Sunday, 19 October 2014

What is the intelligent design hypothesis?

OK, so what is the intelligent design hypothesis?

This question can best be addressed by studying the books at the heart of the movement. These would be (in my view and I would suggest by common consent)  'Darwin's Black Box' and 'The Edge of Evolution' by Michael Behe and 'Signature in the Cell' by Stephen Meyer

Cue snorts and retorts from the 'Behe has been refuted many, many times.' brigade. Behe has indeed been cursed, derided and misrepresented many, many times but his arguments have not been refuted, even if they have had to be modified to a limited extent. I'll come to that later. We are discussing what kind of thing ID is: the question of whether its principal protagonists are right or wrong in their arguments is obviously very important but peripheral to the question 'Is intelligent design religion?'

In 'Darwin's Black Box' Behe considers several biological processes in detail and asks whether Darwinian mechanisms (natural selection acting on random mutations) are capable of having built such systems. By meticulous study of the details of the systems, which include the clotting of blood, sight (photosensitivity) and the immune system. Behe develops the concept of 'irreducible complexity' in which we find that sophisticated machines in which  many parts work together to achieve a particular outcome tend to fail completely when one part is removed or wrongly assembled. Behe uses the analogy of a regular mouse trap to lead into the much more sophisticated nanomachinery of a bacillary flagellum. If any one part of the mouse trap, let alone the flagellum is taken away, or is even slightly wrong (for example, if the spring of the mouse trap is too strong or too weak, the trap does not catch FEWER mice, it catches NO mice.

As an example of the poor reasoning which opponents of Behe and intelligent design are willing to use rather than admit he might have a point, one opponent (Ken Miller) has made a video in which he uses a broken mouse trap as a tie clip. He claims that this refutes Behe's irreducible complexity argument, although in fact he is only using typical Darwinian 'could have' assertions. On another web site I saw a series of drawings which claimed to show functional mouse traps in varying degrees of functionality. But none of the traps would in fact have worked. Presumably their proposers know this because these 'might have been' traps remain drawings. Nobody to my knowledge (I'm happy to be corrected on this, comments are not moderated or censored) has made working models and used them to catch real mice. I don't think any of them would work. What's more, any spring based trap has to actually be SET and BAITED, which can't be explained without an intelligent external agent. More importantly, the mouse trap analogy is many orders of magnitude less sophisticated than the simplest biological system.

But even if we can debate the validity of the mousetrap analogy, we note that Behe hasn't got anywhere near talking about religion or creation. He is just testing a scientific hypothesis-that biological structures like the eye can develop gradually by steady slow improvement, or whether this (like the fake mousetraps referenced above) is merely a philosophical abstraction which would not deliver working structures that progresses from good to better to best by unguided processes in real life.

meaningful versus meaningless complexity

Stephen Meyer mainly uses mathematical arguments in his book 'Signature in the Cell' . The book could in my view do with being about 40% shorter, but the long preamble is all about the mathematics. Meyer studied the discovery of DNA at Cambridge and his central argument is about meaningful versus meaningless information. This is very important when we are talking abotu probabillity. If we could assign a number to the precise spatial arrangement of all the grains in a cubic metre of sand, it would be a stupefyingly massive number with effectively zero probability of it being repeated randomly. Nevertheless, the number evidently did occur once. This argument or one like it is used against those who (like me) assert that the probability of life assembling itself is so small that it can be discounted, because 'Given enough time, anything could have happened'. However, this sand number is utterly meaningless. Plot the spatial arrangement of grains in a billion, billion, billion etc cubic metres of sand, they will all have highly complex and rare numbers but all be the exact same kind of dead inanimate thing. Meyer successfully explains the difference between random complexity and purposeful complexity.

In the nucleotide sequences found in DNA, we also have stupefyingly unlikely numbers, BUT they carry coded information which DOES something. When transcribed and used to build amino acids in correct sequences into proteins by intracellular nanomachinery (which has all the appearance of being purposefully designed and does in fact behave purposefully) we see that the information carried on DNA is PURPOSEFUL.

Meaningful information is never seen to emanate from a non intelligent source.

Having explained what we mean by a meaningful piece of information (which could be as simple as a rhyming couplet) Meyer argues that there is no example in any field of human study where a meaningful piece of information has ever arisen from a non intelligent source. He argues from this that if we use the same principles that Darwin and Lyell used in their reasoning (the key to explaining effective causes in the distant unobserved past is the study of effective causes/repeatable events today) then we should logically deduce that since meaningfully complex things ARE routinely seen to arise from designing intelligences but NEVER observed (where we know the cause by direct observation) to arise from non rational causes, we should reasonably conclude that the high order magnitude meaningfully complex things that we see in nature had a designer.

Random DNA changes are observed to degrade information

As Behe, Meyer and other ID advocates observe, even relatively small changes in the DNA nucletotide sequences lead to wrongly assembled proteins which will not function normally. In another book which uses ID arguments 'Genetic Entropy: the Mystery of the Human Genome' by geneticist john Sanford, the author speaks of 'near neutral' mutations. these are analogous to small, infrequent spelling mistakes which we initially compensate for but which will inexorably and inevitably convert a meaningful piece of written information into illegible junk. The same thing is happening with the human genome, and it would happen very much faster if it were not for the incredible DNA check and repair mechanisms we have which detect and correct most mutations.

The above is a very short overview of some of the arguments used by prominent intelligent design advocates. Although to my knowledge Behe, Meyer and Sanford are all Christians, the key arguments advanced in the books mentioned above do not rely on God, faith or the Bible but only meticulously reasoned science. In particular, the complex and purposeful nature of the information carried on DNA which instructs cellular nanomachinery to build correct proteins. 

DNA mutations are seen to be harmful, sometimes lethal.

If the information is corrupted by random alterations (mutations) the tendency is for the protein to become less functional or to fail completely, leading to less fit or dead plants, animals and people. The genetic disease Xeroderma Pigmentosum (caution, disturbing images)  illustrates this very effectively by showing us what happens when our DNA check and repair mechanisms do not work properly. 60% XP of sufferers are dead by age 20.

If ID is religious, is Darwinism anti-religious?

So far, we have seen no evidence that intelligent design hypothesis is religious. Admittedly, I have not proved it isn't religious, but all I have cited above (and you can read the books and judge for yourself) is a fair reflection of typical ID arguments. But if we accept that ID is not religious, does ID have a religious agenda? That's an interesting question, which must be considered with the opposite question 'Does evolutionism have an anti-religious agenda?'.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Is intelligent design religion: how do we define religion?

To progress the discussion about the question 'Is intelligent design religion?' we need a definition of religion. But how can we get one that isn't biased?

For those who get their ideas about religion in the form of short memorable slogans from Brian Cox, Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, there is no problem. Religion is mumbo jumbo bronze age fairy tale delusional nonsense for losers without a shred of evidence and the cause of most of the evil in the world and has been disproved and displaced by science. But what about those of us who would like to think calmly and rationally about the subject?

my Oxford Reference Dictionary defines religion as 

'1) Belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship; the expression of this in worship . 
2) A particular system of faith. 
3) A thing that one is devoted to. 
4) Life under monastic vows 
(Latin religion-obligation, bond, reverence.

Well that is interesting. Evidently the Dictionary was put together by men (and/or women) who like me are fallible and may have differences of opinion, so the above cannot be claimed as absolutely definitive. It seems reasonable, if not absolutely clear cut. Fair enough, the great Oxford scholar C S Lewis wrote a book (The Four Loves) about the 4 different Greek words that can be translated 'love' and their different meanings. As Einstein is reported to have said, 'Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.' Reality isn't always easy to comprehend and we should not violate reason and stifle enquiry by oversimplification, let alone in pursuit of a partisan agenda. I have a partisan agenda, perhaps readers (if any) have one too. Dawkins openly does, he wants to eliminate religion (including, perhaps especially, Christianity which he compares to child abuse, cancer and a virus). See 'confounding factors.

Christianity is a religion under definitions 1-3 (but not IMO 4) above. I'm a Christian, so I am (or try to be) 'religious' in the sense that I believe in, worship and seek to obey and follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth. But as soon as I say that, someone will quite reasonably ask 'What kind of Christian? Catholic? Eastern/Russian/Greek Orthodox? Protestant? And if the latter, what species of Protestant?' And I can respond to this, but not right now. Thousands of books have been written about the differences between different sects of Christianity, but that's not what I'm writing about here.

Religion: 'A thing that one is devoted to'

I note with interest the 3rd definition above 'A thing that one is devoted to'. This would appear to be capable of including various human philosophies and other objects of desire and perceived worth, even football or music. The question 'Is Atheism/materialism eligion?' is raised occasionally, and of course the proper response is 'it depends on how you define materialism and religion.' My Dictionary defines materialism as

'1) The tendency to prefer material possessions and physical comfort to spiritual values. 
 2) The theory that nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications.'

Materialism: theory, philosophy, fact or religion?

Once again, I do not claim that any dictionary is absolutely reliable, but am interested to note that in 2 above materialism is called a theory. I would call it a philosophy, but I find that many of its followers consider it an established fact. More than a fact, the very ground and nature of our being. Anyway, can we consider materialism to be a religion?  Clearly it is not belief in a supernatural being, quit the reverse. It is a belief that there is no supernatural being. But materialism (which is basically another name for atheism) is clearly '2) A particular system of faith and  3) A thing that one is devoted to.

Do we ever deceive ourselves?

Atheists in my experience tend to be touchy when accused of BELIEVING in atheism. They reply that they have no beliefs but simply accept the findings of science. They have an absence of belief in God or gods for the same reason they do not believe in unicorns or fairies, that they have seen no evidence for these things. (*) They would believe in God if they were presented with compelling evidence, they say. Obviously their world view compels them to say that, they can hardly say that they would continue to refuse to believe if they saw good enough evidence. But how could we test that assertion? Sometimes we say things that we feel we ought to say in order to preserve out high self esteem and impress others, but maybe sometimes we are lying to ourselves. 

Christian apologists and preachers like G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Ken Ham, John Piper and others would say that there is plenty of evidence if you look at it in an unbiased manner (see earlier post on confounding factors) but that no evidence will convince someone of something that he is determined not to believe.

Let me cut to the chase. every country has a criminal prosecution system of some kind. Why? Why do we need lawyers to prosecute and also to defend accused people? For the very simple reason that when people are in the wrong and facing sanctions, they lie, lie and lie again to evade facing their responsibilities. Same for politicians. The idea that people are routinely persuaded by good evidence when they don't want to be is.....unsupported by evidence.

When 2 men disagree, one of them at least must be wrong

But how can we know which is wrong and which is right? Its easy if we just say 'The one who agrees with me is right' but can we be more objective than that? Look at a Muslim and a Christian arguing. One of them (at least) must be wrong, but neither will change his mind. Look at a Catholic and a Protestant arguing about whose interpretation of the teachings of Jesus is correct. One must be wrong, but rarely is either persuaded by arguments. Atheist versus theist: same thing again. If you think I'm wrong, Dear Reader, then you have to ask yourself the question 'Why does this apparently educated person persist in believing nonsense which has been refuted many, many times?'. Fair question, why do you think I believe poisonous nonsense despite the evidence? But can you then find the wit and grace to apply the same reasoning to yourself and the position you hold? Oh but you don't need to, do you, because your beliefs are all supported by mountains of overwhelming evidence, aren't they? Obviously that would not apply to everyone, but it describes some fairly IMO.

Anyway, clearly the task of finding an agreed, clear and reasonable definition of 'religion' is not quite as simple as some would like to make it. But as we can't progress this discussion without a definition, why not go with

'1) Belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship; the expression of this in worship . 

Suits me. For the purpose of the discussion 'Is intelligent design religion?'


PS the question of religion and good and evil is often raised. Too big and too interesting a subject to deal with as a postscript to this discussion which is about the question 'Is intelligent design religion?' but I'll very briefly address Christopher Hitchens' famous question 

'Can you tell me of any good deed which could be done by a person of faith but not by an atheist?' 

Hitchens evidently thought this was an incredibly powerful anti-religious question, because as set the answer is clearly 'no'. But, as his brother Peter said 'It's a duff question.'

to address the question, 2 questions and an observation about measurement.

1) What do you mean by 'good'?

2) Why are you so sure that atheism isn't a 'faith'?

3) 'could' versus 'would'. In other words, potential versus performance. What might happen versus what does happen. If you are into science and evidence, we are not interested so much in what might theoretically happen, but what actually happens in the real world and can be MEASURED. Not anecdotes or questions designed so that only one answer is possible but careful measurement with confounding factors taken into account.

More on this later.

(*) Oddly, many atheists are Marxists despite the evidence of misery, tyranny, poverty, environmental degradation and war produced by that particular godless philosophy when put into power in countries like China, Russia and North Korea. When I was approached by a Socialist Worker Party man with their magazine, I said 'No thank you, Marxism has failed.' He sneered at me 'It's never been tried.'

How deep our denial can run when the evidence is against something that we really desire to believe in?

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Confounding factors in evaluating intelligent design

Confounding factors in evaluating intelligent design

Opponents of the intelligent design hypothesis generally damn it as pseudoscience and religion in disguise and reject it without considering it. They have used the law in Britain and America to prevent it even being discussed in schools. ID is viciously misrepresented, attacked and lampooned in the main stream media. We will consider this approach later but today I want to consider the issue of confounding factors.

confounding factors exist everywhere

Confound: to perplex, baffle, or confuse (Oxford reference dictionary). every scientist who wishes to do a decent bit of research that his peers will respect has to take confounding factors into account. for example, if research is being done to find out whether alcohol taken in moderation has a net positive or negative effect on health, you would want to make sure that the research was not being funded or having its terms of reference set by the alcohol industry. Or for that matter by Alcoholics Anonymous. They would bring their bias to the table which would influence the findings and invalidate their conclusions. That seems obvious, and simple to achieve, but powerful vested interests have ways of exerting influence beyond direct funding or bribery. You would have to carefully vet any research team to avoid bias.

Jury vetting acknowledges the reality of everyday bias

in criminal trials, juries are vetted to minimise bias. In medical trials, both the participants and the researchers have to be 'blinded' to avoid open or subliminal bias. If you were doing research to see who was the greatest football team in the world, it would be no use doing a survey of the opinions of Manchester United supporters. I could multiply examples, the point is that the issue of confounding factors in any sort of scientific research is universally recognised. Confounding factors can completely invalidate research findings and cause a paper or finding to be rejected.

In asking the question 'is intelligent design religion?' we need to first define the terms intelligent design and religion, then set the terms of the enquiry i.e. how are we going to investigate this question. One of the things we need to do is identify confounding factors.

If we were designed and created, then we are not autonomous

I am not going to attempt to make a full list of confounding factors this post, but the first one is very obvious. If the intelligent design hypothesis can be shown to have considerably better explanatory power than evolution, or even to falsify evolution, then we would have evidence pointing to a Designer of unimaginably greater wisdom and power than ourselves. And that Designer might be God. And a lot of people REALLY don't want there to be a God, because, to put it simply, a Deity big enough to have created us would have rights over us and so bang goes our autonomy.
People will do almost anything to gain or retain their autonomy. Autonomy is basically being able to do whatever you want.

philosophical assumption of materialism.

The second confounding factor is the philosophical assumption of materialism. This is a background assumption so basic it is rarely stated, let alone questioned, but it is a philosophical assumption that we need to recognise. Assuming materialism works fine for metallurgy, hydraulics, ballistics, agriculture and medicine. No disagreement. But as has often been said, you cannot use nature to investigate the question of whether there is anything beyond nature. A God who could be investigated in a laboratory would not be a God, it is childish for materialists to say 'Show me god in a test tube or telescope and then I'll believe' (*). I need again to repeat that ID is not about proving that there is a God, let alone the Judaeo Christian Deity, but about studying living things from a design perspective based on known scientific observations, and attempting to falsify evolution using the methodology of science.

The philosophical assumption of materialism tends to rule out intelligent design as not worth investigating. But this is illogical, since ID does not identify a Designer but studies features of design and attempts to falsify molecules to man evolution by using arguments from biology and mathematics. If these arguments can be shown to fail, that is another matter. But ruling ID out of court a priori cannot answer the question, it merely states that the question is out of order and may not be put.
More about this later.

So, a fixed determination that there MUST NOT be a Designer and a philosophical determination that there cannot, must not, is not, anything beyond nature are at least potentially a confounding factor which may prevent open and free investigation. We should by now asking ourselves whether it is free thinking, honest scepticism, logical or good science to rule out one of only 2 possibilities before starting an investigation.

(*) This is no straw man caricature. Yuri Gagarin commented from the first Soviet manned space flight that he couldn't see God anywhere. Modern atheist Eugenie Scott has demanded the invention of a 'theometer' to detect God.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Is intelligent design religion? part 2

Is intelligent design religion? part 2

Having begun to set out the terms of the debate, a necessary task in view of the misrepresentation around the subject, I would like to continue setting the grounds by considering what the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis is. I prefer to use the term intelligent design hypothesis, or IDH for short. Not sure if it deserves capitals, from now on I won't use them apart from IDH.

What do we mean by 'hypothesis'?

A hypothesis is an idea that is put forward for discussion. More than a notion, less than a fully developed theory. Arguably. My dictionary (Oxford Reference) says a hypothesis is 'a proposition or supposition made from known facts as the basis for reasoning or investigation.' I'm happy with that definition although others might be possible, and of course we can always argue about whether or not the 'facts' in question are 'known'. I remember the nonsense poem 'The Pobble who has no toes' in which the aunt (Aunt Jobiska as  I recall) eponymous mythical creature the Pobble states

'Its a fact that the whole world knows' 

on several occasions in support of various statements, some of them conflicting, concerning the Pobble's toes. In the case of the ID hypothesis, what are these 'known facts'? Are there any? And what is the intelligent design hypothesis anyway?

What is the intelligent design hypothesis anyway?

I am not aware that the IDH has been set down in a well defined form, although in that respect it is no different to evolution, which as mentioned briefly in part 1 of this discussion is capable of meaning several different things. Having read Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer and several other ID writers and followed the ID for UK site, I have a fair idea of what is meant by ID.

To me, the hypothesis in a simple form proposes that living things (plants, animals and humans) abundantly demonstrate characteristics known to be associated with design. (*) Furthermore, the ID hypothesis proposes that the mechanisms claimed by the advocates of Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) evolution are not capable of achieving what is claimed for them and that design is a more rational explanation for the existence of living things than natural selection acting on random mutations.

to simplify even further, ID proposes that

A) living things look as if they were designed.

B) They couldn't have evolved by natural selection acting on random mutations because this mechanism lacks the ability to build the component parts of living things.

C) the above propositions depend on observations, not on supposition or faith.

It is perhaps point (C) that inflames the opponents of ID most, because they love to characterise ID as being religion in a bad disguise, an attempt to 'smuggle faith into science class.' Nevertheless, as I will show, at the heart of the ID hypothesis are repeatable scientific observations, calculations, and stuff that anyone can check. ID does not arise from religious teachings, conclusions or precepts.

I acknowledge that most ID advocates are theists (most but NOT all). However, this criticism is dismissed as irrelevant. The hypothesis must be evaluated on its merits, not on the personalities, philosophies and beliefs of its proponents, or else we will have to equally dismiss evolution on the grounds that many of its main proponents are atheists or agnostics.

The intelligent design hypothesis may be mainly advanced by people of faith (just as evolutionism is largely advanced by materialists), but it does not arise from or depend on faith. It depends on repeatable observations. To that extent, it is a scientific hypothesis.

More on this later. Feel free to comment, comment here is neither moderated nor censored.

(*) I appreciate that the word 'intelligent' is redundant since by definition design is always the work of an intelligence. However we are probably stuck with the term intelligent design for the foreseeable future.

Is Intelligent Design religion? part 1

Is Intelligent Design religion? part 1

It is difficult to have a conversation around God, religion, creation, evolution or intelligent design (whatever we mean by any of those terms) without stale clichés and slogans being deployed. The 'machine gun' tactic is often used, throwing up to 10 quick fire bold assertions and complex questions in a couple of sentences. The questions can usually be addressed, but one at a time, whereas a well designed and witty slogan can raise 3 or 4 key issues in a dozen syllables.

One of the stalest and cheapest slogans in popular use is 'Intelligent Design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo.' Another is 'Evolution is science, creationism is religion.' There are many others, including the crassly ignorant and irrelevant 'Michael Behe got his ass whipped at Dover.' Incidentally, the real truth about the Dover trial is a lot more interesting than the myth that is usually copied, including the fact that activist Judge John Jones violated the US Constitution by ruling on a matter of religion, but that's another story.

Slogans and clichés may carry some truth, (*) or they may even helpfully simplify a complicatede issue and help us understand something difficult, even if imperfectly. But they can mislead, distract, obfuscate or tramline our thinking and stall exploration. They may also be deliberately used by propagandists in order to mould the opinions and actions of others for their own purposes. Of course both sides in any disagreement can do this, and deny they have done it, even deny it to themselves. Since none of us is neutral, we may both use these tactics and be deceived by them.

Having changed political and religious allegiances more than once, I can look back on stuff I used to accept as self evident and see how I was believing half truths and untruths what 'The System' had primed me to believe, and in some cases I can see how it was done. And I wonder what I currently believe, knowingly or unknowingly, that I will discover in future isn't so-and i must think this because I am certain that I can see others who are in error but don't believe they are, so I must look to my own errors. Anyway, back to the question at the top of the page- Is Intelligent Design religion?

If we are going to address the issue as sceptical, free thinking truth seekers willing to follow the evidence where it leads, even out of our comfort zones, we must begin by assuming that we might be misled, not least by our own preference about what OUGHT to be true. Could we be wrong? Scientists are supposed to ask that all the time. The next step is to define the terms. then we can consider the case on its merits AND consider the opposite case. So before even addressing the question I believe it is fair and necessary to raise the equal and opposite question, is evolutionism religion?

Is evolutionism religion?

Well, is it? The question may at least be put, although as I said above, before we can consider the question we must define our terms or else we are just trying to use a piano to mend a puncture in a bicycle tyre, a futile exercise. Note my use of the term 'evolutionism', which I am aware causes offence to some. I use this term to denote the acceptance of molecules to man evolution over billions of years from Big-Bang derived space dust by impersonal forces, particularly natural selection acting on random mutations (I avoid the term 'belief' here to avoid distraction). I believe this is a fair definition, but when I use it, immediately the objections come flying.

'Evolution is nothing to do with how the cosmos originated or how life began!'

'Evolution is about change over time!'

'Evolution is about changes in gene frequency in a population.'

'Evolution can be clearly seen in plant breeding.'

and, above all

'You don't understand evolution.'

And these objections, all of which I hear often, are only about DEFINITIONS! We are still nowhere near analysing truth claims about any part of the thing itself. See what I mean about how difficult it can be to have a reasoned discussion? To even start one?

Anyhow, I mean to post several short discussions over the next month or so considering the linked questions-Is Intelligent Design religion/ and 'Is evolutionism religion?' 

Feel free to comment, comments here are not moderated or censored, unlike the atheist page I was deleted and blocked from recently without warning for making a critical comment.

(*) As C S Lewis wrote in 'The Last Battle' 

" The enemy made his lie stronger by mixing a good deal of truth with it."

Monday, 8 September 2014

Big new dinosaur found

Dreadnaughtus of recent fame was apparently 7 times the size of an adult t. Rex. An impressive beast, sounds like the dinosaur Behemoth described in the Book of Job.

The palaeontologist who dug up the bones interviewed on the radio last week was asked why the skeleton was complete as opposed to being scattered by scavengers eating the corpse (as usually happens when a large animal dies and falls to the ground).

A flood, he said. This gigantic land animal's entire body was entombed by mud carried by a flood. The biggest land animal ever was covered by fast moving liquid mud carried by 'a river flood'.

Some river. Some flood. Some coincidence.