Saturday, June 22, 2013

North American Intelligent Design Theory in Disarray

Picture from 
There are plenty of gaps in Dr V. J. Torley's arguments!

This post on Uncommon Descent descends into a glorious muddle as its writer, Dr. V. J. Torley, slowly becomes aware of the ill-formation of some of his concepts.

Let me state in advance from whence come Dr. Torley’s conceptual problems: They stem from the North American Intelligent Design community’s huge and irreversible intellectual investment in one candidate only; namely, the belief  that our physical regime did not and cannot generate life. They have burnt their bridges on this one and there is no going back. If North American ID has got it wrong then they go to the execution wall, probably taking theists like myself along with them; in such a polarized and belligerent debate people are in no mood to make fine distinctions. I support Intelligent Design, but I'm not exactly uncritical of the North American neo-god-of-the-gaps version of it. Ironically, then, I frequently find myself on the side of atheists and evolutionists.

Let me start with this quote from Torley:

Mark Frank appears to be confusing the term, “generated,” with the term. “described.” here.

In an appendix to his main post Torley backs down on this point as a result of criticism from Jeffery Shallit:

Which brings me to Professor Shallit’s remarks in a post over at The Skeptical Zone, in response to my earlier (misguided) attempt to draw a distinction between the mathematical generation of a pattern and the verbal description of that pattern:

This is what Shallit says:

In the Kolmogorov setting, “concisely described” and “concisely generated” are synonymous. That is because a “description” in the Kolmogorov sense is the same thing as a “generation”; descriptions of an object x in Kolmogorov are Turing machines T together with inputs I such that T on input I produces x. The size of the particular description is the size of T plus the size of I, and the Kolmogorov complexity is the minimum over all such descriptions.

That’s music to my ears! Clear and rigorous! Torley rightly accepted Shallit’s correction, but he goes on to shift his concept of “descriptive complexity as used by the ID movement” by defining it in the intuitive terms of “function” – that is, in terms of purpose. For example, a knife is for the function of cutting. He says that Shallit’s rigorous mathematical concepts are:

…an inappropriate (not to mention inefficient) means of determining whether an object possesses functionality of a particular kind – e.g. is this object a cutting implement? What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that at least some functional terms in our language are epistemically basic, and that our recognition of whether an object possesses these functions is partly intuitive.

The foregoing rather clouds the issue in that it is telling us that an object does not intrinsically possess the property of function by virtue of the intrinsic properties of its configuration but only by way of its relation to its context; that is “function” is an extrinsic property. Fair enough, I can accept that, but let me comment, as I have commented many times before, this is not hard science. Because North American ID conceives the role of intelligence as an ancillary agent supplementary to and to be contrasted over and against “natural agencies”, it is therefore more akin to the soft and imaginative science of archaeology than it is to the physical sciences.

If I understand Torley aright then the extrinsic property of functionality that gives an object it specificity is relatively easy to describe even if the configuration of the object needed to fulfil this function is complex. Hidden in Torley’s concept of functionality is, in fact, an implicit allusion to purpose. I’ll accept this, as it fits in with North American ID’s archaeological paradigm of intelligent design. However, we must bear in mind that evolutionary/OOL ideas do not make use of this very human concept of specificity: In evolution/OOL “function” is based on the simply described “purpose” that organisms are able to survive through self-perpetuation by replication; organisms serve less a context than their own intrinsic requirement to persist.

In the main body of Torley’s post we find this:

…..a pattern exhibits order if it can be generated by “a short algorithm or set of commands,” and complexity if it can’t be compressed into a shorter pattern by a general law or computer algorithm……The definition of order and complexity relates to whether or not a pattern can be generated mathematically by “a short algorithm or set of commands,” rather than whether or not it can be described in a few words. The definition of specificity, on the other hand, relates to whether or not a pattern can be characterized by a brief verbal description. There is nothing that prevents a pattern from being difficult to generate algorithmically, but easy to describe verbally. Hence it is quite possible for a pattern to be both complex and specified.

That is undoubtedly wrong! It is quite likely that any pattern can be generated by some algorithm or other, if given enough time. After all, even the simple binary counting algorithm ultimately generates every pattern. This would mean that according to Torley no pattern is complex and all patterns are ordered! What Torley seems to have neglected here is the role of execution time in computation: His idea does work if one requires the generating algorithm to be not only short in terms of commands but also short in terms of execution time. Although all patterns can ultimately be computer generated, only a relatively small subset can be generated in a realistically short time with short algorithms.  But reading between the lines we can see what Torley is after here: He is leading up to claiming that living configurations are “complex”, therefore cannot be generated by “mindless” algorithms, and therefore must require “intelligent agency” to set them up! Basically this is the God Intelligence did it vs. nature did it” dichotomy rearing its ugly head again!

But in his appendix to the main post Torley admits that what I have just quoted above is wrong and he shifts his ground again:

This, I would now say, is incorrect as it stands. The reason why it is quite possible for an object to be both complex and specified is that the term “complex” refers to the (very low) likelihood of its originating as a result of physical laws (not mathematical algorithms), whereas the term “specified” refers to whether it can be described briefly – whether it be according to some algorithm or in functional terms.

So, we see here that Torley is defining complexity in relation to the ability or lack of ability of the particular algorithms that constitute the physics of our universe to generate patterns; that is, he is defining a pattern to be “complex” if there is a very low probability of our universe's physical algorithms generating this pattern. Once again we can see Torley is trying to move in the same direction. He is setting up the definition of complexity so that he can eventually claim that life is “complex” and therefore impossible to generate via the physics we know; ergo, it must be an ancillary archaeological intelligence that did it!

But at least we have a concession here. At least Torley isn't denying that perhaps in principle there is a possibility of the patterns of life being generated by some algorithm or other, even if he doesn't think our own particular physics is capable of doing so. In the light of his realising that there is a difference between the capabilities of algorithms in general and our specific physical algorithms, Torley goes on to admit that Stephen Meyer has made a similar mistake to himself. He quotes Meyer as follows (Signature in the Cell l Harper One, 2009, p. 106):

Complex sequences exhibit an irregular, nonrepeating arrangement that defies expression by a general law or computer algorithm (an algorithm is a set of expressions for accomplishing a specific task or mathematical operation). The opposite of a highly complex sequence is a highly ordered sequence like ABCABCABCABC, in which the characters or constituents repeat over and over due to some underlying rule, algorithm or general law. (p. 106)
[H]igh probability repeating sequences like ABCABCABCABCABCABC have very little information (either carrying capacity or content)… Such sequences aren’t complex either. Why? A short algorithm or set of commands could easily generate a long sequence of repeating ABC’s, making the sequence compressible. (p. 107) (Emphases mine – VJT.)

Torley spots the issues with Meyers work:

There are two problems with this definition. First, it mistakenly conflates physics with mathematics, when it declares that a complex sequence can be generated by “a general law or computer algorithm.” I presume that by “general law,” Dr. Meyer means to refer to some law of Nature, since on page 107, he lists certain kinds of organic molecules as examples of complexity. The problem here is that a sequence may be easy to generate by a computer algorithm, but difficult to generate by the laws of physics (or vice versa). In that case, it may be complex according to physical criteria but not according to mathematical criteria (or the reverse), generating a contradiction.
Second, the definition conflates: (a) the repetitiveness of a sequence, with (b) the ability of a short algorithm to generate that sequence, and (c) the Shannon compressibility of that sequence. The problem here is that there are non-repetitive sequences which can be generated by a short algorithm. Some of these non-repeating sequences are also Shannon-incompressible. Do these sequences exhibit order or complexity?

In consequence Torley goes on to say:

What I’d like to propose is that the term 'order' should be used in opposition to high probabilistic complexity. In other words, a pattern is ordered if and only if its emergence as a result of law-governed physical processes is not a highly improbable event. More succinctly: a pattern is ordered if it is reasonably likely to occur, in our universe, and complex if its physical realization in our universe is a very unlikely event.

Thus on this definition a fractal which can be generated by a simple algorithm becomes complex because:

The same line of argument holds true for fractals: when assessing whether they exhibit order or (probabilistic) complexity, the question is not whether they repeat themselves or are easily generated by mathematical algorithms, but whether or not they can be generated by law-governed physical processes.

So, although Torley does allow that in principle mathematics can generate “complex” patterns, perhaps even life itself, true to the North American ID dualistic paradigm that sets “intelligence” over and against “natural processes” he doesn't want to believe that our particular physical regime is capable of generating the complexity of life. It is this outlook, I suggest, which motivates the whole of North American ID and any contrary suggestion is resisted tooth and nail.

We know that at the back of Torley's mind is the dichotomised belief that physics didn't do it but rather God did it! Consequently he finishes this post with this:

In the meantime, can you forgive us in the Intelligent Design community for being just a little skeptical of claims that “no intelligence was required” to account for the origin of proteins, of the first living cell (which would have probably required hundreds of proteins), of complex organisms in the early Cambrian period, and even of the appearance of a new species, in view of what has been learned about the prevalence of singleton proteins and genes in living organisms?

Given the polarised nature of the debate, then should it turn out that life has been generated by our physical regime then in Torley's dualistic paradigm this entails “no intelligence was required”. North American IDists would then have to go to the wall to be shot!

Torley’s post is in fact a continuation of a previous post. Toward the end of this previous post he really betrays why he is a neo-god-of-the gaps IDist:

….it is possible to argue that the very existence of laws of Nature which generate this order, constitutes powerful evidence for an Intelligent Creator. But that’s a metaphysical argument, not a scientific one. Since Intelligent Design is a scientific quest for patterns in Nature that are best explained as the product of intelligent agency, such an argument would fall outside the ambit of Intelligent Design theory.….. it is rather silly for Harry McCall to use the Chladni plate experiment to argue that “a man made dumb frequency generator can create many different detailed intricate designs”, when the designs actually arise as a consequence of the laws of Nature, which humans did not create. I conclude that McCall’s attempted refutation of Intelligent Design misses the mark badly.

Although I don’t accept Torley’s view that there is clear cut demarcation between the metaphysical and the empirical, I get his point here: The eminent and immanent God of Christianity is a much more abstruse concept than North American ID's “nuts and bolts” style archaeological intelligence that is ancillary to the physical regime and works within that regime. True, such a homunculus creator would be a little more amenable to scientific epistemology than a transcendent and yet immanent God and so perhaps we can understand the motivation behind North American ID. But conversely we can understand the hostility of much of the scientific establishment who see ID replacing a "law and disorder" science by a soft science of the archaeology of a very alien intelligence.

My own gut feeling, as per Genesis 1, is that our cosmos is a product of a single covenant and therefore I doubt that replicating life was somehow “supernaturally” patched in by God. After all, the ID community by and large accepts an old Earth natural history if not the “natural” mechanisms of evolution/OOL. That natural history shows evidence of being phased into developmental periods not unlike human history suggests to me that some other providential "natural" mechanism may be at work to explain this phased history without recourse to ad-hoc patching. The creation looks to be a single seamless robe, a kind of covering for God that can be folded up at any time (Hebrews 1:10ff). As such the immanent living God is only just under the surface of this covering, a covering that is more akin to the skin of a living thinking thing than a mechanism. These are just my current feelings and the direction in which my thoughts are tentatively moving.

Some previous posts relevant to the foregoing:

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