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