Re: [asa] Because of us - Steve Fuller's anthropic principle - Darwin's original sin

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Tue May 12 2009 - 14:17:16 EDT


It's good to hear from you again. I'll try to deal with the main points of your latest post.

First, your lead questions:

Preamble: I don't like the way the word "scientific" is used in evolution/creation discussions, as a sort of conjuring word, before which everyone is supposed to stand in awe, as if "science" is some kind of authority for anything, rather than a product of modern culture and subject to critical analysis like all other products of modern culture. So when I answer your lead questions, understand that I have as little reverence for "science" (and for people who claim to speak for science, whether they have Ph.D.s or not), as I do for most of the elements of modern culture, i.e., very little.

1) Is it scientific to say that life and man came about without need for a designer/God?

My translation of the question:

"When measured by the standards of achievement of modern physics and chemistry, are neo-Darwinian evolution and chemical origin-of-life theories strong scientific theories?"

My answer [and I'm speaking here of the theoretical mechanisms of biological and chemical evolution, not of the event of evolution]: No, they are incredibly weak by those standards. They are more speculations than theories proper, as they are very thin on detail and very hard to falsify. Neo-Darwinism in particular is compatible with almost any observed result (beyond "Cambrian rabbits" and such), since "random mutation" and "natural selection" are such a broad principles as to allow for almost infinite elasticity in their combinations. If one hypothetical evolutionary pathway is cut off by good empirical investigation, like the mythical hydra, neo-Darwinian evolution bursts forth with ten more possible pathways. Neo-Darwinians will never admit that the mechanism itself has been falsified, under any circumstance. The reason for this is that the mechanism is tied to a metaphysical world-view which they are unwilling to give up.

My second translation of the question:

"If neo-Darwinian evolution, as conceived by its classic proponents, were *entirely* true, would God become a superfluous explanation?"

My answer [same as I gave to Mike Gene]: Yes. But as it is unlikely in the highest degree that classic neo-Darwinism in anywhere near the truth of nature, I'm not losing any sleep over it.

2) Is it scientific to say that life and man came about and a designer/God is needed to explain this?
My translation of the question:

"Can "science" reason directly from apparent design in nature to the existence of God?"

My answer: No, because the word "God" is loaded with all kinds of baggage that "science" [as the word is used these days, anyway] cannot handle.

My second translation of the question:

"Can "science" reason directly from apparent design in nature to the existence of a designer?"

My answer: This is trickier. I would say "No" if what is meant is some sort of rigorous demonstration acceptable to all rational people. But I would say "Yes" if what is meant is "inference to the best explanation", whereby "science" provides the empirical basis for the inference (the incredible integrated complexity of a cell, for example), and mathematical and/or logical and/or philosophical and/or common sense reasoning fills out the argument. But keep in mind that "designer" is anthropomorphic, and is too strong here, suggesting some sort of transcendent interference in nature. I prefer to say that some sort of intelligence or mind is at work, so that immanentist options (like Aristotle for example, and Plato, in one interpretation of his thought) are kept open.

I hesitate to say much about your computer program analogy, because I know next to nothing about computer programming. But from what people who do know about computers have told me, and from what I've read, I think that a neo-Darwinian computer program would be completely different from a computer program based on Christian theology. A neo-Darwinian computer program would provide some basic rules and properties of the elements to be manipulated, and then would "let the program go", to see what new forms it would generate. The programmer would have no control over those new forms, and the results would be open-ended. Even if the programmer hoped that a certain form would one day be generated, there would be no guarantee of it. A computer program meant to simulate Christian creation doctrine, on the other hand, would be result-driven. The programmer would set it up to guarantee that certain forms were eventually achieved, if not on a strict timetable (which would probably be necessary), at least at some point; further, the programmer would have to guarantee that certain auxiliary forms were achieved in time to be made use of by others (e.g., domestic animals, by man). In the first program, true randomness (presuming a computer program could achieve true randomness, which I doubt, as I'm told that computers can generate only pseudo-random situations) would be just fine, because guarantees would be unnecessary; in the second program, true randomness couldn't be allowed, because it might sabotage the ends of the program. Can you imagine a corporation's hiring you to program its computers to calculate its payroll, corporate taxes, etc., and your delivering a program which *might* eventually do that (though in all likelihood several years later than required by the IRS), or might never do that, but might instead prove very useful for running the traffic lights in Chicago? Try collecting your fee from that corporation if you did that! And that's what neo-Darwinian evolution is all about, translated into programming terms.

The adjective "neo-Darwinian" is crucial here. It is not inconceivable that God chose evolution as his means of creation. But in that case, he would have built certain guarantees into the process. These guarantees need not have excluded *all* local variation, but they need to have excluded *major* departures from the desired goals; i.e., they need to have greatly constrained what we call "chance". Someone like Michael Denton is an example of a fully naturalistic evolutionist whose view is compatible (in broad outlines, anyway) with a theistic creation doctrine. (Whether it's compatible with orthodox Christianity is not an issue I'm addressing here.) Denton even uses the term "program" to describe nature: nature is a huge computer program written to produce man. But this is not Darwin's view, or Coyne's view, or Dawkins's view, or Gaylord Simpson's view, or Mayr's view, or Gould's view.

On methodological naturalism: I enjoyed your recent post discussing the problematic nature of the term, and I thank you for raising the issue here and generating discussion about it. I think your suggestions are useful.

On the metaphysical basis of neo-Darwinian evolution, I must maintain the position I held in my previous reply to you (April 30th), to which you did not respond. This means that I disagree with your current statement about NDE being devoid of metaphysics. On April 30th I wrote:

"Second, on 90% metaphysics and 10% science. Given his foundations, Coyne would have to work on the assumption that all living organisms have been produced by a combination of general natural laws, chance mutations, and natural selection. And his work in evolutionary biology would then consist in finding probable evolutionary pathways, or in investigating possible new genetic mechanisms, etc. But note that given his premises, and given his conviction, based on the fossil record, that evolution happened, he in one way has quite an easy time of things. He doesn't require, up front, evidence to *prove* that the ensemble of neo-Darwinian mechanisms are capable of doing the job. His certainty that God is out of the picture, and that there is no guiding intelligence of any kind, means that he can be *sure*, *in advance of all confirming evidence*, that chance, natural selection, etc., are up to the job. They *must* be up to the job, or else all that we see could not have come into being -- given that God does not exist to do miracles, secretly guide, or front-load. And when you are sure of something in advance, you don't work very hard to prove it. So Coyne can simply declare that human beings have descended from marine worms, without ever establishing that the means known to us are plausible causes of such a transformation. And he and his colleagues can work on "possible evolutionary pathways" which include very few of the nitty-gritty mechanical details.

"If you take away the metaphysical certainty that chance and necessity are adequate, suddenly Darwinian theory has much more work to do. It then has to *prove*, by a combination of empirical research and theory, that complex design features can be arrived at without any designer. In this light, we can see that 90% of the established "science" in evolution is really dependent upon metaphysics -- a metaphysical claim about the sufficiency of necessity and chance to produce complex organic forms. Therefore, ID people are quite right to demand that the Darwinists provide the proofs that they haven't had to provide up to this point. And TE people are quite wrong to let Darwinists off from providing these proofs. Unless we know for sure that there is no God, so that matter/energy is all there is, there is simply no way we can be sure that necessity and chance can explain evolution, short of an immense body of detailed proofs which Darwinism has not provided.

"So what I've been trying to say is that, while TE and ID agree that there is an unproved metaphysics behind Coyne's version of neo-Darwinism, they draw different conclusions from this. For TE, all you have to do to fix things up is to subtract the unjustified atheistic *inference* which Coyne makes *on top of the science*, leaving only the pure science, which is conceived to be mostly independent of the metaphysics. For ID, Coyne's atheism is not a gratuitous personal *inference*, which he adds *on top of the science*, but rather an *assumption*, *lying at the base of the science*, i.e. in his a priori conception of the powers of nature, and if you subtract that assumption, most of the "scientific results" of Darwinian theory vanish into thin air. What is left of Darwinian "science" is then (i) a set of mechanisms that have been empirically proved able to lengthen finch beaks, confer antibiotic resistance on one-celled animals, etc., and (ii) the claim (utterly unproved) that such mechanisms can generate major macroevolutionary change.

"So, for TEs, "Darwinian evolution" of Coyne's type is really 90% good, neutral science, and 10% unwarranted religious speculation, whereas for IDers, Coyne's "scientific" conclusions are 90% dependent upon metaphysics, and only 10% (if even that) verified by science. The two analyses are almost completely different."

I stand by these words.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Schwarzwald
  Sent: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 9:23 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Because of us - Steve Fuller's anthropic principle - Darwin's original sin

  Cameron & Murray,

  Both of you are people whose contributions I always enjoy reading on this list. Since you both seem to be of differing opinions on the subject of neo-darwinism and evolution, I wanted to ask a question of you both, and offer my own perspective on this issue for your criticisms.

  First the questions. Or rather, questions.

  1) Is it scientific to say that life and man came about without need for a designer/God?
  2) Is it scientific to say that life and man came about and a designer/God is needed to explain this?

  Just to be specific: By scientific I mean, is that a falsifiable claim? Is the question one that can be settled by an investigation using methodological naturalism?

  My own answer is "no" to both, and the ramifications for this are far reaching to say the least, as near as I can tell.

  Imagine we had what Cameron requests: A full and stepwise account of the development of how the avian lung was formed, how the camera eye was formed - in fact, how everything was formed. What's more, go ahead and assume that the mechanisms to form these things were all neo-darwinian in nature - to make it vastly oversimplified, it was all mutation and natural selection. Would we then be able to finally say 'See? No designer is needed whatsoever. Everything can be accounted for by purposeless, goalless processes.'?

  Again, my answer is a firm no. And I'll try my best to explain why. Forgive me for being wordy.

  Imagine our universe in its entirety is akin to a computer program. Not the Matrix - I don't mean something that we're all unknowingly plugged into and one day we can just wake up or take off a helmet and we're 'outside'. I mean we ourselves are programs, our environments are programs - our total experiential reality is a program running on a computer. What's more, let's say this is common knowledge: Everyone agrees that reality is all part of some program being run on hardware.

  There are, however, two camps of people. One argues that the computer and its program is the complete sum of reality - there is no programmer. Maybe the computer has always existed, unfolding a procedurally generating program. Maybe the computer just popped into existence one day uncaused. Maybe the computer has always been around, but the program itself inexplicably started a finite time ago. But again, the computer and the program is it. They just are. Brute facts. There is no programmer, nor is one necessary.

  Of course, the other camp disagrees. They believe the programmer existed in advance of the computer and the program both. Now, they too have different perspectives amongst themselves. Some believe that the programmer created the program with a specific goal in mind, knowing absolutely everything the program would do at any given juncture, and that it would certainly reach its goal without any further interference from himself. Others believe the programmer had certain goals, but may need to directly intervene at particular points - either because his intervention was part of the plan, or maybe because he simply couldn't foresee everything perfectly. Others still have no opinion on the goals of the designer, if there are any - all they do is accept that there was certainly a programmer once upon a time, and anything else they are unsure of.

  Here's where the problem comes in. The former camp is going to attempt to explain everything that has happened in their universe (itself a program, remember) in terms of other programs. The latter camp is going to point at certain historical events as evidence that the programmer directly intervened, or at least that certain processes and results make the most sense in terms of a programmer achieving goals, rather than as purposeless, unintended machinations of an unguided program.

  But both camps are only capable of examining what goes on in their program! Whatever the programmer does - the only way the programmer can interact with the world - is by manipulating the program! But /other programs can manipulate the program too/. Any given event can always be explained by the first camp in terms of programs. Refer to unknown processes. Refer to known processes that were not witnessed but conceivably could do the job. Refer to extraordinarily unlikely events that just happened by chance. Refer to the possibility that the program is of infinite size or duration.

  The latter camp, meanwhile, can consider the programmer's interaction to occur anywhere at any time in the past. Maybe all his efforts went into the program itself, and now he's simply watching his program unfold. Maybe he intervened throughout history, guiding particular developments of programs directly (introducing new processes and programs on the spot) or indirectly (altering code so when certain processes encountered it, particular developments were practically guaranteed.) Maybe his intervention never stops - he could be personally orchestrating every single event that unfolds in the program, from the tiniest pixel to the most complicated and RAM-heavy machinations. But at every point, the only thing they will be able to look at are the operations of the program and processes. They will never see the programmer - only the program's results.

  What do I hope to highlight with this story with regards to the evolution/design debate? Only this: There is no way to determine whether a single mutation in a controlled lab experiment was actively intended by God/designer or not. We can perform 100, 1000, or 1000000 trial runs and determine relative frequencies of given results and investigate the correlations or lack thereof, but that's it. Science can gather evidence of what materially happened - maybe, if we're lucky, we'll be able to piece together a far more complete past history of life on this planet (along with its past ecology, etc, and given certain assumptions.) But we're not going to determine the existence *or necessity* of a designer/God this way, or whether any given historical events were the result of that designer's intervention or foresight.

  Consider SJ Gould's quip about how, if we rewound the evolutionary history of life on this planet and replayed it, it would come out completely differently. There is no way - no possible way - to know that. Not just because of the question of determinism vs indeterminism. Not just because of convergence, or front-loading, or otherwise. But because the question assumes that either there is no designer, or that the designer would change along with the reset. If I'm cheating at an online poker game and I deal myself four aces, a player can tell himself 'Well if we were to go back and replay that hand and shuffle it differently, he could have gotten a totally different hand.' My response would be, 'You could have shuffled the deck as many times as you pleased. I would still have ended up with four aces.' The player's reasoning is based on an assumption that is invalid in that hypothetical case, and beyond science in the case of SJ Gould.

  So, contra Cameron, I see neo-darwinism as devoid of the metaphysics he (in my view, rightly) complains about *insofar as it is purely science*. I'm well aware what Coyne, for example, thinks neo-darwinism demands metaphysically - I simply don't care, anymore than Coyne would care what metaphysics Newton married to his view of material reality. Insisting that evolution is designer-free is scientifically vacuous, and can be ignored (at least as far as science goes.) So too can insistence that evolution is the work of a designer, even if I agree with it. As I said with Jon Tandy (who I need to write a response to later), I think methodological naturalism is a misnomer - methodological agnosticism is more apt. Science does not and need not proceed with an instrumentally naturalist (or, of course, theistic) viewpoint in order to remain appropriately limited and achieve success.

  That, incidentally, is where I think both ID and TE efforts should be aimed: Pointing out the real and practical limitations of science, and where interpretations of science enter the metaphysical realm. Point out what 'random' and 'chance' means when it comes to the science: That it is not and cannot be a judgment about the efforts, intention, or lack thereof on the part of a designer or God. It's a pragmatic description, an application of Ockham's Razor (Which is not 'that which is simplest is most likely to be true' but, in essence, 'that which is simplest is most likely to be simple'. Parsimony in science is meant to aid understanding, not determine metaphysical truth.) These things are misunderstood in the extreme, and not always accidentally.

  And this long post has come to an end.

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Received on Tue May 12 14:18:14 2009

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