"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, September 03, 2007

Deus In Machina

Recently an odd sort of duel was fought in the American Spectator; not with pistols, but epistolary.

The combatants were that Derbyshire fellow who writes for National Review with a sort of weighty weary wisdom that recalls pre-20th Century intellectualism, and Tom Bethell, perhaps the most courageously open-minded magazine writer of our time, thirty years and counting on the front lines of the culture wars from his trench at the aforementioned Spectator.

Mr. D was grunting through a barely suppressed yawn (think Nero Wolfe) that anyone with an evolved mind knows that the "irreducible complexity" of small cells is a bogus argument against evolution, one only advanced by that killjoy cabal of clerical types who would twist any premise to confirm their preconceived conclusion of Creation.

Mr. B countered - with vivacity - that even the most minute constituent cell of a living organism was equipped with complex circuitry like a computer, and the idea that such an "active ingredient" could have evolved from simple undesigned matter is the sort of absurdity only a pompous pseudo-intellectual could sell himself and try to sell the world.

It won't surprise anyone, I hope, that Bethell's approach impassions me while Derbyshire's draws an answering yawn.

But what I find most fascinating in all skirmishes of this type is how both miss a key point. Let's skip for a moment the question of whether the cell's being like a computer proves design. Computers themselves prove the world is designed; why get locked into cells?

The idea is simple. The theory of evolution says there is no mechanism to create right things in the world, there is only a way of eliminating wrong things. There is no trial and error, there is only error, with the result that a trial occurs by default only. Bad things can't survive, what remains is the self-sustaining, which we then define as good. Fine. Such a system could exist but it could not have within itself potential creative systems. If anything it naturally tends to spawn spontaneous and arbitrary properties, more likely to be troublesome by a factor of zillions to one.

The fact that the forces and properties existing in the world can be rearranged via human intervention to form a computer indicate a designer who anticipated that arrangement. To assume that all the parts for something so amazing were present for no purpose at all and a human mind could discover that possibility as a coincidental reconfiguration of reality is monstrously absurd.


tbmbuzz said...

Handwaving pap, pure and simple. The "reasoning" for creationism boils down to this: science cannot yet explain (in detail) the physical phenomenon of life arising under favorable conditions (e.g. primordial Earth), therefore it must be Supernatural Magic. Same with the rise of intelligent life. No experimental evidence, no observable phenomena, no description of the interface between "the Creator" and the physical world, just a series of "logical reasoning" reminiscent of the "proof" from a century ago that birds couldn't fly - THIS is what the "science" of creationism is. Talk about absurdity!!

Jay D. Homnick said...

How is it magic to posit an intelligent existence with the power to make Earth and man, much in the same way you have the power to make a computer?

I would say it is much closer to magic to claim that a super-complex structure arose without the application of intelligence.

Oh, and why did you not engage my argument, beyond calling it "pap"? Not real civilized... or logical, i.e. scientific.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Buzz, we always enjoy hearing from you. I don't know if Mr. Homnick is a "creationist," but his argument isn't based on some wave of a Great Hand 6,000 years ago.

We still cannot explain why "life" self-organizes, and even if that self-organization is replicated in a laboratory someday, why it does and why (organic) matter is able to.

A universe of undifferentiated mass seems a more likely outcome of the Big Bang than galaxies, stars, planets and life its ownself. (Let alone consciousness, and the fact that it builds computers...)

I found it a very good essay to muse upon, and it was offered as such.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

It amazes me how evolutionists think it so irrational, even mystical, that some of us would see design in nature. My kids see nothing inconsistent with seeing design of a golf club, for instance, in my hand, and design in the infinitely more complex hand that holds it. I don't know if evolution was the mechanism God used, but you can be sure that something cannot come from nothing.

It also amazes me how dismissive and condescending are evolutionists toward people that don't agree with them. At many points it seems that evolution is more religion than science, and I think that kind of ironic.

Matt Huisman said...

Buzz - You’ve got to learn to embrace the word super-natural. It’s not so bad, and it turns out to be essential – unless science has found a way to create something from nothing.

(BTW, Why do scientists get to skip ahead and start their explanation from Primordial Earth?)

(ABTW, I suppose we've never seen scientists - like Leakey or Dawkins - use ‘a series of logical reasoning' to form a proof.)

Evanston2 said...

It's not nice to "pile on" but I have to say that I learned nothing from Buzz' comment. For an agent of alleged enlightenment, his method of using scare quotes and generalities does nothing but darken the issues at hand.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, it was nice to see tbmbuzz stop by. His dance card is now officially full.

David S. Bloch said...

I'm late to the game here, but you can count me in tbmbuzz's corner. Tom Bethell may be a courageous and open-minded man; but he doesn't understand biology OR computers, on the evidence of this debate. There's nothing mystical, or even mystifying, about the idea that complex systems can evolve from simpler ones. Computers do NOT prove the existence of God. They do not prove the existence of a Designer. They prove that intelligent primates can create sophisticated tools.

Jay seems to think that evolutionary theory somehow excludes "potential creative systems." I have no idea why he thinks this. Indeed, the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens sapiens as opposed to less-creative hominids (including, n.b., the tool-making Homo Neandertalis) is pretty decent evidence that creativity is an evolutionarily-favored trait. The idea that evolution "naturally tends to spawn spontaneous and arbitrary properties" confuses random mutation with natural selection.

"The fact that the forces and properties existing in the world can be rearranged via human intervention to form a computer" does not indicate or even suggest the existence of presumably Judeo-Christian God ("a designer," says Jay, but let's be honest about what I.D. proponents really mean here; Tom Bethell is not going through all of this trouble to prove that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster). Does the existence of wood and mud in suitable quantities that can be rearranged to form a beaver dam prove that a benevolent "designer" watches over us?

And why is it so hard to imagine "that all the parts for something so amazing were present for no purpose at all"? There are whole galaxies forever beyond human reach, full of amazing "parts that are present for no purpose at all." (Hearkening back to my inaugural post, this "cosmic perspective" is what animated--and evidently terrified--H.P. Lovecraft.) Or did some capricious God make Neptune just so we'd have something to look at in the night sky?

Jay asks: "How is it magic to posit an intelligent existence with the power to make Earth and man, much in the same way you have the power to make a computer?" The answer is: We can explain man's power to build a computer without for an instant requiring recourse to a super-powerful being that defies known physical laws.

Tom and Matt, the "something from nothing" argument allows you to posit a God that triggered the Big Bang . . . and I suppose you can argue from there that the same God intended everything else to unfold as it has. So be it. And you're correct that, as of today, we cannot explain every single detail of the natural world scientifically. Fair enough. But why do you extrapolate from that the belief that portions of the natural world are inexplicable in principle?

Matt Huisman said...

It’s not so much that they are inexplicable, as they are beyond the grasp of naturalistic science. (Overcoming ‘something from nothing’ on a naturalistic basis seems to require some faith in its own right.) As of today, tomorrow, or even the day after that your micro/tele-scopes will still be limited in their explanatory powers. (There is a difference between description and explanation.) Doubling the font size does little to further explain the information contained within the sentence.

With respect to making computers, I’m not sure I follow how you are handling the problem of design. Your ‘potential creative systems’ are not going to randomly assemble (or naturally select) a computer or even a beaver dam, ever, unless you’re going to take a fairly strong determinist position about the development of intelligence.

And at that point, I wonder what on earth we’re even talking about.

David S. Bloch said...

I think we part ways on the "something from nothing" argument. I agree that, with the tools at our disposal today, we cannot fully explain, e.g., the Big Bang. Who knows? Maybe the universe is solid-state, instead? And "something from nothing" may be the wrong paradigm entirely. I'm not qualified to say. But human history is full of seemingly-intractable problems that nevertheless have been solved. And I don't know why anything in the natural world should be considered a priori beyond the grasp of naturalistic science.

Regarding the computer's designer (and hence the designer's Designer), perhaps I'm not seeing the argument properly. Because it seems to me that my beaver's dam answers your computer rather nicely.

"'[P]otential creative systems’" (not my phrase, BTW, but I think I understand what it denotes) don't randomly assemble or naturally select a beaver's dam. But neither is a beaver's dam the product of intelligence. Beavers aren't dogs, or chimps, or dolphins, or octopodes--animals recognized for their high intelligence. They're . . . well, beavers. Flat-tailed swimming rodents. And yet, over millenia, they have developed the ability and the tools to wall off streams to better catch fish. It's not the dam that's selected for; it's the better beaver.

The beaver's dam is clearly not proof of the intelligence, intention, or design of the dam's creator. And so it seems awfully hard to extrapolate from there to the idea that, nevertheless, the beaver itself is proof of the intelligence, intention, or design of the beaver's Creator.

And that's where the whole "computer as proof of I.D." argument breaks down, at least for me. The computer is vastly more complex and sophisticated than the beaver dam. But it is different in degree, not in kind.

One could argue in response that the computer is different because humans intentionally (intelligently) designed the computer, while beavers did not intentionally design the dam. But that argument has nothing to do with the computer per se; rather, it is an argument concerning human intentionality. The fact that humans can intend something, while beavers can't, can be seized upon by some as proof of the existence of God. But then the argument is that consciousness is evidence of God--which has no bearing on (and in a sense tends to contradict) the argument from design.