Thursday, September 01, 2011

Does Intelligent Design Make Testable Predictions? Part 3: Homunculus ID

Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be found here and here respectively. The “ID predictions” I have been looking at appeared in this post on Uncommon Descent. The predictions examined in this part all pertain to Biology and Paleontology, subjects outside my own area of training and interest. Therefore my comments will be rather brief and may not do justice to the subject, although this gives me an excuse to quickly wind up this series.

As I have said before on this blog my general view is that unless we have a-priori information about the nature of the designer, then in its most abstracted form, few substantive predictions can be made from ID  After all, it seems that at the back of most ID supporter’s minds is an intelligent entity whose genus is so different in substance to ourselves that it renders unreliable all attempts to anticipate that entity’s methods and motives. In particular, if we are dealing with the standard concept of Deity then we are talking about something transcending the human realm and which is not only the ultimate source and sustainer of biological configurations but also of the fundamental physical regime supporting those configurations. It is this transcendence which raises questions over the biocentric concept of ID we see on UD: UD correspondents usually have a low view of the laws of physics and believe those laws do not provide sufficiently improbable preconditions (i.e. preconditions with adequate information content) to explain the absolute improbability of biological configurations. But if Deity has selected those laws then who knows what level of computational complexity Deity is capable of rising to in order to find and pull out of the limitless tracts of platonic space a very rare kind of physical regime; namely, a regime with a sufficiently high probability of generating life (assuming such a regime has at least a mathematical existence). Therefore even evolution, as a configuration generating process, can be interpreted as having its origins in ID. All in all then, without some a priori theological revelation about the specific nature of the designer, the making of specific predictions from abstract ID is a very chancy business.

As I have already said, the ID supporters who contribute to UD are in the main not convinced that our cosmic physical regime possesses a sufficiently high probability of generating life. They may claim that this is an a-posteriori opinion based on empiricism, but I’m not so sure about that; I suspect cultural, philosophical and metaphysical reasons also figure. For example, militant atheism is very enamored with the concept of a life generating physical regime and this has had the effect of spiritually blighting evolutionary ideas. Moreover, latent deism in our culture favours the notion that like a well oiled clock rational physical regimes run all by themselves, rendering redundant a supporting diety. Therefore in a reactionary move against militant atheism some IDers, I feel, prefer a much more overt involvement of ID than carefully chosen physics. They are therefore working to an almost homunculus view of ID: They envisage a designer very much in the anthropomorphic mold as a kind of molecular engineer or DNA programmer who is tinkering with the given machinery of nature and almost on a par with an alien technological player who is inside the cosmos rather than transcending it.

However, I’ll hand it to the UDers; if this homunculus view of ID is assumed then it does at least suggest vaguely perceived expectations about the molecular configurations we call life, expectations which, if realized, are difficult to make sense of in the context of bog standard evolutionary theory. This biologically hacking homunculus, one might expect, would leave traces behind that do not sit well with evolutionary theory, but that is about as strong as I can put it because I don’t think we are talking hard science predictions here. In fact homunculus ID “predictions” are more akin to the kind of retrodictions historians make as they call on that important resource of understanding they refer to as the “historical imagination”. However, once established evolutionary theory has been dumped a form of prediction by negation can be carried out and perhaps even positive predictions can be made on the basis that we are dealing with a biological hacker rather than a cleverly chosen generating system. For example, we might expect a hacker to clean up his code every now and then and thus predict that junk DNA is unlikely to exist. But then again even this prediction is not absolutely assured – a hacker might well want to keep a record of his past efforts and simply “comment out” historical code. Who knows? After all, by definition intelligence is personality and personality is intelligence. Therefore it is likely that a Creative intelligence will have those atypical idiosyncrasies and foibles that make personality difficult to predict.

Most of the following predictions have their basis in anti-evolutionary and homunculus expectations and really are a way of saying “We don’t believe Darwinism did it”. However, if some of these predictions are correct they would present conundrums for standard evolutionary views. But frankly I see them as less predictions than a set of stated obstacles to evolutionary ideas; when I surveyed this list I was unsure whether I was dealing with authentic “predictions” or simply a wish list of hoped for observations that would give the evolutionists of the scientific establishment a hard life!

ID Prediction 05: ID predicts an increase in evidence for the non-adequacy of the DNA-centric view of living systems.

My Comment: Possibly; a hacking molecular engineer is free to build significant synergy into the biological contexts that use DNA simply as one resource amongst many others. This would be one in the eye for evolutionary theory where the story of the mutating “selfish” replicator is exclusively center stage.

ID prediction 06: ID predicts that complex molecular convergence will happen routinely.

My Comment: Possibly; a molecular engineer is not bound by the strict nesting of the “Tree of Life” concept and has no need to reinvent the wheel each time; useful complex molecular mechanisms can be co-opted for use right across a spectrum of otherwise seemingly unrelated organisms.

IID prediction 07:  ID predicts the presence of irreducible complexity with respect to macromolecular systems and organelles.

My Comment: Possibly: Our molecular engineer is not bound by the incremental change of evolution that requires structures to be reducibly complex; presumably he can and does implement great leaps of the imagination. The trouble with IC is that it is difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt: The presence of IC may only be apparent; a human perspective effect of only seeing the end result of a complex and convoluted history of change that defies human imagination to reconstruct.

ID prediction 08: ID predicts that the prevalence of functional protein folds with respect to combinatorial sequence space will be extremely small.

My Comment: The frequency of functional protein folds is not a consequence of the ID hypothesis but a consequence of our physical regime. If it turns out that functional protein folds are too few and far between for standard evolutionary processes to search them out, then evolutionists would have to think again. Needless to say this would not be a problem for a very intelligent designer who can presumably locate functional protein folds. This is not so much a prediction but a much desired show stopper for evolution which if true would enable the homunculus IDers to shout “I told you so!” and then usher in their homunculus.

ID prediction 09: ID predicts that evolutionary pathways to new protein functions will require multiple co-ordinated non-adaptive mutations (more so than likely to be achieved by a random process).

My Comment: Possibly; basically this is a molecular restatement of IC: Presumably our homunculus designer is intelligent enough to create structures that can only be arrived at by large inventive leaps of the imagination.

ID prediction 10: ID predicts that DNA, which was once considered to be junk, will turn out to be functional after all.

My Comment: Difficult to tell: Junk DNA may be an idiosyncratic artifact of the designer’s methods; he might want to keep evidence of his experiments.

ID prediction 11: ID predicts delicate optimisation and fine-tuning with respect to many features associated with biological systems.

My Comment: Quite Possibly: One might expect a homunculus designer to have pride in his work and have a desire to hone his creations to an optimum. But then whether evolution is efficacious enough to do the same is unknown to me.

ID prediction 12: ID predicts that organisms will exhibit in-built systems which promote evolvability (e.g. front loading).

My Comment: Possibly; are they referring to “front loading” in terms of on board genetic code waiting in the wings? But then if evolution works, it could only do so as a consequence of the selection of the right systems constituting the physical regime; in that sense even bog standard evolution is “front loaded” – although ironically neither militant atheists nor homunculus IDers are very clear about this fact.

ID prediction 13: ID predicts the observed pattern of the fossil record whereby morphological disparity precedes diversity.

My Commment: I don’t see why this is a specific prediction of homunculus ID; it seems also to be an expectation of standard evolution.

ID prediction 14: ID predicts saltational, or abrupt, appearance of new life forms without transitional precursors.

My Comment: Possibly; this prediction presumably maps to our homunculus designer’s ability to implement his leaps of imagination.

Final Comments
I’m uncomfortable with homunculus ID because it appears to give God an ancillary role in His creation rather than a totalizing role; it has a tendency to contrast the Creator over and against a contingent physical regime, as if that regime’s ability to generate form and pattern somehow answers the question of aseity. As a consequence homunculus ID actually favours atheism should homunculus ID's scientific program become bankrupt. Another fact that makes me feel uncomfortable with homunculus ID is that intelligence, at least intelligence as we understand it, actually generates its artifacts using a form of generalized evolution: Human intelligence is capable of only limited intellectual leaps – for example, a Neolithic culture could not invent a jet fighter – the latter can only be an end product of a progression of many incremental innovative steps involving the co-option of many fortuitous developments along the way, both cultural and technological. And yet this process culminating in a highly sophisticated artifact is a product of both limited human foresight and limited intelligence and entails a convoluted route of trial and error that doesn’t necessarily have those sophisticated end products in sight: Ergo, the complex artifacts of our technological societies were not purposely strived for early on in the history of man; and yet that early history contains vital precursors for the sophisticated artifacts of industrial society.

It is a truism that baring the existence of magic certain structures can only come about as the end product of a sequence of stages. This necessary sequential assembly implies that these structures have a lower limit computational complexity as measured in terms of the number of necessary precursor stages required to arrive at them. Intelligence itself (with an eye on some of Penrose’s ideas) may not be thoroughly computational, but one can use computational ideas to elucidate the complexity of the products of intelligence just as one can do so for the products of evolution. Taking these ideas of complexity together with the evolutionary nature of human technical and cultural development, homunculus ID must, in the final analysis, conceive its concept of intelligence in generalized evolutionary terms. In any case a general evolutionary experimental method of search, reject and select is implicated in the operation of intelligence as we understand it. Therefore if homunculus ID becomes associated with too strong an anti-evolutionary platform its thinking will harbor deep internal contradictions.

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