Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On Structuralism and the Spongeam

There has been some discussion on the web on the subject the "structuralism" proposed by Micheal Denton. Denton proposes a very strong view of structuralism; that is that the configurations of organic forms are an outcome of the the laws of physics, so much so in fact that replaying the evolutionary story would lead to very similar forms. Anyway that is at least how Larry Moran interprets Denton:

As Denton says, the basic idea is that the form (structure) of modern organisms is a property of the laws of physics and chemistry and not something that evolution discovered. He would argue that if you replay the tape of life you will always get species that look pretty much like the species we see today because the basic forms (Baupläne) are the inevitable consequences of the underlying physics.....To someone like Denton, this is confirmation of his view that God created the universe and endowed it with all the properties (laws of physics and chemistry) that would inevitably produce humans.

The Spongeam as a 3D Metaphor
If we proceed assuming the existence of the spongeam then to the above I would have to say both "yes" and "no". The spongeam is a bit like a complex and fuzzy rail or road network which I assume would have to be implicit in the physics we know or perhaps even some physics we have yet to know.  If we set going randomly walking agents in this network they are unlikely to end up in the same place if the experiment is repeated and yet in order to make evolution an outcome with a realistic probability the spongeam, must be a highly constrained object in comparison to the space of all possible configurations. Ergo, the information required to generate life would have to be implicit in front loaded physics. 

So, I can't really take sides on this subject: Denton is far too strong on the subject of physical determinism and evolutionary repeatably. In contrast Moran is far too weak on the subject and seems unaware of the important role that front-loaded information would have to play in conventional evolution, This must be a classic example of debate polarization. As for myself I think that the existence of the spongeam is unlikely.

There are a couple of odd features of this debate that I would like to point out.:

1. The de-facto IDists seem to be taking Denton's side: That's interesting because as far as I'm aware they don't like the idea that physics contains a enough information to render evolution probable: Does that mean that they are prepared to accept that "natural-forces-did-it" after all? But having said that I realise the de-facto IDists are often happy with anything that vandalizes current evolutionary theory!

2. Micheal Denton's Wiki page says:
Denton's current interests include defending the "anti-Darwinian evolutionary position" and the design hypothesis formulated in his book Nature’s Destiny.[2] Denton describes himself as an agnostic......He describes himself as an evolutionist and he has rejected biblical creationism

Compare that with Larry Moran's statement above. Also here's what PZ Myers says about Denton:  

Larrry Moran has heard the words of Michael Denton, and has come away with a creationist interpretation of structuralism. I have to explain to Larry that Denton, as you might expect of a creationist, is distorting the whole idea. Here’s the Denton/Intelligent Design creationism version of structuralist theory......


My work on the Spongeam can be seen here:

Larry Moran On Denton:

PZ Myers on the Structuralism debate:

Uncommon Descent:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

More from the false dichotomy zone

Evangelical atheist Loran Moran, on whose blog I first saw the above video, seems pretty livid with its content. It's a talk by Intelligent Design guru Paul Nelson and it is really very typical of the strategy one finds across the board with the brand of IDism represented by Nelson. This strategy involves finding sufficient material to become wowed! by the huge problems faced by evolutionary theory, problems often expressed by eminent aficionados of the theory itself. Four minutes near the end of the video Nelson probably feels he's through with his bombardment of the edifice of evolution and its now time to go over the top. So after 36 minutes of being wowed! he turns the theme on a sixpence and introduces the standard IDist natural processes vs. intelligence dichotomy. a dichotomy which implicitly assumes ID's flawed epistemic filter. Nelson then concludes that God Intelligence created life. But the explanatory filter is toxic for theism. The filter is rightly used for ancillary intelligence such as humans or even aliens who are working within the confines of the cosmos: But arguably humans and aliens are natural processes! Moreover, should it be satisfactorily demonstrated that the cosmic physical regime can generate life the naive eminent theism of Nelson becomes problematic.

 As I have repeated many times on the this blog. de facto IDism like that promulgated by Nelson depends on the assumption of a sharp distinction between intelligence and natural process. Nelson expresses this dichotomy in another way; he talks of the limitations of Methodological Naturalism. This concept is itself deeply problematical: Is it based on drawing a line around the set of ontological objects  or  the set of epistemological objects? As a rule IDists like Nelson just assume the category is plain. My  guess is that  the supernatural vs natural distinction, a distinction which pervades the background of Western thought, is lurking behind the scenes here. The distinction becomes explicit in Christian fideism and gnositicism where ontological and epistemological distinctions are combined: Viz: It is thought that supernatural objects are only understood by supernatural means; Here Methodological Naturalism is defined apophatically in terms of what it is not

Note: 23/2/16
A form of "Naturalism" may define it as the science of "matter". But "matter" can only be a theoretical construction built upon observation. But an observation based epistemic is apparently more general than the theoretical constructions that may be placed upon observation thus begging the question of whether observation might reveal that "matter" is not a comprehensive theoretical account of the cosmos. However, it is possible to adopt the assumption that the ontology of "matter" is an exhaustively comprehensive ontology. In which case "matter" becomes not only everything we can observe but also provides a theoretical account of observation itself. If one drops the naive idea of "matter" as a primary ontology of "particulate grains" and use the more sophisticated notions of mathematical "law & disorder" descriptions then we find that "matter" in this sense is not a basis for atheism*: For "matter" rather than being a primary ontology then becomes a way in which mind comprehends itself; mind and matter justify one another in a mutually supporting circle: Viz: "Matter" gives a causal account of mind in terms of law and disorder, but mind supplies the meaning of that account in positivist terms of experience and comprehension of that account. It may be that asiety has its basis in this kind of circularity. See the remarks in the appendix of this blog post for example.

* I'm generalising the term "atheism" here to include also the tendency to deny the existence of the first person perspective of conscious cognition. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Caution! You are about to enter Intelligent Design's false dichotomy zone!

According to some IDists you’re either an IDist or a blaspheming heretic in league with satanic atheists.

Here's the general idea of a false dichotomy
Below I have reproduced an article which was recently posted on the de facto Intelligent Design Web site “Uncommon Descent”. It epitomises some of the dichotomised logic of the de-facto ID community who habitually work within a “natural processes” vs God “intelligence” paradigm. They do not accept that there are Christian scientists out there who have, in clear conscience, intelligently reconciled evolution with their faith. The pratfall of the kind of IDism we see below is embodied in the attempt to define evolution (which they wrongly refer to as “Darwinism”) using such a corrupt straw man version of it that it is impossible for Christian evolutionists and even atheists to accept. They keep trying to pass off a mangled version of “Darwinism”, laden with their own deep misconceptions, as the genuine article and then use it to impune Christian evolutionists. In the light of this kind of polarised thinking I suspect that latterly UD is lurching in a fundamentalist direction; as a general rule fundamentalist also have a love of strawman shibboleths which they foist on outsiders and serve as black and white category markers separating the sheep from the goats.

Before I go any further I must flag my usual disclaimer: I’m not a conventional evolutionist myself; I am, in fact, an Intelligent Construction Creationist who is exploring the concept of “backloading" - see here. Let me emphasize here that I'm exploring, not asserting IC in order to use it as a platform from which to slag-off everyone else. For there are many Christians of good conscience who are standard evolutionists and who are certainly not obliged to accept the corrupt travesty of evolution peddled by StephenB below (I shall call him just “B”). In the following quotes from B  all emphases are mine:


God and Darwin: Why they simply cannot co-exist
February 11, 2016      Posted by StephenB under Intelligent Design
As UD readers know, Charles Darwin changed history when he argued that naturalistic processes, acting alone, can drive the macro-evolutionary process from beginning to end. His earth-shattering message was that nature’s pseudo-creative mechanism can mimic the work of a designing Creator. That he could not support his claim with empirical evidence did not seem to bother him very much.

My Comment: Implicit in B’s “naturalistic processes acting alone” is the Nature vs. God dichotomy. As in all science evolution can only ultimately make claim to being a description of nature, but not its inner theological driving engine. Theological issues apart (and, true, there are several such issues) a Christian evolutionist should envisage God as the immanent power that reifies the platonic patterns of the process. After all, the posited “randomness” of evolution is just another behaviour pattern of a particular mathematical type; the mathematical description of the pattern of randomness is not in-and-of-itself an explanation of the underlying power which reifies that pattern. 

As far as I’m aware Darwin was, repeat, was very bothered by the paucity of evidence. However, evolutionary theory posits what is a huge structure with a large time dimension and which is probably computationally irreducible to boot. To assemble enough evidence to constitute a logically watertight case for evolution is likely impossible.  I suspect B doesn’t have a very firm grasp of the nature of evidence: See my posts on epistemology on this subject: See the links posted here for example:  

From then until now, the texture of the argument has not changed. Neo-Darwinists, without a shred of evidence, and in the name of disinterested science, declare that nature can produce biodiversity all by itself, which means, without God’s help. Incredibly, some well-meaning Christians try to argue the God “used” this aimless mechanism to achieve his specific goal of creating man.

“What’s the problem,” they ask? “Evolutionary scientists are the ‘experts,’ aren’t they? They have no special axe to grind even if most of them are partisan atheists. Besides, God can use purely naturalistic processes to produce the outcome He wants.”

My Comment: Bunk! Evolution has plenty of evidence although I personally would want to qualify that by suggesting that it may not amount to obliging evidence; perhaps the available evidential “dots” can be joined by other explanatory structures. B’s over-the-top “without a shred of evidence” will ensure he gets approving noises from the ID gallery! Once again this guy’s comment suggests to me he doesn’t really grasp what “evidence” means.

If God is immanent, it is very difficult to conceive what B means when he says: nature can produce biodiversity all by itself, which means, without God’s help. Even if the universe displayed completely random patterns (a form of pattern which is in fact a highly sophisticated mathematical object) then theologically God would still have to be the reifying power behind it.

Now at this point B could raise difficult theological issues about how death and disease are intrinsic to conventional evolution, but no, he continues to manifest his complete ignorance of what evolution is really all about:

This is bad logic on parade. [Look who’s talking! – ed] Let’s examine that last claim from a rational perspective. A (Neo)Darwinian process, as described, is open-ended. By virtue of its randomness (purposelessness), it is free to produce many possible outcomes, most of which will not reflect the Creator’s intentions. To guarantee the desired outcome, the Creator must front load or tweak the process (mechanism) so that unwanted outcomes are closed off. But if the process is constrained from the outside, then it is no longer “acting alone,” and is no longer “free” to produce unwanted outcomes. In other words, it is no longer a Darwinian process as defined by the evolutionary scientists. Thus, God cannot use a Darwinian mechanism to achieve a specific goal. If God did use evolution to create man, he would have had to either design or supervise the process.

My Comment: B appears to identify randomness with purposelessness on the basis of his gut feeling, rather than see randomness as a pattern of a particular mathematical type. It is this spurious intuitive connotation which I suggest is getting B into intellectual trouble: For whenever a Christian evolutionist might refer to randomness, B will automatically read that as “purposelessness” thus giving him an opportunity to read "heresy" behind the lines. However, if randomness if defined in terms of a class of mathematical pattern this does not necessarily connote purposelessness (See here for my own work on randomness)

B equates “constrained from outside” with “no longer acting alone”. Our physical regime is clearly constrained (presumably by the divine sovereign will) to behave according to narrow probabilistic envelopes. Therefore from B’s logic it follows that the physical regime is not acting alone! Therefore on his own logic B ought not to be surprised if our physical regime generates life!

Let us leave on one side the huge theological problems entailed by a world of suffering and evil; this is a major theological paradox, where to use B’s expression, outcomes might “not reflect the Creator’s intentions”, and this paradox is a superset of the theological problems with evolution: If conventional evolution holds sway then it is just part of a much bigger theological issue that Christians try to cope with. Christians have to live with this paradox in any case and so evolution introduces just more of the same theological conundrum where good can, paradoxically, emanate from bad.

B’s reference to front loading and even “tweaking” are, in fact, entirely correct. But then those who understand evolution best, like say atheist Joe Felsenstein, are perfectly aware of this and accept that information frontloading is a necessary condition of a working model of evolution (See my blog post here). And yet someone like Felsenstein is a fully paid up atheist and evolutionist.  B thrusts his highly distorted depiction of evolution as an unconstrained process into the mouths of others, Christian and atheist alike. This behaviour of stuffing blasphemies into the mouths of others is very reminiscent of fundamentalist Jason Lisle. B’s perverse view of evolution is a strawman through and through. In short, contrary to what B claims, evolution is entirely consistent with frontloading.

For more on this subject see the following posts. Of particular interest are the comments by mathematician Mark Chu-Carroll who is a theist of Jewish faith.

The nub of B’s theological cock-up is that he is thinking in naive anthropomorphic terms about the nature of design: He sees the Almighty preparing His blueprints in advance and then imposing them on matter with His iron will. This is in fact all too typical of the authoritarian and forceful slant of fundo-evangelical Christianity.  But as a model of design it’s not even true of the human design process. B doesn’t realise that the act of building, experimenting, and designing are inextricably mixed. The act of construction is itself an intelligent process involving searching and problem solving; what I refer to as intelligent construction rather than intelligent design. However, I’ve got to hand it to Granville Sewell; he’s the first (and last) IDist I’ve seen who seems to have some inkling about intelligent construction as opposed to intelligent design! See here.

To understand more fully why Christian Theism is on a totally different pathway than Darwinian evolution, we can subject the two models to a sequential analysis:

In the case of Teleological Theism, the design precedes and shapes the process. In the case of Darwinian Evolution–the process precedes and shapes the design (appearance of). Notice that there can be no reconciliation. To affirm one perspective is to negate the other. Either God’s real design precedes and shapes the process (Teleological Theism) or, the evolutionary process precedes and shapes the appearance of design (Neo-Darwinism). It must be one or the other. It cannot be both.

The attempt to reconcile God with Darwin may be likened to a misguided carpenter who tries to plug a square peg into a round hole. In the absence of a natural fit, he may press, twist or re-position the square peg in a futile attempt to make it “compatible” with the circle. Or, he may even hammer the peg until it breaks the wood and penetrates the hole—or what is left of it. At that point, it may seem to fit the hole, insofar as it occupies the same space, but of course, it doesn’t. The damaged hole is compromised; it is no longer the same hole.

Christian Darwinists may try to twist words, distort meanings, and mix messages in a futile effort to blend the Darwinian model with the Christian model, but it will not work. Insofar as the attempt is made, the Christian world view will be damaged and its teachings compromised. It will no longer be the same religion. The part will not blend with the whole. Does this mean that science is incompatible with faith? No. It means that Neo-Darwinist ideology is incompatible with science. I sincerely wish that flexible Christians who are inflexible Darwinists would try to make that distinction.

My Comment: No! As I’ve already said, in any real cognitive design process searching, problem solving and construction are inextricably mixed. Therefore we cannot claim as B does that design unambiguously precedes the process. Therefore reconciliation between process and design is possible; they are not thesis and antithesis. B has created a false dichotomy in his mind; he then foolishly thinks others Christians are stupid enough to swallow it; for in his polarised world he forces on the debate what he wrongly sees as a straight choice between truth (his views of course) and heresy.  To see the debate through  this kind of false dichotomy is the hallmark of blueprint fundo-evangelicalism which all too typically envisages an eminent authoritarian hyper-masculinised God imposing his highly focused will upon a submissive nature from on high. This theology is flawed. B then tries to impose the black vs. white choices entailed by his corrupt, brittle and inflexible categories on other Christians who on the basis of his straw man shibboleth may well find themselves being accused of heresy and perhaps even blasphemy and apostasy. To re-quote B:

It must be one or the other. It cannot be both…. the Christian world view will be damaged and its teachings compromised. It will no longer be the same religion. The part will not blend with the whole

Let me end by repeating the following: I am myself an Intelligent Construction creationist; that is I see the very process of construction as part and parcel with intelligence. I  disassociate myself from the stultifying categories of the blueprint fundo-evangelicalism seen above. I make no bones about the fact that many an atheist would think of me as a complete nincompoop for taking seriously the idea that some of them understand as “the magic man in sky”.  But there is little to be gained from reasonable atheists not only having to put up with what to them is nincompoopery, but also the domineering nastiness we get from some of the right-wing fundo-evangelical representatives of the faith.

The de facto IDiots have set themselves up for this kind of lampooning.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Denis Alexander is coming to Norwich Cathedral.

Breaking the horizon from left to right are: Norwich Castle, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich City Hall and Norwich Cathedral. If you know where to look there are at least nine medieval churches visible in this picture. Good website on Norwich here.

Biologist Denis Alexander is scheduled to do a lecture at Norwich Cathedral entitled Evolution & Adam: Reality, Myth & Symbolism. I hope to attend. 

Recently, I noted that evangelical atheist and Toronto Professor of Biochemist Larry Moran has done several blogs on Alexander: See here, here and here. Larry has always taken the line that science is a comprehensive and exclusive way of knowing. Actually, I might have a qualified agreement with him on that, but not for the reason that you might think, which in Larry's case seems to be connected with his evangelical way of drawing an epistemic line around what he deems as authentic knowledge. I've seen plenty of that kind of noetic hegemony my time!

My dispute with Larry Moran is that he doesn't really grasp just how epistemically flaky our world really is, especially as it seems to throw up observational erratics and one-offs. As a result we either need to generalise the meaning of "science" or alternatively formalize that meaning with the understanding that science's formal relation between theory and experience must give way to a more informal seat-of-the-pants relation when moving out of the physical sciences into the sociological. However, I'm in general agreement that in the final analysis an epistemology involving a contention between theory and experience, between narrative and text (see my side bar) covers an all but exhaustive epistemic domain*. Larry Moran, however, has a very specialized laboratory level understanding of epistemology. This would be OK if it were not for the fact that it's simply impossible to observe everything under lab conditions. In my view he needs to generalise his epistemology which might help smooth off those sharp unforgiving evangelical edges.

Talking about evangelicals; Denis Alexander's Wiki page categorizes him as an evangelical Christian. I was once evangelical myself but for many reasons now find I'm veering toward a more liberal stance. Therefore, I think I might be even more interested in Alexander's take on Christianity than his biology.  However, there is no disputing that Alexander is a great man of faith who doesn't stint on his witness to Christ.  The de-facto IDists and the fundamentalists are very critical of Alexander and in comparison Larry Moran's criticism seems muted  As I don't get on well with de facto IDists and fundies, I've probably got something in common with Alexander!

Finally, relevant links: There is no point in repeating here in detail just why I find Larry Moran's epistemic outlook blinkered. Below are links to posts I've done on epistemology, some specific to Moran's views and where he himself gets more than an honourable mention.

* Verifying this vision of generalised science uses the same theory vs. experience,  narrative vs. text  contention to verify itself. It's one of those circularly self supporting concepts.  Circularity is OK provided it is self-affirming rather than contradictory: See 
This concept of self affirming circularity may be at the the bottom of Aseity. See comments at the end of this post: