Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reflections on Dennett's Intuitions

Initial, cursory thoughts on Dennett's Intuition Pumps...

Intrigued by his conception of Design Space, seems to have some possibilities for being fleshed out.  Dennett is mostly about the intuitive and conceptual, hence the title, so it is in a (definitional) sense vague.

Dennett understands better than almost all the other materialists just how unlikely working designs are, and doesn't like that materialists shrink from calling well-engineered devices in biology "design."  How he seems to reconcile it that he imagines the solution space in metazoan architectures to be well-connected and smoothly connected -- to have significant structure.

This is something that I am thinking of as Speculative Darwinian Recursion:  If it is complicated, imagine it resulting from a plausible amount of tinkering on a slightly less complicated, slightly more plausible precursor. Dennett calls this "lifting" and, much as Darwin himself analogized natural selevtion from the deliberate process of artificial selection (i.e. breeding), analogizes with engineering efforts, with leveraging new technology form old.

In one of his hard AI arguments in the book he discusses a program for generating new compositions based on style samples from composers.  Give it enough Bach and it will create more -- well, more Bach-esque material.  Give it multiple composers' material and it will amalgamate the material.  I don't know that he is arguing necessarily (although it seem implicit) that this application is a trivial program, but he seems to suggest that there is nothing significant about programming into the application an insight into musical style itself, as opposed to simply writing a program that had enough Bach insights "hardcoded" in to generate Bach-esque material.

This appears in a context of "creation without comprehension" -- which for Dennett applies to both AI and biology -- and follows the example of the chess program that was able to beat the human chess-player Gary Kasparov.   Dennett asks us to ignore the brute-force approach of the application, as well as any path-pruning heuristics that were built into the program, and accept that in principle this is really not fundamentally different from comprehension and reasoning based on insight.

Are these intuition pumps or conceptual circularities?

Note: Revisit Roger Penrose's and Douglas S. Robertson's thoughts on insight.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Course on Evolution Features Richard Dawkins's God Delusion

Ok, not the book by Dawkins, an article of the same name, but it makes you wonder what it's doing in a biology course.

I'm not against a biology teacher exercising some latitude in relevant articles.  In fact I think it is scary the way neo-Darwinists and evolutionary materialists oppose such academic freedom.  But this sort of thing provides insight into the prevailing double standard, as California materialists indoctrinate our young with no fear of violating the 1st Amendment.

Cal State Bakersfield has some provocative papers in its syllabus for its Upper Division biology course on "Evolution."  While most don't seem to weigh in on the controversy over the theoretical adequacy of neo-Darwinism, noteworthy are the articles by Dawkins, Gould, Dobzhansky, as well as an article about "the creationists' time scale."  (Does anyone else smell a strawman argument in the works?)  In the aforementioned article about atheism (and precisely what is a populist argument for atheism doing in an evolution course?) follows the predictable syllogism:

Further Reflections on Pig-Chimp

Some further reflections on the pig-chimp hypothesis:

(1) Reading P.Z. Myers' criticism of the "pig-chimp" hypothesis, it stood out to me again that there is a correlation between gradualist arguments against human-chimp comparisons and gradualist arguments against protein-protein comparisons. There is an argument that it is worthless to compare two closely related proteins because the plausibility of them both having developed from a common, less functional prototype is fundamentally different from the plausibility of changing one highly adapted protein into another. There is a similar argument about comparing humans and chimps, though I think Myers forgets this when he discusses what a chimp is likely to do with a monstrous hybrid rather than what a proto-chimp is likely to do.  If we were to imagine (within the neo-Darwinian construct) something with all the gentler nurturing primate instincts of humans, bonobos, and gorillas, say a homobo, maybe it would have a less Spartan attitude.

(2) One of the criticisms (there's a whole kitchen sink o' them) directed at ID is that it tells us too little about the sources of design:  nothing about their nature and number.  It would be natural for a theist to presume one designer, but as far as data is concerned I'm not sure there is anything gained by presuming exactly one agent or intelligence.  I would rather presume a group of engineering intelligences (or alternately, formal causes) who may be conferring or developing according to a common plan/goal.  

I was thinking about this in connection to the fact that ID proponents are not likely to talk much about the pig-chimp hypothesis.  One reason (maybe the biggest) reason is that it is doesn't have nearly the acceptance or interest that either symbiogenesis or self-organization has.  Dr. McCarty is more or less a side-show in the bio-theory marketplace.

But the other reason is that ID proponents tend to think, naturally, that the explananda are better explained by “a common designer, who re-used different components in the different designs that were made.”  And certainly, the idea of an engineered humanity is, I think, consonant with theism, but the idea of evolution as a history of engineering experiments may be too New Age for many who are attracted to ID.  However, as Dr. Behe has criticized Ken Miller, even if the idea of engineered predators and parasites are theologically problematic, that doesn't mean we stop following the data.  We are all, however, materialists and non-materialists alike, influenced by our philosophical commitments.

For me, the inference to intelligence as causal explanation is more fundamental than inferring a particular purpose. Not that the data is completely silent on the matter – I think it is a rational inference that the human brain is designed for abstract and self-reflective thinking, for creative insight.  Further inference (e.g. the why) likely goes beyond the biological facts into other areas of reason.  But inferring an application of deep knowledge to genetic information doesn’t necessarily preclude a role for chance in history.  Nor does thinking of the infusions of information at points of history (e.g. the Cambrian explosion) as “experiments” necessarily imply anything as capricious as Dr. Moreau’s horrors.

So the idea of engineers (extraterrestrial, interdimensional, or whatever) experimenting with biological diversity may well be an unpleasant characterization for ID proponents.
I suspect evidence of re-use is likely one of the most promising research activities. For me, “experiment” doesn’t exclude the teleological or purposeful, but it leaves as open issues what the design was meant to demonstrate and the degree to which chance co-exists causally with intelligence. It is a common ploy of the “science defenders” to demand that all evidence compel a sense of clear intention, perfection, and omniscience. As I understand the claims of ID, it doesn’t preclude (nor does it require) epochs of trial species coming about and going extinct. Whether each individual species were to play a perfectly anticipated/orchestrated role in history, is not essential to the validity of the general idea.

For me, the inference to intelligence as causal explanation is more fundamental than inferring a particular purpose. Not that the data is completely silent on the matter – I think it is a rational inference that the human brain is designed for abstract and self-reflective thinking, for creative insight. Further inference (e.g. the why) likely goes beyond the biological facts into other areas of reason. Inferring the application of deep knowledge to genetic information doesn’t necessarily preclude a role for chance. Nor does thinking of the infusions of information at points of history (Cambrian explosion?) as “experiments” necessarily imply anything as capricious as Dr. Moreau’s horrors.

Free will itself seems to me a kind of grand experiment (or adventure, as some might put it), whether or not a master plan can be perceived. Life is fraught with contingency.

I do appreciate your time, and also your wariness about both Eugene McCarthy and the connotations of the word “experiment.” I don’t think anyone is obligated to take Dr. McCarthy’s conclusions seriously even if he is an expert in backcrossing; as you point out, it’s a question of the meaning/interpretation of the evidence, not simply whether or not the evidence is significant. The bright side, I think, of the attention his theory is getting is that it draws attention to the uniqueness of the human body and to the inadequacy of selectionism to account for it. His data may be quite valid regardless of his conclusions. Then again, many people believe/assume that “all things are possible with” natural selection – so ‘absurd is as absurd does,’ as Mr. Gump might have said.

As bizarre a conclusion as it may be, the list of “not-so-primatish” traits in humanity seem remarkable, even if you don’t consider yourself cousin to bacon. I’m not advancing a theory that ancient alien astronauts engineered us to root for truffles, in case you were worried. J

 have almost as much interest in the sociology of science as in biological explanation. Sociologically speaking, I think it will be interesting whether or not the McCarthy hypothesis (as implausible as it is) does get taken more seriously, since it’s superficial/seeming plausibility owes a great deal to the implausibility of natural selection. That is, it appears to answer some questions well because people know intuitively that in Natural Selection’s ability to hindsight-predict any outcome it predicts nothing. (This is more a hyper-selectionist problem, but you know what I mean.) I suspect the infamous monkey-pig might haunt the hallowed halls of science even longer than the aquatic ape. Monkey-pig does suffer from being less vague than general hand-wavings of horizontal transfer, but has similar appeal (and some similar problems) to that of “acquired genomes.”

Whether it is desirable to have people mention the monkey-pig hypothesis in the same breath as ID is an understandable concern. Not all heterodox ideas are equal. But I find it curious that P.Z. Myers didn’t bother to mention them in the same breath, and I suspect that he doesn’t simply hate the monkey-pig hypothesis for its impossibility but rather for exposing just how little explanatory power neo-Darwinism has. This alone makes me smile, even if I do believe in something more like the Garden of Eden than the Island of Dr. Moreau.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rupert Sheldrake Banned TED Talk: Dogmatic Science

Rupert Sheldrake attempted to bring teleology back to biology with his hypotheses of morphic resonance and formative causation, years before the intelligent design program got real momentum in the late 1990s.  This is a great presentation on the questionable dogmas of materialist science.  Watch it before they pull it from Youtube again.  


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lysenkoism Part II: Collectivist Science

As I continue to ponder Elsberry and Perakh's denouncement of the comparison of  Darwinism to Lysenkoism, I find it funny that their attempt to "turn the tables" on ID proponents includes appeals to their alleged "self-aggrandizing puffery."  Apparently, they are offended by the effrontery of not exhibiting the proper humility and this, to them, makes them "Soviet-like" and Nazi-like. But this is (perhaps unintentionally) a red herring.

What is the most salient connection between the bullying and harrassment by the anticreationist coalition and the initimidation of totalitarian regimes is the urgency to suppress dissent and make sure that it has serious consequences.

Elsberry and Perakh try to steer the reader in the direction of seeing ID as kin of Lysenkoism.  ID and Lysenkoism are both against the neo-Darwinian Synthesis, for one.  Secondly, both are allegedly unproductive, whereas the Modern Synthesis supposedly can be credited with the great advances of modern biology.

In many ways, even though I think E and P's arguments on the matter are fallacious, I believe it is a red herring to argue at all based on which theory any one group's model of theory choice supports.  Fervent neo-Darwinist advocate (and contemptuous anticreationist) Jerry Coyne disagrees with E and P about the practical success of neo-Darwinism.  Many science defenders are aware of this inconvenient truth, but it is often considered impolitic to point it out.  But even if it could take credit as a productive heuristic, it is still not a good argument for suppressing alternative views or for excusing suppression.

The big problem with Lysenko's Michurinism was not really that it was unproductive or wrong.  The problem was that its shortcomings were foisted on people through intimidation and the use of state power to enforce a hegemony.  If dissent and controversy had been tolerated in the universities and if various firms and organizations had been free to pursue the erroneous theory of their choice, all of the public agriculture's eggs would not have been in the Michurinist basket -- maybe only a few government-sponsored experiments.   A free marketplace of ideas would have been ideal then as now.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Is ID the New Lysenkoism?

"[I]mprovement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of 'like begets like'. 
[I]f truth be told, evolution hasn't yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say.
~ Jerry Coyne, fearless defender of neo-Darwinism, quoted here
Elsberry and Perakh, despite their obvious disdain for Darwin skeptics, make for interesting reading when they try to comment on the substance of ID approaches.  They completely jump the shark on the matter of ideological science in general and Lysenkoism in particular.

First of all, I'd like to comment on where I first heard Lysenkoism mentioned with respect to Darwin-skepticism.  The first was in some commentary by Eugenie Scott.  As I recall, it wasn't in response to anything by ID advocates, but simply an analogy based on her belief that all ID is driven by ideology, and since the Lamarckist approach under Stalin was favored because of Marxist ideology, ID and Lysenkoism are obvious soulmates.  Profound.  (It's possible she was inspired by the E&P paper, but I don't remember seeing any references to it.)

The second instance was in the book Corrupted Science, which was advertised as an unbiased look at the relationship between ideology and science, and ironically turned out to be completely political polemic.  This too wasn't a reaction to Lysenkoism comparisons by ID advocates.

My impression upon reading the Scott article was a sense of irony.  The lost jobs, lost tenures, lost promotions, etc. where professors and teachers go from being praised and celebrated to suddenly being denounced as third-rate hacks abound.  As neo-Darwinist zealots often remind us, skeptics of hyper-selectionism and neo-Darwinism are sorely outnumbered.  In spite of this, what you will hear from the "science defenders" are complaints as to how dangerous it is to question ID (you might lose the good opinion of all those cranks they make fun of).