Archive for ‘evolution’

December 18, 2010

Demarcation; defending Larry Laudan

by Neil Rickert

Since John Pieret informed us about an issue of Synthese on topics related to the evolution vs. creation debate, there have been several blog posts commenting on the article by Robert T. Pennock, and critical of Larry Laudan for what he has said about the McLean v. Arkansas case.  In particular, there are posts at Thoughts in a Haystack and at Panda’s Thumb.

I have never met nor communicated with Larry Laudan, though I have read some of his work.  I am guessing that I probably disagree with him more than I would agree.  One of the reasons that I setup this blog was to express disagreement with much of philosophy of science.  But, that said, in this case Laudan appears to be the victim of a bum rap.  According to the Panda’s Thumb critique:

After that case, a fairly famous philosopher of science, Larry Laudan, criticized the court, and one of the experts who testified, Michael Ruse, for (allegedly) relying on naive and long-discredited attempts to “demarcate” science from pseudoscience and from religion.

I am not seeing that in what Laudan wrote.  I see him criticizing the arguments used, but I don’t see him criticizing the decision itself.  His disagreement is with how the conclusion was reached, not with the conclusion.  Laudan sums up in his last paragraph, with:

We can raise that question anew, with the added irony that, this time, the pro-science forces are defending a philosophy of science which is, in its way, every bit as outmoded as the “science” of the creationists.

And Laudan has that right.

Pennock frames the issue as one of demarcation, with his title “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited.”  But that is not the issue that Laudan raised.  I often see evolutionists asserting that creationism is not science because it is not falsifiable.  The point Laudan was making was that not only is creationism falsifiable, but it has indeed been falsified.  And therefore evolutionists should not be making that kind of argument.  I agree with Laudan.

When you look at the question, as Pennock worded it, then it at first looks easy to distinguish between science and religion.  For example, the difference between a scientific theory and a theology is huge.  But Pennock’s title expresses the question very broadly.  Science and religion are both very broad phenomena.  If there is any overlap at all, then it will be hard to distinguish science from religion in those areas of overlap.  Take the study of human cognition as an example.  There are hypotheses of quantum consciousness, and there are computationalist hypotheses based on the AI assumption that the brain is a computer. They can’t both be right.  Both are usually considered to be part of science.  Neither one of them has sufficient supporting empirical evidence to settle the case.  There’s a long tradition of such speculative hypothesizing in science.  It won’t be easy to distinguish that from some of the speculative hypothesizing by creationists and ID proponents?

It shouldn’t matter that there are parts of science that are hard to objectively characterize in a way that distinguishes them from parts of theology.  Those parts of science don’t belong in the classroom either, except perhaps as a special topics class at graduate school.  The distinctions that should matter are those that are significant for government mandated classes in the public schools.  And at that level, the distinction is clear enough.  We don’t have to solve the most general demarcation problem in order to decide what belongs in the school curriculum.  And we should make those curriculum distinctions on clear unambiguous criteria (which falsification is not).  I see Laudan as standing for exactly that point, that we should stick to clear unambiguous criteria that are appropriate for the curricula issues, and not muddy the question by calling on outdated ideas from philosophy of science.

September 4, 2010

Consciousness and evolution

by Neil Rickert

From time to time the question of consciousness comes up in the creationism, ID (intelligent design), evolution debates.  The proponent of creationism or ID raises the issue of consciousness as something that is not explained by science, and uses that to argue that consciousness could only arise from the actions of a divine intelligent designer.  For a recent example of this kind of argument, see Granville Sewell’s post on Human Consciousness in the “Uncommon Descent” blog.

It is really a typical “God of the gaps” argument.  It is a mystery to me that theists continue to make such arguments.  By now it should be obvious that if they are going to define their god based on the gaps in human  knowledge, then sooner or later that god will be exposed as a charlatan.

In this post, I shall argue that consciousness actually poses a far greater problem for the theist than it does for the evolutionist.  The attempts to explain consciousness have all been attempts to understand how we would go about designing a conscious agent.  That such attempts have not succeeded would seem to pose a problem for the idea of design.

Here is how Sewell finishes his argument:

And if you don’t believe that intelligent engineers could ever cause machines to attain consciousness, how can you believe that random mutations could accomplish this?

Sewell’s argument appears to be that since we have failed in our attempts to understand how to design consciousness, therefore consciousness must be designed.  Perhaps he did not notice the incongruity of such an argument.  An alternative conclusion, and I think a more plausible one, might be that consciousness is only possible in an evolved system, and could not be present in a designed system.

There are three problems that seem to arise in attempts to understand consciousness.

  1. How can a designed system have free will?  It always seems that a designed system (a robot, for example) will be carrying out the intentions or purposes of its designer, and therefore cannot be said to be able to act of its own free will.
  2. How can a designed system be said to appreciate that the data it collects from the world is about something (i.e. is about part of the world)?  This is the intentionality problem that John Searle raised in his famous “Chinese Room” argument.  It is easy enough to see how the robot can collect data that is meaningful to its designer, but it is not clear how that data can be meaningful to the designed system (or robot) itself.
  3. How can the designed agent actually experience the world?  This is approximately the qualia question.  Roughly speaking, and using “through the eyes” metaphorically, it is the question of how the robot can see the world through its own eyes, instead of it merely behaving in accordance with the way the world is seen through the designer’s eyes.

The clear solution to these problems would be to have an agent that, in some sense, designs itself.  Then to say that the agent acts in accordance with the will of its designer is to say that it acts on its own free will.  To say that the data collected is meaningful to the agent’s designer is to say that the data is meaningful to the agent itself.  To say that the agent behaves in accordance to how the world is seen through the designer’s eyes is to say that the agent behaves in accordance with how the world is seen through its own eyes.

With an evolved creature, we cannot quite literally say that it designed itself.  But the evolved creature does come as close to that as we could hope.  Up until the time of conception, the creature can be said to be designed by its parents as part of an inter-breeding group.  The biological development that follows conception can reasonably be considered self-design.

My personal conclusion: consciousness is only possible in evolved systems.  If God had wanted the world to have conscious creatures, he would have created a system of evolution as a way to produce such creatures.

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.

July 30, 2010

The Evolution / Creation wars

by Neil Rickert

In We’re doing it rong (again), Jerry Coyne rejects comments by Everett Hamner on what he (Hamner) sees as the problem, describing them as “an annoying piece ripped straight from the pages of the accommodationist playbook.”  I think the dismissal of Hamner’s views is a mistake.  I don’t doubt that I will also be labeled as “accomodationist” for my comments below.

We need to look at this pragmatically.  To say that the problem is all due to religion, is to say that there is nothing that we can do about it.  We cannot change how religious people act or think.  If we want to do anything about the evolution-creation wars, we need to see whether there are things that we can ourselves change.  Whether or not that is considered “accomodationism” is beside the point.  If we want continued never-ending war, then let’s do nothing about it.  If we want the wars to end, then we have to look toward the kind of changes that we can make, and not place all of the burden of change on religious groups that are based on resistance to change.

What biologists could do, is change the way that evolution is presented to the public.  An explanatory scientific theory serves two purposes.  As a theory, it establishes a framework that guides research in the field.  And as an explanation, it attempts to communicate to the lay public, the kind of thinking and the evidentiary basis that supports the research.

As a scientific theory, as a framework for research, the Theory of Evolution has been very successful.  However, as an explanation, it has been a dismal failure.  You don’t have to look at creationism to see that it has been a failure.  Just ask a non-scientist who is also a non-religious person, about his understanding of evolution.  There’s a good chance that what he describes will turn out to be more like the strawman version coming from creationists, than like the version coming from biologists.

What should we change?

We should stop talking about natural selection and mutation as the driving forces.  They aren’t.  Evolutionists often describe natural selection as a filter, which is appropriate.  The oil filter in my car is a passive element.  It is the oil pump that forces oil through the filter, that is the driving force of the filtration.  Similarly, it is biological reproduction that forces things through the filter of natural selection, so biological reproduction should be more emphasized as a driving force.  Likewise, mutation is often described as copying errors.  But you don’t get copying errors unless there is copying.  Once again, it is biological reproduction that drives the copying that is prerequisite for there being any copying errors.

Biologists, of course, understand that reproduction is a primary agent.  But lay people, listening to discussions of natural selection and mutation, often miss that background assumption.  Evolutionists would be better off saying that biological reproduction is the primary driving force, with natural selection and mutation acting to shape and modify what emerges.

We should stop talking about evolution as fact.  There are many facts, but they are mostly facts of natural history, facts of biology, facts of genetics, facts of biochemistry.  Many of them are known as facts because of the effectiveness of the theory of evolution.  But the theory itself is best considered a framework for research, and not as a fact.  The trouble with saying “evolution is fact” is that saying this drives the impression that evolution is itself a system of dogmas and is little more than a religion.  So keep the idea of evolution as fact to yourselves, and don’t stress it to an audience that has doubts.

We should stop saying that there is more evidence in support of evolution than in support of gravity.  That’s patent nonsense, and is recognized as obvious nonsense by the critics of evolution.  Every time I take a step while walking down the street, I am experiencing forces that are in support of gravity.  The trouble with saying that evolution has more support than gravity, is that it is seen as evidence that evolution is more dogma than science.

Scientists are usually valued more for their research than for their ability to communicate with the public.  And that’s how it should be.  However, when there is controversy and disagreement, scientists need to pay more attention to how they communicate their science to a non-technical audience.