Sunday, June 06, 2010

Dembski, McIntosh and “Evilution”.

There is a rumour that the Flat Earth society have sided with William Dembski.

This post on Uncommon Descent publishes the abstract of a paper by Andy McIntosh. The paper, according to William Dembski, is about the “thermodynamic barriers” to Darwinian evolution. Here are my comments on various parts of the abstract:

McIntosh: The theory of evolution postulates that random mutations and natural selection can increase genetic information over successive generations.

My Comment: No. Assuming the concept of “information” here is similar to that used by Dembski (that is –log[p]) then evolution, as currently concieved is not a process that creates of information. As I have tried to show in this blog Evolution converts information from one form of information into another: It does not pretend to transform an absolute improbability into a realistic probability. Being an anti-evolutionist McIntosh is likely to be anxious to cast “evilution” into the mold of a pretender to the throne of information creator.

McIntosh: By [evolution] it is proposed that a particular system can become organised at the expense of an increase in entropy elsewhere. However, whilst this argument works for structures such as snowflakes that are formed by natural forces, it does not work for genetic information because the information system is composed of machinery which requires precise and non-spontaneous raised free energy levels – and crystals like snowflakes have zero free energy as the phase transition occurs.

My Comment: No. A raised free energy is not in and of itself relevant as a road block to evolution. Osmosis is a process driven by an increase in entropy and yet it is capable of locally raising the free energy of a column of liquid in as much is it may become higher and thus contain more potential energy. Much more pertinent than these raised free energies is the fact that the configurations of genetic information are, when placed in the right biological context, “meaningful”. As we know purely natural forces ensure that a growing organism annexes increasing amounts of material into a state of raised free energy. In this case the information is transformed from preexisting biopolymers into the newly annexed material. Thus, the crucial issue is NOT raised free energies as such but the origin of the information that succeeds in propagating from one form of reification to another.

McIntosh: …. biological structures contain coded instructions which, as is shown in this paper, are not defined by the matter and energy of the molecules carrying this information. Thus, the specified complexity cannot be created by natural forces even in conditions far from equilibrium. The genetic information needed to code for complex structures like proteins actually requires information which organises the natural forces surrounding it and not the other way around – the information is crucially not defined by the material on which it sits.

My Comment: No. Once again I see hints of the common view of anti-evolutionists to expect to see information reified on some material substrate and thus they wrongly conclude that because they can’t find such a reification then that information doesn’t exist in our divinely selected cosmic set up. Anti-evolutionists refer to the processes of that cosmic set up as “natural forces”, a term they use pejoratively in the sense of “mere natural forces”. Trouble is, natural forces generate life every time life is propagated in the womb or egg. The issue is not whether natural forces can generate life, since clearly they can, but just where these natural forces get their information from to do so: As I have suggested in this blog this information could conceivably be found in the platonic world of configuration space and the selection of the function T(L). ( See my last but one blog )

McIntosh: The fundamental laws of thermodynamics show that entropy reduction which can occur naturally in non-isolated systems is not a sufficient argument to explain the origin of either biological machinery or genetic information that is inextricably intertwined with it.

My Comment: Yes, I completely agree. But contrary wise, the law of overall increasing entropy is not sufficient argument to eliminate evolution from the inquiry. This is because entropy is a measure of the number of microstates consistent with a macrostate. It is therefore a quantity that is measured given the ordering effects of the physical laws constraining the system and therefore it is not very sensitive to measures of absolute disorder; a system can move to its most disordered state in terms of entropy, and yet because of physical constraints, still be a very ordered system in absolute terms. It is ironic that it is precisely the specter of an intelligent designer lurking behind the cosmic scene that prevents the elimination of evolution from this inquiry: The cosmic set up could be a cleverly selected design option of an intelligence capable of conceiving the abstract function T(L).

McIntosh: This paper highlights the distinctive and non-material nature of information and its relationship with matter, energy and natural forces. It is proposed in conclusion that it is the non-material information (transcendent to the matter and energy) that is actually itself constraining the local thermodynamics to be in ordered disequilibrium and with specified raised free energy levels necessary for the molecular and cellular machinery to operate.

My Comment: Yes and no. ‘Yes’ because evolutionary information may be located in the immaterial and abstract space pertaining to the function T(L). It is this function which may constrain thermodynamics to such a degree that increasing entropy (which ironically becomes the diffusional dynamic that hunts for life) is capable of not only locally raising free energy levels (as in osmosis) but of also of raising the probability of the right configurations. The function T(L) transcends the decay of the second law. ‘No’ because, once again, McIntosh introduces the same lame materialistic aunt sally of “natural forces” as the “informationless” elemental pretender to the Creator’s crown. McIntosh and his fellow anti-evolutionists can therefore picture themselves as crusaders fighting the good fight against the straw man of “naturalism”.

Summing up Comments: From McIntosh's abstract alone things are not looking good for his paper . I’m not convinced that people like Dembski and Mcintosh are able to eliminate status-quo evolution from the inquiry for the right reasons. Instead they continue to try to short cut the issue by attempting to cast the debate into the dualistic mold of “natural forces” vs. the Creator; an approach that fails to do justice to the fact that those natural forces are themselves the Creator’s creation. I suspect that if I read McIntosh’s paper I would find nothing technically wrong it: The devil is likely to be in a subliminal dualistic “naturalism vs. creation” spin that he would impose on the argument, a spin we can start to detect in the abstract. Let me make it clear that none of this necessarily means that evolution is actually a viable process given the particular physical regime of our cosmic theatre – the constraint embodied in T(L) may not be sufficiently great for the computation engine of entropic diffusion to return a realistic probability for the formation of life.

Many ID theorists are very immersed in the politics of the evolution vs. anti-evolution debate and from their embattled perspective "Intelligent Design" and "anti-evolutionism" are interchangeable terms. For them “evolution” and intelligent design are an irreconcilable dichotomy and this in turn is a reflection of a polarized conceptual filter that sees the whole debate through a "naturalism vs. creator" paradigm. Therefore I have grave doubts about the ability of McIntosh and Dembski to handle the philosophical and theological issues correctly. But for some followers lacking in expertise Dembski and McIntosh are the people Christians are supposed to get behind. In this thread on Network Norwich & Norfolk an anti-evolutionist correspondent started pushing McIntosh’s view on Thermodynamics. (see towards end of the thread). The said correspondent clearly had little understanding of the subject and presumably naively thought McIntosh had enough authority to end the argument, which of course he doesn’t. This correspondent was, I believe, a young earth creationist; evidence that the anti-evolutionists are a broad and uneasy coalition of young earth and old earth Christians, perhaps united by the abuse they get from the scientific establishment. It is not surprising, then, that when one of their number succeeds in getting a peer reviewed paper published they hang out the flags.

This reverend gentleman is clearly not connecting with his passions; he's far too balanced

Polarisation passion feeds. Passion polarisation breeds. Polarisation is passion's cause, for crusade and holy wars.

Interesting is this post by Denise O'leary on Uncommon Descent where she accuses Biologos, the Christian science think tank founded by Francis Collins thus:

I suggest that the real action now is with groups like Biologos, aimed explicitly at persuading Christians that they can maintain an intellectually respectable faith without believing that the universe (?) or life forms show evidence of design.

As I said above "For them evolution and intelligent design are an irreconcilable dichotomy...". Christians who believe in evolution now stand accused by O'leary of not giving the Divine designer credit and instead of believing in "natural forces". Little wonder that I am so loathe to side with these anti-evolutionists; in fact, how can one side with them when there is a real danger of being spiritually incriminated in this way?

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