Saturday, January 13, 2018

Evolution: It's not just chance says PZ Myers!

A peepy eyed Myers dispenses his evolutionary wisdom

The above video was posted on PZ Myers blog here.  It is a useful resume of six basic points in the standard theory of evolutionary mechanisms as explained by Myers in his usual unanimated, deadpan puffy eyed, almost languid manner (I'm OK with that; content over style any day). In the second point of this video Myers stresses the chance component of evolution and contrasts this over and against "purpose". Well, I can't expect Myers, or any atheist for that matter, to take on-board purpose or teleology; for atheists dynamics is driven by law and disorder imperatives which push from behind and not teleological declarations which work from the front. Fair enough! However, when I first viewed this video I was immediately reminded of my recent two part critique (here and here) of "Intelligent Design" where I took the de facto IDists to task in their faux characterization of evolution as a process where the apparent design of living things is an illusion and that the illusion of design is explained by the working of random events (My emphasis). Myers, by exclusively emphasizing chance, was playing into the hands of the de facto IDists who (rightly) point out the cosmically unrealistic probability that life could come about as a product of chance. But as I pointed out in my two part series the established understanding of evolutionary mechanisms implicitly assumes that the process of evolution starts with a huge burden of information in the form of some kind of (non-teleological) constraint, most likely in the form of imperative laws within which the agitating random motions of evolutionary "searching" works. If this constraint exists, and perhaps it is implicit in the known laws of physics (?), then this constraint can be visualised as a network of fuzzy channels in configuration space, a network I call the spongeam. However, whether or not my picture of the spongeam is useful it seems from the comments left by atheist Joe Felsenstein in the following posts.....

.... that he agrees evolution can only work if its random selections are highly constrained to a very limited set of possibilities. Felsenstein believes this constraining factor is likely found in our physical regime, but he takes the matter no further than that, other than to say it's a question for physics, not biology. The point here, however, is as I stressed in my two part series that atheists like Joe Felsenstein do not accept de facto ID's straw man interpretation of evolutionary mechanisms which all but exclusively stress the random component, which, of course, could not by itself generate life with a realistic chance given the size and age of the cosmos. 

OK, so that brings us to a second video by PZ Myers. In this video he is largely responding to a comment to his first video by none other than Joe Felsenstein. This comment by Felsenstein reads as follows:

Joe Felsenstein
5 January 2018 at 7:52 am

Joe Felsenstein
Very good video, PZ, quickly killing off major misconceptions. I would just put one more point on the list for any similar video in the future. Creationists are always insisting on the point that evolution is “only chance”, so that they can then run around saying that natural selection is ineffective. So they’re happy to have “chance” be the main focus. I realize that you were aiming at believers in long-term cosmic guidance, but we also have to think of the misrepresentation of evolutionary biology as explaining remarkable adaptations by purely random wandering, a picture that just happens to leave out natural selection. As you know, that is used by creationist debaters to persuade gullible audiences that evolutionary biologists have no way to account for nonrandomly good adaptations (My emphases).

I agree, it's a good video where the absence of glitzy style helps one focus on useful content. Moreover, I would agree with Felsenstein's main point here:  Evolution can't work just by chance: If standard evolution is to have a cosmically realistic probability of generating life, the agitations of chance must be exploring a relatively tightly restricted space of options, a space narrowed down by some kind of constraint, spongeam, physical regime, laws of physics or what-have-you.... If this point is not emphasized enough then as Felsenstein points out "creationists" will latch onto the straw man depiction of evolution as mere random wanderings.

PZ Myers no doubt understands this, but nevertheless felt it necessary to echo and reinforce Felsebtstein's point in his second video which he posted on this blog entry and which I present here:

Peepy PZ gives us the evolutionary low-down

Myers is concerned that his videos are boring. Well, maybe he lacks the pzazz of some YouTube presenters, but nevertheless the videos are well constructed as far as content is concerned. Moreover, as far as style is concerned what could be funnier than Myers abrasive dry humour and "Don't give me sh*t" tired cynicism as the frizzen for America's ebullient authoritarian anti-science crackpots of unshakable confidence and self-belief! This is comedy that could only be sourced in the Divine mind!
Fundamentalist Ray Comfort: He's bananas


And now for some impressionistic reflections of a theological nature. 

Although I certainly agree with Felsenstein and Myers that the random agitations driving evolutionary diffusion are only effective if there is some kind of constraining envelope in configuration space, this constraint need not necessarily be a preordained imperative because from a theological perspective it could also be a teleological (declarative) constraint. I would be the first to admit, however, that in exploring this option I'm engaging in a highly speculative blues skies project that could well ultimately lead up the garden path. Fortunately, not being a partisan of any particular social group means I can afford to be a bit adventuress, tentative, exploratory and off-the-wall in my projects. In contrast I have really grown to dislike party-line pulling partisan polemics.

As I have said before given the known laws of physics there are, I suspect, simply not enough functional organic forms to populate configuration space with a spongeam sufficiently connected for it to be exploited by standard evolutionary diffusing mechanisms. In any case to me  (and admittedly this is only a hunch) quantum theory suggests that reality is potentially a very powerful search engine, an engine which combines both imperative constraint (quantum signalling cancels much unwanted randomness) and a potential for expanding parallelism. Also, the fundamental units of the cosmos (i.e particles) have very convenient "glue" or "fixing points" in the form of potential fields, as if it were some kind of elaborate construction set. Somehow, I guess, this quantum system is being used to search for organic solutions that are too widely separated to form an interconnected spongeam, although I'm not sure about some of the details of this search mechanism. But if this process is actually extant it would look like a form of evolution capable of relatively long distance hops.

Such a system would be "declarative" rather than imperative because its sheer processing power does not call for the front loading of imperative information as per standard evolutionary mechanisms. For apart from very general declarative criteria (such as survivability, self perpetuation etc) the exact form of its output would not be determined by information specified in advance, any more than the model manual for a meccano or lego set contain all the possible ways in which these construction sets can be used; such construction sets score because they embody potential rather than algorithmic imperatives about what to build. For example, I doubt it was ever purposefully conceived that wood, stone, grass, mud, and dung would one day be resources used by hunter gatherers for constructing bivouacs, or snow used by Eskimos to build igloos. Likewise, it is unlikely to have been purposefully specified in advance that silicon would one day be used to construct computers; if silicon didn't exist perhaps nano-engineered electromagnets or cogs would be used instead; intelligence sifts through the possibilities and improvises rather than designs strict imperatives in advance.  If the construction set has sufficient potential and the search engine sufficient power, constructive improvisations can always be found. 

How material resources are eventually used is not designed in advance but is subject to very generally formulated declarative purposes (such as a need for shelter) and then the seek, select and reject search engine of intelligence will do the rest.  Cognition with its array of general goals seeks, improvises and exploits the most unlikely resources. But for intelligence to successfully achieve its declarative goals the environment, although absent of constraining imperative information concerning those goals, must have the potential of a  huge implicit possibility space, a space which intelligence is free to explore. Given that the trials and errors in the use of material resources are part and parcel of the process of declarative discovery, it is all but impossible to say where sentience and insentience demarcate. 

Meccano Fullerene
So called Cosmic Fine tuning means that if a small arbitrary adjustment is carried out on the basic parameters defining the dynamic status-quo the current cosmos would never be generated or would fall apart. Fine tuning adjustment is a bit like changing the precision of the male to female lugs of a lego set; any such change would compromise the set's construction potential. However, if we continue to make an indefinite number of small adjustments then there may come a point where the construction set has morphed into something so different that once again it becomes a viable construction set in its own right (perhaps a meccano set!). It is fairly self evident, nevertheless, that the number of construction sets with creative potential are probably very thinly spread throughout the appropriate configuration space. Hence, hitting on a workable construction set by chance is going to be very small - too great a precision will be needed for such sets to come about randomly. Useful construction sets  are therefore likely to be spaced as are evolutionary solutions - namely, too far apart; that is, there is no spongeam for construction sets, either!  Although it seems that viable constructions sets are relatively few, wide apart and very varied, there is nevertheless a universal here: The method of searching is made by a "walk" of incremental adjustments. This ushers in the subject of quantum mechanics - something I am looking into elsewhere - which seems to be the universal search process! Perhaps even the universal cognitive process!

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