Re: Dembski and Nelson at MIT and Tufts

Kevin O'Brien (
Sun, 4 Apr 1999 15:22:26 -0600

>There is a difference between developing (creating) a theory and
>understanding what has already been developed.

No, there isn't, and that's the point you keep missing.

>Let us face it there are
>plenty of people that cannot understand even the basic essentials of

Remember what I wrote about the stumbling blocks that keep people from
understanding an idea? I'll repeat them here: "The stumbling blocks are a
lack of education, a lack of source material to study, ignorance of the
existence of the concept, a lack of confidence, a lack of interest or
stubborn refusal. Once these are overcome, I believe anyone can learn
anything, intelligence notwithstanding." As I said, my experience (as a
teacher, lecturer, debator, tutor and scientist) has been that this is true.

>I do not believe you are correct in saying that anyone could have
>come up with any theory.

I know; that's the entire problem. Perhaps the reason you believe this is
because you are not a good enough teacher to get the concept across to
people, or you bore them to the point that they loose interest, or you
shower them with technical jargon and equations you do not adequately
explain and thus confuse them to death.

I should add that to the list of stumbling blocks as well: some people who
really want to understand get bad teachers.

>I suppose in evolutionary theory speech is cheap.
>Not so in the frontiers of physics, for instance. Things are tough!

I am not what you would call a highly intelligent person. I got C's in
biochemistry, I barely understood evolutionary theory when it was first
taught to me, and I am not now a theorist (I'm good with my hands, not my
mind). But I have had no trouble understanding the most esoteric of
cutting-edge physics, because I had good teachers who were able to explain
everything so that I could understand it. (The same has been true of my
profession as well; with two exceptions, I've learned more about
biochemistry, protein chemistry and enzymology from my PIs than I did in

>>>It is clear that most people can reason....
>>So we agree on this point; then why do you believe only a special few
>>could think up scientific theories?
>It is just a fact that only a few people come up with new ideas in
>formulating theories

And as I wrote below, that has nothing to do with intelligence or reasoning

>>>...but most
>>>people cannot be at the forefront of science and develop the theories and
>>>devise the experiments necessary to elicit questions from Nature.
>>That has nothing to do with the ability to reason; that has to do with
>>the education, the training, the experience and the money necessary to do
>>the work, and having the luck to be in the right places at the right
>Are you a practicing scientist?

As a matter of fact yes; I have a MS in Biochemistry specializing in protein
chemistry and enzymology, with over 15 years experience in research. And
I've seen promising people quit or get washed out because they didn't get
the education, the training or the experience they needed to go where they
wanted to (which is why I try to help students who come through my labs as
much as I can) and I've seen promising people get crushed under the mountain
of paperwork and committee work and funding work they have to do to keep
going but which also keeps them out of the lab (which is why I try to help
my PIs as much as I can doing the lab management as well as most of their
lab work) and in my case I have not gotten as far as I would have liked
(yet) because of bad luck.

>>>I do not recall using the term "artifact."
>>No, you didn't, but it's assumed in your logic, whether you realize it or
>>>Scientific theories are by nature mathematical....
>>No, they are not. Theories are by nature explanations of how physical
>>phenomena work; sometimes that can be done with pure mathematics; often
>>times with a mixture of mathematics and exposition; most of the time
>>with exposition. Most physical theories are mathematical; many chemical
>>theories are mathematical but many are expositional; most biological and
>>biochemical theories are expositional with only a few being mathematical.
>>Yet all are theories, because they explain physical phenomena.
>I am sure that the biologists aspire for their theories to be as
>all-encompassing and precise as the theories in physics.

Yes they do; evolution is one such theory, but since biology is not physics,
biological theories will not be like physical theories.

>The word theory is used too loosely by evolutionists.

No it's not; you use the term too strictly. I have yet to meet a physicist
(who wasn't a creationist or IDer that is) who used theory as strictly as
you do. In fact, the way I defined theory is how philosophers of science
generall define it.

>>>...and so it deals with concepts that include fields that
>>>are more elusive than what is normally called an artifact.
>>Theories are explanations of physical phenomena; therefore theories deal
>>with physical forces. Artifacts are controlled by physical forces, so
>>theories usually deal with artifacts directly or indirectly.
>The concept of a force is not as fundamental as the concept of a field.
>is why the most advanced theories of particle structure are given in terms
>of a quantum field theory.

One of the ways in which protein chemistry and enzymology is advancing is by
the incorporation of quantum mechanics to explain protein folding and enzyme
catalysis. If proteins are artifacts, then these artifacts would be
controled by quantum field mechanics. As such, any quantum field theory
developed to explain protein folding and/or enzyme catalysis would be
dealing directly with artifacts. Ditto if we ever develop nanotechnology or
protein-based processors. I have also read recently of quantum-based
transisters; these would also be artifacts governed by quantum field

>>>For instance, it
>>>is clear to me that there can never be a mathematical theory that will
>>>explain life.
>>Perhaps you can enlighten the rest of us with the evidence you have that
>>makes that clear to you. In any event, life is a physical phenomenon that
>>needs to be explained; there are in fact many theories that when combined
>>explain how life works. Some of these theories are mathematical, most are
>>not, but they explain how life works well enough to be accepted as true.
>Mathematical theories deal with "nonliving" concepts, I ask you how can
>come into being by means of formulae written on paper with ink? Remember
>that theories are descriptive not prescriptive. [Newton's theory of
>gravitation cannot bring planets into being.]

You seem to believe that I think of theories as magical formulas, my friend;
simply write them down or say them into the air and miracles happen. Give
me a break. As I said before, theories explain how phenomena work; once we
understand that we can then use those theories to instruct us on how to
manipulate the phenomena to do work for us. As you say, a theory is just
ink on paper, or better yet a conceptualization, but using that
conceptualization we can develop the technology which allows us to
manipulate the forces and phenomena explained by that theory. Writing or
speaking Newton's law of gravitation naturally does not cause planets to
appear as if by magic. (By the way, Newton had no "theory" of gravitation;
he only described what gravity did, he didn't attempt to explain how it
worked. In fact when challenged with the critique that his law was
meaningless without such an explanation, he responded that he did not
hypothesize, by which he meant he did not speculate about what he could not
test.) However, knowing that law we can guide unmanned, unpowered planetary
probes around the solar system. And perhaps some day we will have the
technology -- based on Newton's law -- to create our own planets.

Regarding your question about life, I cannot "create" life simply by
writting out all the theories that govern life, but I can use those theories
to develop the technology I need to manipulate the physiochemical forces
into forming life in the lab.

>>>It could be that we can "create" life in the lab, but the
>>>elements that we use in the lab cannot be described mathematically by a
>>>full-fledged theory.
>>Theories don't merely describe a phenomenon (what does it do, when does it
>>do it, where does it do it), they also explain it (how does it work; why
>>does it work the way it does); scenarios that only describe phenomena are
>>called "schemes". Since life created in a laboratory must be the same as
>>natural life then it must be explained by the same theories that explain
>>natural life. So in fact we do have full-fledged theories that explain
>>life; whether they are mathematical is irrelevant.
>If one were to create life from nonliving elements, a remarkable feat, then
>we may know how things came into being, but not quite.

We would know how life came into being certainly; beyond that I don't know
what you are referring to. By the way, we have done it; read the scientific

>>>Fundamental theories deal with "dead" things and not life.
>>Except that life is controlled by these "dead" things, such as
>>electromagnetism, chemical kinetics and thermodynamics; therefore these
>>same fundamental theories deal with life as well.
>Living things are made of matter, but are they merely material? I am not
>sure and would guess that it is not.

That's vitalism, which is rejected by modern biology as being untestable.
Instead, modern biology is based on molecular dynamics, which is inherently
materialistic. If you have evidence to the contrary, however, I would like
to see it.

Kevin L. O'Brien