Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Privileged Planet interchange 1

The accusation keeps arising that the hypothesis of Privileged Planet (PP) is unfalsifiable. Critics say: “The writers are saying that because life is unusual in the universe, it is indicative of design. But if life was common, they would say that was indicative of design as well.”

This suggests that they haven't understood the argument – and more generally, haven't grasped the overarching arguments about design. It would be nice to think that it would be possible to explain the discussion properly, and have a sensible debate on the real issues. However, this is unlikely to happen. The most vocal opponents of Intelligent Design (ID), including Panda's Thumb and NCSE, have the ear of influential bodies (AAAS, the Smithsonian, Scientific American, Nature), and consequently are just as successful if they sound as though they have discredited ID – so why bother to argue properly? Incidentally, the effect of these once-worthy institutions paying too much attention to philosophy and not enough to science will ultimately be to lose their own reputations for quality of science – they need to beware. But for now, even those scientists who have read enough about ID, and know enough about the limitations of darwinism to understand that there are issues that need to be addressed, know that there are very influential bodies that take a dim view of doubt in such areas, and so keep quiet.

But I am not paid to be a scientist; I don't have a tenure board to worry about; I am just an interested layperson, who is now convinced that an atheistic worldview can't provide reasonable scientific answers to some of the big questions. I am not even bothered if people think I'm stupid. So let me try and explain what I understand of this, and why I believe the objections to PP are not well founded.

There are effectively three possible explanations for the presence of a phenomenon:
Chance - it might be improbable, but it just happens to be there;
Regularity - it is present as the outcome of natural processes;
Design – its presence is due to the deliberate action of an agent.

Consider a stalactite, or a crystal. It may look designed. However, investigation reveals that it is present through the working of natural laws. If the same natural laws operate in the same circumstances, the same phenomenon will be observed. This is an example of REGULARITY.

Now consider the sequence of heads and tails you get when you toss a coin a hundred times in a row. The sequence you get is very improbable – you are exceedingly unlikely to toss the coin again, and get the same sequence. So the sequence that you got is an example of CHANCE.

Now consider Stonehenge (as somebody suggested on a bulletin board a while ago, as an alternative to Michael Behe's favourite, Mount Rushmore). We find there several very heavy rocks that don't come from the immediate vicinity of where they are now. They are broadly arranged in a circle; some are on top of one another. This suggests that they have been placed in that arrangement on Salisbury Plain deliberately. Large rocks don't of their own accord arrange themselves in this way, neither would they be like that if they were (say) moraine that had been deposited on Salisbury Plain by glaciers. So this isn't an example of regularity. They are also evidently not there by chance – you might find a cola can lying on the ground almost anywhere in the world, I guess: but you are unlikely to find one several tonne rock out of place, let alone an arrangement of them. So Stonehenge is an example of DESIGN.

Apply this to the natural world. Darwinism, particularly neo-darwinism, is a worldview of metaphysical naturalism. In short, this means that the idea of any supernatural agent has to be ruled out. So, in terms of phenomena that we observe in nature, the options are reduced to regularity and chance. Design has to be excluded. This is why the Intelligent Design (ID) movement experiences such opposition from darwinist groups – the quality of their scientific endeavour is irrelevant; the real problem is that they are threatening to overturn the darwinists' philosophical worldview. Darwinists argue strongly that allowing for the possibility of design in nature is unscientific, and indeed may cause the end of science as we know it. The truth is that whilst you can't be committed to metaphysical naturalism and believe in the presence of design in nature, metaphysical naturalism isn't actually a necessary part of the foundation of science. Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Faraday, Maxwell and so on all made significant contributions to science starting from a theistic, rather than naturalistic, worldview. For the most part, scientists are able to pursue their work in all sorts of disciplines regardless of their metaphysical worldview.

The reason for this is because, although there are three possible explanations for phenomena given above, most science is carried out only in relation to one – regularity. Scientists are trying to establish the rules and parameters that determine the behaviour of the universe, from the Big Bang to the smallest quark. This is even the case within biology – the biochemical reactions that drive cells and multicellular organisms are understood, at least in principle, as are the process of inheritance, physiological and developmental processes and so on.

However, the nature of certain phenomena can't easily be established. Some examples are obvious, and relate directly to the debate between ID proponents and opponents: the appearance of life; the development of complex life; where the information that constitutes the genetic code could arise; where the universe came from. There are others, which may become more significant areas for discussion as time goes on. For example, it has been assumed for some decades that evolutionary mechanisms could explain everything about animals. A couple of threads on ARN have talked about whether darwinian (i.e. chance/regularity) mechanisms can account for things like migration patterns and symbiotic relationships between animals.

Remember, if you have excluded the possibility of design, you are only left with chance and regularity to explain phenomena. So in answer to the question: “How did complex life arise?” darwinism works with a combination of the two – chance in the form of random mutations (RM), regularity in the form of natural selection (NS) between organisms that have mutations that give them an advantage over other organisms.

RMNS can certainly be shown to lead to “micro-evolution”. Within bounds, organisms do develop over generations – in fact, we can drive this ourselves, by artificially breeding for certain traits. However, what is disputed is whether this process is sufficiently powerful to be a mechanism to allow the most minimal life to evolve into (say) a human – and indeed, whether the process would have allowed the most minimal life to appear in the first place. A section of the scientific community has begun to dissent from the darwinian orthodoxy: they say that RMNS is not sufficiently powerful to allow complex life to appear, and that design is also required. In biology, the arguments have various forms:

> That some parts of animals are “irreducibly complex” - they consist of various components, any of which being missing would prevent the part having any useful functionality. So there is no selection advantage until all of the components are present – but the components can only appear one small step at a time. See Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe.

> That the amount of information encoded in the organism's DNA is too great for it to have arisen by RMNS – random processes do not produce high levels of information. Monkeys typing would not produce Hamlet's Soliloquy within the expected lifetime of the universe. No matter how you dress up the random process, you won't generate new information (which has to appear before natural selection can work) at anything like the rate required for life to evolve in the history of the universe.

> That even if an organism receives beneficial mutations, the number of generations required to fix them within a population would require too large a timescale than evolution has available to it. This is known as Haldane's Dilemma.

Various aspects of these arguments have been challenged by the darwinist community. However, they argue that because the odd chapter here and there has been shown not to be completely sound, then the arguments have been completely discredited. In fact, the overall thrust of the arguments hasn't been addressed.

In passing, it is worth considering the theological implications of these analyses of the causes of phenomena. The biblical picture of God is that he is God of order – of regularity – in other words, the universe “works” because God made it like that. This understanding of the nature of God underpinned the explosion of modern science that followed the Reformation in northwest Europe – the new theology gave natural scientists the conviction that the universe was amenable to investigation, and there was a perception that studying the universe was “thinking God's thoughts after him.”

In terms of chance, the Bible also talks about God being sovereign, and the fact that humans can't know or understand all his purposes. So what science would attribute to chance is still, in theological terms, part of God's domain.

Some people who would describe themselves as Christians are content to accommodate what they understand to be science by restricting God's involvement in the world to these spheres of regularity and chance - despite the fact that, since regularity appears to be part of the universe, and we can't know what God's purposes are in chance, this effectively means that their idea of a universe supposedly with God in it is no different from a naturalistic universe. However, belief in a “design-less” universe falls outside the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. In theological terms again, firstly God is represented as the agent through whom the universe comes into being, and through whom life is brought about. Secondly, the Christian faith claims that humans can have a relationship with this God, who is a real, personal entity, although not constrained by the universe. Thirdly, God has not remained entirely separate from the universe throughout its history. The Bible itself claims to be God's word – an intervention of God in history, through the lives of the writers. And it records further interventions – in the form of miracles and prophecy. Ultimately, the Bible cannot be taken seriously if the possibility is excluded that there might be a real God who is capable of intervening in the universe. Of course, people may choose to reject the idea that the Bible contains reliable information – but if so, whatever they describe as their Christian faith is not historic Christianity, which itself is founded upon events that happened in real space and time.

It needs to be emphasised that, whilst these theological comments are consistent with ID, they are not part of ID. For somebody to be prepared to consider the possibility of ID, they have to be prepared to consider the possibility that there is an agent who has intervened to bring about phenomena that can't be explained by chance or regularity. Christian theology does work on that basis – however, in scientific terms, it is possible that the external agent is not the God of Christianity. It is because the agent isn't specified that ID parts company with creationism, which seeks to use science to endorse a particular interpretation of revelation. ID is not creationism – back-door or otherwise – because the very thing that is the foundation of creationism is ignored in ID.

... to be continued ...