Thursday, August 22, 2013

Wrong Question

A post dated 21st August on "Uncommon Descent" is entitled:

Question for evolutionists: “If fossils are actually young, would you find ID more believable?

My answer to that question is that the reasons for believing in ID don't change much if we add a few digits to the history of life Viz ~4000,000,0000 years instead of ~50,000 years. If we look at the relationship in my last post, Viz: 

Dg <= k log T + D0

....then we notice that the length, Dg, of algorithmically generated complex configs increases only slowly with the log of time T; so time doesn't make much difference. The crucial component is the length of the generating algorithm D0, which is probably in the order of a few thousand bits, and the selection therein of the right algorithm (Hence "specified complexity"??) amongst a huge space of possibilities that in the main very likely produce nothing of interest. The right algorithm may be relatively simple, but it is extremely rare nonetheless.

The author of this UD post is thinking in classic god-of-the-gaps mode: The bigger the gap then the stronger the rationale for a belief in God!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The False Dichotomy Zone: Sacred vs. Secular

Further to my last post where I ended by saying that Young Earthism is a manifestation of god-of-the-gaps notions, this current post explains why I believe god-of-the-gaps is an aspect of a more general dualistic theology which casts the creation question into the mould of a “God did it vs. Nature did it” dualism. This common Western theological theme can, in fact, be traced from Young Earthism, through the de-facto Intelligent Design community to the reasons atheists give for disbelieving in God.

The following analysis uses a broad brush mathematical metaphor to give an indication of the realities involved.

There is a class of configurations, each of length Dg, that take a large amount of time to reach via algorithmic means (assuming ordinary linear processing). The length of these configurations, - I shall refer to them as “complex” configurations - is related to the time needed to generate them T, and the configuration length of the generating algorithm, D0, by the following relation:

Dg <=  k log T  + D0

Where k is a constant and the sign “<=” reads as “less than or equal to”. I may at some stage make this relation the subject of a paper, but in the meantime I’m going to use it to make a point.

What is the above relationship telling us? It’s telling us there is a trade-off between D0 and T: If we wish to generate a complex configuration of length Dg then we can reduce the potential generation time by increasing the size of D0; but if we want to reduce D0 we have to increase the generation time T. A corollary is that in order to get “complexity” (that is, some value of Dg) from “simplicity” (that is, from some small value of D0) then this requires a minimum algorithmic operation time of T set by the above relation. (In fact because this minimum algorithmic time is related to Dg via the logarithm of T, then this means that large values of Dg will consume impractical levels of generation time)

From the above relation it is clear that D0 and T can in principle combine together to produce complexity. In particular if D0 is small (or “simple”) and T large enough to generate Dg then complexity appears to emerge out of nowhere from the sheer action of Time alone. Herein lies the rub: In Western minds T is very easily construed as an intrinsically creative agent; so much so in fact that it may be thought of as constituting a satisfactory account of absolute origins.  This mode of thinking comes out very clearly in the writings of the Biblical literalist whose article on “Deep time – the God of our age” I considered here. That this fundamentalist thinks he can get away with accusing believers in an old Earth of foisting on time the role of creator pretender is an indication of how very culturally deep seated  is the idea that sheer length of time renders divine creation redundant. Young Earth literalism deals with the potential philosophical threat of this secular creator by simply truncating T to a mere 6000 years. This is in fact a belt and braces strategy because even though many in the largely theist Intelligent Design community believe in deep time they are nevertheless falling over themselves to convince us that it is impossible (perhaps even in principle) for physical processes and deep time to have created complex configurations like life. (See here, here and here for example). The de-facto ID community are very explicit about what they believe to be a dichotomy of choice: Either God Intelligence did it or natural processes did it. But if it turns out that “natural processes did it” then the de-facto ID community are going to have egg on their faces because it would contradict all they stand for. Therefore this community are highly motivated in their search to debunk evolution; they need to be – their faith all but rests on it. It is ironic, however, that atheist Richard Dawkins would agree with the de-facto ID community on just what choices are on the table to the exclusion of all others: In the video I posted here we find Richard Dawkins effectively telling us that the universe has origins in something “much, much simpler than a creative intelligence.”  That is, he sees it an exclusive-OR between a complex creative intelligence and simple starting conditions. To Dawkins it’s very important that secularity (that is “T”) working on simplicity is capable of generating everything we see, because for him simplicity is “next to nothing” and is therefore tantamount to needing no further explanation. Young Earthist, ID proponent, and evangelical atheist form a trinity of mutually antagonistic parties, but they all share an underlying theology based on a dichotomy between divine creation and natural processes.

Although D0 may be “simple” compared to what it generates, in absolute terms the combinatorial potentiality available to a string of length implied by D0, (which is probably a few thousand bits long) is still enormous by human standards, too enormous to be practically and exhaustively searched. It is likely that the space of possible algorithms implicit in the value D0, and which run in practical time scales, mostly generate disordered strings with very few, if any, generating configurations of interest, such as living structures. Therefore, it is entirely inappropriate to trivialise the content of D0 if that content generates something significant in a practical time scale; if it does it would constitute an extreme rarity and would be a miracle in its own right. There is therefore no justice in regarding the logical hiatus of this very special kind of simplicity as “next to nothing” or claiming that the patterns of the cosmos have their origin in next to nothing. But conversely it is also wrong to fear the generating potential of physical processes as do the de-facto ID community and the Young Earthists.

Western dualism is a fallacy which expresses its self in false dichotomies: Viz: the dichotomy of the nonmaterial vs. material, the sacredness of configurations created as is vs. the seeming profanity of configurations generated by secular conditions, and above all the “supernatural vs. the natural” dichotomy. This Western dualistic theological paradigm is failing to make sense of reality because it is failing to get the balance right between the eminence and immanence of God . A stress on the eminence and otherness of God favours the view that Divine causation is a category distinct from and yet which cohabits with physical causation. Paradoxically in so categorising the divine we then find that God is demoted to the same logical level as the physical causation he is seen to be distinct from. He then takes his place side by side with “chance and necessity” (as the de-facto ID community inappropriately calls it), and in effect becomes just another agent of causation in a dualistic category system of  “supernatural and natural” causation.

The upshot of this is that there is a strong theological motivation in Western dualistic theology to minimise the role of T in the creation of pattern and maximise the role of complex off-the-peg data that is injected in the form of D0. Ironically the dualistic atheists accepts the same implicit category system but denies the existence of anything but D0 and lots of T. The stage is then set to play off the secular ( = D0 and T) against the supernatural. This, I submit, is the theological motivation behind Young Earthism, and also the de-facto ID community who are doing all they can to show that no data set of small size D0 can generate life in practical time scales. It is ironic that Young Earthists, the de-facto ID movement and the evangelical atheists should form an axis of commonality in their take up of dualistic theology: Bigger gaps then bigger God! ... No gaps (or little gaps) then no God! ....such is the stuff of dualist logic!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Young Earthism's Hungry Problem.

YEC's thorny issue is just about to gobble up yet another well meaning YEC apologist.

This post on Uncommon Descent is worth keeping tabs on. It's by Young Earth sympathiser Sal Cordova. In his post he lists some of the YEC theories that attempt to solve the Star Light problem. It seems that Cordova is ambivalent about his YEC cultural heritage which pressures him to accept YEC. But the upside of this ambivalence is that it results in a thoughtful, self-critical, informative and balanced post. He is real about the difficulties YECs face in this area. In Cordova's list of "solutions" it is notable that Jason Lisle's ASC model doesn't get a mention; rightly so in my opinion as it is, after all, just mature creation cosmology; that is, it uses that idea of signals being simply created in transit, a notion which to many looks like a cheat's short cut; a fact that has been disguised with Lisle's ASC sophistry: "Mature creationism in a cheap tuxedo" to recycle a well known phrase!

If all YECs were like Cordova I would complain a lot less! However, the fact remains they are on a hiding to nowhere. Their slavishly literal interpretation of pre-scientific mythological thought and polemic has  been set in stone by their religious community and left them with one mother-of-a-problem. But there is, I suspect, one other very influential and probably more significant factor at work here besides their false interpretation of the Bible; namely god-of-the-gaps-thinking: The thinking here is that if it can be shown that the whole cosmic caboodle was created as is, just like that 6000 years ago, then this will leave a huge gap they can plug with God. For them this is the much sort after faith-boosting philosophical rationale for their belief in God's existence. In fact it forms the single most important supporting plank of their god-of-the-gaps theology.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

This video has been well put together and does a good job of exposing Richard Dawkins' casuistry as he blusters his way through an explanation of how something came from "nothing". His attempts to define "nothing" simply end up stuck in a mire of oxymoron as he effectively defines nothing as something; it reminds me of that task where a contestant is asked to eat a cream-bun without licking his lips.

Dawkins appeal to the sophisticated "nothing" of the physicists is to no avail because we well know that the physics concept of nothing is in fact something - namely, transcendent  physical laws which, algorithm like, control the flow of the configurations of space, time and matter. In any case those laws may be without meaning unless there is a pre-existing substrate on which they are reified and their operations realised; in short the laws of physics don't exist if they are not manifest on a substrate; substrate primary, laws secondary. But whatever; the object we are talking of here will be of considerable mathematical sophistication - we can agree on that, but to call  this sophisticated something "nothing" is an abuse of language. "Nothing" is the antithesis of sophistication.

The other dubious thought hinted at by Dawkins, is the idea that somehow "simplicity" is a lesser origins issue than complexity. However, in both cases an irreducible and kernel logical hiatus presents itself.

Richard Dawkins has really made an embarrassment of himself here. OK, I can be soft on atheism, but let's at least have some atheism with intellectual integrity please. My guess is that Richard Dawkins has heard about how matter-energy can come out of the void and has then drawn the wrong conclusion.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The James Moar Emails. Epistemology and God: Seeking God, Yes, But Finding Him?

"Speak to me God!"

My last post was about epistemology, a subject very pertinent to what follows.

I’m using this post as an opportunity to release this PDF document  (which can be downloaded) recording an email correspondence I had with somebody called James Moar who was attending my church at the time* (Circa 2011). James was having difficulties with his faith and his opening correspondence was very candid about this fact. His problem was basically epistemic: Does our experience of life justify a belief in God’s existence and our belief in His daily involvement in our lives? Is God just a fantasy object, a product and only a product of the human imagination? I felt that James’problems with the faith had an existential component in that it was sourced very much in his own particular experience or lack of experience of God. This opened the way for him to query the authenticity of Christian experience in general. In fact the last line of his first email went thus:

I'm beginning to think that Christianity is just a package of group behaviours and narrative weaving based on a narrow selection of anecdotes.

I had to agree that this observation by James was not only challenging but also had a lot of truth in it: In evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities one finds that otherwise fairly prosaic events, simply the cosmos doing business as usual, are interpreted using what appears to be very a intimate knowledge of the Divine mind. Oft times all these interpretations look to be very fanciful and arbitrary “spiritual spin”.

James appears to have been influenced by the impassioned evangelicals in as much as he was taking them at their word that God’s presence is very manifest and apparent. However, he was beginning to think that God’s presence is less manifest in the genuinely sensational than it is in sensational spiritual spin! That spin is capable of sensationalising even the most humdrum! It is no surprise then that James was looking for the authentic “in-yer-face” empirical evidence for God and not just melodramatic “spiritual spin”. The Christian experience, the evangelical Christian experience especially, with its baroque interpretative elaborations had begun to look to him like an all too human fabrication constructed on very shaky foundations.

I am afraid to say that all told I wasn't a lot of help to James; it goes without saying that I can’t provide “in-yer-face” spiritual experiences in order to fix an existential crisis. Also, I'm not sure how far he was prepared to move away from the hard, well pronounced and heavy lines of evangelicalism to the lighter touch of a broad brush impressionistic Christianity; my feeling was that for him it was evangelicalism or nothing. All I could do was point to some of the general features of the human predicament that theism addresses in a post-facto way. (See my last post on epistemology). Consequently, our discussion revolved around the validity of using an a priori theological epistemic rather than attempting to synthesise theology from basic experience a posteriori. A posteriorism, though, is very much in accord with James evangelical desire for some spiritual revelation, something which I could not address of course.

If we are going to find God we have to find God in the commonplace and not just in the paranormal.

* This correspondence has been published with permission.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Epistemic Notes.

Epistemology embraces everything.

ONE) Establishment Science, like the law courts, is a formal social institution that seeks successful explanation of the human predicament. But as with the courts, institutionalized science is epistemically hamstrung when it comes to many questions; like, e.g., the identity of Jack Ripper, or what the future holds. Although Jack the Ripper and the future have an ontological reality, their scientific intractability doesn't make them any less real. Nevertheless, in spite of these awkward ontologies lacking amenability to unequivocal scientific determination people can and do have rational opinions about both the identity of Jack the Ripper and the course of the future; although these opinions can’t make claim to being institutionally authoritative. Rationality, it seems, doesn't suddenly cut-off when institutionalized science ends. Instead there is a gradual fade out of rationality as we leave the formal proceedings of science behind and strike out into greater informality. Although there is no sudden obvious cut-off, we find that at the extreme ends of the spectrum the difference between rationality and irrationality becomes more pronounced; compare, for example spring extending and test tube precipitating science with the theories of David Ike. In between these extremes, however, there are vast grey areas of epistemically debatable territory.

TWO) The rationality spectrum is a consequence of a trade-off between rigour and epistemic progress and between criticism and imagination. Imagination fuelled theorizing, without the tempering effects of rigour and criticism, is a chancy hit and miss affair (mostly “miss” in fact), but on the other hand if we sacrifice the products of imagination to the stultifying effects of extreme critical scepticism epistemic progress comes to a standstill.  Somewhere a balance has to be maintained and achieving this balance is made all the more difficult by the fact that not all ontologies are equally amenable and accessible to our epistemic methods. The consequence is that in some disciplines a paucity of experiential protocols gives more latitude to the imagination.

THREE) The rational amenability of the ontologies we deal with differs and so also does just how cognitively primed we are to cope with what reality throws our way. By way of illustration: From a relative paucity of observation children quickly learn languages – this is because languages conform to the patterns that a child’s language instinct expects and therefore from a few observational clues they make fast progress in the learning of  languages. When a priori expectation and ontological rationality are well matched epistemic progress is fast. If our world as a whole has an a-priori rationality about it then relatively few observational clues may be sufficient for us to correctly infer the patterns of its ontology. In fact considering the progress that has been made in the physical sciences it is clear that there are aspects of our world that wholly fulfil our a-priori expectation of rationality. That the physical sciences have prospered is evidence of this rational fruitfulness.

FOUR) Ideally a theoretical narrative makes predictions: A track record of correct predictions increases the chances of a theory being right. However, as I've repeatedly said in this blog, predictive testing at will is not always an easy option with ontologies that have an open ended complex of variables and are relatively inaccessible to boot. For example, although it would be certainly wrong to say that history isn't testable, remoteness in time is variable that promotes a logical distance, a distance which can conflict with ease of testing. In the most difficult cases we may have little option but to retrospectively juggle our theoretical narratives with a given suite of post-facto experience in order to seek a “best fit” between the theory and the experiential protocols to hand  - “abuductive science” is, I think, the technical name. However, in the absence of formal cannons that define just what constitutes a “good fit”, then for complex open ended ontologies it is no surprise that the abductive process is subject to the foibles and irregularities of opinion. When the relatively simple ontologies of spring extending and test tube precipitating science are combined with our clearly primed cognitive ability we have a model of rational fruitless, which is in stark contrast to the complex ontologies, such as we find, say, in sociology and history.

FIVE) One frequently hears complaints that contentious theories (such as homoeopathy, for example) have “no supporting evidence”. Given that seldom do states of affairs have sharp enough cut-off criteria to warrant an absolute “no”, it is better in my opinion to talk about “insufficient evidence” rather that “no evidence”.  Even the most baroque notions, like say David Ike’s conspiracy theories, have evidences in the sense that a narrative, no matter how bizarre, will attempt to assimilate at least some agreed observations into its “explanatory” structure. What we really mean by “no evidence” is in fact whether there is a “good fit” between the narrative and a sufficient suite of experiential protocols.

SIX) If a theoretical narrative is at least a reasonable approximation to truth then that narrative will imply a set of likely expectations about experience. I'm not going to call these expectations “predictions” because in the general case they may be assimilated post-facto into the body of the theory rather than being predicted. Given that most grand theories embrace situations with an open ended number of adjustable variables, the degree of freedom entailed by these variables may so great as to permit a trivial fit to almost any experiential circumstance;  in effect the net the theory is providing has become so stretched that its ability to “catch” experience is simply down to a fortuitous “hit”.

SEVEN) Evidences don’t so much lead us in a logical and rigorous way to theories as theories lead us to evidences in the sense that we can see how the evidences follow if the theory is right. This relationship between theory and evidence can be expressed using the logical implication sign as below: (Where I use “!” to represent negation):

Theoretical Narrative => Evidence

Evidence !=> Theoretical Narrative

These relationships explain why it is difficult to make clear cut judgements as to just what is rational and what is not. The evidences in hand will be a relatively small set, but in contrast the ability of humanity to create narratives that embrace those evidences is open ended; the human imagination ensures that explanatory stories need suffer no such restriction and therefore being human ensures that there is always a risk of over theorizing, particularly with complex opened ended ontologies. Just because spring extending and test tube precipitating science deals with an ontology that favours high standards of “proof” it doesn't follow that other ontologies of greater complexity and less accessibility can emulate such standards of “proof”.

EIGHT) Is a rational, stable, logical universe a “proof” of God? No; in fact using the relationships above we can understand why not. The evidence of a logical stable universe doesn't imply God; any number of atheists can accept a-priori that the universe is stable, logical and comprehensible, and consequently reap the scientific rewards of this belief and yet remain atheist. “The rain falls on the just and unjust”. But for a theist with a traditional narrative of God, epistemic knowability is a fact that makes sense in the light of God’s providence. Ergo, we can move from theology to the evidence of a comprehensible universe but we can’t move with any rigour in the reverse direction; that is from cosmic comprehensibility to God. However, for the atheist epistemic comprehensibility, aside from seeming to be an inexplicable brute fact, ultimately has no absolute assurance. Therefore, if the atheist finds himself not secure in this brute fact he is then in danger of triggering a conflicting self-referencing loop and sliding into postmodern nihilism,

The unstable self-referencing loop that epistemology can become.