Saturday, April 26, 2014

Western Dualism in the North American Intelligent Design Community. Part 3

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.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Anti-Dualist Observation Number 1: The Rotation of Hyperion

The chaotic tumbling of Hyperion during its orbit of Saturn. Watch out for the brief appearance of Saturn!

The above YouTube video shows the chaotic tumbling of  Hyperion, an irregularly shaped moon of Saturn. I believe this little speck of dust in the immense tracts of space is telling us something profound about the nature of reality. I have watched the video time and again and haven't found myself getting bored with it, especially in the light of what Sir John Polkinghorne says about Hyperion:

The highly complex character of physical causality in a realistic situation is illustrated by the tale of Hyperion, one of the moons of Saturn. This irregularly shaped lump of rock, about the size of New York City, is observed to be tumbling chaotically as it encircles its planet. A simple estimate of the effectiveness of quantum physics in suppressing chaos, even when applied to a large object like Hyperion, leads to the conclusion that chaotic motion should not last for more than a finite period, in this case about thirty-seven years. While Hyperion has not been under observation for quite so long a time, no one expects that it is shortly about to return to orderly behaviour. It turns out that what will prevent this happening is a further influence, environmental in its character, which must be taken into account. The effect is called decoherence, and in its turn it suppresses typical quantum effects. Decoherence arises from the fact that Hyperion is bathed in a sea of low frequency radiation, partly coming from the Sun and partly from the universal cosmic background radiation that fills the universe. Interaction with this radiation represents a kind of repetitive 'measurement' process, continually erasing quantum fuzziness and restoring a classical-like situation, thereby preventing the quantum suppression of chaos from tightening its grip. It is rather like someone trying to get to sleep who continually asks himself 'Am I asleep yet?', thereby keeping himself away. The decoherent suppression of quantum suppression will keep Hyperion tumbling for a very long time to come. (Exploring Reality. Polkinghorne, SPCK 2005)

Now, I'm not so sure that decoherence theory is the full explanation of the apparently discontinuous jumps of the Quantum State vector (See here for some of my reasons why), but where I have common ground with the decoherence view is that whatever quantum leaps are, they happen regardless of sentient observation. It's fascinating to realise that as we look at Hyperion's tumbling rotation we are in effect watching the effects of those disordered but tiny quantum "jumps"* as they are magnified up by the butterfly effect to an observable level. These leaps keep shifting the rotation onto new rotational path histories. If these "path histories", as per chaos, diverge with time it will mean that no regular pattern of rotation will be observed. But quantum wave motion means that in time these paths start to defocus thus damping the chaos. However, before this defocusing can take effect the next quantum jump has shifted the rotation onto a new focused path history.

In some ways this fascinating observation fits in well with the anti-dualist theme of this blog: The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum observation tends to create a radical separation between mind and matter, by regarding matter as a mathematical system that, as per the calculated probabilities, throws up unambiguous observations for sentience; otherwise without the observer matter is thought to remain in a state of ambiguity. In contrast I have been coming to the view that while yes matter does throw up observations for human sentience, matter itself is a form of intelligence in action in as much as it comes to unambiguous conclusions without the need for a human observer. This is a theme I am, and am hoping, to develop. Such a view is of a piece with the realisation that human conscious cognition has a point by point conformity with brain function, a function which in the final analysis is the activity of a highly sophisticated quantum object.

Who'd believe that a lump of tumbling rock could be so telling!

* In decoherence theory the jumps are actually only apparent; a result of the perturbations introduced by environmental chaos cancelling out quantum wave dispersion and causing the system to remain relatively focussed. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

More God of the Gaps from North American ID.

In a blog debate between evangelical atheist Larry Moran and “IDiot” (as Moran calls them) Vincent Torley about the significance of the similarities between the genomes of humans and other primates, Moran succeeds in drawing Torley out on just how his God-of -the-Gaps version of intelligent design is supposed to work.

I’m currently doing a series of posts on one of Torley’s posts that appeared on “IDiot” web site Uncommon Descent. In that series I critique Torley’s dualist theology, a theology that leads him to posit a Natural forces did it vs God Intelligence did it dichotomy. However, in this particular post I want to show-case Torley’s own admissions on just how he thinks God might do his bit by tampering with the “natural” scheme of things. The following snatches of the dialogue between Moran and Torley are very telling indeed. 

First over to Moran:

Moran: The genomes of chimpanzees and bonobos are remarkably similar to the human genome. In terms of sequence similarity, they are more than 98% identical in the regions that can be aligned. This, of course, is due to the fact that they descend from a common ancestor in the recent past (about 5 million years ago).
Intelligent Design Creationists don't agree. Many of them do not accept common descent and macroevolution so they make up stories that account for the similarity based on what they think god might have been thinking when he created chimps and humans. (My emphasis in bold)

My Comment: Moran is right on there: North American ID is a soft science based on “what they think god might have been thinking when he created chimps and humans”. What compounds the problems of North American ID is that the “IDiot” culture Torley represents claims to not identify the more precise nature of the intelligence involved. Thus “God” is replaced with the apparently non-committal term “intelligence”. This of course could include “little green/grey man” intelligence; in which case we are explicitly dealing with a tinkering homunculus who is working very much within the physical regime of the cosmos. Who knows what motivates such entities and how they think? Soft science indeed! This is far from the immanent totalizing God of Christian theology.

Anyway, Torley claims to have some kind of insight into how this intelligence might think. This is what he says (as quoted by Moran):

Torley: In his post, Professor Moran (acting as devil’s advocate) proposes the intelligent design hypothesis that “the intelligent designer created a model primate and then tweaked it a little bit to give chimps, humans, orangutans, etc.” However, he argues that this hypothesis fails to explain “the fact that humans are more similar to chimps/bonobos than to gorillas and all three are about the same genetic distance from orangutans.” On the contrary, I think it’s very easy to explain that fact: all one needs to posit is three successive acts of tweaking, over the course of geological time: a first act, which led to the divergence of African great apes from orangutans; a second act, which caused the African great apes to split into two lineages (the line leading to gorillas and the line leading to humans, chimps and bonobos); and finally, a third act, which led humans to split off from the ancestors of chimps and bonobos.
"Why would a Designer do it that way?" you ask. "Why not just make a human being in a single step?" The short answer is that the Designer wasn’t just making human beings, but the entire panoply of life-forms on Earth, including all of the great apes. Successive tweakings would have meant less work on the Designer’s part, whereas a single tweaking causing a simultaneous radiation of orangutans, gorillas, chimps, bonobos and humans from a common ancestor would have necessitated considerable duplication of effort (e.g. inducing identical mutations in different lineages of African great apes), which would have been uneconomical. If we suppose that the Designer operates according to a "minimum effort" principle, then successive tweakings would have been the way to go. (Emphases in bold are mine)

My Comment: That really says it all: This concept of ID is of the tinkering, tampering One, whose thinking Torley thinks he understands and who makes the occasional appearances to solve the computational problems of the cosmic processes with a tweak of His magic wand. His is a black-box intelligence eminent to the processes of life. This leaves evangelical atheist Larry Moran with the easy job of making fun of Torley:

Moran: Interesting. One imagines the creator visiting Africa about 15 million years ago and fiddling with the genome of the ape ancestor so that two distinct species are formed. One leads eventually to orangutans and their extinct relatives and the other is the progenitor of the other extant apes and their extinct relatives.
Then the creator gets busy with beetles, or other planets, and lets things evolve on their own for a while, accumulating and fixing alleles at the rate we expect for evolution. Then the creator comes back for a visit about five million years later, having gotten bored with beetles. He (she?) tweaks the genome of some African ape so that a new species arises. The old one is the ancestor of modern gorillas and all the other related species that have gone extinct and the new species becomes the ancestor of chimps, bonobos and humans.
Now the creator turns his attention elsewhere for a few million years as those ape species evolve (insects need attention and his creation on Titan is in peril). Back he (she?) comes about five million years ago to tweak another two species into existence—one that will give rise, by evolution, to several species of Australopithicus, several species of Paranthropus, and several species of Homo (Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo sapiens. The other will eventually lead to over-sexed bonobos, the main goal of the exercise, I assume.
I think that what Vincent Torley is saying is that this is all consistent with the data I posted because most of the time these species are evolving just as we would expect. That's why the sequence differences between chimps and humans corresponds to what we expect from evolutionary theory. The reason this is misleading is because it omits the key mutations that god inserted every five million years or so in order to make modern gorillas.
There is, of course, no evidence that Torley's scenario is true and no evidence that a creator exists. I thank Vincent Torley for showing us just how ridiculous the Intelligent Design Creationist movement has become if this is the best they can do.

My Comment: Clearly the foregoing is an elaborated caricature, but it is caricature justified by Torley’s view of the eminent tweaking, tinkering, tampering intelligence, who fills in when “natural processes” can’t do the job. One can almost see in Torley’s vision God flying around in a spaceship from planet to planet doing the kind of stuff that gods (or little green men) do.

For myself I reject Torley’s God vs. Nature dichotomy and see God’s intelligence as immanent rather than just eminent to the cosmic process. This immanence is expressed in as much as the cosmic process is intelligence in action; that is, it is using intelligence’s universal process of search, reject, find and select. This view of mine would, in Moran’s eyes, likely make me just as big an “IDiot” as Torley, but at least I would like to be hung for right kind of theological idiocy, and not for the kind of dualistic idiocy Torley represents.

Addendum:  03/04/14: I can live with being thought of as an "IDiot" by Larry Moran, but he can hardly be blamed for using an appellation like this: Christianity has become so extreme in some of its expressions (particularly in North America) and inseparable from right-wing and anti-science sentiments* that "IDiot" becomes a commensurate symmetrical response; recall that Uncommon Descent is not just a site that questions evolutionary theory but also hosts YECs. Moreover, it is likely that the extreme fundamentalists have also helped stir up and justify the indiscriminating atheist savagery we see amongst PZ Myers "raiders", with which agreement or treaty is all but impossible. But talking about indiscriminate savagery think also of the behaviour of the raging religious right which includes (and has included) characters like Alex Jones (Professional conspiracy theorist), William Tapley (End times conspiracy theorist), Barry Smith (Millennium bug conspiracy theorist, now dead), Kent Hovind (Right wing conspiracy theorist), Ken Ham (Conspiracy theorist by interest), John McKay (Ham's ex-business partner and religious crank), Glen Beck (Mormon conspiracy theorist) etc. From their number one will hear detractors accused of the most heinous sins, depravity and blasphemies. Doctrines of total depravity has given them a susceptibility to conspiracy theory. In their world to be a heretic is to simply question the divine authority of their opinions and therefore a profession of Christian faith doesn't proof one against these savage accusations! If I had a choice I'd much prefer being called a common or garden "IDiot"!

* The artificial distinction that some Biblical literalists try to make between observational and historical science is a reliable shibboleth for anti-science attitudes: They don't see that the real variable is not historicity but the degree of logical remoteness of the ontology being investigated.