Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meaningless Conflict

Boudry and Plantinga argue about the bit that God did or didn’t do.

My favourite atheist, Larry Moran, has once again alerted me to some very interesting material that warrants a blog post. In a post entitled Boundry vs. Plantinga and dated September 20th Larry gives us news of a review by Maarten Boudry of Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies. This review can be found in the IHPST newsletter here. (Just search for “Boudry”). Needless to say atheist Boudry pretty much rubbishes Plantinga who is Christian. For myself, however, I find I am unable to support either side of this debate because both parties seem to be deploying some very dubious concepts and arguments. To be fair I haven’t read Plantinga and I am only going on Boudry’s representations, so it could be all Boudry’s fault. Below I have reproduced the section of the review I’m going to consider here:

In Part I, Plantinga argues that theism is not in conflict with evolutionary science, only with unguided evolution, which is a metaphysical add-on, not a part of evolutionary theory proper. But what about the thesis that the source of mutations is random, an assumption that is part and parcel of evolutionary theory? “Random” in this context does not mean pure chance, but rather without foresight, or not necessarily concordant with the organism’s adaptive needs. According to Plantinga, random mutation is compatible with God orchestrating the whole process. It is just God’s way of creating novelty. But there is no wedge to drive between “random” and “unguided”. If God is steering evolution in the right direction, making sure that suitable mutations arise, the mutations cannot be “random” in the technical sense, for then they would occur for the benefit of the organism (or whichever plan is on God’s mind). This becomes clear when Plantinga, strangely enough, endorses creationist Michael Behe’s argument from “irreducible complexity” (IC, see further), a pseudoscientific concept that has been completely rejected by the biological community. Behe’s argument is that the evolution of IC systems requires the simultaneous occurrence of different beneficial mutations, which is exceedingly unlikely. Therefore, some intelligent designer must have monitored the development of IC systems, if not by miraculous creation, then at least by causing the requisite mutations for natural selection to work on. But then, obviously, the mutations arise to meet the organism’s adaptive needs, and are no longer “random”. That is exactly the point of Behe’s argument. Besides, why doesn’t God skip the cruel selection part and create a whole population of well-adapted organisms without further ado? (See below for Plantinga’s answer to the problem of evil.)

The thesis that mutations are random (i.e., unguided), rather than being a metaphysical afterthought, has been amply demonstrated and is accepted as the null hypothesis by evolutionary biologists. Experiment after experiment has shown that there is no evidence of nonrandom mutations arising because an organism “needs” them. Further, if some intelligent agent is triggering mutations after all, it seems that he/she/it is causing precisely the kind and rate of mutations that one would expect if the process were entirely undirected. Plantinga’s effort to stave off the conflict between theism and evolution is a failure. Either he is buying into creationist fantasies that have been put to rest long ago, or he is hammering on the excessively weak claim that it is logically and metaphysically possible that, all evidence to the contrary, evolution unfolds under supernatural guidance. But if the bar for rational belief is lowered to mere logical possibility, and the demand for positive evidence dropped, then no holds are barred. Evolution (or gravity, plate tectonics, lightning, for that matter) could as well be directed by space aliens, Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster. (I was going to  include the devil in the list, but then it turns out that, on page 59, Plantinga has no qualms at all about treating the horned one as a serious explanation. There goes my reductio.)

In the above I see no cognizance of the single most important factor which makes or breaks standard evolutionary theory*, namely the critical importance of the physical regime in making the evolution of organic configurations possible. It is this regime which determines the size and shape of the space of permissible configurations in which random thermodynamic shufflings are taking place. If this space is wrongly shaped or too large then the thermodynamic agitations which effectively constitute the computational activity which “seeks out” stable organic configurations, is easily overwhelmed. But if our physical regime actually returns a sufficiently constrained shape and size to configuration space then the evolution of organic forms may have a realistic probability.

If for the sake of argument we assume that the latter is the case then no further “guidance” (whatever that means) is needed for evolution; there is then sufficient mathematical providence for evolution to proceed. For if the configuration space set up by our physical regime is sufficiently constricted then the random thermodynamic shufflings become the computational searching by which the configurations of life are located and locked into place by the evolutionary ratchet.

The “shuffling” patterns of randomness (constituting the natural engine of computation) are no more and no less than that; namely, a particular class of mathematical patterning. How then are we to distinguish between patterns that are guided (Plantinga) and patterns that are unguided (Boudry)? What criterion do we use to distinguish between guided and unguided patterns? To me the dispute between Boudry and Plantinga about the nature of evolution seems to be Unintelligible. Unless, of course, it is claimed that our physical regime is insufficiently constrained to impose the right shape and size on configuration space – in which case the evolution of life would require something extra – perhaps some unknown physics or even the enigmatic “tinkerings” of a homunculus intelligence working behind the scenes, not unlike Maxwell’s demon! If so then Boudry and Plantinga would have a meaningful dispute. Otherwise I see little content in their argument.

However, if the mechanisms of evolution (and OOL) are as the evolutionists think they are then I agree with Boudry that the random shufflings of the computational engine are going to be statistically independent of an organism’s need to survive: Unlike Maxwell’s demon those shufflings don’t have any information about the direction in which they should take; in fact that’s precisely why a search needs to be conducted! But I disagree with Boudry when he says that Irreducible Complexity is a pseudoscientific concept. You see, if Boudry accepts the established view of evolutionary mechanisms then he is implicitly accepting that configuration space has been arranged with the right shape and size needed to confer upon those mechanisms a realistic probability of generating organic forms. This shape requires stable organic structures to be close enough together in configuration space to form a linked set so that evolutionary drift can proceed in a series of incremental steps; where each step is a small jump to the next relatively stable organic form. This condition whereby organic structures form a linked set in configuration space is what may be termed “Reducible Complexity”. But in positing this concept we beg the question of whether or not it is in fact the case: What if organic configurations do not form this connected set? What if organic forms are isolated islands of stability in a huge sea of unstable configurations? Irreducible Complexity as a concept is simply the negation of reducible complexity and as such it is both a meaningful idea and the subject of legitimate scientific inquiry. Should irreducible complexity actually be the case then needless to say the established view of evolutionary mechanisms would simply not work and the posited engine of natural history would have to be fundamentally revised. Perhaps this may explain why Boudry shrugs off IC in an offhand way, rather than face the uncharted intellectual vista it brings into view. He is using the word “pseudoscience” as the establishment once used the cry of “heresy”.

If engines of evolution and OOL are as the scientific establishment would very likely prefer them, then this entails  the supply of some very particular mathematical conditions: These conditions must be constantly maintained as the status quo of our physical constitution and therefore these conditions are arguably an ongoing form of guidance, although guidance that is rather different from the default “interventional” theology that envisages some kind of homunculus or "demon"; a model that is affirmed by many theists and vehemently attacked by atheists like Boudry.

Boudry’s review naturally runs into other issues like the logical possibility of miracles, the problem of suffering and the destructive self-referencing of naturalism. I may look at these in a later post.

*In this context I’m bundling organic evolution and OOL into one package and calling it “evolution”.

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