Sunday, May 22, 2011

I have been reading William James' book Pragmatism and came across a really interesting passage. I post it here because I can't recall its being used in the ID debate before. Back in 1904, James anticipates some issues about the identity of the designer. This is from Lecture III, entitled "Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered," and is quoted from the Project Gutenberg version of the text:

Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the QUESTION of DESIGN IN NATURE. God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the woodpecker's bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees with grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity.

The first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate in intra- uterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made FOR each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.

It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question of purpose AGAINST mechanism, of one OR the other. It was as if one should say "My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery." We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed MACHINERY OF CONDITIONS—the game's rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature's vast machinery. Without nature's stupendous laws and counterforces, man's creation and perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have designed them.

This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content. The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be incomprehensible to us humans. The WHAT of them so overwhelms us that to establish the mere THAT of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has, we see, no consequences and explains nothing. It is the barrenest of principles. The old question of WHETHER there is design is idle. The real question is WHAT is the world, whether or not it have a designer—and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars.

Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been FITTED TO THAT PRODUCTION. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product's character. The recent Mont-Pelee eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. IF God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make SOME definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery MAY have been designed to produce it.

Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What sort of design? and what sort of a designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, anyone who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term—the same, in fact which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us 'Design,' worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of PROMISE. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible 'truth' the terms will then have in them.

I've put several parts in bold and one bit, which seems to me crucial, in bold blue. I find this argument compelling as far as the identity of the designer goes. James is right: design as such is empty until it starts talking about the designer, a discussion which (for reasons of cultural politics) ID has made itself unwilling to have.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What's wrong with using Pictish symbols as a justification for ID.

I know, I know. It's been forever since I've posted here. But I want to respond quickly and publicly to a post on Uncommon Descent, and they've banned me multiple times, so doing it there is a nonstarter. Briefly, UD regular PaV jumps for joy over a recent paper in Proc. Roy. Soc. A entitled "Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy." PaV writes:

I’m not going to write too much. Just read this article and thump your head. If this isn’t an all-out admission of the validity of Dembski’s approach, then what is? I wonder if the Royal Society knew these authors were creationists? The article itself is open. Here it is.

BTW, the authors determine the Pictet symbols to be a language. As to the title of this thread, I consider languages to be designed. If you have a differing opinion, I would love to hear what it is!

Well now. Is this paper "an all-out admission of the validity of Dembski's approach"? PaV clarifies why he thinks so in a comment on the thread:

I don’t think that what these authors are writing about is anything new; in fact, they’re simply using methods that Shannon himself developed. The importance, however, seems to me to be that this is in a “peer-reviewed” journal, and that as scientists the authors are distinguishing between random images and images that have an underlying linguistic structure. This seems to me to be what ID argues. Thusly, if what these authors have done is acceptable science, then, so too, is the ID project.

Have the authors “proved” that these symbols are a language? No. Can ID “prove” that there is an Intelligent Agent responsible for life? No. But, in both cases, this is the best working hypothesis–or, in the language that Stephen Meyers uses, these hypotheses have the most “explanatory power”.

I think PaV is confused by the word "random." The paper's authors use the term in the abstract:
Using the technique on the Pictish symbols established that it is unlikely
that they are random or sematographic (heraldic) characters, but that they exhibit the characteristics of written languages.
But the authors do not mean "random" in the way that Dembski does, and the differences reveal why this is not a justification for ID. Remember, Dembski wants to distinguish between naturally occurring and designed objects or object features. He claims that we can do this purely from the object considered, without knowing anything about its history or the putative designer. In this way we are not, in Dembski's scheme, limited to human or even material designers of material objects.

With Pictish, however, we know:
  1. The symbols are all artifactual (designed).
  2. They are produced by humans.
  3. They may or may not be expressions of written language.
The first sentence of the paper refers to "the durable artifacts left by primitive societies." Later, the authors describe the Pict stones as follows:
Picts did, however, leave a range of finely carved stones inscribed with glyphs of unknown meaning, known as ‘Pictish Symbol Stones’.
So the stones are designed, and they are designed by humans -- Picts, in particular -- who, like other Iron age humans, presumably used language. The point is not to distinguish designed from non-designed objects but linguistic from non-linguistic design.

Further, they are able to make this determination only because they know something about human language. They write:
This paper describes a technique that incorporates linguistic functions in order to quantify the level of communication in these small, ‘incomplete’ symbol datasets and thus differentiate between the different possible character types of writing (the term incomplete is used here to describe text samples that have insufficient data to properly characterize the character lexicons).
Sorry to repeat myself, but apparently this is lost on PaV: the study works by applying things we know about human language to determine whether these designed objects are human language. It takes information from a known domain (human language generally) and uses it to interpret and define a set of designed objects (Pict symbols: are they language or not?).

In short, the Pict study examines a difference of degree among objects known to be designed, and known to be designed by humans of a particular period. Dembski claims to be able to identify absolutely a difference in kind in situations where we have precisely zero information about any possible designer.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

With Friends like Dembski (again)

William Dembski calls out the dogs:
I expect Lilley will work through spokespersons on this one as long as possible. I can’t see it as being in his interest to provide Ben Stein with an interview. On the other hand, it will look bad if he refuses. The Baylor administration is in a tight spot. They can still stop the bleeding by simply doing what they should have done from the start, namely, allow Robert Marks to leave the EIL site on his space on the Baylor server. Once media outlets like the NYT and WSJ start weighing in, to say nothing of O’Reilly and Hannity & Coombs [sic], there won’t be any way to stop the bleeding. In fact, at that point I wouldn’t be surprised if the Baylor Board of Regents puts the present president out to pasture — that’s what they did with Sloan, they made him Chancellor, a well-paying nice-sounding meaningless job with no real authority.
Because it's all about the media.

For the record, I'm mildly sympathetic to Marks's position. PZ Myers put it well:
I categorically reject Marks' whole philosophy and I'd probably call him delusional, but … it is the professor's job to talk freely about wacky ideas if he wants. A web page that can be shared (and laughed at) is a reasonable part of the commitment to public communication, and I don't think Baylor should restrict it. Even if the professor is a bit of an embarrassment, and the subject is a sore spot for the university.
In fact, PZ and I seem to be more on Marks's side than Dembski. From the first, he has made things worse. From announcing the superpower of the EIL before they'd published anything ("it promises to put people like Christoph Adami and Rob Pennock out of business"), to the absolutely stupid hoax letter -- which I still think must have been a dream, it was so deliciously mismanaged -- to his focus on negative media attention now, he's got to be making Marks more and more isolated. I wonder if he cares about that, or if it's just that he's got an unfailingly tin ear.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Argumentation and Violence

From Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric (University of Notre Dame Press, 1969):
The use of argumentation implies that one has renounced resorting to force alone, that value is attached to gaining the adherence of one's interlocutor by means of reasoned persuasion, and that one is not regarding him as an object, but appealing to his free judgment. Resource to argumentation assumes the establishment of a community of minds, which, while it lasts, excludes the use of violence. (55, emphasis added)
Reasoning /= threat.

"Intelligent reasoning" = ??

In which I cry "Uncle" to Joe G

Joe G has taken to physically threatening me ominously mentioning that he can find me in person and will do whatever it takes (Edit, Sept. 9) if I do not stipulate that what he says he meant now is what he meant then. He also knows who I am, and where I work, and he lives not too far from me. He has said, "And I am being very generous by saying that on this blog as opposed to driving a few miles to say it to your face," and also "I will do whatever it takes to stop it." So, agreed Joe G. You win. What you say you meant now is what you meant then.

Someone identified your name and town on this blog, and like a decent person, I deleted it.

See how we can resolve arguments amicably?

I'm so glad you are able to convince people by way of reasoned argument.

Also, I'm fat.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Scordova Stands Up!

I am very glad that scordova has done the right thing:
My third loose end which I would like to tie up is that I would like to apologize to Ms. Smith if I have said anything that may be construed as an accusation of dishonesty on her part. Some concern has been expressed that any suggestion of dishonesty could be damaging to her career and I do not wish to damage Ms. Smith’s career as I’m in a similar boat as her. I vigorously disagree with her on various matters, but this should not imply that I am accusing her of lying or dishonesty. Perhaps I made some ill-tempered remarks, but it was not my intent to accuse her of lying or dishonesty. I simply disagree and at times was very irritated….
Good for him. Seriously. I'm not going to take anything away from that.

Challenges for Uncommon Descent

Added: Case #1 challenge met! Good for scordova.
Added: Case #2 resolved* under threat.
Edited: Fixed the link to the Cell article.

Having been banned at Uncommon Descent, I can only witness its self-destruction from afar.

Like one watching a nuclear test with sunglasses, I witnessed their humiliating hoax letter "from" Baylor's president and its attempted suppression. Nobody should be angrier about this than Robert Marks. Here's a guy who's trying to help Dembski out, and Dembski's group -- if "Botnik" is not Dembski in disguise -- responds by insulting his current employer. Dembski's final sentence in his suppression note is hilarious:
I hope Baylor and President Lilley take its removal as a gesture of goodwill on the part of UD as they reconsider what to do about Robert Marks and his Evolutionary Informatics Lab.
With friends like that, eh Robert Marks?

Anyway. The fiasco has been duly mocked by science bloggers (denialism, Afarensis) and the whole incident has been archived for future mockery at The Panda's Thumb. An inadvertent effect of this mockery is that it may raise UD's lousy numbers. (I have no readership, of course, but who am I next to the mighty Dembski?)

But that's not the point of this post. My goal is to answer a simple question: will UD writers retract anything that is shown to be wrong, and not just, as with the Baylor fiasco, stupid and juvenile?

Two cases:

Case 1: RESOLVED! Before he went underground, scordova at UD accused ERV of purposely misleading her readers, a charge that is easily disproven. He has been asked to retract this poisonous and false charge on ERV's blog, and I have asked other UD readers to disclaim it on UD. So far, no luck. So: will anybody at UD have the dignity to say that scordova was wrong, indeed scandalously so, when he wrote this?
But she knows up front that I will call her on an equivocaqtion that was in the minds of some PT’ers when she made an appeal to HIV-2 to make it seem that HIV-1 developed a new Vpu gene after it entered humans. (Emphasis added)
Later in the thread, I responded as follows:
Sal wrote that ERV "made an appeal to HIV-2 to make it seem that HIV-1 developed a new Vpu gene after it entered humans."

Absolutely, utterly wrong. In the original post, ERV wrote, "Of the five major phylogenetic groups of SIV, Vpu is only found in one group-- Chimpanzee SIV (SIVcpz) and its descendants—including HIV-1."

Can you read that? A form of Vpu is found in Chimpanzee SIV, of which HIV-1 is a descendant. Straight up. Retract and apologize.
scordova accused ERV of deliberately deceiving her readers, a charge that has been shown to be without merit. Will someone -- anyone -- at Uncommon Descent have the decency to disclaim this charge? You don't have to believe anything she wrote, but isn't anyone going to step up and say this is BS?

Case 2: RESOLVED* UD commenter Joe G wrote: "Does anyone even know what gene or genes is responsible for the vision system? No."

I refer to the following from Science Daily, 2001: Comprehensive Set Of Vision Genes Discovered: Identification Could Help In Diagnosing And Treating Blinding Diseases. This article begins, "Harvard Medical School researchers have discovered nearly all the genes responsible for vision, which could help in diagnosing and treating blinding diseases."

The full text of the original research (from November 30 2001 Cell) is available here.

Will anybody at UD say, "actually, yes." I've written to Joe G about this, so he knows. Will he correct himself? Wait and see.

Props to oldmanintheskydidntdoit for the reference in Case 2.

*Resolution reached on threat of violence.