Tuesday, April 19, 2005

American Darwinism

The truth of the following I cannot comment on, I simply do not know. It is from "The Road to Whatever - Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence", by Elliott Currie, who is also the author of "Crime and Punishment in America". I have not even read the whole book. What struck me is that the passage implies that the Darwinism that is so unacceptable to so many conservatives is nonetheless promoted by them as relevant to society.

The passage deals with the reasons behind the responses of parents to their teenagers' problems. Highlights are mine.

"Thus many of these parents were as constrained by the limits of a fundamentally unsupportive society as their children were. These were, after all, what we might call post-Reagan parents. They began raising children just as many of the institutions that had traditionally helped to make the middle class middle class - affordable health care and housing, stable and well-paying jobs, well-staffed schools, predictable social benefits - were being systematicallly undermined in the name of "market" values. For many of these families, life was far from easy, even in a period characterized by widespread prosperity in the country as a whole. This version of prosperity masked what were often increasingly disrupted and stressed lives, and even at best it could require fairly heroic efforts to maintain. Many parents, in short, were themselves profoundly buffetted by the new American Darwinism, and their relations with their children cannot be fully understood without taking this into account.

"But that is not the whole story. The Darwinian approach to child rearing these parents adopted was rarely simply a response to being harried by social and economic forces beyond their control. It was part of a belief system, a cultural and psychological orientation towards the world - especially towards the bedrock issues of responsibility and mutuality, discipline and nurturance. Most of these parents were not just victims of this belief system but subscribers to it. It was, after all, a worldview shared by the most affluent among them, who did not suffer from significant economic stresses, who could afford help, and who had sufficient resources to buy a variety of services for their children. The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life's difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one's fault but their own - these were not idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the years in which these teenagers were growing up. And we'll now see, those themes have also shaped the way adolescents are treated by a variety of institutions outside their families."


I do know of scientific idiots who believe that human society should be arranged as per Nature. Since Nature is Darwinian, humans should not presume to improve upon nature. This is ridiculous, because we create all kinds of things never before found in Nature all the time. The whole point of our strivings is to make human life better than that obtains in nature.

The backlash against scientific Darwinism as a consequence of rampant social Darwinism I could understand; but this is not in accord with political reality. The anti-Darwin brigade, and the social Darwinists are in same political camp.


Friday, April 15, 2005

More ID : The E-T example

Paul Nelson creates a philosophical impasse, where there really is none.

In his scenario, we are SETI researchers, and we detect a narrow band amplitude-modulated radio signal carrying the prime numbers. And one of us wants to interpret it as the signal of a extraterrestrial intelligence, and the other wants to keep looking for a natural mechanism. Since we have no information either way, how do we decide what to do next? Paul Nelson believes we are at a philosophical impasse.

Actually, we are most definitely not at an impasse. The reason is, that as SETI researchers, we believe that the ET intelligence is some kind of physical-chemical life, with perhaps a very long life span, but a finite one; as limited by physics as we are, that the effort to broadcast a narrow band signal to distant stars and to deal with the possible outcomes would be beyond the capabilities of an individual ET, and would need the resources of a great civilization. The very first hypothesis would be that ET is planet-bound like we are. We would immediately announce the signal we've found, state that it could possible be a sign of a ET civilization, and we would turn our largest telescopes towards the source of the signal. We would look for signals in the other parts of the spectrum, residues of their other uses of electromagnetic waves. We would look for other signals, and if we found none, would wonder greatly at an ET that announces itself, but that doesn't provide any other information. The search to rule out natural mechanisms would continue, too, especially if corroborative evidence wasn't found.

We do not need to invoke entities very different from ourselves (some type of intelligent life, with a technological civilization) to explain the received signal. We would indeed be at an impasse, if one of us required that ET be unphysical. This is like the ID position, which does not want to touch on the nature of the Intelligent Designer and where the postulated Intelligent Designer really can only be the Biblical God. (To recap: we fall into the infinite regress of who designed the Intelligent Designer unless the Intelligent Designer was around even at the earliest instants of the Big Bang. The reason ID falls outside science and is unlike the radio signal from outer space is because the Intelligent Designer is outside of physics.)


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Limits of Science

Intelligent Design - the idea that at least some features of living beings must have arisen from deliberate design - pushes at the limits of science, if it doesn't fall outside those limits.

Suppose geologists were studying the rock formations on some uninhabited island, and came across a pile of rocks that they suspected could not arisen naturally (the reader is encouraged to think of reasons why they might suspect so.) The analysis of the rocks presumably would be conducted by methods developed by science - a variety of physical and chemical measurements would be taken. Once the geologists are convinced the pile of rocks is not naturally formed, the study of this pile of rocks passes out of the realm of geology, and into the realm of archaeology. The attempt will be to understand who the people were, when they lived, what their capabilities were, what purpose they might have had in building something that left the rock pile.

Let us say instead of a pile of rocks, our explorers find some artifact of what appears to be advanced technology. For example, suppose some silicon wafers with Pentium circuitry somehow fell into the hands of scientists of 1870 (year chosen at random). They would look at it under their microscopes and likely come to the conclusion that the wafers were created by an advanced technical civilization. Then the study might have two parts, one like the previous example, would be an attempt to deduce qualities of the civilization that made the wafers, and the second, mostly absent in the previous example, would be an attempt to understand the function of the strange patterns on the wafers.

Adherents of Intelligent Design claim that we have a very similar situation with respect to living organisms. They say, life shows a complexity that could not have arisen from Darwinian evolution and also could not have arisen from any other purposeless combination of natural forces, but requires an intelligent designer. So, for example, Lynn Margulis's mechanism of organisms in symbiosis eventually combining to form a qualitatively different new organism, or any other such idea would be insufficient to explain the origin of at least some features of life. Only an intelligent designer could have created this.

Clearly, such design of life is an extremely advanced technology, and one part of the investigation would be to understand this technology. When you think about it, this effort would basically be biology as it is today. Also, presumably, in between episodes of intervention by the Intelligent Designer, random variation and natural selection would still operate, and these mechanisms would still have to be studied; the only difference would be that we would not expect the origin of all species to be explained by these forces. An original created species of finch might by Darwinian means, evolve to several species of finch, there is no irreducible complexity argument that prohibits this, if all the irreducible complexity can be traced back to the original species of finch.

What Intelligent Designers are silent about is the necessary investigation into the nature of the Intelligent Designer(s?). They don't want to say anything about that. Why not? Not being a mind-reader I can only speculate, but there seems to be only one logical explanation.

The evidence that we have is that the Intelligent Designer(s) would have had to be active many times during the billion-plus year history of life on earth. If the Intelligent Designer(s) are a biological species with a extremely long-lived civilization, then the presence of the Intelligent Designer(s) may suffice to explain the features of life of earth, but to explain life itself, the existence of the Intelligent Designers, we fall into an infinite regress of requiring previous Intelligent Designers. The Intelligent Designers must have no beginnings and if there was a Big Bang, they must be seen to co-exist with the universe - they must have existed at every instant of time. If in the aftermath of the Big Bang, Intelligent Designer(s) can spontaneously arise, then why invoke Intelligent Designers as an explanation of life? So, whatever it means, in imprecise language, the Intelligent Designers must transcend even the Big Bang; if no Big Bang, then at least the extremely hot matter/radiation of the first few seconds of the seeming Big Bang - to which today's physics reliably extrapolates.

It is clear that the Intelligent Designers must be beings with the features of the Biblical God. So, unless the ID folks can give us some other model of what the Intelligent Designers are, what they want to say is "God created life on earth". This is Creationism. One does not have to impute motives to the ID folks - after all, motives are not directly observable, only the words they speak and the actions they make are observable. Their silence on the nature of the Intelligent Designer speaks loudly enough.

In my opinion, scientists would do best to simply ask ID folks to describe the Intelligent Designer. There is no need to examine the political, religious or social implications of ID. If one does so, one might fall into the trap of talking down to the audience. Scientists should also recognize that it is legitimate to have doubts about the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution to explain all of life; there could be other ways in which natural, purposeless forces work (e.g., Lynn Margulis's ideas).

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Update: misunderstanding relativity

Jay Richards now blames Jim Holt for misleading him:

"Holt claimed (as have other science writers) that Einstein showed that time is a fiction."

Holt actually wrote quite clearly. "Einstein proved that time, as it had been understood by scientist and layman alike, was a fiction." and argues, as well as is possible in a brief magazine article, that "there is no universal now". It is obvious from his comments that Jay Richard did not understand the point about simultaneity. "Right now, my wife is doing something at home. She's doing it right now even though I don't know what it is she's doing."

I don't think Jay Richards understands enough to criticize Jim Holt's article. The polite thing for him to do would be to apologize to Jim Holt.

Just my opinion.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Dodging the Question

William Dembski asks us to keep three things in mind when trying to decide whether Intelligent Design is science or not. To his three points, I offer three counterpoints.

1. Science is not decided by majority vote.

Nor is something scientific because it is considered to be so by a minority. Also, Intelligent Design is not a new idea. The idea that something/someone had to have designed or created life is after all, an ancient one, held by most of humanity for most of history. Minority/majority opinion is irrelevant. What counts is the quality of the evidence.

2. Just because an idea has religious, philosophical, or political implications does not make it unscientific.

If an idea is merely theology repackaged, then it is not science. ( Aside : See the sidebar "The Heathen In His Blindness..." in the left column of my blog? That is the title of a book by Prof. Balagangadhara of the University of Ghent, where he shows that the Western representation of the anthropology of religion itself is merely repackaged Christian theology, and bears little resemblence to reality.)

What the ID folks have to do is to tell us, if indeed cilia or the blood-clotting-sequence are designed, what can be said about the designer? These features of life appeared at different points in the evolutionary history of life, so the designer is at least intermittently, if not continually intervening on earth, over millions of years. What is the form of the intervention? Does the designer work by the known physical forces? Does it operate remotely? Is the designer sentient? If the only property of the designer is that it designs, and the designer has unknown and unknowable physical properties, why, then, I can fill the world with ghosts that make things go bump. The beginnings of science was when we abandoned such ghosts, even when we did not have a good idea of the causes of things. Thus Newton's theory of gravity made it possible to predict the motion of planets and comets, but gravity gave no clue as to the cause of chemical reactions. Despite not having a mechanism, chemists developed a quantitative science of chemistry, without ghosts or intentional agents, until in the early part of the 20th century, quantum mechanics made the physics of chemistry extremely clear.

Science cannot progress by postulating an invisible designer. Either the designer is another physical entity, in which case the ID folks have to show us not just that the designer exists, but provide other physical properties; or the designer is unphysical, in which case the Intelligent Design idea cannot be science.

3. To call some area of inquiry “not science” or “unscientific” or to label it “religion” or “myth” is a common maneuver for discrediting an idea.

It is a common manuever to claim victimization by the establishment as proof of the justice of one's cause. It is the quality of the Intelligent Design idea that causes objective observers to label it "not science", unscientific, religion or myth. But, you, the reader, must decide for yourself.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Misunderstanding relativity

The folks who are bringing us Intelligent Design seem also to be targetting Einstein. It is interesting to speculate why. First, let us list the mistakes in Jay Richards' Did Einstein really show that time is an illusion? here:

1. The title is of the nature - Have you stopped beating your wife?

Einstein did not set out to show that time is an illusion nor did he end up doing so. Time remains very real in the theories of Special and General Relativity.

2. The quote from Jim Holt's New Yorker article is badly mangled.

Jim Holt's article is actually not bad for a popular account. What Jay Richards omits between "A century ago, in 1905, Einstein proved that time, as it had been understood by scientist and layman alike, was a fiction." and "If the events in question are at some distance from one another, judgments of simultaneity can be made only by sending light signals back and forth." is a long explanation of why Einstein made the postulate that the speed of the light is the same for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to each other, and the consequences to the clocks, rulers of observers in motion relative each other and to the notion of simultaneity of events that are separated in space. Apparently Jay Richards did not understand the significance of all that, and expostulates "Maybe there is more to Einstein's argument than that".

The one bit of confusion in Holt's presentation is the statement "If the events in question are at some distance from one another, judgments of simultaneity can be made only by sending light signals back and forth." More correct, in my opinion, is to say that any method of judging simultaneity must agree with that made by sending light signals back and forth. If it did not, then we would inevitably find that different observers would find a different speed of light, violating the postulate that Einstein started with.

3. "Right now, my wife is doing something at home. She's doing it right now even though I don't know what it is she's doing."

Yes. No one disputes that, not even Einstein. But an observer moving at a high speed (and high speed means a significant fraction of 186,000 miles per second, i.e., of the speed of light) relative Jay and his wife, will not see as simultaneous events that Jay and his wife consider to be simultaneous. If Jay and his wife are on the phone with each other and hang up simultaneously, such an observer, depending on the specifics of his state of motion, would see one hang up before the other.

4. " It is said that Einstein did away with a Newtonian concept of universal time in his special theory of relativity. (Actually, he purportedly did away with change, but that nuance isn't usually preserved.)"

Einstein did not do away with change, the content of physical theories is typically to describe how things change. As described in point 3., different observers typically disagree on the time order of events that are separated by some distance, and so there is no universal time in that sense.

5. "But Newton quickly reappeared with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which is integral to Big Bang cosmology. If Big Bang cosmology is broadly true, then right now, everywhere in the universe, it's the same time since the big bang."

Newton did not reappear in General Relativity. In Big Bang cosmology is turns out that there is a preferred set of reference frames in which the description of the universe is simple and which enables us to define a version of time for which the universe appears to be of the same age in each reference frame. Any observer moving with respect to these reference frames, for instance, someone travelling with a high energy cosmic ray, will have all the paradoxical effects of special relativity that so confounded Jay Richards.


Now the speculation - Intelligent Design (D) is an attempt to make a Designer (of life, or even of the whole universe) scientifically respectable. Though IDers refuse to identify candidates for the Designer, it is obviously intended to be God. Science and religion, specifically Christianity, have been at odds since at least Galileo. It turns out persecuting Galileo was a mistake - the laws of physics are not obviously incompatible with the Will of God and the Plan He has for the Universe. God could be conceived as the clockmaker, who set the whole universe in motion, and lets it continue as per the laws of physics. But Darwinism is incompatible with any humanly comprehensible purpose. The existence of life and of humans, supposedly made in the image of God, are reduced to chance, where is the place for purpose and meaning? So getting rid of Darwinism is an essential to restoring religion. But why go after Einstein's General Relativity?

The reason I can think of is that it is Einstein's General Relativity that makes a science of cosmology possible. It also, but to a lesser extent than Darwinism, makes God redundant to a description of nature. So it too must be taken down.