Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Theology and North American ID. Part 2

In part one I made some general comments on the above YouTube video by IDist Stephen Meyer. In this part I want to comment more specifically on the content of the video. IDist detractors refer to people like Meyer as “creationists”, which in fact they are, but the term is probably deployed for its pejorative connotation, a connotation gained from its association with the anti-science Young Earthists. But unlike the Young Earthists not only are people like Meyer worthy thinkers they are also evangelical moderates who are less inclined to ease their case through using moral intimidation, impugning consciences and trying to get convictions for heresy.

The italicized sections below are not direct quotes from the video but are my digest of what I think Meyer is trying to tell us.

In attendance were several members of the House of Lords, University vice-chancellors and many journalists, politicians, philosophers and scientists.

My Comment: The video starts with the foregoing caption. The defacto-ID community have been generally cold shouldered by the scientific establishment, an establishment who regard them as peddlers of non-science (unjustifiably in my opinion). It’s not surprising then that IDists need to make the most of their connections with the mainstream.

Does nature, particularly biological nature, owe its origins to undirected processes or has mind played a role.

My Comment: In a nutshell that’s the North American ID paradigm; that is, framing the debate using an “undirected natural processes vs. intelligent design” dichotomy. I've commented critically plenty enough on this subject (see part 1 for example).

Meyer accepts natural selection has played a role in a long Earth history, The big question is whether natural selection explains all that we see. Is an undirected process mimicking design? Is it Darwin or design?

My Comment:  IDists like Meyer accept much about the established view of natural history. It is this that makes them a difficult target for the scientific establishment to shoot down: Unlike the Young Earthists  they don’t bend over backwards to prop up bizarre ideas based on a set-in-stone reading of scripture. Rather they focus on the intricacies of the evolutionary engine of change. Like bugs they are attracted to the bits they think are rotten! Notice once again Meyer mentions the paradigm through which he sees the whole issue: Viz. The undirected process vs. design dichotomy. He just can’t think round it.

Origin of Life: This is the question of whether chemical evolution produced the first life; essentially it is about the origin of the cell. Darwin didn't explain this with an undirected materialistic process.

My Comment: Advantage Meyer: OOL is the weak point of evolutionary theory.

Why did people think that with the advent of evolution the origin of apparent design had been explained? The answer: Because they thought cells were simple enough for the question of their origins to be consigned to a footnote. Cf. Ernst Haeckel “The cell is a simple homogenous globule of plasm”.

My Comment: This is an interesting and revealing historical point: Because cells, at one time, had a beguiling and deceptive simplicity it was taken for granted that an explanation of their origin could be left as an afterthought!  But Meyer’s whole neo-god-of-the-gaps paradigm hinges on the fact that cells are far from “simple”! They are very complex pieces of replicating molecular machinery.

There are two kinds of information: Shannon information ( = – log[probability] ) and complex specified information (CSI). CSI is not mere improbability but includes the ability to perform a function. The origins questions becomes the question of the origin of CSI.

My Comment: What Meyer really means here is that without an interpretative context the information in a sequence is meaningless; that is, for a configuration like DNA to be meaningful it needs an accompanying machinery of interpretation. So called CSI is simply recognition that for sequences of information to be meaningful they must be are part of a much wider configurational context. The question of the origin of CSI, is then equivalent to the question of the origin of certain classes of total configuration that includes both “information” sequences and translating machinery. The question can then be posed as to the Shannon information content of these wider contextualizing configurations. This information content will arise not just as a result of a single value of probability value p, because p is likely to resolve into a product of probabilities like p1 x p2 x p3 ..etc.,  where each pi refers to the probability of a configurational element. It is considerations like this that lead me to question the distinctive usefulness of the concept of CSI; if anything it gives a misleading mystique to the concept of information by taking biopolymers out of their configurational context.

In the face of a lack of explanation for the origin of the first life we can ask whether this life is due to chance, necessity or intelligence. The combinatorial explosion makes chance a very unlikely explanation. The work of Doug Axe  has shown that functional protein sequences are very rare and hence a random search is swamped.

My Comment: IDists tend to labour fairly obvious lessons about how the combinatorial explosion makes spontaneous formation of life’s configurations extremely unlikely and Meyer goes with the flow here. However, Doug Axe’s work sounds very interesting and it is clearly very relevant to the question of evolution/OOL. But rarity of functionality is not completely decisive; also highly relevant is the arrangement of functionality in configuration space (See my series on configuration space). Unfortunately, however, the polarization of this debate means that Axe’s work is unlikely to get justice from the scientific establishment.

Does natural selection solve the problem of life?  But natural selection presupposes a replicating form of life –  that is Natural Selection requires life to exist  in the first place!

My Comment: Fair comment. As Meyer says, this takes us back to the question of OOL and “chemical evolution” from elementary matter.

Self-organization ( =“necessity”): Is bio-information the result of some  kind of “crystallization” process?  Is there a biological predestination?  Do the amino acid and DNA sequences have a tendency to crystallize?  But experiments show that there is no bias - all sequences are equally likely. Therefore physics and chemistry (i.e. “necessity”) does not explain biopolymers.

My Comment: This is where I find the IDist analysis wanting; their concept of self-organization is too specialized: Studies of self-organization must also seriously engage the question of the layout of self-perpetuating configurations in configuration space. Granted, intuitively it seems unlikely that objects as combinatorially rare as self-perpetuating structures can populate configuration space in a way that facilitates evolutionary diffusion. But the fact is this case has not yet been rigorously eliminated and this gives room for world-view bias to influence beliefs here. At this point in the talk Meyer thinks that he has satisfactorily eliminated “chance and necessity” (sic) as explanations and consequently the God intelligence did it vs. naturalism did it dichotomy now rears its ugly head once again, as Meyer concludes:

What then is the “Best” explanation? Following Lyle’s uniformitarianism we look at which present day causes now in operation could explain the origin of life. We see intelligence generating information today – therefore  we hypothesise this cause as the best explanation. Using inference to the best explanation (abduction) we are left with intelligent causes as the best explanation.

My Comment:  Nice one! Meyer is using the scientific establishment’s acceptance of uniformitarianism to justify his case! I like it! Under any other circumstances I would call this nifty reasoning! But the trouble is that because we know that Meyer’s model of ID is that of an ancillary intelligence, (but theologically he believes in the totalizing and immanent intelligence of God) Meyer’s neo-God-of-the gaps paradigm holds an obvious weakness: If well motivated atheists manage to show that there is a developmental pathway by which self-perpetuating structures have emerged from elemental matter then Meyer’s brand of ID starts to look problematical. The North American ID paradigm which habitually contrasts “chance and necessity” (sic) against intelligence is OK for ancillary intelligence but falls over in Christian theology where the teaching is that God is both eminent and immanent. North American ID is playing a dangerous game, and consequently we can see why North American IDists are so adamant that “chance and necessity” (sic) did not and perhaps cannot in principle generate life; they refer to belief that it did as “naturalism”, a term probably deployed for its spiritually pejorative connotation, a connotation gained from its association with atheism. As I have said so many times before, if our physical regime has generated life, then we have a very rare system on our hands. North America ID is doing us a disfavour in not making this clear to us.

Some Thoughts
The rules of chess considerably constrain the possible games that can played, but not sufficiently to ensure that moving chess pieces at random within the rules will generate a coherent game. Likewise, my own gut feeling – and at this stage I have to admit it is only a gut feeling – is that current physics isn't sufficient to explain the generation of life; I submit that other physical factors not yet appreciated need comprehension. If we take Divine Immanence seriously and eschew the North American dualistic categories of naturalism vs. Intelligence, then the way is cleared for understanding the processes of our physical regime as intelligence in operation; at least in so far as it represents an ability to solve computational problems. If Intelligent Design is an aspect of a precisely selected law and disorder system capable of generating life then there is perhaps more chance of reviving the science of origins. For it is clear that North American ID, with its dualistic paradigm, is not likely to be very fruitful or productive as a science: This paradigm conceives intelligence in the manner of an ancillary intelligence that generates artefacts within a physical regime. It is therefore more akin to the soft science of archaeology where the inscrutable purposes of distant ancestors compromises both comprehension and prediction. (See here : http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/does-intelligent-design-make-testable.html )

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