Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Premium on Prediction

In this post of last July I considered the question of why we find theories (or agents) that make successful predictions more believable than those that work as retrospective sense making structures. I've now released this post as a PDF. It can be accessed and downloaded from here or from the side bar.

Hands on predictions are risky: But we tend to believe those predictive agents that get it right.


We should disbelieve those like Harold Camping (left) whose predictions fail. Camping's predictions fell over more than once. The Watchtower's (Jehovah's Witnesses) predictions have failed many times; 1975 was just one of them. But people continue to believe these agents, so it seems that factors are at work other than a simple mathematical heuristic.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Breaking the First Law of Holes

The 1st Law of Holes: When you're in one, stop digging!

The North American “Intelligent Design” (sic) web site Uncommon Descent has a regular posting that is categorized as “news”. This series of posts, I think, is compiled by Denyse O’Leary; at least that’s going to be my working assumption here.

This post by O’leary involves a similar projection of her alter ego onto detractors that we find in a blog post by Biblical Literalist Jason Lisle . In both cases Lisle’s and O’Leary’s worst dreams about the efficacy of “natural forces” to act as a god substitute are set up as a straw man and then burnt at the stake. The fictitious evolutionists in whose mouths they thrust their words are actually their own selves.

Below I’ve taken some quotes from O’Leary’s post and commented on them.  It is well to remember that I’m not necessarily a committed to evolutionary mechanisms as currently understood and I would, in fact, classify myself as a ID creationist; but I would certainly not support the ineptitude of O’Leary's views. It is also well to remember that Christians who are part of the publicly funded academic establishment like Ken Miller and Francis Collins are O’Leary’s pet hate.

But there’s a big problem in loving both God and evolution. The premise of theistic evolution is incoherent. The “theistic” part connotes a creator God who knows what he wants to do and does it. The “evolution” part connotes a process that is random and in no need of supervision by any conscious agent because it is sufficient unto itself. So theistic evolution might be rephrased as “a system whereby God creates using a process that he cannot influence in any way and which has no need of him.” Huh?

My Comment:  Here, O’Leary is distorting the concept of evolution. As I've said so many times before, even assuming evolutionary theory as it is presently understood, it still follows that there is only a realistic chance of living structures being located by physical processes if the disordered agitations of thermodynamics are sufficiently constrained: So, whilst one might maintain that there is no “guidance” of the random walk behind thermodynamic diffusion (a diffusion which gives evolution its “search energy”), this diffusion must work within sufficiently narrow probability envelopes for it to have a realistic chance of “discovering” anything (A moot point in my view). If the known laws of physics determine those envelopes (the implicit assumption of evolutionary theory) then they constitute a transcendent object controlling the flow of events in time. This is exactly the opposite of O’Leary’s misleading claim that evolution is a process needing no supervision; evolution is effectively being supervised everywhere and everywhen by physical constraints. O’Leary is simply repeating the error of deism and then pinning that error onto to those Christian scientists she despises.

If the theistic evolutionist responds, “Oh I don’t mean that kind of evolution. I mean the kind of evolution which is guided by God to fulfill his purposes,” then the true evolutionist will reply, “Well, that’s no kind of evolution. That’s some sort of creation scenario and you have no right to use the evolution word.”
“But!,” protests the theistic evolutionist, “I want you to know that I have nothing to do with those Intelligent Design idiots. I’m one of you! I’m one of the smart guys who is up on science, not some primitive religious fanatic. I truly do believe that Darwin got it right and random mutation coupled with natural selection is all there is. All I’m saying is that God uses that process to create all the living things on Earth.”

My Comment: The so-called “true evolutionist” O’Leary speaks of here is her alter ego and therefore she is arguing against her own distorted concept of evolution, a concept which she wrongly portrays as an uncontrolled process. Rejecting the incoherent version of evolution that O’Leary stands for doesn't necessarily mean that one is wanting align one’s self with the smart guys who are up on science – rather it is more likely to be a case of, as she puts it, wanting to have nothing to do with those intelligent design idiots like O’Leary.

Anyway, here’s a little bit more from O’Leary’s alter ego:

“Oh brother,” says the true evolutionist, “You just don’t get it do you? As soon as you toss God into the equation you blow evolution to smithereens and reveal yourself as exactly what you say you aren’t—a religious nut case. Evolution doesn’t need god, or goals, or interference by any intelligent agent. All evolution needs is a steady supply of random mistakes and the process of elimination called natural selection. That will get you to any form of life no matter how complex. It’s beautiful and you’re just too stupid to understand that its self-sufficiency IS its beauty. Now get lost. You bore me.”
As I’ve played out this imaginary dialogue, I hope I’ve made clear that the last thing a theistic evolutionist wants is to be invited into the ID camp.

My Comment: Here we go again. O'Leary’s alter ego is imagining a process capable of generating life and tells us that it is self-sufficient.  O'Leary's alter-ego threatens to trivialize the production of life by caricaturing it as a process of “mistake elimination” that needs only trivial computational resources. She fails to see that the selection process would require far from trivial controlling physical algorithms. She is much too stupid to understand that evolution is dependent on very particular and highly sophisticated conditions being contrived. Therefore I'm not in the least surprised that the last thing theistic evolutionists like Miller or Collins would want, would be to be invited into the kind of camp that O’Leary stands for; one could hardly blame them if they repeated O’Leary’s words back to her: Get lost. You bore me.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Industrialisation and Christianity

Smoke Stack World.

I added the following comment to an article on Network Norwich and Norflok to an article by James Knight  about capitalism, science and Christianity. For the article see here.

I think you are on an important tack here James. Yes, we really do need to get a perspective on the fact that industrialization started about 1750 years after the birth of Christ. There were probably some significant precursors prior to 1750 like the breakup of the feudal system and the renaissance, possibly both related to the Back Death. Also, in the 1600s England, (the mother of commercialization and industrialization) started to experience a shift in its zeitgeist in favour of the rational. Not only that, it was a century when the money making middle classes clashed with the medieval rearguard in the form of the Stuart dynasty.  These money makers went on to innovate and subsidize mechanization. Yes, commercialism, (that is sheer profiteering) is implicated as one of the motivators of a life enhancing bread and butter technology and research base (although often very cutting edge science is done for its imaginative rewards without an eye on profit).  But having said that, it is clear many devout Protestants were in the thick of the social and technological innovations during industrialization, with their faith very much modulating their behavior.

It may well be that the scientific epistemic whereby theory is tested against experience was in part released by the Reformation with its emphasis on testing theology against one’s personal reading of Biblical texts. This is ironic because today’s Biblical literalists have a pathological view of science, a distortion that depends on an arbitrary demarcation between historical and “observational” (sic) science.. Since everything, including Biblical information, arrives at our “observational” doorstep via signalling it follows that in the final analysis, all science is bound up to a greater or lesser extent with history. The upshot is that the Biblical literalists of the 1960s “YEC reformation” are forced to compromise on the rational readability of our world, a compromise which ultimately undermines God’s creative integrity. (Caveat: None of this is to say that I’m necessarily committed to the mechanisms of evolutionary change as they are currently understood)

By and large contemporary evangelical Young Earthism only goes as far back as the 1960s “YEC reformation”, as in fact fundamentalist theme park manager Ken Ham will admit*. Moreover, he also admits that in spite of this “reformation” Young Earthism is very much a minority amongst high achieving academic Christians and Christian colleges – even in America. That I think is good news.
*Footnote: There are exceptions such as Adventist George McCready Price whose work was referenced by the 1960s Biblical literalists. It is an intriguing fact that nearly one hundred years before the "YEC reformation" an Adventist was at the bottom of the JW excursion into literal eschatology and date fixing.

In England industrialisation followed the necessary precursor of commercialisation. Commercialisation may be connected with the social mobility of the Anglo Saxon social ethos. But we mustn't forget the suffering and injustice caused by big social shifts:

Pre nineteenth century Norwich was a big producer of textiles, but it lost out to the cities that used power spinning and weaving such as we see in factories like this. Fanciful perhaps, but the spinning bank above reminds me of Turing's Bombe:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Western Dualism in the North American Intelligent Design Community. Part 1

(Picture from

At the recent Vulnerable Mission conference at Norwich Central Baptist Church (See here for details) I presented a paper which compared and contrasted Western dualism with rural African monism. This paper will in due course be made available.  In the meantime, as an example of Western dualism, I present below the first part of a case study. This case study is based on a post by North American IDist Vincent J Torley which appeared on the “Intelligent Design” (sic) blog Uncommon Descent.

In his post Torley defends his version of Intelligent Design against criticism by Orthodox theologian David Hart. In a previous post by Torley we discover that Hart has thrown out two blanket criticisms of Intelligent Design. These are:
a) ID depends on “gaps” in the natural order  
b) ID also posits a part time God who tinkers on and off with creation.
I can’t answer for Hart, who in any case appears to exclusively (and wrongly) identify the kind of views that Torley typically represents as Intelligent Design - in fact so does Torley himself. This is Torley’s first big mistake: As I once pointed out Christian physicist John Polkinghorne would, if pushed, also claim to be an intelligent design creationist and yet like myself he is loath to align his views with the category of ID that many North American evangelicals promote. However, Hart nevertheless raises criticisms that are similar to my own and this consequently draws Torley out, exposing his dualist philosophy, a philosophy which embeds the false folk dichotomy that can be expressed as:  Either God did it or  Natural forces did it!

Below I’ve taken several quotes from Torley’s long post and point out where I feel his categories are going awry.

Let’s begin with a definition. In its broadest sense, the theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain empirically observable features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and that this intelligent cause can be shown to be the best explanation by applying the scientific method in order to rule out rival explanations, such as chance and/or necessity. (I assume that Dr. Hart is thoroughly familiar with Professor Dembski’s explanatory filter, so I won’t elaborate further.)

My Comment: Straightaway Torley is contrasting ID over and against “Law and Disorder” (Law and Disorder – what Torley inappropriately refers to as “chance and necessity”) by declaring them as rival explanations. (See my highlight in the quote from Torley). Dembki’s explanatory filter is partly if not fully to blame here because it polarizes apart Intelligence and Law & Disorder into two rival categories of explanation. Instead L&D should be included in the set of observable features (sic)  that are used to decide whether a meta-intelligence is to be invoked to make sense of those features. Dembki’s filter does work with human and alien intelligence but even here it is arguable that at the most fundamental level it breaks down: If one is an atheist and believes L&D are the primary reality then one is likely to believe that intelligence is only a secondary cause which in turn is itself a product of L&D. So, in short, Torley is already paving the way for a “God did it vs natural forces did it” shoot-out. His polarised categories invite the contrary belief that L&D are primary and not secondary.  Torley should be framing the question not as a choice between God and natural processes but rather as a question of whether the cosmos has features, features which are inclusive of L&D, which connote to us an all-embracing primary creative intelligence.

One obvious objection is that such a Deity might be nothing more than a mere Demiurge, who imposes forms on the cosmos but does not conserve it in existence. But if one could show that the features of the cosmos which indicate a Designer are not merely incidental but essential or defining properties of the cosmos, then it would follow that the cosmos could not exist without those features – in which case, the Designer Who is responsible for those features is also responsible for keeping the cosmos in being……
……So it should certainly be possible for us to determine which properties are its defining properties, and scientifically investigate whether these properties show signs of having been designed. An affirmative answer would mean that the Designer doesn’t merely tinker with the cosmos, but rather, gives it its very identity, and makes it what it is. (Let me add in passing that like many Scholastic philosophers, I consider the notion of a “pure passive potency” underlying all forms to be utterly unintelligible: like Suarez, I hold that even prime matter has a form of some sort.) Hence I see no reason in principle why cosmological Intelligent Design could not take us to a Deity Who maintains the world in being, as opposed to a mere Demiurge who does nothing more than impose his designs on a pre-existing cosmos. Of course, the argument for such a Deity would need to be fleshed out in a mathematically and scientifically rigorous fashion, which is something that has yet to be done.

My Comment: The ID community that Torley represents has only got itself to blame for this concept of the demiurge rearing its ugly head. If you are going to use an explanatory filter which explicitly sets up L&D and God intelligence as two rival explanations then it is a very natural inference that God is a being who works within the natural order as would a demiurge, rather than transcends it If, as Torley puts it, an intelligent cause is a rival explanation to natural forces then this is not at all conducive to the view that this intelligence is active in maintaining (presumably creating) those forces! Torley’s insistence on setting up God as a rival explanation to "natural explanations" leads to a deep intuitive paradox in his theology. As Hart's reaction shows, interpreting the North American ID God as akin to a demiurge is a very easy step to take.

But Dr. Carroll might reply that if naturalism explains the world more parsimoniously than what he calls “the God hypothesis,” then we may provisionally conclude, as a working hypothesis, that naturalism is true. Carroll also contends – and here, I think, he is on shaky ground – that simpler explanations are inherently more likely to be true, other things being equal. On this logic, then, even if we cannot know that naturalism is true, we might reasonably judge it to be likely, or probable.

My comment: Here we see Torley interpreting atheist physicist Sean Carroll to be a user of the same categories as himself, that is the naturalism vs. God hypothesis dichotomy. I can’t speak for Carroll of course, but it is conceivable that one may accept in its entirety the kind of “naturalistic” account of the cosmos offered by Carroll and yet at the same time be an intelligent design creationist. How is this? This is because theism, in its most general form, effectively adds on another layer of metaphysical structure in order to purportedly explain these nomological facts (to use the very words of Sean Carroll as quoted by Torley). That is, theism doesn't necessarily compete with naturalistic histories and processes but rather takes the natural order and embeds it in a higher level theological narrative. Of course, it goes without saying that for Sean Carroll this is, “an unnecessary complication” (quoting Carroll) and so he leaves it rather than takes it. I am not here to discuss Carroll’s views but instead wish to point out the difference between theism as an all-embracing meta-narrative that takes explanation to a whole new level and Torley’s take on theism whereby he habitually perceives “naturalism” as a rival of explanation to his homunculus intelligent design paradigm.  Where Torley has gone wrong is that instead of proposing God intelligence as a competing narrative to natural forces he should be proposing it as a meta narrative which embeds the scientific account of “natural forces”.

Further on in his post Torley quotes Thomas Aquinas:

[D]ivine power can sometimes produce an effect, without prejudice to its providence, apart from the order implanted in natural things by God. In fact, He does this at times to manifest His power. For it can be manifested in no better way, that the whole of nature is subject to the divine will, than by the fact that sometimes He does something outside the order of nature. Indeed, this makes it evident that the order of things has proceeded from Him, not by natural necessity, but by free will.

My Comment: Here Aquinas is of course talking about the miraculous as a discontinuity in the flow of “normalcy”. Now, I’m not going to argue against miracles, but interestingly Torley sees this quote through his polarizing lens:

Here, Aquinas says that God’s power and voluntary agency “can be manifested in no better way … than by the fact that He sometimes does something outside the order of nature.” I conclude that he would have had no qualms whatsoever about appealing to effects that require a supernatural Cause, in order to convince skeptics of God’s existence. The question which then arises is: are there any scientifically observable occurrences within the natural world, which point to its having a supernatural Cause?

My Comment: So Torley is looking for the discontinuities of the miraculous as pointers to the supernatural; fair enough, as we can’t rule out occasional miracles, but what if Torley fails to find them? Would that mean everything is “natural” and therefore there is no supernatural God? These thoughts flow very naturally from Torley’s dualistic thinking which has the effect of setting the supernatural in conflict with the natural.
Torley quotes Hart:

…[T]hose who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design… have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name ‘God’ to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek…

My Comment: This argument by Hart follows if the role of God is one of being an explanatory stopgap; that is, as an explanation to fill the gaps not currently covered by Law and Disorder explanations. This God-of-the-gaps God is indeed in danger of being explained away. The fact that the North American ID community have staked so much on the idea that Law and Disorder are in principle insufficient to generate life means that their role for God faces this threat. But having said that Hart doesn’t tell us that if science should ever be in the position of providing a complete L&D description of nature, then the properties and qualities of the cosmos would include some very extraordinary laws; those laws are extraordinary by virtue of the computational complexity needed to locate a suite of laws capable of generating life in what is in fact a short algorithmic time. The upshot is that this still flags an intelligent design alert, albeit at the meta level rather than the competing alternative explanation level proposed by Torley.

At some stage, we reach an ultimate mathematical framework which explains how the multiverse works. If even this framework exhibits features which indicate design, then the design must be an essential feature of the cosmos, rather than a merely incidental one.

My Comment: I’m inclined to agree with Torley here: My main difference with Torley and his de-facto ID community is that they are staking too much on a belief that an L&D physical regime is in principle incapable of generating life, a belief which has the knock-on-effect of setting God against his own physical regime.
But having said I agree with Torley that attempts to press the L&D paradigm further by trying to explain our own L&D physical regime in terms of a higher level L&D regime (such as a multiverse) simply leads to a turtles all the way down regress.. There is no way in which the universe can be explained with trivial truisms even if one resorts to multiverse theory. Whichever way one tries to skin it, peculiar and contingent conditions have to be assumed as a starting point in one’s theory. So, in as much as we are faced with the inescapable truism that our theories of the cosmos will always start with non-trivial conditions this will invite a design meta-narrative, and in this respect I would certainly agree with Torley. (Ref: See here and here).

Torley quotes Hart as follows:

For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, God creates the order of nature by infusing the things of the universe with the wonderful power of moving themselves toward determinate ends; he uses the analogy of a shipwright able to endow timbers with the power into develop in to a ship without external intervention.

My Comment: To me this is at odds with what Hart has already said; namely that one can’t appeal to this or that particular cosmic feature or property as suggesting a need for a design meta narrative. In fact here Hart seems to be appealing to the observed fruitfulness of the physical regime to generate life as evidence of God’s work, which to me looks like a design feature prompting a design meta narrative! This paradox may have arisen because Hart, like other Westerners such as Torley, have two distinct categories when they should have one; that is Hart, like Torley sees the power of God in contradistinction to the innate power of nature.
However, Hart tries to square the circle by suggesting that this innate natural power has been outsourced to nature by God himself. This, I suppose, is better than Torley who, like the rest of his ID community sees the power nature as a rival explanation to God. But somehow Hart’s view still feels a little wrong. If nature is sufficiently endowed to generate life it would be a product of the patterns imposed by the cosmic L&D regime that run it. That L&D regime doesn’t look to me like some innate animistic power because this regime is a statement of pattern rather than innate power and has more the character of a transcendent object controlling nature. To me this is suggestive of God’s ever present immanent power rather an innate “natural” power. Perhaps I’m making too fine a distinction, here! But be that as it may, it remains clear to me that Torley and his Christian subculture are promoting a problematic paradigm, as we shall continue to see.

…to be continued

50 Years Ago: The Kennedy Assassination


Thursday, November 07, 2013

Taking Science For a Fun Ride

For this guy it's a laugh-a-minute at the Creation Museum

More than one critic of Biblical Literalism has referred to Ken Ham as a clown.  Clown or not it would help the Christian cause if Ken stopped clowning with science.  For instance take this priceless quote by Ken:

But what Dawkins doesn’t seem to realize is that there is a difference between observational (operational) science—which is testable and repeatable—and historical science—which can’t be proven. For instance, humans can use measuring tools in the present to measure the width of North America—they can then do it again and again—repeating the measurement in the present. That’s observational science.
But the same humans cannot go and measure the age of the earth in the same sort of way. One has to use a process that changes with time and assume many things about the past (and such assumptions could be very wrong) to try to attempt to age date the rock—that’s historical science.
Biblical creation falls into the category of historical science, and so does Dawkins’s belief in evolution! Neither can be proven. They’re both systems of interpreting the evidence in front of us.

I’ll deal with this misrepresentation of science when I have more time to resume my Mangling Science Series. In so successfully deceiving himself  Ken Ham has taken many epistemically insecure and scientifically challenged Christians along with him.  But the good news is that anti-science Biblical Literalism is, even according to Ken Ham himself, on the wane:

In this day and age, more and more pastors, church leaders, and Bible scholars are choosing either not to take a stand on Genesis or to teach some form of evolution and millions of years.