’t create organized complexity”. This is why they don’t believe in evolution and abiogenesis; to work, these processes are required to create organized complexity and therefore in the anti-evolutionist’s mind they must be creating information which of course they can't do.

2. If I am right in suggesting that common or garden evolution could equally be mooted as an ID candidate then this means that the span of possible ID theories ranges from YEC theory, through genetic front loading to neo Darwinism! However, it is likely that the anti-evolution ID community will resist this conclusion: Given all the name calling that has been traded between anti-evolutionists and the evolutionists it is simply impossible for the anti-evolution community to call a moratorium on bog standard evolution on the basis that it can be mooted (albeit counterfactually) as an ID candidate because they would lose face and become a laughing stock. Moreover the anti-evolution community has committed itself to portraying bog-standard evolution as a “natural” process that pretends to be able to create information and thereby the seat of a godless lie. In the mind of the anti-evolutionists the “natural forces” of evolution are set over and against Divine Agency. Hence they don’t see just one “prime mover” but a trinity of causal candidates: God, chance and necessity with the latter two as upstart pretenders. No doubt if pressed they would confess that “chance and necessity” are also down to the Divine Mind. But “chance and necessity” has become blighted by a close association with atheism and is seen as a tool of an atheist conspiracy, to be resisted at all costs. I’m reminded somewhat of the fact that acceptance of the Gregorian calendar was at first resisted in England; it was too closely associated with the papacy to be immediately acceptable.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Darwin Bicentenary: Summing up Part 1.

Now that the Darwin Bicentenary year has passed and I have worked through 30 parts of this series re evolution and Intelligent Design, I thought it time to take stock of progress, if any at all.

In such a wide interdisciplinary subject as evolution I decided to considerably restrict my terms of reference, and so I have merely nibbled at one small corner of the subject. I have largely focused on two areas, both of which are very important to Intelligent Design, and which are also in line with my particular experience and interests; namely, the second law of thermodynamics and the irreducible/reducible complexity question. Moreover, the anti-evolution ID community seems to think that these two areas contain killer arguments against evolution. Whilst it may be true that some other quirk of chemistry, physics and mathematics makes evolution impossible I find that neither of these subject areas provides unequivocal objections against evolution.

Firstly let me briefly explain my position on Intelligent Design. What I call “Elementalist” explanations will, I suggest, never arrive at self-explanation (i.e asiety). Elementalist explanations describe the cosmos using increasingly compact equations and algorithms. Barring the use of “Turtles all the way down” regresses this type of explanation ultimately leads to an irreducible core of data and logic that can undergo no further explanatory compression and therefore results in a logical hiatus. These compacted explanatory/descriptive objects are too simple to hold out the prospect of providing “self explanation”. My guess then, for what it is worth, is that we must look to a-priori infinite complexity for ultimate explanations. It may be that this “infinitely complex something” which has “chosen” and given us our particular physical regime is utterly insentient and impersonal,* but for me this opens the way for a consideration of the complexities of theism and therefore of Intelligent Design. I must add, however, that this is no argument which can or should be used to pressure atheists into belief. As a pathway to theism it is my own particular pilgrimage and I am not necessarily expecting anyone to follow or think worse of them if they don’t.

That I am in one sense in the ID camp means that I must carefully distinguish myself from the ID community represented by, say, Uncommon Descent. For reasons of their own they are vociferous in their anti-evolutionism and therefore I refer to them as the “anti-evolution community”, in order to distinguish them from my own position. In fact during UD’s watch the ID debate has become a de facto ID vs. evolution debate and has become so polarized that many perceive Intelligent Design as necessarily anti-evolutionist and vice versa.

None of this is to say I have any emotional commitment to evolution; for me evolution is like a piece of conceptual engineering that I have on my bench and is proving to be a worthwhile study. As I have often maintained, to create a form of evolution that works seems to require as much a feat of engineering design than otherwise less implicit creative dispensations. Thus, the bear idea of Intelligent Design is not sufficient to rule out evolution as a design option. Set against this view is the anti-evolution community’s implicit depiction of evolution as a kind of primeval and elemental Chaos Monster, an upstart pretender from the abyssal deep incapable of competing with the real Divine Creator. Thus by implication those who merely court evolution (like myself) may be in danger of being accused of inadvertently conniving with a Satanic conspiracy against the living God, thus assisting the cause of a demiurge that pretends to able to create but in reality is a evil fraud.

However, be that as it may, in this particular post I want to focus on the positive and stimulating aspects of the anti-evolution community, aspects that I have focused on over the last year or so:

ONE) For me, one the best parts of the anti-evolution community’s work is that of William Dembski’s papers on information conservation. This work, as far as I can tell, is sound, and is in line with my own understanding that whatever way one cuts the cloth our cosmos has to be “paid for” either by very improbable preconditions or an enormous (and very speculative) multiverse. It echoes my understanding that our current mathematics/science will always face an ultimate “in principle” logical hiatus. Logical necessity has a probability of 1 and thus has zero information content, but it seems that our scientific logic will never find necessity and thus will always be information laden with contingency; an apparent “free lunch” from who knows where. Dembski refers to this as “active information”. But I must remark here that it seems that Dembski’s work is not an attack on evolution per se. In fact in a UD post Dembski described one of his books as not inconsistent with theistic evolution. (See this post for more details). In short Dembski’s work tells us that if evolution has happened then it can only happen with the right burden of active information on board: Evolution or no evolution, both require what to the theist looks like a design choice. Thus a theist cannot write off evolution on the basis that it pretends to create information out of some “know nothing” primeval elemental and “natural” force. In the final analysis the information content of evolutionary processes are as much an unjustified “front loaded” free lunch as that provided by the magician God of Young Earth Creationism who uses magic words to “speak the world into existence”.

TWO) My acceptance of Dembski’s work has to be qualified: As we trace the source of life back through a sequence of highly improbable mathematical preconditions we eventually come up against a logical hiatus where a particular set of contingent conditions are taken as brute givens. What space of possibility are we to use to assign probabilities to these source conditions? In fact, since relative to our knowledge these conditions are givens there is then no ontological space known to us from which these conditions have been selected by a higher process. Thus, is it meaningful and intelligible to assign probabilities to these conditions if we know nothing of the process that has created them? Of course, these conditions can be viewed as a selection taken from a platonic space of mathematical possibility and thus a probability be assigned them using Bernoulli’s principle of insufficient reason. This is in fact Dembski’s practice. I’m inclined to accept this practice, but not without reservation.

THREE) Irreducible complexity is a key concept used by the anti-evolution ID movement as a killer challenge to evolution. I myself regard it as an objection of intermediate strength rather than unequivocal. Evolution and abiogenesis require stable structures to be linked into a connected set of incrementally separated structures allowing thermodynamic agitations to cause diffusion from one structure to the next; this is what I mean by “reducible complexity”.** But it is very difficult to decide between irreducible and reducible complexity on an empirical basis; in particular if evolution is computationally irreducible and the fossil record sparse. Methodological arguments as to which side of the debate the scientific onus falls to empirically decide the case may be mooted. But in absolute terms it is difficult to be sure one way or the other; one man’s “best explanation” methodology may be another man’s bigotry. One thing, however, we can be sure of is that evolution and abiogenesis can’t proceed without reducible complexity. Hence, the question of reducible or irreducible complexity is very important to both sides of the debate. The anti-evolution community is right to stress it, but for me the case for irreducible complexity is not without reasonable doubt.

So having summed up what I think of as the best aspects of the anti-evolution movement, in my next summing up post I will consider what I believe to be its worst aspects.

* I must qualify this by saying that I am inclining towards the opinion that the idea of a cosmos without sentience and perception is unintelligible

** "Reducible complexity" is, in fact, one means by which an evolutionary process can be "front loaded" with Dembski's active information.