Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Does God steal CSI, or sustain the natural world?

I sometimes have interesting correspondents. This is from Dr Paul Lucas, who, among other things, managed to show that Dembski's own math showed that evolution by natural selection was inevitably going to generate information under his own assumptions, if some realistics assumptions are made (i.e., there are more than one progeny per parent).

In the course of our interaction, I made this comment (all unindented text is Dr Lucas'):
“I have a personal view - if a theist accepts that all that is is upheld by God from not-being (a view expressed by Aquinas, I believe) then it really doesn't matter what science uncovers about being. It exists solely because it was created. And this applies to selection now as much as origin events in the past.”
I agree. This is the view that God sustains the universe. ( This view goes back much further than Aquinas to passages in the OT and rabbinical writers.) This is standard mainline Christian theology and is the basis of theistic evolution. This is the reasoning I used to get to that view: We start from a theological statement that science is unable to touch:

"The only distinct meaning of the word 'natural' is stated, fixed, or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once." Butler: Analogy of Revealed Religion.

Or, to put it another way: "A Law of Nature then is the rule and Law, according to which God resolved that certain Motions should always, that is, in all Cases be performed. Every Law does immediately depend upon the Will of God." Gravesande, Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy, I, 2-3, 1726, quoted in CC Gillespie, Genesis and Geology, 1959. [emphases of both in original]

BTW, the first quote is found in the Fontispiece to Origin of the Species. Now, science can’t disprove either. Science also can’t prove either. Methodological materialism means that we are unable to test either statement. This means, of course, that both statements are faith, but faith science can’t disprove.

As a scientist, it was a shock coming face to face with Butler’s quote. I finally had to confront the fact that I really can’t tell if an intelligence is required for all the “regular” processes I study every day. As long as deity allows/causes a growth factor to result in proliferation of cells in culture every time, then there is no way I can detect this by science. I can believe that the process operates on its own. That is, I can have faith that Butler is wrong, but I can’t show that he is by science. Science requires that I answer “I don’t know” to Butler. What I can say is that I have all the material causes for cell growth.

I then realized that creationism offers an alternative material cause: direct manufacture by deity. IDers say “design”, but what they have to really mean is “manufacture”. The Designer goes out and physically (by unknown and “miraculous” means) makes an entire species or an IC system. It then places that species or system on the planet, like a person places a watch made in a factory on the heath. We can test the material mechanism, have tested it, and shown it to be false. Thus, ID becomes a falsified theory. It then can’t be taught in science class as a valid theory. The only reason to do so would be to promote a particular religious view. (This logic is done in much more detail in symbolic logic by Quinn in his chapter in But Is It Science? Edited by Michael Ruse.)

However, if we posit that deity created the universe by the Big Bang; galaxies, stars, and planets by gravity; life by chemistry; and the diversity of life by evolution, then we have a mechanism involving deity that is compatible with science. This is summed up as "Christians should look on evolution simply as the method by which God works." James McCosh, theologian and President of Princeton, The Religious Aspects of Evolution, 2d ed. 1890, pg 68. (which I use as my signature on several boards) Which gets us back to what you said, it doesn’t matter theologically what science uncovers – it all becomes the material mechanism that that God used to create.
“What you are referring to I think of as the Infectious Intelligence Thesis - if something intelligent has been involved in any event, then there is intelligence behind it. If a chemist sets up a SELEX experiment, then no matter that the results are due to the ordinary workings of the laws of physics and chemistry, the outcome is designed... and so on.”
I know what you are talking about, and I have encountered it many times in the context of abiogenesis experiments. I have been convinced by the data that Fox’s protocells are alive. Thus we have life from non-life by chemistry. A common counterargument is that “intelligence” was required because Fox did the experiments. To us, obviously Fox did not manufacture the protocells. That would require him to individually hook each amino acid onto the previous one to form the proteins. However, in an attempt to save a role for intelligence, creationists use the Infectious Intelligence Thesis.

Yes, Dembski is doing something like that. In looking at genetic algorithms, Dembski says that intelligence is involved because the general outcome is specified, but not the specific design. You and I would say that humans are just acting the part of the environment; in natural selection the environment specifies the overall design parameters.

What I have noted is that Dembski ignores that there is CSI in the concept of a sonnet. Dembski thinks the only CSI involved is Shakespeare arranging words to construct a sonnet. I am the one pointing out that a sonnet itself has CSI. You can’t make just any poem and have it be a sonnet. You are constrained by a specific meter, a specific rhyme scheme, and a specific length. A poem by Carl Sandberg isn’t going to be a sonnet. So, the particular sonnet corresponds with what the genetic algorithm is doing, but the general rules of a sonnet are “borrowed” CSI (to use Dembski’s phrase). If we compare one-on-one, the genetic algorithm (unintelligent) is doing what the intelligence does in Dembski’s 3 examples. If you want to look at it another way, Dembski has just played the shell game and hopes we don’t see where his sleight-of-hand has put the pea.

Following Dembski’s logic of “borrowed CSI”, we end up with the Designer borrowing CSI in the form of the specific physical parameters to create a universe with life in it. While this may work for a generic “Designer”, it can’t work for God, because now you have something greater than God. God is constrained, something the Fundamentalists won’t allow.

This is the general weakness of ID. The Designer isn’t named, but from the ARN website and talks given by IDers, we all know Designer = God. Most IDers -- like Dembski and Meyer – state explicitly that we cannot conclude the Designer is God from science, but must establish it by theological means. The problems arose initially when ID (Special Creation) was the accepted scientific theory in the period 1800-1859. When we start looking at all the designs in nature, we find that many of them are sadistic or nasty. An example of sadistic is the braconid wasps, which have fantastic designs to inject an egg into a living aphid without the aphid even noticing. The end result of this great design, however, is to have the aphid eaten alive from the inside out. Another example is the rabbit digestive tract, where cellulase is produced by bacteria living in the large intestine. Complex design, but one that requires that rabbits in the wild eat their own feces. Nasty. Now, if we reason from the designs to qualities of the Designer, we are forced to conclude that the Designer is stupid, sadistic, and suffering from Alzheimer’s. After all, what else can you say of a Designer that can’t remember the Panda has a perfectly good thumb, but that it is fused to the other digits? Instead of freeing up that thumb to grasp bamboo, the Designer has to jury rig a thumb out of a wrist bone. Must be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Now Dembski has introduced another problem by his claims about CSI.

So, the Designer logically extrapolated from the claims of ID is not the God claimed by Judeo-Christianity. I think this makes ID theologically unacceptable. Since 80-90% of the population are theists, and we are waging a political fight here, I think a good political strategy is to point out the dangers to Judeo-Christianity and theism by creationism (ID included). If we can get theists to reject ID due to theological problems while at the same time giving them an alternative (like you stated above) of accepting evolution and keeping theism, then it seems to me that this will win the political fight.

Of course, if we tie evolution to one side of the cultural war (say, atheism), then the political fight for good science education becomes much harder, since atheists are in a political minority.

Paul Lucas, Ph.D.
Dept. of Orthopaedic Surgery
New York Medical College
Valhalla, NY 10595

[John's note - I have many times said that I think evolution and atheism, or the wishywashy agnosticism I espouse when I can be bothered, are distinct and decoupled issues. I say it here again.

Thanks to Dr Lucas, who also offered this link to Sidney Fox's work.]