Professor Larry Moran, biochemist and evangelical atheist, refers to Intelligent Design Creationists as “IDiots”. Given that I believe the story of cosmic configuration changes to be an act of intelligence, moreover a process of intelligence, then that probably makes me an IDiot too, a title I willingly embrace, and with good humour I hope. However, in this series of posts I'm anxious to distinguish my views from the largely right-wing North American “IDiots” with whom I have a hard time seeing eye to eye. In fact I’m trying to show that “IDiots” like V J Torley, who has a post on Uncommon Descent I am critiquing, promotes a very distinctly dualist God-of-the-Gaps type of IDiocy, an IDiocy that in the final analysis amounts to an attack on science: For Torley’s views very much depend on maintaining gaps in science’s description of nature so that these can then be plugged with inscrutable acts of
God intelligence; that is, like other IDiots of his persuasion Torley is committed to a belief that life
cannot be explained without invoking the activities of a tinkering tampering
black box intelligence, an intelligence that makes good the assumed providential inadequacies
of the physical regime. Such views harmonise well with a nature vs. God theological dualism. So, although I myself classify
as an IDiot, my plea is that Torley is a much bigger IDiot than I am.
If Torley believed that the physical regime had generated life then his theology of the tinkering occasional God would fall over. So in order to scorn the idea that the cosmic algorithm suite just couldn't be providentially fruitful enough to generate life Torley resorts to this naive caricature:
The idea of writing a mathematical program that can generate a rich variety of meaningful stories from a “word bank” is comically absurd. Even a master programmer could not do that, unless he/she “cheated” and pre-specified the stories into the program itself. But that wouldn’t save any effort, would it? And one cannot even imagine a simple procedure for writing a good story. Stories are inherently complex, and their parts have to hang together in just the right way, or else they will not “flow” properly.
Someone might suggest that you could generate a very large number of stories by writing one master story and allowing parts of it to vary, like this:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (The opening line to George Orwell’s 1984.)
“It was a _____ , _____ day in _____ , and the clocks were striking _____ .”
To be sure, you could generate a very large number of stories that way, but reading them all would be a very monotonous enterprise: there wouldn't be any real variety. If the stories we generated could only vary within narrow constraints, like the gap-fill sentence above, then they would be very shallow and boring, and would feel “canned.”
My Comment: Comically absurd? Too right; the above certainly classifies as a piece of comedy: But as a serious proposition it fails on more than one level. Firstly it fails on the general level that the evolution of the universe (as opposed to the theory of evolution) is not a means of generating a story, but it is a story in its own right. At this general level Torley gives no cognizance to the recursive nature of Intelligence: Intelligence can tell a story, but the compiling and creation of that story is also a story, a story which a higher level intelligence could have conceived. The point is that Torley’s dualism, which induces him to impose a natural forces vs. intelligence dichotomy on the whole debate, simply cannot be enforced as a fundamental distinction. The recursive nature of intelligence means that intelligent activity can be contained within a higher level intelligence. The end result of intelligent activity may be a story, but the intellectual processes that generate that story is also a story. The subject of computation, which is closely related to the endeavours of intelligence, has a similarly recursive nature: Programs can be written to write programs just as intelligence can conceive intelligence; The North American ID paradigm which enforces a sharp distinction between natural processes and intelligence is fundamentally flawed in failing to do justice to the reflexive character of sentience.
And here’s the second layer of failure in Torley’s ID: Notice that in his absurd example he uses assumed anthropomorphic values to explain why his scenario is unlikely; it’s comically absurd, a master programmer could not do that, unless he/she “cheated”, that wouldn't save any effort, would it? But in spite of these anthropomorphic allusions Torley has missed one very important anthropomorphic rationale for writing software – namely that of searching and finding. The scenario that Torley has sketched out tenders the idea of a programmer who has more or less conceived the solution from the outset and then tries to “solve it”. Of course, pre-specifying the end result destroys the whole point of a search! This preposterous notion presumably suites Torley down to the ground as he is anxious to maintain intelligence as an entirely distinct entity from the algorithmic processes that it could conceivably subsume. In fact I would go as far as to say that “seeking and finding” is an important aspect of what intelligent activity is all about; searching and finding is intelligence in action. In such searches very general criteria may be laid down which dictate the conditions under which seeking eventually results in a positive find.
Torley’s flippant caricature betrays his point-of-no-return commitment to the notion of acts of intelligence as exclusively eminent and occasional events rather than seeing the cosmic process as immanent intelligence in action: If a programmer could run his search program in his mind then this might be a metaphor for what immanent intelligence means. If intelligent activity is to be recognized as intelligence at all then this very general structure of seeking and finding will be part of its thought life. This action of searching and finding is the cosmic story that is being told. Mental life is a story of change and development.
It continues to get worse: Torley merely states that emergent life is impossible:
An organism has a story embedded in every cell of its body: its developmental program, which makes it what it is. Since it embodies a story, an organism cannot, even in principle, be produced by a single, simple act. And just as one story cannot be changed step-by-step into another while still remaining a coherent story, so too, it is impossible for one type of living thing to change into another as a result of a gradualistic step-by-step process, while remaining a viable organism.
My Comment: Yes, computationally speaking an organism could not be a single simple act: Clearly locating such structures in configuration space would require a very well-resourced search. But the assertion that an organism can’t be changed into another by gradualistic step-by-step processes can’t be argued either way from any known principled grounds (as opposed to evidential grounds). In contrast Torley is claiming here that he has principled grounds for rejecting gradualistic change as impossible. But this is just sheer assertion. True, it is possible that earthly organisms are actually irreducibly complex*2 to the extent that the step by step change envisaged by standard evolutionary theory is blocked; but in spite of his assertiveness Torley doesn't really know this for a fact: As intelligent beings ourselves we simply haven’t got the mental/computational where-with-all to search our way through all the possible ways the organisms of an organism suite can be altered to know whether or not gradualistic change is possible or impossible, let alone search all the possible physical regimes to establish if a reducibly complex*2 set of organisms in configuration space is mathematically impossible. What is motivating Torley is, of course, his anxiousness to maintain his preconceived God-of-the-Gaps theology which predisposes him to the a priori opinion that life is irreducibly complex*2 – entertaining the opposite opinion at the same time is out of the question, such is his intellectual commitment. Like other right-wing “IDiots” he has staked all on evolution not being a workable option. All his eggs are in one basket; the right-wing American ID basket.
I’ll concede that it may well be that the organisms of our physical regime are irreducibly complex*2; but even if this is the case Torley is still missing the fact that if life is a result if an intelligent search, then there will an inevitable underlying step-by-step gradualistic change as the search algorithms sift through the possibilities in a systematic and incremental way (Although this gradualism may not be reified in material terms).
Stories are not like mathematical formulas; and yet, undoubtedly they are still beautiful. They require a lot of work to produce. They are not simple, regular or symmetrical; they have to be specified in considerable detail. Who are we to deny God the privilege of producing life in this way, if He so wishes? The universe is governed by His conception of beauty, not ours, and if it contained nothing but mathematically elegant forms, it would be a boring, sterile place indeed. Crystals are pretty; but life is much richer and more interesting than any crystal. Life cannot be generated with the aid of a few simple rules. It needs to be planned and designed very carefully, in a very “hands-on” fashion. In order to facilitate this, God needs a universe which is ontologically “open” to manipulation by Him whenever He sees fit, rather than a closed, autonomous universe
The beauty found in living things, then, cannot be defined as a balance between plenitude and economy (to use Leibniz’s terms), or (as Hogarth would have put it) between variety and underlying simplicity. It is a different kind of beauty, like that of a story. That is why life needs to be intelligently designed.
My Comment: This really betrays Torley’s limited concept of the role of mathematical formula – he thinks of them not as search constraints but as recipes that generate preconceived solutions. This is what I refer to as the “dynamic fallacy” or the "front loading fallacy" that I have seen before amongst the North American ID community: For example, they often think it is necessary to counter the idea that the contingent configurations of the DNA coding are chemically preferred by the laws of physics. Of course, no bias toward the DNA coding has been found in physics and chemistry, and so the North American ID community sees this as evidence for their God-Of-The-Gaps theology. But what they neglect to consider is that the physical regime is part of an algorithm suite which has the effect of focusing the contingent possibilities into a narrow band in order to raise the probability of locating living configurations. This largely right-wing ID community haven’t rumbled the distinction between a physical regime as a constraint defining a search space in a declarative programming paradigm and the more familiar concept of a physical regime conceived as a procedural programming paradigm that determines the course of action in advance, in strict sequence. (See here for more on this subject; this is, in fact, a topic I am still working on and hope to publish here)
It is conceivable, I suppose, that cosmic history could be a kind of decompression operation which generates life in some kind of linear time procedural process; this is an extreme kind of "front loading" where Torley’s objections about the generation of pre-conceived solutions applies. But herein lies the rub: In such a case the authentic heavy duty computational problem has been pre-solved and the result simply “compressed” (or "front loaded") ready for the uncovering of what is effectively already there. Instead I think we need to start thinking in terms of the cosmic process being less a linear time decompression, but rather the actual proactive solution of a problem by searching, a problem whose solution has not been "front loaded" but in fact may still be in the throes of being “solved”. Given the problem is likely to have an exponential intractability it will need to be resourced by some kind of expanding parallelism (such as we see in Quantum Mechanics, perhaps). This is a far cry from the kind of linear time serial computation that is one of the straw men of North American ID.
*1 In spite of my disagreements with Uncommon Descenters I get the feeling that they are in a different league to the far less accommodating class of hardened “hell and hamnation” sectarian heretic hunters we find amongst the US religious right. (and, to be fair to some extent in the UK)
* 2 Irreducible/reducible complexity: I don’t use these terms in the sense of Micheal Behe’s flawed concept of irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity and reducible complexity as I conceive them are to do with how stable organic structures are laid out in configuration space. If a set of structures are reducibly complex they form a connected set in configuration space: This means that the diffusional computational process of evolution can bring about considerable change in organic structure. Irreducible complexity, on the other hand, is the opposite. That is, when such structures are widely separated in configuration space it is not possible for evolutionary diffusion to hop from one organism to another. Irreducible complexity, if defined properly (that is, not in the Behe sense), is an evolution stopper.