Sunday, May 31, 2009

On the discussion of the language of design in biology

The Maverick Philosopher is examining the notion of design as used by Dawkins in particular, and evolutionary biologists in general, in what seems to be either an argument that design requires a designer, or an objection to the terminology of design being used absent a designer and the assignment of purpose requiring an intention, maybe a little of both. Personally, this seems to me to be trying to force evolutionary biology into creating highly technical jargon for no particularly useful purpose. We have no common English words to describe the overall shaping action that selection places upon living things, but I don't see how abandoning the terminology of design improves the understanding of these actions. Details below the fold.

Our starting point must be ordinary language. As David Stove points out, "it is a fact about the meaning of a common English word, that you cannot say that something was designed, without implying that it was intended; any more than you can say that a person was divorced, without implying that he or she was previously married." (Darwinian Fairytales, p. 190, emphasis added.) In other words, it is an analytic proposition that a designed object is one that was intended in the same way that it is an analytic proposition that a divorced person is one who was previously married. These are two conceptual truths, and anyone who uses designed object and divorced person in a way counter to these truths either does not understand these concepts or else has some serious explaining to do.

We can put aside for the moment that biologists have actually written multiple volumes to do this serious explaining. Perhaps this work is not serious enough for Dr. Vallicella, as most of the work is written for the popular audience. The first step, I think, is to acknowledge that no individual book, no matter how well or carefully written, would suffice to introduce an entirely new vocabulary, one that has no real equivalences into English, as a part of a discussion on a topic that already requires years of post-graduate study and work to understand, and result in something that a person with high-school education, or even a degree in philosophy, will understand. Scientists spend years learning to adjust and adapt their understanding of the English words, any new vocabulary would merely occupy an academic niche that has no need for it.

1. Mayr tells us in the chapter on Natural Selection that "Every species produces vastly more offspring than can survive from generation to generation." (117) Sorry to be such a quibbler, but is this true? 'Every' includes homo s. Does our kind produce vastly more offpsring than can survive from generation to generation?

Yes, we do. This restraint has been lifted in the last 10,000 years or so since the discovery of agriculture, and in that time our population has grown exponentially (which is the alternative when a species is temporarily unable to fill its niche). However, we will at some point exceed the ability of our environment to support our numbers. China is already experiencing a version of this issue, hence their official policy of couple being allowed one child. Eventually every culture will be facing this issue.

Then we read: "All the individuals of a population differ genetically from each other. They are exposed to the adversity of the environment, and almost all of them perish or fail to reproduce." (117) Really? Almost all of the members of our species perish or fail to reproduce?

Again, this was historically true. In pre-industrial times, it was commonplace to lose more children before puberty have children reach puberty.

Quoting Mayr, with interspersed comments, he says:
Selection is not teleological (goal-directed). Indeed, how could an elimination process be teleological? [It can't be, my man!] Selection does not have a long-term goal. [Or a short-term one either!]

This seems to be odd position. As was pointed out twice in the comments, there are several ways to design by elimination.

The following three positions need to be distinguished:

1. There is design in nature, and a complete account of it is impossible without recourse to a cosmic designer such as God.
2. There is intrinsic design in nature, and it is wholly explainable in naturalistic terms.
3. There is no intrinsic design in nature: all features that exhibit design, purpose, function are observer-relative, and the only observers are themselves denizens of the natural world.

Theists who rely on design arguments subscribe to (1), while some naturalist philosophers come out in favor of (2). (2), however, involves the claim that there is intrinsic design in nature, a claim that is far from obvious, and is arguably inconsistent with Darwinism.


So it looks as if (3) is the correct view. The following considerations will be based on passages from John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality (The Free Press, 1995). We consider the case for the contention that there are no intrinsic design features in nature, equivalently, that biological functions are observer-relative.

Again, we see an example of a trilemma, one that is played subtlety and much more carefully than the ham-fisted approach outlined by Cothran. The very first question I would have regarding these is why the designer must be cosmic and singular, as opposed to highly limited and plural. The other is the restriction of purpose to designers and other external agents.

2. Searle's point about functions is that they are never intrinsic but always observer-relative. Functions are assigned or imposed by us. A burro (my example) is not intrinsically a beast of burden but is susceptible to having that functional role imposed on it. Or else we fabricate a mechanical 'burro' to suit our purposes. Similarly, cats and dogs are not pets intrinsically: the pet role is imposed by us.

There are no functions in the natural world: "nature knows nothing of functions." (14). Hearts occur in nature, and it is an observer-independent fact that they cause blood to course through the bodies that house them. But the function of the heart to pump blood is not intrinsic to nature.

This is a very human-centric position. Does a bird, or even an ant, assign a function to it's own heart? You can make arguments about degrees of consciousness, but I don't think anyone understands consciousness well enough to give a precise degree as to the level needed to say something has a function. Remove the ant's heart, and it is dead. I don't know as much about intention, consciousness, or the philosophical discussions thereof to claim any sort of expertise, but I know enough to be fairly sure that there is no universal position on whether an ant can assign purpose, on some level, to its own survival, and by extension its own heart.

So although one does discover how the heart works -- its mechanism -- one does not discover any teleology. Searle:

It is because we take it for granted in biology that life and survival are values that we can discover that the function of the heart is to pump blood. If we thought that the most important value in the world was to glorify God by making thumping noises, then the function of the heart would be to make a thumping noise, and the noisier heart would be the better heart.

To the organisms involved, survival is a value, at least in the sense that their reactions to stimuli are those that developed to ensure survival. The language confusion here, to the degree it exists at all, is quite small.

4. Compare airplane wings and eagles' wings. The wings of an airplane are designed by human engineers for a purpose: to generate lift so that a heavier-than-air craft can become airborne. They are for flying. Now it might seem that the same is true of eagle's wings: they too are for flying. This is true, but only relative to us. Because we value mobility and survival, we project onto the eagles' wings the function of being for flying and escaping predators. Searle's point, however, is that nothing in nature intrinsically has a function. He is not saying that airplane wings have a purpose while eagles' wings don't: they both have a purpose, but it is observer-relative. In a world without beings like us, bird's wings and birds' nests would exist and have causes and effects but lack functions.

The eagle will likely interpret this differently.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

The limited miracle argument

Sometimes, you will see a person arguing against some religious record by claiming that the events as presented would have lead to disasters not addressed by the texts, and that since the book in question does not address how these disasters were prevented, the record of the book must be wrong. Basically, they are trying to disprove miracles by claiming they would have created too much havoc or damage. The unstated, and probably unrealized, assumption in these arguments is the notion that the extent of a miracle is limited to the scope of the text. I find this to be an ineffective method of argument, because once you posit one or more effectively omniscient beings, miracles no longer have a scope or limitation.

One common example is the global flood myth. It is ineffective to say that certain types of fish would have died due to the mixing of salt and fresh water, various plants would have drowned, etc. Any omnipotent deity can easily create vast pockets of preserved salinity levels, or just recreate them all from scratch, for that matter. Note that this is not to say all arguments are ineffective. Any argument that requires currently observable evidence to be wrong (like geological continuity) require either a trickster deity or just flat-out denial of the reliability of observations, and both lead to nonsense.

Another common example is the story of the sun holding still in Joshua. Any claims of disastrous effects from stopping the rotation of the earth just beg the question of why some putative god can halt the inertia of the earth, but not of a person standing on it, a curious limitation. Such a deity could even lessen the effects of gravity to compensate the loss of acceleration from "centrifugal force". It's much more difficult to explain that there was no notice taken of the stoppage of the sun in other places in the world.

I'm not completely sure why I care so much about topics like this. I just generally hate bad arguments, I suppose.
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A quick thank you

I want to devote a post on Memorial Day to thank the soldiers who have dedicated their lives to our country. I don't think America is perfect, but it is one of the freest countries in the world, and I'm glad I live here.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The 111th Skeptics' Circle is up

One of the funniest presentations I've seen for a Skeptic's Circle is now up at Action Skeptics, and I have no doubt my regular poster (aintnuthin) will find unintentional irony in the presentation.
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Sunday, May 17, 2009

A lesson in overly simple logic

Creationists really like their world simple, it seems to me. A simple interpretation of their holy book, simple ideas of right and wrong, and of course a simple logic to express it all in. Thus, we get a first lesson in logic from Martin Cothran that teaches a couple of ideas which are too simple to be correct.

Examples below the fold.
For example:
Just for fun, I am going to employ the most sophisticated and beautiful of all logical arguments: the dilemma. The dilemma is a way of putting your opponent in a box; it is a way of showing him that, no matter what in fact is the case, his assumption leads to an unacceptable conclusion. Again, there are numerous ways of attacking the truth of a statement—this is only one of them.

If I am making this argument, here’s how I do it: There are only two kinds of rights: those that originate in divine law and those that originate in human law. If the claim is that same-sex marriage is a right originating in divine law, then it must be false, since (if it is addressed at all) it is precluded by the holy books of all major religions. If the claim is that same-sex marriage is a right originating in human law, then it must, again, be false, since the law of the land (at least in the United States) does not acknowledge it. Therefore, in either case—whether the appeal is to divine or human law—the claim is false.

Note the nice clean division of originating in divine law or human law. Only the very naive, inexperienced would not that the argument does not address interactions between divine law and human law, nor the other potential sources of rights. This is not valid argumentation, it is a rhetorical trick. Unfortunately, Cothran seems to think this is some sort of valid method. Maybe this is a matter of necessity. maybe the world of the creationist can't survive in a world of shades and colors.

Then he gives what he imagines to be a lesson in reducito as absurdum, attempting to show that a lack of testability does rule ID out of science:
The best place to look for scientific theories that are not falsifiable is physics. Everyone accepts that physics, and the theories that are included under it, are scientific. But many of them are not falsifiable—at least not now. The most famous of these is superstring theory. Superstring theory is the theory that particles and fundamental forces in the universe can be explained by the vibration of very tiny symmetrical strings. The problem is that the theory is not only not falsifiable, but, as some scientists have pointed out, it isn’t even conceivably falsifiable. Some of Einstein’s thought experiments (many of which he later set forth as full scientific theories), the scientific status of which have never been questioned, are not falsifiable either.

Your opponent could swallow hard and say that these things are not science, but he will know he is on shaky ground—and he will know you know he knows it.

Note how he projects his own limited world-view onto others. In fact, I don't feel that I am at all on shaky ground in saying that any hypothesis which is not testable is not relevent scientifically. However, there are differences between hypotheses that are inherently untestable (Intelligent Design can not be falsified under any conditions) and those that are untestable under current technology, but may eventually prove testable. Neither is a part of science today, but the latter can at least eventually be scientific.

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The responsible one

Son#1 (freshly 17) is 16 months older than Son#2 (15). Normally, with Son#1 being PDD-NOS, you would think this would make Son#2 the better choice for babysitting.

However, Son#1 takes his responsibilities very seriously. When Charity and I are home, h3e gets very sensitive to noise, overreacts to kids complaining, adn the like. However, when we go out for dinner, the rest fo the clan says he stays calm. I dont know how much of this is Son#1 rising to the challenge and how much is the kids changing their behavior when he's in charge. It's getting to the point where we are felling comfortable with Son#2 getting a summer job while Son#1 watched the kids on his own. I never thought I'd see the day,
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