Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Intelligent Design: pro et contra

Recently I have been closely following the debate on I just thought it would be a good idea for me to come up with my summary of it. I hope it could be useful to others.

That blog is one of very few outlets for a fair debate between  evolutionists and those who are for various reasons not happy with evolutionism, in particular supporters of Intelligent Design. I must say there are some commenters from both sides whose reasoning is particularly strong. This is why I think this blog is interesting.

The debate is around a new theory, the theory of Intelligent Design, which maintains that under some conditions it is in principle possible to infer to purposeful design via intelligent agency just by analysing the structure of a given object (regardless of any particulars of the design process). 

What follows is my own interpretation of the debate on the blog. I will try and present it from two different points, the religious/philosophical (because I am Orthodox Christian, I will naturally found my position on Christian thinking), and the scientific.

    Philosophical/Religious Arguments in Favour of ID

    So Intelligent Design. One can only welcome the presence of theories alternative to the ubiquitous evolutionism. Due to the nature of scientific investigation, science per se should be blind towards the motivations of particular scientists. The only important criterion is, in the end of the day, the quality of theories proposed to explain experimental data. The fair pursuit of scientific truth can never be adversely affected by the presence of competing theories. Theories that are flawed or those lacking generality will eventually go away themselves. However, in official science and education today there is a strong prejudice against anything that goes contrary to the naturalistic mainstream thought which is understood in a utilitarian way as a means not to "let a divine foot in the door of science". This bias reaches the point of ideological censorship, which, in my opinion, violates the  freedom of scientific thought. Hidden ideological agendas are capable of hindering science. This situation brings back memories of the Soviet years when every scientist in the USSR was obliged to do science in agreement with "the only true" Marxist-Leninist teaching whatever the field of their professional interests, even mathematics or chemistry. Of course, today there is hardly anyone who speaks about this teaching in earnest. However, one has to think hard about how to avoid such ideological bias in future. Perhaps those scientists who live and work in countries which never experienced harsh ideological censorship as yet, should take this warning seriously.

    As far as I am concerned, I can see nothing wrong in evolution per se. Obviously, we can speak about the evolution of a system over time meaning its dynamic behaviour. But not only that. I think  that it can still be legitimate  scientifically to speak about evolution in a more precise sense as about the development or manifestation of some hidden properties or properties that were present in the system only potentially up to a certain moment. I can see here nothing that goes against traditional Orthodox Christian thought. One can think that the Creator has imparted  the property of spontaneous self-ordering to matter. As an aside remark, I would wish to avoid using the word self-organisation in this context. I will explain why in a minute. Examples of self-ordering are crystallisation, the chemical clock, formation of stable wave interference patterns such as standing waves and so on.

    However, the acceptance of evolution in principle comes with a few important reservations. First, the question about the limits of self-organisation of matter is open. Indeed, self-organisation understood as spontaneous emergence of formal semiotic relationships between components of complex systems has never been observed to date (in contrast to emergence of redundant low-information regularity of structure which I will refer to as self-ordering following David Abel). ID makes this distinction clear. It introduces a threshold, a measure of specific information content which allows the determination of whether purposeful intelligent agency has been involved in the creation of an object or in the fine-tuning of its parameters. Spontaneous (i.e. without purposeful intelligent agency) generation of specific information content in quantities beyond the threshold value (> 1000 bits) is, according to ID, impossible.

    Secondly, the possibility of self-ordering (spontaneous emergence of regularity in matter) leads us to the question of parameter tuning: is it a mere coincidence that the parameters of our universe allow for the existence of matter in the forms we know,  as well as of C-chemistry or von Neuman replicators?

    There are two very important aspects of Orthodox Christian theology that have a bearing on evolution (in particular, common descent). These are the ecclesiastical teachings (a) about the Person of Jesus Christ and (b) about death. In the Orthodox Christian perspective, the authority of Divine Revelation expressed in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition is higher than that of any philosophy or rational thinking including scientific theories. We must not forget that (a) the scientific method itself is necessarily limited: scientific knowledge in the form of theories is constantly being corrected and sometimes partly reconsidered in accordance with the internal logic of scientific investigations; and (b) the scope of rational thinking is also limited as contemporary science itself maintains (cf. e.g. non-computability results by Gregory Chaitin).

    I will not discuss here the validity of revelation in general as a source of knowledge. The only thing I will mention is that science itself can be thought of as a form of revelation. I will also assume for the purposes of this discussion that genuine Revelation exists in principle and is accessible to man. I will leave out the very important question of how we can test what claims to be Divine Revelation for authenticity.

    Whenever we have (perhaps, temporary) contradictions between the revealed religious truth that is not susceptible to change and the constantly corrected scientific big picture, I believe the former should be preferred at the price of having to live with problems for a while.

    Revelation maintains that before the fall man did not know death. But in what sense were we immortal? Was the initial immortality a property of human nature or a state supported by uncreated divine energies  i.e. by grace? There is no apparent consensus between the fathers of the Church on it: some saints have it that man was created immortal by nature, others argue that this immortality was maintained by grace supposing that, in the true sense, immortality belonged exclusively to God. So the first group of the Church fathers were of the opinion that sin was followed by the removal of graceful immortality and, as a result, we became naturally necessarily mortal. The others however thought that death was foreign to human nature. However, all fathers in unison taught that sin was the cause of death entering the universe through man. This is in fact accepted by the Orthodox Church as an axiom of religious experience.

    So death in Christianity follows the fall, a catastrophic event in the beginning of the history of the world, whose  consequences we face even today every moment of our lives and which reflects itself everywhere in the universe (dissipation of energy, local imperfections in bodies as it were superimposed on structure bearing signs of what was then perfect order, e.g. dislocations in crystal lattice). In contrast, evolutionism posits that death is natural in the world and is merely a termination of physico-chemical processes in the organism). Furthermore, death in evolutionism is even necessary. By the relentless logic of Darwinian evolution, less fit life forms must go to leave room for better adapted species. In other words, we have a contradiction in the interpretation of death between mainstream modern scientific thought and Divine Revelation.

    Classical Darwinism also maintains descent of all known life forms from one or several common ancestors. This is also in contradiction with the traditional ecclesiastical perspective, in particular with the teaching about  the Person of Christ. Revelation has it that God put on human flesh and does not say anything positive on whether it follows that God through his incarnation in the Person of Jesus Christ has also put on animal flesh. On the contrary, even though the building blocks of human and animal flesh are the same, human and animal natures are different. In Judeo-Christian revelation there are pointers to a striking difference between the creation of man and the creation of other life. Of course, we do not know how exactly it was done, but while man came into being by some kind of direct mysterious act of creation the other forms of life that preceded him were created indirectly (cf. "Let Us make man in Our image" (Gen. 1:26), and "let the land produce leaving creatures" (Gen.1:24)).

    If we look further, not only Christianity but all known religions have it in common that man bears in himself something divine. I think this commonality alone deserves serious consideration.

    Finally, ID posits that biological systems bear a signature of intelligent agency  and consequently they are not a result of some spontaneous undirected processes. For this reason, in contrast to evolutionism, ID is not in conflict with Orthodox Christian theology.

    Philosophical arguments against ID

    The only philosophical argument I can think of that may appear to be against Intelligent Design theory is its central claim itself, i.e. the scientific inference to design as the cause of life. Strictly speaking, ID does not infer to the existence of God because it does not claim it can say anything definite about the properties of the intelligent designer (or designers) nor about any characteristics of the design process. It seems that it logically follows that if our designer is in fact the Creator of the universe, we have a scientific means to prove that God exists. This apparently contradicts the basic principle of freedom of religious faith: why am I to be judged if I had a smaller chance to believe than somebody else? To believe or not to believe should be a free choice unbiased by scientific or any other consideration by way of reasoning and consequently it should be an act of our heart rather than mind. If we develop this consideration a bit further, we will see that a scientist proficient in ID has a fairer chance to believe than someone blissfully unaware of the intricacies of this theory, which may appear to be a violation of the principle of fairness. But on the other hand, we all live in different conditions, some of us are richer than others, some better educated or may have been less exposed to various sorts of evil in childhood, etc. And all this does not free us from the final judgement in principle.  

    Scientific arguments in favour of ID

    1. Irreducible Complexity

    Scientific advances over the entire 20-th century have lead to a better understanding of what is going on at the ground - biochemical - level of life. Biochemical evidence suggests the legitimacy of what is known as irreducible complexity of life, a holistic view that life is only explicable as a combination of many tightly integrated components (which is in a sense to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). In contrast, classical evolutionism is reductionistic, although there exist holistic evolutionist paradigms. Consider DNA for example.

    It is known that DNA is a code for protein synthesis. Protein domain functionality is discrete in principle notwithstanding the possibility of functional exaptation (e.g. through gene duplication). Empirical evidence suggests that the feasibility of such functional switches is tightly limited (see the works of D. Axe, A. Gauger, M. Behe and others). In other words, in order to be subjected to natural selection protein must be functional a priori.  These considerations of course remain valid not only in relation to DNA. So irreducible complexity is one of the key characteristics of biological systems.

    Evolutionists keep trying to disprove the generality of this principal point. One of the recent attempts to refute it was by Prof. Ken Miller in relation to the flagellum of E. coli (the archetypal example of an irreducibly complex system). In essence, all such attempts claim that between two different functional states of a  biological system there always is or was in the past a path in its state space. In other words, evolutionism posits that the graph of functional states is by necessity connected. However it may not be the case in general and this claim in its generality is unsupported. On the contrary, control theory suggests that, in the general case, the sets of functional states form isolated islands in the configuration space. It is important to realise that homeostasis is made possible through multiple dynamic equilibrium adjustment and regulation mechanisms which necessitate parameter tuning and control. The notion of irreducible complexity in algorithmic complexity theory is conceptually the same as the biological one (see the works by Gregory Chaitin on the halting probability of a random program of a given length). It also has analogies in engineering denoting phenomena brought about by a compound action of several factors such as resonance, and in set theory (see maximal sets), to name a few.

    On another point, evolution presents an explanation of modification of existing functionality rather than of emergence thereof. The central point of debate is therefore whether evolution can generate large amounts of biological information. Evidence suggests that large quantities of information can be generated by organising and controlling processes aimed at achieving a goal. In contrast to this, evolution does not have a goal and it claims that all biological diversity is a result of an unguided process and is a side effect of adaptation.

    Irreducible complexity in biology suggests that life can (and I believe should) be considered as a given. It is very likely that it cannot be 'mechanically' reduced to physics and chemistry as was noted by Niels Bohr decades ago. I am not advocating here for something like vitalism. The origin of life may well present a case where there cannot be an all-encompassing mathematical theory whereby every true fact is true for a reason (see the works of Gregory Chaitin here he argues about the existence of an infinite number of mathematical truths that cannot be logically proven).

    2. Discrete Nature of Information Transfer and Processing Systems

    It is symptomatic that some evolutionist commenters on the blog refuse to consider information transfer/processing systems as discrete and semiotic. Evidence suggests however that in any such system including living organisms there are three different components that are always represented by different material entities:
    • input signal from the source; recorded information is actualised in the form of specific patterns of matter;
    • output signal out of the receiver;
    • the encoding/decoding protocol that materialises the relationship between the material object the information is about and its informational representation. 
    Commenters on the blog present a nice example of recorded information, the music box, a device producing musical sounds by the use of pins placed on a revolving cylinder/disc which pluck the tuned teeth of a steel comb. Information comes in the system as a pattern of pins on the cylinder. The protocol sets the physical correspondence between the positions of various pins and the teeth. The output signal is the sequence of sounds of different frequencies. Clearly, the protocol should exist a priori to enable proper functioning of the music box. Similarly, in a conversation the participants' common language acts as the protocol for information exchange. In the same way, the alphabet and the dictionary constitute the protocol for information exchange between the reader and the author of a text.

    Again, these three components are always present and are always different in any information processing system.

    In my opinion, the strongest argument against spontaneous abiogenesis as it stands today and, at the same time, the strongest argument in favour of ID is the absence of any evidence of spontaneous emergence of control as opposed to mere low-information redundant regularity of structure.

    3. Specification + incredibly small probability = signature of purposeful intelligent agency

    In my opinion, this criterion due to William Dembski is a sound scientific method of inference to purposeful intelligence agency in the design of an object (creation or parameter tuning). An archetypal example of design inference is perhaps the bas-relief of Mt Rushmore memorial near Keystone, South Dakota, USA. It complies with the necessary requirements for design inference: (a) a very small probability of the curvatures of the cliff representing the portraits of four US Presidents and (b) the patterns/pictures of the faces of G. Washington, T. Jefferson, A. Lincoln and T. Roosevelt given independently of the bas-relief. For comparison, the neighbouring parts of the same cliff do not have an independently given pattern/specification even though the probability to encounter their geometric form is also very small.

    Mt Rushmore Memorial (USA)
    It is worth noting that the probability of the observed event should be sufficiently small to qualify for design inference and to exclude factors of chance contingency and (or) law-like necessity. This is done by comparing the said probability against what are called universal plausibility bounds (see the works of David Abel) that are obtained by calculating the maximum number of Planck quantum states in the reference system of interest  since the beginning of its existence. E.g. the threshold plausibility in the gamut of the entire universe is 1 out of 10^140 supposing the commonly accepted estimate of the age of the universe since the Big Bang, 14 billion years.

    We often use explanatory filters in practice even without realising it. An explanatory filter is an algorithm that helps filter out certain possibilities in a stepwise manner (see for example the Turing test, coma scales or forensics). The full set of possibilities is {chance contingency, choice contingency, law-like necessity}. A priori filtering out of choice contingency is scientifically illegitimate.

    4. Design is sometimes the best explanation

    Abductively, choice contingency under certain circumstances is the best explanation (in the sense of Occam's Razor). An example can be the existence of fine-tuned complex systems; as well as the existence of high-information content multi-part systems with control that allow for formal descriptions of interactions between the components. Spontaneous emergence of such systems has never been observed to date in contrast to emergence of redundant low-information regular structure such as chemical clocks, crystallisation and other spontaneous transitions to order from chaos, which we mentioned earlier.

    5. In the wide sense, ID does not contradict evolution as a principle

    This can be  easily demonstrated by the  existence of artificial systems capable of evolving within varying limits (e.g. expert systems, self-learning algorithms, etc.). However, based on the principles of weak Artificial Intelligence, ID posits that the scope for evolution in such systems is limited by the amount of information initially injected in them . In other  words, such systems are designed to evolve within known limits. Spontaneous generation of sufficient quantities of specific information (500-1000 bits),  according to ID is not possible. This claim presents the theoretic possibility to falsify ID. 

    Scientific Arguments Against ID

    I will mention two arguments that are in my opinion the strongest. The first is the universality of genetic code interpreted as evidence of common descent. The commonly accepted metric of proximity of two given species in terms of common descent is based on genome universality: the higher the common percentage of their genome is, the closer the two species are related to each other. While I do not preclude the possibility of speciation in principle, I believe the combinatorial nature of the above parameter feasibility issues preclude Darwinian formation of high enough taxonomic entities.

    The other serious scientific argument against ID is the apparent absence of implications for further research, i.e. for formulation and testing of further hypotheses and theories based on ID. Therefore I would call ID a methodology rather than a theory at this moment. On the other hand, I believe it is likely that the question of the origin of life, which is where ID and evolutionism are in principal disagreement, we will eventually hit against the wall of mathematical non-computability (see Chaitin's work on the omega, the halting probability of a random program). 

    However, when we think of this carefully, evolutionism does no longer provide any real impetus or entailments as far as actual biological research is concerned. Rather, it provides an ideological background for interpretation of research findings. As such, ID may in the same manner provide an alternative framework and I am sure is capable of injecting enough vigour in research activity. E.g. bioengineering can well be interpreted as ID proof of concept. Indeed, intelligence agency ultimately amounts to heuristic guidance when searching for optimality/feasibility in vast configuration spaces. In addition, intelligence is much more creative as a factor of biological novelty generation than passive adaptation is.

    This post has been published at on December 1, 2011.

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