Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Scientific literacy

Forget the person answering the questions - who knows how we would react under pressure?

France has not faced the dumbing down of science that the UK and US have experienced, as a consequence of their being pushed to include creationism and intelligent design in school science. That is doubtless why as many as 42% of the audience know that the moon revolves around the earth.

Rhapsody in Blue on Channel 4

Many, many years ago, when Channel 4 was still young, they ran a series of programmes which were pieces of "classical" music which had been given "pop" videos. I think they did the last movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, amongst other things. But more significantly, they did Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".

No, it wasn't that one ....

The back story for the video was that a band were playing "Rhapsody in Blue" in a bar, whilst the barman was trying to close it for the night. It was shot in black and white, and it was excellent - both musically and as a piece of video.

Does anyone know where I can find it? Before you suggest, if it's on YouTube, it's not listed under anything terribly obvious.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Petition on Air Passenger Duty

I have commented on the tax system on civil aviation before. The current system of taxing airline passengers is inappropriate. There is no penalty for operating old, more polluting aircraft, air transport of cargo and business jets are not taxed through this system, and airlines are penalised for carrying passengers at a higher load factor.

If you are prepared to sign an e-petition to ask the government to reform this system, there is one available here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thoughts from Darwin's Angel

"Darwin's Angel", by John Cornwell, is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, and not just because it is another book that deconstructs large chunks of "The God Delusion". I have just finished it, and it has left me with plenty to think about.

The idea is that the guardian angel of Darwin (and Dawkins) addresses communication to Dawkins following his writing of TGD. Here's an extract from the chapter entitled, "Does God Exist?" which is very relevant to many of the debates that have taken place on this blog - and it addresses my thoughts as much as those of commenters.
The ultimate fallacy of your [ie. Dawkins'] position, and Russell's, is that you confuse two quite different areas of discourse, the scientific and the religious. You ask to see evidence, give me the evidence and I will believe, you say, no matter how surprised you would be. But the question 'Why is there anything rather than nothing?' is not a final bid for evidence but a quest for meaning or sense that has begun in a moment of wonder that there is anything at all. You ridicule the quest because you do not seem to understand it. If you understood it, you would not ridicule it even if you felt unable to go there yourself. That you do not understand it is shown by the fact that you actually think that "argument for God" is an argument for the ludicrous anthropomorphic deity that rightly appals you. If denying this claim, as you do, is what makes a person an atheist, then most Christian theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, Father McCabe, and yours truly, can also be characterised as atheists.

A real atheist, like yourself, is one who does not accept that the question 'Why is there anything rather than nothing?' is a genuine question. You are content to ask the question within the world, but you can't see that the existence of the world raises a profound question: again, as Martin Rees, following Wittgenstein, has put it: "The preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualized them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science, however: they are the province of philosophers and theologians."

Philosophers through the ages have invoked the possibility of God as the answer to the existence, as opposed to the non-existence, of the universe: and creation is the name given to the notion of its coming into being. By the same analogy creation is also the word given to the exercise whereby a poem, a piece of music, a painting, a sculpture, is brought into existence by the artist.

Darwin's Angel, John Cornwell p.152-3

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Illustrating the problem ...

I discovered this on an old bulletin board discussion, and it presented itself as an attempt to explain irreducible complexity.
[Richard Dawkins] points out (In 'Devil's Chaplain') that all species experience freak mutations from time to time. This is only natural. And these disfigured creatures don't die automatically. If they live long enough to breed, their mutation becomes part of the next generation, and can even become an asset down the line.

Slug -> Slug with hardnened calcium [sic] on back ->->->-> slugs with most calcium don't get eaten as much ->->->->->->->->->->->->->->->-> Snail

I'm not saying that example is necassarily true (I'm not an expert on slugs...) but it explains the general theory, and fits in with scientific fact.
Well, nobody is arguing with the proposed general model of evolution - we all know that mutations are supposed to be the engines of evolution. No big deal there, if this is what Dawkins is suggesting.

But let's look at this example. Set aside also for now the issue of whether or not this process is observed in evolutionary history - whether we see intermediates between slug and snail. This "story" doesn't actually explain anything, in scientific terms. All it does is repeat the proposed mechanism, in the context of slugs and snails, whilst adding no further detail.

What "mutation" causes a slug to have "hardened calcium" on its back? It won't be just the substitution of one DNA base. I seriously doubt that it would be the addition of just one protein. The slug would have to evolve a mechanism for synthesising the calcium based compounds, and a mechanism for secreting these compounds onto its back, and a mechanism for regulating this secretion and synthesis. There would have to be additional differentiation in the secretory cells. In fact, I would suggest that a single mutation which led to such an evolutionary step becoming apparent would have to have been preceded by substantial developments, which yielded no substantive evolutionary advantage.

As it happens, once the means of getting layers of calcite onto the back of the slug/snail intermediate are there, the means of getting the curly shell could be more straightforward - they could be a function of continued differential secretion. But the real evolutionary challenge is the one represented in this extract by the single arrow.

That's one of the issues that I have with darwinism. It accepts the "just-so stories" as being sufficient answers - at least for the proles who don't really understand. Certainly there are scientists who go on looking for answers, and I'm not saying "God did it" - it is thoroughly appropriate to continue to explore exactly how such processes occurred. But the published answers that everybody is told aren't based on evidence; they are based on a prior commitment to a naturalistic explanation. I would suggest that, although examples of small-scale evolutionary changes are readily available, the number of detailed explanation of even apparently slight evolutionary physiological changes is very small.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A new Wikipedia ... possibly

I am a big fan of Wikipedia. I have been known to contribute to, and correct things on it. However, I have a couple of reservations about it.

The first relates to content. Too much of it reflects the concern of male obsessives. I don't have a problem with such people - as has been pointed out elsewhere ("Privileged Planet", I believe, or possibly "A Meaningful World"), this is what has driven much of the advance in science. But when an article on Jabba the Hutt (a fictional character in the "Star Wars" films) can receive as much space as it does, whilst the editors occasionally express their desire to make Wikipedia more focussed, something must be subtly out of kilter.

The second is like unto it, and it is both Wikipedia's virtue and its vice - the fact that anybody can edit it. Which means, as Denyse O'Leary points out,
Yes, anybody can edit Wikipedia, all right, and anyone does. Your crazy ex-squeeze, the guy nobody got along with at work, the fanatic whose tracts you recycled in Fluffo's litterbox ... all can get their revenge at Wikipedia. And what normal person has the time to fight it out with them?
Most of the time, this isn't a problem - things tend to be self-correcting on Wikipedia. But occasionally, there are issues which attract oddball extreme opinions, and perhaps in such cases, it would be good for work to be supervised.

Now there is an alternative. Still one based on wikis, but one with editorial supervision - and it's Citizendium. I seriously doubt it will grow to the size of Wikipedia - but if it is able to provide a more consistent and reliable guide, then an alternative can hardly be a bad thing.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

In honour of ...

... well, all those we know who live in a gated community. "If the hat fits...!"

I'm glad that Larry got the ball back.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Vague evolutionary musings

David Stove, in “Darwinian Fairytales”, suggests that darwinism was originally built upon the Malthusian foundation that population outruns food supply, and therefore there is a constant battle for survival, in which only those most fit individuals survive.

In discussing this on my blog, there was scepticism that darwinism as she is spoken today still relies on this principle – and that's probably a good thing. It struck me that peacefulness, rather than struggle, and abundance, rather than famine, are the more general experience across nature. We have a cooking apple tree in our garden which is groaning under the weight of apples – far more than we could consume over a winter (although many won't really be suitable for our consumption). No careful eking out of reproductive resources on the part of the apple tree. The same goes for the blackberry bush just behind it. I see plenty of rabbits over the course of the year – not all lying dead by the side of the road – and I feel no overwhelming urge to capture them so that I will have something to eat that evening. And it's not just me – there aren't significant numbers of other predators trying to catch them, either – they just graze lazily wherever they happen to be. Abundance and stasis seem to be more the pattern than conflict and starvation. In any case, geometric population growth (2, 4, 8, 16), as envisaged by Malthus, rarely seems to occur. Even in bacteria with an unlimited food supply, geometric growth would give way to linear after a while.

Sheep, cows and pigs have been domesticated by humans for food and other reasons. Accordingly, they have undergone a highly non-natural selection process – to the extent that in some cases, bred animals are sometimes incapable of surviving in the wild. What is more marked than this is the failure of non-artificially selected species to deal with the rapid changes in environments that have been introduced as a consequence of the spread of humans. Dodos and passenger pigeons were rapidly hunted to extinction; there are many other species that are only being preserved through the serious efforts of humans to act against their apparent inclinations (for example, to kill off large predators, to extract as much food from the ocean as possible and sell it). The inability of species to evolve to deal with human-induced changes in the environment would suggest a limit on the rate at which evolution can occur. No surprise there.

So sudden changes in the environment will overwhelm the developmental ability of a species. And, contra Darwin, the normal state of an interacting population is more one of stasis than struggle. If this is so, then what would drive evolution? It would have to be slower environmental changes – for example, change in climatic temperature, interactions with other gradually changing populations, gradual movement of a population across a land mass or body of water into a new environment. It is possible to envisage genetic drift occurring in two separated populations of the same species, which would lead to the eventual appearance of two separate species. I can conceive of this having been the case, for example, within the horse family, or within the gull family. However, I still really struggle to envisage the evolution of substantial physiological changes. I don't think this is down to failure of imagination. The intermediate forms can be conceived of. It is the fact that these have to be represented by biochemical changes, including at times the addition or deletion of proteins, control mechanisms and so on. It is that sort of detail that is needed to make the case for the plausibility of darwinism. I have no problem with the generation of 500 different sorts of dogs from whatever their ancestors were. I have a lot more of a problem with the generation of dogs and lizards and parrots from the original chordates with no intelligent input.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Monday, September 03, 2007

Intelligent Design Credo (2)

In addition to believing in intelligent design, I have a high view of the authority of the Bible. How do I reconcile these two things – specifically, perhaps, in the case of Genesis 1? Now this is somewhat speculative, and doesn't necessarily represent either solid science or solid theology – just my own thoughts. I know Christians who believe all sorts of things about Genesis 1 – from Young Earth Creationism to – well, I guess the perspective of people like Michael Behe, whose position is actually almost indistinguishable from that of a theistic evolutionist. People aren't Christians because of what they believe about Genesis 1: being a Christian means being a follower of Christ, which means accepting that Christ is my king, and giving up ultimate authority over my life to him. I'm not going to argue that somebody is a bad Christian because he or she has a different view of Genesis 1 to me – unless this is accompanied with the concept that God actually isn't able to do anything at all in the universe, at which point I would argue that they had bigger problems than their interpretation of Genesis 1.

But what about me? Well, I don't believe that Genesis 1 represents a lab book account of how creation happened, and particularly not one written from the perspective of a hypothetical human observer. It is more about God's relationship with his creation. The idea of “days” in Genesis 1 and 2 is already complex – the seventh day for God starts but doesn't end, and it's possible to see this idea chased through the whole Bible. So should we understand days 1 to 6 as being simply human 24 hour periods? I suspect it's not as simple as that. In addition to which, there was no human observer for the first days; there was no sun to mark the supposed periods of time until the fourth day; and so on.

My hunch is that the six days represent six periods of creative activity for God, and that this corresponds to six occasions in the history of the universe when natural process “on its own” would not have been sufficient for the universe to develop as it has. If they are chronological, then there are obviously significant differences in the account as it is presented and the conventional understanding of how the universe developed. On the other hand, there are some similarities – for example, I have always thought that Genesis 1:3-4 is a much more aesthetically pleasing description of the early universe than the rather facile term, “Big Bang”.

Anyway, given all this, here are my thoughts about how to marry Genesis 1 with an old universe and the appearance of life on earth over the course of the last 4000 million years. Please note that I would not use these thoughts to drive a research program, nor would I propose to set them before a high school class. These are just my musings on how what the Bible says might relate to what science has observed.

Day 1: Light. Light divided from darkness - “Day” “Night” This might correspond to the Big Bang, followed by the universe becoming transparent – a process that took, if I remember my cosmology right, about 300,000 of your earth years.

Day 2: An expanse between the waters to separate water from water - “Sky” Speculative, here, but I wonder if this relates to the appearance of chemistry – molecules – in the universe.

Day 3: “Land”, “seas”, land vegetation Again, speculative, but I'd suggest the formation of the solar system, the earth and initial biogenesis – perhaps taking several hundred million years, about 4500 Myrs ago. Or maybe the formation of heavy molecules, following the first wave of heavy stars/supernovae, 12000-10000 Myrs ago.

Day 4: Sun, moon, stars When they appear in the sky – perhaps the atmosphere becoming transparent; perhaps also the formation of the moon, and the final configuration of the solar system, perhaps 3500 Myrs ago. Or when the solar system is formed, perhaps 4500 Myrs ago.

Day 5: Water animals, birds Perhaps roughly corresponding with the Cambrian era – the proliferation of different forms of multicellular life, about 500 Myrs ago.

Day 6: Land creatures, humans Perhaps roughly corresponding with some time in the last 200 Myrs.

At each of these stages, conceptually what would be happening was that the natural process on its own would not be sufficient to lead to where we are today, and God would have been intervening directly, or indirectly – for a short period or for a longer one – to ensure that the outcome of events was what we see today.

What would this mean, in terms of science, if it were true? I would suggest that we would expect there to be developmental “discontinuities” at these points. Whereas most of the events in the history of the universe would appear to follow “natural” processes, our examination of events at these times of God's creative activity would reveal something “guided” - sequences of events that were not random, or which at least appeared incredibly “lucky”. We may also expect to see significant “front loading” of design – features encoded in organisms which have far greater value for organisms developing at a later stage than they do for the organism in which they are first seen. I realise that this is somewhat vague: I haven't given it lots of thought, yet.

However, even these thoughts are significant. Darwinism is very good at generating explanations for all sorts of phenomena and events. However, the reasonableness of these explanations sometimes needs to be given some thought. Would it be appropriate, under a darwinian paradigm, for a relatively simple organism, perhaps with only a few cells, to have genetic mechanisms that are appropriate for a much more complex, multicellular organism? Surely the sort of biochemical problems that a simple organism needs to solve could be dealt with in a much more simple way than with a mechanism that happens to scale to the level of a developing mammalian embryo? How could darwinism favour a mechanism that is more complex, but scaleable, over one that is simpler but specific? What is the common ancestor of both flies and mice, say, that would have homeobox genes, and would have an advantage in this specific solution being present, and not a more straightforward one, with no reference to the future evolutionary development of that organism? Because darwinism, of course, is blind to the future – it is concerned only with what gives a benefit now. This is just one question, relating to an area about which I happen to know a little.

This also highlights the fact that the whole debate about whether or not there is a designer is not a straightforward one to have. If a designer has acted in this sort of way, then even if the designer is detectable, the means of directly detecting the designer may be very limited. This would not mean, however, that a designer is not necessary.

Intelligent Design Credo (1)

(Some commenters are keen for me to be more committed in what I write. So here's a couple of posts which seek to address in some depth my actual thoughts on some aspects of intelligent design, and how it relates to the Bible.)

I believe in Intelligent Design. What do I mean by this? I mean that life and the universe isn't simply the product of blind forces, but the product of deliberate agency. To an extent, this is a matter of presuppositions – all Christians must believe in intelligent design (the concept, not the movement), and the propositions that define an intelligent design worldview are a subset of those which define the Christian worldview (including the young-earth creationist one). If Christians don't believe in intelligent design, the God in which they believe has little to do with the God who has revealed himself in the Bible, and it's hard to know in what sense they can describe themselves as Christians.

So my belief in ID is a matter of presuppositions. But I would argue that rejection of the idea of external agency is also a matter of presuppositions. I am still convinced that it isn't possible to argue that belief or lack of belief in God is a consequence of empirical observation. In my opinion, the evidence of such observation is just as consistent with belief in God as it is with an atheistic worldview.

I think that it will always technically be an option to believe that there is no god – that the universe is self-supporting, and somehow appeared without the existence of external agency. It is worth noting how this position has been forced to retreat (or at least, redefine itself) over the last century, however. The presumption that the universe is eternal (“Steady State”) - and thus all outcomes will inevitably occur eventually – has given way to the Big Bang model, which says that the universe has an origin in space-time. The presumption that a universe like ours is inevitable has given way to an awareness of how finely tuned conditions and constants have to be for the universe to develop as it has. The presumption that complex, intelligent life is common is giving way to the “rare earth” model, which suggests that the number of places in the universe where complex, intelligent life could possibly develop is very small. And so on. Of course, none of these changes to the scientific worldview in themselves represent knock-down evidence of a designer. However, the idea that life and the universe is designed certainly has no less force than it did at the time of (say) Darwin, and probably has more.

If there is a designer, it is not necessary for that designer to have left direct visible evidence of its work – see Del Ratzsch, “Nature, Design and Science”. It is possible that such a designer is able to manipulate initial conditions (perhaps the initial distribution of matter after the Big Bang), or apparently natural processes (specific sequences of mutations), in such a way that the eventual state is designed, though it looks like the outcome of natural processes (Ratzsch describes such things as “pronatural”, if I have understood him correctly). Ratzsch argues that it is possible to infer the presence of design in such cases, although it isn't simple. Conversely, the fact that there is no primary evidence of design says little about whether or not design has actually occurred. I'm going to read his book again, and try and distill some of his argument into some blog posts – almost every page has something thought-provoking and useful on it.

However, my hunch is that there will prove to be more direct evidence of design than this, and that this evidence will be visible no matter how deep into the science you get. My hunch is that design will be apparent in systems that lie realistically beyond the scope of a naturalistic process. I don't think that random mutation (coupled with natural selection) is a sufficiently powerful engine to generate the complex biochemical systems that we see in life today, and that such systems could only have arisen through a highly contrived, non-random sequence of mutations. I suspect that it would be possible to say that such events could have occurred by chance, but that the chance hypothesis will not prove to be satisfactory. As I have pointed out before, Richard Dawkins accepts that there is a limit to the acceptability of the chance hypothesis. He argues, in effect, that if there is less than one in a billion billion (1018) chance of a particular specified outcome, then a chance explanation is not really satisfactory. (He was talking about abiogenesis.) He made a similar point in both “The Blind Watchmaker” and “The God Delusion”. From the ID side, Michael Behe demonstrates in “The Edge of Evolution” that in 1020 tries, new biochemical systems haven't arisen in either the malarial parasite (for example, to overcome the sickle cell mutation which confers some protection to humans from the parasite) or HIV. This suggests that there is a limit on the competence of random mutation to generate new systems. William Dembski errs on the side of caution, and sets an absolute probability boundary of 10-150. However, in principle, the point is that there is an acceptance on both sides of the debate that an excessive reliance on improbable outcomes strengthens the suggestion that there is a designer.

It's important to note that we are not talking about “general” improbability, here. If I shuffle a deck of cards, and lay the cards out one by one, the particular sequence that I get will probably never have been seen before. That doesn't mean that there is anything significant about it, though. In the same way, it isn't simply the sequence of DNA bases in humans that is of relevance. But in the context of biochemical systems, proteins require binding sites and other chemically active regions. In principle, it is likely to become possible at some stage to determine the actual specification of a particular biochemical solution. Also, once a minimally specified solution has been arrived at, natural selection provides a means whereby the solution can be improved – but if a minimally specified solution is itself beyond the probabilistic resources of an organism, then this is again indicative of design.

As I have discussed elsewhere, Dawkins argues that however improbable life is, a designer is much more improbable. This is a silly argument, more worthy of a character in a Douglas Adams book than an Oxford professor. Suffice it to say that it has been refuted. Also, it is worth pointing out that neither the fact that a designer's identity is unknown, nor that its intentions are unknown, nor that the design is not “optimal” (according to some other person's concept of what is optimal) nor that the design is “harmful” (according to some other person's concept of how things ought to be) represent refutations of the proposition that something is designed.

Study into the improbability of systems and what this implies about design is still at a relatively early stage. However, the darwinist assertion that natural processes are on their own able to generate systems and organisms that look designed is far from being shown to be true. In fact, other than for relatively small-scale examples, a significant number of which I have talked about on my blog already, there are few systems where it can be conclusively shown that they have arisen through ateleological means.

The fact that there are lots ways to solve most biochemical problems doesn't completely get round the problem of the specific outcome that we see. People argue that the formula “come up with any solution to biochemical problem P” allows an indeterminately large number of answers, and therefore the task is a lot easier in evolutionary terms than would be suggested simply by looking at how improbable the eventual solution is. It is important not to exaggerate how well-specified a system is, and this is an area where more work needs to be done. However, if a solution requires multiple steps (which is conceptually the case for so-called “irreducibly complex” systems), then having granted even a most improbable first step, we can then look at the probability of subsequent steps. If these are too low, then the solution will still look designed. In this area, it is important for the sake of the discussion between proponents of ID and proponents of naturalism to move away from “just-so” stories of how the mammal got its cascading blood-clotting system, or how the bacterium got its flagellum, and to start to determine how feasible hypothetical developmental pathways are. This is something that is important for people on both sides of the debate. People with a naturalistic worldview will be keen to demonstrate that naturalistic processes could reasonably achieve what they need to. People who are keen to demonstrate design will want to show that what is required of natural processes is just too improbable. At the moment, there is little to show in terms of bridges between the conceptual evolutionary processes and the real world. This ought to change.