Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mixing with the Right People.

Irony meter - sproing Pictures, Images and Photos

My poor old irony meter seems to be taking a bashing at the moment. See here on Uncommon Descent where I commented on the very interesting work of Dr Robert Sheldon. See also here and here where I leave comments on Dr Sheldon’s blog on the conservative “” web site – a site endorsed by Anne Coulter….which gives me another excuse to publish a picture of this lovely looking lady:

By the way: The only way I could sign up on “” was to pretend I was from an American state. I chose the Midwest’s Iowa as I have been there. Cedar Rapids, where I was based, with its rural hinterland, felt a bit like Norwich. I remember comparing notes with one of Cedar Rapids' citizen and we both agreed that we didn't like big cities. I think we were both rubes and would be well out of our depth at a New York republican convention (= heaven, according to Ann)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A God of Some Sort

After my last post on the aspects of anti-evolution ID theory I feel unhappy about, it is very timely that William Dembski has published this post on Uncommon Descent illustrating just what I mean.

Dembski starts by quoting Frank Zindler who expresses the view that a literal Adman and Eve, the fall, original sin and the need of salvation are all incompatible with evolution: Basically the sort of stuff one gets from many a Bible Belt fundamentalist, but with one minor difference: Frank Zindler is an atheist and to him this is all just so much counterfactual theology. It goes to show that there is such a thing as a “Bible Belt” atheist; that is, an atheist who shares Bible Belt mental categories and therefore subliminally reasons and thinks about deity just like a Bible Belter. (Albeit counterfactually)

However, this is by the by. Dembski says of Zindler:

But Zindler is not arguing for the mere compatibility of evolution with atheism; he is also claiming that evolution implies, as in rationally compels, atheism. This implication is widely touted by atheists. Richard Dawkins pushes it. Cornell historian of biology and atheist Will Provine will even call evolution “the greatest engine for atheism” ever devised. To claim that evolution implies atheism is, however, logically unsound (even though sociological data supports the loss of faith as a result of teaching evolution). Theistic evolutionists such as Francis Collins, Denis Alexander, and Kenneth Miller provide a clear counterexample, showing that at least some well-established biologists think it’s possible for the two to be compatible. Moreover, there’s no evident contradiction between an evolutionary process bringing about the complexity and diversity of life and a god of some sort (deistic, Stoic, etc.?) providing the physical backdrop for evolution to operate.

With that I agree, but make note of this: The evolutionary beliefs of Collins, Alexander and Miller are, as Dembski generously concedes, apparently consistent with “a god of some sort”. It’s a good thing that these are New Testament days, because I think Dembski will find that in Old Testament times worshipping “a god of some sort” could attract the death penalty. Otherwise so far so good, but be warned things start to go downhill from now on. Dembski goes on to say:

The reverse implication, however, does seem to hold: atheism implies evolution (a gradualist, materialist form of evolution, the prime example being Darwinian). Indeed, the atheist has no other rational options in explaining the diversity and complexity of life. The atheist may, in the face of reason, invoke pure chance to explain the emergence of life.

Atheism implies evolution? In a synthetic and probabilistic sense this is certainly true in that if one is given a person who is an atheist there is a high chance he or she is an evolutionist. But Dembski suggests that atheists have no other “rational” options open to them. This is a bit too strong: There is a measure of subjectivity in gauging just what is rational: One man’s rationality is another man’s idiocy. Would atheists who invoked a multiverse in order explain abiogenesis as a “pure chance” leap classify as being rational or irrational? What about atheist Fred Hoyle’s panspermia and his foray into a kind “alien” intelligent design? And where do we position those who say we are part of a gigantic simulation? It is certainly not clear to me that Darwinian gradualism is the only option open to atheists; it just seems to be the only game in town that currently appeals to most atheists for reasons that I suggested in my last post.

But Dembski then goes on to propose a necessary disjoint between intelligent design and evolution as per the following:

The rationale here is a simple application of the logical rules modus ponens (If A, then B; A; therefore B) and modus tollens (If A, then B; not B; therefore not A). Thus,
Premise 1: If atheism is true, then so is Darwinian evolution.
Premise 2: But if ID is true, then Darwinian evolution is false.
Premise 3: ID is true (the controversial premise).
Conclus 1: Therefore Darwinian evolution is false (modus ponens applied to Premises 2 and 3)
Conclus 2: Therefore atheism is false (modus tollens applied to Premise 1 and Conclus 1)

Premise 1 is unclear. Does “If atheism is true” equate to “If there is no god”? Is Dembski saying “If there is no God then evolution follows”? Is he saying that in the absence of the Aseity of Deity evolution has the logical efficacy to create life and can make good the absence of a divine creator? If so atheist materialists would probably agree. If this is Dembski’s meaning then it goes to show that there is such a thing as a “materialist” Christian; that is, a Christian who shares “naturalist” categories and can thus subliminally reason and think about “naturalism” like a materialist. Or have I got Dembski’s meaning here completely wrong? Does he simply mean that if a person believes in atheism he will believe in evolution? After all “atheism” is a belief about an ontology and not the ontology itself; Dembski has not made clear the distinction between atheism as a belief and atheism as an ontology.

Premise 2 is clearly false. If the cosmos is sourced in some kind of self-necessary intelligence it is not clear to me that it follows that Darwinian evolution is false: As I have indicated in this blog, if evolution is to work in a realistic time, it requires the right mathematical preconditions (if they exist), and those preconditions can be construed as an ID choice made by some super intelligence. However, it is very likely that the idea that an act of intelligent design is required to set up a working version of evolution is not consistent with Southern Baptist Bible Belt creation theology - Dembski’s Southern Baptist outlook would very likely see a conflict between evolution and Christian theism (as per atheist Frank Zindler). So perhaps premise 2 should read as follows:

Premise2: “If Southern Baptist Bible Belt theology is true then Darwinian evolution is false”

Premise 3: As a theist I would accept this premise, but not in the sense that Dembski defines ID (See the following). Clearly then on the proceeding basis Dembski’s conclusion 1 does not follow. But it seems that Dembski’s aim is to define both ID and “Darwinian” evolution in such a way as to drive a wedge between them; they are in his view mutually exclusive as this passage shows:

When I got into this business 20 years ago, I thought that any Christian (and indeed any theist), given solid evidence against Darwinian evolution (as ID is now increasingly providing—see my book The Design of Life and Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell) would be happy to trash it and move to some form of intelligent design (whether discrete creations or gradual guidance or information front-loading or whatever). But that has not happened. Theistic evolutionists have now baptized Darwinism. Thus, in the 2001 PBS evolution series, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller referred to himself as an orthodox Catholic and an orthodox Darwinian.

According to Dembski then conventional evolution is not a front loaded process. This is at variance with my own view that evolution, no matter how one defines it, or for that matter any process one constructs which is able to arrive at complex order in “fast time”, must necessarily be front loaded; a front loading that is easily construed by a theist as a gift of providence.

In some respects Dembski well demonstrates what I suspect are subliminal commonalities of mindset between the Christian Right and the Militant atheists. As I said in my last post:

If evolution has occurred then it clearly keeps its load of active information well hidden, so much so that neither the anti-evolutionists nor militant atheists are aware of it; or perhaps they just don’t want to acknowledge it. In the opinion of both parties evolution purports to be a process that can boot strap living configurations from next to nothing. Thus anti-evolutionists and atheists have very large stakes in the respective presence or absence of explicit information discontinuities in nature; in contrast evolution’s information discontinuity is very implicit and is not to be found in material reifications, like front loaded genetic information.

Using Venn diagram notation the picture that Dembski is foisting on all theists is shown below:

(Click to enlarge)

Notice that in the above diagram ID and evolution do not overlap; they are mutually exclusive. In this diagram we see that according to Dembski all atheists are evolutionists and that a subset of theists find themselves (compromisingly) in the evolutionist camp. Needless to say this is where Dembski and I sharply part company. I would suggest that the true picture looks more like this:

(Click to enlarge)

This diagram indicates the logical impossibility of constructing processes that create complex order in “fast time” without a blatant “logical hiatus” or “information discontinuity” being present. I see no way out of this logical trap; evolution or any other process inevitably displays this logical discontinuity. Therefore I have presumptuously labeled this all inclusive set as “intelligent design” because being a theist I see this as the gift of providence. Moreover, the real picture is far more complicated than Dembski suggests: As my Venn diagram shows atheists are not necessarily evolutionists. In fact when constructing the above Venn diagram I contemplated drawing the atheist and evolution circles projecting partly beyond the “ID” circle in order to suggest an atheist attempt to escape the trap of a Logical Hiatus – although I personally can’t see how that can be achieved and so I have shown atheism to reside inside the ID circle; they (and evolution) are the unconscious benefactors of providence.

Is it any surprise that Christian Darwinians have fallen out with Dembski and friends and will have nothing to do with a concept of ID exclusively defined in anti-evolution terms? As Dembski says:

Ironically, theistic evolutionists now make common cause with atheistic evolutionists—specifically against ID. ID has become public enemy number one for both atheistic and theistic evolutionists (the recent spate of books by both sides confirms this point—atheist Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True as well as theist Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory). Consequently, not just the mainstream academy but the mainstream Christian academy (Wheaton College, Calvin College, Seattle Pacific University, etc. — most schools in the CCCU) have now closed their doors to ID and to hiring faculty that explicitly support it.

Well surprise, surprise. Little wonder that mainstream Christian academies are closing their doors to the Christian right’s anti-evolutionist rendering of ID. Dembski and his right wing friends have cast the debate in the mold of a polarised ID vs. evolution battle thus effectively accusing those Christians who defect from the Christian right’s concept of ID as crypto-naturalists; a charge that is tantamount to an accusation of blasphemy. As I said over two years ago when I first started looking at this whole debate:

They frame the debate to look as though it is ‘naturalistic’ evolution vs. ‘supernatural’ creation by God with, of course, ID coming in on the side of God against those who, like myself, favour evolution. Ironically, many atheists would agree with this framing.

So it seems I have come full circle. How can Christian Darwinians do business with Dembski and friends when the innuendo is that those who do not support Dembski’s version of ID must be crypto-materialists who worship “a god of some sort”? I’m the first to admit that conventional evolution, as far as I am concerned, is only a working hypothesis, a hypothesis that may need considerable modification in the light of the Creator’s providence, but the unwarranted polarization superimposed by Dembski on the subject makes a relationship with the right wing Christian culture he represents impossible. As I said in my last post:

This ……. right wing reaction against evolution is now culturally locked into the contemporary ID movement to the extent that it is impossible for them to countenance “evilution” as one of the options by which divine intelligence may operate. The Christian right wants to undermine the atheist’s main support and therefore evolution must go at all costs.

Dembski echoes precisely this point when he says:

Christians in general need to consider this: The only thing theistic evolutionists have to say to a Richard Dawkins who uses evolution as a club to beat believers is that he’s making a category mistake, trying to get science to do the work of theology (to which Dawkins would respond “so much the worse for theology”). By contrast, ID takes the club out of Dawkins’ hands and breaks it, showing that the theory of evolution on which he relies is all washed up.

What neither Dembski nor Dawkins seems to have spotted is that that club may already have “ID” (or at least “Logical Hiatus”) written all over it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Darwin Bicentenary: Final Summing up.

Bad Ben says "Evolution is a brilliant theory and Darwin was brilliant guy.” See here

My 2009 blog series on the Darwin bicentenary was, from the start, a pretext to ponder some aspects of the ID community’s challenge to evolution. I stress some because I confined myself to those issues I thought I understood best. I am hoping that this will be the last post on the matter, thus keeping my New Year resolution to stop blogging on this subject and to start thinking about something else.

In part 1 of this post I looked at those facets of the ID movement’s work I like best; in particular Dembski’s papers on active information and the very crucial challenge of irreducibly complexity. In this final part I will look at aspects I am less fond of. None of the following is to say that there is no case against evolution; it’s just that some areas of anti-evolutionist polemic are, in my view, technically inept. Most of the following points I have touched on in my series. They represent my personnel digest and impressions after nearly two years of contact with the anti-evolutionists on Uncommon Descent. It is therefore difficult to formally reference them against the movement’s work, so I’m taking a “if the hat fits, then wear it” approach here.

ONE) Misunderstanding the second law of thermodynamics: Some anti-evolutionists still hold the erroneous view that the second law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution. (See this post). This fallacy, I think, is mostly prevalent amongst Young Earth Creationists: It is a fallacy they have repeated to themselves time, time and again and in the repeating they have become entrenched. The loss of face in going back on this entrenched position is unendurable. To challenge this fallacy is to face a desperate antagonist who will cling to it for all he’s worth.

Entropy is defined as S = k Log Z, where Z is the statistical weight of a macrostate. The second law tells us that dS/dt > 0 for an isolated system. The equation for S alone ought to provide YECs with a big hint as to their error. Z is defined given the constraints of the laws of physics. Thus the quantity Z does not necessarily equate to our intuitive concept of disorder because conceivably the physical regime may so restrict possibilities that Z will include a relatively high proportion of states containing self-perpetuating complex ordered forms. Since physical laws transcend thermodynamic decay, our intuitive concept of what increasing Z entails may be completely awry.

TWO) “Chance and necessity”: Another misunderstanding I see perpetuated amongst the anti-evolutionists is embodied in their use of the phrase “chance and necessity”. They identify “Necessity” with the laws of physics. Hence, they conclude that since “Necessity” must have a probability of 1 then it follows that physical laws have a probability of 1. Therefore they wrongly conclude that the patterns generated by physical laws can’t contain information.

THREE) Conflating complexity with information: A very simple outcome with a very low probability will, by Dembski’s definition of information (-log [p]), have very high information content. But a more complex outcome with a high probability will contain less information than an improbable simple outcome. Ergo, the complexity of an outcome is not necessarily an indication of its information content; some anti-evolutionists seem confused about this distinction.

FOUR) Denial that living complexity could conceivably be implicit in simple laws: As a rule anti-evolutionists don’t give much credence to the idea that life is implicit in our physical regime – from their misleading “chance and necessity” perspective they regard it as impossible for the complex information of life to be implicit in physics. Given this belief it is surely ironic that one of their most effective challenges to evolution, that is, irreducible complexity, depends on a very complex object being entailed by physics: Irreducible complexity requires living structures to populate morphospace* as isolated islands of self perpetuating functionality. This conjectured evolution blocking pattern in morphospace is itself a very complex object, potentially containing lots of information. It is an object that would necessarily have to be implicit in the physics that many anti-evolutionists claim “cannot create information”. Thus, the important challenge of irreducible complexity depends on physics entailing a very complex object. If elementary physics is conjectured to imply an intricate pattern that blocks evolution, it would seem that those who tender the opposite conjecture of self-perpetuating functionality forming a connected set in morphospace is not a position that can be criticised on the basis that physics cannot “create” the information required by this object.

FIVE) The polarization of intelligence against evolution: The anti-evolutionists are apt to contrast intelligent agency with the “mindlessness” of evolution. But “intelligence” as we understand it in its human form at least, has a strong trial and error component suggesting that there are deep isomorphisms between evolution, intelligence and algorithmic searches. Moreover, it needs to be pointed out that human technological progress is only possible if “technological morphospace” is populated with functionality in such a way that it is possible for human intelligence to jump the gap from one technological development to the next; without this level of technological “reducible complexity” human technological advance is impossible.

SIX) Intelligence polarized against “naturalism”: Consider this statement which I once read somewhere on Uncommon Descent:

“The four fundamental forces must explain everything on earth if you don’t believe in intelligent design”

So; does it follow that if one does believe in Intelligent Design then one doesn’t believe that the four fundamental forces “explain everything”? No, the above sentence doesn’t actually say that, but it leaves unsaid whether or not the four fundamental forces also constitute a candidate manifestation of intelligent design. If the four forces do “explain life” they would presumably have to be correctly selected in order to make evolution work. The question is, then: Which requires more intelligence: Creating life directly or via the selection of the right laws? Given that many anti-evolutionists are theists, it is ironic that they should set "intelligence" over and against “naturalism” when in fact it is clear that any thoroughgoing Christian theism sees “naturalism” as sourced in divine designs. If the “natural” is divinely sourced then why don’t the anti-evolutionists at least acknowledge evolution as an intelligent design option (albeit one they disagree with)? These matter need to be clarified amongst anti-evolutionists.

SEVEN) Is “Intelligently Designed” the same as “Designed”? The use of the qualifier “Intelligent” may hint at the presence of a rather anthropomorphic valued judgment. I myself would prefer to just use the unqualified term “design” (or even “providence”) for two reasons:
1. “Design” is a more neutral term that can be used to designate the abstract notion that our descriptions of the ontology of the cosmos will always contain an irreducible Logical Hiatus; that is, an apparent contingent giveness will always remain whether we think it to be “intelligently” sourced or not.
2. It avoids the difficulties of trying to assess the motives and capabilities of a designer; for example assessing whether a work of art is intelligent is not so easy given that it is bound up with the artist’s motives, aims and personal complexes.
Perhaps a more objective measure of intelligence could be arrived at in terms of the computational complexity required to arrive at a configuration. In this connection I don’t find Dembski’s concept of complex specified information very helpful. (See here)

EIGHT) No acknowledgement of evolution as a possible design candidate:There are Christians such as Sir John Polkinghorne who believe evolution has occurred and yet who would claim that the propensity for the Universe to be so “fruitful” in evolutionary terms is down to God’s provision (or design). Ostensively, then, evolution too can be interpreted as a design candidate. Whether evolution has actually occurred is not the point here: One Uncommon Descent poster (See here) has acknowledged that genetic front loading is one way of explaining common descent. Although he himself doesn’t believe this has actually happened he allows such a view to be classified as a form of intelligent design. This act of classification raises the question why evolution itself, which as Dembski has shown must be necessarily be fueled by some kind of front loaded “active” information for it to work, can’t also be included in the ID fold!

NINE) Contemporary ID: A theory-less movement: I have criticized the anti-evolutionists on the basis that they have no agreed working theory of natural history: Their theories of natural history may range from Young Earth Creationism to a form of genetically front loaded evolution, as we have seen. Hence their scientific endeavors are largely guided by an anti-science heuristic – that is, one of seeking out the weaknesses in the academic establishment’s edifice of evolution. Actually, I might be prepared to withdraw this criticism given that positing the involvement of super intelligence naturally introduces an entity that could work in quite mysterious ways and thus be scientifically intractable. But then if that intelligence is so inscrutable perhaps conventional evolution, with its burden of implicit active information, is that entity’s chosen method of working. Who knows?

TEN) The politicization of science in a Christian right vs. atheist contention: Evolution has been portrayed by atheists as a process that from its inception to its conclusion is mindless, a process that in the words of Richard Dawkins allows him to become an intellectually satisfied atheist. Thus “evilution” has become the ogre of the Christian right, a rival to creation, an insentient chaos monster that purports to be able to create organized complexity from next to nothing. Evolution’s almost universal acceptance amongst left wing and liberal atheists only confirms to the Christian right that evolution can only ever be anti-intelligence and therefore anti-God. This consequent right wing reaction against evolution is now culturally locked into the contemporary ID movement to the extent that it is impossible for them to countenance “evilution” as one of the options by which divine intelligence may operate. The Christian right wants to undermine the atheist’s main support and therefore evolution must go at all costs. This anti-evolutionist opposition to the liberal academic establishment’s evolutionary world view also marries well with their opposition to that establishment’s views on global warming.

If evolution has occurred then it clearly keeps its load of active information well hidden, so much so that neither the anti-evolutionists nor militant atheists are aware of it; or perhaps they just don’t want to acknowledge it. In the opinion of both parties evolution purports to be a process that can boot strap living configurations from next to nothing. Thus anti-evolutionists and atheists have very large stakes in the respective presence or absence of explicit information discontinuities in nature; in contrast evolution’s information discontinuity is very implicit and is not to be found in material reifications, like front loaded genetic information.

The contemporary ID movement has fallen out badly with the evolutionists like Francis Collins and Ken Miller. Collins and Miller, like Polkinghorne, are theists and therefore they are very likely to attribute evolutionary fruitfulness to divine providence or design. So, why can’t Miller and Collins join forces with Uncommon Descent and their philosophical views on evolution be incorporated into a united ID front? In spite of at least one ID theorist allowing genetically front loaded common descent being identified as an ID candidate my guess is that this can never happen with conventional evolution even though it must also be a front loaded process. There are, I suspect, fundamental fault lines here bound up with political and vested interests making such a union impossible: The Christian right, the free market economists and those who are itching to identify President Obama as Mr. 666 may have something to do with it. It is beginning to look to me as if political identification counts for more than one’s belief in theism, Christianity, or even in intelligent design. According to her wiki page, Christian right winger Anne Coulter (pictured) has the following (tongue in cheek?) concept of the ideal world:

"It would look like New York City during the Republican National Convention. In fact, that's what I think heaven is going to look like."

I hope to scale the monumental irony introduced by the right wing connection on my blog Noumena, Cognita and Dreams.** (If there is any doubt about a right wing connection have a look at this post that has just popped up on Uncommon Descent)

Heavenly Body: Ann Coulter is
in Heaven whenever she goes
to a republican convention.

* I must make one thing clear here: Morphospace, in the sense that I use it, refers to both microscopic as well as macroscopic configuration.

** The intended post was in fact published on this blog: See here

Monday, March 08, 2010

The God Computation.

I was fascinated to read this post on Uncommon Descent by Barry Arrington. He gives us a link to an article claiming to have calculated that the probability of abiogenesis to be in the order of 10 to the power of -1018 (Presumably a “spontaneous” probability calculated without reference to the structure of morphospace). This figure, he says, has given some impetus to multiverse views because clearly only a multiverse can provide the probabilistic resources for the required “miracle” of spontaneous creation to take place. Barry then goes on to propose:

But the theist can play this game too. “The existence of God is not logically impossible. In an infinite number of universes everything that is not logically impossible is in fact instantiated, and we just happen to live in one of those universes in which God is instantiated”

Somebody in the comments thread takes Barry to task over the question of logical possibility: The multiverse, the correspondent says, doesn’t imply a carte blanche logical possibility because the multiverse itself is subject to laws (God knows what laws!). That comment seems true enough, but it reckons without Stephen Wolfram’s conjecture of computational equivalence: Viz: Any computation exceeding a certain threshold of complexity will, given enough time, exhibit computational universality – that is, it will compute any computable function and only God knows just what huge computations are out there in the platonic realm waiting to be reified as a real computation. So, if our multiverse is one of these universal computations it will, as it rings the changes of chaos, eventually come up with anything computationally possible. If, then, there is such a thing as a “god computation” or “god function” out there, somewhere sometime the multiverse will compute it! Therefore perhaps Barry Arrington’s point is valid after all!

The irony is that it seems that a multiverse theorist has already arrived at the very juncture anticipated by Arrington. I am thinking of the “computer simulation” argument. This argument tells us that in a multiverse there is a very high probability we are part of some kind of huge computer simulation initiated and controlled by a being or beings who as far as we humans are concerned would have the sort of powers over the simulation that we traditionally associate with deity. See here for details. I once commented on this matter myself here!

One version of the computer simulation theory suggests that it must be these guys who are simulating our universe.