Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Sat Oct 17 2009 - 10:17:58 EDT


Evidently I became confused in the hurly burly of the email maelstrom
as to who said what and when.

Nonetheless, your response is worthy of comment.

You say that "if God made some things directly or whole, no such
explanation would be possible for those things." I agree that if He
constructed a cell or even a new biological feature by fiat or whole, as
you say, that we could not duplicate such a feat. But that God makes it
directly and we could no duplicate it I don't necessarily agree. This is
where much research and experiment is required.

I really don't see the task I am suggesting necessarily much different
between TE or ID. How, after all, does the TE see God involved in the
creation. The only real objection by TE is that the ID is not
"unambiguously" detectable.

It seems to me, as it seems to you, that evolutionary biology gets away
with too much, not they're not trying to be more specific. The work and
research that I am suggesting would work at the interface of
neo-darwinian, TE, and ID. Unless someone can come up with physically
possible steps for the advent of a new species there is very little way to
further the discussion.

It may well be, as you suggest, that no one can come with a means if God
did it. If that is so, it's very bad news for law plus chance mechanisms,
and good news for TE and ID. But I suspect that means can be devised.
Keep in mind that what is intended here is not a unique "reverse
engineering" or the actual means. The objective is no different from
evolutionary biology attempts and you have been requesting, i.e., that
some conceputal, even possible, means be devised.

All of this does not seem impossible to me. After all, we currently
genes, add new ones, etc. GMO corn is a new species of corn, and soon we
will have GMO wheat (I'm pretty sure). So it seems that we have some
experience with making new species. We can already ask, e.g., whether GMO
corn, which was developed by human design and intervention, might have
been accomplished by neo-darwinian methods.

When you say that God might tinker with the creation by "exclusively"
naturalistic methods, I presume that you mean that the design and
intelligence are somehow extracted. IOW, just as the construction of a
car could be unintelligently constructed (but not necessarily designed),
so might some new species from an older one.

You say:
"In other words, I
> think one can plausibly argue that the cell's design is a "scientific"
> inference (in my sense of the word), without arguing that there exists a
> "scientific theory" of ID, with general laws that are testable, alleged
> particular past events which are testable, etc."

It is not clear to me how one can make an inference of ID without having a
feel for the probability or possibiliy space. Dembski's explanatory
filter relies on such an understanding. What I am proposing is a way of
exploring that space.

BTW, it seems to me that we cannot here avoid the "human problem." The
neo-darwinian will claim that there are no instances of intelligence (as
ID means it) in the world. He will argue that what we call human
intelligence is the product of neo-darwinian processes. If so, then any
process devised requiring what we call "intelligence" is, in principle,
able to be accomplished by neo-darwinian processes. If this is so, there
is no inference to ID possible, for all are inferences to neo-darwinism.


> If you are asking me to re-cast ID as a "scientific theory", in the sense of
> an efficient-cause narrative of how a cell or zebra might be built up from
> some earlier arrangement of matter, by a designing intelligence, as a human
> being builds a car, I cannot do that. First of all, if God made some things
> directly and whole, no such explanation would be possible for those things.
> Second, if he made some things by tinkering directly with older things, then
> a partial explanation would be possible, but only a partial one, because his
> manipulative action would be invisible and in part incomprehensible. It
> would be like the case of Dawkins's static sequence of steps for the
> development of the eye -- we could see how each snapshot marks an increase in
> integrated complexity over the other, but we wouldn't know how the
> transformations were effected and could not characterize them in any detail.
> Instead of "mutation and natural selection caused the light spot to back up
> into a recess", it would be "God pushed the light spot back into a recess";
> the explanation is scientifically superficial in both cases. Only if God
> tinkered with older things and made them into newer things exclusively
> through naturalistic mechanisms -- as in Denton's account -- would it be
> possible to give steps that would be completely analyzable and confirmable by
> the methods of modern science. If the latter is what you are asking for,
> then I think Denton is the place to begin, but Denton's account is only a
> preliminary sketch, and will be nowhere near satisfying from your point of
> view.
> To do what you are asking requires a much greater knowledge base than
> evolutionary biology currently has, and a combination of different bodies of
> knowledge -- genetics, developmental biology, biochemistry, and engineering
> -- which is rare, given scientific specialization. Presumably such an
> account would require the teamwork of many specialists who were open-minded
> to the contributions of other specialists. And it is not likely to get under
> way soon, because ID-sympathetic people at present are systematically barred
> from acquiring biology positions, and hence gaining access to the necessary
> time and lab space and research grants, unless they conceal their ID
> sympathies until they are very senior and influential professors. If such a
> project does get under way any time soon, I predict it will start in the
> engineering, computer science or math departments, not the biology
> departments. (And any independent-thinking biologist who participates in it
> will be reviled by his departmental colleagues.)
> Speaking personally, and not for Behe or anyone else, I will say that I have
> never felt impelled to argue, as some ID people do, that ID is a "scientific
> theory" in the normal sense, i.e., a statement of a particular set of causal
> mechanisms and steps explaining how living things got into their present
> shape. Rather, I have thought of it as a "scientific inference" (using the
> word "scientific" more broadly than many people here do, to include an
> empirical science informed by teleological perspectives). In other words, I
> think one can plausibly argue that the cell's design is a "scientific"
> inference (in my sense of the word), without arguing that there exists a
> "scientific theory" of ID, with general laws that are testable, alleged
> particular past events which are testable, etc.
> And indeed, I think one has to abandon the notion of a "theory" of ID, as
> long as ID's "big tent" is not limited those who hold to Denton-like
> naturalism, but includes many people who believe that the creation of life
> and species require discontinuities. If there are discontinuities, then any
> "scientific theory" will be highly inadequate to explain what has happened in
> the evolutionary past, because "science" of any kind, even in my looser sense
> of the word "science", requires the strict continuity of nature. Without
> continuity, an ID theory would alternate between steps involving natural
> causes, and claims that "and then a miracle happened".
> I don't know what happened in the remote past, e.g., during the Cambrian
> explosion, and I can never know it. I cannot rule out the possibility of one
> or more breaks in the natural laws during the course of evolutionary
> development. Nor can I rule out the possibility that evolutionary
> development was entirely natural, with no miraculous interventions involved.
> And I don't see any way, scientific or philosophical or theological, by which
> I can establish which of the two possibilities actually happened. So the
> most that I can safely do is to avoid all claims of miracles and divine
> intervention, and limit myself to a design inference, i.e., "this did not
> happen by chance" or at least "chance factors were not the predominant cause
> of this", and therefore that "there is design here". And I'm content with
> that. If you want more than that, if you want ID to be a scientific theory
> in the proper sense, rather than just a scientific inference, I don't object
> to that, but I am not competent to build up such a theory, nor do I know of
> anyone who has done it yet. You need to find someone with gifts greater than
> mine, an engineer-biologist of a very high order.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Bill Powers" <>
> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
> Cc: "asa" <>
> Sent: Saturday, October 17, 2009 12:08 AM
> Subject: Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)
>> Cameron:
>> I won't at present address the second issue, but will remark on the first.
>> What do you, or perhaps better, what does ID take the construction of a car
>> to be? Or perhaps even better, what does it take the invention of the car
>> to be?
>> It seems to me that it is very difficult to account for by any
>> neo-darwinian mechanism, although I am certain that neo-darwinians would
>> hold to it none the less. It does appear to entail the intervention of a
>> designer, indeed even an immanent one. So, at it is at least possible to
>> see that the invention of the car would not fit the notion of those IDers
>> who were interested in a "natural" "reverse engineering."
>> So, the invention of the car could be seen as something else. What else?
>> Well, maybe that is not wholly clear. It seems to me, not only possible,
>> but almost necessary that in some way the causal nexus is broken or
>> disrupted. Whatever one might think it seems that such an event would fit,
>> and has been said to fit, IDer's notion of ID.
>> Yet I can tell you how to construct a car. The actual process of
>> constructing a car can be programmed, albeit a very complicated program.
>> But let us presume it requires no "intelligence." It is the invention of
>> the car, the design of the car from the natural world, that requires
>> intelligence.
>> The intelligence, the design, we might suppose to be miraculous. Yet we
>> could still describe the steps, the recipe, for the construction of the
>> car, a construction that might require no intelligence.
>> It is this that I am asking for, or at least suggesting might be possible.
>> Take a single celled organism. What physical steps might be performed to
>> make it a multiple celled organism? Can this be accomplished on a living
>> single celled organism? That is, through out the process can the organism
>> live.
>> Such a description, it seems, might not be very different from what an
>> unguided evolutionist might suggest. But in establishing a procedure, even
>> an intelligent procedure, one can begin to assess the probability that it
>> might occur at random.
>> As I think Behe was trying to get at in a recent article reviewed here, the
>> evolutionist would like to find a pathway in which the organism is
>> benefited at each step. The intelligent designer is not so contrained.
>> So if it is reverse engineered, I do not think we need think of a distant
>> engineer, but one immanent and immediately involved, just like our own
>> engineers.
>> bill
>> On Fri, 16 Oct 2009, Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>>> Bill:
>>> On your first point, about reverse engineering: I take it that you mean
>>> that we could in principle back-reason from the set-up of living things to
>>> deduce the steps by which the intelligent design was implemented, just as
>>> Darwinists back-reason from a chromosome to a "fusion event" in our
>>> primate lineage. If that isn't what you mean, you will have to clarify.
>>> Assuming I understand you correctly, I would answer that the wide
>>> variation between ID proponents makes it impossible for ID as a whole to
>>> give a consistent response. For example, some ID proponents accept the
>>> notion of miraculous interventions, in which the chain of causality is
>>> broken. If that is in fact what happened, then reverse engineering, in
>>> the sense I am using the phrase, would be impossible at all such points.
>>> Engineering depends upon the uniform working of natural laws.
>>> On the other hand, some ID proponents (including a few of the Christian
>>> ones, though more of the agnostic and Deist ones) are very interested in
>>> the possibility that the whole process of evolution may be entirely
>>> naturalistic, without any intervention by a designer, but planned by a
>>> designer. Such ID people would try to "reverse engineer" back to what
>>> happened by trying to establish that the genetic code is like a giant
>>> computer program, set up to produce certain outputs at certain points in
>>> time. This would involve showing that much of the apparently "unused" DNA
>>> is really part of the massive stored program. Michael Denton has broached
>>> this possibility, and, while he has no proof for it yet, he's quite
>>> serious about it.
>>> Obviously this kind of reverse-engineering, to be successful, will require
>>> much more knowledge than we have now about how the evolutionary process
>>> unfolds, how the DNA could be set up in an anticipatory way, etc. But then
>>> again, neo-Darwinian evolution is in the same bind: it can't reverse its
>>> way back to the primitive genetic events that first started the evolution
>>> of the camera eye. We simply don't know enough about how the eye is
>>> produced, even from a developmental point of view, in human beings today,
>>> let alone how it could have been built up by steps over evolutionary time.
>>> All the Darwinists have provided in 150 years is a series of qualitative
>>> "still pictures", of light spots and recesses for the light spots and
>>> lenses made of thickened translucent membranes and so on, plus a
>>> nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the reader to turn it into an animated cartoon
>>> in his imagination. They have no authentically causal narrative showing
>>> how all the pictures can be joined together by known Darwinian mechanisms
>>> at the genetic and developmental levels.
>>> So the short answer is: yes, some ID people will be interested in
>>> reverse-engineering, while others will say that the effort is fruitless,
>>> because science won't be able to explain the discontinuities attendant
>>> upon miracles. But even wholly naturalistic forms of ID are nowhere near
>>> being able to provide a detailed causal account.
>>> On your second point, it depends upon the degree of the "tilt". Some
>>> "tilts" might be very minor, not much off 180 degrees, so that most of the
>>> work would have to be done by Darwinian mechanisms alone, and what would
>>> emerge would be very unpredictable -- Gould's remark about rewinding the
>>> tape and replaying it, and everything turning out very, very different,
>>> provides the appropriate image here. But some "tilts" might be close to
>>> 90 degrees, so that life and even man just spills out, as it were, from
>>> the elements manufactured in the hearts of stars, in which case Darwinian
>>> mechanisms, though still operative, would be merely the "errand boy" of
>>> the cosmic tilt. To use Gould's image again, you could replay the tape as
>>> many times as you wanted, and you would get very nearly the same thing
>>> each time. The "chance" mutations would be, for the most part, no longer
>>> "wild cards" that life suddenly has to cope with, on a sink-or-swim basis,
>>> but contingencies foreseen long in advance, and prepared for by the set-up
>>> of the DNA in the earliest organisms. (Just as one might set aside a bit
>>> in one's budget for replacing flat tires or to pay for library fines or
>>> parking tickets, not knowing exactly when they will occur, but knowing
>>> that it is highly likely that they will occur within, say, the next 12
>>> months.) In the latter scenario (the scenario with an 89-degree tilt, or
>>> even a 75-degree tilt or 60-degree tilt), where the universal constants
>>> and properties of elements can be shown to have made human life virtually
>>> inevitable, design would be the inescapable inference, unless one were
>>> willing to go with (a) the multiverse; or (b) astounding good luck,
>>> against odds involving numbers on the order of a hundred digits long. All
>>> of this is well-explained in Michael Denton's second book, Nature's
>>> Destiny, a work which I think should be mandatory reading (so to speak)
>>> for members of this list, because it is in some ways a perfect synthesis
>>> of ID and TE minimum requirements (real and detectable design in nature
>>> and criticism of neo-Darwinism from the ID side; unambiguous affirmation
>>> of macroevolution and seamless naturalism from the TE side).
>>> Cameron.
>>> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Bill Powers" <>
>>> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
>>> Cc: "asa" <>
>>> Sent: Friday, October 16, 2009 9:21 AM
>>> Subject: Re: Peer review [ was: Re: [asa] Atheist finds God thru Behe's
>>> books....]
>>> Cameron:
>>> A couple of points.
>>> 1) In some recent posts I have tried to instigate a dialogue on what ID
>>> could and should do. It seems to me that IDers ought to be as
>>> interested in conceptual mechanisms as neo-darwinists. They ought to be
>>> at least
>>> interested in reverse engineering of certain features given "initial"
>>> resources. The reverse engineering must be "physically" possible,
>>> perhaps even explaining the physical (e.g., viable) steps employed and
>>> tools, etc. In other words, it can't be a instantaneous creation. What
>>> are the "minimal" requirements of such an engineering project? Having
>>> suggested such a mechanism, one they perhaps suppose requires
>>> intelligence, a neo-darwinian could comment on it. Suggesting, perhaps,
>>> that these steps require no intelligence. Then issues of probability
>>> would arise. It is one thing to say that a certain feature could not
>>> arise by physical law and chance; and another to provide a procedure
>>> that could not be accomplised by those means. It is easy, it seems, to
>>> do this for a car. It seems very difficult to argue that a car could
>>> have arisen by means of law and chance. And yet, isn't that exactly
>>> what a neo-darwinist has to argue? The IDer could demonstrate how a human
>>> puts a car together from raw materials. The neo-darwinist has the
>>> difficult task, I suppose, of being able to demonstrate how "intelligence"
>>> has arisen by natural, unintelligent means. Is this "intelligence"
>>> subject still to these natural, unintelligent mechanisms? The task
>>> appears daunting.
>>> 2) I don't see how having a cosmos that is "tilted" towards biology
>>> undermines neo-darwinism. The "tilt" would simply be inferred as lawful.
>>> It is difficult to understand the nature of this "tilt." Is it a
>>> stochastic tilt? If so, it seems to be expressible in terms of law plus
>>> chance. Our present understanding of possible protein forms may be wrong.
>>> That merely entails that we misunderstand the probability space. So how
>>> exactly is it that neo-darwinian mechanisms are undermined by these
>>> "teleological" perspectives?
>>> thanks,
>>> bill
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Received on Sat Oct 17 10:18:46 2009

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