Monday, January 30, 2012

Unintelligent Design

Chemist Professor John C Walton **(above) may believe in Homunculus Intelligent Design and Seventh Day Adventism ….but at least he doesn't believe in Yogic flying unlike physicist Professor John Hagelin (below)....
….so things can't be as bad as all that.

I recently reviewed a video on this post at Uncommon Descent. It is a lecture by Professor John C Walton, a Research Chemist at St Andrews University (Scotland’s first university founded 1413). The video is entitled “56 minutes that may change your life”. However, it follows a pattern I’m all too familiar with.

Much is made, too much in fact, of the improbability of the spontaneous appearance of life’s essential biopolymers; the figures Prof Walton shows us might leave the heads of the scientifically illiterate spinning, but few scientists, as the good professor well knows, seriously suggest that abiogenesis was resourced by such extremely improbable events. Putting it mathematically, most evolutionists realize that the probability we are interested in is a conditional probability like Prob(Life|R) where R is a given physical regime, conjectured pre-conditions that favour life’s generation in a realistic time. (True R, may not exist physically or even exist mathematically; in which case the version of Intelligent Design promulgated at UD should be at least given some space.)

In response to these improbabilities Prof Walton goes on to tell us that there is active research in the area of self organization Viz a) Attempts have or are being made to discover “laws of chemical affinity” which predispose matter toward the formation of certain amino acid configurations b) Computer simulations are being constructed which attempt to simulate models of abiogenesis. Regarding research of this kind the professor rightly emphasizes that it is necessarily resourced by human intelligence in order to a) contrive suitable chemical environments or b) contrive the algorithms controlling the patterns of bits and bytes needed to simulate something that at least looks just a little bit like abiogenesis. In both cases preconditions are being diligently sought for that have a realistic chance of generating the required configurations and structures.

Well, as I have already said this sort of stuff is all too familiar to me and I can only respond by banging on about the same old thing: The selection of a physical regime that has a realistic probability of generating life (if indeed such has a mathematical existence) is very likely to be a task that is computationally complex in the extreme; i.e. finding such a regime amongst all the possible spurious cases is no small search. Even if we assume that a life generating physical regime has actually already been found for us in the form of our own Cosmos we may then face yet another problem: The generation of life using our cosmic regime could conceivably be a computationally irreducible task; that is, the only way of checking that our Cosmos has a realistic chance of creating life is to run the whole damn show, right down to the last atom in order to verify that it does what we think it does; there may be no shorter algorithmic way of performing the task. If so then this task, too, is well beyond our current technology and we are thrown back onto the fossil record which, needless to say, may be too incomplete to be unequivocal in its testimony.

Unfortunately Prof Walton doesn’t explore these crucial issues in any depth; this may be because he is either unaware of them, or he understands that this is the hard problem where little progress has been made. However, given his religious background I suspect that it is more likely that the good professor is driven by an unstated conclusion; namely, the conclusion that life was created with what I refer to as the Homunculus Intelligent Design model ; that is, that God an intelligent agent descended upon the Earth at some point(s) in the past and tinkered with molecular configurations, thus directly imposing Divine fiat the agent's will on matter like some super-human molecular engineer. Like many in the de facto “Intelligent Design” community I suspect the good professor may well have signed up as one of the patrons of anti-evolutionism. Many theists see homunculus ID as the only option because the only other theistic position they can conceive is deism.

Nevertheless Prof Walton does hold out one interesting idea that I’m taking away with me. He provided evidence that the Earth’s atmosphere has always been an oxidizing one, especially during the early OOL stages – an environment that is very unlikely to favour the delicate chemistry that the formation of biopolymers requires. If this idea was developed it would certainly cut across the notion that life was generated on Earth in small incremental stages: A highly oxidizing environment is likely to tear apart biopolymers nearly as surely as would the interior of the Sun; that is, at least with life as we know it.

However, I’ll keep my options open, as this sort of argument could be subject to revision. Even so, as a “prepared to take the risk” theist, I can myself can live with the concept that somehow the configurations of life have been very directly imposed on matter by God by some intelligent agent; after all the alternative of selecting the right life generating physical regime looks to be at least equally as computationally complex (in fact, perhaps a lot more computationally complex). So if I’m asked to accept that the right life generating physical regime is a given then perhaps I can just as easily accept highly improbable molecular configurations as a given. However, there is one stickler of a aside effect in homunculus ID that is unfortunate; we have to kiss goodbye to much epistemological tractability and with it much of the coherent rational readability of our cosmos, especially in relation to natural history. There is also an irony here. If life is a consequence of the selection of the right physical regime then this would likely represent the solution of a computational problem requiring a level of intelligence well in advance of what is needed to carry out Homunculus ID. In fact, in comparison Homunculus ID looks distinctly  “Unintelligent" in design”!

As for UD poster V J Torley’s 56 minutes that may change your life I think we can forget it. Unfortunately for me the video has done precisely the opposite: It has simply meant that I have had to cover the same old ground for the umpteenth time and express the same old gripes I have with the Homunculus ID community.

According to the British Centre for Science Education John Walton shared a platform with extreme fundamentalist John Mackay in Oct 2007. (See here As for some of the rather unsavory accounts surrounding John Mackay see here and here

31/1/12:  The articles from BCSE linked to above are worth perusing. John MacKay is one of those persons whose religion marches worryingly close to some kind of mental illness of the ego and yet whose air of brazenness and utter confidence in his own pronouncements succeeds in confidence tricking the gullible. MacKay was Ken Ham's business partner in the early days of Ken's foray into the "Creation" trade, and MacKay is implicated in an acrimonious dispute between Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International (apparently settled in 2009). Overall, as I'm "in religion" the whole thing gives me the creeps; this may be because I have to confess to having actually witnessed something of this sort first hand more than once, at least in embryo. I would certainly not want to meet MacKay in a dark alley, or even Ken Ham for that matter. They both come over as rather muculant characters whose chief strength is the conviction of their tongues. I trust that Professor Walton was unaware who he was hobnobbing with.

** Oops! Sorry folks, he doesn't have a wiki page!

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