Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Watchman, What is Left of the Night?

Here is another song by Francesco Guccini with translation from the Italian (interleaved) supplied by my brother-in-law Jonathan Benison.

Shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell
Watchman, what is left of the night?
Watchman, why you don't answer my questions?
Watchman, why am I lost in a silent, red, stony desert?
Watchman, why the darkness is only broken by the lightening of my rage?
Watchman, why you don't let me in?
Don't you know that I can only hear weak echoes from the past?
Watchman, do you really know when the day will break?
Watchman, is your answer too big for my heart?
[based on Isaiah 21:11-12]

La notte è quieta senza rumore, c'è solo il suono che fa il silenzio
e l' aria calda porta il sapore di stelle e assenzio,
le dita sfiorano le pietre calme calde d' un sole, memoria o mito,
il buio ha preso con se le palme, sembra che il giorno non sia esistito...

The night is quiet without a noise, there is only the sound of silence
and the warm air brings the taste of stars and wormwood,
the fingers skim over the calm stones warmed by a sun, memory or myth,
the darkness took with it the palms, looks like the day has never existed...

Io, la vedetta, l'illuminato, guardiano eterno di non so cosa
cerco, innocente o perchè ho peccato, la luna ombrosa
e aspetto immobile che si spanda l'onda di tuono che seguirà
al lampo secco di una domanda, la voce d'uomo che chiederà:
Shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell ...

I, the watchman, the enlightened, eternal warden of something I do not know,
I seek, innocent or because I sinned, the shady moon
and I wait immobile for the thunder wave to spread in the wake
of a lightning sharp question, the voice of a man who will ask:

Shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell...

Watchman, what is left of the night?

Sono da secoli o da un momento fermo in un vuoto in cui tutto tace,
non so più dire da quanto sento angoscia o pace,
coi sensi tesi fuori dal tempo, fuori dal mondo sto ad aspettare
che in un sussurro di voci o vento qualcuno venga per domandare...

I have been standing for centuries or for just a moment in an emptiness where everything is still,
I cannot say since when I feel anguish or peace,
with my senses on edge, out of time, out of the world, I keep waiting in case
within a whisper of voices or of the wind, somebody will come to ask...

(Shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell ...)
e li avverto, radi come le dita, ma sento voci, sento un brusìo
e sento d' essere l' infinita eco di Dio
e dopo, innumeri come sabbia, ansiosa e anonima oscurità,
ma voce sola di fede o rabbia, notturno grido che chiederà:

and I am aware of them, sparse like fingers, but I hear voices, I hear a buzz
and I feel I am the infinite echo of God
and afterwards, uncountable like grains of sand, anxious and anonymous darkness,
but only a voice of faith or rage, a cry in the night asking:

Shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell
shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell
shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell...

Watchman, what is left of the night?

La notte, udite, sta per finire, ma il giorno ancora non è arrivato,
sembra che il tempo nel suo fluire resti inchiodato...
Ma io veglio sempre, perciò insistete, voi lo potete, ridomandate,
tornate ancora se lo volete, non vi stancate...

Listen, the night is about to finish, but the day is still not here,
it’s as if time flowed no more but had become stuck ...
But I’m always on the lookout, so you must insist, you can do it, ask again,
come back again if you want, do not tire of it ...

Cadranno i secoli, gli dei e le dee, cadranno torri, cadranno regni
e resteranno di uomini e di idee, polvere e segni,
ma ora capisco il mio non capire, che una risposta non ci sarà,
che la risposta sull'avvenire è in una voce che chiederà:

Centuries will fall, the gods and the goddesses, towers will fall down, kingdoms will fall
and the remains of men and ideas will be dust and signs,
but now I understand my non understanding, that there will be no answer,
that the answer to the future is in a voice that will ask:

Shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell
shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell
shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell
shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell
shomèr ma mi-llailah, shomèr ma mi-lell, shomèr ma mi-llailah, ma mi-lell...

Watchman, what is left of the night?
Francesco Guccini

With thanks to Marco Zuliani in California for the translation (modified here)

From the album “GUCCINI” (1983)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Unintelligent Design

Chemist Professor John C Walton **(above) may believe in Homunculus Intelligent Design and Seventh Day Adventism ….but at least he doesn't believe in Yogic flying unlike physicist Professor John Hagelin (below)....
….so things can't be as bad as all that.

I recently reviewed a video on this post at Uncommon Descent. It is a lecture by Professor John C Walton, a Research Chemist at St Andrews University (Scotland’s first university founded 1413). The video is entitled “56 minutes that may change your life”. However, it follows a pattern I’m all too familiar with.

Much is made, too much in fact, of the improbability of the spontaneous appearance of life’s essential biopolymers; the figures Prof Walton shows us might leave the heads of the scientifically illiterate spinning, but few scientists, as the good professor well knows, seriously suggest that abiogenesis was resourced by such extremely improbable events. Putting it mathematically, most evolutionists realize that the probability we are interested in is a conditional probability like Prob(Life|R) where R is a given physical regime, conjectured pre-conditions that favour life’s generation in a realistic time. (True R, may not exist physically or even exist mathematically; in which case the version of Intelligent Design promulgated at UD should be at least given some space.)

In response to these improbabilities Prof Walton goes on to tell us that there is active research in the area of self organization Viz a) Attempts have or are being made to discover “laws of chemical affinity” which predispose matter toward the formation of certain amino acid configurations b) Computer simulations are being constructed which attempt to simulate models of abiogenesis. Regarding research of this kind the professor rightly emphasizes that it is necessarily resourced by human intelligence in order to a) contrive suitable chemical environments or b) contrive the algorithms controlling the patterns of bits and bytes needed to simulate something that at least looks just a little bit like abiogenesis. In both cases preconditions are being diligently sought for that have a realistic chance of generating the required configurations and structures.

Well, as I have already said this sort of stuff is all too familiar to me and I can only respond by banging on about the same old thing: The selection of a physical regime that has a realistic probability of generating life (if indeed such has a mathematical existence) is very likely to be a task that is computationally complex in the extreme; i.e. finding such a regime amongst all the possible spurious cases is no small search. Even if we assume that a life generating physical regime has actually already been found for us in the form of our own Cosmos we may then face yet another problem: The generation of life using our cosmic regime could conceivably be a computationally irreducible task; that is, the only way of checking that our Cosmos has a realistic chance of creating life is to run the whole damn show, right down to the last atom in order to verify that it does what we think it does; there may be no shorter algorithmic way of performing the task. If so then this task, too, is well beyond our current technology and we are thrown back onto the fossil record which, needless to say, may be too incomplete to be unequivocal in its testimony.

Unfortunately Prof Walton doesn’t explore these crucial issues in any depth; this may be because he is either unaware of them, or he understands that this is the hard problem where little progress has been made. However, given his religious background I suspect that it is more likely that the good professor is driven by an unstated conclusion; namely, the conclusion that life was created with what I refer to as the Homunculus Intelligent Design model ; that is, that God an intelligent agent descended upon the Earth at some point(s) in the past and tinkered with molecular configurations, thus directly imposing Divine fiat the agent's will on matter like some super-human molecular engineer. Like many in the de facto “Intelligent Design” community I suspect the good professor may well have signed up as one of the patrons of anti-evolutionism. Many theists see homunculus ID as the only option because the only other theistic position they can conceive is deism.

Nevertheless Prof Walton does hold out one interesting idea that I’m taking away with me. He provided evidence that the Earth’s atmosphere has always been an oxidizing one, especially during the early OOL stages – an environment that is very unlikely to favour the delicate chemistry that the formation of biopolymers requires. If this idea was developed it would certainly cut across the notion that life was generated on Earth in small incremental stages: A highly oxidizing environment is likely to tear apart biopolymers nearly as surely as would the interior of the Sun; that is, at least with life as we know it.

However, I’ll keep my options open, as this sort of argument could be subject to revision. Even so, as a “prepared to take the risk” theist, I can myself can live with the concept that somehow the configurations of life have been very directly imposed on matter by God by some intelligent agent; after all the alternative of selecting the right life generating physical regime looks to be at least equally as computationally complex (in fact, perhaps a lot more computationally complex). So if I’m asked to accept that the right life generating physical regime is a given then perhaps I can just as easily accept highly improbable molecular configurations as a given. However, there is one stickler of a aside effect in homunculus ID that is unfortunate; we have to kiss goodbye to much epistemological tractability and with it much of the coherent rational readability of our cosmos, especially in relation to natural history. There is also an irony here. If life is a consequence of the selection of the right physical regime then this would likely represent the solution of a computational problem requiring a level of intelligence well in advance of what is needed to carry out Homunculus ID. In fact, in comparison Homunculus ID looks distinctly  “Unintelligent" in design”!

As for UD poster V J Torley’s 56 minutes that may change your life I think we can forget it. Unfortunately for me the video has done precisely the opposite: It has simply meant that I have had to cover the same old ground for the umpteenth time and express the same old gripes I have with the Homunculus ID community.

According to the British Centre for Science Education John Walton shared a platform with extreme fundamentalist John Mackay in Oct 2007. (See here http://www.bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/Main/JohnWalton) As for some of the rather unsavory accounts surrounding John Mackay see here http://www.bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/Main/JohnMackay and here http://www.bcseweb.org.uk/index.php/Main/MargaretBuchanan.

31/1/12:  The articles from BCSE linked to above are worth perusing. John MacKay is one of those persons whose religion marches worryingly close to some kind of mental illness of the ego and yet whose air of brazenness and utter confidence in his own pronouncements succeeds in confidence tricking the gullible. MacKay was Ken Ham's business partner in the early days of Ken's foray into the "Creation" trade, and MacKay is implicated in an acrimonious dispute between Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International (apparently settled in 2009). Overall, as I'm "in religion" the whole thing gives me the creeps; this may be because I have to confess to having actually witnessed something of this sort first hand more than once, at least in embryo. I would certainly not want to meet MacKay in a dark alley, or even Ken Ham for that matter. They both come over as rather muculant characters whose chief strength is the conviction of their tongues. I trust that Professor Walton was unaware who he was hobnobbing with.

** Oops! Sorry folks, he doesn't have a wiki page!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The De-facto “Darwin vs. God” Paradigm

The Natural History Museum, Romanesque cum Gothic cathedral of natural history, designed by Alfred Waterhouse. The black figure of the Victorian naturalist Richard Owen has gone, replaced by the white enthroned figure of Darwin which now occupies the central landing of the escalia; the "high altar" of the building; rather appropriate perhaps; don't forget that the engine of evolution entails death! (“search, reject and select”)

I was interested to see a report in the February "Christianity" magazine on Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech promoting Christianity and the project of sending Bibles into schools. In response the National Secular Society Spokesman Terry Sanderson said:

…if Mr Gove (the governments education secretary) intends to go ahead with this, will he please ensure that a copy of “On the origins of Species” is sent out on Darwin day

The subtext here is, of course, the “Darwin vs. God” paradigm; namely, that if you’ve got Darwin you don’t need God and if you’ve got God you don’t need Darwin; in short either “God did it” or “Darwin did it” and that is the view of the secularist–anti evolutionist axis of polarization.

As I’ve tried to indicate this axis of polarization is a false dichotomy : If anything “Darwinism” compounds the problems of improbability that prompts thoughts of Intelligent Design. How ironic.

God is pictured as a kindly old bearded gentleman all in white, seated on a throne surrounded by light and who lives upon high.
(Picture from http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimshannon/3823248802/)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Conspiracy Theorist’s Corner.

Picture from: http://naturalplane.blogspot.com/2010/12/fortean-alternative-news-conspiracy.html

I’ve long been aware that the fundamentalist whipping boys have a deep seated affinity with conspiracy theory, but I would, nonetheless, find it difficult to point to the “chapter and verse” where I picked up this observation. Ken Ham, however, has recently obliged me. In a blog post dated Jan 20th and entitled “Deadly Disclosures goes epub” Ham enthuses over the novels written by a fellow Christian Fundamentalist. The novels depict a world that is ranged against (fundamentalist) Christians in hidden and malign conspiracies. Wonderful captivating stuff in Ken’s opinion.

But think about it; the fundamentalist is almost inevitably going to be drawn to conspiracy theory:

Firstly the whole scientific establishment is “against” them, although to be fair that establishment actually (and rightly) by and large ignores them.

Secondly, the evidence and theory against fundamentalist “science” is so coherent and the world wide scientific establishment forms such a united front that the only way fundamentalists can explain the highly systematic “error” of the establishment is to attribute it to some background malign will, either in the establishment itself or to some dark presence pulling the strings and skewing human epistemological assumptions. In one sense all this is a telling “own goal” by the fundamentalists because it is an admission that the establishment’s evidence and conclusions are coordinated and coherent enough to only allow those with a conspiracy theorist’s frame of mind to dismiss it. (Compare the fundamentalist’s anti-science)

Thirdly there is much self-kudos to be gained in seeing oneself as part of a holy remnant that is heroically and gloriously holding out against the goliath of a huge worldwide conspiracy; one fancies oneself to be important enough for that conspiracy to have one personally in its gun-sights; literally in the case of Ken’s favourite novel writer who glorifies the fundamentalist’s marginalized lot.

However I must concede a measure of understanding of the fundamentalist’s reaction; in the face of marginalization increasingly paranoiac and extreme fantasies about being specially targeted are a perverse way of satisfying the ego. If you’ve backed yourself into a corner it’s tough when the whole world is apathetic about your self-proclaimed prophetic status. They will tell us about the persecution of Christ but then so will every other contrary religious sect between here and Salt Lake City.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Warning: The False Dichotomy Zone

I see from this Guardian Web article that the anti-evolutionists have been barred from British schools.

The de facto “Intelligent Design” movement are partly responsible for trapping the creation debate in the false dichotomy of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design. This has lead to the insinuation that if one is an evolutionist then one is in opposition to intelligent design creationism. The resultant effect has been to obscure important questions about the computational complexity of the class of physical regimes required to make evolution and/or OOL work. (see my last post) In this needlessly polarized debate anti-evolutionism has become too closely identified with theism and evolution too closely identified with atheism. Introducing “Intelligent Design”, so-called, into schools then, is very likely to automatically cast the creation debate into a dichotomized mold of “Evolution did it” versus “God did it” and science versus revelation – the kind of dichotomized paradigm we get from anti-science fundamentalists like Ken Ham

All this is very regretable because there are some worthy people naturally identified with the anti-evolutionist front such as William Dembski, Cornelius Hunter, Robert Sheldon, and Richard Johns who are nonetheless presenting interesting material in relation to evolutionary theory and who, in my opinion, should be given a fair hearing. Trouble is, the polarized and politicized state of the debate, for which the “ID” community share a  measure of culpability, has made people like Dembski et al persona non grata in established scientific circles; understandablely enough Dembski et al have thrown their lot in with the disaffected anti academic establishment outlaws. For me the situation is exacerbated by some very partisan desperados who post on the blog "Uncommon Descent" such as Granville Sewell, Denise O‘Leary, and Gil Dodgen, persons who it would have been better if they had not have been let loose on the subject.

C of E physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne has described himself as an Intelligent Design creationist and yet because the appellation “Intelligent Design” has been blighted, abused and given partisan meaning he was forced to declare his hostility to the “Intelligent Design” community, a community who have become thoroughly identified with anti-evolutionism.

On balance, then, the misunderstandings over the term "Intelligent Design" leads me to support the policy that bars “Intelligent Design”, so called, from British schools. May that ban last as long as it takes for the polarized anti-evolutionists to come to their senses and change their philosophy. That philosophy has the effect of driving a wedge between evolution and intelligent design and between science and revelation. It is worth recalling here that the government which has ratified these measures is headed by David Cameron who identifies himself as a Christian: The source of these measures, then, is not necessarily anti-Christian unless we are predisposed to read it that way.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Unfinished Business.

I was interested to read  Larry Moran’s post about the “Top Ten Darwin and Design Science News Stories for 2011”. As an over a zealous evolutionist Larry is rather contemptuous about the whole Intelligent Design (ID) thing. What particularly piqued my interest, however, was that Richard Johns’ paper entitled “Self Organisation in Dynamical Systems: a Limiting Result” came in at number 10. The reason for my interest is that I looked at a preprint of this paper a few months back and remarked on it in the following blog posts:


Richard Johns himself very kindly got back to me on my comments and his response can be seen in the above posts. As Richard didn’t respond to my response to his response I was left feeling that there was unfinished business here.

I very much regret the polarized quarrelling between the anti-evolution community (who appear to have picked up Johns’ work) and scientists like Larry Moran. I myself respect professionals like Johns and Moran and I don’t really want to fall out with either. So, whenever I approach a competent technical paper like that of Richard Johns' I don’t particularly feel that I’m on the side of anyone and therefore under no partisan obligation to either defend them or attack them. I’m a disinterested party whose main interest stems from a curiosity about the riddles and mysteries our world confronts us with, although it’s true that I’m having a serious romance with theism.

Although I don’t share his anti-evolutionism I do have one thing I have in common with an “ID” leader like William Dembski; namely, the understanding that in terms of absolute probabilities high improbabilities cannot be banished from our science: We may be able to arrive at high conditional probabilities such as Prob(Life|R0) where R0 is the class of life generating physical regimes, but this still leaves us with the enigma of the selection of a member from R0, a selection which seems to mysteriously appear out of a huge range of mathematical possibilities thus imbuing it with an improbability beyond measure. R0 has a rarity in platonic space which means its existential weighting is inexplicably skewed far in excess of its statistical weighting. For Dembski this fact leads to the conclusion (via his assumption of equal a-priori probabilities and his explanatory filter) that intelligence has selected our physical regime from R0. Ironically the problem with the existence of a member taken from R0 is best appreciated in the context of Multiverse theory: Multiverse theory attempts to place R0 within a greater physical regime, call it R1, whereby it is hoped that Prob(R0|R1) is high. But if pressed this quickly leads to a “Turtles all the way down” regressing series of the form of Prob(R1|R2),…...., Prob(Rn-1|Rn), ultimately leaving us with an enigmatic Rn whose probability, if it is not meaningless, appears to emerge from an incalculable number of possibilities.

But although I believe workers like Johns and Dembski have lessons for us I am not wholly uncritical of the anti-evolutionism that has so thoroughly got hold of the community who identify themselves under the rubric “Intelligent Design”; their anti-evolutionism, due to an impassioned and angry polarization, is now all but irrevocable as they cannot backtrack without loss of face before their evolutionist critics (but the vice versa is also true – polarization cuts both ways). This combative atmosphere is not conducive to self-criticism.

Richard Johns’ paper is a case in point. I could see no fault with the technicalities of his argument; the problems were more to do with the interpretation and use of his results and this interpretation and use is encouraged by the combative pressures the “ID” community is under. Richard uses a cellular automata system to draw his conclusions about limits on the dynamical generation of complex configurations (what he calls “irregular” patterns). He refers to a particular cellular automata program as a “dynamic system” which in turn I identify as the computational equivalent of a physical system taken from a subclass of physical regimes, R. In summary my criticisms were as follows:

a) The concept of complexity (or “irregularity”) used by Richard lumps together, biological complexity, fractal complexity, and the output of random number generators.

b) Richard’s limitative theorem states that a large maximally irregular object cannot appear by self organization in any dynamical system whose laws are local and invariant. But we know that there are such things as algorithms (which could be written in cellular automata form) able to generate fractal and disordered patterns in realistic times. These algorithmically generated configurations classify, on Richard’s’ definition, as large configurations approaching maximal irregularity. Therefore at first sight these latter facts appear to contradict Richard’s limitative theorem – or at least in the way he has stated it.

c) When one reads Richard’s paper one realizes that his limitative theorem is not as strong as it looks because one finds that what he really means is that a blindly selected dynamic system is, in terms of probability, very unlikely to be one that generates a specified subclass of complex configurations in realistic time. This conclusion is, I believe, correct; but if an outcome is improbable that is not to say that it is impossible.

d) If couched in terms of probability Richard’s limitative theorem is correct, but because the theorem is, in fact, referring to improbable outcomes we are lead to overlook the possibility that there may be members of a class R (although it may be a very small class) that have a realistic probability of generating a specified class of irregular configurations in a realistic time.

e) My conclusion is this: In drawing our attention to self organization as an improbable possibility the limitative theorem fails to rule out OOL and evolution as a mathematical possibility.

Richard has effectively hamstrung the possibility of self organization by demanding that the physical regime be chosen at random, “blind watchmaker” style (Thus making it very unlikely it be from the life generating class R0). Hard-line anti-ID evolutionists like Richard "Blind Watchmaker" Dawkins would perhaps be inclined to concede this practice, thus, ironically, conniving with the anti-evolutionist community that OOL/evolution, by definition, is not resourced by the improbable pre-condition R0 . It is surely an irony that Richard’s over interpretation of his conclusion actually falls over if one assumes a creative intelligent agency is available; for in an ID context improbable and/or mathematically rare classes of conditions are the name of the game! If a small class of R exists which promotes the self-organisation of living structures then an intelligence with sufficient processing power and motive could presumably find that class...in other words the physical regime is not chosen at random!

In his response to my original post Richard commented as follows on the possibility of self organisation being an outcome of a carefully selected physical regime:

…..in that case, self-organisation theories of evolution will be in a difficult position. For they will then be committed to the claim that living organisms are algorithmically (and dynamically) simple. In other words, living organisms are like Pi, merely *appearing* to be complex, while in fact being generated by a very short program. (Vastly shorter than their genomes, for example.)

My reply was:

…..it is wrong to conclude that life must be algorithmically simple for this reason: The space of all possible (short text) algorithms, though a lot smaller than the space of all possible configurational objects, is still a very very large space as far as we humans are concerned. I suspect (and this is only a hunch) that not any old algorithm has the right Self Organising properties required to generate living things - in which case selecting the right algorithm is then a computationally complex task; that is, life is not algorithmically simple in absolute terms.

One more thing: Imagine that you were given the problem of PI in reverse; that is you were given the pattern of digits and yet had no clue as to what, if any, simple algorithm generated it. The hard problem then is to guess the algorithm – generating PI after you have found the algorithm is the easy problem. So to me life remains algorithmically complex even if it’s a product of SO.

That’s where the discussion ended. Once again the same lose end is left dangling; namely, the fact that in order to contrive a physical regime taken from the class R0 favouring the self organization of life requires an extraordinary level of computational complexity to sift through the possibilities and secure a member from R0. If OOL and evolution have occurred then it entails quite a “miracle”! Trouble is, the expression Prob(Life|R0) seems to have the effect of obscuring that “miracle”. As a consequence many evolutionists and anti-evolutionists continue to inappropriately caricature the development of life as a putatively “blind” process; hence humunclus ID is an abomination to zealous atheists but the darling of anti-evolutionists.