Thursday, 7 May 2009

Melanie Phillips' Unintelligent Designs

I've been following a strange little spat between two of Cyberspace's most prominent conservative commentators, Melanie Phillips of the Mail and Charles Johnson of the popular US blog Little Green Footballs. It concerns, of all things, Intelligent Design. Phillips believes that to characterise ID as an unscientific Trojan horse for Creationism is unfair and inaccurate. She claims to detect "an attempt to shut down argument by distorting and misrepresenting ID and defaming and intimidating its proponents". She believes that ID deserves "a fair crack of the whip".

The dispute started last week, after Phillips wrote a furious little squib on her Spectator blog in response to an appearance on the Today programme by the Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller. Miller, despite being religious, is a scourge of the ID lobby. His book Finding Darwin's God was recommended by Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion!). Mad Mel - who, in this instance at least, seems fully to justify her unflattering soubriquet - claims no religious motive whatever. She is, she writes, "an agnostic if traditionally-minded Jew; not a scientist, not a philosopher, not a subscriber to any kind of -ology but a mere journalist who has always gone wherever the evidence has led".

It's telling that Miller - a believer - is happy to accept Darwinian evolution, while the avowedly agnostic Phillips treats it as an unproved theory of equal status with Intelligent Design. We are not dealing here with a clash between religion and science, but rather one between science and journalism. Miller, as a scientist, knows what he is talking about. Phillips, "a mere journalist", knows how to set up straw men and how to besmirch opponents in bepurpled prose. But, as is embarrassingly evident here, her understanding of science is practically non-existent.

Phillips claims that ID has been "misrepresented", and that it "not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it". Indeed, they are "two completely different ways of looking at the world". While Creationism "comes out of religion", she maintains, "Intelligent Design comes out of science". She imagines that proponents of ID are "mainly scientists" and that the theory holds merely that "there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing". Those who think otherwise are "lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism". Creationism she defines narrowly as literal belief in the Genesis story, and the claim that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. Her bugbears are "militant evangelical atheists" who "deliberately conflate Intelligent Design with Creationism in order to smear and discredit ID and its adherents".

When Johnson drew attention to some of the deficiencies in her argument, she returned to the case in a longer and even more hysterical post accusing him of being "unhealthily obsessed" with ID and attempting to justify her claim that Creationism and ID have nothing in common. She complains of this "secular Inquisition" that:


Those who have imbibed evangelical atheistic materialism with their mothers’ milk, however, find it impossible to get their heads round this. Shouting from the rooftops that ID is not science but camouflaged religion, they react so viscerally precisely because ID does come out of science and talks its language. After all, if people are evil and bonkers for believing in an intelligent creator, why aren't religious believers in a Biblical intelligent Creator also evil and bonkers?


With such absurdities Phillips attempts to put herself on the side of rationality, reasonableness and debate and smear her opponents as unrelenting, closed-minded bigots. Hers is the tactic adopted by Creationists and IDers for almost a hundred years. Thus she asserts that opposition to ID "is characterised by irrationality, distortion and hysteria." It is "a conspiracy theory", "an attempt to shut down this debate" that "runs against every principle of rationality and scientific freedom... the claim that [ID] is rooted not in science but in religious fundamentalism is a falsehood designed to smear and intimidate people into silence". It need hardly be said that this is the precise opposite of the truth.

The depths of the ignorance plumbed by Phillips in these pieces have been explored elsewhere, and I haven't the time or the inclination to write a thorough demolition of the Intelligent Design movement. Suffice it to say that there is abundant evidence that ID is not only scientifically valueless (it amounts to little more than holding up examples of "hard-to-explain" complexity in the natural world and challenging evolutionists to account for them) but that it is also the preferred vehicle for modern Creationists whose desire to pick holes in Darwinism is closely bound up with their fundamentalist reading of the Bible (or, as the case may be, the Koran).

What I do want to draw attention to is what appears to be the crux of Phillips' argument, which betrays a common misunderstanding. She writes,

But ID proponents say over and over again they are not Creationists and accept many aspects of evolution, in particular that organisms develop and change over time. What they don’t accept is that random, blind-chance evolution accounts for the origin of all species and the origin of life, the universe and everything.


Whether that accurately summarises ID I rather doubt. That organisms "develop and change over time" - in accordance with the laws of natural selection - IS the theory of evolution, after all. But Phillips' most serious mistake lies in the idea that evolution is a theory about "the origin of life, the universe and everything." It's nothing of the kind: it's a theory (clue in the title of Mr Darwin's book, which we have been celebrating this year) about the origin of species.

The ultimate origin of life is to be found in chemistry, the ultimate origin of "the universe and everything" in the further reaches of physics and cosmology. The latter, in particular, remains extremely speculative. There's plenty of room there for the theists to hide out. But there is no room for God in evolutionary biology: that, as the evidence that has accumulated over a century and a half makes perfectly clear to anyone who bothers to look at it, is an automatic system that works according to its own laws. Laws which have nothing to do with blind chance, incidentally. Sensible believers, such as Prof. Miller, realise this, and discover that it doesn't interfere with their faith.

Phillips' mistake perhaps owes something to the misleading propaganda put out by the ID lobby. But it's also an old and widespread fallacy, not just about biology but about science in general. It confuses science as a procedure for discovering knowledge (an activity) with the philosophical belief (sometimes, rather disparagingly, known as scientism) that science can (theoretically at least) explain everything. Some prominent scientists subscribe to such a doctrine, at least in part. Richard Dawkins, for one, has often said that his understanding of biology implies - for him - the non-existence of God. But even Dawkins would admit that not all scientists think the same way, and that they are no less scientists for all that.

Phillips sees ID as little more than deism, as the idea that some "vague kind of intelligent force must have been behind the creation of the universe". Thus, she maintains, it is no more "religious" than the atheist belief that there is no such intelligent force. This forms the core of her assertion that ID and creationism are entirely different things.

There are at least two major problems with this idea. First, it shows a complete failure to understand what ID proposes. Like Darwinian evolution, it is not a "vague" notion about the origin of the universe, but a claim about the origins of particular life-forms: to wit, that they have been individually and intelligently "designed", rather than evolved by a process of mutation, adaptation and survival of inherited characteristics. This is a claim that, if it is "scientific", ought to be susceptible to proof. So far, however, and despite the best efforts of the IDers, the overwhelming weight of evidence from DNA, palaeontology and observation is in favour of the standard Darwinian model of evolution.

The other problem is with her assertion that because supporters of ID are careful not to specify the attributes of the "designer" - though it is clearly meant to be some sort of "god" - it is therefore not "Creationism". She appears oblivious to the fact that, prior to the emergence of the modern ID movement, this was precisely the argument made by Creationists.

The 1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v Aguillard concerned an attempt by Lousiana to legislate the teaching of creationism in schools. The state argued that "creation science" (read ID) was not a religious theory, and the fact that its conclusions agreed with the first chapter of the Book of Genesis was purely coincidental. The creationists lost, just as IDers were later to do, but they were not without support from the court's most outspoken conservative. In his dissenting opinion, Antonin Scalia accepted the defence's proposition at face value: "to posit a past creator is not to posit the eternal and personal God who is the object of religious veneration", he wrote. And to some extent he's right: it might be Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, or Amun-Ra, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But this is irrelevant when considering whether or not creationism (or ID) is "science". The proofs of God's existence put forwards by Aquinas, Anselm and others are (with the partial exception of the argument from design) philosophical, not scientific arguments. But ID, like "creation science" before it, does claim to be science. It amounts, in fact, to a claim that the whole of modern biology is based on a fundamental error. An extraordinary claim for which the evidence is extremely weak. There is therefore no reason to give it "a fair crack of the whip", any more than flat-earthism deserves to be given a fair crack of the whip.

I suppose it's not that surprising to discover Melanie Phillips making the same mistake that Justice Scalia made twenty years ago. But it is rather depressing to find the same old anti-science arguments, based on almost total ignorance of the scientific process, trotted out yet again by someone with a prominent public platform. Journalists such as Phillips, or Christopher Booker, or Bryan Appleyard do more damage to public knowledge with their misplaced scepticism than all the creationists and IDers put together.

36 comments:

valdemar squelch said...

Another fine post. You have the patience of a secular saint to wade into this mire of lunacy. Mel P is quite clearly deranged, as her attitude to MMR showed over and over again.

At least the vast majority of the world's Muslims have the excuse of pure ignorance for dissing evolution. Being unable to read is no small handicap, and even Muslims who can read won't find Darwin (or Dawkins) in their own language.

Western 'commentators' on science have no such excuse. They are the spoilt, squealing brats of the scientific enlightenment, happy to smash all the shiny new toys they've been given in the assumption that more will be provided in due course.

Which brings me to my new game show, 'I'm an Over-Paid Hack and I Can't Get Out of Here!' Mel P, Bryan Appleyard, and all the rest will be dumped on a desert island with a ball of string, a rusty razor blade, a galvanized zinc bucket, and a copy of the Bible. And nothing else. They will then be left to a. chat about the shallow, worthless materialism of Western scientific culture or b. kill and eat one another. I'd give it a week.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

You seem to be a believer in the existence of "scientism" but like all the others cannot actually find any instances of "scientism". Science clearly does not yet explain everything but there is nothing yet proven that it could never ever explain. The Universe is due to last for many billions of years after all which might well be long enough for future species and intelligences to solve the problems that elude Homo Sapiens.

Scientism is, in the continuing absence of any evidence it actually exists, nothing more than a figment of the fevered imagination of some arationalists. Denouncing Richard Dawkins or others for "scientism" is about as rational as douncing them for "satanism".

The Heresiarch said...

You claim there's no such thing as "scientism", Woolly, and then write this:

Science clearly does not yet explain everything but there is nothing yet proven that it could never ever explain. The Universe is due to last for many billions of years after all which might well be long enough for future species and intelligences to solve the problems that elude Homo Sapiens.

That is as clear a statement of the faith of "scientism" - a pejorative term, perhaps, but the only one there is - that anyone could wish for.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

It is not a faith position, its merely an observation about the lack of evidence. There is for example no evidence that there is a Teapot orbiting somewhere between Saturn and Jupiter yet you would claim that I am a believer in "non-Celestial-Teapot-ism" for saying that I require some evidence first.

If you, or indeed anyone else, provide proof of something that can never ever be explained by the scientific process then I'd be most interested.

Science itself is clearly evolving, it has changed markedly even in my own lifetime and will doubtless continue to evolve in the future.

You show not the least doubt about the existence of "scientism" despite your continuing failure to find any believers in it. That is surely the acme of irrationality and a triumph of faith over reason.

The Heresiarch said...

But I have found a believer in scientism, Woolly. You. Scientism, as I define it, is the belief that science can potentially explain everything. Do you deny that that is what you believe? You certainly give every impression of believing it.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

I've already explained my thinking and if you still haven't spotted the difference between it and what you call "scientism" then I concede that it is beyond my powers of communication. A reasonably bright child of 11 ought to have no problems but sadly there are none in the office I can test this out on. I am surprised you are struggling with this.

So far science has explained much that was thought impossible to ever explain - the age of the earth, the composition of the sun, the origin of species are three examples. It is unreasonable to claim that the remaining unexplained, including those for which no route to an explanation is even apparent, will forever be outside its scope.

I don't claim that it will definitely explain everything. Nor so far as I know does anybody else. I'm willing to accept the possibility that scientism exists, there are after all some very sad deluded types who claim to be satanists, but would just like to see some evidence. I'd also like to see some proof that it is wrong but it is clear that none is forthcoming!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

The Heresiarch said...

You claim there's no such thing as "scientism", WoollyI made no such claim. Like the Celestial Teapot it might hypothetically exist but in the absence of any evidence for it I remain properly sceptical.

Wasp_Box said...

WML,

So your argument is really that "scientism" (what a terrible word) is a faith as we can't prove that science will, one day, explain everything.

If that is what you mean (and I accept I may have the mental agility of an 11 year old) then, at least, there is some evidence to back up that belief. Rather more than can be said for the religious believers.

valdemar squelch said...

Erm, I actually missed the 'scientism' in H's piece. I thought he was attacking the anti-science tendencies in our crappy media culture. Shows what happens when your vision goes wonky, I suppose.

I suppose I'm a believer in scientism in that, in my wholly non-expert opinion, science might (emphasis, might) one day explain anything a sensible person might want to know about the physical universe, including ourselves as parts and products of it.

At the risk of appearing a tit, I think Kurt Goedel supposedly demonstrated that it might be impossible to fully describe the cosmos mathematically even though its laws are mathematical? This is what comes of reading all that sci-fi, of course.

Matt said...

Woolly: "Science clearly does not yet explain everything but there is nothing yet proven that it could never ever explain."

Since science's goal, as far as I understand it, is to explain how the universe works, I'd argue that it stands to reason that science could never explain anything that is logically outside of the universe.

If it were indeed "created" (and I have no idea if it was, and no bias towards what or whom may have been involved), and - as science currently believes - all of time and space began at that singular event; then any creating agent would be by necessity outside of said universe, since the alternative, causality +within it+ requires a previous moment in time for that creation to take place.

Anyway, I have no idea what's right and wrong here, I'm just pointing out that science does not +have+ to be able to explain everything, God and all.

That said, even though I personally have suspicions that the universe is more than just what we now call the "physical" (i.e. I'm sympathetic to those scientists and philosophers that argue for possible connections between the hard problem of consciousness and the mysteries of quantum mechanics), I would still hope that such paradigm shifts would be within the bounds of future science.

Science should be bale to explain everything bar - perhaps - God, and since we may not be able to prove the existence (or not) of God, the question of whether science explains everything could forever remain open.

Martin said...

It is all in the detail and definition: if scientism (I am almost sure it is a made up ugly word) is the belief that scientific methods are the best way to find out about the world, universe and eerything, then OK, what other methods are there?

As far as I am aware there are no others that have successfully explained phenomena.

Phillips likes to pose as a self styled expert on education - she is dangerous. Does she have any redeeming features? I suppose there could be some transitory amusement in watching Phillips and Bunting squabble over some figment of the imagination.

David Gerard said...

It's particularly stupid as the smoking guns showing that "Intelligent Design" was coined as a Trojan Horse for creationism have in fact been clearly identified - first manifesting as one edition of creationist textbook "Of Pandas And People" using the term "creationism", the next "intelligent design". THEY'VE BEEN CAUGHT RED HANDED AND THEY KEEP DENYING IT. WHAT.

Honestly, I commend your ability to plough through brick walls with your forehead ... dealing with such idiocy just makes me feel stupider.

Mike Power said...

We are not dealing here with a clash between religion and science, but rather one between science and journalism.It's more a case of a clash between intelligent argument and Mad Mel's usual dopey idiocy.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Wasp_Box said...

WML,

So your argument is really that "scientism" (what a terrible word) is a faith as we can't prove that science will, one day, explain everything.

If that is what you mean (and I accept I may have the mental agility of an 11 year old) then, at least, there is some evidence to back up that belief. Rather more than can be said for the religious believers.
Nobody can prove that the sun will not rise tomorrow but it would be very foolish to bet against it. Similarly nobody can prove that science will one day explain everything but you'd be going out on a limb to claim otherwise.


Anonymous Matt said...
Woolly: "Science clearly does not yet explain everything but there is nothing yet proven that it could never ever explain."

Since science's goal, as far as I understand it, is to explain how the universe works, I'd argue that it stands to reason that science could never explain anything that is logically outside of the universe.
Remember that the definition of 'Universe' keeps changing. What was once thought to be the whole of creation turned out to be one continent. The definition had to be extended again to include the whole solar system. Then all the other solar systems were added. Only about 80 years ago it was noticed that our 'universe' was just one of many 'island universes' - the others had been mistaken for stars and the term Galaxy became applied to the Milky Way.

There are already some hypothetical means for detecting the existence of other universes and just because something looks impossible now does not mean that human ingenuity, probably with computer assistance, will not one day overcome it.

Only 200 years ago it was thought impossible to ever know what the sun was made of, how old the earth was or to explain the diversity of life.

There is absolutely no need to invoke the magic of quantum physics to explain either consciousness or free will. The philosopher Dan Dennett explains why in his books at some length. They may be involved since that has not yet been completely ruled out but its unlikely and certainly not in the least necessary.

And as for God, well science explained that long ago. Its just that the religious don't much like the answer!

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Martin said...

It is all in the detail and definition: if scientism (I am almost sure it is a made up ugly word) is the belief that scientific methods are the best way to find out about the world, universe and eerything, then OK, what other methods are there?
Like democracy and capitalism there are no attractive alternatives on offer. Other methods have been tried and found wanting. Like the other members of the 'Holy Trinity' of Liberalism science adapts and evolves - it is not restricted to the Popperian definitions. String Theory, like most theoretical physics, is still science whatever Karl Popper said.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Martin said...
I suppose there could be some transitory amusement in watching Phillips and Bunting squabble over some figment of the imagination. With the 'prize' of being officially recognised as the least professional and most fact-resistant journalist going to the 'winner'!

Mark Etherton said...

"Scientism" may be ugly, but it's not a made up word. The second definition in the OED is "A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences". The first use cited is from "Back to Methuselah" (1921). The first definition, "The habit and mode of expression of a man of science", dates back to 1877.

Anonymous said...

I'm quite happy to be a creationist.

I consider myself to be a logical and questioning person and while i think that adaptation occurs ('micro-evolution'?), nothing i have ever read regarding evolution convinces me that the myriad of highly complex and often inter-related forms of life just 'happened' by chance.

2 things evolution has never provided me with satisfactory explanations for are:

The odds against the random events purported to have triggered evolutionary processes are huge, never mind the ongoing development of hugely complex life forms. Such odds in any other arena would consider the event impossible, but not in this one apparently.

For me, it doesn't address the question of information. DNA contains all the information (or blue print) that creates life. Where did this information come from, or is this just as random as well?

To me, evolution requires more faith than creationism.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Well Anonymous you really need to read some good biology books. Nobody in their right minds should give a damn what you in your ignorance think because millions of very clever, hard working diligent people who do nothing else have been over the whole thing and rigorously checked and tested every tiny detail. If they're all happy, which they are, then that really ought to be good enough for you.

If you insist on getting your misinformation from nutty Troofer Blogs then you'll never learn anything of value. Evolution is a system, like a chemical reaction, the flow of a river, the weather or the dissipation of heat. Given the starting conditions it is deterministic and inevitable but since it is a complex system it is computationally impossible to predict because it is so sensitive.

Creationism requires only ignorance, prejudice and resistance to reason. I don't have the stubbornness and energy to hide from reality like you.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Mark Etherton said...
"Scientism" may be ugly, but it's not a made up word. The second definition in the OED is "A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences". The first use cited is from "Back to Methuselah" (1921). The first definition, "The habit and mode of expression of a man of science", dates back to 1877.

Under the second definition I am happy to be an exemplar of "scientism". Its pretty much universally recognised that philosophy will never produce any advances in understanding consciousness or free will, explaining morality and ethics, sexuality and so on. Science by contrast has already made great strides so even if it doesn't get all the answers nobody can deny that its been a great success so far. Give it a few thousand more years and who knows how far it might go?

Outside of the backwaters of academia - the arts departments - its fairly rare for people to regard science as a low-brow or un-intellectual pursuit. There is an inverted snobbery visible amongst most journalists, the Guardian is not alone in this failing, in being proud of their scientific ignorance because it was too hard for them at school or uni. but most people are rightly impressed by science and probably revere the intellects of scientists too highly. Its mostly long hours of boring hard work and within the capability of most people who are sufficiently interested.

valdemar squelch said...

Anon, the 'problems' with evolution you mention are so rudimentary that scientists have addressed them on many occasions in good books that you haven't read. Shame on you for being smug, ignorant and lazy.

Anonymous said...

Valdemar, thanks for your opinions on my personal characteristics. I was going to respond in like until i remembered that i didn't actually know anything about you and therefore had little to base those opinions on.

I think we'll have to agree to disagree on your assertion that scientists have addressed the rudimentary questions. In your opinion they have, whereas in my opinion they haven't.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Anonymous said...
I think we'll have to agree to disagree on your assertion that scientists have addressed the rudimentary questions. In your opinion they have, whereas in my opinion they haven't.
And it is quite clear that your opinion is utterly worthless.

Valdemar is quite correct that your posts here have been tediously smug, ignorant and lazy. What are you doing here when CiF is your natural home and positively welcomes such brain dead comments?

Matt said...

WML:"Remember that the definition of 'Universe' keeps changing. What was once thought to be the whole of creation turned out to be one continent. The definition had to be extended again to include the whole solar system. Then all the other solar systems were added. Only about 80 years ago it was noticed that our 'universe' was just one of many 'island universes' - the others had been mistaken for stars and the term Galaxy became applied to the Milky Way."

I was actually going to put "universe/megaverse" as I'm aware there may be anything up to an infinite number of others. It makes no difference to the argument that a creation must by definition have taken place outside those mega-multiverses.

I've also read many of Dennett's papers, which are enjoyable and not without merit. But I've also read many of Chalmers' and books by Penrose, Rosenblum, Kuttner and co, distinguished scientists and philosophers all... and their arguments are not without merit too.

That's my point - the jury is out. Any materialist/physicalist who's position is so entrenched that they claim that quantum mechanics is definitely not in violation of that view, or consciousness is definitely just a neural correlate or emergent property of the physical, is just as bad as a creationist that believes that God definitely did it.

Flip sides of the same old coin.

valdemar squelch said...

In case any genuinely reasonable people are in doubt about the evidence for evolution (which has nothing to do with life's origins, as H has already pointed out) can check out a good general introduction here:

http://www.talkorigins.org/origins/outline.html#arguments

Don't be fooled by creationists. Their agenda is no more scientific than Al-Qaeda's.

Matt said...

Just returning to the original subject, it's not difficult to see why believers jump on the concept of the Anthropic Principle to defend their claims. It's a fact that within our current understanding, it would +appear+ that the universe is incredibly finely tuned in just such a way that allows the possibility for life to exist (adjust the seemingly arbitrary laws of physics one way or another and suddenly the universe doesn't exist long enough, or matter cannot form etc).

However, using the Anthropic Principle as a proof of +anything+ is flawed in just the same ways as I have described earlier.

For starters there are alternative explanations that fit within the boundaries of current thinking, ranging from the multiverse ideas that WML mentions to the extreme end of the Consciousness argument that would have the entire universe and it's corresponding history as some kind of collective solipsism created by ourselves.

Perhaps the most important thing that negates both those who claim AP as "science that supports God" and those that claim that science as a whole supports materialism is the fact that science is so incomplete and/or broken in it's current form.

The whole reason that AP was brought to the fore by the likes of Stephen Weinberg was to try to address the massive problems that makes the two foundations of modern science - gravity and quantum mechanics - so horribly and fatally incompatible. That's what string theory and the search for a "theory of everything" is about after all is it not? And after 50 or so years we're really no closer.

Bottom line. Anyone who thinks the big questions are even close to be decided one way or another is not only ridiculously arrogant, but also ridiculously wrong.

Martin said...

The anthropic principle has got to be daft, it is only in a universe where life exists that anyone could think these things. When the sample size is one, you cannot make any extrapolations of probability or improbability.

It is a sort of Dr Pangloss argument.

Matt said...

That would be anyone's first thought, it was certainly mine.

Being I'm feeling lazy I'll just quote you on this. AP theories have... "been dismissed as truisms or tautologies, that is, statements true solely by virtue of their verbal form and not because they conform to reality. As such, they are criticized as an elaborate way of saying "if things were different, they would be different," which is a valid argument, but does not prove any alternatives. The anthropic principles implicitly posit that our ability to ponder cosmology at all is contingent on one or more fundamental physical constants having numerical values falling within quite a narrow range, and this is not a tautology; nor is postulating a multiverse. Moreover, working out the consequences of a change in the fundamental constants for the existence of our species is far from trivial, and, as we have seen, can lead to quite unexpected constraints on physical theory. This reasoning does, however, demonstrate that carbon-based life is impossible under these transposed fundamental parameters."

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle)

It's the plugging-in of seemingly arbitrary numbers into the initial conditions of the big bang that is odd (but certainly doesn't have to be explained by ID (of the universe) in my opinion, although it is a possibility for sure.)

Again, these things are +all+ still a matter of debate and disagreement, AMONGST SCIENTISTS AND PHILOSOPHERS. If they can't agree themselves, what does a layman like you or I claiming to "know" the answer sound like? Stupid right?

David Gerard said...

Sorry, the argument "I don't understand science so I don't see how anyone else could therefore creationism has something to it" is somehow less than convincing.

Matt said...

I'm not sure if you're referring to my own view, but since that's not my argument I certainly agree with you.

Now suppose that the big bang event is random in nature.

Given that we know that there are fundamental constants in physics that appear to be arbitrary (in that they are seemingly not derived from a deeper mathematical property of the universe), one would expect them to be random.

We also know that changing any of the observed constants by even a fraction would give rise to a universe in which conditions for life to have evolved would have not been possible. (For example, changing the fine structure constant or the cosmological constant by a tiny fraction one way would mean that matter couldn't form and there would just be a big soup, or changing another the opposite way would mean that the universe would have collapsed after a short time)

Being then that there are billions of initial combinations that would +not+ give rise to a universe stable enough for life to evolve, and only a tiny number of combinations that fit with the universe as we actually see, that would suggest one of the following:

a) the values of the constants were not random

b) the universe has come into being many times over until this one appeared in which we are here to discuss it

c) the universe is one of a multiverse that exist simultaneously (cf Leonard Susskind's Landscape and other such ideas)

d) the constants ARE the result of a deeper mathematics/understanding, but we can't see it yet

e) other explanations I haven't seen

f) other explanations no-one has thought of

AGAIN, the point is that we don't know as there are no conclusive facts either way, and AGAIN it's like many people bend so far backwards to deny non-material possibilities that all their otherwise evident rationality seems to leave them!

But then, I understand that. Most IDers, creationists, and the religious base their beliefs on something imaginary called "faith". It's frustrating.

Martin said...

Assumptions, assumptions....

"Given that we know that there are fundamental constants in physics that appear to be arbitrary ...., one would expect them to be random." No such expectation is justified, furthermore, there is no justification in assuming that any necessity that "life" has to closely resemble "life" as we know it.

We can look for the basic requirements for natural selection and these would be reproduction, with a possibility of variation (inheritable mutations), that these variations can be themselves reproduced in succeeding generations and that there is a need for limited resources.

Whilst a different absolute value for the charge on electrons etc might well rule out life as we know it, there would be nothing to rule out a different evolutionary process, based on whatever Chemistry that would result

In any case 'layman' or not, there is no escape from the fact that the anthropic principle attempts to make an extrapolation based on a sample size of one.

Matt said...

You misunderstand the consequences of changing the value of the constants. It would not just result in a universe where humans did not evolve, it would result in a universe where fundamental things would not have happened - for example - matter would not have coalesced and therefore galaxies and stars would not have formed, or where before there was time for such formation to get underway, the universe would have collapsed back in on itself in a big crunch.

"Anthropic" is actually a bit of a misnomer, it has nothing to do with the evolutions of humanity in a direct sense, it is much more universal and important than that.

It also has nothing to do with sample size. A good analogy is to imagine throwing a load of ingredients randomly into an oven, and opening the oven to find that - by sheer chance - a perfect cake was in there. It's not impossible, but one would only find it unsurprising if either you'd done the same thing a zillion times and NOT got a cake, or if someone had actually put the ingredients together on purpose.

Again, that's no proof of God - there are plenty of other explanations. But 1) you can see why the ID brigade can misuse the principle as "evidence", and 2) to posit other explanations, one has to be open to ideas that are way beyond current classical physics....

Which shouldn't be a big deal for anyone with a bit of historical perspective. But it's surprising how entrenched "now" type opinions can be.

Martin said...

For the record I did not mention humans and certainly did not equate humans with life.

My gripe is the loose use of the idea of 'random' when there is no idea of the range of other possibilities (if any). I certainly could not subscribe to your analogy.

I suppose I do find it difficult to shake off the assumption that there are underlying relationships that can account for the constants.

Matt said...

Apologies, yes, I should have said life, but the point as I said is not just that biology wouldn't have developed, but more that even chemistry couldn't have done so, because the underlying physics wouldn't have allowed it.

The "other possibilities" are simply amending the value of fundamental physical constants, especially the coupling constants:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coupling_constant

As the bottom of the article says, string theory attempts to resolve the arbitrary nature of these by allowing for variations in them. If you read the likes of "The Cosmic Landscape" by Leonard Susskind, he explains how part of the whole reasoning behind string theory is to try to address what he calls "the mother of all physics problems", that being the bizarreness of the Anthropic Principle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Susskind

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cosmic-Landscape-String-Illusion-Intelligent/dp/0316013331/ref=sr_1_4/280-7386735-7367411?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1241964055&sr=8-4

As you can see from teh full title of the book, "The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design", such thinking is needed to counter wacky ID ideas.

I have no idea if string theory is the answer, but my personal opinion is that yes, new science will explain AP.

It's unfortunate that some scientists, and most laypeople, just try to stick their heads in the by claiming AP is tautology, which it is not.

Anonymous said...

Matt: thanks for the links. Even very fine alterations to the coupling constants, the electron charge in particular would produce radically different chemistry even if g values were compatible with star formation, but I am still doubtful of the point unless other values can be shown to be possible for coupling constants.

Matt said...

Anonymous:

Yes, other values are mathematically consistent. The universe +could+ exist with them (or perhaps other universes +do+ exist with them) but the evolution of those universes would be very different, and in almost all cases not conducive to the eventual formation of life.

String theory works with these different possible universes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_landscape

As the bottom section says:

"Although few dispute the idea that string theory appears to have an unimaginably large number of metastable vacua, the existence, meaning and scientific relevance of the anthropic landscape remain highly controversial. Prominent proponents of the idea include Andrei Linde, Sir Martin Rees and especially Leonard Susskind who advocate it as a solution to the cosmological constant problem. Opponents, such as David Gross, suggest that the idea is inherently unscientific, unfalsifiable or premature."

These things are debated in science, as they should be. What they certainly +shouldn't+ be is dismissed out of hand, which is what anti-ID materialists have a tendency to do in their (understandable) eagerness to denounce IDers when they misuse the ideas as "evidence" of their claims.