Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Lord of the Rings revisited

I've just returned to The Lord of the Rings for the first time in a couple of decades - such long books aren't undertaken lightly, and I'm amazed that I first managed to get through it when I was - well, certainly preteen. I must have been really bookish.

Anyway, it's good to go back to it when most of my current recollection of it is based on the films. The films were good, but rereading it has brought home a couple of things.

Firstly, the language of the books is very 1940's - '"Well, I call that very queer, and indeed disturbing," said Frodo to himself.' It was a real feat of scriptwriting to get the film characters to speak in their own voice, and for it to seem like authentic "Middle-earth" without the 1940's getting in the way.

Secondly, I realised how much of the narrative has to be sacrificed even to get the films down to about three hours. Quite a lot of people talk about the lack of Tom Bombadil, but I'd completely forgotten that Frodo and Sam set out to Buckland with Pippin; I'd forgotten about the detail of the encounter with the Wood Elves (and no, it isn't like the extended DVD cut, where Frodo and Sam watch them passing in the distance, although that does get across the idea of the elves leaving Middle-earth without having to have somebody actually facing the camera saying it).

Finally, the films have to sacrifice much of the amazing poetry and language at the expense of the drama. I don't know the extent to which Tolkien, Lewis and their ilk - with what I guess is an effectively high classical Oxford tradition - and the huge popular impact that they have had, are regarded as a separate strand of English literature. But hundreds of thousands of people have read poetry like this from The Lord of the Rings:
Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.
Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!
Hill and water under sky,
Pass them by! Pass them by!
It's possible that the excellent poetry of people like Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owen will have been read more widely - such poems tend to be the staple of English literature poetry classes - but I'm pretty sure that more people will have read Tolkein's poetry voluntarily than any other 20th Century poet.

Monday, March 27, 2006

New word

I was looking at a book of words and pictures with our youngest. She is just old enough to try and work out some of the words when she's not sure what the thing in the picture is called. But she pointed at the cheese grater, and said, "I call that a scratchelor".

Actually, I'm not sure of the spelling - perhaps "scratula" would be correct.

ID in the Guardian

Bec told me that she saw this and thought of me. Thanks for the heads-up, Bec!
No one argues that it's a useful project for year 10s to research flat-earth theories, so why intelligent design?
Well, if it turned out to be true, then I would have thought that would be justification.

Sober, Arbuthnot and Fisher

This is the third part of my discussion of this paper, by Elliott Sober on the Design Argument.

Sober writes that John Arbuthnot noted in 1710 that there was a difference between birthrates of sons and daughters. He cites R.A.Fisher's 1930 analysis, in applying natural selection to this observation, as follows:
Arbuthnot could not have known that R.A. Fisher (1930) would bring sex ratio within the purview of the theory of natural selection. Fisher’s insight was to see that a mother’s mix of sons and daughters affects the number of grandoffspring she will have. Fisher demonstrated that when there is random mating in a large population, the sex ratio strategy that evolves is one in which a mother invests equally in sons and daughters (Sober 1993, p. 17). A mother will put half her reproductive resources into producing sons and half into producing daughters. This equal division means that she should have more sons than daughters, if sons tend to die sooner. Fisher’s model therefore predicts the slightly uneven sex ratio at birth that Arbuthnot observed. (p.5)
This seriously baffled me – perhaps one of the well-informed commenters can help. Obviously, this is specifically addressed to sex ratios in human reproduction. Sex determination in humans comes from an X or Y chromosome in the sperm cell. To the best of my knowledge, the mother has no way of determining what sperm cell fertilizes an egg – either consciously or biologically.

Furthermore, if we are looking at grandoffspring, then surely there are much more important things to look at in biological terms than the age at which offspring die. For example: fertility rates; comparative rates of homosexuality/heterosexuality for the two genders (if such things are genetically coded, as we are told – if 10% of males are genetically homosexual and 5% of females are homosexual, and 5% differences in life expectancy have a natural selection effect, then one would assume that expected sexuality would have natural selection implications for the relative frequency of male and female offspring); comparative ages at which offspring become sexually active and cease being sexually active; and so on.

The analysis also implies that the death rates of different sex offspring are biologically hard-coded. Not only is there a mysterious mechanism present that results in a bias towards male offspring, but this mechanism works by somehow knowing about mortality rates.

The huge question that this proposition raises is: HOW??? If this comes about through natural selection (which, incidentally, I don't have a real problem with – I find Arbuthnot's argument unsatisfying as well), then what on earth is the mechanism?

What are the options?
  • Fisher was completely right – the mother does invest equally in sons and daughters. This seems unlikely to me. If the mother has any control over the gender of her offspring, then I am pretty sure this has only become apparent in the last few years, and certainly could not have been known about in the 1930's. If the mother can't control the gender of her offspring, then in what sense can she be said to be investing equally in sons and daughters? (Please note that when I say “control the gender of her offspring” here, I am not talking about a conscious act. I am talking about her biological relevance to the gender of her offspring.)

  • Fisher was right, but for the wrong reasons. The mother does have some subtle influence over the gender of her offspring – perhaps there are biological or hormonal influences that determine a non-even gender distribution. If this is the case, then what are these influences? If they aren't yet known, then this isn't an example of natural selection explaining something. It is an example of a natural selection “just-so” story that may or may not prove to be the case at some stage in the future.

  • Fisher was a bit wrong. Maybe instead the father has some subtle influence over the gender – perhaps there is an uneven distribution of X and Y sperm cells. But then the father hardly “invests reproductive resources” in his offspring – he may invest other things (although the modern consensus for a long time has been that the father isn't really necessary beyond providing a gamete), but reproduction doesn't tie him up for a significant proportion of his life. If there is an effect on the father, then it should be more significant for the mother.

    Perhaps the gender distribution is hard-coded somehow into the species – but if so, what is the evolutionary basis for this? The neodarwinian paradigm insists that it ought to be DNA. If so, how? If it isn't known, then again we have a supposed natural selection “explanation” that is lacking a mechanism.

  • Fisher was completely wrong, and Arbuthnot was right. There is no natural selection basis for the different frequencies of male and female. Note that I would be most unhappy at this stage to completely jettison Fisher's approach. It makes sense to continue searching for a biological basis for the difference in frequency between boys and girls. To argue that, because I am a proponent of ID, I am somehow more happy with the dead end that Arbuthnot proposes, would be completely wrong.

  • But the fact is that a natural selection story could be made up which would accommodate any observation about frequencies of sex distribution. Supposing female children were much more common than male children: this would work from a natural selection point of view because men are able to impregnate many women. Supposing male children were more common than female children: this would work from a natural selection point of view because it would allow females a greater say in the fitness of the father of their children. And so on.

    The story isn't important – either in these cases, or in Fisher's case. What is important is the science that supports it. Fisher's supposed refutation of Arbuthnot's argument is apparently completely lacking in a mechanism – it simply doesn't square with what we know today about reproduction and evolution. And yet, here it is, being presented in refutation of an argument from design. If there is no mechanism, then it has no less, or more, power than Arbuthnot's argument which asserts that the distribution is a sign of divine involvement.

    Thursday, March 23, 2006

    Sober continued

    This is a continuation of the discussion started in my previous post.

    We have three options that explain the appearance of what we see – Dembski's triad: chance; design and regularity. There are limitations in our use of these, which have been considered elsewhere in this blog – for example, we don't know every regular process. However, the logical completeness of these three has not been challenged.

    We can't vaguely wave our hands at “everything” and consider these three options. We need to address a specific feature. Sober, in his paper, considers the vertebrate eye. Different people have suggested other things.

    The key class of events that we need to look at to consider the reasonableness of chance versus design explanations are specified random events – for example, the appearance of a new protein which provides specific additional functionality in a biochemical system. This would be an example of a “novel trait” - an event which Sober and others acknowledge is the chance heart of the evolutionary process. We need to be careful in thinking about this: this isn't an argument that a new protein needs to appear fully specified – just that a protein with some new functionality becomes available to an organism. The objection by opponents of design theory is often related to this key point: “But evolution isn't a random event,” they maintain. This is true, but irrelevant – because even opponents of design theory do acknowledge that the starting point of evolution (the appearance of novel traits; the random production of a new protein to fill some role in an organism) is a random event.

    In principle, it is possible – though difficult – to calculate the probability of such an event. For example, if a new trait relies on the appearance of a single new protein with enzyme functionality, it would be possible to experimentally determine how specified that protein has to be to provide this functionality. The assumption would be that in its present form, natural selection has ensured that the protein is highly specified, and well adapted to its role. When this enzymic functionality first appeared, it would not have been well specified, the protein having arisen from another one with different functionality, or from a random polypeptide. By substituting a progressively more damaged protein for the well specified one, it would be possible to determine how specified a protein has to be before it can express its required functionality. If we can establish how specified the proto-protein was (proposed random event) before natural selection got to work on it (regularity), we can come to a conclusion as to how reasonable the chance explanation is. As Dawkins is prepared to concede, too great a reliance on the chance hypothesis at long odds falsifies evolutionary theory.

    It is possible to look at this from a different perspective, as well. Better understanding of the biochemistry of protein reactions, coupled with better imaging techniques, allows us to visualise what actually happens in these reactions. As we understand the functional components of a protein, it ought to be possible to determine what range of amino acid sequences would permit the required reactions to be carried out. It seems likely that most reactions will require components such as a sensing mechanism, an active site and a mechanism which uses biochemical energy. If we can understand the nature of what is happening at the molecular level, we can again come to conclusions about the likelihood of such proteins arising at random.

    Andrew Rowell argues that, in general, evolutionary theory would predict that the gradients from unspecified proteins to well-specified proteins should be quite gentle (allowing the evolutionary ascent of Mount Improbable). What this means is that, if evolutionary theory is true, it shouldn't be unusual to see existing proteins co-opted for new functions, and random polypeptide sequences expressing functionality. In general, if we observe that such events are unusual, this would provide more support for design theory – though I have no doubt that people who prefer evolutionary theory would dispute this analysis, as indeed they dispute any reasonable falsification of their theory.

    Opponents of design theory argue that this analysis only demonstrates how improbable evolution is as an explanation, and that with no prior evidence about whether there is a designer, this does nothing to show that design theory is more probable. Sober says:
    To evaluate the design hypothesis, we must know what it predicts and compare this with the predictions made by other hypotheses. The design hypothesis cannot win by default. The fact that an observation would be very improbable if it arose by chance is not enough to refute the chance hypothesis. One must show that the design hypothesis confers on the observation a higher probability, and even then the conclusion will merely be that the observation favors the design hypothesis, not that the hypothesis must be true. (p.7)
    Sober is correct to say that the issue is one of small probabilities. For example, when Behe argues that the bacterial flagellum can't evolve, what he actually means is that the probability of it evolving is too small to be considered a reasonable explanation. Design theorists argue that the amount of complex, specified information in organisms, in the form of the DNA genetic code, is too great for it to be a reasonable explanation that it arose by chance either one-off or through a naturalistic process (Dembski's No Free Lunch).

    I suspect that Sober is missing the point, though. Whilst this may not be a sound philosophical argument, I think that at some point, common sense has to come into play. Let's go back to dice-rolling. The first five times I toss a coin, it comes up heads. That's not improbable. But I keep on tossing, and it keeps on coming up heads. Sober's argument is that, no matter how many times I come up with heads – even if I toss heads every second from now until the end of the universe – the chance explanation (this is a fair coin, and I have hit a lucky streak) is more powerful than the design explanation (this coin is loaded) – because I don't have any prior evidence about a designer.

    Whilst technically this looks like a solid argument against design, in practice nobody lives their life on this basis. One has to doubt the fundamental soundness of an argument when the conclusions that it leads one to are so counter-intuitive, and against our experience. I suspect that the flaw is in the issue of low probability. The argument that you can't distinguish between chance and design in this way is fine when there isn't much to choose between the probability of each. But when the probability of chance gets too low and yet nonetheless something has happened, it is unreasonable to discard the design hypothesis simply for lack of knowledge. I accept that this wouldn't constitute a formal proof of design. But since formal proofs simply don't exist in experimental science, this should hardly be considered surprising.

    The next issue is that of assumptions about the designer's goals and abilities. This probably has to be approached theologically. It has already been argued (for example, by Dave Heddle) that Christians should not have a problem with saying who they identify as the “intelligent designer.” It is possible to at least suggest a candidate for a designer, and then see what impact this has on the analysis.

    So let's say, for the sake of argument, that the intelligent designer is the Christian God. Sober writes in objection to design:
    One needs independent evidence as to what the designer's plans and abilities would be if he existed: one can't obtain this evidence by assuming that the design hypothesis is true. (p.10, I think)
    ... is continuous with the precepts of 'negative theology,' which holds that God is so different from us and the world we already know about that it is imposisble for us to have much of a grasp of what his characteristics are.
    This fails adequately to deal with the claims of orthodox Christian theology, for one thing. Within Christian theology, the Bible is considered to be a revelation by God of himself. Francis Schaeffer, in He is There and He is Not Silent, includes an appendix called “Is Propositional Revelation Nonsense?” This addresses precisely these objections to Christianity – that we have no reason to believe that God will make himself known, and that God is so different from us that we can't possibly hope to understand what he is like.

    Of course, this leads us into all sorts of odd areas – such as the nature of biblical texts, their reliability, their authenticity and so on. However, the point is this: Sober is objecting to the design argument on the basis that we don't know the designer, or his intentions or his characteristics. At least from a Christian point of view, those questions have been answered. There is something circular in Sober's objections here. “We can't believe in design because we don't know the designer,” is the heart of this objection – the “Achilles' Heel” of the design argument. But then the rejection of the idea of the Christian God is considered reasonable because: “we don't know that things are designed.” By starting from an atheist/deist/agnostic position, this argument then uses the fact that you are starting from this position as evidence in support of the position!

    This is from a Christian perspective. I have no doubt that other religions would also argue that they have a revelation from their own deities about their nature. I don't believe, then, that the objection that we don't know about the intentions of the designer can be reasonably considered as part of this argument. It would be better to say that the argument is: “We aren't prepared to accept the evidence we have about the nature of the purported designer or designers.” This makes clear the fact that the rejection of the design argument is also a rejection of what certainly the Christian God, and possibly gods in other religions, considered to be sufficient revelation of themselves to support the proposition that they are the designer. In other words, choosing agnosticism is effectively anti-theism/atheism (as it involves discarding evidence that God claims is sufficient), and anti-theism/atheism is, unless the evidence from God is not available for evaluation, a conscious, moral choice.

    Monday, March 20, 2006

    The “Achilles' Heel” of the Design Argument?

    A commenter recommended that I read Elliott Sober's analysis and refutation of the design argument. This was a very interesting read, and it raised many issues that I'd like to react to over several posts.

    Firstly, let's look at what Sober seems to consider to be the heart of his challenge to design theory. Sober writes:
    The first premiss in the likelihood formulation of the design argument – that Pr(O | Chance) is very low – is correct, then the only question that remains is whether Pr (O | Design) is higher. This, I believe, is the Achilles' heel of the design argument ... The problem is that the design hypothesis confers a probability on the observation only when it is supplemented with further assumptions about what the designer's goals and abilities would be if he existed. (p.10)
    I take issue with Sober in a couple of areas at the heart of this analysis, and it is gratifying that the discussions on this blog have already highlighted the weakness of his thesis.

    The first issue is that of probabilities. In effect, Sober says that, since we don't know the prior likelihood of there being a designer, we can't estimate the likelihood of the design hypothesis.

    A “quick and dirty” response to this is to estimate the likelihood of there being a designer who is appropriately qualified to do the work that is claimed of him. This sounds absurd (“What is the likelihood of there being a god?”) but the nature of this argument against design makes it into a serious question. It isn't reasonable to say that we don't know the likelihood of there being a God and then disallow attempts to establish bounds on this figure.

    In a sense, it could be objected that the answer to this is arbitrary. But, given the wide spread of religious beliefs, is it reasonable to charge that the likelihood that there is a designer is much lower than (say) one in a million? We can't meaningfully estimate the likelihood that there is a designer; but I think it is reasonable to place bounds on the likelihood. Once the bounds are in place, it is then reasonable to draw inferences based on those bounds, whilst acknowledging as always the fact that such inferences are provisional.

    The second, more formal, response is that, whilst Sober's analysis is all very well for “high” probabilities, and in principle it can be argued that it works for all probabilities, in practice when probabilities reach sufficiently small levels, they pass the point where chance is a reasonable explanation.

    To demonstrate this, let's attach some numbers, for the sake of argument. Let's suppose that the probability of (say) the transition from prokaryotic life to eukaryotic life turns out to be 10-200. Dembski argues for a Universal Probability Boundary (UPB) – a concept that, incidentally, Sober makes no reference to. Dembski says that once a specified event becomes so improbable that it exhausts the probabilistic resources available in the universe, the chance explanation is no longer reasonable. The boundary he suggests is 10-150.

    Sober argues that the key question is the relationship between the chance hypothesis and the design hypothesis. “My claim,” he says, “is not that design theorists must have independent evidence that singles out the exact goals and abilities of the putative intelligent designer.” (p.11) However, he adds, they do have to show that the design hypothesis is more likely than the chance hypothesis. The chance hypothesis may be improbable, but since we can't establish the likelihood of the design hypothesis, a design inference would not be safe.

    But Dembski, on behalf of design theory, argues that once the probability of the chance hypothesis is below the level of the UPB, the chance hypothesis is no longer viable either. If the probability of the prokaryote/eukaryote transition is 10-200, then the relative likelihood of the design hypothesis is irrelevant, because the chance hypothesis is so small that chance isn't a reasonable explanation. We would need 1050 universes, all directed to nothing other than achieving this transition, before we would expect to see the transition occurring even once. Of course, in that many universes, you would hardly be likely to “see” any single event at all!

    Now, the example I have given is imaginary. But the point made by design theorists is that, if something is sufficiently improbable, then the chance explanation simply isn't reasonable. It isn't the case that the chance explanation is somehow acceptable at any arbitrarily small probability – if the probability is too small, then the chance explanation has to be excluded as well.

    So what are we then left with? ID is particularly interested in specified events of small probability. Barring any alternatives, we have left a design hypothesis of indeterminate probability, or a chance hypothesis which the universe (or the relevant system) does not have sufficient probabilistic resources to justify. In this situation, it becomes apparent that the inference that somebody will draw depends almost entirely on their presuppositions. If somebody can accept the idea of a designer, then they will be happy with the design hypothesis. If they can't, then regardless of the fact that it is impossible – potentially far less possible than Dawkins would accept as a limiting case (see The Blind Watchmaker) - they have to accept the chance hypothesis.

    Of course, there is a danger that a design hypothesis is “unscientific” - because at its barest (as Sober says on p.7) it consists of the statement “God did it”. Any event can be ascribed to design, and as opponents of design theory argue, this simply closes down science. The probability of the event simply becomes the same as the likelihood of there being a God.

    However, the Intelligent Design movement has never been interested in this approach. In Darwin's Black Box, Behe never pushes for an early conclusion of a design inference, and neither does he argue that a design inference ought to be the last word. This is important, of course; both Kepler and Newton made non-naturalistic assumptions, according to Sober (p.1); this didn't stop science from considering what shaped the surface of the moon, or how the solar system was formed. A provisional inference of design shouldn't shut down science. It may, however, discourage an unfruitful line of scientific enquiry in favour of more profitable ones.

    Next time: The Designer's Goals and Abilities

    Friday, March 17, 2006

    Suspect weak paper against Dembski

    I wanted to flag up a paper that has been posted attempting to refute Dembski's idea of the universal probability boundary - only to knock it down.

    The link is here, to a paper written by Bradley Monton, who is from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. The paper is posted on the TalkReason website. Steve, who helpfully flagged up the article for me, also suggested the following summary:
    1. Evidence suggests a certain cosmological theory of the universe is indeed true.
    2. This theory suggests the universe is spatially infinite.
    3. This would indicate an infinite number of particles.
    4. Hence there is good reason to doubt Dembski's UPB.
    It is worth pointing out that if this is indeed the sense of the paper (as it seems to me, as well), then it takes a lot of time to say not much at all.

    Feel free to correct me if you know better, but I suspect that the problem with this paper is in the third step. Evidence has indeed suggested that the universe is spatially infinite. I think that what the researchers meant by this is that the amount of mass in the universe was too low, given its current rate of expansion, for gravity to overcome the rate of expansion - which means that the universe will go on expanding for ever.

    What the person who wrote the paper thought this meant was simply that the universe was infinite. And if the universe was infinite (and not bounded), then it could contain an infinite number of particles. Which means that the number of particles specified by Dembski in calculating the universal probability boundary was too low - an infinite number of particles means that (for example) there must be an infinite number of examples of complex life in the universe.

    However, the whole point about the research that was carried out was that the reason that the universe was considered to be infinite - expanding forever, and not collapsing on itself - was that the mass of the universe was established to be too low for it to contract again. In other words, there was a finite limit to the number of fundamental particles in the universe. So point 3 misunderstands the cosmological significance of the research that had been carried out - and in fact, completely reverses it.

    I suggest that this be considered another way: if it was reasonable to derive from research that the mass of the universe was indeed infinite, then it wouldn't just make a journal: it would be front page news in daily newspapers - it would be a key result that would completely shape our understanding of the nature of the universe. If the author understood the science, then he would have realised this.

    If it is indeed the case that the author has misunderstood the research in this way, then this paper is seriously flawed. If a creationist or a proponent of ID were to advance something which so fundamentally misunderstood a part of science, they would be roasted. Instead, this paper is dignified with a spot on the TalkReason website, and people continue to think that it constitutes a refutation of what Dembski has written.

    Thursday, March 16, 2006

    ID - good theology?

    Here's one that should rumble on for a while. This is interaction with a commenter.
    Good Christian theology doesn't deny the operation of God's creation.
    Well, obviously.
    Good theology should have a strong commitment to the facts and the truth, and an aversion to denial of reality.
    True. If Christianity is true, then at some point, everything that denies Christianity must be false - that is a matter of logic. Of course, this fails to address the question of what Christian truth is, and there is evidently a divergence of opinion at this point.
    Were a group to show up at your door and tell you that all theories about air being material are wrong, and its being useful for supporting airplanes flying through the air to be just an illusion, that God alone is responsible for flight -- would you bother to ask them in for tea?
    I don't make it a habit to ask door-to-door callers into tea. However, whereas there is plenty of evidence in support of aerodynamics, there is little evidence in support of macroevolution. Macroevolution is accepted by faith, having first accepted the idea that any god couldn't have any impact on creation, which is actually a profoundly anti-Christian idea.

    Yes, that's right, I did say it. Denying that God can do anything in his creation is anti-Christian.
    Were ID a simple observation that things 'look designed,' coupled with a desire to pursue that thought, it would be no problem. But it is always manifested with a strong bent to claim biology we've known for 5,000 years is wrong.
    That is ignorant twaddle. The "biology we've known for 5,000 years" is that things look designed. It is only for the last 150 that people have come to the conclusion that a naturalistic explanation is possible. You are completely back-to-front.
    It should be easy to see it as crank theology, too, it seems to me. Does Christianity, or any other faith tested by time, ask us to deny reality in other things?
    No. And this is an oddity. Because Dawkins agrees that things look designed, as did Darwin. The funny thing is that liberal theologians now say that things don't look designed, and it's only with eyes of faith that we can perceive the creator. So who is more scientifically accurate in this situation - Darwin and Dawkins, who agree that things look designed, or the liberal theologians, already persuaded by the claims of evolution and that God doesn't have a role in the universe, who deny the obvious evidence of design?

    You're right. Christianity doesn't ask us to deny the evidence - that things look designed. It is darwinism that is asking us to do that. And it has no evidence to demonstrate that this is so.

    Wednesday, March 15, 2006

    In Pursuit of the Truth

    This will be of little general interest to ID proponents or opponents (Ah! To what a pass I have come if I need to justify what I put here!), but I am working on a blogsite at the moment to promote a book called "In Pursuit of the Truth", by Derek Bigg - those with long memories may have seen the review that I posted on here last year.

    It is a work in progress at the moment, but it can be found here. If you want to know how to get hold of a copy of it (£5 plus postage! Bargain!) stick a comment here or there.

    "Faith" versus Faith

    One must analyze the word faith and see that it can mean two completely opposite things.

    Suppose we are climbing in the Alps and are very high on the bare rock, and suddenly the fog shuts down. The guide turns to us and says that the ice is forming and that there is no hope; before morning we will all freeze to death here on the shoulder of the mountain. Simply to keep warm the guide keeps us moving in the dense fog further out on the shoulder until none of us have any idea where we are. After an hour or so, someone says to the guide, “Suppose I dropped and hit a ledge ten feet down in the fog. What would happen then?” The guide would say that you might make it until the morning and thus live. So, with absolutely no knowledge or any reason to support his action, one of the group hangs and drops into the fog. This would be one kind of faith, a leap of faith.

    Suppose, however, after we have worked out on the shoulder in the midst of the fog and the growing ice on the rock, we had stopped and we heard a voice which said, “You cannot see me, but I know exactly where you are from your voices. I am on another ridge. I have lived in these mountains, man and boy, for over sixty years and I know every foot of them. I assure you that ten feet below you there is a ledge. If you hang and drop, you can make it through the night and I will get you in the morning.”

    I would not hang and drop at once, but would ask questions to try to ascertain if the man knew what he was talking about .... In my desperate situation, even though time would be running out, I would ask him what to me would be the adequate and sufficient questions, and when I became convinced by his answers, then I would hang and drop.

    This is faith, but obviously it has no relationship to the other use of the word. As a matter of fact, if one of these is called faith, the other should not be designated by the same word. The historic Christian faith is not a leap of faith in the post-Kierkegaardian sense because He is not silent, and I am invited to ask the adequate and sufficient questions, not only in regad to details, but also in regard to the existence of the universe and its complexity and in regard to the existence of man. I am invited to ask adequate and sufficient questions and then believe Him and bow before Him metaphysically in knowing that I exist because He made man, and bow before Him morally as needing His provision for me in the substitutionary, propitiatory death of Christ.

    Francis Schaeffer, "He is There and He is not Silent": Appendix B IVP:1990

    The reason for this lengthy quote is to highlight the difference between faith as it is referred to today and faith in the historic Christian sense. It also explains why, contra Miller and others, the pursuit of knowledge about the universe for evangelical Christians is connected with the presence of God - because God is not silent.

    Francis Schaeffer is one of my heroes. He has shaped the way in which I view the universe, and my Christian faith.

    Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    Improbable events

    I have been a little sidetracked by a discussion here, which started off with a dismantling of an earlier argument of mine. I hope I was able to show in comments that the bits that were dismantled weren't actually part of the structure, but you can make your own minds up ....

    I responded to one of the comments that Steve made, and I wanted to bring the response here as well.
    I am still unimpressed with the UPB, even if the argument I linked to is invalid. For one thing there are plent of examples of information that have a probability of less than 10-150.
    You are right about low probability events abounding. That is why Dembski is arguing based on "specified" events of low probability. A random string of 105 characters is low probability - but so what, it's just a random string. However, supposing the program that generated the supposedly random string came up with "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent..." Both events are improbable - but only the second one would lead you to the conclusion that somebody has been tampering with the program.

    Evolution requires a whole series of specified events; ID argues that they are low probability. One of the most obvious classes of events is the production of new proteins from amino acids (note that there are a few dozen low probability specified events that need to take place before this is even a factor!). Obviously (well, obviously to anybody who knows anything about proteins) the specified event isn't that a precise DNA sequence needs to arise and be expressed. But to get a protein that (say) can get energy from the conversion of ATP to ADP, and use this to provide the power to catalyse another reaction at a time and place that is appropriate to the cell - this is still a specified event.

    The whole ID debate isn't simply over low-probability events; it's about specified events, and the debate as to whether they are sufficiently high probability for us to assume that RM+NS are going to be powerful enough to allow evolution to happen.

    Obviously, I don't think they are - but then, I put a relatively high estimate on the probability of an alternative explanation (that there is a designer). People who oppose ID and support evolution think that the probability is high - or rather, they have to assume that it is high. One of the big problems at the moment is that this key question of probabilities seems to be verging on the intractable. I don't think it is, and elsewhere on my blog I have started exploring some ideas which might allow progress to be made (and yes, I realise that this might falsify my beliefs!).

    A purposeful arrangement of parts

    I am told by a commenter that the following comes from Judge Jones' verdict in the Dover trial:
    This inference to design based upon the appearance of a “purposeful arrangement of parts” is a completely subjective proposition, determined in the eye of each beholder and his/her viewpoint concerning the complexity of a system.
    ...which intrigued me. Let's tease out the implications of this quote, and get specific. The fact that something has a function as a consequence of its construction - for example, that a flagellum is able to propel a bacterium - is irrelevant: the idea that the appearance of the arrangement of parts is purposeful is "completely subjective", according to Judge Jones. To the proponent of ID, a flagellum might look purposeful - but, presumably, he thinks, to an opponent of ID, it is just a stalk of protein attached to a cell, with no purpose. And, presumably, because he imagines that to an opponent of ID the flagellum has no purpose, the conclusion of the proponent of ID that it appears designed is subjective and unscientific.

    Or let's consider it in connection with the immune system. To the proponent of ID, this appears designed - its function in allowing organisms to deal with infection is what its purposeful arrangement of parts achieve. But to Judge Jones, apparently, this is only subjectively the case - in other words, whilst it might be true for you that the immune system has that function, it needn't be true for somebody else. One wonders what Judge Jones thinks all these funny bits and pieces inside cells and inside multicellular organisms are actually for, if their apparent purpose is a matter of mere subjective interpretation.

    The funny thing is that both Darwin and Dawkins were/are happy to accept that biological systems look designed. That was never in dispute. So why does Judge Jones think that the appearance of design is subjective and undermines the case for ID? I would suggest on the basis of this quote that he doesn't really understands ID. Or evolution. Or, to be honest, anything much about cellular biology at all. I'm frankly amazed that opponents of ID set such store by the findings of this judge.

    Monday, March 13, 2006

    ID, evolution and the appearance of design

    Biological and biochemical systems look designed. Darwin accepted this. Dawkins accepts this. Richard Attenborough accepts this. I have little doubt that P.Z.Myers accepts this.

    But darwinism allows us to believe that design is only apparent (“Paley was wrong”). Random mutation and natural selection provide a mechanism that allows things that look designed to appear without actually requiring intelligent design.

    As evidence for this, a goodly number of examples are cited. For example: the presence of antifreeze glycoproteins in the blood of arctic fish; the ability of some bacteria to digest synthetic molecules; the adaptation of Darwin’s Finches on the Galapagos Islands to fluctuations in climate. Furthermore, there is some evidence for common descent. Organisms largely share the same genetic code; the same molecules are synthesised in similar ways throughout nature. There are even cases where you can observe loss of gene function in certain groups of animals – and why would this be present as a result of design?

    From these examples and others like them, the conclusion is drawn that this naturalistic process is adequate to explain every living organism and every biochemical system.

    Now, let’s look once again at the well-thumbed example of the bacterial flagellum. This sure looks designed – it has multiple components which work intricately together; it is incredibly well-adapted to its role; it is highly efficient. If we were to see something like this at human scale, we would have no doubt that it had been carefully designed and assembled; it wasn’t just a pile of bits that had been left over from other machines.

    However, let’s remind ourselves that Darwin allows one to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”. So we can dismiss the fact that the bacterial flagellum looks designed – because we know that things that look designed aren’t actually designed at all.

    But for a moment, let’s be awkward. Let’s say: “No. Although I accept that small-scale adaptations occur, I don’t accept that those examples of (micro)evolution reasonably permit the conclusion that a highly-adapted biochemical system could appear as a result of random mutation and natural selection.”

    In scientific terms, this actually seems to be the majority opinion, according to various polls. Only a minority of people are prepared to accept what darwinists tell us – that random mutation and natural selection explain everything. If darwinists expect more people to accept their understanding of the nature of life, then they have to demonstrate that it really does have the explanatory power that they believe.

    And darwinism has problems, in this regard. Darwin believed that evolution could occur as a consequence of an indefinitely large number of small changes – because he believed that at lower and lower levels, life would appear more and more simple. Dawkins largely followed him in this regard, with his argument that 10% of an eye was better than 9% of an eye. But this isn’t how evolution occurs. Rather than a series of small changes, a single lucky change seems to have caused the initial appearance of antifreeze glycoproteins in notothenioid fish, with small changes later on increasing their abundance and effectiveness. A lucky change seems to have occurred in the bacteria which can digest nylon. And where gradual small changes occur (in the finch population on Galapagos, for example), they don’t seem to have a lasting effect on the population.

    So what about the bacterial flagellum? How might this have arisen? Nick Matzke has written what currently represents the most substantive paper on the subject of how the bacterial flagellum might appear. However, he acknowledges throughout his paper that evidence that might support his hypothesis is likely to be absent. There are occasions when he begs the question still further (if such a construction is allowed). For example, he says:
    A diversity of export systems of varying complexity exist, and there is a functional continuum of membrane complexes ranging from single proteins and passive pores through to active, gated export systems, indicating that there are no major evolutionary puzzles to solve.
    In other words (and yes, I know that this isn’t what he is getting at here, but it does seem to be the force of what he says):
    if we assume:
    (Premise)that export systems can evolve, and
    (Premise)we notice that there are lots of different functional export systems in organisms, then
    (Conclusion)we can conclude that export systems can easily evolve.
    The logic is circular.

    Matzke’s argument has been responded to more substantially by William Dembski.

    So in actual fact, until it can be demonstrated that a system that looks designed (see below for a more careful explanation of the phrase “looks designed”) can appear as a consequence of random mutation and natural selection, it looks as though those people who believe in darwinism are actually begging the question. “The fact that things look designed doesn’t mean that they are designed,” they argue, then adding, sotto voce: “but I can’t definitely show you a system that looks designed that hasn’t been designed.”

    Now there is a word that we use to describe it when people believe something that they don’t have evidence to be the case – and that word is “faith”. Darwinists have faith in darwinism.

    Furthermore, it is misleading to argue that current objections to a darwinist explanation of life are just reworks of old creationist ideas. The fact is that the specific evidence that bolsters the case for design is generally no more than 30 years old. To argue that this is the same as the evidence for design that was being addressed by Paley and Darwin (and subsequently by Dawkins, in "The Blind Watchmaker") is to wilfully demonstrate scientific ignorance.

    One particular irony is that certain people who have commented on my blog have then had the nerve to say that evidence that objects look designed is actually not evidence of design. The bacterial flagellum looks designed – as most people would acknowledge – but this isn’t evidence of design: it’s actually evidence against design, we are told, despite the fact that we have no evidence to support the opposing position, which is that non-design is able to explain the bacterial flagellum. By adopting this hard-line position, they are going further even than Dawkins, who at least acknowledged that entities and organisms look designed, and came up with a word (“designoid”) which acknowledged this fact.

    Now, I don’t have a problem with the fact that ID isn’t something that can currently be demonstrated by science. I believe that it is fundamentally a worldview. I do have a problem with people arguing that a naturalistic perspective is more scientific. Certainly there are some things that this perspective explains adequately. But the design that is apparent in systems like the bacterial flagellum is not evidence that random mutation and natural selection are able to achieve what it is claimed that they do. It is only evidence of this if it can be plausibly demonstrated that they are a reasonable explanation of them - and this has not yet been done.

    It may be the case that at some stage in the future an explanation which uses random mutation and natural selection will be able to show how the bacterial flagellum arose. This would seem to imply that ID is a “god of the gaps” argument. However, it is worth worth noting that is also possible that at some stage in the future, a cast-iron case could be made that the bacterial flagellum couldn’t possibly have arisen. The point is that you can’t dismiss an argument on the basis of evidence that may become apparent in the future. You just have to accept that all arguments are provisional until such additional evidence comes to light.

    So to summarize, we have two positions.

    1.Biochemical entities look designed because they are designed.
    2.Biochemical entities look designed because random mutation and natural selection are able to produce complex biochemical entities.

    To be clear, note that by “look designed” here, I mean not simply that they look cool, like a Porsche, or a snowflake, but that they include characteristics that in our experience are only characteristics of things that have been designed – that is, interacting components that are all required for the system to function, specification and so on.

    As things stand, neither of these positions is “scientific” - neither is demonstrable from empirical observation; neither is derivable from the organised body of information. People with a bias towards option 2 would like to argue that the evolution of complex biochemical entities is a reasonable extrapolation from the fluctuating populations of Darwin’s Finches and the hypothesised evolution of antifreeze glycoproteins in notothenioid fish – but their case would look a lot more plausible if they could demonstrate the evolution of at least one complex biochemical system.

    Wednesday, March 08, 2006

    Political Compass

    I'm sure lots of people really want to know where I fit on the Political Compass. It says about me:
    Your political compass
    Economic Left/Right: -3.88
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -1.85
    That puts me in the "libertarian left" quadrant, somewhere close to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela .... So the rumours that I'd be involved in a conspiracy to install a right-wing theocracy seem to be largely unfounded!

    Interview with David Berlinski

    ID: The Future have posted an interview with David Berlinski - agnostic Jew and Darwin doubter - which made me laugh out loud.

    Here is an extract:
    … You know, Dawkins, at least, is quite clear that insofar as religion is expressed as a sense of wonder, he counts himself a religious man ....

    DB: … Sure. But that’s because he has found it remarkably convenient to associate his views with those of Albert Einstein – you know, the standard starry sky at night, my goodness the universe is wonderful routine. Why should Dawkins, of all people, find the universe wonderful if he also believes it is largely a self-sustaining material object, something bigger than a head of cabbage but not appreciably different in kind? The whole place supposedly has no meaning, no point, no purpose, and no reason for its existence beyond itself. Sounds horrible to me. Wonder is the last reaction I’d expect. It’s like being thrilled by Newark, New Jersey. A universe that is nothing more than a collection of atoms whizzing around in the void is a material slum …

    ID interchange

    This blog seems to have attracted the attention of a handful of people who aren't prepared to simply accept what I say about ID (tch! disgraceful!), but want to discuss it. The quality of the interchange is variable, but some interesting points have been raised.

    Firstly, there is the issue of the completeness of Dembski's triad, which I have talked about below. As a reminder, the challenge is that "chance, design and regularity" don't cover all the bases.

    There are two ways in which this is challenge is being presented, and I think it is fair to say that there is a lack of clarity amongst commenters about what the nature of this objection is. The first is to say that there might be "something else" - that chance, design and regularity aren't logically the only options. It was in the context of this approach that I gave the illustration of "detached/semi/terraced" below. To show that this logical challenge is fair, it isn't necessary to show alternative causation that doesn't fit into the triad, it is only necessary to show that alternative causation might logically exist that doesn't fit into these three categories. This hasn't been done, so the logical objection to Dembski's triad hasn't been upheld. At least, thus far!

    The other way in which the challenge is presented is to point out that we don't know every regular process, so we can't exclude the possibility that there is a regular process that we don't know about which has been overlooked as an explanation.

    However, "unknown regularity" is still regularity. Dembski allows for this, and accepts that a design inference might be provisional, because we don't necessarily know all natural processes. Similarly, he points out that it is possible that some things may be tagged as "chance" when in actual fact they require "design" (he gives examples).

    However, he points out that there are certain phenomena that natural processes can't be shown to explain. Setting aside the presumption that evolution is a natural process, can it be shown in any other sphere that complex specified information can appear through the application of laws? Or that a natural process can produce an irreducibly complex object?

    Next, I set a challenge for opponents of ID. This was: come up with a basis for identifying design, and then apply it to biological systems to show that they haven't been designed. Mark Frank, who disturbingly chose the same blog template as me (a specified event of low probability, but not below the universal probability boundary!), has provided the most thought out response to this challenge.

    The most interesting point he makes - and I hope I'm presenting his argument fairly - is that when we don't know the probability that there is a designer, it isn't possible to determine the relative probabilities of the chance inference and the design inference. I wonder if he has stumbled upon the key question that underlies the whole debate between evolutionism and ID.

    Let's assume that a phenomenon is a specified event of low probability - say the probability of it happening is one in 10100. The chance hypothesis doesn't look great. But supposing the probability of there being a designer is only 1 in 10400. Then the chance hypothesis looks a lot better.

    Dembski presents the idea of the universal probability boundary. If a specified event is of a probability less than one in 10150, then the universe doesn't have the probabilistic resources for the event to occur. You have to construct a "multiverse" - an arbitrarily large number of other universes, none of which are verifiable - for a naturalistic explanation to be plausible in even one universe. Hypothesising an arbitrarily large number of other universes is hardly consistent with Occam's Razor! However, if the probability that there is a designer in this universe is also below the universal probability boundary, then you are kind of stuck with that conclusion, I guess.

    So how do you determine the probability of there being a designer for biological systems? We could do it democratically - and conclude that if 30% of the world's population think that there is a transcendent "other" who brought about the world, then the odds are 0.3. On this basis, if even one person in the world believes in such a being, then the odds are no worse than 1 in 1010. We could weigh up the evidence for ourselves, and come to our own conclusion. The Bible argues that people know that there is a God, and they repress this knowledge. There aren't many people, I suspect, who behave as though there definitely is no transcendent other.

    Although some of the opposition to ID comes from people who wish to exclude the possibility that a transcendent other might intervene in the universe, I suspect that a scientist would be happy to assign a finite (but small, if necessary) probability to the existence of a designer, which would allow a comparison between the chance inference and the design inference to be carried out.

    Mark has said more that I may come back to at some stage, time permitting.

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    Chance, design, regularity ... or something else?

    A commenter has made the point that Dembski's famous triad may be hiding something.

    For example:
    One other thing, I believe you are quoting from Dembski here (although you don't say so!): "there are 3 causal options to explain life's origin and diversity : chance,necessity or design".

    However this is subjective because it's based on what we currently know. There is actually a fourth category that Dembski does not consider, and which is a huge problem for his assumptions - and that the possibility of a causal option that we don't yet know about - i.e. the unknown.

    You can eliminate all known chance processes and all known necessity processes, but you can't eliminate what is yet unknown. Therefore it would be premature to assume that design is all that remains.
    This is an interesting line of argument. The commenter doesn't suggest another category of causation. In fact, he doesn't even demonstrate that Dembski's triad is logically incomplete.

    Supposing somebody says: "A house can be detached, semi-detached or part of a terrace." In other words, it is either joined to no other houses, joined to one other house, or joined to many other houses. The truth of this statement isn't challenged by somebody saying: "Ah! But there may be another option that you haven't considered!"

    If allowed its logical force, then, this "challenge" to ID amounts to something like:
    Dembski may be wrong. Therefore he is wrong.
    If this challenge to ID is to have any weight, the arguer must first demonstrate that Dembski's triad isn't complete - it doesn't logically "cover all the bases". Only then can the possibility of there being alternative forms of causation be considered to be a challenge to ID.

    The Guardian, Ruse and Dennett

    The interchange between these two leading figures, Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett, mentioned here a while ago, has now been reported on in the UK Guardian. Here is a link. What the MSM lacks in punctuality it makes up for in depth of reporting ...

    Sunday, March 05, 2006


    "Beck" is a word used for a stream in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. This beck is in Borrowdale, which is in the Northern Lake District in Cumbria. A bit far North for Swallows and Amazons, which was mostly set around Windermere and Coniston. Posted by Picasa

    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    Challenge to ID opponents

    There are various people who read this who don't believe that ID is scientific. So here is a challenge for them.

    Formulate a rigorous theory that allows you to establish whether something has an intelligent cause - in other words, that chance isn't an acceptable explanation, and that it hasn't happened as a consequence of "regularity" - it is the consequence of natural laws.

    Note that intuitive versions of such a theory are effectively in use already, in a variety of fields which have proponents who seriously resent references to ID - so they will be more than happy to give you publishing space to present this theory. It could be applied to SETI - to establish that a radio signal wasn't a natural phenomenon. It could be applied to archaeology - to establish that an artifact wasn't natural but manmade. It could be applied to forensics - to rule out some explanations of phenomena.

    The next stage is simple. Having carefully formulated this theory, apply it to biological systems, and show that they don't require an intelligent cause.

    You don't like what's being presented by proponents of ID, and say it's unscientific? Fine. Give us your theory. Tell us on what formal, scientific basis you know that Stonehenge is manmade and a bacterial flagellum is natural. Tell us on what formal, scientific basis you know that a fragment of iron age leather tells us that humans used tools, but that a natural process was sufficient to guide the transition from single-celled to multicellular life. ID is attempting to use science to answer those questions. ID opponents say what they are doing isn't scientific. But this has hitherto focused far more on motivation than science. So come up with a scientific challenge.

    Compare and contrast

    I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
    C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity

    The secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says:No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher, don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You're a bit eccentric. We've had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says:Oh, my God, he's gonna keep saying this. So what you're left with is: either Christ was who He said He was - the Messiah - or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we've been talking about earlier [suicide bombers]... I'm not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's farfetched ...

    Bono on Bono: Conversations with Michka Assayas, Hodder and Stoughton, 2005
    My twopence worth. Bono hasn't got it quite right about 1st Century Jewish culture - actually, the idea of the Messiah/Christ (they are the same concept in different languages) was fundamentally a military leader at the time - and what Jesus was saying was that this idea was wrong - that the Messiah would rule through his own sacrifice, and the fact that this didn't fit in with the nationalistic expectations of the Jews was what led to his crucifixion. The Jews at the time had no problem with the idea of the Messiah (though they didn't understand what the Messiah was actually going to do): their problem was whether or not Jesus was the Christ. Note that "Christ" isn't Jesus' surname - it's more a job description.

    Today, we have another problem. Most westerners know that the words "Jesus" and "Christ" go together. We just don't know what the "Christ" is. That's what Christians have to try and get across.