Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hard and Soft Science in the Junk DNA Debate

....and sociology, history and theology books are even more comfortable!
Atheist Biochemist Larry Moran will no doubt think of me as a nincompoop for entertaining theism. Nevertheless, although he is a very dogmatic atheist I have found him generally polite in dealing with theists like myself. I may disagree with Larry’s vision of science and find him a bit of a curmudgeon, but on balance I would describe him as a gentleman and scholar and by and large fair in his comments (If you are on the right side of him!). In any case I’d far rather leave comments on his blog than the blog of PZ Myers, a blog which is populated by some very rough customers indeed, not to mention Myers himself who lumps together all theists for his uncompromising contempt. His blog is more like a piranha invested river and when the fish there are not ripping to shreds hapless Godbots they start tearing at one another. In comparison Larry’s blog seems a much more civilised environment.

Perhaps the foregoing explains why I surprised myself in feeling a bit sorry for Larry when I found him heart aching over the latest news from the ENCODE project which is being touted (or “spun” according to Larry) as evidence that most (~ 80% ?)  of the human genome has some kind of function after all. Larry has put a huge intellectual stake in the possibility that the genome carries a lot of redundant information – that is, information that has little or no function. This probably follows from his view that evolution is primarily a random trial and error process, a process that is likely to leave in its wake an untidy backwash of redundant configurations. To Larry, cosmic disorder is a sure sign of a lack of design and therefore absence of evidence of God, or for that matter any other kind of intelligent designer. Larry atheism’s is bound up with questions over the nature of randomness; in particular the philosophical question of whether or not we should consider it unremarkable and attribute to it a null computational complexity.

Now I’ll admit that I’m not much of a biologist or a sociologist (two subjects I consider to be related in a broad inter-disciplinary spectrum). My background is in physics and programming and this has probably  left me with an intellectual impediment; it means that when I hear the term “prediction” I think of it in very mechanical terms: I imagine a theoretical mathematical/algorithmic system that is tentatively put forward as isomorphic in some way with the ontology of our world. One then cranks the handle of this mechanical system and it churns out fairly clear cut “predictions” (Although sometimes with a probability attached). If the predictions fail then because the theoretical narratives of the “hard” sciences are relatively simple affairs with few adjustable variables then theoreticians don’t have much maneuver room to “get out of that!”.

Needless to say in the soft sciences this is much less the case. The soft sciences deal with highly complex objects that may comprise of an open ended set of impinging variables. Consequently “predictions”, so called, are far less unequivocal: A failed prediction need not necessarily be fatal as it may be possible to propose not just a variable adjustment, but perhaps hitherto unknown variables in order to accommodate an unexpected result.*

On balance evolutionary theory is, to my mind, a soft(ish) science, and this is particularly clear with evolutionary psychology, a “discipline” that generates great contention; a sure sign that people’s retrospectively applied imaginations are hard at work here, untrammeled by the dispassionate tester and arbiter of actual involuntary experience. Similarly, I can’t see how the absence or presence of junk DNA is a hard prediction of evolutionary theory. In fact Larry quotes another non-biologist who is now trying to make evolutionary sense, post-hoc, of the claimed absence of Junk DNA:

So they assumed it [Junk DNA] was left over from evolution, had no current function, and was, literally, junk. As Francis Crick, one of the Nobel Prize winners for helping discover the structure of DNA, put it, non-coding DNA has “little specificity and conveys little or no selective advantage to the organism”. Right. As though nature would waste that much energy.

Here we have a evidence that evolutionary theory can very readily assume a retrospective sense making role; it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that because in the absence of a capability to arrive at hard predictions embedding post-facto data in an imaginative theoretical narrative may be the only way we can make (controversial) progress.

I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised to hear that just at the moment the Homunculus ID community are making hay while the sun is shining. They have long maintained that their version of ID “predicts” (Haha!) that most of the genome is functional. To them the “spin” surrounding the ENCODE project is a great vindication.  But the irony is that to my mind the absence of Junk DNA is hardly a hard prediction of even Homunculus ID, as I shall now explain....

Evolutionary theory may be a softish science, but in my view Intelligent Design theory is a lot softer. As I made clear in my series on ID predictions it is difficult to get any hard predictions out of ID at all. Intelligence is in fact synonymous with personality and personality is a blend of emotion (another word for motivation) and the ability to solve computational problems. Necessarily intelligence carries with it a large measure of inscrutability about its motives and methods. Because, then, personality is by definition a highly complex object with many hidden variables the only way I can see of getting predictions out of ID is to start making assumptions about the nature of the intelligence one is dealing with; in particular one might assume that the intelligence which designed life has similarities with a human molecular engineer and one can then apply a whole array of observations on technological (wo)man to anticipate how an alien molecular engineer (or “Homunculus”) might design life. The upshot was that I could by and large agree, after a fashion, with most of the predictions that appeared on the Uncommon Descent post that was the subject of my ID predictions series. But the irony here is that the absence of Junk DNA was one of the few predictions I just couldn’t confirm as an outcome of Homunculus ID. It seemed to me that it was a toss-up as to whether an alien molecular engineer may or may not leave “commented out” information in the genome about his essays in biology.

Summarising: It seems that the junk DNA debate is in a position where the respective sides are investing themselves in conclusions that as far as I can see are not unequivocal predictions of their respective logic. The trouble is the entrenchment is now too far gone for the two sides to easily back out..

It is clear that the homunculus assumption is by no means sound: After all if we are ultimately dealing with the kind of God envisaged by Christianity then we are dealing with something of an entirely different genus to a tinkering alien or quasi-human intelligence. God is an immersive totalizing reality, the entity all things find themselves to be immersed “in”. (Acts 17:27-29 ). As a fellow Christian once said to me: It is as if we are a thought in the mind of God and as such need constant attention and maintenance as thoughts do or else conceivably they could be snuffed out at any time. That idea has not just stayed with me but was reinforced when I started probing the nature of intelligence and found it to be an exploratory searching process: In fact the cosmos is shot through with the “search-test-reject-and-select” paradigm. As has been remarked before, the universe does look more like a giant thought than a giant piece of hardware tinkered with by an alien intelligence.

The pervasive nature of God in most conventional theologies is echoed in our cosmos, a cosmos necessarily pervaded by a grand logical hiatus. That hiatus is everywhere and everywhen. This pervading hiatus invites imaginative post-hoc theologies in order to make sense of it. But pervasive facts of life, like the peculiarity of there being something rather than nothing, are easily taken for granted as somehow intrinsically necessary in and of themselves: To a creature like (wo)man "programmed" to take note of changes in the status quo total immersion phenomena may be filtered out as not interesting.  Consequently theologies are always going to be controversial.

* We are really talking about a spectrum of objects here – there is no is sharp demarcation between the objects of the soft sciences and those of the hard sciences.  Hard science imperceptibly merges into soft science. 

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