Tuesday, November 17, 2009

God of the Gaps

Over here I attempted to explain to the ever-polite Rus (and, linking, I find he's still going strong) that he didn’t understand speciation because he was thinking Platonically. He wasn't 'aving it, it goes without saying, but such is life. The attempt to demonstrate the impossibility of an evolutionary leap from one species to another is, as anyone with a passing interest in the subject will know, an old device used by Intelligent Design theorists, the idea being that if you can show that nature can’t do it on its own, then Divine Intervention is required to bridge the gap. Of course, once you grasp that species are not Platonic Forms (whether defined by DNA or any other characteristic) but the names we give to populations of genetically individual creatures, the speciation ‘problem’ disappears because there isn't, in fact, a gap to bridge. A speciation event is merely anything that divides a population into reproductively isolated sub-populations. Time and differing evolutionary pressures (whether natural selection in differing environments or fluke or genetic drift or anything else) might lead to some degree of divergence between the populations and eventually we might or might not decide to call them different 'species'. Much like maddening after-dinner riddles, or those 3-D ‘magic eye’ pictures, when you can’t ‘see’ population thinking it’s impossible and you get bogged down in red herring details (in Rus's case "when the sperm meets the egg", or indeed, "hits the road", yuck), but once you can, it’s so simple and obvious it’s hard to remember what the problem was in the first place.

Peter B suggests that I do a post about why Intelligent Design doesn’t work for biology but might for physics. I'd like to oblige but the difficulty there is that while I do have a passable grasp of the rudiments of evolutionary theory, I know even less about physics than I do about parenting, so arguing the details about fine tuned universes and multiverses etc is really beyond me.

That said, I would always be very wary of any kind of Intelligent Design approach to anything. Science is one way of seeing the world, religion is another. They are different frameworks, both have their insights and internal validity. Scientists like Dawkins, as I have increasingly come to realise, stray beyond their remit when they insist that science equals hardline atheism and argue, for example, that religious approaches to questions are ‘nonsense’ or invalid. The most they should say is that they are unscientific.

The problem with ID is that it insults both religious and scientific approaches. It insults science by hijacking its language but bastardising its method. It insults religion by degrading its role to that of a loon in denial, repeatedly crying “this far and no further!” as he is pushed backwards once again. As a defence of the existence of God, ID is embarrassing: the business of accepting everything the scientific method tells you, but attempting to squeeze in whenever there is a gap. Then every time the gap is filled the result is only further humiliation and damage for the religious cause. Best give up on that particular cause, just as Dawkins should give up on his. God deserves more than the ever-shrinking gaps, and science deserves more than to be pestered by the loon. ID benefits nobody. My advice, for whatever that’s worth, is to give it a wide berth.

24 comments:

Gaw said...

Brit, what's your view of Bryan's point in the ST piece:

'It's all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, "irreducibly complex", beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.'

worm said...

If this design is so 'intelligent', then how do we explain Geordies?

Brit said...

Gaw - I thought that the way he included that in the piece without context was a massive error of judgement by the Yard (and said so at the time). The irreducibly-complex eye canard is equally if not more redundant than the speciation gambit.

He has since backed off from that piece, btw, saying it was editorially compressed. But I think countenancing ID harms Bryan's wider view, which I agree with, that science is just one framework for understanding the world, and religion is another. ID tries to squeeze religion into science - a pest for science, a blunder for religion.

Gaw said...

I totally agree with your post which expresses excellently what I think. It's like watching a whale battling an elephant. I just want to make sure I'm not missing anything.

Peter Burnet said...

I'm not sure (and I mean that--I'm not a scientist)everything that comes under the rubric ID can be reduced to your tweaking god, who does indeed sit between the bizarre and the wacky. But the reason I am intrigued by all this is that, in biology, the repsonse to design arguments is to posit a natural process and to show that it can indeed explain how we got from there to here materially and randomly. This is harder to do in physics and cosmology because it really doesn't make any sense to suggest the unfolding of the universe and galaxies is driven by a survival imperative or that they are competing with anything.

Dawkins like to talk about how Darwinism allows him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In some ways I think that was a lot easier to pull off before the sixties. Until then it was easy and reasonable to assume the universe was timeless and stable. That life was an unlikely accident might be so, but hey, stuff happens. There was the spark in the pond of primal goop to get in all going, etc. It was just assumed there was other life out there and we would observe or even contact it some day.

A lot has happened to make it all more unsettled. The Big Bang and the cosmological constant show that the universe had an origin and is expanding rapidly. Where it is going or why no-one knows.

We now know everything is so fine-tuned that the chance of a universe that supports life evolving accidentally has been calcualted at more than one in more than the number of atoms in the universe. Them's some odds. Similar calculations have been made about the emergence of life itself. And where the heck is that other life.

There are answers, of course, but more than one scientific commenter has noted that many of them seem to be driven by a palpable and desperate attempt to avoid any suggestion of design. Multiverses with nary an iota of evidence, matrix's, self-organizing universes and the use of the soft anthropic principle tautologically all qualify. But there is little room for them to just smile a bland smile and say: "But you don't understand how natural selection works. Too much Platonic thinking". :-)

I think this quote sums up what I'm trying to wrestle with this. Besides, it makes the god of the gaps look considerably more majestic than the cosmic dodderer trying to fix up a poorly designed eye.

I'd love to spend all day arguing with you, but unfortunately I won't be able to continue until tomorrow.

Brit said...

Well i'd love to argue too, but boringly I can't really do so. In the past I might have, but you're right, if the universe is indeed fine-tuned then a designer seems to me to be no more or less strange than the multiverse. There may be arguments for the multiverse but I don't have a strong enough grasp of them. On the other hand, positing a designer brings its own domino effect of problems. All of which is to say, once again, dunno. This is a different order of argument from the ID in evolution one.

Peter Burnet said...

Who cares anymore whether you are bored? It's for Charlotte, Brit. You have to solve this for Charlotte.

Brit said...

This thread needs a healthy dose of Skipper to rescue it.

Peter Burnet said...

I don't know about that. I'm not sure I can bear to be called a null again.

worm said...

Interesting stuff- just a shame I know absolutely nothing about any of it, but Im enjoying reading it anyway

Brit said...

What, Worm, you think we do? If knowing about a subject was a requirement for blogging about it, the number of blogs in the world would be approximately zero.

David said...

Ah, the evolution wars. Hard to believe we were ever so young. Now, friend and foe alike can hoist an electronic pint and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Still and all, it seems clearer to me than ever that Darwinian evolution, having killed off biology, is now suffering its own death throes. The papering over of cracks, the insistence on orthodoxy, the Dawkins imperial expansion -- all signs that the paradigm is about to shatter like glass. It could not long survive the discovery of DNA.

There ain't no fittest and it has nothing to do with survival. Natural selection is a nullity. There are no ever-faster lions creating ever-faster gazelles creating ever-faster lions. There's no feed-back mechanism. All there is is mutations, which might or might not be expressed, which might or might not reproduce and which might or might not spread through the population.

One day, after the new paradigm kicks in, evolution as an artifact of human pattern seeking behavior will be a fascinating academic topic.

Brit said...

Well there are two ongoing debates, aren't there David?

One is the quiet scientific one about the importance of natural selection vs other natural factors, which we could broadly summarise under the heading 'dumb luck'. Dumb luck, as you (over)state is probably on top.

The other is the much, much noisier one about God vs Darwin. One of the infinite ironies being that a great many of those on the Darwin/science side don't have a clue about the first debate and are, for the most part, not really interested so long as they think they can use Darwinism to clobber religion.

Much like climate change, one day humanity might well look back on this second debate and laugh.

Brit said...

Dawkins, it's worth noting, finds himself on the wrong side of both.

Susan's Husband said...

Actually, Mr. Burnet, there is evidence for multiple universes - I noted it a while back. Basically, we can replicate it in micro version in a lab.

I have been meaning for a while to write something similar to Brit about how populations of creatures are really clouds and "species" are simply humans seeing shapes in those clouds. Some clouds are obviously distinct, but many aren't and that's where the arguments start. Evolution is then winds that blow bits of the clouds around.

Gaw said...

That's all we need, another metaphor. Albeit a very pleasant one.

Brit said...

heh heh, just what i was thinking, Gaw, though that is very good, SH.

That's a third debate - trying to find the perfect metaphor so that the likes of Rus can finally twig. For which the 3D Magic Eye pics is itself a good metaphor - do you remember the fad back in the 90s? Everyone standing around yelling advice to the last poor sod who can't see the aeroplane... "Try squinting!" "Try relaxing!" "Look through the picture, not at it!" "Try pretending you're looking at a tree through a misty train window on which there is a No Smoking sign..."

worm said...

loved those magic eye pics- BOY did I feel superior when I worked out how to do them

Hey Skipper said...

Scientists like Dawkins, as I have increasingly come to realise, stray beyond their remit when they insist that science equals hardline atheism and argue, for example, that religious approaches to questions are ‘nonsense’ or invalid.

Part of the problem lies in an unaccountable failure in English itself.

A deist is one who believes in the existence of a supreme, but non-intervening and impersonal, being.

A theist is one who believes in supreme being with specific qualities and desires that intervenes in the universe and has a personal relation with humans.

Yet English uses atheist instead of adeist. So far as Christians are concerned, Jews are atheists; for Muslims, Jews and Christians are atheists. And for the Abrahamic religions, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians are right off the reservation.

So, strictly speaking, Dawkins is asserting that rational inquiry has demonstrated that all theisms have no objective basis, which puts him conceptually no different footing than any religion with respect to all other religions.

In that sense, science is atheistic; Copernicus and Kepler had put the knife in long before Darwin showed up to twist it. So I think it is very tough to argue that science's increasingly detailed observations are not inherently atheistic, because at every turn those observations directly contradict those divine revelations that are about the natural world. Science contradicts all theisms, but says nothing about deism.

The consequent argument isn't so clear. Just because all religions are objectively false does not necessarily mean that all religious conclusions are wrong, or that religions serve no useful function despite being based on false premises.

I used to think those things were true; due to the intertubes, not so much anymore. Literal religious belief is toxic. Add a dash of dunno, though, (cf Christianity) and I have a hard time finding any downside to religion, or at least anywhere near enough to justify any further attack on belief.

Peter:

We now know everything is so fine-tuned that the chance of a universe that supports life evolving accidentally has been calculated at more than one in more than the number of atoms in the universe.

That calculation is impossible; there is no deriving chance from a single data point. Positing pre-existing designer is no help at all, because it only kicks the original question down the road.

David:

Still and all, it seems clearer to me than ever that Darwinian evolution, having killed off biology, is now suffering its own death throes. The papering over of cracks, the insistence on orthodoxy, the Dawkins imperial expansion -- all signs that the paradigm is about to shatter like glass. It could not long survive the discovery of DNA.

The underlying claim of evolution is that once having got started, life required no deus ex machina. Consequent to this claim is that all existing life, including us, is contingent and related. Natural selection was the initial explanation; clearly, that is simplistic.

But there is no denying that DNA substantiates the underlying claim, or that the succession of dinosaur fossils shows a strict continuity to today's birds.

++++

Regardless of anything else, the truest words in this thread so far are these: One of the infinite ironies being that a great many of those on the Darwin/science side don't have a clue about the first debate and are, for the most part, not really interested so long as they think they can use Darwinism to clobber religion.

Gaw said...

Skipper, that's a fascinating and highly useful distinction. It's helped me locate myself along the spectrum anyway.

Peter Burnet said...

David:

To your list of indications that Darwinism is approaching its sell-by date could be added the current efforts to give random natural selection an aesthetic appeal by insisting it is heart-stoppingly exciting and a thing of exquisite beauty. That's the whole idea behind Dawkins's current book, which I confess to skimming in search of the racy parts. Watching paint dry is riveting compared to contemplating infintesimal genetic changes over eons, but somehow we are now supposed to believe it is as spiritually uplifting as High Mass at Notre Dame. It smacks a little of old Soviet atheist museums and I sure hope we aren't in for a flood of evolutionary art to answer those fun creationist theme parks (with rides!). Whatever happened to gloomy French existentialists trying to seduce co-eds on the Left Bank by preaching their heroic despair before the abyss of nothingness?

Brit is basically right about ID, at least the popular version driven by American constitutional and legal battles. But, meh, the sociology and psychology of this competition has become a lot more interesting and fun than either the science or theology underlying it.

Brit said...

Whatever happened to gloomy French existentialists trying to seduce co-eds on the Left Bank by preaching their heroic despair before the abyss of nothingness?

Now that is classic Burnet.

Brit said...

Btw, Peter, did you know that you'd been given the PeeZee treatment?

Peter Burnet said...

My fifteen minutes of blog fame, I guess. What a fun crowd.

They really are a court lawyer's dream. All they would have to do (apart from finding some manners) is step back and admit that, like belief, materialism eventually reaches a point where it can take us no further and provide no more answers. Just as theology runs out of logical steam when it runs up against omnipotence and omniscience, so materialist explanations for existence and life crash against the irrationalities of human nature and experience, the circularities of determinism and that merciless taskmaster, infinity. "I am that I am" squares off against "It is what it is", and the only thing left to say is choose your pronoun, gentlemen.