Wednesday, December 31, 2014

People in (Epistemic) Glass Houses…..

This post by “News” (= Denise O’Leary) on Uncommon Descent raises questions about the nature of scientific epistemology. The redoubtable Ms. O’Leary starts with some quotes and then comments on them. Below I reproduce the article along with my own interleaved comments.

Breaking: Article in Nature defends integrity of physics against multiverse, string theory
December 18, 2014
Posted by News under CosmologyIntelligent DesignNews
“Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics” by George Ellis and Joe Silk,” Nature, open access:
This year, debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue — explicitly — that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical. We disagree. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.

My Comment: This kind of epistemic manoeuvring is, to my mind a) forced on us in sciences that investigate complex “high level” and/or less than accessible objects such as we find in sociology or world view synthesis b)  not as worrying as the authors of this quote think as it is necessarily widespread and may be little different for physics at the high end. It would be very nice if all theories could be predictively tested against experiential protocols, but the fact is testing at will is not always an option in the face of epistemic intractability; we may have to fall back on trying to assess just how well the theory makes post-facto sense of the data samples to hand. Moreover, "falsifiability" provides no sharply defined criterion for demarcating "good" or "proper" science, because no theory is absolutely falsifiable; we can always, with a bit of imagination, appeal to hidden adjustable variables in order to “explain” away anomalies, although this kind of special pleading, if used in quantity to prop up a failing theory, can start to look a little contrived; multiplication of variables, if reality is really that complex, considerably reduces the chance of us hitting the right combination of variables. It is no surprise then that everybody hopes that Occam’s heuristic is right, a heuristic that works on the presupposition that the world is rational and simple, with few variables and therefore with less opportunity to get things wrong!

Earlier this year, championing the multiverse and the many-worlds hypothesis, Carroll dismissed Popper’s falsifiability criterion as a “blunt instrument” (see He offered two other requirements: a scientific theory should be “definite” and “empirical”. By definite, Carroll means that the theory says “something clear and unambiguous about how reality functions”. By empirical, he agrees with the customary definition that a theory should be judged a success or failure by its ability to explain the data.
He argues that inaccessible domains can have a “dramatic effect” in our cosmic back-yard, explaining why the cosmological constant is so small in the part we see. But in multiverse theory, that explanation could be given no matter what astronomers observe. All possible combinations of cosmological parameters would exist somewhere, and the theory has many variables that can be tweaked. Other theories, such as unimodular gravity, a modified version of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, can also explain why the cosmological constant is not huge.
Some people have devised forms of multiverse theory that are susceptible to tests: physicist Leonard Susskind’s version can be falsified if negative spatial curvature of the Universe is ever demonstrated. But such a finding would prove nothing about the many other versions. Fundamentally, the multiverse explanation relies on string theory, which is as yet unverified, and on speculative mechanisms for realizing different physics in different sister universes. It is not, in our opinion, robust, let alone testable.

My Comment:  Carroll is implicitly admitting that some of these exotic physical theories are not easily testable at will, although they do in his opinion make sense of accepted “empirical” evidence. He therefore advocates relaxing the requirement that a theory should make testable predictions, but demands that a theory at least make unambiguous empirical post-dictions about our cosmos. As I have said many times in this blog some ontologies are a lot less epistemically tractable than others, (That would certainly apply to multiverse ideas for example) and this entails these ontologies being less amenable to data sampling. I have no particular objection to Carroll’s wanting to relax the epistemic standard so long as he acknowledges the risks and the loss of empirical authority. Moreover, if Carroll has at last realised that some ontologies are less empirically responsive than others he ought to also realise that he has stumbled upon a sliding scale that can be pushed even further. Viz: Some theoretical objects, particularly in the social and historical sciences, don’t have an unambiguous connection with observational protocols. but make probabilistic post dictions.  So, on balance I’ve no complaints about Carroll’s epistemic procedure provided he doesn’t start pushing it as part of the authoritative status quo that gives him a pretext to kick dissenters into line.
But the redoubtable Denise is less sympathetic:

No wonder some would like to abandon testability for elegance, and reality for fairy tales.
Unfortunately, the plea ends on a somewhat tinny note,
“The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable. Only then can we defend science from attack.”
Guys, listen (yes, you George Ellis and you Joe Silk, it is you we are looking at): The problem really isn’t attacks from outside. Quit fooling yourselves.
The problem is entirely within. If physicists want to join the many and various advocates of self-expression who do not depend on rigorous examination of evidence to validate their assertions, that is a choice physicists make.
No one forces that choice on physicists. But they are free to make it.
It sounds as though some of your colleagues have been making just such choices, and defending their choices by asking for exemption from traditional standards. It’s your profession’s call to determine whether their wishes/demands can be accommodated simply to prop up whatever rickety theoretical structures they have built.
But if your profession does choose to accommodate, two things:
1. Physics becomes just another player in a culture war, with no more genuinely respectable claims for attention than the demands we hear daily from grievance warriors that their version of events be accepted without cavil as Truth. You could find yourselves currying favour with politicians, as an identity group, for your version of nature versus that of magical thinking. Is that really what you want?
2. If so, just remember, no one did that to you. You did it to yourselves.
See also: The bill arrives for cosmology’s free lunch

My Comment: …but she’s probably right in her drift: The kind of “high level” barely accessible ontologies Carroll is proposing lose something of their empirical authority and have more the flavour of a world view synthesis. They therefore should not be pushed as logically obliging “Truth” or “fact”; that’s the sort of thing fundamentalists do. Conversely, I’m sure Denise realises that her ID community also have a science that is not good at making unambiguous predictions, and is better regarded as a post-facto quasi-archaeological sense making proposal. So, all in all there are lessons in mutual understanding here for both Denise O’Leary and Sean Carroll.

But when it comes to foisting on people world views that masquerade as “Truth”, I avoid communities and cultures that are predatory and use "moral" duress, group pressure and worse to persuade: Crowds of people with a highly uniform world view have always given me the creeps.

The voice of the crowd
is nothing but loud;
the nod and the wink
supports a group think.
It may be baloney.
Beware the crony.

Some relevant links:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Melencolia I Part 5: Creating Information

The dream goes on!

The latest paper in my Melencolia I series can be obtained here . I reproduce the introduction to this paper below:

As we saw in the previous post of this series, there is a class of configurations, a class I called “complex”, with configuration sizes less than the logarithm of the time needed to generate them and therefore they cannot be generated in practical times with “conserved” parallel deterministic processing. In this paper I develop a very similar looking relationship for non-deterministic “conserved” parallel processing. By “conserved” I mean computations that use fixed resources in terms of processor power (Although I assume unlimited amounts of memory and time are available).  This conclusion leads onto to a brief consideration of “non-conserved” processing and a proposal that non-conserved processing is one of the conditions of intelligent activity.

I have increasing doubts that classical evolution, which plods along with a classical form of conserved parallel processing, has the efficacy to generate and select life. In contrast I have an increasing conviction that somehow evolution is a process that exploits what appears to be the potentially available expanding parallelism of quantum mechanics. And moreover, as I hope to explore in later posts, the requisite criteria by which configurations are selected from the rapidly generated configurations of expanding parallelism, turns a mindless imperative process into an intentional declarative process.

Links to the previous posts in this series:

Also relevant:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mangling Science Part 5: Two Kinds of Science?.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is 20 odd million light years away. With Jason Lisle’s AiG published ASC model in mind does its study classify as observational science in the present or historical science? Or does it really matter? Don't ask Ken Ham; there is little chance that this fundamentalist will understand that in science the time coordinate doesn't have a fundamental significance; scientific epistemology is an attempt to get data samples about logical structures for which time may be thought of as just one coordinate.

 Below I have published a blog post by Fundamentalist Ken Ham where once again he tries to explain to himself why he is not being anti-science in rejecting historical science. It all swings on Ham attempting to maintain that there is a sharp distinction between "observational" (sic) and historical science. As I have said before in this series this distinction can’t be made because all science is at once both historical and observational. This is not to say, however, that all science is on an equal footing in terms of its observational rigor. The objects science deals with vary in their logical distance from observational protocols and the number of observational samples gathered supporting these quasi-conjectured objects. If Ham had his head screwed on properly he would simply maintain that some scientific objects have a more tenuous basis in accepted observational protocols than others. What the scientifically naive Ham is trying to prove to himself is that there is a fundamental difference in quality between "observational" and historical sciences that provides him with a pretext for writing off historical science as “unobservable”. This is all very typical of the fundamentalist mentality which tends to think in black and white dichotomies anyway. I caught Ham trying a similar trick with his “mature” creation theory where he has a need to decide what objects are permitted to show evidence of a bogus history and those that aren't – that is, the YEC needs to try and decide when and when not to apply the omphalos hypothesis. (See my Beyond our Ken series – links at the end of this post).

Around the Twist World with Ken Ham

ShareThis Published on December 5, 2014 in Current Issues in the World.

I recently saw something in Discovery News that perfectly highlights the difference between observational and historical science.

Common Tenrec (Tenrec ecaudatus). By John Mather (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A study has shown that tenrecs, hedgehog-looking creatures, have an amazing ability to hibernate (observational science) so the scientists inferred that the tenrecs must have hibernated through the dinosaur extinction (historical science)! As I’ve said many times previously, there are two different kinds of science. Observational science deals with the present and is observable, repeatable, and testable. It’s what produces our technology and our medical innovations. Creationists and evolutionists can both agree on this kind of science. Now, historical science deals with the past. It is not testable, repeatable or observable. What you think about historical science is based on your starting point. Do you begin with God’s Word or man’s ideas? Well, I would like to show you how to recognize the difference between these kinds of sciences by looking at this news item that is reporting a scientific study.

My Comment: Notice straight away that this science dunce is imposing a dichotomy on the situation. He thinks that “observational science deals with the present and is observable, repeatable, and testable” whereas “….historical science deals with the past. It is not testable, repeatable or observable”.  It seems well beyond Ken Ham’s mentality to make the fine distinctions needed to understand that in an absolute sense nothing is observable and repeatable and everything is subject to “your starting point”.  Even when testing the present tense continuous objects of physics we can never exactly reproduce test conditions and the test is therefore subject to one’s starting point in terms of fundamental assumptions about the rationality, uniformity and epistemic integrity of nature. Moreover, given that observational protocols quickly pass into history Ken’s so-called “observational science” is bound up with history.  And yet in a relative sense a wide class of objects, including historical objects, are all subject to observation and repeatable tests in as much as, for example, we can go back to check and reinterpret documents and fossils and perhaps even find new documents and fossils. In fact as a rule all science depends on us interpreting signals sent to us from the past; documents and fossils are an example of such signals.

I’d agree with Ken that a lot depends on one’s a priori world view. E.g. one’s view about very fundamental and foundational stuff like whether or not one considers the world to be rational, readable and to have epistemic integrity. But as a hardened heretic hunting fundamentalist Ham ups-the-ante by raising his far less fundamental opinions about Biblical interpretation to the level of fundamental and unreviewable authority. It is on this basis that Ham does his heresy testing: “Do you begin with God’s Word or man’s ideas?” He hasn’t spotted the abstraction that “God’s Word” is a signal and as such must be interpreted.

Observational Science
According to Discovery News, radio transmitters with body temperature loggers were strapped onto 15 tenrecs for a scientific study on hibernation. The tenrecs were then released back into the wilds of Madagascar. The scientists involved learned some interesting things about tenrec hibernation and body temperature. For example, one of the male tenrecs hibernated for nine months with no ill side effects! According to the news report, the information about hibernation from this study, as well as a similar one being done in the United States, “could one day allow researchers to better mitigate the effects of induced medical comas and the ‘hypogravity and/or inactivity’ that would occur during a lengthy trip through space.”
Now, everything from the study so far is observational science based on directly observable, testable, repeatable studies. A creationist or an evolutionist could have done the study and obtained the same data, and either scientist could apply the data to medicine or space travel. But the study then does a huge leap from observational evidence to the unobserved past. They switch from observational science to historical science. And it’s this switch that people need to learn to recognize, as evolutionists do the same sort of switch when talking about origins!
My Comment: This is a case where the tenrec study provided a replete set of data samples about the objects under scrutiny. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is about “direct observation” as Ham would have it. Scientists clearly did not directly observe tenrecs but were engaged in the interpretation of signals sent by them. And no, fundamentalists don’t necessarily agree about “observational” science even with other fundamentalists: Viz: Ken Ham would certainly disagree with fundamentalist Gerardus Bouw about the “observational” science that leads Bouw to propound geocentric theories. And in turn Bouw would disagree with the late fundamentalist Charles K Johnson whose science of “appearances” lead him to propound flat Earth theories. At the most abstracted level there is only one kind of science: Viz: the observed signal and the interpretation of the text it is sending us.
The past is observable in as much as it sends us signals that ultimately result in observational protocols; as does everything else. True, we may not have as many signals as we like returning to us and they may have been a long time in the travelling, but they are observations none the less. Ken Ham just doesn’t seem able to make this theoretical abstraction about signals being the medium of all observation. It is ironic that it was his AiG organization that first published Jason Lisle’s ASC model of the cosmos, a model that so blatantly raises questions about the nature of signaling and by implication just what is “the present” and what is “the past”! But this sort of stuff is well beyond our Ken not to mention his audience of admiring and less than critical followers.

Historical Science
Again, the observational evidence showed that tenrecs have an amazing ability to hibernate (observational science). But the scientists then took the evidence beyond observational science to infer that tenrecs must have hibernated through the dinosaur extinction (supposedly millions of years ago) and that’s how mammals survived to evolve into other mammal species (historical science). Supposedly, dinosaurs “‘intensely suppressed, dominated and bullied’ early mammals, which ‘could never get big in size because then they would not have been able to hide effectively during the day.’ This presumed pressure, combined with seasonally limited resources and other factors ‘may have armed modern mammals with the useful capacity to metabolically switch off.’” It is claimed. So, tenrec ancestors apparently evolved the ability to hibernate for long periods of time because of competition with dinosaurs. And they just happened to be lucky enough to hibernate at the right time to avoid extinction. Now, this is all historical science, and creationists and evolutionists would (quite obviously) disagree here. This jump from the observable hibernation periods of tenrecs to the unobservable supposed dinosaur extinction event is based, not on observational evidence, but on imagination. The study itself shows nothing about supposed tenrec ancestors and the supposed dinosaur age millions of years ago!
Interestingly enough, according to the lead author of the study, “the common tenrec [is] a living Cretaceous fossil, a living critter that has retained the physiological characteristics of our common placental ancestor.” In other words, tenrecs basically haven’t changed since their appearance in the fossil record. The evolution isn’t in the fossils or the tenrecs—it’s in the imaginations of scientists!
My Comment: No!... this evolutionary hypothesis about tenrecs is not in principle beyond observational science because the past sends us signals such as historical documents, research papers, archaeology, fossils, light rays etc. But what I would concede is that in this case the signals are highly attenuated, the observational protocols few and far between and perhaps the gaps filled in with a fair amount of speculation. You see, the issue is not to do with the past per se, but with the comprehensiveness of the sample of observational protocols and their logical distance in terms of adjustable variables from the putative objects they allegedly reveal. This is not an issue of a fundamental distinction in science, but a question of degree of observational support for a hypothesis; true, we can sometimes be tempted to join very few dots with very free format speculation and elaboration.
But Ham being a fundamentalist thinks habitually in dichotomies and not in degrees. Ham wants to portray himself as science friendly and give a pretext based on his dichotomized thinking to justify to himself  his science hostility and scientific ineptitude. He cannot accept that there is a uniformity of principle at stake with all science, historical and otherwise; namely, the interpretation of the signals sent to us from the cosmos near and far. It is simply beyond the mentality of this man to understand the paradox that relatively speaking just about everything is observational and repeatable and yet in an absolute sense nothing is observational and repeatable!


What Does the Bible Say?
Now, the Bible’s account of origins would mean the tenrec kind was created on Day 6, to reproduce after their kind. Tenrecs produce tenrecs (interestingly enough, in nature we see tenrecs producing only tenrecs)! God created animals to fill the earth, so He placed in their DNA the information they would need to produce the wide variety within a kind that we see today so that they would be able to survive as the environment changes. The incredible variety of tenrec species displays God’s care and wisdom in equipping them with the information they needed to fill many niches in the different environments found on Madagascar and in Africa. One of these features is the ability of some tenrec species to hibernate for long periods of time. So this incredible ability to hibernate is just one more example of God’s care for His creatures.
As you read through science news, I encourage you to be discerning, part of which involves learning how to separate observational science from historical science.
In the debate with Bill Nye, I took time to explain the difference between historical and observational science, as once people understand this, they recognize that molecules-to-man evolution is a belief system.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
My Comment: I suspect that Ken’s comments about “Information” are based on the North American taste for a God-of-Gaps theology of evolution. It would simply be too much to expect Ham to attempt to think round these categories to advanced ideas about information generation, so I can’t be too hard on him here. Notice, however, that his main agenda is to impose on his followers his fundamentalist views about a fundamental division in science based on a bogus distinction between observational and historical science. However, I would agree that any signal interpretation is influenced and perhaps even based on a priori belief systems – it’s just that some belief systems, for a variety of socio-psychological reasons, are far more elaborated, baroque, entrenched, authoritarian and unreviewable than others; know what I mean?
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying that Ken Ham will be less of an embarrassment to Christians.

Relevant Links
Mangling Science Series

Beyond Our Ken Series

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A note on the limitations of Dembski’s Conservation of Information

"Conservation of Information" ideas may appeal to "God of the Gaps" thinkers..

Although Intelligent Design Guru William Dembski’s work on the Conservation of Information is, I believe,  entirely correct, the definition of “information” he uses results in his work failing to capture vital aspects of what we would informally associate with the term “information”. The definition of information as used by Dembski can be found in this web site article:
Criticisms I would make of the applicability of Dembski’s ideas are:

ONE: Dembski uses the concept of information as  “– log p”, where p is the probability of an event. From this definition it follows that improbability entails high information. But this measure of information, although fine for the event-centric world of communication is not uniquely sensitive to the quantity of information implicit in a static configuration. The value “p” could be the probability of a simple single event or it could be the product of a complex configuration of independent events such that p = P1 x P2 x P3Pi ….etc. where Pi is the probability of the ith event; in short “high information” in Dembski’s sense doesn't necessarily entail a complex configuration. One way of quantifying the complex information in a configuration is to define it as the shortest compressed string that will describe the configuration in question. Wiki has a similar criticism of Dembski’s use of the term “information”: See here:

TWO: Probability is a function of our level of knowledge and therefore probability changes with knowledge; e.g. if we have perfect knowledge about a complex configuration this entails a configuration probability of 1; that is, a known configuration has a probability of 1 therefore no information. This conclusion makes sense if we are thinking about communication, that is about receiving and registering signals; in this context the reason why a known configuration no longer contains information is because once it is known it is no longer informative. But if this signal oriented concept of information is pressed into the cause of measuring configurational information it tempts some silly conclusions: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that given the size of the visible cosmos along with its constraining physical regime, the probability of life being generated is nearly 1. This quasi determinism implies that life contains next to no information as, of course, a probability of 1 entails zero information. I’ve actually seen an argument of this type used on ID website Uncommon Descent (I wish I had stored the link!). It went something like this:
 “Necessity (=The laws of physics) could not have deteministically generated life because that entails a result with a probability of 1 and therefore zero information. Life contains lots of information, therefore it could not have been generated by necessity!”. 
This bogus argument is not only using an inappropriate measure of information but is also based on dichotomizing “chance and necessity”, another of the false dichotomies habitually used by the de-facto ID movement. (Although this false dichotomy is another a story)

THREE: If for the sake of argument we assume the existence of a sufficiently large super-verse where every conceivable possibility is realized then the communication based concept of information that Dembski is using once again returns a counter intuitive conclusion; Viz, that life has no information because in the superverse Prob(Life somewhere) = 1.

FOUR: In his work Dembski assumes the principle of equal a priori probabilities amongst possibilities for which there is no known reason why any of those possibilities should be preferred. Given that the number of cases favouring life in platonic space is an extremely tiny proportion of all that is possible it follows that the probability of life, p, is very small and therefore life is information packed. So far, so good, I wouldn’t quibble with that. However, I’m currently working on a speculative theory that posits huge (expanding) parallel computational resources as a means of finding living structures: In a parallel scenario where there are multiple trials in parallel, say m parallel trials, then depending on algorithmic efficiency, it is conceivable that the probability of life could be as great as m x p. If m, as I eventually intend to propose, expands rapidly with time, then it follows that the probability of life also changes rapidly with time; ergo, under these conditions “information” as the de-facto ID community habitually understand the term is not conserved.* Moreover, if information is defined in terms of configurational complexity we find that this can be both created and destroyed and therefore it too is not conserved.

Let me repeat again that none of this is to say that Dembski’s work is wrong: In particular his "signal" concept of information. (although inappropriate) is conserved when computing resources are conserved. However, Dembski's ideas, when one starts to move into alternative radical models of computation, fail to capture some important facets of the situation. Let me just say in finishing that I can’t help but feel that the reason why the concept of “Conservation of Information” has struck a chord with the de-facto ID community is because it sits very well with the “God of the Gaps” concepts that are implicit in the North American ID community. (See my series on ID guru V J Torley).

* Assigning probabilities and “Dembski information” to the computational models themselves is difficult because it is difficult to define classes of favourable  cases in relation to total possible cases in the open ended vistas of platonic space.

Relevant Links: