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

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