Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Western Dualism in the North American Intelligent Design Community. Part 4

(Picture from http://www.faradayschools.com/re-topics/re-year-10-11/god-of-the-gaps/ )

In this post I will complete my series showcasing Intelligent Design guru V J. Torley’s implicit God of the Gaps dualism as it appears in a post on Uncommon Descent. In his post Torley is reacting to Orthodox theologian David Hart’s objection that de-facto ID theology entails a “divine tinkerer”.

Now I’d like to ask Dr. Hart two questions. First, does he think that God could, if He wanted, give pieces of wood the power to assemble themselves into a ship? Second, does he think that an affirmative answer to the first question entails that the highly specified complexity which we find in living things could (in principle) have arisen from particles of non-living matter that initially lacked this specificity, via a series of law-governed natural processes?
Regarding the first question: one could perhaps imagine embedding the various pieces of wood with homing devices and identity tags, and even some switches to guarantee that they assembled in the right sequence. But it would be a fool’s enterprise: designing a ship that could assemble itself would be even more work than the task of assembling it oneself. With living things, the problem is much, much worse. ……..Now try to imagine designing a program for bringing all of the chemical building blocks for this bacterium together, assembling these building blocks in the right way and in the right order, and dealing with all the unplanned contingencies that might conceivably upset the assembly process. Dr. Hart says he doesn’t like a tinkering Deity. Methinks his Deity will have to do a lot more tinkering than mine.

My Comment: Here Torley continues with his caricature of the alternative to the divine tinkerer –  that of a universe whose parts have been contrived to come together in a preordained way, where the solution to the problem of generating life is effectively front loaded into the cosmos and is then set going.  This concept of an imperative algorithmic system unwinding to reveal an implicit front loaded solution very much contrasts with my declarative programming paradigm where the generation of life is the subject of a proactive teleological search for a solution (See my Melencolia I series)

In other words, what Aquinas is doing here is sketching an Intelligent Design argument: the complexity of perfect animals’ body parts and the high degree of specificity required to produce them preclude them from having a non-biological origin. The only way in which their forms can be naturally generated is from the father’s “seed,” according to Aquinas. (We now know that both parents contribute genetic information that helps build the form of the embryo, but that doesn’t alter Aquinas’ key point.) From this it follows that the first “perfect animals” must have been produced by God alone.
Rather, what Aquinas taught was that some changes – in particular, the generation of complex organisms – require so many conditions to be satisfied in order to occur, that they are beyond the power of Nature alone to bring about: they require a special act on God’s part.

My Comment: Ibid: “….preclude them from having a non-biological origin”, “….the first 'perfect animals' must have been produced by God alone.” What Torley identifies as an Intelligent Design perspective derived from Aquinas has a very “God of the Gaps” flavor about it. It is difficult to know whether Torley supports a similar view, but it has a good fit with the North American explanatory filter epistemic, an epistemic which makes a sharp distinction between natural forces and input from intelligent agency. It also has a good fit with Dembski’s ideas about the conservation of information; as I hope to eventually show the concept of conservation of information is best suited to imperative parallel computing but not the declarative computational paradigm.

While Aquinas might well have admired the ingenuity of the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, he would also have pointed out that our modern understanding of genetics has exacerbated the problem of accounting for complexity to the n-th degree: living things are far, far more complex than he imagined them to be, in the thirteenth century. In other words, the number of conditions required to make a complex organism – or a lowly bacterium, for that matter – is orders of magnitude greater than what Aquinas supposed it was, in his day. In order to account for this complexity, then, we need a theory of evolution that is orders of magnitude more efficient than former theories. And it is precisely here that evolution’s Achilles heel becomes apparent. In my post, At last, a Darwinist mathematician tells the truth about evolution, I explain why according to Professor Gregory Chaitin’s calculations, Darwinian evolution should take quintillions of years, rather than billions of years, to generate the life-forms we see on Earth today. And that assumes that you have a living thing, in the first place. Professor John Walton, a Research Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrews University who holds not one but two doctorates, has explained why he believes Intelligent Design is the only adequate explanation of the origin of life, in an interesting online talk.

My Comment: Chaitin is probably right! But what if you have available a processing power that is the equivalent to quintillions of years of computation?

But as we have seen, that’s not what Aquinas holds: for him, each and every species of organism “generated from seed” requires an act of God to account for its origin. What’s more, for Aquinas, gaps of this sort are good gaps, since God’s power and voluntary agency “can be manifested in no better way … than by the fact that He sometimes does something outside the order of nature.” I can only conclude that Aquinas’ thinking is very much at odds with Dr. Hart’s, on the subject of Intelligent Design.

My Comment: More God of the Gaps from Aquinas… sorry, I should have said God of the good Gaps. Of course we can’t blame the medieval theologian for this kind of concept, but his ideas are no model for the post industrial revolution 21st century, nearly 800 years later.

Aquinas responds that some material changes are beyond the power of Nature to produce. In this passage, Aquinas even likens the production of Adam’s body from slime to the miracle of raising the dead to life, showing that he regarded it as clearly beyond the power of Nature:

My Comment: If Torley is right then we see in Aquinas a fine example of  what is so easy to read as “this is the bit that God did!” theology.

 I use the term “act of God” here, because it is not my intention to argue in this essay that biological Intelligent Design requires a supernatural miracle (although Aquinas apparently thought it did). We can suppose – as I do – that living things share a common descent, without committing ourselves to the assumption that natural processes lacking foresight (e.g. random variation culled by natural selection) are sufficient to generate life in all its diversity. Exactly how God guides these processes to generate creatures is none of my concern. What matters to me is that an Infusion of Intelligence is required, in order to generate the life-forms we find on Earth today. The question of whether God used a miracle to generate life is a secondary one.

My Comment: Presumably a “supernatural miracle” is something that overtly transcends the normal operation of the cosmos, so I guess that Torley is allowing for the possibility that God does his stuff in a more covert way than the occasional mega intervention. This is a step in the right direction but even so Torley still doesn't escape from thinking in dichotomies: He contrasts “natural processes lacking foresight” against “an infusion of intelligence”. It is ironic that it is precisely because those processes lack foresight that a declarative search is the way the operation of an immanent intelligence manifests itself. Torley may or may not rule out mega interventions, but the theological damage has been done. Torley promotes a view of creation that emasculates the potency of natural forces and so everyone now reads “Intelligent Design” as a de-facto God of the Gaps creation paradigm.  Nothing Torley has said heads off this bad theology and his promotion of Aquinas doesn't help.*

To sum up: the use of the word “program” to describe the workings of the cell is scientifically respectable. It is not just a figure of speech. It is literal. Additionally, the various programs running within the cell constitute a paradigm of excellent programming: no human engineer is currently capable of designing programs for building and maintaining an organism that work with anything like the same degree of efficiency as the programs running an E. coli cell, let alone a cell in the body of a human being.

My Comment: To sum up: It is ironic that in spite of his observation of what the imperative cellular program is capable of  Torley has no vision of how “natural forces” might be capable of finding and maintaining life.
The de-facto ID community continues to implicitly promote God of the Gaps thinking. It is paradigm that is also very clear among fundamentalists like, say, Stuart Burgess who in his book “He Made the Stars Also” tells us that the Bible describes God as “master craftsmen” and  then concludes:

The description of God as a great craftsman measuring out the dimensions of the foundations of the Earth supports the conclusion that God did not use evolution because a craftsman carries out instantaneous  and deliberate actions whereas evolution involves a long random process. (Page 31).

Burgess doesn’t see that the Biblical metaphor fails to support his case. Real craftsmen are not magicians bringing about instantaneous actions of creation, but they are workman seeking answers to technological problems; this involves experimental searching and much thinking round possibilities. Real craftsmen seek solutions and build bit by bit.  In contrast the God of this kind of fundamentalism is a magician and not a workmen , a magician who "speaks" stuff into existence “Hey presto”,  just like that!

The other parts of this series:

Relevant Links:

* As an illustration of the ease with which V J Torley is interpreted as a God of the Gaps theologian see the following post by atheist biochemist Larry Moran:

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