Archive for August, 2010

August 16, 2010

An array of slam dunks

by Neil Rickert

I try to follow the Uncommon Descent blog, in order to keep up with what is happening in the Intelligent Design world. What I notice is post after post that claims to refute the theory of evolution. Sometimes these posts mention a feature of nature, and present an argument as to why that feature is evidence of design.

What interests me, at the moment, are the posts that don’t even give any pretense at argument. They just assert the design as obvious. Consider, for example, the post “People will say anything to defend Darwin“, where some research is cited, and then the poster says “You know Darwinism is a religion when you see how people will twist themselves into corkscrews in order to avoid considering design.” Apparently, the appearance of design seemed so clear to the poster, that no actual argument was needed.

I am using the basketball term “slam dunk” to refer to that kind of post. Apparently the ID proponents think that this kind of evidence is just a slam dunk for ID, and obviously could not be the result of evolution. Evidently they see no need for an argument. Yesterday, one of the UD bloggers even used “slam dunk” as part of the title for a post (“Close Calls Versus Slam Dunks“).

What becomes obvious, is that the ID proponents really do see the world differently. They really do see their examples as clear demonstrations of design, and they really do find the idea of biological evolution quite implausible as an explanation of nature.

I suppose it could be a religious kind of thing. However, I am not so sure about that. I grew up as a member of a conservative Church. I went through a period where I would describe God as creator. I used to sing “All things bright and beautiful“. Yet it seemed to be an empty attribution. When my father made something, I could ask him “how did you do that” and “why did you do that”. With nature, such questions were discouraged and never adequately answered. Somehow natural things were always very different from designed things, so saying that God was designer of all lacked explanatory power.

If it is not a religious kind of thing, then why do ID folk see things so differently? Perhaps it is a “Two Cultures” kind of thing. I cannot judge. I mostly see things from the science side of the two cultures, and never could make much sense of the other point of view.

August 11, 2010

The reasonable effectiveness of mathematics

by Neil Rickert

(This is part of my series of posts on evolutionary epistemology)

Perhaps it is a new meme in the ID world.  On several recent occasions, I have seen ID (Intelligent Design) proponents asserting that mathematics is evidence of an intelligent designer.  Sometimes it is a comment on the mathematics itself, and sometimes on the way that mathematics works so well within science.  A recent example of the latter kind is Karl Giberson’s essay “Mathematics and the Religious Impulse.”  The argument seems to be that there is no reason for the world to be mathematical, and that the useful of mathematics is therefore evidence of a divine intelligent design of the world.  Giberson is not alone in this view.  It is similar to the “Fine Tuning” argument that is sometime made in support of ID.  Others, including physicist Eugene Wigner, have thought the effectiveness of mathematics to at least be surprising and unexpected.  In this essay, I shall present my view on the issue.

So is the role of mathematics in the sciences evidence of intelligent design?  Well, yes, of course it is.  But we know who the designers were – they were the scientists themselves who were designing their theories.

I get strange looks when I say things that suggest that science involves design, invention or construction.  People seem to hear it as saying that scientists construct the world (something claimed by social constructionists).  However, I am not at all suggesting that scientists construct the world.  I suggest only that scientists construct ways of talking about the world.  And while there is not complete freedom in how we talk about the world, there is still a considerable amount of leeway.  To illustrate this, consider your stereo system.  We have two very different ways of talking about the output power that is fed to the speakers.  We can describe that in terms of Watts, a absolute linear scale.  Or we can describe it in terms of decibels, a relative logarithmic scale.  That we can such very different ways of talking about output power, shows that our ways of talking are not fixed by the problem we are talking about.

As I suggested in an earlier essay, the problem of knowledge is the question of how we can have facts at all.  Scientists solve this problem by creating a framework that allows us to express the facts of interest.  This is a bit like a builder constructing a scaffolding around a building.  The requirement for the scaffolding is that it fit the building, but that still leaves some flexibility in the scaffolding design.  Likewise for the scientist, the problem is one of fitting a framework of concepts to the problem, but the form of the resulting framework is underdetermined by the problem.  Scientists use this freedom of choice to give the framework a mathematical structure, wherever that is possible.

The trouble with traditional epistemology, is that it depicts the problem of knowledge as one of truth seeking and belief change.  However, most of the major scientific advances involve conceptual change, and the choice of conceptualization is mostly a pragmatic one rather than a veridical one.  Mathematics is effective in science, because scientists build mathematical ideas into their frameworks of concepts.  And physics is the most mathematical of sciences because physics has the largest role in defining new concepts.

August 7, 2010

Theory and Data

by Neil Rickert

This is intended as a reply to John Wilkins recent series, and in particular on Dynamics and classification redux.

When I look at the history of the scientific investigation of electricity and magnetism, what I mostly see is a struggle for ways of getting data.  I see a number of different ways used, including the deflection of gold leaf in a Leyden jar and, later, the twitching of frogs legs when connected to an electric circuit.  Eventually, the scientists came up with the methods that we use today, and they developed measuring standards that they could follow to reliably provide data.  And when I look at the physical laws associated with electromagnetism, I see that, for all practical purposes, they are those measuring standards, as abstracted to make them independent of particular measuring units.

When I look at Newton’s laws, I see something similar.  The dyne, a basic unit of force, is normally defined as the force required to accelerate a mass of one gram at a rate of one centimetre per second squared.  That is just Newton’s law f=ma being used as a measuring standard.  Newton’s law of gravity was important particularly because of its use with respect to the motion of the planets.  And there, I see it as a measuring standard that would allow one to measure the mass of the planets and of the sun.  We cannot measure those masses with a traditional lab beam balance.  Cavendish’s famous experiment is widely seen as calibrating that standard.

The examples I have given are from physics, so they might seem far from the questions of biological classification that are of particular interest to John.  And measurement might seem different from classification, though I shall try to relate them later in this post.

Linnaeus gave us a classification system that was far more refined than what had been in use previously.  Instead of saying “That bird is a large water fowl”, we could now say “that bird is a member of Linnaean designator.  The second statement is far more precise.  Because it is more precise, it carries a higher information content.  The effect of the Linneaus classification scheme, is that it greatly increased the amount of information that we could convey in biological descriptions.  That increase in the amount of expressible information is, or should be, of great epistemic significance.  And it was probably an important part of what made evolution so apparent to Darwin.

Here’s little on my relevant background.  As a child, I developed an interest in mathematics and  in science (particularly physics).  I tended to look down on biology as mere classification.  More recently, I have been studying human cognition, and have come to recognize the theoretical importance of the kind of classification done in biology, and my comments above on the epistemic significance of Linnean classification reflect that change in view.

Classification sorts items into a collection of categories.  When we measure something, say electrical current, the measurement in effect places what was measured into one of a continuum of categories.  With measurement, we have chosen to use real numbers as the labels for the categories.  But it is still a very similar activity to the classification that we see in biology.  And the epistemic significance of measurement is the same – it greatly increases the amount of expressible information.

John says that we are learning machines, and he connects that term “learning machine” with the research into machine learning that is done in AI (artificial intelligence).  I prefer to say that we are learning systems, and avoid any commitment as to whether we are machines.  There is nothing coming out of machine learning research that comes even close to the learning that we see in humans.

The underlying assumption from machine learning is that we already have data, and learning is a search for finding patterns in that data, such as might be useful in classification.  That seems to be similar to John’s view.  My alternative (and heretical) view is that the problem for a newborn child is in getting data in the first place.  I cannot see why the output from sensory receptor cells could be more than the kind of bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion mentioned by William James.  My conclusion is that the child has to invent forms of classification (though “classification” is probably the wrong word; I prefer “partitioning”) in order to have any useful information about the world.  And that would make partitioning (classification) fundamental to epistemology.