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?

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