Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Wrong Sort of Scratching

(Click to enlarge)

The above illustration was posted by Prof Larry Moran in a blog post where he makes special note of the Cambrian Conundrum. What is the Cambrian Conundrum? Let me explain:

The blue profile in the illustration plots the graph of the very sudden rise in the diversity of phyla at the start of the Cambrian era (Phylum: a category of organisms with the same basic body plan). This sudden diversification was also accompanied by a parallel prolific diversification of classes (a class is a subdivision within a phylum) as shown by the yellow profile.

Shown as an overlay on the two aforementioned graphs is the “tree of life” as deduced from genetic molecular sequence analysis together with an assumed rate of mutation. Larry points out that the molecular tree of life fits in very well with the tree of life as determined from morphological analysis. But there is one big and obvious problem here: The molecular tree of life appears to show no obvious relation to the phyla and class profiles, profiles that are determined by observation on the fossil record. Why doesn’t the fossil record concur with the tree of life as constructed from molecular sequence analysis? How is it that this tree of life extends for hundreds of millions of years before the Cambrian and yet there is little in the way of fossil evidence prior to the Cambrian?

As a diehard evolutionist Larry is a good sport in being candid about this problem as he well knows that anti-evolutionists are attracted to this sort of thing like flies to an open wound. A couple of his correspondents give a stab at trying to explain this apparent inconsistency in evolutionary theory: One (schenk) suggests that chemical conditions prior to the Cambrian didn’t favour preservation: The other (nwrickert) submits the very interesting idea that the gene pool had developed to a point where the potential for sequence crossovers constituted a kind of “recombinant DNA laboratory” paving the way for a combinatorial explosion that gave organisms the DNA language needed to match a rapidly changing environment. I must admit I find this latter idea very appealing; it’s a special case of the more general idea that some “non-linear” bio-tech threshold was crossed at the start of the Cambrian ushering in a tremendous potential for change and development – in fact we see something similar with human society; farming, writing, industry, microchips and other technological changes entailed the crossing of thresholds that opened up huge vistas of possibility once the initial invention had made an appearance; these vistas were then rapidly explored resulting in rapid change.

But be that as it may, the fact is that there is an important lesson here for evolutionary theory. Evolution is a theory of a very complex object – namely, the history life. As such it has many degrees of freedom and adjustable variables. This implicit flexibility helps “rescue” evolution in the face of the sort of conundrum we have just looked at by allowing an adjustment of its many degrees of freedom until a fit to the dots of observation is achieved. But evolution’s strength in theoretical flexibility is also its weakness: Like some sprawling battle front evolution is vulnerable to myriad different kinds of attack on its many varied claims. In fact evolution is interdisciplinary and high level enough an object to be tantamount to a world view perspective. With byzantine objects like evolution there exists a constant tension between their vulnerability to criticism and the measure of latitude that comes of realizing that their complex ontology is never going to return the standard of observational “verification” we might expect of simple objects like Hooke’s springs and Newton’s gravity. The balancing act needed here is not easy to keep in the polarized North American environment where anti-evilutionists and atheist zealots are clawing one another’s eyes out in order to win their noetic battles. If with an eye on fair play one endeavors to be generous to either side one is then in danger of having one’s eyes scratched out by the other side.

In this connection I was fascinated by this post on PZ Myers’ blog where he tells his readers about theologian Alister Mcgrath’s comparison between the sense making facility of the conjectured Higgs boson and the theist positing Deity as a world view level sense making object. PZ Myers agrees that the Higgs boson is a valid theoretical sense making construction, but he takes Mcgrath to task for not taking the next scientific step; namely, that of proposing a test for deity; after all, says PZ, a lot of money was spent in order to test for the existence of the Higgs Boson; shouldn’t theists do the same for God?

Well yes, I’ll concede the admirable sentiment behind PZ’s remark, but in doing so I make all due allowance for the ontology of the objects we are proposing to test; that ontology may make these objects less than voluntarily accessible and/or give them a complex of adjustable variables that compromises the value of any number of tests; this in turn will impact the epistemological standards we employ. You see, whilst we may accept that PZ Myers' demand for a test is fair enough, we nevertheless should acknowledge that voluntary high standard testing at will is not an option with many real objects of study; historical objects are a notorious case in point; in particular evolution.

After all, it is clear that an object like evolution cannot be tested at will; as we have seen the fossil data needed to test for the existence of the conjectured evolutionary cladogram beyond the Cambrian is not forthcoming; it might, of course, come to light at some future date but that is not something over which we have control. Moreover, the conjectured extended cladogram may in fact not exist at all, and its absence explained by adjusting the parameters of history’s many degrees of freedom. (As a couple of Larry’s correspondents do; feasibly and plausibly in my view). In doing so, however, we are not using evolutionary theory predictively but instead invoking its flexibility to make post facto sense of the observed situation. Provided this is carried out with all due caution and awareness this post hoc practice is in my view perfectly legitimate science in the face of an absence of other choices. (See here for more comment along these lines: http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.com/2011/11/science-and-imagination.html )

It would be nice, of course, if we could test at will, or be lucky enough to have the necessary test data involuntarily fall into our laps, but unfortunately life is not always like that, particularly when the objects we desire to test shade over into the high level objects that are the stuff of world views. On balance, then, I would say that Mcgrath’s treatment of theism as a post facto sense making construct is rational enough given the ontological nature of deity; although having said that many Christians would claim that the ultimate (anecdotal) test of theism is in the tasting (Ps 34:8).

World view construction is largely a post facto activity that sometimes boarders on myth construction not because this is a rational ideal, but simply because force of epistemic circumstances make it so. Toy town science practitioners might find difficulty in accepting this inconvenient fact and may even be inclined to scratch our eyes out for breaching their narrow jot and tittle view of rationality. But then the purveyors of toy scientism are not the only ones unprepared to give leeway in the face of epistemic challenges. The zealous anti-evolutionists are in no mood to give all due allowance to evolution’s measure of post-facto sense making science. This is particularly ironic given that many anti-evolutionists are theists and that theism itself is not exactly the epitome of readily testable science!

The Right kind of scatching: If you scratch my back I'll scratch yours.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Don’t Play this at Home:

The obscenities in this video tear through the sentimental and schmaltzy fabric of Xmas with the sound of a low flying jet over a soft Kincaidian landscape. The message is that Santa gets all the accolades (and gets to look charitable to boot) whilst the beasts of burden (the reindeer) and the small men (elves, pixies and dwarfs) do all the work. Given that Santa is patron saint of Xmas capitalism, the video reminded me very sharply of the days when I used to read the stridently Marxist newspaper “Socialist Worker”. The video expresses that paper’s vision of society to a tee: In raucous and harsh tones it forever condemned middle class capitalist acquisitiveness at the expense of working class wealth producers. “Stuff the Bosses”, “Stuff the Tories!”, “Stuff the Royals!” were the kind of headlines that often graced the front page.

I myself, however, was as cynical toward this Marxist message as the Socialist “Workers” were to the society that sustained them in sufficient freedom to express their opinions. Theirs was a materialist version of an archetypical eschatology that promised worker salvation on the great and terrible day of Revolution. Thence on the workers would own the means of production ushering in a supposedly classless society where everyone’s interests coincided and therefore all would live in peace.

But as the video says: “What a croc of ****”. A successful society depends on differentiation and specialization, thus implying classes, thereby setting the scene for potential conflicts of interest. Potential conflicts of interest are a fundamental feature of social existence. The so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a cloud cuckoo land concept that in practice leads to an elite ruling class who stifle all debate and dissention under the pretext that in a (fictitious) “classeless” society no conflict would exist and therefore by definition dissenters are reactionaries.

How many times have we seen the failure of this sort of cloud cuckoo land social philosophy? The Christian cults and sects do exactly the same: They are so sure they have found the secret to a social and spiritual utopia where (wo)man is at one with fellow (wo)man. But they fail to get the right balance between positive and negative democracy; accordingly their uncompromising effort to usher in a new unified and free Christian community has exactly the opposite effect. Their zeal, conviction and misplaced confidence in the rightness of their proprietary vision of community betrays them and they end up creating a social nexus ten times more oppressive than what they aim to replace; a nexus where censorship and compulsion are the norm and imposed by a (self) righteous elite. As the video says: “What a croc of ****”.  Oh the pathetic irony of it all!

No social restructuring of community and society will ever relieve us of the basic challenge we face day by day; namely, that of finding the strength of moral character to meet the demands of gainsaying self in favour of our neighbor. There is no uptopian society so structured that the moral choices we should make come effortlessly and naturally. This age old challenge is as much with us today as it always has been:

And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Whether you believe the Christmas story is a myth or signifies deep ontological realities, the values and challenges it embodies are timeless and for all: It is a story of a double condescension by Deity: One: That of giving our contingent and suffering world the power to allow its emergence out of the platonic realm of possibility into reality. Two: Of that Deity giving up all to visit this graciously reified world and identifying with it to the point of death:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Whether as a myth or as an “in fact” reality the Christmas story, in beauty, meaning, depth and grace, surpasses all.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Free Lunch: But Who's Paying?

In a blog post dated 6th December and entitled “Adaptation by Directed Modification Rather than Selection” anti-evolutionist Cornelius Hunter, tells us about an interesting recent scientific paper (Feb 2010). This paper publishes evidence that breeding populations of cells very rapidly adapt to changes in environmental stress and then pass on the adaptations to descendents. Hunter interprets this rapid “learning” to be evidence of the presence of some kind of Lamarckian mechanism built into to cells.

(Aside: I’m not going to evaluate the paper Hunter refers to, or his opinion of it as I’m not a biologist. However, assuming for the moment that the paper Hunter quotes is evidence of the presence of Lamarckian or epigenetic mechanisms then the following question is prompted : Are these mechanisms reified in the form of some sophisticated molecular machinery or is there some transcendent law that acts on molecular matter to produce these effects and thus effectively adds to the canon of physics? )

Hunter is arguing, I think, that this evidence suggests the existence of some sophisticated biological mechanisms, currently unrecognised by the  academic establishment, and these mechanisms explain natural history; in short these mechanisms explain evolution rather than are explained by it. That may (or may not) be the case as far as my knowledge of biology is concerned. I'm of the opinion, however, that even if evolution happened just like the academic establishment maintains, it nonetheless must be resourced by high sophistication in the transcendent physical canon that governs our universe. (Which is something I have said repeatedly on this blog). The choice is this: Either the mechanisms guiding evolution are reified in given molecular engineering (Hunter's suggestion, I think) or they are to be found in the transcendent physical canon in terms of the constants and laws that govern our universe.

In the polarized impassioned disputes that Hunter and other anti-evolutionists get themselves into with zealous atheists I find myself a rather disinterested party. It’s not that I’m disinterested in the engine of natural history - I’m very interested in fact; my disinterest is in the high stakes that some theists (particularly fundamentalists) and atheist zealots have vested in particular hoped for outcomes to the evolution debate. The basis for the rejection of standard evolution by theists like Hunter is that it appears to threaten God’s role as a homunculus intervener in natural history and therefore threatens faith; this, I suspect, drives the rationale for the vehement anti-evolutionism of many “Intelligent Design” supporters. They have taken to heart the atheist zealot billing of evolution as the unguided “blind watch maker”, an idea that takes no cognizance of the sophistication required  to select the physical canon needed to service evolution and make it work; zealous atheists treat that canon as if it were a mathematical trivialism. In response anti-evolutionists have allowed through this portrayal of the physical canon as the blind direction-less director. In this vein Hunter talks about “undirected mutations” (see referenced post) and Jonathan McLatchie in this post on “Evolution News” is even clearer; he talks about:

“....the common scientific view that all life is explicable by mechanisms of unguided chance and necessity… The key point is that the mechanisms undergirding the evolution of life, according to Darwinism, are non-intelligent”.

This fanciful idea of “undirected chance & necessity” is at once the bogy of the God fearing anti-evolutionists and the darling of atheist zealots. On the one hand McLatchie’s fancied “necessity” threatens the role of a homunculus Intelligent Designer, but on the other hand atheist zealots appear to see no threat from a sophisticated logical contingency in the physical regime, a very particular form of contingency, in fact, that is required to give a realistic probability to evolution. This contingency raises unsettling questions for atheist zealots. (But the convoluted physical logic needed to drive evolution seems to have the effect of obscuring the presence of this contingency from the human mind; conditional necessity is easily conflated with absolute necessity) Because both sides have put down huge stakes on the table, the disinterested party such as myself  has to factor this in when considering their arguments; frankly, this contentious polarised context is not conducive to trust.

However we try to cut it, one mathematical truism remains: If evolution has occurred, even in the manner maintained by the scientific establishment, then the algorithms able to generate our natural history are likely to be extraordinarily rare mathematical classes in the space of all possibilities. In which case the inappropriately named "necessity" that McLatchie fears is no necessity at all but instead exceedingly unique and contingent circumstances on which evolution is conditioned.

Humanly speaking it is not possible to purge our mathematical models of the rare & peculiar preconditions needed to confer on evolution a realistic probability; all sensible outcomes, it seems, eventually trace back to the startlingly unique conditions that, as far as we are concerned, constitute a free lunch from nowhere – and that’s true even in a universe generating multiverse (See here: http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.com/2011/05/middlebrow-atheism-part-5-final-part.html). Necessity and aseity are destined to ever elude our science. It is an irony that the anti-evolutionists, like the atheist zealots, do not make much of this fact.

STOP PRESS 14/12/2011
I found this cartoon on PZ Myers blog. Given the above material and a little modification it's perfect:

Two reasons to feel superior: What would life be like without the Schadenfreude of looking down on someone?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Not such a geeky waste of time after all.

The above is a picture of a contraption I built in 1980 in order to amuse myself and at the same time make use of my old redundant Meccano set, a set that included electrical parts such as solenoids. I decided to build something that would generate a disordered binary sequence. More views of the machine, including the output results, can be seen on my facebook album here.

So how does it work? The lower story of the machine consists of an assembly of cogs and band drives which periodically operate various switches. These switches interact electrically to produce a complex combined sequence of 1s and 0s. This sequence is stored in 8 bit chunks in the one byte solenoid memory occupying the upper story. A long sequence of 1s and 0s is therefore generated byte by byte; these bytes have to be marked up one at a time by hand on graph paper in order to build up a long sequence.

Yes, it’s nineteenth century technology, but it worked and moreover there is a moral in the tale.

If we represent the nth switch in the machine by the binary variable “Sn” and imagine that this variable switches between 1 and 0 with a particular periodicity, then the whole machine carries out the following logical operation:

(S1 + S2 + S3) . S4

Where “+” designates an “OR” operation and “.” designates an “AND” operation. For example, if switches 1 & 2 are “on”, switch 3 is “off” and switch 4 is “on” we get:

(1 + 1 + 0) .1 = 1

One way of thinking about this operation is to think of the combined result of S1, S2, and S3 to effectively select or “gate” the result of S4; that is, if (S1 + S2 + S3) generates a 1 then it allows through the binary pulses from S4.

If S1, S2 , S3 and S4 all have different switching periods then the logical expression above results in a quite complex (i.e. disordered) sequence in itself, especially if the periodicities of the switches are expressed in real numbers with lots of decimal places. These inherent real number constants have the effect of helping to generate chaotic sequences, although under these circumstances alone the sequences generated would nevertheless still display a measure of periodicity and therefore would be far from maximum disorder. However, the secret of the machine’s ability to disrupt periodicity and generate high disorder doesn’t just depend on the use of “real numbers” but in fact resides in three features:

1) "Analogue" band drives were employed and their non integral ratios produced real number periodicities; this entails the likelihood that the differing periodicities of S1, S2, S3 are not fully resolvable; that is in absolute terms the sequenced product of these three switches is a-periodic.

2) The other important feature of analogue band drives is that they have inevitable accuracy tolerances - unlike "digital" cogs which only produce exact integral ratios.

3) Compared to the other switches Switch 4 is made to switch on and off rapidly.

The result of these features means that the gating switches S1, S2, S3 force a sampling of S4 that is both chaotic and inaccurate. The inherent inaccuracy in the periods of the gating switches is of comparable size to the distance between the pulses delivered by the rapid switching of S4, giving rise to a probabilitistic hit or miss situation. The result; a very non-periodic disordered sequence. The “disordered” results can be seen in my facebook album.

Moral of the Tale.
The way disorder is generated in the above model reminds me very much of an idea mooted by Michael Frayn in his book “The Human Touch”. He suggests that quantum uncertainty is a result of the muddled and chaotic macroscopic world attempting to sample the precise periodicities of the microscopic world. In my model the macroscopic world is represented by the logical operation (S1 + S2 + S3) which is chaotic and inaccurate. The microscopic world is represented by the high frequency pulsing of S4 with its implied small “wavenumber”.

Frayn’s idea is a very neat idea and it is reminiscent of the quantum decoherence interpretation of the random jumps of the state vector, which as I have said here, is also a very neat idea. I must admit I’m very tempted by both ideas and they shouldn’t be discarded lightly. But, and here’s the inevitable “But"; as Roger Penrose points out decoherence does not easily explain the jumps of the state vector entailed by null results, (if indeed the state vector does jump under these circumstances) Secondly – and this is my own idea – the quantum wave calculus looks too much like an imaginary number version of probability calculus for us to discard the notion that those random jumps are actually absolute and not just a product of deterministic chaos. No wonder, then, that I gave my high frequency switch its own uncertainty; a static commutator with an electric current picked up by a rotating flailing sprung head. (See below)
High frequency switching is  achieved by a  static commutator and a rotating sprung pick up head.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nounema, Elementa, Cognita and Consciousness

Ontological discontinuity: Consciousness interrupts the comatose state with a start.

As promised in a previous post I want to look in more detail at a passage taken from one PZ Myers’ blog posts. This passage was a response by Myers to a flurry of comments on his blog by a group of fundamentalists who said they knew why the universe is rational. Over to PZ:

Their primary approach is to assert that because logic exists, god exists, and therefore any attempt to apply reason to a problem is evidence for god. They are unable to justify their premise, however, so it’s a silly game they’re playing — there is no reason to assume an anthropic being was necessary to conjure logic into existence or even that any kind of intelligence was required, any more than we could argue that intelligence is required to start an avalanche. Small fluctuations can lead to large scale changes in that example, so there’s no logical barrier to the idea that unintelligent processes seed universes that expand with internally consistent rules (and universes seeded with illogical rules, if that were possible, wouldn’t exist and definitely wouldn’t be populated with intelligent beings contemplating the laws of their universe).

Like all mathematics logic “exists” only as a platonic object until its configurations and operations are formally reified in our world by some medium such as natural processes, machinery, or thoughts. The kind of logic that is being referred to in the above passage, at least by Myers himself, is that whose existence is of the reified kind; viz: Myers talks about what is “necessary to conjure logic into existence”. So, what, then, is necessary to give logic a physically reified ontology? In answer Myers appears to allude to the inflationary multiverse; here an infinite physical production line generates small bubble universes with randomly chosen physical regimes and these expand into full blown universes (if their randomly selected regimes allow). But even if we accept this speculative cosmology the universe generator itself is a remarkable logical construction that begs an explanation. As I have pointed out many times before, attempts to “explain” exhaustively leads to a “turtles all the way down” regress; each explanation will contain contingent conditions which are explained by another explanatory object which in turn will contain contingent conditions… and so on.

The reason for this regress is that we explain our observations by embedding them in a narrative that describes a larger context. That embracing narrative itself can be “explained” by embedding it in yet a larger contextualising narrative … and so on, and this leads to a nesting of contexts within contexts to the nth degree. In the mathematical physical sciences the explanatory contexts/naratives most usually employ some blend of algorithmics and statistics (or “Law & Disorder”). But be that as it may, it is not always practically possible to use these mathematically descriptive objects even if we think that a phenomenon is ultimately generated by law and disorder principles; after all, practitioners in biology, history and sociology use narrative intense descriptions that don’t readily reduce to algorithmics and statistics.

An understanding of the ultimately descriptive & contingent nature of scientific explanatory objects leads us to appreciate this: Our explanations can never account for what we observe in terms of absolute necessity but only in terms of a conditional necessity; that is, our observations are only necessary if certain postulated conditions hold. For example: The observed motions of the planets are necessary if Newton’s laws hold. Of course, these postulated conditions, without a 'turtles all the way down' regress, have no necessity in and of themselves – they could “poof” out of existence at any time or any place without any logical violation. Therefore “creation” is not something that just occurred a long while ago at the Big Bang; “creation”, as far as we are concerned, occurs everywhere and everywhen in as much as the cosmos’ sustained existence issues out of a logical void of unnecessity everywhere and everywhen. A Grand Logical Hiatus accompanies us at all places and times and therefore constitutes a generalized form of ex nihilo creation. Ex-nihilo creation, in the logical sense, then, is a present tense continuous process. For the scientifically illiterate the explanations of science are a kind of modern magic that has replaced the divine magic of creation and therefore in their minds it serves the same magical role of divinity. But for those of us who have seen through the trick of science and understand that our scientific explanations can never deliver asiety, the realization dawns that in an absolute sense our explanatory powers are no further forward than they were in the Stone Age; all we have succeeded in doing since then is come up with some sophisticated tools of description.

In trying to explain the existence of a rational universe Myers hints at the weak anthropic principle: Thoroughly illogical universes (=disordered universes?) would not support sentient beings, therefore sentient beings must expect to exist in and observe a rational context. Sentience, then, implies a rational universe – I wouldn’t disagree with Myers on this score. But, does a rational universe imply sentience?  An affirmative answer to that question is not an obvious truism; conceivably universes both irrational and rational could exist apart from an indigenous sentience. In fact, it is likely that there are far flung reaches of space and time that have or did have a rational state without the presence of an indigenous sentience to observe them. (Our cosmos, if it is more than just a deceptive façade of perception, gives every appearance of being a realm of noumena.) So, if and when science is done with a full description of a rational universe do we simply have to accept this description as a brute fact for which there can be no meaningful answers to questions that try to probe deeper? Welcome to what Paul Davis calls the “absurd universe”, the universe that “just is” and let’s have no further questions please, because further questions are unintelligible to the descriptive logical methods of science!

The descriptive nature of science’s logical constructs, by themselves, are destined to lead us to an absurd universe. From a human point of view this feels most unsatisfactory; our intuitions (or least many people’s intuitions) tell us that there must be some deeper reason “why” things are as they. These inquiring intuitions remain unsatiated in a strictly descriptive explanatory paradigm (although some people may not feel these intuitive questions to be particularly compelling; they therefore remain incurious and phlegmatic about them – perhaps they don’t have the necessary brain structure that prompts these questions). The classic response to this impasse is to claim that science is an activity which only provides answers to questions of “How?” but does not attempt to answer the question “Why?”; when asked on a cosmic scale the latter question is the domain of theology.

In this post Myers’ discusses this “Why vs. How” dichotomy in connection with a particular example; namely, very regular holes which appeared in a straight line down his street. In an ironic twist Myers shows that he fully appreciates Dembski’s explanatory filter; he quickly eliminates natural causes for the holes and  concludes that they are due to human agency. As Myers himself admits, this agency entails intents and purposes; that is, human motivational factors which are taken for granted as givens in this context. If in a social context a feature can be shown to be an outcome of these givens then it is often considered to be sufficiently “explained”. But human intents and purposes are hardly elemental stuff; they are complex high level cognita and a far cry from “law and disorder” explanations which merely describe patterns of elementa that can be tokenised with simple bits and bytes. In contrast to the flat meaningless descriptions of the mathematical physical sciences which only answer the question “How?”, answers to the question “Why?” posit as their starting point the intricacies of the sentient world where intents, purposes and above all, meaning, in the deepest sense of the word, are conferred upon that which is “explained”. But there’s a catch: Although this kind of explanation satisfies the human need for meaning, its presumed starting point is the contingent complexity of sentience. In contrast law and disorder explanations reduce the logical complexity of the objects one needs to accept as givens, perhaps making it easier to take them on board as simply axiomatic (although in doing so they fail to satisfy intuitive questions about intents and purposes). But a world explicated in terms of intents & purposes satisfies the longing for meaning (although in doing so posits the complexities of sentience). In summary: What law and disorder explanations gain in logical simplicity they lose in meaning; what explanations based on intents and purposes gain in meaning they lose in logical complexity. But there is one thing going for a-priori complexity that an absurd logical simplicity doesn’t have; you’re not going to find asiety in the elemental; it’s too simple for that; the only other place to look for asiety is in the a-priori complex.

Given the very human background where questions about intents and purposes find meaning and satisfaction, it is natural to ask if the otherwise irreducible absurdity of the descriptions of the physical sciences can be addressed in a similar way: Do the brute fact contingencies necessarily present in scientific descriptions of “How?” have humanly meaningful significance in terms of intents and purposes? Myers at least shows he understands the question:

Similarly, if there was a god busily poofing the entirety of the cosmos into existence, that’s an awful lot of evidence that can be examined for motive…are we to instead believe it is so incoherent that we can discern no possible purpose behind all this data?

But although he understands the question, Myers finds no ultimate meaning in the cosmos in terms of intents and purposes:

When people try to argue that science can’t answer “why” questions, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t like the answer they get — there is no why! There is no purpose or intent! — and are actually trying to say that the only valid answer they’ll accept is one that names an intelligence and gives it a motive. That is, they want an answer that names a god as an ultimate cause, and a description that doesn’t include agency doesn’t meet their presuppositions.

For Myers, then, all explanation must ultimately reduce to the flat descriptive answers to the question “How?” rather than “Why?”; including, one presumes, the existence of human sentience which science conjectures to be an outcome conditioned on our particular regime of law and disorder. For Myers, answers about the outer most explanatory context to the cosmos must reduce to physical science’s flat descriptive absurd explanations. But I have more than a sneaky feeling that Myers would not like it any other way: Looking at the passion and anger with which he advocates his position one wonders if answers to “How?” are the only kind of explanation he can handle. In fact I’m sure I have read somewhere on his blog where he says something to the effect that if a sentience existed that was totalising enough to be the outer most explanatory frame of our cosmos (i.e. God) he would consider it his duty to oppose this cosmic “tyrant”. I think we have to leave PZ Myers to stew in his own mindset. I can hardly blame him if for some reason he doesn’t have or hasn’t come to terms with the strong instinctual questions about “Why?”, questions which embrace the whole cosmic set up, universe generator and all. Perhaps to him meaningless descriptions of patterns of elementa may be completely intellectually satisfying; I can’t hold that against him. But having said that I have to admit that many other people, myself included, have nagging instinctual questions about “Why?”; questions that can only be answered if one assumes the complex world of cognita as a starting point. And these questions are not just about minor affairs in one small corner of the universe, such as why my local authority are digging perfectly cylindrical holes; rather these questions frame the whole universe generating caboodle. Unless those questions are satiated the universe, as PZ Myers will no doubt maintain, is an unintelligible incoherent and meaningless absurdity. But in this sea of insentient absurdity we find an amazing anomaly; conscious cognition, the very thing that has constructed this absurd paradigm of the comatose!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Granville Sewell; Still Getting it Wrong.

I see from this post on Uncommon Descent that Granville Sewell still thinks the Second Law of Thermodynamics is necessarily contradicted by evolution. He still fails to see that thermodynamic “disorder” is a measure of “statistical weight” (denoted by Z) and does not strongly entail the patterned “irregularity” such as we see generated by random sources. As such an increase in the statistical weight of a system is an insufficient mathematical index to eliminate the evolutionary development of the complex ordered structures we call life; for it is conceivable that the declared/ordained constraints on physical systems are sufficient to create a bottle neck in the value of Z(t) at some time t giving the states containing living structures a disproportionately large representation and accordingly a realistic probability at t. Sewell would do better to try and wrap his mind round the function Z(t) to see whether or not evolution has a realistic chance. I have discussed this matter several times before on this blog.

This is not to say that the engine of evolutionary change as currently understood actually works. In fact as I have said before I have intuitive doubts about the current understanding of evolution; it’s just that Granville Sewell is repeatedly challenging conventional evolution with a duff argument.



You can't win can you?

Friday, November 11, 2011

U-Turn on Junk DNA at Uncommon Descent?

An interesting turn of events at Uncommon Descent

In this post on “Sandwalk” Larry Moran provides a link to a comment thread on Uncommon Descent where he has been discussing Junk DNA. The anti-evolutionist Intelligent Design community represented by UD by and large believe their version of ID predicts that Junk DNA does not exist. They arrive at this prediction, I think, because they cannot conceive why an intelligent designer would be so untidy (or incompetent) as to leave redundant genetic code lying about in the genome. But then again perhaps an intelligent designer has some very intelligent (or perhaps even dumb) motives that we don’t understand for leaving this code in his genetic program.

As I said in my series on Intelligent Design predictions I do not think that ID provides a firm basis for hard predictions, primarily because it is in the nature of intelligence, especially alien intelligence, to possess personality traits and foibles that give a large measure of inscrutability to its behavior: Viz: How can we be so sure of the motives, methods and purposes of an alien genetic engineer as to know whether or not he/she/it might want redundant genetic code lying around? There are all sorts of reasons that the imagination can invent which could account for junk DNA within an ID framework. Well, what do you know, Larry tells us about someone he has met on the UD thread who can think of some reasons why ID might be consistent with junk DNA. Here’s how Larry tells it:

The new version [of ID] goes like this .....
1. You can have junk DNA because physical constraints and design compromises prevented a perfect design.
2. Due to genetic entropy the originally designed genomes might have degenerated.
3. Junk DNA could have been put in the genome by the intelligent designer as preparation for future creations.
4. Some of the junk DNA is redundant functional DNA that's present in case a gene breaks down.
This new version of intelligent design is not in conflict with the presence of large amounts of junk in our genome.

Here we see a consequence of the fact that an alien intelligence is an entity with so many degrees of freedom regarding its purposes and methods that prediction is all but impossible; with sufficient imagination a very broad spectrum of explanation can be retrospectively fitted to any accepted data. ID has more the character of a post-facto sense making paradigm than it is hard science.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Science and the Imagination

Head in the Clouds: Flights of the imagination can and do work, but not always.

PZ Myers and the overwhelming mobbing voting power of his ranks of raiders readers have wrecked many a web poll; although truth be told, many of those polls aren’t worth the server space they occupy because they are simply contrived to solicit the result the pollster is looking for. Even so, it’s fitting that PZ and his marauding hordes should experience an unwelcome raid of their own: Recently a flurry of comments orchestrated, according to PZ, by fundamentalist Eric Hovind hit PZ’s mail box and his blog in what PZ referred to as a zombie invasion! Why is it I find this all too human tribal scrapping so funny? Is it subliminal expression of an aloof and smug superiority? But then that would also apply to viewers of all TV comedies whose humour depends on showcasing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of human nature.

Anyway, according to PZ the fundamentalist “zombies” have been filling his comment section with Bible quotes and one-liner quips. Viz:

Their primary approach is to assert that because logic exists, god exists, and therefore any attempt to apply reason to a problem is evidence for god.

PZ’s response is as follows:

They are unable to justify their premise, however, so it’s a silly game they’re playing — there is no reason to assume an anthropic being was necessary to conjure logic into existence or even that any kind of intelligence was required, any more than we could argue that intelligence is required to start an avalanche. Small fluctuations can lead to large scale changes in that example, so there’s no logical barrier to the idea that unintelligent processes seed universes that expand with internally consistent rules (and universes seeded with illogical rules, if that were possible, wouldn’t exist and definitely wouldn’t be populated with intelligent beings contemplating the laws of their universe).

So, a fundamentalist invasion has prompted PZ to get a little reflexive and that can’t be bad: The self reference entailed by careful observation and analysis of science itself is not something that I have noticed to be conspicuous amongst the kind of atheist PZ represents. But here we have it at last; some reflection on why science and its logical handmaidens are so efficacious.

But more about that in a later post. In this earlier blog post we also find PZ getting a little reflexive in answer to a theologian who points out the difficulties in applying classic science to history. In response PZ starts by criticizing the naive “You weren’t there” quip that we frequently hear from Ken Ham and his AiG friends as they attempt to undermine the historical sciences in favour of what they categorize as “operational science”: that is, science which deals exclusively with present-tense-continuous processes. I largely agree with PZ on this matter: All science, in an absolute sense, is historical and unrepeatable in as much as hypothesis testing inevitably has to be documented and repeatability is inevitably compromised by the impossibility of exactly replicating test conditions; an underlying simple uniformity and symmetry has to be assumed to make any progress in any science. "Operational science", then, is isomorphic with history. Conversely, history is isomorphic with "operational science", for whilst history itself is not a present-tense-continuous process the evidential trace it leaves behind is, nonetheless, present-tense-continuous.

I would certainly by at one with PZ in regarding Ken Ham and his AiG cronies as anti-science bigots who are busily subverting and corrupting science. This anti-science bigotry is seen nowhere clearer than in their attempts to debunk the historical sciences with this childish quip about “Not being there”, a quip that in the final analysis makes a mockery of the whole of science by attacking the common assumption on which it is based; namely that the world is rational and readable. There is an across-the-board congruity in the use of scientific epistemology and therefore the “You weren’t there” quip has the potential to sabotage all science at source, historical and otherwise. In fact, ironically Ham’s much loved and overworked quip even hamstrings the historical basis of the Christian faith; “We weren’t there” at the resurrection or when the Bible was written therefore, according to Ham, we have no right to makes claims about Divine choreography.

However, in his post PZ is reacting to a theologian who is an entirely different kettle of fish to the nincompoops we see at Answers in Genesis and PZ gives it brief but serious consideration:

I agree that not every thing in the universe is scientifically verifiable or repeatable, but this cavalier attitude towards history is reprehensible. Yes, there are history laboratories: there are historians who do archaeology, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all kinds of hard sciences to confirm and test historical claims. The provenance and authenticity of documents is a major historical interest.
A discrete historical event may not be repeatable, but it is amenable to confirmation and validation. The source information can be independently verified. Multiple approaches can be taken to test a claim. Did Caesar invade Gaul? It only happened once, you don’t get to repeat the invasion, and no one alive was there, after all. But we can look at the archaeology of France, we can see the linguistic evidence, we’ve got documents from the time, and every time someone digs up a Roman cache from the first century BCE we are getting more information on the event.
I do consider it scientifically tractable. Evidence-based, empirical study and logical analysis are right there at the heart of the discipline of history.

I wouldn’t say I especially disagree with PZ’s points above, but his brevity makes it look too easy. The objects of our study differ in complexity, repeatability, accessibility, predictability and what not; they are by no means all equally scientifically tractable. Theorizing about and testing simple low-level physical objects like springs and even molecules is a far cry from testing theories about high level objects like, say, whole societies, especially societies in the distance past. Questions like “Who was Jack the Ripper” or “What happened to Lord Lucan” may never be answered no matter how hard we investigate. Unlike simple physical objects, historical objects have far more degrees of freedom and yet fewer degrees of freedom that we can voluntarily adjust in order to test them. Historical research is very dependent on the fortuitous: Purposeful documentary and archeological searches may reveal nothing; in fact sitting back and waiting for documents and artifacts to emerge may be as proactive as it gets and anecdotal evidence the best you’ve got. Moreover, if one has ever listened to the interpretations of an able and imaginative historian like Simon Schama one observes someone who first makes a very human connection with his subjects of study and then allows his historical imagination to trip along at a rate of knots as he reads history in a way which leaves the snail’s pace physical scientist’s head spinning. And yet in the final analysis I’m sure even someone like Schama would subject their highly imaginative constructions to the light of new documents and artifacts; but only if they should, perchance, come to light.

Clearly, then, not all science, if science it can be called, proceeds in the philosophically classic fashion of data collection, theory synthesis, prediction, and proactive hypothesis testing. In fact high level science may be less predictive than it is post-dictive; that is, it employs after-the-fact sense making structures that are used as frameworks to interpret situations rather than predict them; the success of these post-dictive frameworks may be based on a rather less than objective judgment about the ease with which they can assimilate the accepted data protocols arising out of observation. For example, if evolutionary history really is a story of randomly fortuitous events being locked into place by some kind of physical ratchet then we certainly are not going to be able to predict everything about that history; it is more likely that we will make observations on the fossil record (if we are lucky enough for it to be preserved) and then retrospectively try to make evolutionary sense of that record. Not that evolution is the only theory that has a heavy retrospective element: Homunculus Intelligent design , in my opinion, is even less a hard science than evolution. The general rule here seems to be this: We may not always be able to predict the dots of observation, but instead find ourselves trying to fit prefabricated sense making theoretical structures to the dots of observation after they have been experienced.
However, as I have said in my sidebar, if “science” is defined very generally as any activity that makes comparison between theory and experience and attempts to reconcile them, then science as an epistemological method covers a very wide class of knowledge acquisition if not the whole of analytic activity; it’s just that the theory vs. experience contention does not always proceed along the straight path of classic science; namely, data collection, theory synthesis, prediction, proactive hypothesis testing, data collection, re-synthesis etc. As the objects we deal with get increasingly high level and their lack of amenability compromises rigorous formal methods, science imperceptibly shades over into subjective post-facto sense making interpretations; anyone who has tried to follow the Jack the Ripper history knows what I mean.

But it gets even worse than this: When it comes to attempts to form a totalizing world view bog standard spring extending and test tube precipitating science goes out of the window completely. Let me be frank; in my opinion there simply isn’t enough data out there to form a totalizing world view with the same standards of rigour that one can apply to simple objects like springs and molecules. World view synthesis is a hit and miss, seat of the pants, edgy affair, an activity for those who like dangling by their finger tips from precipices. World view synthesis is big on imagination and small on data simply because the objects posited in world view synthesis are large and complex in the extreme, making the available relevant data look like a very small window indeed. In fact at the extreme end world views are not far removed from mythology; that is, stories which help one cope with and make a human connection with an otherwise humanly incoherent and complex cosmos. None of this is say that the synthesis of a valid world view isn’t possible; there is the freedom to engage in world view synthesis (at least in democratic Countries) and give it one’s best shot. But the caveat remains: It is simply not possible to form such a world view that is beyond reasonable doubt; the relevant data samples are too few and far between. As my agnostic brother-in-law Jon Benison has observed when commenting on this sort thing; much of it is based on hunches and guesses (of varying degrees of plausibility). But, nevertheless, if providence wills, hunches and guesses can pay off; therein lies my personal hope.

But there is also the freedom to conscientiously dissent. I’m not a postmodernist myself but I would agree with the postmodern sentiment that implicates grand rationales as a tool in authoritarianism and oppression. But I say that not because I think there aren’t any valid grand rationales, but rather because claims to the effect that a particular grand rationale is self evident and compellingly true are likely to be bogus. In particular, fundamentalists are very sure they have a clear conception of “God’s Word”, a Word which they believe can be read plainly with little need for interpretative subtleties; so plainly, in fact, that they are sure everyone else can actually see it their way but is not admitting it and therefore must have bad consciences if they dissent. Fundamentalists are loathe to acknowledge that their interpretations of scripture are open to honest analysis and challenge; such challenges are apt to be regarded by fundamentalists as at best sinister and at worst Satanic. But in my view conscientious dissent and clear conscience agnosticism are authentic positions because no world view is beyond reasonable doubt; at least  beyond the oppresive confines of some of the cloying sub-cultures that promulgate them.

Given the difficulty in establishing world views it is no surprise that many Christians have resorted to a “mythos” rather than a “logos” response; that is, they have resorted to the inner revelations of a kind of gnostic version of Christianity in order to protect themselves from analytical challenge. They think of themselves as bypassing the cut and thrust of analysis and argument with talk of “knowing Jesus in my heart” and special “Holy Spirit” insight. In my experience the touchy-feely ethos of contemporary mythos-centric spirituality can be intense and cloying with great pressure on one to make constant checks on the existential quality of one’s faith and whether one feels near to God. But the fact is, an intuitive sense of God’s/Jesus’ presence, in the final analysis, itself classifies as an experiential sample (and an experience that is by no means common to all Christians), a data point, as it were, that a Christian world view attempts to explain and assimilate.

We are, as I have already suggested, free to dissent from world view synthesis and remain as agnostics with a clear conscience. But if we do it leaves us with little assurance except in the simple elemental objects with which spring-extending and test-tube-precipitating science deals. But if the views I have expressed in my sidebar are correct then very little is left that is not empirical in the sense that it can be investigated with a generalized albeit informal version of science: All our notions must face up to and wrestle with our day to day experience. All human theoretical ideas face the challenge of empirical life whether those challenges are simple protocol statements coming out of a formal experiment, the contents of old parchments, or broad sweep observations about a suffering world which impact our view on the nature and existence of God. In this very general sense science is an all embracing activity, an activity in which even our theological flights of the imagination are put to the test.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Larry Moran's Strong Theological Opinions

I had to catch this one in passing: In a post entitled: "Science and Religion: Are they compatible?" (Sandwalk, 4 November), dyed in the wool atheist Larry Moran writes:

I'm getting pretty disgusted with those "sophisticated" theologians who hide behind fuzzy notions of religion when you know damn well they believe in a personal god who intervenes in the world. Haught has been playing this game for decades. Either he's a deist—in which case he should come right out and admit it—or he believes in a personal god who does things that possibly conflict with science—in which case he should have the courage to defend his beliefs.

So, atheist Larry is quite sure that a personal God entails "intervention" and that if you don't believe this you must be a deist. Well, I don't accept the concept of a God who "intervenes" and yet I'm not a deist. In anycase given that we seem to be in the middle of a chaotic reality that is sensitive to quantum disorder how ever do you distinguish between a "natural event" and an "intervention event"? It just can't be done.

I can't speak for the "sophisticated" theologians Larry is talking  about, but this is a typical case of being made to choose between a false dichotomy - Viz: One is supposed to think of God  as occasionally intervening in the cosmos and when He does it's possibly in conflict with science and you are then liable to be accused of superstition; either that or else one must be a deist; which one is it to be?

As I have quoted Cornelius Hunter as saying: (See here)

It is perhaps one of the great enigmas in religious thought that one can profess to be an agnostic, skeptic, or even atheist regarding belief in God yet still hold strong opinions about God.

I'm getting pretty disgusted with those naive (a)theologians who hide behind fuzzy notions of religion when you know damn well their theological categories are well and truly screwed up. Moran has been playing this game for decades. Either he's pretending he's not dabbling in theology — in which case he should come right out and admit it—or, as Hunter has said, he holds strong opinions about God — in which case he should have the courage to defend his beliefs before he slags off those who do not necessarily fall into his theological boxes.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Good News from Ken Ham.

Yogic Flying: Defying gravity with no evidential support

In a blog post dated October 26th and entitled “It’s Rare – It’s a Creationist Seminary” Ken Ham talks about his chance to speak at a Baptist Theological seminary that enthusiastically supports Answers in Genesis’ Young Earthism (= “Creationism” in Ken’s mind). The good news is, of course, Ken’s admission that Young Earthism is a rarity amongst seminaries:

Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of seminaries in this nation do not have a faculty that all take an ardent stand on a literal Genesis as they do at Mid America Baptist Theological Seminary. I certainly felt at home among friends! …. What a difference there would be in the churches across this nation if more seminaries took the biblical stand like this one does, training pastors and missionaries who do not compromise God’s Word. However, so many Christian leaders today do compromise—with devastating effects in churches as the authority of God’s Word is undermined by such compromise.

That’s good news and a much needed salve for my growing unease, paranoia even, about the state of American intellectual life; having accused Americans of being paranoiac I think I’m going that way myself! The trouble is, fundamentalist buffoons like Harold Camping, William Tapley, The geocentrists, The Flat Earthers, Answers in Genesis etc get more than their fair share of publicity because everyone likes a clown. But truth be told most theological seminaries in America are intellectually serious institutions; that’s good news and I’m much relieved.

Now, onto another subject. There was one little reference in Ken’s post that piqued my interest: Ken said:

The president also told me they would not employ a professor who does not accept the six literal days of creation and a young earth/universe. How refreshing!

Note the reference to “young earth/universe”. Jason Lisle’s attempt to solve the YEC star light problem has failed. That throws AiG back on Russ Humphreys’ gravitational well theory (an earlier theory). Unlike Lisle who mangles physics Humphreys at least respects current physics if not astrophysics. Trouble is, whilst Humphrey’s theory supports the idea of a young Earth, it requires an old universe. This is because the very localised geocentric gravitational well that Humphreys posits would only slow time down in the near neighbourhood of the Earth*, but not in the universe at large; beyond 6000 light years from Earth the physical clocks in the rest of the universe clock up millions, if not billions of years worth of ticks. In short then, Humphrey’s theory is at odds with Ken’s “young universe” and thus  beyond our Ken!

Foot note: *Humphreys’ Earth centred gravitational well would seriously distort the shape of our galaxy; I’m not aware that this has been observed.

AiG are having a big problem with Gravity…..

….Ken’s Ark will only float on land because of it….

….AiG’s Dr. Jason Lisle PhD doesn’t believe in it….

…..and AiG’s Dr. Russ Humphreys PhD is still struggling with it….

............Perhaps they ought to consult this guy, particle physicist and yogic flier  Professor John Hagelin PhD, who thinks he can defy it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Intelligent Design’s Big Issue

Interesting is this post on Uncommon Descent quoting Origin Of Life researcher, Jack Szotsk, as saying “ We’re half way there”. At this optimistic outlook I couldn’t help but quip in the comments:

I think I’ve heard about this kind of “half way there” before: Viz: “We want to get to 10^40 Mev. We can currently do 10^20 Mev so we must be half way there”. Exponentials; who’d have them?

After all, in the past I have been rather prey to optimistic visions of the future state of science and technology, so a measure of skepticism about that kind of claim is in order I feel.

But in spite that, as I think I have made sufficiently clear, this blog is sympathetic to the conjecture that cosmic physics is the very rare precondition (i.e. a high information condition) which considerably enhances the chances of life arising via some kind of evolution: Conceivably there exists in platonic space systems of succinct mathematical functions (although presumably an extreme rarity) which limit the possible histories available to physical systems to such an extent that the class of life generating histories has a statistical weight high enough to confer upon life a realistic probability. If this is the case it is certainly wrong to caricature the products of evolution, as Cornelius Hunter has done, (see “Darwin’s God” blogspot, entry dated Oct 19th) as follows:

…Everyone knows biology is full of complicated designs, but evolutionists think it arose spontaneously, as a result of the play of natural laws. In other words it happened to happen. First there was nothing, then there was something, then that something became very complicated. All this just happened to happen.

If evolution has happened, indeed if it is mathematically possible, it is an injustice to describe its efficacy in the language of the fortuitous (as does Hunter), for it is likely that very rare preconditions (in terms of the selected physical laws and boundary conditions) would have to be selected for it to work.

Having said that, however, I have to admit to intuitive doubts about conventional evolution. As an illustration: The rules of chess considerably limit the number of game histories that can occur, but if one were to move the pieces on a chess board at random but within those rules I doubt if the result would be a game worth watching. In this connection Hunter may have something for us worth taking to heart: In this blog post I give Hunter credit for giving us a feel for the exponential problems that evolution has to solve if it is to work. It is certainly not immediately clear that even our very constraining physics eliminates those exponential intractabilities.

So, does standard physics require something extra for life to develop? Is that extra something so called “Intelligent Design”? No, because it seems that ID, the way it is currently defined by William Dembski, is almost unavoidable: As I have so often tried to make clear, the conditions that lead some people to identify the existence of ID are very difficult if not impossible to avoid in the positing of physical models. The rarity of those conditions, such as the selection of those conjectured life generating laws, have the effect of triggering Dembski’s design detection criterion (That is Dembski “Explanatory filter”). I myself long ago reached the point of accepting that the a priori existence of very rare/unique conditions is an unavoidable truism in the physical sciences, whether those conditions be generating functions, boundary conditions or just brute fact configurations. The physical sciences have an inevitable incompleteness about them, an ultimate embedded logical hiatus that cannot be banished. More likely than not people fail to see this, because they conflate conditional probabilities with absolute probabilities; conditional probabilities may be relatively high, but absolute probabilities, if one is to accept the principle of equal a-priori probabilities (Assuming those probabilities are definable and quantifiable) are extremely low. Ergo, the concept of ID which metaphysically hooks on to the pervasive Logical Hiatus and improbability in physical models is less an ancillary extra needed to help the world go round, than it is an ever present substrate in the day to day running of the world.

The difficulty of excluding rarity/uniqueness/improbablity from proposed physical models means that if one were to simply define ID to exist whenever extreme rarity/uniqueness/improbability is encountered ID almost becomes a logical truism. The question then is less whether ID exists, and more a question of how ID expresses itself in terms of just which rare preconditions have been selected for in our cosmos.

Few writers and correspondents on Uncommon Descent would go along with the young Earth buffoonery we see at “Answers in Genesis”. Most UDers (and hope I am right) would at least accept Earth’s story as it is currently told by academia, if not the Darwinian mechanisms that are thought to govern it. Thus evolution in the trivial sense that life on Earth has changed over billions of years, is accepted by most UDers. (It is no surprise, to hear AiG’s buffoon in chief, Ken Ham, claiming that William Dembski is a theistic evolutionist.)

The big question, then, is just what physical regime describes the patterns of natural history. Did the selection agency give us a unique/rare system of law and disorder that generates the right configurations or did that agency simply grant existence to (living) configurations that no elegant system of law and disorder could generate in anything like a realistic time? Is natural history, in the final analysis, a narrative intense pattern of change that simply cannot be described as the execution of short time algorithms?
"What those deistical chumps don't realise is that I not only have to design it, but sustain it as  well. And don't give me  any of this 'turtles all the way down' stuff"**

** This "turtles all the way down" references alludes to the regress I speak about in the following blog posts: 
 I notice that in this blog post on Uncommon Descent Barry Arrington has also picked up on this regress

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Auschwitz" by Francesco Guccini

Here's another song by Francesco Guccini with compelling (disturbing even) lyrics, as translated by my brother in law Jonathan Benison.

I’ve died – died with hundreds
I’m dead – I was a baby
Up the chimney, I went up in smoke
And now, I’m in the wind

At Auschwitz, it was snowing
The smoke rose up slowly
In the cold, cold of winter
And now, I’m in the wind
And now, I’m in the wind

At Auschwitz, so many people
All held in one great silence
It’s strange – still I’m unable
To smile – here in the wind

I ask, how is it that a man
Can kill his fellow man
And yet, we’re in our millions
Here in the wind – dust in the wind
Just dust, out here in the wind

Still thunders the cannon
And yet still it hungers
Blood – the beast that is man
And still, we’re carried by the wind

I ask, when will it be
That man will have learned
To live without killing
And the wind will find its peace
And the wind will find its peace
And the wind will find its peace

Italian lyrics:

Son morto con altri cento, son morto ch'ero bambino:
passato per il camino, e adesso sono nel vento.
Ad Auschwitz c'era la neve: il fumo saliva lento
nel freddo giorno d'inverno e adesso sono nel vento.
Ad Auschwitz tante persone, ma un solo grande silenzio;
è strano: non riesco ancora a sorridere qui nel vento.
Io chiedo come può l'uomo uccidere un suo fratello,
eppure siamo a milioni in polvere qui nel vento.
Ancora tuona il cannone, ancora non è contento
di sangue la belva umana, e ancora ci porta il vento.
Io chiedo quando sarà che l'uomo potrà imparare
a vivere senza ammazzare, e il vento si poserà.

The song appears on Guccini’s album “FOLK BEAT N.1” (1967)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Self Referencing Nature of Conscious Cognition

I was very interested to read this blog post by up and coming theologian Arni Zachariassen (his blog is recommended reading, a much needed antidote to dull witted fundagelicalism). His brief post is about the limitations of scientific “reductionism”; it contrasts the scientific description of life’s experience with the compelling qualia of the individual’s subjective perspective. For example, the scientific description of music in terms of wave mechanics and neural effects at first sight seems to have little in common with the parallel story of its impact articulated in terms of the consciousness of the listener with all its deep existential connotations.

Seemingly, then, we have a discontinuity between two apparently incommensurable worlds: a) The third person accounts of science expressed in formal tokens and sharable in the public domain, accounts which “reduce” sentience to an ontology of unfeeling elementa, such as atoms, coordinates, fields etc. This world of elementa is set against b) the first person ontology of conscious cognita; a world of apparent privacy and even scientific inaccessibility. In the polarized paradigm of a contemporary milieu that is apt to see logos and mythos as irreconcilable there is a tendency for the aficionados of these contrasting perspectives to deny the reality of the other: Naive materialism which places so much store by the formal descriptive tokens of science will, of course, find no sentience in elementa and is therefore tempted to deny the reality of consciousness. The existentialists claim that life’s mysterious experiences are all we really can know and that there is no common sharable objective reality out there.

It is truism, however, that from a third person perspective human beings, their pleasures, their feelings, and their thoughts etc can only ever be seen as “physical objects”; that is, as a complex configuration of behavioral traits which when looked at under the microscope resolve into complex patterns of interacting physical elementa. As a physics fan I’m quite partial to the idea that a full third person description of human behavior ultimately “reduces” to physics; that is, that there is point by point map between first person cognita and the third person elementa of physics. I may even be prepared to go as far as to say that humans, from the third person perspective, are highly sophisticated computational devices. (Although, perhaps, incorporating some exotic elements such as sensitivity to quantum events and some of Penrose’s ideas on incomputability). But even if such a mathematical reduction is possible it would have little impact on another inescapable truism, a truism that is apparent even in the reductionist’s vision: For the existence of the third person perspective necessarily carries with it, albeit implicitly, the fact that a reductive third person mathematical description must be instantiated with the observational protocols of a first person perspective . As I have said elsewhere , the third person mathematical description is, in the final analysis, an account of how the first person, in a self referencing act, describes itself. This self referencing act is reminiscent of those programming languages whose compiler is written in the self same language it compiles.

In his book “The Rediscovery of the Mind” the philosopher John Searle expresses the view that the first person perspective of the conscious thinking agent must be regarded as an irreducible feature of the cosmos . I agree. Clearly we do not think of one another in terms of those third person accounts which “reduce” human beings to configurations of interacting elementa. Instead our innate ability to empathise enables us to project into the minds of other persons the qualia of conscious cognition. This is the foundation stone of morality: For if we could only think of other sentient beings as conglomerations of elementa we would have become sociopaths.

I have written on this subject before. See: http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.com/2009/10/neurological-problem.html http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.com/2009/08/here-we-go-round-again-hearthead.html http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.com/2009/07/what-is-consciousness.html