Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Response to Perry Marshall

Part of my response (in moderator limbo since the first week of April) to Perry Marshall's explanation is below.  Marshall seems to argue on his blog that unless we attribute/limit all the intelligent design in macroevolutionary diversity to intelligence that is in the evolving organisms themselves, the recognition of intelligent design becomes a science-stopping God-of-the-gaps philosophy of science.
It is hard to understand your position in a way because sometimes you seem to making a design argument, and sometimes you seem to be arguing like Ken Miller that any influence God has had on history must somehow be undetectable. [Note: Actually, this is probably more like a BioLogos argument; Miller might argue that God refused to interfere with history altogether before Biblical events.] Near as I can tell, your version of a 3rd way is an attempt to keep theists from disengaging from the facts and/or basing their faith on certain scientific mysteries remaining mysteries. I can sympathize with that. In some ways you seem to be saying that the evidence for intelligent design stands regardless of the time frame that the information is put into the system. A lot of ID people would be on board with you there—except that most wouldn’t _require_ that the information be limited to the law-like behaviors of the universe and have specific evidential reasons (which you and others may disagree with) for rejecting that limitation.

Whether there is a coherent 3rd way depends on precisely what _is_ being added to the table and whether it is something more than a porridge of what is already on the table. It depends on whether one is proposing some sort of law that explains how watch-innovating factories are plausible (not merely possible) with no guiding influence. The reference to the Biocentrism book makes me suspect that the third thing being put on the table is a conscious universe akin to the thoughts of Thomas Nagel or Rupert Sheldrake, but somehow more dependent (in an unclear way) on material mechanisms. The problem with Sheldrake’s ideas (aside from the lack of academic engagement) is that they don’t present anything more clear than I have so far heard about the third way, although some of the things you’ve written sound like a front-loaded ID position. Positing a consciousness in cells and then arguing that cells can perform macroevolution over deep time because they are conscious, creative geniuses — if that is the hypothesis — is an intriguing hypothesis but seems like another extraordinary claim in need of extraordinary evidence.  If the “weak version” of 3rd Way is that “consciousness needs to be considered as a fundamental part of the problem and not merely epiphenomenal” then that much is easy to agree with. If one is applying the same sort of “in[de]finite departure” extrapolation to cell intelligence (as has been applied to mutation), that is the thing to be proved and that potential explanation has its own problems.

I would recommend Penrose’s Shadows of the Mind since he is grappling there with whether consciousness or mathematical creativity can be fit into the persistent preconceptions (i.e. current reductionist paradigms) [of science] and what this means for science. This is something that continues to intrigue me from a computer science point of view: Can insight be estimated? I think that the answer is an affirmative but a highly qualified one. The idea of a conscious cell requires a further question to be answered: How would you distinguish between the insights programmed into an agent (e.g. a learning algorithm) from the insights gained by an agent through creative consciousness? And it begs the question about what consciousness (if any) existed in the acellular matrix that gave rise to a functional cell, or whether an essentially robotic cell (a chemical automaton with exactly what computational abilities?) can develop the power of insight through enough remixing of its parts. If you are arguing that the kind of self-reprogramming that a protozoan does must require some sort of non-algorithmic conscious effort [more questions are begged--e.g. is a cumulative account of consciousness feasible as a truly testable theory?].

It would require a lot more words to adequately address why it is important to distinguish what science can tell about the evidence for deep intelligence and ultimately (non-scientifically) whether this evidence tells us anything about the divine, but I think it is important to carefully tease these apart. People have characterized this as a political stunt by the Discovery Institute, but I think the exact opposite is true. The political stunt has been the Darwinists staging this as a conflict between doing “real” science and inferring a Judaeo-Christian God. And in the larger public forum the matter requires a straightforward conversation about whether the word “supernatural” is at all a scientific concept, let alone a useful scientific concept for criticizing ideas–whether it is being used to rule out phenomena that are either (a) knowable but completely outside current paradigms or (b) unknowable through scientific methods alone. And, with respect to some of the questions that William Dembski has raised about the nature of quantum events, what precisely (and isn’t science supposed to be precise?) is meant by “direct intervention.”

That said, yes, not only does the implicit deism in methodological naturalism smell like it’s _way_ past its due date, but––taking our science hats off for the moment–that implicit deism _does_ take something away from the Divine. I could be misunderstanding what your position is, but to me it sounds like one is restricting God to forming the law-like behaviors of the universe because if He were to do anything else science becomes impossible somehow (and He’d better behave Himself so scientists can get paychecks). It looks like a 3rd Way God can do anything so long as he keeps all “intervention” (non-front-loaded influence, presumably) and any evidence thereof to Himself.  He can create the universe and just let things go from there–and that’s all (except maybe interfere in an undetectable way). I don’t see how the hands-off argument for a supposedly bigger God has any more philosophical backbone than when Erasmus Darwin pitched it. (If Erasmus’ poetry is any measure, it seemed [for him] to make God uncaring and make Nature glorious.)  It doesn’t seem to accomplish anything _theologically_ other than conjuring a more distant, less involved creator. [e.g. Erasmus' "distant deity"]

For me there are even more fundamental questions (to the evolution debate) than all these scientific and metaphysical questions: _Who_ decides what “real science” is and _who_ gets to put things on the table for further study? What I’m tired of more than anything is the fascism of dictating to the community how to approach science and bullying and deriding people who approach it differently. Ever since Charles Darwin biologists have been basing their historical arguments, explicitly or implicitly, on what a creator would or wouldn’t do rather than on what evidence suggests itself. I think we’re all entitled to whatever philosophical baggage we choose; it’s the imposing of certain philosophical baggage (e.g. materialism) on the community and calling this imposition science that is the science-stopper. Once the public realizes that there are other scientific studies to spend their money on than bankrolling more expensive reductionist flapdoodle, on whose science will they actually want their money spent? Who will decide where that lovely green stuff gets spent?

I tend to look at the enterprise of biology as somewhat of a mining expedition. For decades there’s been certain passages sealed off because, so we’re told, there’s nothing to see down there, it’s a waste of time, it’s a mining-stopper, etc. Nobody’s allowed down there because nothing will come of it but a waste of resources—so _no one_ is allowed to try. I think there’s plenty of room for neo-Darwinism, 3rd way, 4th way, self-organization, quantum synthesis, or whatever approach. But a 3rd Way that is [merely] NOMA with ID frosting on top still tastes like NOMA. NOMA didn’t inspire materialists to keep religion out of science; it just rationalized making theists do science that amounted to a secular religion.

Some of what I heard sounds a little like “Boy these scientists are so afraid that if they tell the public the truth, people will stop letting us do their thinking for them and gravitate to Intelligent Design.” If that’s what they are afraid of, maybe they should bravely tell the public the truth now, while they have a smidgeon of credibility left, before they make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of them still talk as though they accept this neo-Darwinist pablum, and science programs are _still_ churning out acolytes that think in lockstep from the ideological mill. Whether they really do buy this stuff or they misrepresent themselves for fear and loathing of the very people whose money they are spending, it still undermines all confidence in the community of biologists. Without a free market, a 3rd way is just the same old presumption and arrogant extrapolations with new purported mechanisms, and if it becomes the main item on the shelf it’s not because it’s so darn good.
Update 5/10/2017:
One of my comments has made it out of moderator limbo.

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