Saturday, February 28, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 11: William Demski’s Active Information

The following post is a digest of William Dembski’s paper on Active Information which can be read here. This paper introduces concepts vital for my discussion of the evolution/ ID debate. In this post I have tried to draw out these crucial concepts without, hopefully, the need to read Dembski’s original paper. In later posts I will attempt to arrive at some conclusions based on this paper.

The information, I, of an outcome is given by the equation:

I = - log(p1) where p1 is the probability of the outcome. Equation 1

If the probability p1 is a result of a product of probabilities this expression becomes a sum of logs. For example, if we have a sequence of bits where the probability associated with each bit are independent, then the total information contained in the sequence is found by adding together the information calculated for each bit. Hence, the definition of information conveniently transforms the awkward exponentials of combinatorial systems into a linear additive property.

It is clear from the above equation that smaller values of p1 imply greater values of I. This behavior of I with increasing p1 is intuitively agreeable because the occurrence of an unexpected outcome (that is an outcome with a low p1) increases the information of the observer simply because the occurrence means that he learns something he didn’t know. But in the case of an expected outcome (that is an outcome with a high p1) I is low, because should it occur it does not add much to what the observer already knows.

Now, imagine that that an observer learns something about the dynamics of the system before the outcome that is initially the subject of p1 occurs. The observer's increased knowledge about the system may have the effect of increasing p1 to a higher value of p2. Substituting p2 in place of p1 in equation 1 we see that this increase in information about the system will have the effect of lowering the information value of the outcome that was originally the subject of p1. This is intuitively agreeable because the outcome is now less informative about the system because the observer already has to hand information about the system, and thus its subsequent behavior adds less to what he already knows.

In one sense information, as defined by the equation 1, is conserved because the extra information gained through knowing something about the dynamics of the system is compensated for by a corresponding decrease in the informative value associated with actual outcomes. In the case just considered where an outcome initially has a probability of p1 and then increases to p2 as a result of learning about the system, the information we have gained through our new knowledge will be equal to –log(p1) + log(p2). This increase in information is referred to in Dembski’s paper as the active information.

* * *

To exemplify the foregoing abstractions Dembski first considers the case of a well shuffled pack of cards lying face down on a table. From this pack cards are successively removed by an observer from the top and turned face up. Dynamically this system has available to it all possible ways of arranging the deck of cards in the pack. For the uninitiated observer coming to the pack, the probabilities of finding particular cards therefore have maximal displacement away from certainty. Hence, actual outcomes have maximum informative value about the arrangement of the pack. However, for an observer who shuffled the pack face up and has watched the shuffling taking place, then the respective probabilities are likely to be closer to certainty because this observer may have become aware of the arrangement of the cards in the pack; he will already know something about the state of the pack. Hence, for such an observer the action of removing a card and turning it face up is going to be less informative because the information he already possesses means that he has less to learn from the action of removing a card from the top of the pack.

The second observer clearly has more active information than the first observer. But notice that the active information in this case has nothing whatsoever to do with the dynamics of the system of cards itself; the differences in information between the observers is down to differences in their knowledge and not about any difference or changes in the system. In this case the active information is extrinsic in that it has nothing to with the dynamics of the system but rather with the observer’s knowledge of the system.

In a further exemplification Dembski stipulates that another pack of cards is such that cards next to one another in the pack “differ at most only by two. Thus, one would know that cards next to an uncovered jack of diamonds are only 9s, 10s, Jacks, Queens, and Kings”. In this second example the pack is clearly dynamically different to the first pack because a mathematical constraint has been applied to it eliminating a large range of possible arrangements of the pack; it is far more ordered than the pack of shuffled cards. This intrinsic difference in the system means that for an observer who knows about this difference then, in comparison with the well shuffled pack, the probabilities will be displaced away from maximum uncertainty toward certainty. The observer who knows about the dynamical constraint therefore has greater information, but the information contained in outcomes is correspondingly reduced because he has less to learn from them.

In this second system it is important note that the “loss” of information from the system outcomes in favour of observer knowledge has come about not just because the observer has learnt something about the system but also because he knows that the systems is in a more ordered state than that of a well shuffled pack of cards. Let me repeat that: this shift in information is not just about an observer gaining some information, but it is also about a system with an intrinsically more ordered dynamic that makes it more knowable. Hence in this case the active information reflects not just the observer’s information but also something about the order of the system itself.

These two systems (the shuffled pack of cards and the pack subject to a constraint in its arrangement) show us that there are two sorts of active information; 1. extrinsic active information that comes about as a result of an observer learning about a system that is otherwise of maximum disorder, and 2. intrinsic active information that comes about also as result of an observer learning something, but in this case learning about the constraints of a more ordered system. Unfortunately Dembski doesn’t bring this distinction out in his paper and I have a feeling that I will be commenting on this omission in future posts.

Dembski goes onto to apply the active information concept to other systems: in particular the “partitioned” search of Richard Dawkins infamous and trivial “Me Thinks It is Like a Weasal” program. This program randomly shuffles letters in a sentence: when by chance one the required letters makes an appearance in the right position it is locked into place. The object of the exercise was to show that by this means otherwise very improbable arrangements can be found relatively quickly. The program has been criticized (rightly so) for “front loading” the required configuration into the program from the outset and thus being completely vacuous.

The “partitioning” dynamics of Dawkins program is basically the idea of having a ratchet built into the search: if the system happens to move in the direction of certain classes of outcome it has a high probability of not moving back; hence there is a progressive drift toward an “end result”; if one of the required letters pops up by chance, it is locked into place and this event is prevented from being undone. Clearly as, Dembski shows quantitatively, the ratchet probability of getting the required configuration of letters is much greater than the probability of “Me thinks it is like a weasel…” appearing spontaneously. As a rule spontaneous probabilities associated with large configurations are negligibly different from zero.

Leaving behind Dawkins “Me thinks” program Dembski goes on to consider the far more subtle Avida program that searches for arrangements of NAND gate components in order to produce the XNOR logical function, a function which can only be constructed from a complex arrangement of NAND components. The XNOR logical function can be broken down into configurations of components and sub components and sub-sub components. That is, the XNOR function is a hierarchical structure of sub components that themselves are composed of components and so on down to the NAND gate which is effectively the given “atomic” element out of which the whole XNOR gate is constructed.

Avida works by ‘rewarding’ the random formation of components on the hierarchy with a score should perchance they arise as a result of random shufflings. This scoring policy has the effect of consolidating the appearance of the required hierarchy components, increasing their probability of sticking around, thus giving the whole thing a directional drift up the structural heirarchy, by way of a logical ratchet. As Demsbki points out, and as the Avida creators admit, the whole thing wouldn’t work without this ratchet. In Dembski’s words the “Hard wired stair step active information is therefore essential in order for Avida to produce results”.

In both the “Me thinks” and the Avida programs the “active information” is intrinsic to their dynamics,. The dynamics of these systems have applied constraints that make their behavior ordered. The logical ratchet built into these systems means that spontaneous probabilities for certain classes of configuration are no longer valid. Dembski is right in pointing out that this active information must somehow be built into the system. Without this active information, as Dembski says, there is “ metric to determine nearness, the search landscape for such searches can be binary – either success or failure. There are no sloped hills to climb”.

The Avida program is a kind of basic prototype evolutionary model that will serve as a specific example introducing general concepts that I will employ to draw conclusions in my next posts.

STOP PRESS 18/3/2009
William Dembski is revisiting the "Weasel" program here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 10: Uncivil Civil War

This post on Uncommon Descent quotes with approval Philip S Skell, Professor of Chemistry at Penn State University. The professor rightly warns against the oversell of evolutionary theory:

The essence of the theory of evolution is the hypothesis that historical diversity is the consequence of natural selection acting on variations. Regardless of the verity it holds for explaining biohistory, it offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic, or how it can disable a disease-producing organism, what dosages are required and which individuals will not tolerate it. Studying biohistory is, at best, an entertaining distraction from the goals of a working biologist.

Yes, this puts evolution is perspective; likewise a good engineer doesn’t necessarily need to know the history of engineering with its twists, turns, reversals and change. Evolution is a theory of origins as is ID theory, a theory of what was attempting to explain what is.

Professor Skell also says:

It is unseemly and scientifically unfruitful that a major focus in biology should have turned into a war–between those who hold that the history of those unique organisms is purely a matter of chance aggregation from the inorganic world and those who hold that the aggregation must have been designed for a purpose. It is surely not a matter that must or can be settled within the provenance of experimental biology. Above all, declaiming orthodoxy to either of those propositions promotes incivility and draws energy and resources away from the real goal–advances in experimental biological science.

Good, we have here someone who isn’t prepared to sell his soul to a theory of origins. This letter to the Daily Telegraph from a group of academics echoes Professor Skell’s sentiment, if not content:

Evolution, we believe, has become caught in the crossfire of a religious battle in which Darwin had little interest. Despite his own loss of Christian faith, he wrote shortly before his death: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.”

However Denyse O’Leary on Uncommon Descent is none too pleased. She also quotes the above portion of the letter - which is ironic as it follows shortly after the post quoting Professor Skell! Denyse refers to the signatories of the letter as “a bunch of well meaning idiots” and addresses them thus:

So we’re just supposed to be stupid unquestioning churchgoers, hollering for Jesus in a damp, smelly tabernacle somewhere? But, toffs, what if we are, um, not. What if we are smarter than you, and much more numerous - but not nearly as privileged, at present? Did you ever think of that? Did you ever think of what it means for the future?

Now that’s a fine example of cross fire for you, really cross…

STOP PRESS 28/2/2008
This post on Uncommon Descent shows that both sides of the debate can engage constructively in discussion if they try. I'm very pleased to see this.

Coming soon .. William Dembski's "Active Information".

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 9: Is ID Science or is it Heresy?

Well, it can’t be global warming can it now Dave?

Instituitionalised science is a vital component for an advanced and advancing culture. Today’s scientists, like the priesthoods of old, have high status as custodians of essential practices and knowledge that are often arcane to the general public. Given this status then, to hear establishment scientists accuse ID theorists of not practicing science has all the connotations of exclusion, dispossession and grievous sin once associated with the cry of “heresy!” Since ID theorist’s careers and reputations are being put on the line here, it is only fair that I give this matter some thought before I proceed. It hardly needs be said that the charge of ID not being science depends very much on just what science is. Is it possible to sharply distinguish between science and non-science? Does the science category have boundaries so clear cut that there is no ambiguity in deciding what is and what is not science?

As I have said before there is a very general epistemology that covers a wide domain of human epistemological activity and this epistemology is based on the human instinct which seeks to resolve the tension in the dialectic between experience and concept (see my side bar). This dialectic is epistemology at its most general and out of this dialectical ferment emerges, either for good or bad, our views about life. Within this very general epistemology science is a special case, a special case that is the formalization and institutionalization of the experience vs. concept dialectic. The big problem science faces, however, is that not all objects in this world have a comparably similar ontological complexity or accessibility. My usual illustration of this fact is to compare the complex social objects of history with the simple objects of say, the school physics laboratory like springs and pendulums. The disparities in the complexity and accessibility of these classes of object considerably impacts their epistemological tractability and in turn our ability to arrive at unequivocal conclusions.

Historians and sociologists propose and test hypotheses and theories, but historical and sociological objects are so complex and so suffused with adjustable variables that it is impossible to test historical theories with anything like the rigor and precision possible with simple objects like springs and pendulums. Historical and sociological objects have so many degrees of freedom and impinging variables that quite diverse historical explanations can simultaneously complete in the face of the same historical evidence. Moreover, historians who differ in their knowledge and experience of the humanities are themselves one of those impinging variables. As historians attempt to throw light on history they will naturally enough use their shared humanity with the people of the past in order to interpret that past. But historians themselves are complex beasts; their judgments grow out of an enormous background of life experience and study, a background that may be very difficult to articulate. Similar problems are faced when expert systems programmers interview an expert in order to download his knowledge into computer readable format. With expert knowledge the frame problem looms large; the experience set that impinges upon a problem’s solution is open ended. Consequently since two experts in the same subject are likely to have differing experience sets, it is quite possible for them to disagree on some of the more complex judgments and yet not be able to easily articulate why. History and sociology at the low end have resemblances to more elementary science, but on more complex issues where judgments by historians and sociologists bring to bear a wide knowledge of life and study and where the frame problem looms large, those judgments shade imperceptibly into opinion and sometimes sheer guesswork. At this point the firm conclusions of test-tube precipitating and spring extending science are left far behind. But note that there is no sharp a cutoff here; it is a fading of science’s ability to cope in the face of an increasingly complex and less accessible ontology.

Prehistoric archeology layers on another level of difficulty caused by the absence of written records. The artifacts of prehistory have no accompanying written voice. Structures like Stonehenge and Silbury Hill have enigmatic meanings and experts decisions about their purpose and methods of construction can but tap into the resource of the common humanity they share with the builders of these structures. But even so, it may very difficult to make unequivocal decisions about what in the final analysis amounts to trying to guess what was going on in the minds of our remote ancestors. An archeologist may be left with his imagination only. Although modern archeology makes use of hard science nowadays (e.g. geophysics and carbon dating), anyone who thinks the mistier realms of archeology can be reduced to an exact and rigorous science akin to physics and chemistry is living in cloud cuckoo land.

ID theorists often bring a comparison between their studies and archeology in as much as they consider biological structures to be silent artifacts like Stonehenge or Silbury hill, hinting at design and purpose. However, for the ID theorist there is yet another level of obscuration layered on top bringing with it yet more difficulties; for the ID theorist claims to be dealing with artifacts contrived by intelligence in the abstract, an intelligence that is unlikely to be human, thus removing a natural source of human connection. If ID theorists are right about the origins of biological structures then they have their work cut out trying to understand the history of living taxonomy; interpretation of purpose, meaning and method of construction is going to be difficult to piece together and prediction is going to even more difficult. For example, I have heard ID theorists predict that junk DNA does not exist: but how do they know that? An unknown intelligence might have an inscrutable purpose for junk DNA beyond our comprehension, or perhaps it is some form of “front loading”. Who knows? In fact ID theorist DaveScot, in the discussion thread of this post on Uncommon Descent, limits the terms of reference of ID and claims that ID theory is really only about design detection and hang all the rest:

Go ahead and ask who, how, when, where, and why living things were created. Just be aware that design detection provides no guidance in that regard. This exercise with the Google Ocean is an example of that. Design was detected but after that other means of investigation must be utilized to learn more about the design. ID doesn’t answer all questions but neither does it inhibit further investigation by other means. Why do critics have such a difficult time accepting this limitation? General relativity won’t lead to a cure for the common cold. Do you have a hard time accepting that too? Plate tectonics won’t give us guidance to build faster microprocessors. Is that a problem for plate tectonics? Design detection won’t tell us how the design was accomplished. Is that a problem for ID?

ID theorists are at their most prolific in their attacks on evolution and this is what they are best at. Exactly why is easy to comprehend. Essentially their case is built on the logic of what they call the “explanatory filter”. The explanatory filter states that what cannot be explained as a product of natural laws and/or randomness has only one other possible explanation – intelligence. Hence, if ID theorists can eliminate natural law and randomness from the inquiry then according to this logic there is only one possibility left; intelligent design. Thus, using the explanatory filter much effort is expended by ID theorists to show that evolution is impossible, therefore leaving only one other possibility: Intelligent Design. It is here that ID theory does in fact emerge into hard science, albeit a science of negation, an assertion of not what has happened but what has not happened. Using the explanatory filter this negative science can be morphed into a positive statement of what happened – namely that life is a special dispensation of intelligence in the abstract – although the details of why, when, where and how are necessarily sketchy. However, and this is important, ID theorist’s claims that standard “chance and necessity” evolution is impossible can be investigated empirically and logically. Moreover, the explanatory filter is also a concept that can be investigated. These things I hope to do in my future posts and in due time throw some light on these questions, at least to my own satisfaction. As we shall see a key concept in this area is the concept of Irreducible Complexity and this crucial concept arises again and again in ID Theory. In fact I think you will find that the whole of ID theory pivots on it.

So my verdict on the question of whether ID theory is science is “Yes and No”. Yes because claims about the impossibility of evolution can be empirically and logically tested. No, because if ID theorists try to go beyond this point, beyond the terms of reference hinted at by DaveScot, they soon find that they have made a rod for their own backs by moving into an area that science finds tricky. DaveScott plays safe and suggests that ID theory is about design detection and design detection is carried out using the explanatory filter; if you succeed in showing that bog-standard “chance and necessity” evolution can’t happen you have automatically detected design, and after that you can drop it. But if one wants to go any further one will face interpretation problems far worse than that faced by archeologists.

Standard evolutionary theory, whether right or wrong, has one obvious heuristic advantage over ID theory: it only presumes to make use of two tractable explanatory objects. These objects are found at the opposite ends of the order-disorder spectrum; respectively simple algorithmic laws and randomness. If ID theory is right and biological structures are the result of the manipulations of a super intelligence, then this introduces an a priori complexity of patterning intermediate between simple algorithmic laws and the high disorder of randomness. Science as rule finds it difficult to cope with objects of intermediate complexity especially if they are buried in the mists of time, as per the experience of archeologists. But we must wary that we are not rejecting intermediate patterning simply because it is epistemologically problematic.

My own feelings at this stage, and I stress that they are only my feelings, is that God has providentially provided us with a comprehensible world, a world that can be rendered using the patterns described with simple algorithms and statistics. If this is true then we won’t have to wrap our heads round physical systems that use, for example, large or infinite numbers of axioms. However, I would be first to admit that my feelings might be wrong here and that the ID theorists may have it right. If they have got it right then for the sake of the truth they have had the courage to stick their necks out and bring upon themselves accusations of the modern equivalent of heresy. As I have tried to show science and non-science do not have a clear cut demarcation, and science imperceptibly shades over into domains of study that are not easily handled by standard science. However the heretic hunter is not happy with such fuzzy graduated categories because he needs black and white categories in order separate out the innocent from the guilty, thus enabling him to identify and burn heretics with a clear conscience. How primitive.

Coming soon .. William Dembski's "Active Information".

Friday, February 20, 2009

Calling All Atheists: Now Just You Stop Worrying

I got the idea for the caption of this cartoon from Paul Woolley of Theos:

Re: The evolution/ID debate. This post on Uncommon Descent indicates how thin are the walls between politics and the science of origins, and consequently how easily politics, and nasty politics at that, spills over into the debate. For many ID theorists evolution is inextricably bound up with racism, fascism, marxism, amoralism and for good measure, the holocaust (In short some of the worst sins of mankind!). I have mixed feelings about this: this political dimension frays tempers and doesn't promote the attitudes needed to ferret out and face emotionally loaded truths with a detached coolness. And yet it can add an edginess to the debate that makes the whole thing as exciting as bomb disposal with all the tensions between composure and agitation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Darwin Bicentary Part 8: Evolutionary Non-Linearity

Two postings have appeared on Sandwalk that I need to keep tabs on (here and here)

The first post is a summary of the “Modern Synthesis” of evolutionary theory; in particular it deals with the mechanism of evolution. It actually highlights a nomenclature problem I have touched on before: people conflate evolution and the mechanisms of evolution. There is wide agreement, even between the academic establishment and many ID theorists, that considerable morphological change has taken place over geologic time; evolution in the "morphological change" sense is considered a “fact” in as much as a consensus has been reached between very disparate parties. The real problems start with the mechanisms of evolution.

The second post concerns Stephen Jay Gould’s “Challenge to the Modern Synthesis”, and follows on nicely from Gould’s quote in my last post. I’ll make one comment here. Gould’s notion of Punctuated Equilibrium, which presumably at least describes the evidence of the fossil record, has, I conjecture, something to do with non-linearity. Biological structures are cybernetic configurations, as are societies, and cybernetic configurations have a tendency to generate non-linearities. We see apparent cybernetic “jumps” in human culture (e.g. Cro-Magnon man and the human revolution, the agricultural revolution, the invention of writing and large cities, the industrial revolution, the computer revolution etc). It would be interesting to see if we could get a handle of Gould’s idea by probing for power-law effects. This is a speculation of mine that I need to look into.

Finally here we have a post on Uncommon Descent by Young Earth Creationist Paul Nelson, which includes a quote hinting at the difficulties that the tree of life concept is getting into. But that’s typical; as I have said before, contributors to UD know with certainty what hasn’t happened but they have no consensus on what did happen.

STOP PRESS 19/2/2009

Here is an ID ode to the Cambrian explosion. This posting on Uncommon Descent follows Paul Nelson’s post on the Tree of Life. I wonder what Paul, as a YEC, would think of the line “Five & fifty million years ago, a faunal troupe did truly show”? Explosions are nonlinear processes, and if the time scale is slowed down sufficiently, look “gradualist”. It is interesting to read the comments section of the ode where somebody quotes a passage from a Wiki article which suggests that a closer look at the fossil record “dampens the bang of the explosion”. However, in reply to this someone accuses Wiki of bias and says “…quoting Darwinpedia here, on any ID/Darwinism related issue won’t get you very far.” The only solution I see to this impasse is to actually follow the “paper trail” myself; Where am I going to get the time to do that? Moreover it’s just one of many ID/Darwinism related issues. The trail here disappears into a thicket of obscuration and accusation.

Coming soon... Is ID science?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary part 7: House of Cards or Heap of Ruins – you choose

The big difficulty with an attempt to form an unequivocal opinion on the evolution/ID debate is that there is an enormous amount of data to assimilate, evaluate and ultimately synthesise into a conclusion. Most of the debate protagonists start with strong convictions and viscerally identify themselves with one side of the debate or other. They then become foot soldiers for their chosen side and as and when powder and ball come to hand they fire their one shot musket off in the general direction of the enemy.

However, for me the debate is less like being in a battle than finding oneself as a disinterested judge in a court case which generates masses of tedious evidence to wade through. I have the growing the feeling that it is going to be impossible to make an equivocal decision on the matter, although I currently favour the evolutionary view. As I suggested in my last post one has at bear in mind that the visceral group identifications of defense and prosecution will make them prone to (consciously and unconsciously) slanting the evidence. For example many evolutionists are very bullish about evolution being a fact. And yet here is a quote I have taken from a post on Uncommon Descent by the celebrated evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould:

No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It never seems to happen. Assiduous collecting up cliff faces yields zigzags, minor oscillations, and the very occasional slight accumulation of change–over millions of years, at a rate too slow to account for all the prodigious change that has occurred in evolutionary history. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the fossils did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution.

Unless one is very familiar with the Paleontological record it is difficult to evaluate this statement. In the fossil record there are celebrated evolutionary transitional forms relating to bird and whale evolution and yet such transitional forms are a bit like those miracles that are lauded as proof of God – they are few and far between and of ambiguous interpretation.

Here is another link I obtained from honest-to-God atheist Larry Moran who in a blog posting dated 14th February quotes at length from the linked article in the Guardian by British Paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, a Christian. Although Morris is an evolutionist, he questions whether evolution is a “total explanation”. You’ve got give Larry Moran full marks for facing and trying to stare down difficulties, but I find him a little too converted and passionate for my purposes. But Larry is after all an officer with rank in the atheist’s musket army. He is enamored of the concept that the pattern description activity of science is truly an ontological “gap narrowing” operation which in his mind, as in the minds of many a Christian, puts the squeeze on the standard notion of an “Intervening God” (but see my last blog entry).

As I have said I still favour evolution; as a theory it does seem to at least have structure, a structure that is so patently lacking in ID theory; the ID community seem to be a loose coalition of anti-evolutionists who have a wide range of opinions on the nature of paleontological history. Evolution may sometimes come over as a fragile house of cards, but although the protagonists of ID theory are united in their vociferous opposition to evolution, ID theory, in comparison to evolution’s house of cards, comes over as a heap of ruins; but then that could have something to do with the complex ontology that ID theorists are positing.
(Bury St Edmund's Abbey)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 6: The Demand for Xplanation

“Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” says Richard Dawkins evolutionary evangelist and atheist extraordinaire. Why has evolution enabled Dawkins to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist? What has changed since Darwin? Whatever this change may be, it is surely ironic that the Intelligent Design theorists seem to agree with Dawkins: they attack the theory evolution at every opportunity, presumably in order to make way for Intelligent Design and undermine evolution’s ability to intellectually fulfill. What is it about evolution that in the minds of atheists and perhaps also in the minds of the ID theorists, supports atheism?

At first sight science seems to be in the business of
explanation rather than mere description, but very early on in my contact with science it became clear to me that theories which purport to explain the state of affairs in our cosmos are not fundamentally different from descriptions. In the process of theorizing a conjectured explanatory ontology is postulated to exist behind the experimental and observational protocols, an ontology like, for example, atoms or planetary orbits. This background ontology is not directly observable and the relevant experimental and observational protocols only constitute a mere sample delivered to our senses from this posited ontology. Science proceeds by describing the patterning of this background, but what makes scientific description (at least in physics) more than just linear descriptive narrative is that the postulated high order of the background ontology will make it amenable to what I call theoretical compaction, a form of data compression. (See Chaitin who is very good on this subject). For example, in mechanics the dynamics of particles can be described with the relatively few descriptive bits embodied in Newton’s laws of motion. On the other hand highly disordered objects, like random sequences, are not subject to theoretical compaction; other than describing them bit-by-bit random sequences, in general*, can only be described statistically. And of course there are other objects out there that are somewhere between the mathematical extremes of high-order and high-disorder like, for example, human brains, whose full description is likely to be a blend of elegant theoretical principles and linear narrative.

Successful description, especially a successful description that brings about a theoretical compaction, can considerably satiate the need for explanation, perhaps because it reduces what otherwise appears to be a profusion of unrelated data down to the manifestation of some relatively simple principles that can be easily held in the mind. This, then, seems to be in part the psychology of ontological satiation that is at the heart of Dawkins intellectual fulfillment over the question of the origin of uncountable species. However, I stress “in part”, because I think it goes much deeper than this.

It is a human instinct that things don’t just happen. (Hence the difficulty in coming to terms with quantum indeterminism). We are inclined to believe that our observational protocols are part of some wider ordered ontology; that is, we are likely to believe our observations are somehow juxtaposed with the elements of a background ontology whose general organisation ‘justifies’ the existence of our observational particulars. If a particular observational item wasn’t as it was then it would disrupt the patterned scheme of the background ontology behind it. Hence, when seen as the outcome of a theorized ontological background our observations no longer seem arbitrary because they are part of a much broader context of order conferring on those observations an inevitability. In the case of evolution each species no longer need to be posited as coming into existence “just like that” in some arbitrary way, for it is now possible to relate (at least tentatively) the appearance of a species to a background history
described by familiar laws and statistics.

If one accepts evolution it is very tempting for one’s curiosity about origins to end there. But our intuition that things don’t “just happen” must ultimately engage the mathematical inevitability that mere patterning, in the final analysis, will also deliver that “just there” feeling. As Hume made clear; whilst the ordered patterning of a set of juxtaposed elements may make them mentally tractable and amenable to theoretical compaction there is no logical guarantee for the continuance of that pattern. Likewise, the logical fabric of evolution may successfully put a conceptual wrapper round biological variety in a way that seems to explain that variety, but inevitably there remains the meta question of what explains the Gestalt of evolution; that is, like any other natural pattern, the moment by moment continuance of the physical patterns claimed to underwrite evolutionary mechanisms have no apparent means of logical support. Once we accept an overall physical pattern as “law” the elements of that pattern impinging upon our senses seem to gain an inevitability; but they are only inevitable given the postulated pattern; for the pattern itself remains an “unexplained”; any further attempt to explain the patterning simply embeds the pattern within a larger pattern and thus begins a regress as explanatory context is embedded within explanatory context, with no end in sight. As the saying goes “It’s tortoises all the way down”

Atheists deride theists who use “God of the Gaps” apologetics, because in the face of an ever encroaching and successful scientific description of things, especially in the area of the evolution of life, these atheists claim that the "gaps" are constantly narrowing. It is ironic that in some ways ID theorists lend credence to the view that the pressure is on for the “God of Gaps”, because the intellectual goal of ID theory seems to be that of showing how evolutionary theory fails to close the gaps in the history of life. For the ID theorist those gaps are thought to be found in the form of amazing discontinuous leaps of biological design, leaps that can only be put down to the intervention of some super intelligence. If the ID theorists are right they are effectively rooting for a God whose occasional “interventions” are manifested by the odd gap or two in the natural order: a leap there, a miracle here, an interruption in the natural pattern there. The irony is that many atheists share this notion of a God who can only be known via interventions: in their opinion there is no God because they see no gaps, they see no leaps, no miraculous interventions, and no strange interruptions in the natural order. This then may be the deep reason why Richard Dawkins finds evolution intellectually fulfilling; for him evolution is a process of biological creation that makes no recourse to the inexplicable gaps that betray the presence of a lurking deity.

But the lesson of Hume’s argument is that an ontology that follows an uninterrupted, regular and simple patterning doesn’t imply logical self-sufficiency; we won’t find Leibnitz sufficient reason in mere mathematical patterning; all we find is data compression. Data compression as we know it is unable to provide us with a deep ontology that addresses the questions of asiety and self explanation. Those who are looking for a deeper rationality and fail to get philosophical satisfaction from atheists who either ignore or wave past profound questions of Aseity may bank their intellectual investments elsewhere; perhaps even looking to theology. Moreover, as theologians point out we don’t necessarily need the design leaps of the ID theorists to find God, because if Hume is right then there is a logical gap at every place and at every moment. Yes, if God exists He may indeed be a “God of the Gaps”, but it seems that He must be everywhere and everywhen, because the gaps are everywhere and everywhen. Theologically speaking God fills the interstices in the logic of our world: “He is not far from each of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:27&28) This is what an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God does for a living.

Deism is a philosophy that taps into the intuition that natural patterns which are regular as clockwork need no management and need no support. This intuition traces back to an anthropomorphism; that is, in our human context experience suggests that simple systems with regular behavior tend to “work by themselves” whereas in contrast radically complex behavior is the hallmark of intelligent agency. Ergo, if the universe works like clockwork it needs no maintenance; if it displays no radically complex departures from normalcy then there must be no intelligent agent behind it. Deism is not a logical argument, but an intuition born of fuzzy associative logic learnt from the experience of everyday life. Ironically it seems to be an intuition shared by atheist and ID theorist alike, the only difference being that for atheists deism serves a redundancy notice on the traditional creating intervening Deity, whereas for the ID theorist it is imperative to show that God still has an interventional role, a role evidenced by complex irregular design leaps that are not easily explicable in terms of elementary clockwork.

But in modern science there is another twist to the theology of deism. Given that science is now faced with what appear to be the intrinsically random inputs of Quantum Mechanics, the clockwork universe paradigm is now a thing of the past (but see quantum decoherence). Unless concepts like quantum decoherence or hidden variable theory reinstates determinism, then it really does look as though there are events out there that “just happen”, unjustified by a wider context of order. In order to come to terms with pure happenstance and rescue the theology of deism our physical intuitions kick in again; as a general fuzzy rule our contact with the real world suggest that the presence of disorder and muddle, just like the presence of the opposite of high order, is a sign of lack of interference by intelligence; intelligence tends to create structures that are neither too simple nor too muddled; in a sense intelligence reconfigures matter after its own image of being neither simple nor muddled. It is no surprise then that in the postings of Uncommon Descent one finds frequent affirmation that chance and necessity (that is randomness and physical law) alone cannot create life. But the ID theorist’s all consuming attention on the middle ground between randomness and law is at the expense of questions over the origins of randomness and law. This creates a seeming silence over these origins that can so easily be read as playing into the hands of atheists who take it for granted that the mathematically tractable domains of randomness and law are the hallmarks of the absence of sentience.

If evolution is right then the ID theorists, in their search for incontestable evidence of divine intervention, have been too quick to import their interventional gaps in the form of discontinuous leaps of design, too quick to employ the inscrutable manipulations of a mysterious intelligence. But whether ID theory is right or wrong it appears to be based on the perception of a general idea that is correct; namely that at some point we must engage a logical hiatus and a contingency barrier of fact that seems to hang in mid air, unsupported. That this problem ultimately lies in wait for us is perhaps obscured by the data compression activity of scientific description; science considerably reduces the number of given facts we need to know and understand the universe, thus giving the impression that logical contingency will ultimately be completely expunged. But, of course, a science based on data compression can never compress the kernel of fact to nothing at all.; in the final analysis a core of brute fact must remain. In this respect the ID theorists have perceived a problem that often stultifies the curiosity of the average atheist, the problem of an ulterior “design” mystery waiting for us when all has been said, done and described. Metaphorically then, ID theory points the way to issues of self-explanation and asiety. It alerts us to an exotic ontology that must be lurking in the background of our contingent cosmos, an ontology which creates it, supports it, and sustains it, in ways we may never fully understand.

The dichotomies of automata versus sentience, of mechanism versus mind have a history going to back to at least the early industrial age. My own view is that these dichotomies are not a category distinction based on the respective absence or presence of some vitalistic property, but rather a distinction based on vast differences in complexity. Mechanism and automata are low end phenomena, a product of a relatively simple application of deterministic patterns and (nowadays) straight forward statistically quantifiable stochastic processes, whereas sentience and mind are applications that knit together the right qualities in a vast nexus of complexity. But the 64 trillion dollar question is: what is cosmically primary? Mechanism or Mind? Automata or sentience? Do the primary and fundamental cosmic processes exclude the middle ground between high order and low order and only generate organized complexity after a laboriously long application of “chance and necessity” alone? Why should the fundamental and primary creative processes abhor the vast region between the two extremes of order and disorder?

There seems to be no a-priori answer to the foregoing questions, although, needless to say, convinced answers are supplied to us by the emotionally committed communities of atheists and ID theorists. Those who try to hammer out an atheist world view are likely to draw only on the patterns of chance and necessity, giving little cognizance to the vast regions of unexplored complexity between these extremes. This is because those middle regions are dangerously suggestive of intelligence and sentience, regions blighted in atheist opinion by the intellectual forays of the ID theorists with their vociferous attacks on the science of evolution. The entrenched interests and group identifications of both parties muddy the waters considerably. I am suspicious of getting slanted information from either side – it’s not so much what they tell us that is the problem, but rather what they are not telling us - even worse - what they may not be telling themselves.

See this short article for comment on the relation of evolution and the interventionist God.

* Footnote: In general random sequences can’t be compressed. However a small subset of random sequences can be described by compression under circumstances I have investigated.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ministry of Silly Arguments.

Re: my last post on the argument clinic

Earlier today this post this post appeared on Uncommon Descent.

If the hat fits, wear it.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 5: The Argument Clinic.

That's the sketch... and now for something completely real...

Denyse: "God intervenes to create life"

Larry: "Oh no he doesn't"

Denyse: "Oh yes he does..."

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Looking on The Bright Side of Life

Bus to Oblivion and Beyond (Click to englarge)

The recent poster campaigns from the atheists have been such PR disasters that I thought they needed some help. Hence see my makeover of their poster above.

Looking over the shoulder of the evangelists I think atheists need to be far more positive and far less nihilistic. They shouldn’t be afraid of the merry naivety of self-belief and a belief in their message; no more PR faux pas declaring atheism to be bad news, neither should the word ‘Probably’ be used in such a way that it can be read as a margin of doubt. Rather, after the lager advert, ‘Probably’ should be used ironically to signal an almost smug self assurance. The message should be projected by atheism’s best known personalities as Joe and Jo Public relate much better to personalities than ideas, hence the use of a personable and self assured looking Ricky on the poster. Ricky? Oh yes that’s the other thing. All the major atheist campaigners need image makeovers in order to humanise them and what better way to start than for them to make use of snappy familiar names. After all, the Christian evangelists usually have first names like Nicky, Benny, Billy and Todd, Charlie, Danny etc. ‘Richard Dawkins’ is just too stodgy whereas ‘Ricky Dawkins’ (or ‘Dicky Dawkins’ as some prefer) is a pleasure just to hear and say.