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.

1 comment:

James Knight said...

Thanks for an interesting and useful 30 part series Tim. You've certainly given us lots to ponder!

God bless you in future work!