31 December 2007

A Matter of Taste?

I came upon a seminal bit of Phillip Johnson's stuff over at ScienceMusings.com (Blog) today in a piece called "Miracles" or in the comments on it. I've linked the object of the discusion in the title of this post. Here Johnson makes the case that science does not disprove religious dogma and the supernatural; it simply assumes it to be irrelevant, through its materialist focus. It seems a fair point to me. Is it possible that science is an overreaction to the realization that humans are biased to see intentionality in everything that happens? Is science immune to admitting any possibility of a supreme and supernatural being, by assumption? It certainly could be that's true.

If so, it is clearly by application of Occam's razor, which posits that the simpler story is always to be preferred, when faced with a choice of two different interpretations, in the absence of any clear differentiating evidence. Note the qualifiers on that statement. A good intelligent design advocate would say that complexity is of itself evidence of intention and design. Whereas, a good scientist would say that complexity can arise naturally and that self-organization is a property of matter in some circumstances. It's even a property of numbers and algorithms, clear of any matter. 

So it seems that the biggest questions must be answered as matters of personal taste and the making of bets on the future, unless or until direct evidence can be found. We have our choice of attributing that which we cannot otherwise account to deliberate intentionality on the part of a supreme being, or we can regard it as a challenge to explain otherwise. That is, we can blame spooks, gremlins, or gods if we like, with no apparent guilt concerning the lack of evidence. Or we can blame the inherent complexity of nature and vow to keep seeking to understand what we do not now understand. 

Your choice! But I hope you'll pardon me if I regard ID advocates as quitters and nay-sayers who would find the universe unsatisfying if its ultimate mysteries were removed. And yet, there is common ground here, if scientists and materialists would admit that part of what they find fascinating about the universe is that which we still do not understand. 

25 December 2007

Carl Sagan Blogathon, Year 2

However it came about, I'm really happy and excited to see that Cosmos will be on cable during prime time this holiday season (Discovery Science channel). Perhaps last year's decadal observance helped to make it happen. But I think in the future, it might be well to observe Carl's date of birth (9 Nov) rather than that of his death. Isn't that what we do for great people we wish to remember?

In any case, please follow the title link to Joel Schlosberg's blog central for this event.

17 December 2007

Planet Finder

Geoff Marcy gives a great show as a lecturer on the discovery of planets outside our solar system (extrasolar planets). He presented it on 14 Dec 2007 at Goddard Space Flight Center's Science Colloquium. This was a special colloquium in celebration of the life of John Bahcall, one of the pioneering supporters of the Hubble Space Telescope. Marcy had a bona fide letter from Bahcall, encouraging his astronomical studies. Pretty neat!

Marcy presented many of the nitty gritty details that have been learned about over 200 extrasolar planets and nearly put me and a number of others to sleep, though a few were fascinated by every nuance. Then he got down to business, which he labeled as "speculations". That's fair, but he did attempt to make an inference from what is now a statistically meaningful collection of nearby stars that have planets. Even if one is as generous as can be, there is no way that any of the planets we have found could have life on them. And that sets a limit on how many worlds could be populated in our galaxy, or any other. Given the number of stars in our galaxy, the bottom line is that intelligent civilizations, if they exist anywhere in our galaxy, must be short lived phenomena, just a few million years at most. If that is the case, we have already reached what is apparently the typical lifetime of such civilizations. We have reached the point where they die out. And Marcy's take away lesson was that the supreme challenge faced by humanity is simply to survive for longer than the typical civilization does, assuming that they exist at all outside our solar system.

Or are we happy to have a short fling with the universe, on the way to our eventual demise? For myself, I prefer to aspire to Todd Brennan's challenge: "A truly intelligent species will outlive its home star." What about you?

16 September 2007


It appears that I am a winter blogger. This weekend is the first of the fall that is cool enough here in Maryland to motivate jeans and a long sleeve shirt. Yesterday, we did the Maryland Renaissance Festival with our visiting student from Extremadura, Spain. RenFest is always wonderful, from Johnny Fox, the King of Swords (swallows them), to Jousting, the Maryland state sport! We actually had a jouster knocked off a horse this year (he was fine).

However, here's what I want to write about soon, from Panhala:


~ Billy Collins ~

I used to sit in the cafe of existentialism,

lost in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke,

contemplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman

might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandyglass.

I used to hunger to be engaged

as I walked the long shaded boulevards,

eyeing women of all nationalities,

a difficult paperback riding in my raincoat pocket.

But these days I like my ontology in an armchair,

a rope hammock, or better still, a warm bath

in a cork-lined room--disengaged, soaking

in the calm, restful waters of speculation.

Afternoons, when I leave the house

for the woods, I think of Aquinas at his desk,

fingers interlocked upon his stomach,

as he deduces another proof for God's existence,

intricate as the branches of these bare November trees.

And as I kick through the leaves and snap

the wind-fallen twigs, I consider Leibniz on his couch

reaching the astonishing conclusion that monads,

those windowless units of matter, must have souls.

But when I finally reach the top of the hill

and sit down on the flat tonnage of this boulder,

I think of Spinoza, most rarefied of them all.

I look beyond the treetops and the distant ridges

and see him sitting in a beam of Dutch sunlight

slowly stirring his milky tea with a spoon.

Since dawn he has been at his bench grinding lenses,

but now he is leaving behind the saucer and table,

the smoky chimneys and tile roofs of Amsterdam,

even the earth itself, pale blue, aqueous,

cloud-enshrined, titled back on the stick of its axis.

He is rising into that high dome of thought

where loose pages of Shelley float on the air,

where all the formulas of calculus unravel,

tumbling in the radiance of a round Platonic sun--

that zone just below the one where angels accelerate

and the amphitheatrical rose of Dante unfolds.

And now I stand up on the ledge to salute you, Spinoza,

and when I whistle to the dog and start down the hill,

I can feel the thick glass of your eyes upon me

as I step from the rock to glacial rock, and on her

as she sniffs her way through the leaves,

her tail straight back, her body low to the ground.

(The Art of Drowning)

10 March 2007


Chet Raymo has posted a meditation on William James that is sublime. Three short paragraphs say it all. What more can I say? I'll think of something later. For now, just go enjoy Chet!

20 February 2007

The Shore of the Cosmic Ocean

This is an annotated transcript of the video clip that can be found in the navigation column, down at the bottom, under the same title. It's Carl Sagan's materialist manifesto, overlying an unspoken declaration of the irrelevance of supernaturalism. It must surely rank among the most eloquent statements of scientific confidence and ambition ever made. A similar transcript is given in the first chapter of the printed version of Cosmos. But that version is missing some of the best touches of this one.

The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. There's a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as of a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.

This defines the intended scope of the Cosmos, but though it fails to rule out anything specific, one understands immediately that the supernatural and the paranormal will not be needed.

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But, our species is young and curious and brave and it shows much promise. In the last few millennia, we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

Adopting a god-like perspective, we are said to be lost in eternity, but yet the present is seen as a special time of awakening, as Carl returns to the collective "we".

We're about to begin a journey through the Cosmos. We'll encounter galaxies and suns, and planets, life and consciousness, coming into being, evolving and perishing; Worlds of ice and stars of diamond; atoms as massive suns, universes smaller than atoms. But it's also a story of our own planet, and the plants and animals that share it with us. And it's a story about us; how we achieved our present understanding of the Cosmos, how the Cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture, what our fate may be.

A taste of things to come is offered, an enticement, and also a promise to glimpse the future.

We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature.

A credo for study of the Cosmos is advanced, using a balance of imagination and skepticism as we explore. And again, we will be focused on the "machinery of nature."

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little way out into the sea, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. The ocean calls to us. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. And we can because the Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.

This is a metaphor that has stayed with me ever since I heard it in 1980, and it became a core concept in a successful early research paper of mine, written about then. But it's our atmosphere that is the shore of the Cosmic ocean, not the surface of Earth. We don't leave the shoals until we venture well above the atmosphere. And Earth's magnetic field creates a harbor of sorts, fending off the solar wind.

This paragraph borrows a concept from Alan Watts that originated at least a decade before "Cosmos" appeared. Sagan says: "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself." Watts says, somewhat more verbosely: "We are not egos in bags of skin, that come into the world. We come out of it; as trees leaf and cows calve, the universe "peoples". We are the universe, become conscious of itself." Some of the most important ideas are also among the simplest.

The journey for each of us begins here. We're going to explore the Cosmos in a ship of the imagination, unfettered by ordinary limits on speed and size, drawn by the music of cosmic harmonies, that can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organic as a dandelion seed, it can carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of fact. Come with me.

19 February 2007

The Misuse of Intelligence

This from Michael Barone today in National Review Online:

"The Bush critics' position is that we must believe without reservation or criticism any intelligence that can be used to argue against military action and that we should never believe any intelligence, however plausible, that can be used to argue for it. That's not very intelligent."

This reminded me of that quote from no less a warrior than Victor Davis Hanson: "It is as difficult to provoke the United States as it is to survive its eventual and tardy response."

This quote, offered by a friend and debate partner, has always epitomized for me the important American/Western ideal of temperance in the practice of war. Unfortunately, I don't believe the USA has demonstrated much temperance along these lines. In light of that ideal, I would not-so-subtly reword Barone's statement, putting in what seems like an appropriate bias to enforce a moderate response:

"... we must take very seriously any intelligence that argues against military action; and we must demand the highest possible standards of proof for any intelligence, however plausible or widely believed, that argues for it. This is the only intelligent and responsible approach to military action."

If you substitute "use of nuclear weapons" for "military action" it reads even better my way, I think.


18 February 2007

Evolution/Shermer v. Intelligent Design/Dembski

Larry Moran pointed out a debate between Michael Shermer and William Dembski Thurs. evening at Bridgewater College in the Virginia Shenandoah valley. It was a bit too far for me to have attended even if I'd seen it coming, and I was caught up the NASA THEMIS launch that ended up being postpoined until Sat. evening.

According to Jason Rosenhouse, writing on PandasThumb.org, Bridgewater College is a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. According to Wikipedia, this is a pacifistic Christian church without evangelical tendencies. However, it was clear from accounts that the audience was well populated with evangelical Christians. Shermer experienced very aggressive questioning by them, and then Dembski was able to rebut each of his answers.

I've been thinking there is a need for such a debate, but I was expecting it to occur online. It amazes me that Shermer would agree to a debate in so rural an area with a population known for its conservatism. The audience numbered only about 150 according to Rosenhouse.

According to Sal Cordova writing on uncommonDescent.com, Dembski managed to get Shermer to state that he is now open to "ideas like self-organization, or other evolutionary scenarios", relaxing his earlier contention that "no one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether natural selection is the driving force behind evolution".

This is the first time I can recall seeing in print the idea that self-organization might be an alternative to natural selection. If I get Cordova's point right, his idea is that the design of complex organisms could be built into them in a way that is non-interactive with the environment. That is to say, in evolving to a complex state, organisms are following the dictates of an internal design, rather than evolving it as a solution to the problem of their successful interaction with the environment. I really doubt that Shermer was saying that, but it sounds like that was the way his statement was taken. This bears more investigation...

13 February 2007

Darwin Day

Just a quick post to note the occasion. Wish I had time to do more of an observance. Click the title to see what is going on for Darwin Day. Perhaps on President's Day or this weekend? Cheers!
Click to enlarge

10 February 2007

Teach the Revolution!

The state of dialog between evolutionists (Darwinists in the view of creationists) and creationists (IDiots in the view of evolutionists) is truly terrible, but perhaps that's the way it should be. Perhaps the entire ID schtick is as vapid as claimed, and they should be given no quarter whatsoever. They come on so reasonably with plausible sounding critiques of Darwinian natural selection, one is tempted to take them seriously, or at least I have been for about four years now. But my recent explorations have pretty much cleared up any doubts I may have had about whether ID critiques of natural selection need to be taken seriously. They don't. These are the quibbles of people with ulterior motives, and don't stand up to scrutiny at all. Even if they did, their source pretty much disqualifies them, since these folks have no serious interest in improving our understanding of life, only in tearing it down.

So it is fair to conclude that science and education simply cannot afford the indulgence of "teaching the controversy." But I would carry it a step farther than simply ejecting creationism and ID from our schools. In my view, we should be teaching the revolution in human thought that took us from creationism to natural selection. Our best physics curricula teach the revolution in astronomy that wrenched us from the geocentric Ptolemaic universe to the heliocentric Copernican revolution, forever changing our understanding of our own place in the universe. Similarly we should teach the revolution in biology that took us from creationism to the Darwinian revolution. The change has been even more transformative and religiously-disturbing in this case, and clearly we are still struggling with it, but the time has come to stop treading lightly and respectfully toward religion on this and to make a point of stating the case for science. So yes, by all means let us teach both creationism and natural selection in our schools, but let us put them in their proper perspective and say clearly and emphatically that creationism has been superseded in modern thought, with repercussions that religious believers must confront and reconcile with their dogmas.

There should no claim here that Darwinian evolution is the final story, but neither should there be a mistaken impression given that there is any possible return to the idea that a supernatural intelligence might help us explain our world and how we came to it. We can marvel at the incredible grandeur and exquisitely detailed complexity of the universe and life within it, and at the universal laws that so clearly regulate it throughout. But we will gain no useful wisdom for this world from the idea that we must eventually face a designer-creator in another.

So let's teach the revolution as the revolution that it truly is and not as a controversy. Still it is well to keep in mind Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit, which includes: "Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view." Click the title or graphic of this post and then click: "Ideas"

07 February 2007

More Fun and Games with Evolution

Finally I found a simulation of the ID/creationist model of random variation and selection. It's extremely simple, but if you're patient, you can select and revert your way to some positive changes in the "genome". The key in my view is to start with random character strings so you aren't distracted by the initial state. Basically, one selects (saves) any positive change, and then continues mutating. If nothing better comes along, you revert to your selected case, and then continue mutating again. The effect is to simulate a larger population with only the single individual character string. This is being discussed at Pharyngula.

Also being discussed there is a rebuttal simulation that is pretty interesting, and much more sophisticated. It actually shows how irreducible complexity can evolve. If you follow the discussion of it, you'll learn that most cases of irreducible complexity result from a decrease in the fitness of the individual. One commentator gives a useful analogy with an arch that becomes irreducibly complex only when the scafolding used to build it is removed. There is a net reduction in robustness at that point, and then the arch has many parts that can no longer be removed without its falling. Pretty cool!

It's a bit disappointing watching the evolutionists and creationists chewing on each other, usually on separate blogs. The level of discussion has sunken to a new low since the Dover decision, I suppose. Still, the evolvers are not the least bit gracious in victory, nor do the creators give any quarter. Perhaps I'm just being wishy washy, but I would really like to see them compare the above simulations and the standard weasel program and argue the points to a polite agreement to disagree, rather than engaging in endless hurling of sophomoric epithets and insults.

04 February 2007

Human Weapons of Mass Destruction

I have yet to come upon any popular discussion of nuclear proliferation that seems at once lucid, rational and realistic. Everyone seems to regard it is beyond question that acquisition of nuclear weapons by developing countries is an intolerable evil. Most especially, this is true of the NRA set, those staunch defenders the right of American citizens to possess lethal force for self defense, regardless of any demonstrated fitness to manage and responsibly use such weapons. The irony of that position is (in the words of Mike Dunford on Panda's Thumb) is "so dense that four mining firms have put in bids on it". But even if one thinks that warfare has served an evolutionary purpose in human history, enhancing our technological skills, nuclear weapons represent a new and significant opportunity for us all to collectively win a cosmic "Darwin Award." So, I hereby take it upon myself to supply said discussion of nuclear proliferation.

My beef with the NRA position on personal weapons lies in the unwillingness to treat this analogously to the licensing of automobile drivers. Cars are arguably as lethal as guns, and every bit as important to the rights of an individual. The right to autonomous transportation is something I personally find to be far more important than self-defense, because I've been fortunate enough to live in benign environments where there are essentially no threats to a healthy male. So, I would argue that it is every bit as important to train, test, and license the possession and use of guns as the uses of automobiles. This is self-evident truth to me. No one could credibly sloganize to the effect that "now that cars are outlawed, only outlaws own cars."

It also seems self-evident to me that the representative, democratic rule of law that we practice in the industrial world should also be practiced on the international level among nations. The principal problem there is the lack of a credible and legitimate International respresntative government, which seems to have eluded our efforts with the League of Nations and then the United Nations. All war among nations is civil war in my view, and occurs only through a deficit of will on the part of the nations to organize the adjudication of disputes through a representative legal process.

Nation states have a self-evident right to defend themselves when faced with aggression, just as individuals do in a democratic state. The argument that individuals should be empowered with the strongest forms of lethal force carry directly over to an argument that nations should also be empowered with the strongest forms of lethal force, for self defensive purposes. However, they should also be required to demonstrate the capability to manage and deploy that force in a responsible manner, just as we require individuals to do so when operating vehicles, and as we should do for individuals seeking to possess guns.

Currently, there exists a process for nation states to control the acquisition of nuclear weapons, known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, proposed by Ireland and signed by 188 nations. According to Wikipedia, two confirmed nuclear powers (Pakistan and India) and one unconfirmed nuclear power (Israel) would not sign the treaty. And one nation that signed has withdrawn and become a nuclear power (North Korea). The treaty prohibits additional proliferation beyond the five current nuclear states (USA, France, Russia, UK, and China), promotes disarmament, and legitimizes the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. However, the treaty provides no legitimate way of acquiring nuclear weapons except for leaving the treaty agreement. It does provide for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor nuclear materials in nonnuclear states and to alert the treaty parties to any violations of the treaty. The IAEA estimates that 40 states could develop nuclear weapons if they so chose and withdrew from the treaty.

When the NPT is reviewed every five years, it is routine for the US and other powers to assert NATO agreements to share nuclear weapons, while complaining about proliferation among other nations and opposing Iran's rights to develop a civilian nuclear power capability. The NATO powers also assert that the treaty will be voided if a state of "general war" should arise, effectively releasing them from the terms of the treaty in that case. More recently, the Bush administration has asserted the right to share civilian nuclear technology with India, in violation of treaty terms, while continuing to accuse Iran of developing weapons in violation of its treaty agreement.

Nations with adversarial postures relative to the western industrial nations, and especially those with alleged ties to terrorist organizations, are naturally regarded with suspicion as potential threats, especially if empowered with nuclear weapons. However, taking military action to interdict the acquisition of nuclear weapons would clearly violate the rule of law dictum mandating that violence be used in only in self defense. But rule of law can be practiced successfully only when an authority exists that can monitor and deal with perceived threats.

We clearly need a treaty that puts the UN or other international body in place as the adjudicator of nuclear disputes. Ideally, the treaty rules would allow for "licensing" the acquisition of civilian nuclear technologies by any nation seeking to do so, provided that specified criteria were met, as judged by an organization like the IAEA. Among those criteria might be the demonstration of freedom from terrorist links. In addition, licensing of nuclear weaponry should also be explicitly provided, with more stringent criteria to be met, such that it would be exceedingly difficult to meet them. Qualifications might include the demonstration of a credible nuclear threat from a non-participant nation.

With this sort of rule of law in place, the US could quite properly insist that nations like Iran must meet basic requirements for use of even civilian nuclear technologies. A representative agency could regulate the acquisition and use of nuclear arms by nations, including the USA, regardless of their agreement, by monopolizing the legitimate use of force to take military action against those nations that violate the law as set by the participating nations.

A treaty, after all, is just an agreement to a common good that is shared by the signatories and infringes on the acknowledged rights of none. The problem is that a treaty cannot be imposed on non-signatories as well, even if they are a minority.

29 January 2007

Modern Cathedrals

Comments by Michael Griffin, NASA administrator, at the Quasar Award Dinner, Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership on 19 Jan 2007:

"To me, the irony is that when we do hard things for the right reasons – for the Real Reasons – we end up actually satisfying all the goals of the Acceptable Reasons. And we can see that, too, in the cathedrals, if we look for it.
"[The cathedral builders] gained societal advantages that were probably even more important than learning how to build walls and roofs. They learned to embrace deferred gratification, not just on an individual level where it is a crucial element of maturity, but on a societal level where it is equally vital. The people who started the cathedrals didn't live to finish them; such projects required decades. The society as a whole had to be dedicated to the completion of those projects. To be able to do that for cathedrals was to be able to do it in other areas as well. We owe Western civilization as we know it today to that kind of thinking – the ability to have a constancy of purpose across years and decades [and generations]."

It's worth a read of the entire text...

“A truly intelligent species will outlive its home star.” - Todd Brennan

22 January 2007

Even Intelligent Design Evolves

Here's a fanciful depiction of the situation in 2020 on Mars, that most difficult of planets on which to land a probe. This may not prove anything, but it certainly is a reminder that even intelligent design has a way of evolving.

13 January 2007

Revisiting the Weasel Experiment

Richard Dawkins' interesting computer simulation of natural selection with random variation demonstrates a startling ability that, "at first exposure, is every bit as counterintuitive as quantum mechanics." [Scott Maxwell]. It has been criticized by intelligent design folks on grounds that: 1. the answer is known ahead of time so of course it gets the right answer, and 2. unrealistic mutation probabilities are used in the demonstration, and 3. random variation will cause more damage than improvement, resulting in catastrophic results. Objection 1. is that of someone who simply will not trust the experimenter, but can be addressed by defining a "fitness function" that turns the goal into an objective optimization problem. Objection 2 can easily be adjusted. Objection 3. reflects some subtleties that are too often glossed over by evolutionists, including Dawkins. This post is to show that the Dawkins demo has been put online, and that updates have been made to the demo that allow it to be much more closely analogous to real natural selection. In addition I'll point to some other software that gets even more realistic, evolving 2D graphics in a method that observes a distinction between genotype (algorithmic data) and phenotype (translation to graphical products).

First, here is the original Dawkins weasel experiment, except that you can substitute whatever string of data you would like as the target and then watch the process converge on the answer, typically in less than 100 "generations." It's too bad one could not continuously update the target string and watch the selection process demonstrate adaptation, as it dynamically tracks the changing conditions. Ah well, that will come in time.

But here is a better version of the weasel program, especially in the sense that you can download the source code and play with it yourself, or just read it to see what is going on. This one reveals a subtle point that is the source of creationist misunderstandings of this program. The figure shows that quite a large population of "critters" is generated in the process of selecting for the target output string. This is essential because many "bad" mutations occur that are deselected. This isn't stated clearly in Dawkins' original description or the instance described above. It is something that the ID folks believe to make a solution impossible, but clearly it does not do that, though it does require more deselection than is obvious from reading Dawkins or the previous online program.

Next is the much more realistic case where we have a specified population of random strings that are being randomly altered at a specified rate. Moreover, pairs of the strings are sexually mated to produce offspring strings in each generation, as random mutation proceeds. Several selection options can be exercised, as well as several options for the sexual merger. The mutation rate and population rate can be varied as much as one likes, slowing the process to a crawl if desired. So much for objection 2. Again, it would be nice if the target string could be varied as the process proceeds, so we could watch adaptation to new guidance being reflected in the results.

Finally, we have a more complex but visually appealing piece of software that implements a more realistic simulation in which a genotype is set up consisting of parameters controlling diverse graphics primitives and techniques. Each genotype translates to a phenotype as a 2D graphic panel. The user can then exert intelligent selection by either asexually or sexually breeding new generations of graphics, manipulating the graphical products toward whatever s/he may choose. Warning: this gets considerably more involved, though this program insulates one from the details so that everything is accomplished by point and click selection and no actual graphical engineering is required.

So there we have it in gradually more complex forms; a compelling demonstration of the power of selection with random variation, as a way of exploring multi-parameter design spaces and searching for optimal solutions of whatever problem is chosen, whether it be the matching of a particular string of characters, or the creation of a desired graphical image. So much for objection 3.

Does anyone know of simulation programs like these designed to illustrate the criticisms of natural selection that have been made by the intelligent design community? I would like to see what kinds of demonstration can be made of the failure of natural selection to function as advertised. If so, please point to them in the comments and I will compare them with the above cases.

Further Reading:
More than you ever wanted to know can be found in the Creationism Asserted and Creationism Rebutted links in the sidebar. However for a really definitive look at the matters discussed here, TalkOrigins can't be beat.

Intent, Intelligence, and Purpose in Design?

In response to an invitation to discuss that status of Intelligent Design in the UK, a Christian theist neuroscientist from Canada (Elizabeth Liddle) created a stir at uncommondescent.com (Bill Dembski's blog site, click title) by using Dembski's own arguments to show that natural selection is a form of intelligent design. Dembski had written that "by intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options--this coincides with the Latin etymology of “intelligence,” namely, “to choose between”. Liddle pointed out that, by that definition, natural selection must be credited as an intelligent process, and therefore, natural selection is a clear example of "intelligent design". Needless to say, this did not go over well and a lengthy debate ensued with the so-called "moderator" of uncommondescent, DaveScot, during which Liddle at one point pointed to a story she wrote her son. Liddle was polite, good natured about the sparring, and indefatigable. After some long rebuttals of his standard arguments, for which he did not appear to have an answer, DaveScot summarily banned her from the site. "[Febble] doesn’t understand how natural selection works to conserve (or not) genomic information yet insists on writing long winded anti-ID comments filled with errors due to lack of understanding of the basics [and ] is just not a constructive member.", after the following exchange:

DaveScot suggested that intelligence must also include planning for the future. Liddle conceded that natural selection does not plan for the future in the sense of running model scenarios and choosing the one that seems best, as in a chess game, for example. But she asserts that by remembering past mistakes and successes, natural selection is in some sense planning by using the strategies that worked best in the past. Her final statement before banning was:

"It may be described as “trial and error” learning, but that is a bit of a misnomer, as “trial-and-error” could just as easily describe random search. Trial-and-error learning involves, well, learning. It’s much more efficient than random search because you learn from your successes and your mistakes. Natural selection + replication with modification also learns from both its successes and its mistakes, which makes it moderately intelligent.

So the scale of intelligence begins with Dembski's simply "making choices", extends to "making informed choices" (based on a record of prior experience, kept in the DNA), and then culminates in "making choices based on models of future developments" which is where humans come in. This seems eminently reasonable, but does leave open the question of intent or purpose. I would have named things differently here. Choices reflect clear intent or purpose, in my opinion, but not much intelligence. So natural selection certainly expresses intent, as well as minimal intelligence per Dembski's definition. But natural selection with genotype replication brings note taking and documentation to bear, adding more intelligence to intent. And human theory and model making adds still more power to intent, allowing for the attribution of "purpose," and implying a longer view of things rather than just a preference for certain immediate results.

Comments on these definitions?

08 January 2007

Carl Sagan on evolution

From Cosmos - Carl Sagan on evolution

"Evolution is a fact, not a theory. It really did happen." We may not know fully how it happened yet, but there is no denying that it did. And we have participated in manipulating what happened as long as we've been around, with our inquiring minds wondering and exploring what we can accomplish, and emulating nature's trial and error.

07 January 2007

Engineering and ID

I've been mixing it up on the Uncommon Descent blog on ID. It's a bit frustrating because they are choosy about what they will pass through their moderation filter and the moderator tends to react rudely to dissenting views. Sometimes it seems that comments only get through for which they have a convenient rejoinder. But I have had some good interactions there. To their credit, they have moderated me though for an interesting exchange today.

The article and discussion are at the link attached to the title of this piece.

Brief synopsis:
The article says that engineers can appreciate ID because they engage in it every day and can see the design in nature more clearly than others.I claim that engineers do not design complex systems, but rather simple systems. When they get *truly* complex, the process becomes evolutionary.

DaveScot says this is the scotsmans fallacy (he should know!). So there.

I reply that *truly* complex is not subjective (as in the scotsmans fallacy) but defined as a system too complex to be practically predicted, citing Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science." When designs get complex, they have unintended consequences that cannot be predicted but can later be exploited by incorporation into an evolving design.

DaveScot says I still am committing a scotsmans fallacy and besides who the heck is Wolfram?

Some of the rest of the participants begin to engage on this, and I reply. One interesting line concerns intelligent selection, which is what happens with animal husbandry, or the guidance of complex system evolution by intelligent engineers.

DaveScot never actually engages on the points under discussion but rather makes a fuss about Wolfram being a crank, and accuses me of being a crank too. He gets pretty unfriendly and admonishes me to refrain from logical fallacies, or citing cranks, and says that he only allowed my posts because I work for NASA, "an organization for which he has the highest respect". Then, he commits what for me is an unpardonable offense: he edits the link I have provided in my personal profile to my web site, connecting it to my NASA site. I'm outta there...

06 January 2007

Logic and Naturalism

My Google alert for humanism and naturalism turned up a beautiful blog making a mathematical argument for the supernatural. Gødel's proof that mathematical logic requires some assertions to be made as axioms beyond proof, is claimed to prove the existence of the supernatural. But knowledge that something is incomplete does not tell us what would complete it. As Dawkins would say, "it has not been disproven that there is a teapot of fresh hot English Breakfast orbiting the Earth. But that is not a good basis for astronauts to plan a tea on orbit."

Corresponding to Godel's theorem, there is one important moral principle that is axiomatic and beyond proof, and that is the sanctity of life in the universe. Naturalists agree on this principle and share it with the adherents of most other moral codes. It requires no supernatural authority to recognize the importance of life in the universe. The problem is that many if not most religions qualify sanctified life with the adjective "human", and even more narrowly, human life of the right religious persuasion. Humans of other persuasions (or races, creeds, colors) are often defined to be subhuman, putting them outside the sphere of sanctity and making them eligible for execution when expedient.

The difference between supernaturalism and naturalism is that there IS abundant evidence, accessible to everyone, of the everything in the natural world. The natural world of reality is "that which doesn't go away when you stop believing in it" (Phillip Dick). This is an extremely powerful argument and there is nothing illogical or inconsistent about it.

Scientific "truth" is not that at all, but rather is our best guess, today, and will certainly be revised. Compare that with "revealed truth", i.e. dogma. But even dogma will be examined by science, and accepted when there is evidence for it. Science seeks only to "silence" claims for which there is no evidence, in favor of claims for which there is evidence, but then only until there is more evidence.

Regarding the blog comment on "non-theism": that's close to agnosticism, the assertion that there can be no knowledge of events to which we have no sensory access (like the period before the big bang). One is free to believe what one likes about things for which there is no evidence. They must be believed to be seen. Naturalism simply urges that we make life and death ethical decisions based upon what we know and agree upon (plus the axiom of the sanctity of life) rather than things some of us happen to believe but about which others may disagree without any possible (evidence-based) resolution.

More relevant here is "pantheism", which is the assertion that it is the universe itself to which we owe reverence and the attribution of divinity. Could there be a power more indifferent to mere humans; yet which is evidently responsible for the existence and the support of all life forms? Or a better basis for the sanctity of life? It's not the deity we want, too "red in tooth and claw" for our tastes in a personal God, but it's the deity we have, according to the available evidence.

"We are a way for the universe to know itself." -- Carl Sagan