Friday, December 24, 2010

Blind Alleys

I was interested in a statement on this post on UD claiming that evolution is “mathematically impossible”. I eagerly followed the link supplied to find what it was all about. Alas, I drew another blank: The assumption was that the underlying process driving evolution is reproduction and natural selection. This article doesn’t engage the question of the more general and abstract object needed to drive evolution, namely the arrangement of stable structures in configuration space.

Another rather notable post on UD is this one by Cornelius Hunter. He tries to make a distinction between “origins and operation”, a duality which to my mind is rather dubious as it smacks of the subliminal deism in the anti-evolutionist community. I shall be looking at that post in more detail in due course.

Stop Press 29/12/2010
Continuing with my recent theme of mechanism, interventionism and subliminal deism here is post on UD that contains a fairly clear expression of a paradigm at work which dichotomizes physical mechanism and interventionism. It also expresses a strong (and unsupported) assertion of the raison-d’ĂȘtre of the anti-evolution community; namely, the belief that mechanism can’t generate life. (In the article read “frontloading” as “mechanism”). This underlying philosophy of anti-mechanism is a reaction to the perceived threat of deism and the subliminal belief that mechanisms serve a redundancy notice on the "interventionist" God. For that reason anti-evolutionism will have a very strong hold on the minds of many religious people. Since "frontloading" (sic) requires Intelligent Agency it is revealed that UD's position is not primarily one of Intelligent Design, but has more to do with an existential need to see God "re-employed" by giving Him an overt role in the processes of the physical world and re-establish confidence in the "intervening" God.

Stop Press 31/12/2010
This looks interesting and possibly mold breaking: A new poster on UD claiming to be a theistic evolutionist (“of sorts”). The poster shows signs of walking a tight-rope: He is a Theistic Evolutionist, but has come to realize that “Darwinism” is different from “Evolution” and he has little patience for the former (I’d be interested to know how he makes this distinction). He’s got over his hostility to YECs and divine interventions and yet is comfortable with the concept that perhaps no direct interventions took place, if that is indeed the case, because for him the overriding issue concerns design detection; the means of creation are less important to him than the fact that things were designed and created.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More on “Self” Organisation

I was honoured to have received a comment from Richard Johns on my blog post about his "Self Organization" paper . I have reproduced Richard’s comment and my reply below. I have also added some further remarks:

Hi Timothy,

Thanks for your detailed treatment of my paper -- actually the best I have seen.

The objection you raise is a good one, although I think it can be answered. (Jeffrey Shallit made the same point in an email to me.)

There are simple (i.e. short) algorithms that can generate irregular strings, as I define them. You mention pseudo-random sequences, and I have previously thought about the digits of Pi. Hence these things are algorithmically simple, despite their irregularity.

As I pointed out to Shallit, I claim that irregular objects are *dynamically* complex, not *algorithmically* complex. And, while it seems certain that dynamically simple objects are algorithmically simple (since dynamical systems can be emulated by computers) the converse is far less obvious. In other words, while the digits of Pi can be generated by a short program, it might not be produceable easily within a dynamical system, from a random initial state.

If a converse theorem does hold, however (i.e. algorithmically simple objects are dynamically simple) then my arguments have gone wrong somewhere. But even in that case, self-organisation theories of evolution will be in a difficult position. For they will then be committed to the claim that living organisms are algorithmically (and dynamically) simple. In other words, living organisms are like Pi, merely *appearing* to be complex, while in fact being generated by a very short program. (Vastly shorter than their genomes, for example.)

Following Richard Dawkins, who coined the term "designoid" for an apparently designed object, one might say that living organisms are "complexoid". While perhaps not obviously false, this view is likely to be very unattractive.

My reply now follows:

Thanks for the comment Richard,

I am not sure I understand what you mean by producing an object *dynamically* as opposed to *algorithmically*. In your paper you seem to be using a cellular automata model to generate your objects. No problems with that except that as far as I understand, cellular automata can be simulated algorithmically and therefore fall under the algorithmic category. Moreover, if Stephen Wolfram’s work is anything to go by (and some of my own work), cellular automata also generate complex “Pi” like patterns pretty quickly – complex in the sense you have defined in your paper; that is they show a high irregularity or “disorder” as I call it.

Now this doesn’t mean to say, of course, that life actually is the product of a clever dynamics, but given both your definition of irregularity and your use of an algorithmic cellular automata model, it seems we are back to square one – we haven’t yet succeeded in eliminating self organization from the inquiry. However, for reasons I have given in this blog entry I can see why a “soft focus” version of your limitative theorem applies. But given that the resources of an Intelligent Designer is within my particular terms of reference, then it seems not outside the bounds of possibility that should the required fruitful self organizing regime actually be a mathematically possibility, then that intelligence is capable of contriving it.

If (repeat if) this is the case then it is wrong to conclude that life must therefore be algorithmically simple for this reason: The space of all possible algorithms, though a lot smaller than the space of all possible configurations, is still a very, very large space as far as we humans are concerned. I suspect (and this is only a hunch) that not any old algorithm has the right Self Organising properties required to generate living things - in which case selecting the right algorithm is then a computationally complex task; that is, life is not algorithmically simple in absolute terms.

One more thing: Imagine that you were given the problem of Pi in reverse; that is you were given the pattern of digits and yet had no clue as to what, if any, simple algorithm generated it. The hard problem then is to guess the algorithm – generating Pi after you have found the algorithm is the easy problem. So to me life remains algorithmically complex even if it’s a product of SO.


ONE) I am still not sure just how Richard defines the word “dynamic”. The only thing I have to go on is that he drew his conclusions from a cellular automata model, which I assume is his understanding of a dynamic system (?). Wolfram’s cellular system is effectively just another model of computation and therefore I guess that it would be possible to program cellular automata to calculate Pi; such a program is likely to be “simple” in as much as it is likely to have a short length, a short execution time and start with a simple initial state. Therefore I cannot make sense of what Richard means by suggesting that Pi is likely to be dynamically complex, but algorithmically simple.

TWO) I conclude therefore, that Pi can be “easily” generated within a dynamical system. However, Richard actually says this: “In other words, while the digits of Pi can be generated by a short program, it might not be produceable easily within a dynamical system, from a random initial state.” That last phrase, “from a random initial state”, is crucial as it rescues Richard’s statement: If the algorithm is the sort where the initial state and the corresponding output have a one to one mapping then most initial conditions will not lead to Pi in a realistic time. Therefore a random initial state is very unlikely to lead to Pi being calculated in a realistic time.

THREE) As I have said above a “soft focus” version of Richard’s limitative theorem is valid: If one is selecting algorithms and initial states blindly then you are very unlikely to get the result you are looking for. In other words if you’ve got monkeys programming your cellular automata it’s going to be a “garbage in/garbage out” situation. But if the programming of a dynamical system is in the hands of an intelligent agent and you might just get what you are looking for. Richard has effectively shown that if a dynamical system is to produce a configurationally complex output of a particular kind in realistic time then the dynamical algorithm has to be carefully selected. But it is easy to misinterpret this result: It is certainly not as strong as saying there are absolutely no simple algorithms which can generate particular complex outputs in short execution times; in fact as we know simple algorithms can quickly generate complex output in the sense defined by Richard; that is in the sense of being “irregular” or “disordered”. So, basically we are left with the question I keep coming back to: Do simple “short time” dynamical algorithms exist which are fruitful in their generation of a subclass of complex forms and functions? As far as the question of evolution is concerned then, in a word, Richard’s work doesn’t eliminate Self Organization as a suspect in the inquiry. Richard is not so much wrong in his conclusions as they are easy to misinterpret. However, let me say that in my opinion the term “Self organization” is a complete misnomer: There is no “Self” about it: If evolution works it only does so because the right algorithm has been selected by some transcendent super-context; whether we believe that context to be some impersonal mindless multiverse or an all-embracing, “self explaining” intelligence. (I subscribe to the latter view)

FOUR) However, having made that last statement we have to bear in mind that in the anti-evolution community evolution and ID are likely to be portrayed as mutually excluding; that is, the anti-evolution community perceive this debate as a “evolution vs. intelligent design” dichotomy. Hence they are inclined to eliminate evolution from the enquiry by definition; that is, by defining in advance evolution to be a mindless, blind process (ironically atheists are likely to agree with this characterization of evolution!). Thus any suggestion that evolution works by way of the clever selection of a dynamical algorithm is considered an oxymoron. We can see this “definition in advance” at work in Richard’s paper: He starts by presuming that the agent selecting the program of the cellular automata to be blind and thus effectively lacking in intelligence. Not surprisingly if Richard is going to employ chimps to select his algorithm he’s going to get out bananas.
"I only employ chimps, but to get a result I need a lot of them"

FIVE) Unless one subscribes to some kind of multiverse/infinite trial system, even bog standard evolution, if it is to work, must be resourced by improbable preconditions. This improbability has the effect of triggering Demsbki’s design detection criterion and thus in the abstract evolution has the imprimatur of Intelligent Design. However, the ID community represented by Uncommon Descent are defacto anti-evolutionist and therefore they will do their damndest to try and show evolution to be a mindless process that simply doesn’t work; anyone who so much as entertains evolution as a viable “self organizing” candidate is likely to be accused of courting “naturalism” and perhaps even accused of failing a crucial faith test. The irony is that they, along with the militant atheists, seem to have subliminally bought into the deistical intuition that “well oiled” mathematical mechanisms need no divine support or perhaps not even a divine initiator. (See my blog post here)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Beyond Our Ken: On Mature Creation. Part 1

"I’d love a bit of Apatosaurus but all we get is ham, ham, ham"

I have been looking into the concept of “mature creation” as propounded by the Young Earth aficionados on the Answers in Genesis web site. Reading some of their web pages it becomes clear they much prefer the terms “mature creation” or “functioning creation” to “appearance of age”. They don’t like their supporters talking about an “appearance of age” because, for reasons we are well aware of, AiG don’t believe in a cosmos of great age and therefore won’t accept that the universe even “looks” old. As Ken Ham says (See here)

“By saying the universe looks old, you are trusting that dating methods can give us an apparent old age for the universe—but they can’t.” Let me explain. When people say the universe has “apparent age,” usually they are assuming, for whatever reason, that the universe “looks old.” I have often found that, unconsciously, such people have already accepted that the fallible dating methods of scientists can give great ages for the earth. So if they believe what the Scripture says about a young universe, they have to explain away this apparent great age.

What Ken is saying here is that he completely distrusts any dating methods. That’s really not news, of course - if he did trust them he’d be out of his job as AiG supremo. Given that few, if any, dating methods return Earth’s history to be anything as short as 6000 years it is no surprise that AiG policy is to do its damndest to undermine all dating methods. Rather than propose a reliable physical dating method themselves, AiG science is the science of negation. However, later on in the same article Ken goes on to show that in his mind the appearance of age is not just loaded with the concept of a chronological age:

When doctors look at the human body today, they can estimate age from various evidences in the body. But before sin, nothing aged—everything was created “very good.” The human body did not experience the effects of sin or aging.
What would a doctor from today’s fallen world say if he looked at Adam and Eve’s bodies just after they were created? This doctor would be very confused. Such perfect bodies would show no degenerative aging, and he would be shocked to learn that these adults were less than a day old.

Here, in addition to chronological age, Ken is loading the term “age” also with the idea of degeneration. Ken, of course, believes the process of cosmic degeneration originates from Adam’s sin. So, when he says “before sin, nothing aged” he means that “before sin, nothing degenerated”.

In introducing the concept of degeneration Ken is actually clouding the argument because clearly evidence of an object having a history does not necessarily imply degeneration. For example, all human beings today have navels – a navel is not in itself evidence of temporal degeneration of the human body but simply evidence of its history – namely, that each individual was formed in the womb. So we must distinguish between degenerative age and Chronological age. Regardless of whether they degenerate or not objects have a history. Two questions then naturally arise: Firstly, do objects with a history carry evidence of that history? Secondly can we quantify that history in units of time? The answer to these questions may be “yes” or “no”: Some objects carry more information about their history than others. Some objects have lots of information about their history even to the extent that we may be able to quantify their age. Others have little or no information and to all intents and purposes are a-historical.

Given that some objects display inherently historical features and others are a-historical, then we find that this fact determines the policy of AiG: Objects which contain little or no historical information means that AiG can claim that they were created as fully functioning objects, whereas objects that have blatantly historical indicators forces AiG to endeavour to reconstruct a history (< 6000 years of course) to explain these indicators.

As I have said before we must be grateful for small mercies. The AiG policy is at least an improvement on those forms of Young Earth Creationism that have no qualms about the ex nihilo creation of objects with a bogus appearance of history: Notorious examples are those YECs who claim that the light from the stars was created in mid flight and that fossils were created in situ. As a rule AiG shies away from this sort of approach because it clearly impugns the integrity of the created order and shows little respect for it. At least AiG haven’t become so uselessly spiritual that they have adopted a comprehensively anti-science stance and retreated into a fideist ghetto of spiritual ultras. But the trouble is, as we shall see, some objects don’t easily slide one way or the other into the historical and a-historical categories; like most real categories the boundaries are fuzzy. be continued

Evolution: (Not) Wanted Dead or Alive

Further to my recent posts on luddites, mechanism, and evolution, here’s another post  on Uncommon Descent indicating the anti-evolutionist’s timorousness toward any suggestion that “Natural” mechanism may be a source of form and function. Quoting the salient points:

Rene Descartes … urged evolutionary ideas because of the evident power of natural law. Yes god created humanity, but individuals are born and grow according to law. From people to plants, we observe incredible development brought about by nature. So too, the continental rationalist argued, we should understand the origin of the world as strictly naturalistic as well.

Decades later the influential Thomas Burnet showed how the Cartesian view is theologically mandated. Rather than creating a clock that doesn’t work and needs constant adjustment, the greater clockmaker makes a clock that works by itself. Likewise, the Anglican cleric argued, the greater god makes a world that operates on its own.

Cornelius Hunter, the author of the post, spells out the much dreaded deistical scenario:

And these machines assemble and operate according to natural law—there is no vitalism here, no divine finger adjusting the cogs and turning the crank.

This then is the threat posed by evolution in the minds of the anti-evolutionists and yet at the same time the great joy of the militant atheists: Evolution in the first instance appears to put God out of work, therefore the next logical step is to question whether He was ever there in the first place to be put out of work. Whether evolution works or not the anti-evolutionist doesn’t want it. Whether it works or not the militant atheist wants evolution. Hence for the anti-evolutionist evolution must go at all costs whereas for the atheist it must stay at all costs. It is doubtful in my mind whether such impassioned protagonists can handle this subject with sufficient detachment to arrive at a useful conclusion.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Impasse

These two posts one by PZ Myers and one by Paul Nelson bring out the key issue that separates the evolutionists from the anti-evolutionists. The critical issue is one I have made a lot of on this blog; namely, irreducible complexity versus reducible complexity. This question is about how our world is made in the abstract realm of configuration space; given our particular physics just how is the class of stable organic forms arranged in configuration space? Are these forms closely packed enough to allow random evolutionary jumps between them or are they too widely separated thus effectively blocking any possibility of evolution? It’s notable that both parties manage to address the same subject without appearing to be cognizant of this question. Configuration space is a huge, complex, abstract and perhaps mathematically intractable object; PZ Myers and Paul Nelson are like insects crawling around on the face of a mountain, unable to see the broad sweep of the landscape for what it is. Both parties need to humbled by the immense platonic landscape in which they are embedded.

The anti-evolutionists can’t finally prove that biological structures are irreducibly complex or be cognizant of the non-linearities that may lie in configuration space which could give rise to sudden evolutionary spurts. And yet the evolutionists can’t present a full suite of evidence showing that biological structures are reducibly complex. This argument is going to run and run.

You don't have to be religious to use religious logic: Just reconstruct this cartoon using either "reducible complexity" or "irreducible complexity" instead of "baseball".
With acknowledgements to:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Beware Luddites at Work.

In this post I developed the idea that many anti-evolutionists share the atheist's view that the “evolution machine” puts God out of work. Here is the relevant passage from that post:

The underlying ideas driving this kind of thinking are a very anthropomorphic; gone is the idea that God is so totalizing an entity that He is an environment, but instead God is imagined to be in an environment - almost to an extent reminiscent of the Grecian view of gods, gods who have very human attributes and live in a very human environment. The picture is of a God who, much like a human artisan, one day creates a cosmic sized mechanism that once running needs little sustenance, and which he can then walk out on and leave to manage itself.

Ironically the fundamentalists and anti-evolutionists share in this mindset; they have a sneaky suspicion that the atheists are right and that somehow mechanism, like the machines of the industrial revolution, is likely to put people out of work - even a cosmic designer. Anxious therefore to have a God who doesn’t put himself out of a job they downplay the abilities of mechanism to generate form and variety. It is no surprise then that for fundamentalists and anti-evolutionists using mechanism to explain life is bad, bad, bad, whereas using Divine fait is good, good, good.

There is a strong common gut feeling that the “Law and Disorder” mechanisms of modern physics betoken a regime that can function apart from the presence of God. The underlying anthropomorphism inherent in this form of deism is not only at the root of atheist thinking but also, ironically, not far away in anti-evolutionist thinking.

Now here is a passage taken from this post on Uncommon Descent that is the perfect illustration of what I mean:

Many Christians who say they believe in “Darwinism” do not understand what they are saying. They believe that God created through evolution and was involved in the process and guided it through to completion. They do not understand that “Darwinism” properly understood rejects the very view they hold. A Darwinist believes that the combination of natural law and random variation are sufficient to account for the origin and diversity of life without any guiding intelligence from God or anyone else. They believe that the human body is the result of a process that did not need God any more than a stone rolling down a hill needs God. Very often, therefore, the issue is not whether a Christian can believe Darwinism, but whether a Christian can hold a mistaken belief about Darwinism.

Darwinism, properly understood, is dangerous to all religious belief. It truly is, in Dennett’s phrase, a universal acid, and faith is one of the things that acid dissolves. It is for a very good reason that Dawkins famously proclaimed that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. And we see a strong correlation between the rise of Darwinism and the decline of religious faith, especially among the so-called intellectual elite. Belief can be very inconvenient when that belief places constraints on the sovereign will. Darwinism helps people throw off those constraints.

So the author of this post has imagined that it is possible posit processes that don't need God. Even the Athenian poets understood the error of this thinking: "...for in him we live and move and have our being". (Acts 17:28) As I said in my previous post I wouldn't say that I’m a 100% convinced by standard evolutionary theory (Caveat: that may be down to my ignorance of the details of evolutionary theory) but I stand by it partly because of some of the crass philosophy (and theology) one finds amongst the anti-evolutionists. As Nietzsche said:

Sometimes we remain true to a cause simply because its opponents are unfailingly tasteless. (or stupid – ed)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Anti-Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

Let's be upfront about what we stand for

This short post on Uncommon Descent contains the first reference I have seen on UD to the words “anti-evolutionist”. The inference is that UD is being identified as an anti-evolutionist web site rather than just an Intelligent Design web site. As I have maintained on this blog before, in popular parlance “Intelligent Design” now evokes anti-evolutionist connotations: This practice is misleading given that Christian evolutionist John Polkinghorne claims to be a Intelligent Design Creationist. If UD is primarily an anti-evolutionist site and secondarily an Intelligent Design site, then to date UD have done little to make this clear. I haven’t yet seen many posts on UD acknowledging that if evolution is to work it must be resourced by highly improbable preconditions thus flagging up Dembki’s ID detection  criterion and making it an ID candidate. If UD really stood by ID first and foremost they would be able to make peace with evolutionists like John Polkinghorne; but no, the agenda of UD is now cast in stone and probably too mixed up with right wing politics and Young Earth Creationism to make this possible. I would love to be proved wrong on this score.

Anyway, if from now on UD starts identifying itself as an “anti-evolutionist” web site we will know where they stand. But somehow I don’t think this will happen because they will want to continue to portray themselves as representative of the exclusive and one and only authentic ID community and therefore have an interest in making out  ID to be necessarily anti-evolution. They will therefore continue to misrepresent evolution as a necessarily informationless process that pretends to be able to create information.

Monday, December 06, 2010

God, Theology, Evidence and Observation

PZ Myers has an an interesting blog post on Terry Pratchett who is suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This is what PZ says:

The casual cruelty of nature is one example of the absence of a benevolent overseer in the universe. For another, I'd add the fact that Pratchett has been afflicted with a disease with no cure, of a kind that will slowly destroy his mind. We're left with only two alternatives: that if there is a god, he's insane or evil and rules the world with wanton whimsy; or the most likely answer, that there is no such being and it's simple chance that leads to these daily haphazard catastrophes.

PZ Myers’ comments remind me of Darwin’s loss of faith, a process that, I believe, was progressive and apparently linked to his observations of nature and above all to the tragedy of his daughter’s death. Now, let me say this: PZ has my full sympathies for what is not an unreasonable conclusion; even those of us of faith are challenged by the age old problem of suffering and evil especially when it is close to home. The number of times this challenge has lead to a loss of faith in the faithful is uncounted. So let him who is without sin cast the first stone at PZ.

But let’s get this clear: Firstly the above statement by PZ is overtly theological; it works from the presumed nature of God, His moral obligations and how He relates to the world. It is a counterfactual argument based on what PZ concludes should not exist if a benevolent God exists. Secondly, the argument being used is not entirely metaphysical and non-observational as clearly PZ is making a comparison between his implicit concept of God and his observations of the cosmos. Ergo, God is an entity for which there is observational evidence relevant to His existence or non-existence.

Is PZ’s alternative belief in what he refers to as “simple chance” a dynamic which provides a deep metaphysical explanation for the way things are? Seemingly not: Chance is a conceptual derivative of disordered patterns. Thus “simple chance” is little more than a name for a particular class of pattern. What I think PZ really means here is that he can’t believe a benevolent overseer would allow such patterns, patterns which are the source of “haphazard catastrophes”. Once again a theological argument is being invoked to draw conclusions about God’s existence or otherwise, based on observed patterns.

In conclusion PZ says “the most likely answer, [is] that there is no such being [as God]”. Does this mean that he has not entirely closed the door on God? In some ways it might be good thing if PZ does close the door completely, because the only God he can think of must be "insane, or evil and rules the world with wanton whimsy."

God suffers with man: Christianity hits the problem of innocent suffering head on