Fool’s Argument

Fourth of a series

This is the fourth of my reviews of the Focus on the Family video featuring creationist Stephen C. Meyer. It’s a DVD set available on Amazon and titled Does God Exist? Episode 4 is titled “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 3: A Finely Tuned Universe,” and it recapitulates, after a fashion, a book, and subsequently a video, by creationists Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards. These carry the title The Privileged Planet, and the theme is that Earth, this planet, is so privileged, with everything set just right, for human life to exist, yeah, even any kind of life to  exist. The argument is extended to the entire Universe, which two terms being redundant. That theme is voiced in the opening scene (above) as David Stotts exhibits a string instrument and talks about fine tuning.

As before, this is a classroom setting, where Stephen C. Meyer is lecturing an assembly of students on why we should accept Intelligent Design over naturalistic explanations for life on Earth and for the Universe, as well. Meyer is

an advocate of the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design. He helped found the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) of the Discovery Institute (DI), which is the main organization behind the intelligent design movement. Before joining the DI, Meyer was a professor at Whitworth College. Meyer is currently a Senior Fellow of the DI and Director of its Center for Science and Culture (CSC).

He makes ample use of presentation foils, some of which I reproduce here. I will discuss these and also will transcribe them to make it possible for search engines to find the text.

Fine-Tuning

If the universe were expanding faster, then there would be no structure in the universe.

He imagines how, in a science fiction world, this might be portrayed. A space traveler comes across the Universe control room, and there are all these knobs that have to be set just so. Else calamity.

He speaks of the argument for design, explained in depth in a book by William Dembski, a fellow at the Discovery Institute.

There is a discussion of  the Weak Anthropic Principle.

Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP)

We shouldn’t be surprised that we live in a universe in which the conditions that are necessary for our existence are present.

Meyer is dismissive of the WAP, illustrating it with a supposed fire investigation scenario. The investigator comes back and says there was a fire because of oxygen in the atmosphere. Not much of an explanation. From all appearances this is an illustration that was poorly constructed by design. I have long had my own illustration of the WAP.

We see an explorer in the Amazon Basin, and he is at a boat landing at the very head of one of the river’s tributaries. He has no way to get home. A boat he was not expecting arrives to rescue him, and he remarks, “Out of all the possibilities, out of all the branches you took, you chose just the ones to get you to me.”

Then my imagined scene zooms out, and we see the entire Amazon Basin, and at the head of each of the thousands of tributaries there is an explorer waiting for a boat to arrive, but there is only one boat, and it has arrived at the one landing just described. How lucky is the explorer? Very. How improbable is it that somebody was rescued? Not so improbable. Meyer could benefit from deeper thinking.

Meyer quotes from an item that appeared in the London Times:

Anthropic Fine-Tuning Principle

“No such argument can ever be absolutely conclusive, and the anthropic fine-tuning argument stops just short of knock-down proof. For there could’ve been millions and millions of different universes created each with different settings,  of the fundamental ratios and constants, so many in fact that one with the right set was eventually bound to turn up by sheer chance. We just happened to be the lucky ones. But there is no evidence of such a theory what-so-ever.

And there is more, for which you will need to view the video or else send me a note.

I was particularly intrigued by the last sentence quoted above, “But there is no evidence of such a theory what-so-ever.” I am not sure what the writer meant by no evidence for this theory. Does he mean to say there is a theory, but the theory has no evidence to back it up? Or does he mean there is no evidence such a theory exists? Let’s assume the former, because, if the latter, then there is evidence such a theory exists, because I just now proposed such a theory, and my proposal for such a theory is evidence the theory exists.

Graciously accepting the first of the two, then the statement is equally amazing. Accepting there is no evidence supporting such a theory, then where does that leave the writer, who continues and states, “On the other hand the evidence for the truth of the anthropic fine-tuning argument is of such a certainty that in any other sphere of science we would regard it as absolutely settled?” From all appearances it leaves the Times writer having made a bald statement with as much evidence as the WAP. None.

Meyer wraps it up:

Conclusion

Intelligent design provides the best explanation of the “fine-tuning” of  the laws of physics and chemistry. And thus it points to not only a transcendent cause of the universe, but also an intelligent and rational one.

No, it does not.

First, Intelligent Design does not resolve anything. Meyer can say Intelligent Design is the theory with the fewest assumptions (Occam’s Razor). It certainly does have the fewest of all assumptions. “God did it.” Can’t get much simpler than that.

The problem with “God did it” is that it does not have much going for it. A theory with as little basis of evidence is going to be hard put to compete with theories of equal simplicity and equal basis. For example, this one: “I did it.”

There is no basis to believe I did it, putting my theory on an equal footing with “God did it.”

There’s more. “God did it,” in truth, carries the same baggage as naturalistic proposals. It does not account for the much-publicized specificity of the Universe, including human life and all other life on the planet. If “God did it,” then God must have had all that specificity and design built in before, and where did that come from? Of course, this is an ancient response to an ancient postulation, but it now possesses a remarkable irony. Since its formation 30 years ago, Intelligent Design has adopted an  argument that challenges the originality of God.

Meyer invokes William Dembski, who frequently invokes Kolmogorov complexity to demonstrate that specifically complex things cannot derive from less complex things. For example, in his book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, Dembski invokes Kolmogorov on page 159:

It is CSI on which David Chalmers hopes to base a comprehensive theory of human consciousness. It is CSI that within the Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory of algorithmic information identifies the highly-compressible, nonrandom strings of digits. How CSI gets from an organism’s environment into an organism’s genome is one of the long-standing question addressed by the Santa Fe Institute.

CSI, for Dembski, translates as Complex Specified Information. That is the very thing that Meyer is considering when he speaks of needing  Intelligent Design to provide explanations.

Meyer cites enormous improbabilities in arguing against the WAP. These are improbabilities that amount to impossibilities. In a finite Universe. If a person wants to wax philosophical, then before the Big Bang, when time did not exist, then all things were possible. Does somebody want to discuss that?

Episode 5 has the title “DNA by Design,” and we can presume Meyer is going to argue that DNA is evidence of design, just as he did in his book, Signature in the Cell.

Much is promised for this book. It’s supposed to set us straight about the basis for Intelligent Design and to make the case, using the story of DNA, for Intelligent Design. Once again, I will let Amazon do the talking:

Signature in the Cell is the first book to make a comprehensive case for intelligent design based upon DNA. Meyer embarks on an odyssey of discovery as he investigates current evolutionary theories and the evidence that ultimately led him to affirm intelligent design. Clearly defining what ID is and is not, Meyer shows that the argument for intelligent design is not based on ignorance or “giving up on science,” but instead upon our growing scientific knowledge of the information stored in the cell.

The video series, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, has this to say about Episode 5:

The Question of design is a critical worldview-shaping paradox. If biology points us to the appearance of design, then what are we to make of it? Can we attribute this to natural selection or was there an Intelligent Designer?

Watch for a review later this week.

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Computer Evolution

This originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of The North Texas Skeptic. I’m reposting it for no other reason than to remind us what we were doing ten years ago.

by John Blanton

Creationists of the “Intelligent Design” variety have a habit of making the claim that evolution by means of genetic mutation combined with natural selection cannot generate novelty. Many of their arguments are similar to the ones we heard before from the young Earth creationists (YEC). The YECs, for example, will agree that domestic dogs are descendents of wild wolves. However, they maintain that the divergent characteristics of domestic dogs, from the diminutive Chihuahua to the St. Bernard, to the stretch dachshund and the pug-nosed bulldog, are just variations on a theme, and nothing new has been created.

Particularly, creationist author William Dembski likes to point out that a passive and unintelligent process (like evolution using natural selection) cannot generate anything new, but can only take what exists and shape it into different forms (my interpretation of Dembski’s words). Dembski’s most recent book is No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence.1

Nothing is free, Dembski tells us. If you want novelty out you have to put novelty in. Unintelligent agencies are not able to provide any lift on their own.

Computer scientists are not so quick to agree. The idea of using mutation and selection to guide machine-based invention has been around since the 1950s. With the advent of cheap, high-performance computers, the impetus to use them in this enterprise has grown. Today computers employing genetic algorithms are developing new designs and solving problems previously left up to carbon-based thinkers.

Figure 1 helps to illustrate the problem and the approach to a solution. The wavy line represents a problem for the computer to solve. The computer knows the line as just a mathematical function. Given any position on the x-axis, the computer can quickly determine the corresponding height of the line at that point. The specific problem to be solved is a little more difficult. The computer must find the highest point on the line.

1-D solution space
Figure 1
The problem: Find the highest point.

Figure 2 illustrates one approach. First pick a point and determine the height of the line on either side along the x-axis. If one side is higher, then pick a new point on that side and repeat the process.

Which way is up?
Figure 2
The micro approach: Climb the nearest mountain.

Eventually this algorithm will draw the search to point A, at which time it may be convenient to stop and declare victory.

However, the line illustrated in Figure 1 may present some difficulties. Using my remarkable human brain and eyesight, I can readily determine that point A is the highest point. However, the computer is not gifted with my eyesight and certainly not with my remarkable brain. If the search is started in the wrong place, the computer may quickly locate and settle on one of point B, C, D, or even one of the other, minor, unlabeled peaks in the line. That’s because once the computer finds itself at one of the lesser peaks it has no reason to look elsewhere. In every direction away from the point it is only down, and the computer is looking for up.

But what if we told the computer to mount multiple, simultaneous searches? And, furthermore, what if the instructions were to “get outside the box” so to speak. Look beyond the next peak.

Occasionally shake things up a bit and pick new search points, not so close to home, beyond the next peak or valley. That’s the essence of genetic algorithms, and that’s the essence of evolution by mutation coupled with natural selection. Mutation is what shakes things up, and natural selection is what determines that the higher of several choices is the better one.

If the problem of biological evolution were as simple as this illustration then everybody, and not just the creationists, would give a big yawn and look around for something more entertaining. Fortunately for our entertainment value there is more to life than a wavy line. The example shown in the figure is a linear search problem, because it’s a line, in one dimension. Imagine next we are searching a mountain range for the highest mountain peak — better, but still nothing that would raise a lot of excitement.

The problem of life, however, is not just one or two-dimensional. It is multi-dimensional in a grand scale. The number of dimensions of life’s search space is the size of the genome of an organism. The dimensionality of a genome is the millions of base pairs that make up the organism’s DNA, and the organism, in searching this multidimensional space, can vary any of its base-pair sequences that code for a protein. Mutation can produce a change in any code sequence (three-base-pair codon), and we can see what results from that. In living organisms what happens is usually nothing of much consequence, and often times it is bad to fatal. On rare occasions the result is beneficial, and the organism’s offspring climb the hill along one of the dimensions of its genome space.

For an organism, “climbing the hill” as opposed to “descending the hill” is whatever produces an offspring that will have a better chance of reproducing (and producing more copies of the new genome).

Computer scientists have been remarkably successful at co-opting nature’s idea of evolution. It works much like this: The problem of interest has a large number of variables, often mutually independent, that affect the performance of a system to be invented, designed, or merely improved. For example, the performance of an internal combustion engine will be affected by a combination of design parameters, such as the cylinder diameter, the compression ratio, the size and number of valves, the positioning of the spark plug, and more. For the problem to be tractable for the computer it must be possible for the computer to determine the resulting performance of the system, knowing all the design parameters. The computer will determine the performance characteristics by using the design parameters in a simulation of the system. The computed performance characteristics as a function of the design parameters is the solution space of the problem. In real life, the solution space can be as wildly variable as the line in Figure 1, and more so. A real solution space is apt to be very nonlinear—another way of saying that doubling the change in an input variable does not double the change in the output.

A typical approach using a genetic algorithm will mimic life by starting with a large population of trial solutions. Continuing to mimic life, the quality of the different solutions is evaluated, and higher quality solutions are given extended life and allowed to continue to the next generation of the solution population. The algorithm may mimic sexual reproduction by swapping parts of the genomes of the better solutions and introducing mutation by ratcheting some of the genome’s components up or down. This is possible, because in the computer the genome will be represented by sets of numbers that get swapped around and modified.

Let’s take a look at how well this method works. Adam Marczyk has summarized the whole issue of Genetic Algorithms and Evolutionary Computation in a Web article of the same name.2 I will describe just two of his examples:

Edward Altshuler and Derek Linden used a genetic algorithm to design a circularly polarized, seven-segment antenna with hemispherical coverage. The resulting design is “unusually weird” and “counter-intuitive.” It has a nearly uniform radiation pattern, and it closely matched the design specification.3 Kumar Chellapilla and David Fogel used a genetic algorithm to develop checkers-playing neural networks. Using only six months of computer time, the algorithm produced a neural network that plays checkers at a rating of 2045.85. In one game the neural network defeated a player ranked 27 points below master level.4 Dembski is having none of this, of course. He argues all the intelligence exhibited by these computer programs has been “smuggled in” by their designers. In effect he is saying the designing programs were designed to win—to produce good designs. Their makers built the solution in by carefully describing what they wanted out.

If I were inclined to cut Dembski some slack here I would agree that these designer programs were designed to succeed. Once their designer wrote all the code, entered all the initial parameters, and typed the run command, the result was pre-ordained. Even though these programs simulate randomness by using pseudo random number generators, they are, in principle, completely predictable.

But that’s all the slack Dembski gets. Whether the computer programs provide (in principle) predictable results or not, their designers at the beginning cannot predict the results. They cannot rig the programs in advance to produce optimal designs. The programs follow the rules of life, and the results are the same as is often the case in life: The successful candidates survive the winnowing process of, in this case, unnatural selection.

Dembski and the “intelligent design” creationists can attack from another front: “Life does not tell you to design an ideal antenna or a master checkers player. It only tells you to survive. It’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”5 He might further elaborate: “Just because your genome is working (unintelligently) to survive and make copies of itself, that doesn’t explain why you have eyes.”

And it doesn’t. The best answer to that argument is that eyes are so useful—even essential—to survival, that not only do I have eyes, but other creatures have eyes of vastly different designs from my own.

Finally, Dembski and the other “intelligent design” creationists make a lot of noise about “intelligence” and “complexity.” I am not sure they or most other people involved in this argument have a correct grasp of these two terms. How can you tell “intelligence?” Is an Apollo spacecraft the result of intelligent activity? Is an anthill? The creationists seem to be looking for a master designer who exhibits human qualities and wants to do what people do. People design things for the same reason they rearrange furniture in a room. They want to make themselves more comfortable. They want to extend their existence. They want to survive.

Ouch! We’ve come full circle. “Intelligence,” if there is such a thing, is just a manifestation of the need to survive. It’s a product of evolution. A product of nature. A product of the chemistry of carbon-based molecules. Just like William Dembski.

References

1 You can buy this book from Amazon. The link is at http://www.ntskeptics.org/books/creationists.htm.

2 http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/genalg/genalg.html

3 Altshuler, Edward and Derek Linden. “Design of a wire antenna using a genetic algorithm.” Journal of Electronic Defense, vol.20, no.7, p.50-52 (July 1997).

4 Chellapilla, Kumar and David Fogel. “Evolving an expert checkers playing program without using human expertise.” IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation, vol.5, no.4, p.422-428 (August 2001). Available online athttp://www.natural-selection.com/NSIPublicationsOnline.htm.

5 See Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates, A critique of William Dembski’s book No Free Lunch by Richard Wein. http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/

Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

This is the fourth in a series of a review of the video Expelled, produced by Premise Media and featuring Ben Stein. The subtitle of the video (I am deliberately not using the word “documentary”) is No Intelligence Allowed, a reference to the pseudo science of Intelligent Design, which is the main topic of the video.

The previous post centered on the issue of astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, who was supposedly expelled because he advocated Intelligent Design. The case presented in the video is that he had a promising career as a professor of physics and astronomy, but he was denied tenure at Iowa State University after he co-authored (with Jay Richards) the book The Privileged Planet and a video of the same title.

Gonzalez has asserted the denial of tenure was a result of his advocacy for Intelligent Design. Wikipedia notes:

Two years later, an article in the local newspaper The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported Gonzalez’ appeal against his denial of tenure and claimed he was “the unnamed target” of the ISU petition. The article noted that “Gonzalez won’t discuss the reasons for the tenure denial” but that he “noted, however, that he has frequently been criticized by people who don’t consider intelligent design as a legitimate science.” Comments from John West, the associate director of the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture – with whom Gonzalez was a senior fellow – blamed the failure to secure tenure directly upon Gonzalez’ belief in intelligent design and compared it to a “doctrinal litmus test” typical of his native Cuba.

[Some links removed]

Typically a candidate for tenure at a college or university must pass review by his peers. Tenure is almost a lifetime assurance of employment and can be denied if your peers do not look forward to working with you. I have stated elsewhere that there are only so many times you can show up for the party with your fly unzipped before you are no longer invited.

Robert Marks

Shut up, you freak.

Shut up, you freak.

Ben Stein interviews Robert Marks, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Professor Marks notes that he has tenure, and his position is secure. However, Ben Stein remarks, “A few months after this interview Baylor University shut down his research website once they discovered a link between his work and intelligent design.” The video shows a clip from the movie Planet of the Apes:

Julius: [Julius stops hosing Taylor briefly] Shut, up you freak!

George Taylor: Julius, you…

Julius: [He turns on the hose again] I said shut up!

This is a terrible way to treat a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering. Information presented by the National Center for Science Education brings some clarity:

Robert Marks’s “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory” website – touting intelligent design – was originally hosted on a Baylor University server. Concerned that the material on the website misleadingly suggested a connection between the intelligent design material and Baylor, administrators temporarily shut the website down while discussing the issue with Marks and his lawyer. Baylor was willing to continue hosting the website subject to a number of conditions (including the inclusion of a disclaimer and the removal of the misleading term “laboratory”), but Marks and Baylor were unable to come to terms. The site is currently hosted by a third-party provider.

Wikipedia has additional information on the website:

Marks did not seek permission from Baylor University to form the lab, but created a website for it on a server owned by the university. The website was deleted when Baylor’s administration determined that it violated university policy forbidding professors from creating the impression that their personal views represent Baylor as an institution. Baylor said they would permit Marks to repost his website on their server, provided a disclaimer accompany any intelligent design-advancing research to make clear that the work does not represent the university’s position. The site now resides on a third-party server and still contains the material advancing intelligent design.

After removing the site, the Baylor administration stated that it contained “unapproved research” and that university policy forbids professors from creating the impression that their personal views represent Baylor as an institution. Baylor has said that it will permit Marks to repost his website on its server, provided he (1) delete any reference to a “Lab,” (2) delete listing of any Baylor graduate students, and (3) post at the bottom of every page and the top of the home page a 108-word disclaimer.

[links removed]

Baylor’s action was apparently driven by its past experience with creationism. In 1999 creationist William Dembski established the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor, and it was quickly identified, to the embarrassment of the science and other faculty, as a creationist activity:

In 1999, Dembski was invited by Robert B. Sloan, President of Baylor University, to establish the Michael Polanyi Center at the university. Named after the Hungarian physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), Dembski described it as “the first intelligent design think tank at a research university.” Dembski had known Sloan for about three years, having taught Sloan’s daughter at a Christian study summer camp not far from Waco, Texas. Sloan was the first Baptist minister to serve as Baylor’s president in over 30 years, had read some of Dembski’s work and liked it; according to Dembski, Sloan “made it clear that he wanted to get me on the faculty in some way.”

The Polanyi Center was established without much publicity in October 1999, initially consisting of two people – Dembski and a like-minded colleague, Bruce L. Gordon, who were hired directly by Sloan without going through the usual channels of a search committee and departmental consultation. The vast majority of Baylor staff did not know of the center’s existence until its website went online, and the center stood outside of the existing religion, science, and philosophy departments.

The center’s mission, and the lack of consultation with the Baylor faculty, became the immediate subject of controversy. The faculty feared for the university’s reputation – it has historically been well regarded for its contributions to mainstream science – and scientists outside the university questioned whether Baylor had “gone fundamentalist.” Faculty members pointed out that the university’s existing interdisciplinary Institute for Faith and Learning was already addressing questions about the relationship between science and religion, making the existence of the Polanyi Center somewhat redundant. In April 2000, Dembski hosted a conference on “naturalism in science” sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and the hub of the intelligent design movement, the Discovery Institute, seeking to address the question “Is there anything beyond nature?” Most of the Baylor faculty boycotted the conference.

A few days later, the Baylor faculty senate voted by a margin of 27–2 to ask the administration to dissolve the center and merge it with the Institute for Faith and Learning. President Sloan refused, citing issues of censorship and academic integrity, but agreed to convene an outside committee to review the center. The committee recommended setting up a faculty advisory panel to oversee the science and religion components of the program, dropping the name “Michael Polanyi” and reconstituting the center as part of the Institute for Faith and Learning. These recommendations were accepted in full by the university administration.

Despite all the creationists’ yearnings and despite all their assertions that science fails to answer important questions, science as a human endeavor long ago abandoned invoking the supernatural as an answer and also as a starting point for research. The supernatural answers no legitimate questions and provides nothing useful for serious research. It is the intellectual equivalent of conceding you do not know the solution to a problem and then making up an answer and putting that forward as the solution. This is a point the creationists can not or will not come to grips with.

Expelled features six individuals who were “expelled.” I have covered four of them. Next up is author and journalist Pamela Winnick.