Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Evolutionary Theory vs. The Theory of Evolution

Who or what is driving evolution?
Evangelical atheist Professor Larry Moran writes a very useful blog post here. The title of the post is "Don't call it the theory of evolution". His justification for this title, and I probably agree with him, is that evolution is, in fact, a cluster of ideas and theories about the mechanism of evolution which are better termed "Evolutionary Theory" since there really isn't such a thing as The Theory of Evolution. This is what he says (my emphases):

What do scientists really mean when they refer to "The Theory of Evolution"? There is no single theory of evolution that covers all the mechanisms of evolution. There's the Theory of Natural Selection, and Neutral Theory, and the Theory of Random Genetic Drift, and a lot of theoretical population genetics. Sometimes you can lump them all together by referring to the Modern Synthesis or Neo-Darwinism

Instead of using the phrase "The Theory of Evolution," I think we should be referring to "evolutionary theory," which may come in different flavors. The term "evolutionary theory" encompasses a bunch of different ideas about the mechanisms of evolution and conveys a much more accurate description of the theoretical basis behind evolution. Douglas Futuyma prefers "evolutionary theory" in his textbook 'Evolution' and I think he's right. It allows him to devote individual chapters to "The Theory of Random Genetic Drift" and "The Theory Natural Selection."

Larry goes on to quote Douglas Futuyama (I have the same book, Evolution) who actually gives a very general definition of evolution that Larry himself has touted. I emphasize the aspects of this general definition in the bold emphases below: 

So is evolution a fact or a theory? In light of these definitions, evolution is a scientific fact. That is, descent of all species, with modification, from common ancestors is a hypothesis that in the past 150 years or so has been supported by so much evidence, and so successfully resisted all challenges, that it has become a fact. But this history of evolutionary change is explained by evolutionary theory, the body of statements (about mutation, selection, genetic drift, developmental constraints, and so forth) that together account for the various changes that organisms have undergone.

We now know that Darwin's hypothesis of natural selection on hereditary variation was correct, but we also know that there are more causes of evolution than Darwin realized, and that natural selection and hereditary variation themselves are more complex than he imagined. A body of ideas about the causes of evolution, including mutation, recombination, gene flow, isolation, random genetic drift, the many forms of natural selection, and other factors, constitute our current theory of evolution, or "evolutionary theory." Like all theories in science, it is a work in progress, for we do not yet know the causes of all of evolution, or all the biological phenomena that evolutionary biology will have to explain. Indeed, some details may turn out to be wrong. But the main tenets of the theory, as far as it goes, are so well supported that most biologists confidently accept evolutionary theory as the foundation of the science of life.

What we have here is a concept of evolution that can be roughly characterized as mere continuity of change with the full range of proposed mechanisms of change up for grabs. This form of evolution which is accepted as "fact", is so general that it could include all sorts of hidden mechanisms that entail "modification" perhaps even the tinkerings of an intelligent designer! - not that I'm necessarily suggesting that, but just to illustrate the generality of the fact of evolution! This kind of evolution as "fact" is a very broad tent indeed! Larry has posted on this very general definition of evolution before and I did a post on his post here

However, it is quite obvious that Larry and Futuyama wouldn't actually have the mechanism of intelligent modifications in mind; rather they are likely to opt for mechanisms implicit in  the mathematical "law and disorder"* objects of the physical canon. In fact as we read above both Futuyama and Larry seem confident that the main causes of evolution have been nailed. Nevertheless, there is just enough maneuver room here for the homunculus Intelligent Designers!

Here is one of the statements by Larry which I quoted in my original post on this general definition of evolution (My emphases): 

Neil deGrasse Tyson said that the theory of evolution is a fact. This is not correct. Evolution is a fact. Evolutionary theory attempts to explain how evolution occurs. Some of the explanations, like natural selection, are facts but many aspects of modern evolutionary theory are still hotly debated in the scientific community.

And by "evolution" Larry doesn't mean a great deal more than continuity of change. However, I doubt if they will be debating if a homunculus is involved!

Finally in his post Larry concludes with:

When you're talking about the mechanisms of evolution, please use "evolutionary theory" instead of "the theory of evolution."

Will do!

* Or "law and randomness". By this I mean that the calculations of the physical canon use both short time, small space algorithms and the statistics of disorder. See here for more technical details on the meaning of short time, small space algorithms and randomness. The deep question is why should these relatively simple mathematical objects predominate when other possibilities exist?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mind the Gaps

In a post on the ID Website Uncommon Descent entitled Casey Luskin on Theistic Evolutionist’s evidence-phobia contributor Denise O’Leary quotes de facto ID guru Casey Luskin as follows:

Picture originally found on "Sandwalk" The speech bubble is mine.

Of course, when BioLogos claims “it is all intelligently designed,” they mean that strictly as a faith-based theological doctrine for which they can provide no supporting scientific evidence. Indeed, it’s ironic that BioLogos accuses ID of “removing God from the process of creation” when Collins writes that “science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.” Under Collins’s view, God’s “domain” is seemingly fenced off from “nature,” which belongs to “science.”

My Comment: Here we go once more unto the breach dear friends: Western Dualism’s nature vs. theology dichotomy! What’s the point of theology if it isn’t responding to the empirical conditions of the human predicament by attempting to provide, however inadequately, a world-view level account of it? Under any circumstances theology is not fenced off from “nature”. If nature = creation and humanity is part of creation then any experience/observation/thought we have, based as it is in the created psyche of our humanity will by definition also be part of creation and therefore classify as “nature”. Ergo, theology, which presumably attempts to make sense of the broad sweep of human experience, is inextricably bound up with so called “nature”.  But admittedly, theology, like string theory has more the role of providing postdictive sense making narratives rather than that of predictive testability.

Since CIDs [Christian intelligent design supporters] treat design as a scientific hypothesis, not a theological doctrine, they would reply that a failure scientifically to detect design doesn’t mean God was somehow theologically absent, and would say that natural explanations don’t “remov[e] God.” BTEs [BioLogos theistic evolutionists] thus fail to recognize that CIDs have no objection to God using natural, secondary causes. They also fail to appreciate that in some cases, CIDs argue that natural explanations can even provide evidence for design (e.g., cosmic fine-tuning). But CIDs disagree with BTEs that God must always use natural causes, and argue we should allow the possibility that God might act in a scientifically detectable manner Thus, one important dividing line is:

• BTEs accept materialistic evolutionary explanations (such as neo-Darwinism) where the history of life appears unguided, and deny we scientifically detect design.

• CIDs hold we may scientifically detect design as the best scientific explanation for many aspects of biology

My Comment: I think you will find that in principle de facto IDists like Luskin understand “natural causes” to be those explanations which fall within the present canon of physics or, presumably, any future development of that canon (Although as we will see below in practice the IDist’s so called “natural causes” actually refer to the much dreaded evolution). The IDist’s explanatory filter defaults to intelligent agency when the physical canon fails as an explanation. But the explanations of physics inevitably face an ultimate logical hiatus or explanatory gap; this is because physics is in effect descriptive and therefore its final and complete word can only be a kernel of logically compressed brute fact; physical explanations can do no more and no less. Hence, the explanatory filter will eventually default to intelligent agency when the ultimate logical hiatus is arrived at. The pertinent question is at what point is the gap going to be found? Is that gap going to be found at the level of biological configurations; that is, are biological structures fundamental givens? Or is the gap going to be found at the fine tuning level where once the physical canon has been set up and correctly tuned the cosmos will then generate life? If, repeat if, Luskin is just talking about this general logical hiatus then I would question his claim that his kind of ID has a formal scientific status. After all, a grand logical gap is mathematically destined to be part the physical cannon under any circumstance and will exist where ever it is found. And if humans have anything to do with it the information inherent in this logical gap will inevitably prompt debate about its origin (This is why my version of the “explanatory filter” is recursive). The ensuing debate is likely to have a strong philosophical and theological slant. Thus arguing for God on the basis of an inevitable logical hiatus will probably veer towards theology and/or philosophy rather than formal science.

But we know that as a rule de facto IDists actually have a deep raison d’etre for insisting that a logical hiatus exists inside biology itself, not just generally in the canon of physics. For rather than trace the gap all the way back to the physics of fine tuning and the abstruse and contentious philosophico-theological posturing about the origins of physics, they much prefer to bring the gap closer to home; namely, at the level of biological configurations. And we know what that means: De facto IDists like Luskin hate evolution and will claim evolution didn’t happen (because intelligence did it!).  Whether conventional evolutionary theory works or not is something that is subject to testing. So, in this sense, biologically based intelligence–of-the-gaps sidesteps the highfalutin philosophical questions about ultimate origins and actually becomes scientific, although it is very negative science of (evolution) denial.

As I have remarked before in this blog this commitment to anti-evolutionism is potentially toxic to theology if some version of evolution is ultimately found to work. Luskin’s ID, although he may not bring himself to be very explicit about it, is very dependent on the failure of evolutionary theory. Luskin’s so called “scientific hypothesis” is not about the philosophico-theological issues which surround the question of the grand logical hiatus but rather the strong North American Christian right “No! No! No!” to evolution.  When Luskin accuses Biologos of requiring God to always use “natural causes” he can’t be accusing them of trying to do away with the grand logical hiatus because that is logically impossible. What he really means is that Biologos’ loathed publicly funded establishment academics are evolutionists!

Notice that Luskin wrongly refers to evolution as unguided. As I have repeatedly attempted to make clear on this blog even standard evolution is far from unguided – it very much depends on the up-front-information needed to “guide” it in the form of the channels of the spongeam, which if they exist (although they probably don’t at my guess) would have to be implicit in the canon of physics and/or future developments of that canon.

[A]ccording to textbooks and leading evolutionary biologists, neo-Darwinian evolution is defined as an unguided or undirected process of natural selection acting upon random mutation. Thus, when theistic evolutionists say that “God guided evolution,” what they mean is that somehow God guided an evolutionary process which for all scientific intents and purposes appears unguided. As Francis Collins put it in The Language of God, God created life such that “from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process.” Whether it is theologically or philosophically coherent to claim that “God guided an apparently unguided process” I will leave to the theologians and the philosophers. ID avoids these problems by maintaining that life’s history doesn’t appear unguided, and that we can scientifically detect that intelligent action was involved.

My Comment: The premise that pervades this paragraph falls over because as I’ve already said conventional evolution, on its own logic, is guided – that is, it effectively posits the implicit information of the spongeam, a requirement that is related to Dembski’s conservation of information. Because testing evolution amounts to testing for the existence of the spongeam then the question of its existence is subject to formal scientific investigation. On the other hand the question of the origin of the information in the spongeam, which would have to be implicit in the physical canon, concerns that final logical hiatus I’ve already referred to and is therefore potentially philosophical and/or theological.

Theistic evolutionists sometimes try to obscure these differences, such as when BioLogos says “it is all intelligently designed.” But when pressed, they’ll admit this is a strictly theological view, since they believe none of that design is scientifically detectable. CIDs wonder how one can speak of “intelligent design” if it’s always hidden and undetectable. “We’re promoting a scientific theory, not a theological doctrine,” replies ID, “and our theory detects design in nature through scientific observations and evidence.”

Some theistic evolutionists will then further reply by saying, “Since we both believe in some form of ‘intelligent design,’ the differences between our views are small.” ID proponents retort: “Whether small or not, these differences make all the difference in the world.”

And there’s the rub. By denying that we scientifically detect design in nature, BTEs cede to materialists some of the most important territory in the debate over atheism and religion. Biologically speaking, theistic evolution gives no reasons to believe in God.

My Comment: Since the logical hiatus in physics is mathematically inevitable and must ultimately be acknowledged by both Biologos and Luskin, at first site it might seem that if they both use the explanatory filter, both are justified in claiming to be IDists. Therefore Luskin’s claim that theistic evolution gives no reasons to believe in God is false. So what’s the real basis of Luskin’s beef? Well Luskin can’t bring himself to admit it but what he really means by his claim to having a scientific theory is that he is anti-evolution and Biologos isn’t.  But bland anti-evolutionism is not a great way to claim to having a “scientific theory”.  Hence de facto IDists will attempt to make claim to a positive science of “intelligence did it!”.  But this doesn’t hold much water because some de facto IDists will actually tell us that explicating  the nature of the intelligence that "did it " is not part of ID!.  This makes it very difficult to use this “science” in a positive way to make predictions. For example, de facto ID’s belief that there is no junk DNA is problematical given the inscrutability that some IDists build into their intelligent agent. This makes it all but impossible to anticipate the methods, motives and personality of that intelligence; may be that intelligence has some obscure reason for storing redundant and repetitive DNA in the genome.  (See here for a blog post of mine that tries to take a sympathetic view to ID “predictions”)

To be clear, I’m not saying that if one accepts Darwinian evolution then one cannot be a Christian. Accepting or rejecting the grand Darwinian story is a “disputable” or “secondary” matter, and Christians have freedom to hold different views on this issue. But while it may be possible to claim God used apparently unguided evolutionary processes to create life, that doesn’t mean Darwinian evolution is theologically neutral.

According to orthodox Darwinian thinking, undirected processes created not just our bodies, but also our brains, our behaviors, our deepest desires, and even our religious impulses. Under theistic Darwinism, God guided all these processes such that the whole show appears unguided. Thus, theistic evolution stands in direct contrast to Romans 1:20 where the Paul taught that God is “clearly seen” in nature. In contrast, theistic evolution implies God’s involvement in creating humans is completely unseeable,

Theistic evolution may not be absolutely incompatible with believing in God, but it offers no scientific reasons to do so. Perhaps this is why William Provine writes: “One can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.”

My Comment: The first two paragraphs of this passage are incoherent given that conventional evolution is far from unguided; presumably this fact is not “clearly seen” by the likes of Luskin; he can only see biological gaps. But on account of de facto ID’s explanatory filter conventional evolution, with its ultimate inevitable logical hiatus, does offer at least a prima facia case to believe in God contrary to what Luskin says, as I have already stated. Thus, from the point of view of the explanatory filter conventional evolution is theologically neutral. However, that’s not say that it is theologically neutral on the deeper question of whether a Christian God would actually reify such a process.


Finally the post on Uncommon Descent had some snarky concluding comments from Denise of O’ Leary:

So many people marketing theistic evolution these days dislike evidence…… If the evolution scene were what they claim it is, you’d think we’d be the ones not to want evidence. But we totally rely on it and are comfortable with it.

As a science de facto ID is primarily negative. If de facto IDists are loathe to comment on the nature of the intelligence at work the power of ID to provide predictive evidence is compromised. O’Leary’s boast about ID being very evidence based rings hollow; ditto Luskin's claim to de facto ID being strongly scientific. The fact is de facto ID is not a hard science. 

My own attempts at explaining evolution in terms of an immanent intelligence at work require the nature of intelligence to be at least partly unpacked – see here and here. However, let me make it clear that this work is highly exploratory, speculative, tentative and very unfinished. So, I am in no position to bully either atheists or de facto IDists round to my point of view.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Two Evangelicals and a Fundamentalist

Denis Alexander
At the end of my visit to Denis Alexander's talk at Norwich Cathedral I purchased a copy of his book Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? This book is largely meant for Christians and is more or less Alexander's attempt to justify his position before that audience.  I've only read the first 42 pages but I would like to make some remarks on the story so far, particularly on his chapter The Biblical Doctrine of Creation.

In the first sentence of chapter 1 Alexander rightly identifies himself as a creationist.

All Christians are by definition, creationists. We cannot come to know God personally by faith without also believing that he is creator of all that exists. p21

He goes on to make the usual (but needed) comments about the way word usage has meant that "creationist" is now strongly associated with six day Biblical literalism. In many ways Alexander's comments are paralleled in what Sir John Polkinghorne said when he visited Norwich Cathedral in 2010. The point is that these Christian establishment scientists see themselves as intelligent design creationists, but they would probably be very wary about the use of such terms given the shift in their societal meanings. 

So, with that introduction clarifying Alexander's position let me say something about the chapter entitled The Biblical Doctrine of Creation. On this subject I would say that Alexander is in line with my own views on the subject, views I have expressed frequently in this blog regarding the eminence and immanence of God.  Anyway, quoting Alexander:

An understanding of God that depended only on the notion of transcendence could easily degenerate into the deistic idea of a distant and remote God who winds up the universe at the beginning and then occasionally returns to intervene or meddle around with it. Such a scenario is disallowed by the Biblical insistence that God is also immanent in his creation, meaning that God is intimately involved in continued creative activity in relation to his cosmos. p37

Alexander provides Biblical support for this point of view. However, for my purposes I'll just be stating some of Alexander's conclusions and in particular his view that the concept of a quasi-autonomous "natural world" is bogus:

Once we grasp the Biblical teaching on the immanence of God in his creation, we can then understand why the Bible has no concept of 'nature' in its contemporary sense of referring to the 'natural world', for the simple reason that the term is redundant; instead it speaks of 'creation'  to refer to the complete panoply of God's activities that we as scientists struggle to describe so inadequately. 

The notion of 'nature' as a quasi independent entity was an idea inherited from Greek pagan philosophy and promoted by the eighteenth century deists. p40

I hardly need say that this has very much been my own theme in this blog. In particular I have turned round and criticized the de-facto IDists who seem stuck with a God verses nature paradigm and whenever they attempt to clarify God's involvement in creation they seem trapped by God-of-the-gaps ideas. They have encapsulated this implicit theology in the epistemology of the so-called explanatory filter. See the links at the end of this post for more on this topic.

Alexander's suggestion that envisaging only a God's of transcendence promotes a degeneration into a tinkering deistical God is borne out by an anonymous comment on one of my blog posts, a post  where I was trying to get to grips with God's immanence. What I suspected, rightly or wrongly, was that the comment had been added by a de-facto IDist: Here's the comment:

Anonymous said...
Well it could be worse, we could be dealing with Pandeism, which proposes a God that is a quite logical and scientific entity which engineered a Universe that is truly random, and lacking in any of that unacceptable tinkering....

Reading between the lines of this sarcasm I infer that in the mind of this person the concept of immanence has given way to a tinkering deistical God who occasionally messes with the "natural forces" of "chance and necessity". ("Chance and necessity" by the way is an ID cliche that is about as bogus as "natural forces"). Moreover, I suspect also that this person doesn't really understand the nature of randomness; randomness is in fact a very sophisticated form of patterning. To achieve true randomness requires (by definition) computational resources beyond those that are humanly possible.

What I would like to do now is to draw attention to the words of an evangelical atheist and a Christian fundamentalist.

Larry Moran, Darwin fan with
cuddly Darwin toy,
First the evangelical atheist, Professor Larry Moran. In this blog post of mine I made note of the good professor's enunciation of a very, very, very general definition of evolution. So general was it that it shied away from committing to any detailed mechanism of evolution; In fact so much so that even if evolution is a product of intentional and teleological forces it would still fall within Larry's definition! Of course it goes without saying that he would vehemently deny that any such forces are at work. Anyway, in my final paragraph of the post I summarized the situation thus: 

That’s intriguing; so Larry accepts that the detailed engine/mechanism of evolution is a theory and not a fact! Too true! But the definition of evolution he has given is so general that it could also include changes due to the tinkerings of a homunculus intelligent designer or anything else for that matter! 

And that anything else could conceivably include my immanent visions of searching and "back loaded" information!. Presumably somebody like Alexander would have little difficulty in exploiting the scope for reading into this generalised form of evolution some means of delivering God's providence. 

OK, so that's the evangelical atheist; let's now turn to the Christian fundamentalist who makes his appearance in the comments section of the Network Norwich and Norfolk article on Alexander's visit to Norwich Cathedral. This fundamentalist, a certain Andrew Holland, speaks in the familiar spiritually incriminating terms toward those Christians who don't accept his views: Viz:

 It is a pity that Dr Alexander, a very intelligent scientist, and his 200 or so followers offer themselves up to the atheistic altar of evolution without even querying its validity. All they are doing is destroying the faith of Christians in the reliability of the Bible, God's timeless Word for humanity. …… unfortunately these people prefer to bow to their atheistic peers rather than stand against the crowd, because to do that would cost them their reputation and possibly their job.

....the historical parts of the Bible, such as Genesis, should be taken at face value, otherwise it is tantamount to calling God a liar! Thus the account of creation, Noah's flood and Jonah's adventures are accurate and can be completely trusted. They are all verified in the New Testament

What he's essentially telling us is that those Christians who don't accept the divine authority of his opinions are, without putting too fine a point on it, blaspheming the name of God. And yet even at the admission of an atheist we can see there is huge scope for interpreting generalised evolution in teleological and intentional terms. 

But here's the real rub. In the West a theological dualism reigns whereby God is set over and against his own creation. Given this theology any attempt to analytically unpack evolutionary mechanisms are seen by the Christian right** as courting mother nature rather than Father God and therefore tantamount to heresy, if not blasphemy. Unless the Christian right see God performing "supernatural magic tricks" contravening the "natural" canon of nature, such as God speaking stars into existence or tinkering around with biology, these people find it difficult to identify God's work or God's presence; for them that presence is primarily signified by spiritual fireworks and discontinuities in "nature".

Fundamentalists, by definition, are so sure that the validity of their anti-evolution, anti-old cosmos views speak for themselves that they find it difficult to accept there are expert Christians out there like Alexander who genuinely see things differently; they cannot credit that Christian scientists who must be very familiar with the evidence, can disagree with fundamentalism with intellectual integrity. Therefore, the only conclusion the fundamentalist can come to is that these scientists can't be authentic and must hide ulterior motives and/or a bad conscience.

But if we think about it this suspicious paranoia looks to be an outcome of fundamentalist epistemic arrogance. If fundamentalists like Holland believed that Alexander isn't just protecting his job but holds his views with intellectual integrity, that then puts a question mark over fundamentalist certainties. For if bright guys like Alexander can believe in the inspired word of God and yet according to yer-average-fundie get it all wrong, why shouldn't fundies also get it wrong? For may be Holland, who is far less clever, has also erred. So in order to protect their certainties and prevent undermining confidence in their own epistemology the fundamentalist is drawn toward the conclusion that many Christian scientists must knowingly be harbouring their error. The actual complexity of the evolution debate never enters the heads of the Hollands of this world; they live in a fearful world of black and whites where shadowy malevolent figures are operating behind the scenes; this is fertile ground for conspiracy theorism.

Although I tend to hard cop the likes of Holland, in the final analysis there are mitigating circumstances that need to be taken into account. The fact is we are in puzzling times as we have been for a long while (* See also my footnote on The Cosmic Perspective)  In stages, starting with the Copernican revolution and the fall of the Ptolemaic cosmos, (wo)man has had increasing difficulty in making anthropocentric and spiritual sense of the cosmos. In fact by the twentieth century the philosophical elastic had been stretched too far for some Christians. Consequently, fundamentalists attempted to reinstate man's physically central position in the cosmos, at first by shortening cosmic time scales to human historical times, thus placing humanity in a central position in the temporal sense. However, things started to go further: Out of the Young Earth stable came cosmologies like that of Russell and Lisle (of AiG) that moved toward geocentrism. Some fundamentalist Christians even went as far as to reinstate full blown geocentrism or flat earth. There has also been a recrudescence of a kind of Christian dualistic gnosticism - that great strategy which provides an existential fix for spiritual angst via an escape from the perplexing outer cosmic world into the inner light of the soul where the soothing touch of God is sought  These are coping strategies for an ostensibly problematic scientific picture which superficially at least puts man's anthropocentric ego on the back-foot. In this context fundamentalists like Holland are bad news as their lack of grasp of science is made up for by their willingness to engage in spiritual recrimination and by impugning the consciences of Christian scientists.

* The Cosmic Perspective:

** STOP PRESS: Read this comment on a UD post to see evidence of the connection between de facto ID and the extreme libertarian right. This rightwinger is borderline conspiracy theorist (But let me acknowledge that Hilter's anti-Christian fascist paganism did use, or abuse, the concept of "natural selection" to justify the holocaust)

Links on De Facto ID
De facto ID's God-of-the-Gaps (Small sample)