After our worthwhile diversion into the christology of creation for three posts, I want to drop back briefly to the previous discussion on frontloading, natural v supernatural action in nature and so on. A post on Uncommon Descent about scorpion burrows prompted one of my infrequent comments there.
My main concern was to note (as I have here from time to time) how it is just impossible to deal with evolutionary matters without invoking teleological language. From the press release:
The researchers found that the burrows followed a very sophisticated design…
The design was common to all the scorpion burrows studied, which suggests that burrow building in scorpions has evolved by natural selection to meet the animals’ physiological needs [my emphasis].
But I also raised once more the question of how it is that such a “sophisticated design”, and the behaviour needed for different scorpions in different terrain to construct it consistently, could possibly be coded by even the total number of the ridiculously few coding genes in the genome, let alone be developed by the accepted processes of random mutation and adaptive selection:
And given how few genes are now thought to be coding, how many are tied up governing all the digging, mating, feeding, fighting and fostering behaviours at the expense of making the claws and nerve cells to carry them out?
A skeptical (towards design – anything but towards Neodarwinian evolution) interlocutor called Piotr helpfully invoked spandrels and neutral evolution as being more significant than selection here, in all probability. They hardly seem to help the sums.
One of my biggest hang-ups about current evolutionary theory, when I started looking at it in earnest five or six years ago, was that it didn’t seem to pan out mathematically. I’d read about the famous 1966 Wistar Conference several years before, and been somewhat nonplussed at how the biologists present had reacted to mathematical objections.
One of the key papers there was this one. I don’t think the biologists fully appreciate the strength of the case he is making (much like Dawkins’ failure to see the elephant in the room of his “METHINKSITISAWEASEL” algorithm). Note in the discussion how more than one of the commenters smuggles teleology (“meaning”) in to get evolution off the algorithmic hook.
And why does it seem so contemporary that, towards the end of the discussion, the Chairman suggests that the author, mathematician and doctor Marcel-Paul Schutzenberger, can be dismissed as merely a propagandist for special creation? the suggestion that classical Neodarwinianism is the only possible scientific alternative to miracle is problematic at more levels than the merely mathematical, but even 50 years on still seems to govern the discussion.
Since that time, nothing I’ve studied convinces me that Neodarwinian theory has any valid mathematical foundation, and on the contrary willfully sidesteps any attempt to put things on a quantitative footing, whilst trying to sell itself as incontrovertible fact. This is not the way of science.
Behind the actual viability of the maths of mutation, selection, drift and so on (note how Schutzenberger did not consider these materially affected his argument) is the global situation of what one might call the philosophy of maths, the logical basis of the science. We discussed in recent posts the question of whether it would be feasible for God to use just the fundamental laws of nature, which could be summarised on an envelope, to create, specifically, all the diverse lifeforms and their burrow-digging behaviours that we in fact see, including humanity, and including you and me as individuals.
One website helpfully gives such a summary of laws on a webpage rather than an envelope. You can see that, their sophistication aside, they’re pretty information-lite. Are they then naturally capable of generating life (whatever the mechanism, Darwinian or not)?
Kurt Gödel is said to rank with Aristotle as one of history’s greatest logicians. He was particularly interested in proving the solubility or otherwise of mathematical problems. He’s the guy who corrected Einstein and corresponded with von Neumann. And he said unequivocally that natural laws lack any such capability:
The formation in geological time of the human body by the laws of physics (or any other laws of similar nature), starting from a random distribution of elementary particles and the field is as unlikely as the separation of the atmosphere into its components. The complexity of the living things has to be present within the material [from which they are derived] or in the laws [governing their formation].
As quoted in H. Wang. “On `computabilism’ and physicalism: Some Problems.” in Nature’s Imagination, J. Cornwall, Ed, pp.161-189, Oxford University Press (1995).
So the fundamental laws are just too simple – the principle being (as I stated in previous blogs) that mathematical laws cannot generate more information than they already contain. Certainly that’s so when, as in life, that information involves complex organisation rather than complex order (the difference between a sonnet and 14 lines of “NoNoNoNo…”).
Note that he’s not just saying, “We can’t explain it by the laws we know”, but that any simple laws describing nature’s regularity would be unable to produce life in principle. Gödel was adamant that the information (complexity) had to be in actual existence prior to the life that exhibits it, either in matter (which has been pretty well-investigated and shows little sign of such a level of complexity) or in the specific laws that govern the formation of life – and as far as I am aware, no such laws have yet been discovered, still less information-rich laws of massive complexity, which would hardly be laws so much as recipes – remember that the shortest algorithm that can code a genome is as big as or bigger than the genome itself.
Since natural selection is actually supposed to be the effect of the environment on the organism, perhaps the organised complexity resides there, it has been suggested. That would, of course, require that the inanimate world is as specifically designed as the life it’s supposed to explain, which rather begs the question being asked. If simple laws can’t produce information-rich life, they cannot produce information-rich environments either. As somebody on a blog I read recently, responding to that claim, said: “Good luck with that one.”
I’ve never heard a biologist answer Gödel’s criticism mathematically at all – or, in fact, just “at all”, apart from the bare assertion that natural selection, like perpetual motion or energy from vacuum fluctuations, can do anything. Indeed, there’s a certain kind of disdain for logic and maths in biology, which no doubt accounts for the failure to engage with philosophy and metaphysics as well.
One more quote will take this as far as I want to take it at this stage: Wolfgang Pauli was no amateur science-watcher either:
In discussions with biologists I meet large difficulties when they apply the concept of “natural selection” in a rather wide field, without being able to estimate the probability of the occurrence in a empirically given time of just those events, which have been important for the biological evolution. Treating the empirical time scale of the evolution theoretically as infinity they have then an easy game, apparently to avoid the concept of purposiveness. While they pretend to stay in this way completely “scientific” and “rational,” they become actually very irrational, particularly because they use the word “chance”, not any longer combined with estimations of a mathematically defined probability, in its application to very rare single events more or less synonymous with the old word “miracle.”
Now this touches on what I wrote about recently on contingency. We’re so used to hearing about incredibly rare events in evolutionary biology (and even in theistic evolution publications – “chance” meaning “freedom” and all that) that we forget how unscientific invoking such things is. Clearly there are no simple laws of life – firstly because none have been found, and secondly nobody has managed either to create life or re-create speciation in 150 years of lab-work, and several decades of computer simulations (and computers are now powerful enough to simulate the entire history of the solar system). Life appears, at best, unlikely in probablistic terms.
I mentioned in a recent post that, to Darwin, geological time was essentially infinite, and the infinitesimal variations he conceived equally so. But genetics shows the latter to be untrue – only a limited range of almost entirely useless or dangerous mutations actually occurs – and the geological record suggests a pattern of stasis and rapid change. The fact that “rapid” means “below the measurable sensitivity of geological time”, ie anything from instantaneous to a few million years, doesn’t alter the fact that the time available is anything but infinite. Yet biologists still treat it so much as if it were that time need not be considered as an important factor. But it is, nevertheless.
I also mentioned how, in most science, “chance” is a statistical measure of relatively high probabilities. In medicine, for example, drug actions are distinguished from “chance” by 3 standard deviations. “Chance” here means <0.27% – ie 1:4 X 10^2. Such probabilities are common enough to have daily significance.
Very much smaller probabilities, like an asteroid hitting a particular location in the desert, are not considered of any scientific value, as they have negligible statistical significance. For ultra-low probability events that, against expecation, produce useful effects, one is in the realm of information theory and Pauli’s “purposiveness” – in the natural world, as he says, a vanishingly unpredictable (and unreproducible) effect like self-replicating molecules, DNA replication, and so on, is indistinguishable from “miracle”.
“Natural events” have properly to do either with law-likeness or statistical probability, measured in standard deviations and the other tools of statistics. If you cannot find a law that measures or explains their frequency, or if the probabilities are infinitesimal, then talking about “natural causes” is pure sophistry. If it turned out that there was a pathway from chemistry to life that could be replicated artificially, but that happened only once in nature under extraordinary circumstances, it is no more a natural event than a fish in the sea of Galilee swallowing a 2 drachma coin and Peter happening to catch it was – teleology and agency ought to be assumed, the alternative being magic and brute fact, which is simply to invoke the absence of cause as a cause.
Gödel, Pauli and other mathematicians see this, but evolutionary biologists not only don’t, but deny the competence of the mathematicians (because they’re not biologists! Biology is exempt from maths, it seems). Biologist Sir Peter Medawar at the 1966 Wistar Conference rejected the mathematical argument of The Manhattan Project’s Stanislaw Ulam about the prohibitive slowness of eye evolution thus:
I think the way you have treated this is a curious inversion of what would normally be a scientific process of reasoning. It is, indeed, a fact that the eye has evolved; and, as Waddington says, the fact that is had done so shows that this formulation is, I think, a mistaken one.
In fact Ulam’s model was a preliminary one based on asexual reproduction: later models using sexual reproduction were much more optimistic (and his models have proved valuable in describing genetic evolutionary pathways). That doesn’t alter the “curious inversion” of assuming as axiomatic what was being questioned by evidence.
One website puts the situation succinctly:
The evolutionary explanation of life is thus “top down”:
- Life exists
- Natural selection is the best (non-theistic) explanation we have for life
- Natural selection must therefore account for the complexity of life and all information systems no matter how improbable it seems.
By contrast the “bottom up” view can be summarised along these lines:
- The universe is described by a handful of dynamical equations.
- The probability of informational complexity arising as a result of any purely stochastic system of laws is vanishingly small.
- The observed informational complexity of life vastly exceeds anything a mutational model can deliver within the age of the universe.
The interesting question to me is what would unite these two views (the same question repeatedly asked by Schutzenberger, in fact). I suggest that only final and formal causation could do it – that is, Gödel’s information and Pauli’s purposiveness. “Design” and “meeting needs” would be another way to express that.
Both of those, of course, have metaphysical sequelae.