[asa] Rejoinder 7D from Timaeus – to Iain Strachan

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Tue Oct 21 2008 - 15:45:35 EDT

Timaeus' final rejoinder. Perhaps he will re-open this conversation at some future point, but for now his part is completed.

To answer several private inquiries: No, I will not tell you who Timaeus is. But, I affirm that it is not a pseudonymn of my own creation. Timaeus is a real person, other than myself, whose views in fact I do not entirely share though we agree on some things--esp on how much the culture wars has harmed this conversation.

Unless Timaeus chooses to unmask himself, he will, like "Deep Throat" in the Watergate scandal, remain anonymous until death. May that be a long time in the future! :-)



To Iain Strachan:

Thanks for your re-cast explanation. Basic Cartesian geometry I understand. I see what you were trying to illustrate now.

I understand your examples of the various “curves of best fit”, and I understand why the piece of cotton is useless as a “curve of best fit”: since it will fit just about any set of data.

I agree with you that an explanation which explains everything, explains nothing.

What I’m trying to figure out is how design detection, when conducted via rigorous mathematical modelling, explains everything, and therefore nothing. Have you read William Dembski’s *No Free Lunch*? I don’t think Dembski would say that his method of detecting “specified complexity” explains everything, and therefore nothing. But I’ll come back to that point later. First I want to spend some more time on your discussion.

As far as I can tell, you have provided two alternate explanations (other than real design), for apparent design:

1. There’s only one universe, and the design arose through just dumb luck.
2. There are an infinite number of universes, and the design arose through less improbable dumb luck.

And it seems to me that you are arguing that design is on a par with these other two explanations, The data fits all three explanations, you say, so there is no non-arbitrary reason to pick design rather than one of the other two. It will come down to metaphysical taste rather than science.
Is that the gist of it?

Well, I assume that in your two other options, the process that produces the apparent design is still Darwinian, roughly speaking. That is, I assume that in your lucky single universe or in your multiverse, there is apparent design because the atoms and molecules just happen to get together in the right configuration, and hold together long enough, to produce life, and after that they form colonies and hold together just long enough to specialize, and then again just long enough to start reproducing as a unit, and then that unit gets enough lucky mutations to become arthropods, molluscs, vertebrates, etc. And I assume that you are relying entirely on math, i.e., large numbers, very large numbers, to smooth out any problems. But note that such an explanation, while mathematical, is hardly scientific, because it provides no mechanism for evolution. It doesn’t give us the slightest idea how complex structures are formed. The image suggested is that of an infinitely large!
  gumball machine which, if shaken enough times, will eventually bring all the gumballs into a certain order, say, all the black ones on the bottom and white ones on the top, with all the colours of the spectrum in order in between. And obviously, given infinite time and infinite universes, this is likely to happen sooner or later.

Such a model, however, is not a dynamic model, and has nothing to do with life. Evolution doesn’t occur merely because of the physical relocation of atoms. Electrical charges have to be right, for example. Also, if the particles are moving too fast when they line up in the right location, they may have too much energy to stay put. Etc. Of course, you can try to overrule this simply with infinitely large numbers. You can say that given infinite time with infinite universes, even all of these dynamic factors can be overcome. Maybe so. I’m uncertain.

In any case, the whole explanation looks like it was cooked up simply to avoid the conclusion of design. It smells of special pleading. And a strong indication of this is that such an explanation would never be used by anyone in any everyday life situation, in any field or profession, or in any important existential decision affecting one’s health, marriage, children, etc. And to go back to my Mars example, nobody who saw a timepiece on Mars would say that it was thrown together by chance, given one universe or many. Nobody would argue that, given infinite universes, metal might be accidentally refined to industrial quality, then shaped into precise clock parts, then assembled to form a working clock with numerals spaced in a perfect circle on its face. It might be logically, mathematically possible. But nobody would argue for this possibility, because nobody has a vested interest in proving that clocks can arise due to naked chance. But there is a group of people w!
 ho have a vested interest in proving that life and species and man could have arisen through the blind chances of infinite universes. They are called atheists. And they have dreamed up infinite universes, or at least appealed to infinite universes dreamed up by others, not because they think that is a sane way of explaining anything, but because they want to get rid of design, and they don’t think they can get large enough numbers with just one universe to combat the kind of arguments made by Dembski and others. They thought they could, until Dembski came along. And when one universe proved incapable of generating the large numbers they needed, when even two or three or ten or hundred universes proved incapable, the natural thing was to grab for the infinite universes model.

Now I think that you and I agree on this, because you call the infinite universes explanation a “cop-out”. So I’m not quite sure how to take your answer. If you really believe that it’s a cop-out, and you put design explanations on a par with it, then you must believe that design explanations are cop-outs as well. But are they? Again, I refer you to Dembski’s book. It may be right; it may be wrong. I’m not advanced enough in mathematics to say. But I understand the argument well enough to see that he sets forth criteria for determining design, and that he pins those criteria to numbers; he provides means of falsifying any given design inference through measurement and calculation. And he sets a very high standard for design confirmation; the universal probability bound of 1 in 10^150, something so far beyond what we would consider “impossible” in any scientific endeavour or practical decision, that it does not seem unreasonable to me. Yes, it is POSS!
 IBLE that a probability for an event might be still smaller than that, yet the event still occur; but does science need to take such possibilities seriously? You might be struck by 4000 volts of lightning on the 4th of July at 4:44 p.m., and survive, and as a result find yourself able to speak 444 words of ancient Aramaic. That is theoretically possible. The chances of that are, I would wager, much higher than some of the numbers Dembski comes up with, yet neither you nor I, I trust, would say that science should much concern itself with such a low probability.

And there is another wrinkle you are overlooking. Let us say that Dembski proves that the probability of a flagellum evolving by chance is 10^150, and you protest, saying, well, the event is still possible. But if Darwinism is true, not one, but millions of such events have happened, maybe not all of them with probabilities that low, but at least some of them with probabilities much lower. So what is the probability of the whole sweep of evolution occurring? It will be astronomically lower than 1 in 10^150th. If we are talking about independent events, and the average probability of a complex integrated organ or system forming is as high as 1 in 10^12th, and there are a million of them, look at the size of the number that is generated! Even if they are not completely independent, the probability is still going to be much, much smaller than 1 in 10^150th.

Again, I am not saying that I know Dembski’s argument to be correct. What I am saying is that Dembski does not merely suppose design as a gratuitous explanation, as the multiverse people do. There is no way of falsifying the multiverse explanation now, and probably never will be. But every calculation Dembski might propose to prove design for a particular evolutionary outcome could in principle be falsified. Does that make no difference at all, regarding the scientific character of design theory?

That said, it’s not all that important to me to prove that intelligent design is “scientific” in some narrow sense. I think that the word “scientific” in the design/Darwin debates is mainly used as a weapon by both sides, because of culture war considerations, especially regarding what can be taught in the schools. Each side tries to define “scientific” to include its approach, or exclude the other side’s, because of past judgments in First Amendment cases. I think that outside of the cultural, legal, and political realm, deciding whether or not ID is “science” is ultimately a phoney concern and a waste of time. To me, the useful question is not whether design is the most “scientific” explanation, but whether design is the most rational explanation, and the most comprehensive explanation, in comparison with Darwinism. I think design is a much more rational and comprehensive explanation than Darwinism, more rational because it doesn’t entail an !
 abnormal reliance upon “chance”, and more comprehensive because it is capable of embracing elements of Darwinism (chance, natural selection), whereas Darwinism cannot, in principle, embrace design at any point.

Going back to your main point, about an explanation which explains everything explaining nothing, I would like to point out that Darwinism has been accused of exactly the same thing. For example, Darwinism has been used to argue that males who are selfish and violent will gain a reproductive advantage, because they will kill off rivals; but it has also been argued that males who are gentle and compassionate will gain a reproductive advantage, because females will want a gentle husband and father. Darwinism thus explains both why males who are aggressive do well reproductively, and why males who are gentler do well reproductively; i.e., it explains nothing. And similarly, Darwinism explains why selfish individualism gives an advantage reproductively, for obvious reasons, but it also explains why self-abnegating co-operation gives an advantage reproductively, because groups which work together are able to protect a higher proportion of their members. So Darwinism explains !
 why both uncooperative and cooperative individuals thrive, and thus again, Darwinism explains nothing. And what about sexual selection versus natural selection? Suppose a peacock is a slow runner and cannot fly, or can only fly poorly, because of its feather display, but is able to strut better, and (according to the legend) is therefore more likely to attract a good peahen for a mate? This would be a gain through sexual selection. But now the peacock is more likely to be caught and eaten by a fox. This would be a loss through natural selection. So Darwinism gives two contradictory predictions (the peacock will do well, and the peacock will more frequently be eaten and over time will become extinct), and therefore predicts nothing. And flying squirrels have a tremendous advantage in being able to glide from tree to tree, thus avoiding ground predators, so we should predict that over time most squirrels would end up as the gliding type, with the other types being eate!
 n up, yet they are not; so Darwinism must have some equally lo!
 gical pr
ediction that shows why most squirrels, in exactly the same temperate forests, will gain an advantage by not having a gliding apparatus. Yet if Darwinism offers such contradictory predictions, it explains nothing. And if social behaviour among chimpanzees is an evolutionary advantage, but the solitary nature of the orang-outang is an evolutionary advantage for an ape of comparable intelligence, in forests of comparable temperature and moisture and biodiversity, Darwinism is again predicting two opposite outcomes, and thus explaining nothing. Darwinism can of course explain all of these things AFTER the fact, by various ad hoc fine adjustments; but good science predicts things before the fact. Darwinism is not so hot at that. It would be interesting to ask the world’s 100 leading Darwinists to predict what will happen to a population of lizards released into a new territory, 100, 200, and 500 years from now, and keep a record for posterity, and see how well the Darwini!
 sts would do without the advantage of hindsight. I predict that the Darwinists would do about as well as economists would do in predicting the economy over the next 20 years, i.e., poorly. But like the economists, the Darwinists of the future (if there are any), will have a thousand very good reasons why their theory is still sound, even though they were wrong.

And then there is the game called inventing “hypothetical evolutionary pathways”. An evolutionary biologist will postulate Pathway A from creature X to creature Y. Some paleontologist may then come along and suggest that this pathway does not fit with the fossil record. So the suggestion changes to Pathway B. Then a geneticist comes along and rejects that pathway as genetically impossible. And then the evolutionary biologist comes up with Pathway C. And then a physiologist tells him that one is impossible. Yet is there ever a point at which an evolutionary biologist will cease inventing pathways, and entertain the possibility that maybe it is not the pathway, but Darwinism itself that is just plain wrong? That maybe mutations plus natural selection plus sexual selection plus drift plus whatever is simply not enough to get you from a worm to an octopus? Apparently not. Darwinism is infinitely flexible. You can redraw the tree of life a vast number of ways, pos!
 tulate all kinds of mutational pathways, with single, double or multiple mutations, change the hypothetical local selection pressures, alter the mutation rate by supposing more radiation (less ozone, maybe) at a certain point in time, suggest some kind of horizontal gene transfer with no clear idea how the transfer was effected, switch back and forth between natural and sexual selection at your convenience, argue that neutral mutations do not last long and therefore cannot count for much, argue that neutral mutations last a long time and therefore can later be used to combine with other mutations, argue that the weather was warmer for an extended period in the Devonian and that certain creatures are known to reach reproductive age earlier in warmer climates and therefore there would be more generations, etc. Because there are so many hypothetical factors, and because so few of them are backed by hard data, Darwinism is infinitely flexible, and it is hard to imagine how it !
 could ever under any circumstance be decisively falsified. It!
  can acc
ount for any event, if it tries hard enough. Any individual hypothetical pathway may be falsified, but Darwinism itself seems virtually immune from falsification. So doesn’t it explain everything, and therefore explain nothing? Isn’t it far too loose and flexible to be a truly scientific theory of organic change?

As for the other discussion, about the parallel between computer code and genetic code, I will not try to defend the parallel further; I think that you had best take it up with the many ID supporters over at UD, who think the parallel is strong, and who know both the genetics and the computer programming sides much better than I do. And you might want to read the writings of computer expert Granville Sewell, who has a couple pieces published on the Discovery web site, and has published elsewhere as well. Perhaps you could contact him at his university if you disagree with him, and thrash out the details. I’m not capable of arguing at that level.

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Received on Tue Oct 21 15:46:42 2008

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