Sunday, February 22, 2009


Post your views in the comments.


Steve said...

Let me see if I can stir the pot...

On Feb 22, 2009, at 1:25 AM, Caroline Flournoy wrote:
"...the obvious implications (that human life has no meaning beyond itself) to which the ID/Creationism crowd are reacting. It would be better, at least in the sense that we'd be arguing more openly, if all the various 'sides' would cop to the stake they have in it, instead of fighting these proxy battles about semantics ('Complex Specified Information', and so on) or mechanistic trivia (mutation rates, 'irreducible complexity', and so on)."

So you are saying that there is a religious motive/bias at work cloaked by "trivia" like irreducible complexity, etc.?!

Are you arguing for bringing religion into the debate? In the debates I have viewed, it is the evolutionist who brings up religion... in relation to his opponent. Most creationists hold that in a scientific forum you should stick to issues of science, regardless of one's religious convictions.

Intelligent design has been labeled by critics as a cloak for creationism and religion, which seems to be your position. Neither science nor ID can prove the existence of God, and ID makes no pretensions to address the subject. Many ID proponents are agnostic. Demski as a chemical evolutionist certainly had no religious ax to grind - on the contrary, he was looking for a resolution to his origin of life theory, which, he dryly notes, no one else has ever criticized. (It is true that the implications of ID later led him into philosophy.) One of the best cases in point is atheist Richard Dawkins, who turns out himself to be a closet ID proponent. Asked why evolution has been unable to account for the origin of life, he suggested the possibly that aliens implanted life on earth.

I agree that preferences sometimes inform our science, but they shouldn't. I'm surprised that you would argue for muddying the waters. Getting into subjective motives, competence of the scientist, etc. rather than addressing the scientific issues raised seems to be a ruse that reveals the weakness of the scientific case.

Nicole said...

This seems to be dead, but I ramble on anyway...

Jim Apple said...

On Fri, Feb 20, 2009 at 1:56 PM, Steve Slater [] wrote:
>> "Q1. In his book No Free Lunch, William Dembski claimed (p. 129) that
>> "there is no more information in two copies of Shakespeare's Hamlet
>> than in a single copy. This is of course patently obvious, and any
>> formal account of information had better agree." Too bad for him that
>> Kolmogorov complexity is a formal account of information theory, and
>> it does not agree."
>> This is embarrassingly ignorant of Dembski. This is a freshman mistake.
> Jim I would be extremely interested to know how you see that Demski's
> statement (with which I agree) contradicts descriptive complexity!

I have no idea what you're talking about here. In particular, the word "descriptive" does not appear above.

Dembski claims "no formal account of information says P", for some P.

Shallit explains that Kolmogorov complexity, a foundational and formal account of information, known by anyone who has ever dabbled in information theory, says P.

Dembski, we must conclude, is either ignorant of the basics of information theory or a liar. I assume he is simply ignorant.

>> Second, Dembski's insistence that Complex Specified Information is
>> "holistic" is not an appeal to mathematics. That is, Dembski denies
>> that a "specification" can look like "a thousand ones, plus one extra
>> 1". This may be appealing to him, but is has no precedent in
>> mathematics.
> I'm sorry - I'm not clear where you are quoting Dembski or how you are
> understanding him. Perhaps you are right - it is not an appeal to
> mathematics.

I'll get to the quotation marks in a minute. For the moment, let's talk about what it means if Dembski is not appealing to mathematics.

Dembski has degrees in psychology, mathematics, philosophy, and theology. His arguments are certainly not about psychology. If the're not about mathematics, it's not clear what expertise he's drawing on. Perhaps, by making arguments using math jargon and mathematical symbols (but not doing math!), he's discovered something truly novel about biology, something which 99.99% of biologists think is not even sensible enough to be wrong, but simply malformed.

But there are at least two reasons to doubt this. One is that all of his warrants for these claims are supposedly mathematical, yet actually devoid of any mathematical value. This leaves him with warrantless claims, which is really no more credible than saying "I feel it in my bones".

The other reason to doubt this is that, though you grant that Dembski isn't doing math, and though mathematicians say Dembski isn't doing math, DEMBSKI THINKS HE'S DOING MATH. That he could deceive himself so should frighten you.

The "holistic" quote is from, according to Shallit (in the PDF link I sent), pp. 165-166 in "No Free Lunch". The "a thousand ones, plus one extra 1" is separated by quotes to mark it as a specification. You can reread it as italics or a blockquote if you like.

>> Now, it could be that Dembski has come up with something truly novel,
>> and the only reason he has yet to publish peer-reviewed mathematical
>> research is that there is a worldwide mathematical bias preventing it.
>> This, itself would be notable, since there is no historical precedent
>> for such blindness in the mathematical community. Doesn't it seem more
>> likely that Dembski is Just Another Crank?
> I agree such a precedent would be notable. What qualifies in your eyes as
> peer reviewed research?

I should have said "peer reviewed research on this subject"

> Research fellowships and awards in math --
> Templeton Foundation Book Prize ($100,000) for book on information theory,
> 2000–2001

If you look up the Templeton Foundation, you will see that they do not even try to call themselves peer-reviewed.

> University of Illinois at Chicago, Outstanding Dissertation Award for The
> Design Inference

Convincing Philosophers you have done some mathematics or biology is not the same as convincing mathematicians or biologists.

> National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for mathematics,
> 1988–1991

Not about CSI.

> McCormick Fllowship (University of Chicago) for mathematics, 1984–1988

Not about CSI

> National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship for psychology and
> mathematics, 1982–1985

Not about CSI.

> "stupid, ignorant, just another crank" -- denigration of someone you
> disagree with hurts your case, at least with me.

I didn't use the word "stupid".

"Ignorant" means "does not know". Dembski does (or did, at least) not know the very basics of information theory.

"Just Another Crank" was stated probabilistically, that is: it is possible that Dembski is a secret genius which nobody in the sciences takes seriously, or it is possible that he is like most other people who complain of being ignored by mainstream science.

It is sometimes useful to use strong words to describe astonishing situations. If you object here, you need to either win that Dembski says something non-crankish about CSI or convince me that it's wrong to call Time-Cube-guy a crank, too.

Finally, I think people on this list are a bit more thick-skinned than you. If it hurts your feelings that I am reflecting the scientific consensus on Dembski's work, you might peddle your wares elsewhere. Dembski isn't on this, so his feeling can't be hurt by my frank observations of what I'm sure he's heard a thousand times before, anyway.

Frankly, your complaint stinks of changing the subject. "You used naughty words" is often a substitute for good argumentation, but I'll happily drop it if you'll focus on substance rather than style. Otherwise, I fear we'll end up in a war about comma-placement and whether HTML or plain-text email is preferred. Well, not so much a war as you complaining about naughtiness and me leaving.

>> BTW, there are good reasons why mathematicians reject hand-wavey bans
>> on "incrementalism" and appeals to "holistic" restrictions.
>> Mathematics thrives on rigor, and this is the opposite.
>> Here's the executive summary for those who have no math background:
>> 1. Desmbski claims to be doing mathematics
>> 2. Mathematicians disagree
> ...
>> I could not give two hoots about his divinity or philosophy work. I
>> would normally use stronger language than "hoots", but I often find
>> that the religious will dismiss any argument, no matter how sound, if
>> the author uses a naughty, naughty word.
>> I am being charitable to Dembski by claiming that his mistakes are
>> mistakes, rather than misrepresentations. Others might call him
>> fraudulent, rather than foolish.
>> I have seen what religion does to people, however, and I expect that
>> he truly believes his obviously false statements. I may very well be
>> wrong. Her certainly SHOULD know better.
>> Now, like you, I am too busy to spend more than a few minutes on this.
>> I have a strategy though, for what to do when I don't have time to
>> become an expert in the details of the arguments: I trust the
>> universally recognized experts.
>> That is, it could be that perpetual motion machines are possible, or
>> that time is a cube with four sides, or that Fermat really proved his
>> last theorem. It could be true that there were no middle ages, or that
>> 9/11 was an inside job, or that income tax is illegal. It might be the
>> case that Jesus never existed, or that Masons and Jews run the Senate,
>> or that there are temperatures lower than absolute zero.
>> But I'll throw my lot in with the experts on these, since I don't have
>> time to become an expert myself.
>> And, yes, I do have a "background in mathematics".
> Yes, I agree this is a dilemma with me too - information overload. However,
> I am cautious of the majority opinion of universally recognized experts,
> just as you may be in matters of religion.

Do you really not see the difference between these two?

> Sometimes the errors are obvious on the surface, even to a
> non-specialist, who is objective.

And now I end up asking about commas, sadly.

I assume you did not mean the comma after "non-specialist". If you did, I think you are implying that non-specialists are objective by their nature. I'll assume both that my understanding of English grammar is correct and that you simply meant that an objective non-specialist can sometimes see errors on the surface. I could be wrong on either.

If you really think non-specialists have insights that experts not only do not have, and not only ignore, but continuously consider and dismiss for over a decade, I would love to hear examples. I know of none.

> The emotion
> around the science of origins is a red flag. That is why I think it is
> dangerous to rely on "experts" completely.

There would be plenty of emotion around the shape of the Earth if there were as many flat-Earthers as there are creationists.

Caroline said...

Here is my (slightly edited) post from the email dialogue from awhile back:

Part of the problem with this whole debate (methodological naturalism versus various teleological accounts of human origins and ultimate ends) is that the stakes are never clearly stated, and not necessarily agreed-upon. The people who resist evolution are in a way better materialists than are the scientists who accept it, yet divorce it from the obvious implications (that human life has no meaning beyond itself) to which the ID/Creationism crowd are reacting. It would be better, at least in the sense that we'd be arguing more openly, if all the various 'sides' would cop to the stake they have in it, instead of fighting these proxy battles about semantics ('Complex Specified Information', and so on) or mechanistic trivia (mutation rates, 'irreducible complexity', and so on). But since the stakes remain in the dark, and the ID/Creationism side appears to be asking questions about the scientific basis of evolution, on what grounds but science can scientists be expected to reply?

The fact that human beings have a natural propensity to believe in the divine is no better a fact than the fact that we also have a propensity to ask nagging questions about what we believe. We don't just want to believe; we want our beliefs to be true - and this is because natural selection has selected us to run increasingly functional, which is to say in general more accurate, simulations of the world around us. And yes, I'd say that the fact that evolution has produced people like you & I and the rest of this list does imply that "evolution has given rise to some beings who will not be satisfied and will not live well with a life and with beliefs that maximize reproductive success." Does the fact that this apparently isn't everyone mean that we should keep evolution our little secret? If it does, then we have some other secrets to keep: I didn't lose my faith over Darwin; I lost it (to the extent I ever had it) while studying history and politics.

There are scientists who do science because science is useful in the pursuit of some end not itself based in science; most scientists are advocates of science in the same sense that most musicians are advocates of music; but there aren't many scientists whose science is the advocacy of science itself. Most of us keep a little space between our inquiry and our reasons for it ... perhaps for the reason (Manuel was) getting at, but it's hard to tell; most scientists of my acquaintance don't/won't/can't discuss it. Which is how we hold up our end of the putative agreement not to define the stakes on the creation/evolution controversy.

Caroline said...

To Steve, in response to your entry at the top of the comments:

I was trying to make two points in my response to Manuel's suggestion that Dembski's work is more evolutionarily valid (in the sense that it promotes survival & reproduction) than the work of strict methodological naturalists. (If I may paraphrase).

1. The fight about ID vs the modern Darwinian synthesis is not essentially about the science. The scientific debate has moved on from the possibility of design, the presence of a few credentialed hold-outs notwithstanding.

2. The fight is actually about our understanding of the world and our place in it. I'm suggesting that we have that argument, instead. It's a far more interesting one. The really interesting stuff often 'muddies the waters,' and I'd call it philosophy rather than religion.

Of course there are motives at work here other than the pursuit of facts. I'm being an honest materialist by admitting up front that the deterministic universe in which we've scientifically located ourselves is a difficult one to reconcile with our other typical human convictions - that choices exist and that they matter, that love is real and transcends death in some sense. I'm accusing myself of religion, if I'm accusing anyone.

Two questions of mine to you:

1. If the Intelligent Designer isn't God, what's the point? The ID hypothesis doesn't suggest a thing about how we got here in a scientific sense. By saying "this cannot have happened by chance,and must have been designed", all we've done is remove the possibility of a mechanistic explanation, and begged the question of how the designer was designed into the bargain.

2. What motive could scientists possibly have to suppress a promising hypothesis in favor of a weak one? If you really think scientists are trying to defend our collective pet theory against the crashing avalanche of evidence for design, I'm not sure what to say to you.

Finally, a correction: Dawkins is absolutely not a "closet ID proponent." To identify him as such is to miss his point about space aliens hypothetically seeding life on Earth altogether: his point was that the hypothetical aliens must have come about somehow, and that puts us right back to the problem of life's development on some planet, somewhere.

Manuel said...

This is somewhat out of order (redirected from the mailing list), but:

Dembski is wrong, but isn't that because he's a good evolutionist: There's no argument from evolution that says that evolution should be accepted or taught; in fact, there's a good basis in evolution to argue the contrary (the natural, i.e. evolved, propensity of human beings to believe in the divine), so one could say that creationists are the ones on the side of evolution. One might wonder, for example, at the relative reproductive success of Mormons versus the people posting here (some guesses, but write in if you have more than 2.33 children & are not knowingly a Believer). On what Darwinian basis does one believe that people should believe an argument without providing proof that belief in it leads to reproductive success. (And that's already too much of a concession: it's not as though natural selection necessarily favors those who act consciously to favor reproductive success, since the negative implications of awareness of natural selection may foil attempts to restore the relative reproductive success of the state of ignorance.)
How did we end up with this upside-down situation, where the so-called evolutionists are behaving as if they were creationists, proudly answering to a "higher calling": acting as if they were exempt from acting in accordance with natural selection, as if somehow life (as a matter of science!) should mean something more than the reproductive success of one's self, or one's genes; and the creationists are the ones acting in accordance with what is most likely to favor reproductive success. Why are evolutionary biologists writing diatribes against creationism? If they're writing any books, shouldn't they be entitled "Be Fruitful and Multiply"?
Now one could construct an argument by which understanding the facts of evolution and teaching them to children is going to favor reproductive success eventually (before it's disastrous), or one could say that evolution has given rise to some beings who will not be satisfied and will not live well with a life and with beliefs that maximize reproductive success--but I don't understand why people believe that science has established either proposition, for most people most of the time. Science has not established science, not as a goal for the species, not even as a goal for a man. They have no better claim (on that basis) than the creationists.

I don't count myself as one of the rarefied few for whom the truth of evolution has been good. But it's not only a question of whether teaching this truth is demoralizing or "socially harmful" (--it is!), but whether it even brings people closer to understanding the truth.
I think it does not. Sure, on a superficial level, it is more "correct" that people have the opinion that we evolved from simpler animals and ultimately lifeless beings by impersonal forces in a
strictly amoral process etc. But--what thought do they give that? how engaged are they? what does it mean to them? We are much further removed from our true concerns, from any significant degree of self-reflection and self-awareness, than we were in Christian times. Yes, they believed in a power that didn't exist, but they also had more of a sense of the vanity or futility of the longings of mortal beings, and of their need to devote themselves to something beautiful or
transcendent --without which awareness, one can't truly become an atheist. (watching Bondarchuk's version of "War and Peace" drives home this point.)

I agree that scientists are reluctant to talk about why they pursue
science. But sometimes they can be more or less alive to the bigger questions--the Sci-Am cover story "Was Einstein Wrong?" is good on this point (though Bohr seems pretty unappealing)--and more or less sensitive to the limits of what they are doing. Though the teaching of evolution is here to stay, that doesn't mean a simply secular educational policy. Even if nothing can be done, one doesn't have to blind oneself to the grotesque defects of one's society.