logo Welcome, Guest. Please Login or Register.
2024-06-19 02:06:40 CoV Wiki
Learn more about the Church of Virus
Home Help Search Login Register
News: Donations now taken through PayPal

  Church of Virus BBS
  General
  Philosophy & Religion

  Wright vs. Dennett
« previous next »
Pages: [1] 2 Reply Notify of replies Send the topic Print 
   Author  Topic: Wright vs. Dennett  (Read 1673 times)
David Lucifer
Archon
*****

Posts: 2642
Reputation: 8.92
Rate David Lucifer



Enlighten me.

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Wright vs. Dennett
« on: 2005-05-16 10:39:52 »
Reply with quote

vector: Mermaid
source: BeliefNet

Planet with a Purpose

If Earth is an organism getting ever more complex, doesn't that mean humans might have been made for a reason?
By Robert Wright

When Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of natural selection, he said there was no inherent contradiction between it and religious belief. Maybe, for example, God had used natural selection as the instrument for creating intelligent life. One Anglican clergyman, in a letter to Darwin, suggested that this was actually a "loftier" conception of God than the old-fashioned idea of God creating humans the easy way, by just molding them out of dust.

Yet today many intellectuals think that if they're going to be true Darwinians, they should give up on any notion of divinity, any hope of higher purpose. Why? In no small part because of the widely read philosopher Daniel Dennett. In his influential 1995 book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Dennett insisted that evolution is "purposeless"—and that, indeed, this lack of purpose is part of the "fundamental idea" of Darwinism. More recently, in a New York Times op-ed piece, he urged his fellow non-believers to unite and fight for their rights, depicting belief in God as contrary to a "naturalist" worldview.

I have some bad news for Dennett's many atheist devotees. He recently declared that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose. Worse still, he did it on videotape, during an interview for my website meaningoflife.tv. (You can watch the relevant clip here, though I recommend reading a bit further first so you'll have enough background to follow the logic.) [Editor's Note: Since this article was published, Dennett has claimed that it misrepresents his views. Robert Wright responds to Dennett here.]

Dennett didn't volunteer this opinion enthusiastically, or for that matter volunteer it at all. He conceded it in the course of a dialogue with me—and extracting the concession was a little like pulling teeth. But his initial resistance makes his final judgment all the more important. People who see evidence of some larger purpose in the universe are often accused of arguing with their heart, not their head. That's a credibility problem Dennett doesn't face. When you watch him validate an argument for higher purpose, you're watching that argument pass a severe test. In fact, given that he's one of the best-known philosophers in the world, it may not be too much to say that you're watching a minor intellectual milestone get erected.

The key to Dennett's change of view is the close connection between two separate questions: whether evolution has a purpose, and whether evolution has a direction. If you're going to believe, as that Anglican clergyman suggested, that a divine being set natural selection in motion, confident that it would eventually produce some species as intelligent as humans, then you have to believe that natural selection was likely to produce such intelligence from the beginning—that it was in this sense "directional".

On the question of directionality, Darwinians have long differed. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson considers intelligent life a likely product of natural selection; his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould argued otherwise. The evolution of creatures as smart as us was a fluke, Gould said, and its very unlikelihood was evidence that evolution had no purpose.

Before my dialogue with Dennett, his longstanding position had been that Gould was half wrong and half right: Natural selection had been fairly likely, sooner or later, to produce an intelligent species of some sort; but, no, this was not evidence that evolution had any overarching purpose, that natural selection was itself a product of design. Evolution had a direction of sorts, Dennett believed, but it definitely had no purpose.

But isn't this direction itself evidence of purpose? If a process naturally creates something as complex as great intelligence, doesn't that suggest the process was set up for that purpose? I've long thought so, but I had never been able to convince Dennett. He had read my book "Nonzero," whose closing chapters address this question, and had been unmoved. So I decided to take a new tack, with a new argument that drew on a famous incident in intellectual history.

The incident involves William Paley, a British theologian who wrote a book called "Natural Theology" in 1802, a few years before Darwin was born. In it he tried to use living creatures as evidence for the existence of a designer.

If you're walking across a field and you find a pocketwatch, Paley said, you know immediately that it's in a different category from the rocks lying around it. Unlike them, it is manifestly a product of design, featuring a complex functionality that doesn't just happen by accident. Well, he continued, organisms are like pocketwatches: they're too complexly functional to just happen by accident. So organisms must have a designer—namely, God.

Thanks to Darwin, we now know that Paley was wrong. We can explain the complex functionality of organisms without positing a god. Still, Darwinians have to admit that Paley was half-right: This complex functionality does demand an explanation. In fact, most evolutionary biologists would affirm some of Paley's language: Yes, animals were "designed;" it's just that the "designer" was natural selection, not God.

Of course, natural selection doesn't work like a watchmaker. It doesn't think ahead and create new features that will add functionality to an organism. Rather, it creates new features randomly, blindly, and then the dysfunctional ones get weeded out as the organisms possessing them die young or for some other reason fail to reproduce. Richard Dawkins, alluding to Paley, called natural selection "the blind watchmaker" in a book by that name. But a blind watchmaker is still a watchmaker. Organisms do have a designer, even if the designer is a somewhat clumsy process, not a conscious, far-seeing intelligence.

Dennett has long accepted Dawkins's line of thought, and he has long accepted one extension of it: that natural selection has imbued organisms with "goals," with "purpose". Specifically: the goal of organisms is to get genes into subsequent generations. That may not be their conscious goal, but it is nonetheless the basic thing they were "designed" to do. (And their other apparent "goals" are subordinate to it. All animals seek food, for example, but that goal was itself favored by natural selection only because it helped animals survive long enough to transmit their genes.)

In short: Dennett has long believed that William Paley was right to look at organisms and surmise that (a) they had a designer (in some sense of the word); and (b) this designer had imbued them with goals, with an overarching purpose (however ignoble a purpose genetic proliferation may seem to us).

The gist of the argument I made to Dennett was this: What if you took this part of Paley's logic—the valid part—and applied it not to individual organisms, but rather to the whole system of life on this planet? Doesn't it suggest that the whole system had a designer (again, in some sense of that word). To see what I mean, let's look again at an organism through Paley's eyes, only this time let's look at its whole life span, starting at the very beginning.

A single egg cell replicates itself, and the offspring cells in turn replicate themselves, and so on. Eventually the resulting lineages of cells start exhibiting distinctive specialties; there are muscle cells that beget muscle cells, brain cells that beget brain cells. If Paley were around today to watch videos of this process he would say: Wow!—Look at how exquisitely directional this process is; the system grows in size and in functional differentiation until it becomes this large, complex, functionally integrated system: muscles, brains, lungs, etc. This directionality is evidence of design!

As it happens, you can describe the history of evolution on this planet in a way that closely parallels this description of an organism's life cycle. First, a few billion years ago, a single primitive cell divides. The resulting offspring cells in turn replicate themselves, and eventually different lineages of cells (that is, different species) emerge. Some of these lineages eventually become multicellular (jellyfish, birds) and exhibit distinctive specialties (floating, flying, etc.).

One lineage—let's call it homo sapiens—is particularly good at thinking. It thus launches a whole new process of evolution, called cultural evolution, that leads to the invention of wheels and legal codes and microchips and so on. Humans use the fruits of cultural evolution to organize themselves on a larger and larger scale. As this social organization reaches the global level, and features a richer and richer division of economic labor, the whole thing starts to resemble a giant organism. There's even a kind of planetary nervous system, made of fiber optics and other stuff, connecting the various human brains into big mega-brains that collaborate to solve problems. (And some of the problems are global—how to head off global warming and global epidemics, for example.)

Meanwhile, as the human species is becoming a global brain, gradually assuming conscious control of the planet's stewardship, other species—also descended from that single primitive cell that lived billions of years ago—perform other planetary functions. Trees are lungs, for example, generating oxygen.

In other words: If you watched evolution on this planet unfold from a distance (and on fast forward), you would find it strikingly like watching the maturation of an organism ("epigenesis"). So why can't the part of Paley's argument that can be validly applied to an organism's maturation—the idea that it suggests a designer of some sort—be applied to the whole system of life on earth?

Convinced? Even if not, you're at least ready to go to the videotape. After viewing it, you can come back here to read the findings of my post-mortem:

1) Dennett's climactic concession may not sound dramatic. He just agrees reluctantly with my assertion that "to the extent that evolution on this planet" has properties "comparable" to those of an organism's maturation—in particular "directional movement toward functionality"—then the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible. But remember: He has already agreed that evolution does exhibit those properties. Ergo: By Dennett's own analysis, there is at least some evidence that natural selection is a product of design. (And this from a guy who early in the interview says he's an atheist.)

2) Again: to say that natural selection may be a product of design isn't to say that the designer is a god, or even a thinking being in any conventional sense. Conceivably, the designer could be some kind of natural-selection-type process (on a really cosmic scale). So Dennett might object to my using the term "higher purpose" in the first paragraph of this piece, since for many people that term implies a divine purpose. But "higher purpose" can be defined more neutrally. You can say that organisms have a "higher purpose" in the sense that (a) they have a purpose (genetic proliferation) and (b) the purpose was imparted by a higher-level process (natural selection)—so much higher, in fact, that all organisms on earth were oblivious to it until revelation came in the form of Charles Darwin. Analogously, once you accept the argument that Dennett has now accepted, you can say that evolution's directionality is evidence of "higher purpose."

3) How much evidence? I want to stress that Dennett isn't saying he thinks evolution's directionality constitutes anything like a strong case that natural selection was in some sense a product of design. He's just conceding that (a) to the extent that evolution exhibits directionality of the kind I've just described, there is at least some evidence of design; and (b) evolution does exhibit some of this directionality. Anyway, however strong you deem the evidence, I contend that it's growing. Over the last few years alone, cultural evolution—notably the mushrooming of the internet—has made the term "global brain" less of a stretch.

4) If there is indeed a "higher purpose," what would it be? Answering that question would be a little presumptuous. For all we know, the "maturation" of the ecosystem is in an early phase, nowhere near manifesting any ultimate purpose it may have (just as, say, a three-year-old human is nowhere near manifesting the "purpose"—genetic proliferation—for which natural selection "designed" it). But if you're interested in theological speculation, you might check out the recently re-released collection of essays The Future of Man by the mystical Jesuit priest (and paleontologist) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard deserves credit for seeing and grappling with the direction of cultural evolution early on; he was writing about the emerging giant planetary brain more than half a century before I had heard of the internet. (But note: Unlike Dennett and I, Teilhard wasn't a strict Darwinian; he didn't believe that nuts-and-bolts natural selection is the sole propulsive force of evolution. And as long as I'm distinguishing myself from others who see the possibility of purpose in evolution: I'm not part of the "intelligent design" school; like Teilhard, intelligent design theorists, such as William Dembski, see forces other than natural selection at work, whereas I'm just saying that natural selection, though able to do all the work of designing organisms, may itself be a product of design.)

5) If we don't know what the purpose of life is, can we at least say whether it's something we should be happy about—whether any "designer" of natural selection would merit the term "divine"? Well, natural selection is in some ways a horrible creative process; much past death and suffering are the price paid for the evolution of our species. So it isn't easy to argue that natural selection's creator would be a wholly good being (or process)—just as thoughtful Christians, for example, don't find it easy to reconcile all the suffering in the world with their notion of a benevolent, omnipotent deity.

Still, one could mount an argument that evolution on this planet has at least some of the hallmarks of the divine—a directionality that is in some ways moral, even (in some carefully delineated sense of the word) spiritual. In fact, I've mounted such an argument in the last chapter of my book Nonzero. But Dennett hasn't signed on to that one. Yet.

Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, is a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Human Values.



Report to moderator   Logged
David Lucifer
Archon
*****

Posts: 2642
Reputation: 8.92
Rate David Lucifer



Enlighten me.

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #1 on: 2005-05-16 10:40:38 »
Reply with quote

In a widely circulated e-mail to Andrew Sullivan, who linked to the Beliefnet article on his blog andrewsullivan.com, Dennett wrote:

“Wright misinterprets his own videoclip (I am grateful that it is available uncut on his website, so that everybody can see for themselves). All I agreed to was that IF natural selection had the properties of embryogenesis (or "an organism's maturation"), it would be evidence for a higher purpose. But I have always insisted that evolution by natural selection LACKS  those very properties. And I insisted on that in the earlier portions of the videoclip.”
Report to moderator   Logged
David Lucifer
Archon
*****

Posts: 2642
Reputation: 8.92
Rate David Lucifer



Enlighten me.

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #2 on: 2005-05-16 10:44:58 »
Reply with quote

source: http://www.nonzero.org/replytodennett.htm

Did I Misrepresent the Views of Dan Dennett?

by Robert Wright

Oct. 8, 2004

[Oct. 10 and Oct. 19 updates appended below]

This week I published a piece in Beliefnet about an interview I did with the philosopher Daniel Dennett for my video website meaningoflife.tv. In the piece I asserted that Dennett (long famously atheist) had said that, as I paraphrased it, “life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose.” In other words: the process of natural selection may itself have been set in motion by a designer (in some sense of that word), and the ensuing biological/cultural evolution may be moving toward some purpose that we don’t yet understand.

Dennett, in statements that have gotten wide circulation on the internet, has since complained that my piece misrepresents the views he expressed in that interview. So far as I can tell, he’s wrong.

Before explaining why he’s wrong, let me sound one note of self-criticism. In the Beliefnet piece, I added the following elaboration: “I want to stress that Dennett isn't saying he thinks evolution's directionality constitutes anything like a strong case that natural selection was in some sense a product of design. He's just conceding that (a) to the extent that evolution exhibits directionality of the kind I've just described, there is at least some evidence of design; and (b) evolution does exhibit some of this directionality.” [To view the part of the interview in  which he (grudgingly) concedes these two points, click here.] I also stressed that to acknowledge evidence of “purpose” isn’t necessarily to acknowledge evidence of divine purpose in the common sense of the word.

However, I added these important qualifiers many paragraphs later, after explaining the logic of the argument for design. So readers who quit reading my piece part-way through it may have been left with the impression that Dennett had renounced his atheism or had made a more dramatic concession than he in fact made (though I still consider his concession quite dramatic, given his previous position). In retrospect, I think I should have added these qualifiers higher in the piece. [Also—as I note in the Oct. 10 update, appended below—I definitely should have used the word “acknowledged” instead of the word “declared” in paragraph 3 of the Beliefnet piece.] In other words, I am arguably guilty of “sensationalizing” the news.

Anyway, back to Dennett’s claim that I got the news itself wrong—that I “seriously misrepresented” his views, as he put it. 

In an e-mail to me earlier this week, Dennett, elaborating on his charge of misrepresentation, wrote, “all I am granting [in the interview]... is that IF evolution exhibited the properties that embryogenesis [i.e., the maturation of an organism] exhibits (which it doesn't, as I've kept insisting) this would work to some extent in favor of your purpose hypothesis.”

In a reply to Dennett, I quoted stretches of the interview that showed the following: Not only had he not “kept insisting” on relevant differences between evolution and embryogenesis (sometimes referred to as “ontogeny” in the video clip); he had in fact spent much time agreeing with me on the similarities. If you want to read these parts of the transcript, see this excerpt of my e-mail to Dennett.

In reply to my e-mail, Dennett wrote, “I can see why you think you have me granting you your key premises, but I didn't see it that way, and still don't.” In elaborating, he slightly amended, or at least clarified, his position. He no longer denied that he had acknowledged various similarities between evolution and embryogenesis (or ontogeny--an organism’s maturation). But he said that the similarities he had acknowledged weren’t the kind of similarities that would qualify as evidence of design.

In reply, I noted that, actually, in the course of the interview, he and I had (a) agreed on one type of similarity between ontogeny and biological/cultural evolution that would constitute evidence of design; and (b) agreed that this similarity in fact exists. Namely: both ontogeny (embryogenesis) and evolution exhibit “directional movement toward functionality.” Here are the relevant sections of the transcript [I’ve inverted their order to reflect the logic of the argument]: 

(A)

Wright: “So, I’m just saying that to the extent—I think we’ve agreed that observing, what is it, I guess ontogeny is the term, you know, the development of an organism, that it has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact a hallmark of design. Would you agree that to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design—to some extent, to any extent?”

Dennett: “Ummm, Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Yeah.

(B)

Wright [after describing ontogeny, i.e. the maturation of an organism]: “I would submit that if you step back and observe life on this planet in time lapse, including not just the evolution of human beings, but the cultural--including technological--evolution that led to where we are today, the process would look remarkably like that. And in fact you yourself in your most recent book, Freedom Evolves, you say--there’s a sentence something like, `The planet is growing its own nervous system, us.’ And it’s true—it looks like that.”

Dennett:  Yeah, absolutely.

Wright: “And there is a functionality about it”

Dennett: Yeah, yeah.

Wright: “And you agree there’s been a directionality about it”

Dennett: Yes.

In summary:

1) Dennett accepts that directional movement toward functionality is a hallmark of design in evolution.

2) He agrees that evolution exhibits directional movement toward functionality.

It follows that he believes that evolution has at least some of the hallmarks of design.

Now, in my view, this closes the case, at least in the following sense: No reasonable person can deny that my interpretation of Dennett’s remarks was reasonable.

Yet Dennett persists! He’s written me a new e-mail suggesting that my reasonable-seeming interpretation is misleading. He makes two main points:

1) He now says he misunderstood something I said in the interview. Referring to section (B) of the transcript, in which I say, “And there is a functionality about it,” he says:

“I see that this `it' is ambiguous.  I should have spotted it and

insisted on disambiguating it.  I was taking the `it’ to be the nervous system of the planet, not the process that created it, but I can see that you probably meant the process.”

I appreciate Dennett’s acknowledging that in this case the error lies partly with him. But I really don’t see how his preferred interpretation of “it” gets him off the hook. The question, as I had phrased it, is whether biological/cultural evolution exhibits “directional movement toward functionality.” Well, if the planetary nervous system has functionality, and biological/cultural evolution has been moving toward this planetary nevous system directionally, then there is “directional movement toward functionality,” right? (By the way, Dennett and I agree that here “directionally” just means “probabalistically”—not “pulled by some mystical force.” We’re both speaking within the context of a materialist world view.)

2) Dennett’s second point is harder to decipher. Recall that in section A, above, I do two things:

(1) I note that he and I agree that the maturation of an organism “has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact a hallmark of design,” and;

(2) I then get him to agree that “to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design.”

It seems obvious to me that by “comparable properties” I meant “directional movement toward functionality.” But Dennett now seems to be saying that by “comparable properties” he took me to mean “directional movement toward functionality by design.” (At least, that’s the only interpretation I can put on his latest e-mail to me: Here’s the relevant section.) In other words (so far as I can tell) he now says he thinks I was asking the question: “Would you say that if a process has a certain property by design, that’s evidence that the process was designed?”

First of all, if he thought I was positing an argument so blatantly circular, why didn’t he stop me and ridicule me, rather than pause, reflect on the question, and answer it affirmatively?

Second, if he thought that I was making a wholly tautological argument--that design is evidence of design-- then why did he write to me in one e-mail this week (in one of his more charitable moments): “You draw attention to an interesting avenue of argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know, but I don't think it is a winner.” What would be even “interesting” about this tautology?

Okay, so much for the issue of misrepresentation. I think the facts and logic are on my side, but decide for yourself. (And feel free to watch the relevant video clip itself.) [Update: Dennett has offered a new explanation of what he intended his remarks to mean. See Oct. 19 update, appended below.]

Postscript:

Before signing off, I’d like to head off an apparently tempting misunderstanding of the argument I’m making. At one point in this week’s flurry of e-mails, Dennett made a criticism of the argument that I’m pretty sure he’d take back if he had time to reflect on it. He wrote, “The mistake you are making is a sort of part/whole fallacy. From the fact that some of the fruits of the tree of life exhibit design, you cannot infer that the whole tree does.”

That is definitely not the kind of inference I’m making. If it were, I wouldn’t have to get into what properties evolution exhibits at all. I’d just say, “Dan we agree that organisms are designed by natural selection, right? Therefore, natural selection is itself designed.” And Dan would appropriately admonish me for my illogic.

Here, rather, is the actual structure of my argument: (1) What properties of fruits would add weight to the hypothesis that they were designed even if we knew nothing about how fruits had in fact come into existence—even if, to put a finer point on it, we had only one fruit to inspect? In other words, what are some hallmarks of design in a generic sense? (2) To the extent that the tree itself exhibits those same properties, that is (at least some) evidence that the tree itself is a product of design—since these properties are, after all, hallmarks of design in a generic sense.

I think Dennett was right when he called this argument “an interesting avenue of argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know.” I’ve been making variations on this argument for years now (including in the penultimate chapter of my book Nonzero, though that version of the argument is less elegant and, I now think, flawed). And I’ve been hoping more scholars would take the argument seriously. So I was delighted when, during our interview, Dennett started to take the argument seriously by affirming its basic soundness. I now realize that I may have cut off his further exploration of it by presenting this affirmation in such dramatic fashion in my Beliefnet piece. (See my mea culpa for sensationalism, in paragraph four of this discourse.) I’m very sorry about that. Dennett has made great contributions to the public’s understanding of both Darwinism and philosophy, and has a deservedly large following. I’m sure it would be fruitful for us to continue this dialogue, and I hope that eventually we will

Update [Oct. 10, 2004]:

Some of Dennett’s defenders have e-mailed to accuse me of playing “Gotcha”. They say I take two separate parts of Dennett’s interview [A and B in the transcript excerpts above], note that they logically imply the existence of evidence of higher purpose, and then attribute that conclusion to Dennett even though he never states the conclusion explicitly. I want to stress that when I conducted the interview—and when I watched it, and when I wrote that Beliefnet piece—I had no doubt that Dennett had fully grasped the implications of what he said. And, watching the clip now, I still believe he did. From the moment, about four and a half minutes into the clip, when Dennett says, “But I think I see what you’re getting at,” he obviously gets the connection between the two questions (whether evolution resembles ontogeny and whether such a resemblance is evidence of purpose). And his awareness of this connection seems to me evident during the subsequent discussion; indeed, it seems to be the reason that his eventually affirmative answer to both questions comes only after some  resistance.

I admit that I can’t be absolutely sure that Dennett was consciously aware of the conclusion that seems to me to  follow inescapably from what he said. (And I’m not saying he’s lying when he denies such awareness; the interview happened months ago, and the mind is a funny thing.) My point is just that I attributed that conclusion to him in good faith.

Granted,  I should have used less dramatic language in attributing this conclusion to him. Rather than saying in paragraph 3 of the Beliefnet piece that he had “declared” the existence of evidence of higher purpose, I should have said he “acknowledged” it. (Add this item to my “sensationalism” mea culpa, above.) Still, I want to stress that this sort of hyperbole in the opening of the piece is not what Dennett’s charge of misrepresentation is about. Rather, he is contesting my more nuanced presentation of his view later in the piece, including even the minimalist, “Gotcha” interpretation embodied in this paragraph of the Beliefnet piece:

Dennett's climactic concession may not sound dramatic. He just agrees reluctantly with my assertion that "to the extent that evolution on this planet" has properties "comparable" to those of an organism's maturation—in particular "directional movement toward functionality"—then the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible. But remember: He has already agreed that evolution does exhibit those properties. Ergo: By Dennett's own analysis, there is at least some evidence that natural selection is a product of design.

As I’ve explained above, Dennett’s claim that this paragraph misrepresented the views he expressed in the interview continues to strike me as wholly untenable. But I suppose I could be wrong. (My mind, no less than his, is a funny thing.) In any event, if he wants to elaborate further on this claim, I’ll be happy to post the elaboration on this website.

Update [Oct. 19, 2004]:

Here we go again. Dennett has now come up with a new explanation of what he meant when he answered question (A), above, affirmatively. He writes in a recent e-mail:

“What about the growth of life on Earth? … Unlike ontogeny, which does exhibit `directional movement toward

functionality /by design/,’ it exhibits movement toward functionality without design. To the extent that it exhibited movement toward functionality by design, it WOULD be evidence of purpose (but only of the attenuated sort of purpose exhibited by ontogenesis). That is what I agreed to when I answered your question.”

In other words, Dennett now says his position is not what I previously took his position to be—that in answering Question A he was only conceding the patently circular point that design is evidence of design. He now says he was conceding that design is evidence of purpose. (And I gather he will take this position in a reply to me that Beliefnet is scheduled to run, though as I write this it hasn’t yet been posted. [Update: Yes, his reply in Beliefnet takes exactly this position.])

There are two problems with Dennett’s latest position.

One is that the new answer is ultimately as circular as the old answer. Design always implies purpose; organic systems are designed to do certain things (such as spread their genes). So the enigma persists: If Dennett thought that, when I posed Question A, I was asking a tautological question, why didn’t he stop and point that out instead of answering the question earnestly? 

I noted this enigma in an e-mail to Dennett and he replied:

“But philosophers are forever asking each other to confirm, for the sake of the argument, a slightly disguised tautology. Just check out Socrates.  Yes, of course design in some sense implies purpose in some sense. That's what I thought I was acknowledging, and why I was dumfounded by your 'declaring victory'.”

If you watch the video clip, I think you’ll find that, actually, Dennett doesn’t sound like he’s merely acknowledging a slightly disguised tautology. And he doesn’t look “dumbfounded” when I jokingly “declare victory”. Rather, he looks like a man who just paused, pondered a difficult question, then reluctantly conceded a significant analytical point.

But there’s a bigger problem with Dennett’s claim that his answer to my question (question A above) was a statement about the relationship between design and purpose. Namely: I had asked a yes-or-no question that didn’t mention purpose—only design. So how could his “yes” answer—without elaboration—have amounted to a statement about the relationship between design and purpose?

Ever since Dennett started complaining about my interpretation of his videotaped comments, my position has been: If somebody can offer a plausible, coherent alternative interpretation of his comments, then I’ll start taking seriously the possibility that my own plausible and coherent interpretation is wrong. But so far Dennett himself has failed to do that, in spite of repeated attempts. If he makes any more attempts, I’ll assess them here. But don’t hold your breath; I assume he’s as tired of this as I am.

And I can only imagine how tedious this whole thing seems to people other than me and Dennett! In fact, it may well be that no reader of this web page has ever made it down as far as this paragraph.

But if anyone has made it this far, he/she may have two questions: (1) Why do I so obsessively subject Dennett’s claims to close scrutiny? (2) Why does Dennett so relentlessly keep making new claims?

Well, for starters, there’s vanity. I pride myself on accuracy and don’t like being  accused of misrepresenting someone’s views (even though I’ve admitted, above, that in this case I  overdramatized—“hyped” as journalists say—my rendering of Dennett’s views). And I assume that Dennett, who is a hero to legions of atheists, doesn’t want to be seen as having gone all soft and spiritual (even if he did, in a moment of weakness, concede an analytical point that opens the door to the prospect of higher purpose).

But it isn’t just vanity that motivates me. Dennett and Richard Dawkins, by tirelessly asserting the incompatibility of Darwinism and all forms of religion, have made Darwinism a lot of enemies, and may well have increased resistance to the teaching of evolutionism in the public schools. If they were demonstrably right—if their assertions of ultimate purposelessness had some sort of solid empirical or logical grounding—then I wouldn’t complain about this. But on inspection, their assertions turn out to be just that—assertions. And there is at least some evidence that works against those assertions. This is the point I say Dennett conceded in my interview with him, and I think anyone who carefully and objectively appraises the clip in question will agree. (Again, though, I’m not saying he’s being consciously dishonest in denying this. And I admit that I may have impeded his clear assessment of what he said on the videotape by rendering it in melodramatic terms at the outset of the Beliefnet piece. He understandably didn’t recognize this unnuanced rendering of his views, and his subsequent encounter with my more nuanced rendering, several paragraphs later, was probably colored by that fact—and perhaps by the outcry from his alarmed atheist fans that was already building when he first saw the Beliefnet piece. And all of this, remember, was happening many months after the interview itself, which he probably hadn’t thought about since.)

As for why Dennett’s atheist devotees would be so alarmed  by his acknowledging the point I say he acknowledged—well, at the risk of drawing a strained analogy: Why do Christian fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that some Bible verses are erroneous, even though some verses blatantly contradict other verses? Because if true believers concede that a single part of the scripture is flawed, that opens all scripture up to questioning, and their whole world view is in danger of falling apart. They’d rather not take the first step on what could be a slippery slope. What Dennett conceded during the interview is, in a sense, the atheist’s version of that first step.

Granted, an atheist doesn’t face as slippery a slope as fundamentalists face. If an atheist acknowledges the limited evidence for design I’m positing, that doesn’t open the door to a whole avalanche of such evidence; even I am not asserting that the case for design is on balance compelling—just that it’s more substantial than people like Dennett have generally acknowledged. (And, btw, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m not advocating “Intelligent Design.” Dennett and I are both firm Darwinians, and believe natural selection acccounts for the human species.)

Still, even if the atheists’ slope isn’t all that slippery, there are reasons for them to balk at the first step. The concession Dennett (in my view) made on that videotape could be enough to move a person from atheist to agnostic.  Further, this concession highlights the fact I noted above: that Dennett’s assertions of ultimate purposelessness have never rested on any solid logical or empirical foundation. He says of natural selection (rather as monotheists say of God) that it is the undesigned designer, the prime mover of purpose. Well, maybe so. And maybe not. Neither view is self-evidently true or self-evidently false. That’s why I’ve long thought agnosticism  is the most intellectually defensible position one can take: it is just the plain acknowledgment of uncertainty. But some people on both sides of the question—true believers and confirmed atheists—seem to find uncertainty threatening.

Report to moderator   Logged
rhinoceros
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 1318
Reputation: 8.25
Rate rhinoceros



My point is ...

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #3 on: 2005-06-04 07:53:08 »
Reply with quote

I think Wittgenstein would have skewered Robert Wright with that fire poker for linguistic confusion.

Wright makes a good case that if you stand back and watch either a higher organism or the whole planet "evolve" in time, you see a direction. The pattern is there to see. Then "direction" becomes "design", which is still an acceptable  term in the same metaphorical sense as the "selfish gene". But then, "design" becomes "purpose", a "purposefull design"...

I can see how a directional effect can emerge from a non-directional process like biological evolution in a given environment. A question is whether someone smart enough could set up a computer simulation of a non-directional evolutionary process in a given environment in such a way that it would take an intended direction. Currently, this problem seems too hard, especially on such a large scale. I could concede that it is theoretically possible, and Wright would then point out a "directional movement toward functionality" and argue that "the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible". However...

Who made the watchmaker, again? (Or should I ask who set up his directed evolution?)

Report to moderator   Logged
Blunderov
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 3160
Reputation: 8.87
Rate Blunderov



"We think in generalities, we live in details"

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #4 on: 2005-06-05 18:31:24 »
Reply with quote

[Blunderov] "Why, oh why, are my keys always in the very last place I search for them?"[Politburo] Because when you find them you stop searching!"

Similarly evolution's apparent "directionality" is any destination where it happens to turn up.

Creation 'scientists' love the complexity thing - "Wow! That backgammon player just threw a double six! That's an amazingly complex number and the biggest one possible. The outcome is so good we strongly suspect the player must have done it on purpose."

I wonder whether it would ever be possible to say of a thing 'there is no more complexity to be found here'? My guess is that if there were such a thing it would have to have no relationship with any other thing and would therefore not be perceptible at all. Anything that has any relationship with any other thing is a complex thing because it would no longer be a simple* thing.

Anyway, 'design' means "to have as a pupose, to intend." To say "to the extent that evolution exhibits directionality it can be said to have a designer" is tautological. It sounds like a claim but it is really just a definition dressed up as one.

(AFAICS)

Best Regards.

*the root meaning of simple is 'single'.

Report to moderator   Logged
rhinoceros
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 1318
Reputation: 8.25
Rate rhinoceros



My point is ...

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #5 on: 2005-06-10 09:36:43 »
Reply with quote

[rhinoceros] There is an interesting 1999 article by Richard Dawkins in the Sceptics site where he explains how one particular overall direction emerges: increase of information in the genome. To understand how it happens, one must consider the particulars of how evolution works with the genes -- not just the abstract algorithm.

An increase in information content is also an increase in complexity. This topic has been examined in more depth in Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow". The article also includes a short primer on information theory ("Shannon information"). I'll paste here some simple conceptual parts which show what it's all about.

http://www.skeptic.com/archives41.html

<snip>
We have an intuitive sense that a lobster, say, is more complex (more "advanced," some might even say more "highly evolved") than another animal, perhaps a millipede. Can we measure something in order to confirm or deny our intuition? Without literally turning it into bits, we can make an approximate estimation of the information contents of the two bodies as follows. Imagine writing a book describing the lobster. Now write another book describing the millipede down to the same level of detail. Divide the word-count in one book by the word-count in the other, and you have an approximate estimate of the relative information content of lobster and millipede. It is important to specify that both books describe their respective animals "down to the same level of detail."

Obviously if we describe the millipede down to cellular detail, but stick to gross anatomical features in the case of the lobster, the millipede would come out ahead. But if we do the test fairly, I'll bet the lobster book would come out longer than the millipede book. It's a simple plausibility argument, as follows. Both animals are made up of segments, modules of bodily architecture that are fundamentally similar to each other, arranged fore-and-aft like the cars of a train. The millipede's segments are mostly identical to each other. The lobster's segments, though following the same basic plan (each with a nervous ganglion, a pair of appendages, and so on) are mostly different from each other. The millipede book would consist of one chapter describing a typical segment, followed by the phrase "Repeat N times" where N is the number of segments. The lobster book would need a different chapter for each segment. This isn't quite fair to the millipede, whose front and rear end segments are a bit different from the rest. But I'd still bet that, if anyone bothered to do the experiment, the estimate of lobster information content would come out substantially greater than the estimate of millipede information content. It's not of direct evolutionary interest to compare a lobster with a millipede in this way, because nobody thinks lobsters evolved from millipedes. Obviously no modern animal evolved from any other modern animal. Instead, any pair of modern animals had a last common ancestor which lived at some (in principle) discoverable moment in geological history.

Almost all of evolution happened way back in the past, which makes it hard to study details. But we can use the "length of book" thought-experiment to agree upon what it would mean to ask the question whether information content increases over evolution, if only we had ancestral animals to look at. The answer in practice is complicated and controversial, all bound up with a vigorous debate over whether evolution is, in general, progressive. I am one of those associated with a limited form of yes answer. My colleague Stephen Jay Gould tends towards a no answer. I don't think anybody would deny that, by any method of measuring, whether bodily information content, total information capacity of genome, capacity of genome actually used, or true ("Stuffit compressed") information content of genome, there has been a broad overall trend towards increased information content during the course of human evolution from our remote bacterial ancestors.

People might disagree, however, over two important questions: first, whether such a trend is to be found in all, or a majority of evolutionary lineages (for example parasite evolution often shows a trend towards decreasing bodily complexity, because parasites are better off being simple); second, whether, even in lineages where there is a clear overall trend over the very long term, it is bucked by so many reversals and re-reversals in the shorter term as to undermine the very idea of progress. This is not the place to resolve this interesting controversy. There are distinguished biologists with good arguments on both sides. Supporters of "intelligent design" guiding evolution, by the way, should be deeply committed to the view that information content increases during evolution. Even if the information comes from God, perhaps especially if it does, it should surely increase, and the increase should presumably show itself in the genome. Unless, of course (and anything goes in such addle-brained theorizing), God works his evolutionary miracles by nongenetic means.

Perhaps the main lesson we should learn from Pringle is that the information content of a biological system is another name for its complexity.

<snip>

If natural selection feeds information into gene pools, what is the information about? It is about how to survive. Strictly, it is about how to survive and reproduce in the conditions that prevailed when previous generations were alive. To the extent that present day conditions are different from ancestral conditions, the ancestral genetic advice will be wrong. In extreme cases, the species may then go extinct. To the extent that conditions for the present generation are not too different from conditions for past generations, the information fed into present-day genomes from past generations is helpful information. Information from the ancestral past can be seen as a manual for surviving in the present: a family Bible of ancestral "advice" on how to survive today. We need only a little poetic license to say that the information fed into modern genomes by natural selection is actually information about ancient environments in which ancestors survived. This idea of information fed from ancestral generations into descendant gene pools is one of the themes of my new book, Unweaving the Rainbow. It takes a whole chapter, "The Genetic Book of the Dead," to develop the notion, so I won't repeat it here except to say two things. First, it is the gene pool of the species as a whole, not the genome of any particular individual, which is best seen as the recipient of the ancestral information about how to survive. The genomes of particular individuals are random samples of the current gene pool, randomised by sexual recombination. Second, we are privileged to "intercept" the information if we wish, and "read" an animal's body, or even its genes, as a coded description of ancestral worlds. To quote from Unweaving the Rainbow: "And isn't it an arresting thought? We are digital archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas; walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this ancient library and die unsated by the wonder of it."

« Last Edit: 2005-06-11 18:13:08 by rhinoceros » Report to moderator   Logged
Blunderov
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 3160
Reputation: 8.87
Rate Blunderov



"We think in generalities, we live in details"

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #6 on: 2005-06-10 16:34:28 »
Reply with quote

[Blunderov] One of the meanings of the word 'complex' is something like: that which has sufficiently many ramifications so as to not be susceptible to immediate understanding. At least this is my usual understanding of the word. (It sometimes seems to me that I live in a world of almost perverse complexity, but I digress.) With this usage, number or quantity is not the crucial issue; the crucial issue is whether one is at a point of enquiry where conclusions are not yet accessible.  In another context 'complexity' may simply be taken to mean 'composed of two or more parts'. And  there are other usages.

In our context, biologists seem to me to be using the word to mean 'lotsness' (or many).  "Perhaps the main lesson we should learn from Pringle is that the information content of a biological system is another name for its complexity".

I am uncomfortable with the idea that complexity amounts to a simple counting of heads. How do we decide which heads to count? If a chimp has more hairs than an owl has feathers, will counting them tell us which is the more complex creature? Well yes, I suppose it  must  - if we have agreed in advance that it will.

Here is an instance of this kind of scientific agreement.

http://genomebiology.com/2003/5/1/p1/abstract

"Increasing biological complexity is positively correlated with the relative genome-wide expansion of non-protein-coding DNA sequences...

Prior to the current genomic era it was suggested that the number of protein-coding genes that an organism made use of was a valid measure of its complexity. It is now clear, however, that major incongruities exist and that there is only a weak relationship between biological complexity and the number of protein coding genes. For example, using the protein-coding gene number as a basis for evaluating biological complexity would make urochordates and insects less complex than nematodes, and humans less complex than rice..."(!)

What I understand from all this is that a decision was taken to declare those factors which got in the way of a predetermined conclusion to be irrelevant to that conclusion on the basis that the desired conclusion would not otherwise be possible! What's up with that? The sheep are have been defined as being inside the pen no matter where they actually happen to be roaming. I think there are grounds here to suspect that 'complexity' is a deeply subjective quality. 

Creationists seemingly have even grander ambitions for the 'lotsness' of complexity.  Somehow a blatant value judgment is smuggled onto the premises. More is not only better than less because we happen to judge it so; it is somehow by virtue of that 'fact' also inherently  and objectively good. And if  a thing is inherently good then this implies that there is a god because god is good; another circularity unless I have misrepresented the argument.

Wittgenstein must be laughing in his grave at my semantic plight. So let me take a stand. IMO the word 'complexity' invokes only the degree, context and criteria by which we have arbitrarily decided to evaluate a thing. This 'complexity' is a subjective correlation made  by us towards which the universe (AFAICS) is utterly indifferent, the additional information at its disposal notwithstanding.

Best Regards



Report to moderator   Logged
rhinoceros
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 1318
Reputation: 8.25
Rate rhinoceros



My point is ...

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #7 on: 2005-06-10 17:15:11 »
Reply with quote

[Blunderov] In our context, biologists seem to me to be using the word to mean 'lotsness' (or many).  "Perhaps the main lesson we should learn from Pringle is that the information content of a biological system is another name for its complexity".

I am uncomfortable with the idea that complexity amounts to a simple counting of heads. How do we decide which heads to count? If a chimp has more hairs than an owl has feathers, will counting them tell us which is the more complex creature? Well yes, I suppose it  must  - if we have agreed in advance that it will.


[rhinoceros] Actually Shannon's Information theory is well established -- a subject of engineering. The reasoning starts from information exchange and goes on to define the "information content" of a system, in a similar fashion like the concept of "work" led to the concept of "energy".

Shannon's information theory also makes the connection between the information content of a system and Bolzmann's thermodynamic entropy (which represent all possible unique configurations of particles in a system). He even used the term entropy for this information content, following Von Neumann's suggestion.

A rough example: a magnetized piece of metal in which all the magnetic dipoles face the same way is ordered, so it has little entropy. It also contains little information, since you describe one magnetic dipole and then say that all N of them face the same way. In an unmagnetized one the dipoles face at random directions, unordered, lots of entropy, lots of information content because you have to describe each one of them.

Shannon's Information theory also says that the the information content of a system (just like thermodynamic entropy) never decreases -- it can only increase.

Google Shannon information and entropy to get a more complete idea.


As for complexity and chaos, it is also a whole field trying to "predict the unpredictable." Nonlinear systems so sensitive to the initial conditions that no classical law can predict their behavior. The work is done by seeking so-called "strange attractors," patterns in a "phase space."


On the question "If a chimp has more hairs than an owl has feathers, will counting them tell us which is the more complex creature?" it is really non trivial to bring it down to bits of information, and that's why Dawkins took the "write a book" shortcut. However, you can take chunks of the problem: notice unique organs and repeated parts, and do some rough estimates and subtractions from the total information content. In this case, information theory only serves to assure us that there is something immutable in there to calculate.

« Last Edit: 2005-06-11 18:18:30 by rhinoceros » Report to moderator   Logged
rhinoceros
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 1318
Reputation: 8.25
Rate rhinoceros



My point is ...

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #8 on: 2005-06-11 10:20:07 »
Reply with quote

[rhinoceros] Looking up more info on the abstract of Taft's and Mattick's iconoclastic paper which Blunderov posted, the "junk DNA" theory which says that what we consider complex organisms are the ones which have a higher ratio of junk to total DNA, I found this article by one of the authors of the paper:


The Hidden Genetic Program of Complex Organisms
by John S. Mattick
Scientific American, October 2004
http://www.cgen.com/news/articles/article100204.html

Assumptions can be dangerous, especially in science. They usually start as the most plausible or comfortable interpretation of the available facts. But when their truth cannot be immediately tested and their flaws are not obvious, assumptions often graduate to articles of faith, and new observations are forced to fit them. Eventually, if the volume of troublesome information becomes unsustainable, the orthodoxy must collapse.

We may be witnessing such a turning point in our understanding of genetic information. The central dogma of molecular biology for the past half a century and more has stated that genetic information encoded in DNA is transcribed as intermediary molecules of RNA, which are in turn translated into the amino acid sequences that make up proteins. The prevailing assumption, embodied in the credo "one gene, one protein," has been that genes are generally synonymous with proteins. A corollary has been that proteins, in addition to their structural and enzymatic roles in cells, must be the primary agents for regulating the expression, or activation, of genes.
<snip>

The Ubiquitous Junk

<snip>
This line of argument and considerable other experimental evidence suggest that many genes in complex organisms-perhaps even the majority of genes in mammals-do not encode protein but instead give rise to RNAs with direct regulatory functions [see "The Hidden Genome," by W. Wayt Gibbs, Scientific American, November and December 2003]. These RNAs may be transmitting a level of information that is crucial, particularly to development, and that plays a pivotal role in evolution.
<snip>

Controlling Complexity

<snip>
Protein-coding genes obviously specify the components of organisms, but where does the architectural information reside? Biologists have widely assumed that the instructions for assembling complex organisms are somehow embedded in the diverse combinations of regulatory factors within cells-that is, in the permutations of regulatory proteins interacting with one another and with the DNA and RNA. Yet, as Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University has observed, although such combinatorics can generate almost endless possibilities, the vast majority will be chaotic and meaningless- which is problematic for biology. Throughout their evolution and development, organisms must navigate precise developmental pathways that are sensible and competitive, or else they die. Generating complexity is easy; controlling it is not. The latter requires an enormous amount of regulatory information.

Both intuitive and mathematical considerations suggest that the amount of regulation must increase as a nonlinear (usually quadratic) function of the number of genes. So, as the system becomes more complex, an increasing proportion of it must be devoted to regulation. This nonlinear relation between regulation and function appears to be a feature of all integrally organized systems. Therefore, all such systems have an intrinsic complexity limit imposed by the accelerating growth of their control architecture, until or unless the regulatory mechanism changes fundamentally.

In agreement with this prediction, the number of protein regulators in prokaryotes has been found to increase quadratically with genome size. Moreover, extrapolation indicates that the point at which the number of new regulators is predicted to exceed the number of new functional genes is close to the observed upper limit of bacterial genome sizes.

Throughout evolution, therefore, the complexity of prokaryotes may have been limited by genetic regulatory overhead, rather than by environmental or biochemical factors as has been commonly assumed. This conclusion is also consistent with the fact that life on earth consisted solely of microorganisms for most of its history. Combinatorics of protein interactions could not, by themselves, lift that complexity ceiling.

Eukaryotes must have found a solution to this problem. Logic and the available evidence suggest that the rise of multicellular organisms over the past billion years was a consequence of the transition to a new control architecture based largely on endogenous digital RNA signals. It would certainly help explain the phenomenon of the Cambrian explosion about 525 million years ago, when invertebrate animals of jaw-dropping diversity evolved, seemingly abruptly, from much simpler life. Indeed, these results suggest a general rule with relevance beyond biology: organized complexity is a function of regulatory information-and, in virtually all systems, as observed by Marie E. Csete, now at Emory University School of Medicine, and John C. Doyle of the California Institute of Technology, explosions in complexity occur as a result of advanced controls and embedded networking.

The implications of this rule are staggering. We may have totally misunderstood the nature of the genomic programming and the basis of variations in traits among individuals and species. The rule implies that the greater portion of the genomes in complex organisms is not junk at all-rather it is functional and subject to evolutionary selection.
<snip>


[rhinoceros] Well... according to Wikipedia's entry on Junk DNA, "The term "junk" is recognized as something of a misnomer, especially in light of the fact that molecular biology is a young science and segments of DNA may function in additional ways that have not yet been discovered. Recent work, as of 2004, suggests that junk DNA may indeed perform unrecognized functions."

Here's a more popular/sensational one:


Junk DNA yields frozen mystery clue
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/05/07/1083911408477.html

The human genome holds a very big surprise which could explain why we are such complex beings.

Australian researchers have discovered that the code that makes us human contains thousands of small stretches of DNA that have been frozen in time for up to 400 million years.

These bits of DNA are exactly the same in people, mice and rats, which means that against all odds, not a single "letter" of DNA in these stretches has changed over millennia of evolution.

"Nobody expected it. We were totally surprised," said John Mattick, of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland.

He said his team believed the frozen bits were part of a sophisticated "instruction manual" for assembling complex organisms - "a hidden layer of information that is required to specify the precise placement of the trillions of cells in a human being".

<snip>

Professor Mattick said the lack of change indicated a vital, if still mysterious, function of the frozen bits. "The real irony may be that what was damned as junk could turn out to be the secret of human complexity."


[rhinoceros] I'll have to do some more searching for comments by peers.

« Last Edit: 2005-06-11 10:33:22 by rhinoceros » Report to moderator   Logged
rhinoceros
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 1318
Reputation: 8.25
Rate rhinoceros



My point is ...

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #9 on: 2005-06-11 18:22:23 »
Reply with quote

I corrected Shanon to Shannon, Bolzman to Bolzmann, and von Neuman to von Neumann in my last posts in this thread.

Sorry for any googling inconvenience with the misspelled names which tend to take you to sites of... not very literate people.

Report to moderator   Logged
Blunderov
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 3160
Reputation: 8.87
Rate Blunderov



"We think in generalities, we live in details"

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #10 on: 2005-06-12 04:27:19 »
Reply with quote

Thanks, Rhino, for you kind attempt to help me to get the penny to drop. Now and again a glimmer comes through. Unfortunately though, I still find myself bogged down in the semantic mire.

The Biologists seem to use 'complexity' as an index of the progression of a system towards order/organization. And the particle physicists seem to use it as an index of the progression of a system towards entropy/chaos. Is it possible that there are two kinds of 'complexity'; negative and positive?

To add to the confusion, there is the Hegelian view of 'historical complexity' as a wave function:

http://64.233.161.104/search?q=cache:OnyvzacI4WAJ:garnet.acns.fsu.edu/~jstallin/complex/readings/Tainter.pdf+the+problem+of+complexity&hl=en
<snip>
Problem Solving: Complexity,
History, Sustainability
Joseph A. Tainter
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service

‘Sustainability or collapse follows from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions. The factors that lead to long-term success or failure in problem solving have received little attention, so that this fundamental activity is poorly understood. The capacity of institutions to solve problems changes over time, suggesting that a science of problem solving, and thus a science of sustainability, must be historical. Complexity is a primary problem-solving strategy, which is often successful in the short-term, but cumulatively may become detrimental to sustainability. Historical case studies illustrate different outcomes to long-term development of complexity in problem solving.’ </snip>

All of which does nothing to dispel my doubts as to the concreteness of ‘complexity’. It seems fair to say that the meaning of the word is demonstrably context dependent.

(For all that my own mathematics is non est, my usual understanding of the word is closer to what I take to be the mathematical meaning:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/computability/

<snip>
In modern terminology we say that the set of valid formulas of first-order logic is recursively enumerable (r.e.). </snip>) (Which I take to mean ‘not-complex’ in the absolute.)

Why, it may well be wondered, am I making such a fuss about all of this?

"Supporters of "intelligent design" guiding evolution, by the way, should be deeply committed to the view that information content increases during evolution."

is really what is getting my knickers in such a twist I suppose. I contend that ‘complexity’ cannot justifiably be considered to be any more miraculous than any other word. Numbers are not gods.
Report to moderator   Logged
rhinoceros
Archon
*****

Gender: Male
Posts: 1318
Reputation: 8.25
Rate rhinoceros



My point is ...

View Profile WWW E-Mail
Re:Wright vs. Dennett
« Reply #11 on: 2005-06-12 10:07:21 »
Reply with quote

[Blunderov] Thanks, Rhino, for you kind attempt to help me to get the penny to drop. Now and again a glimmer comes through. Unfortunately though, I still find myself bogged down in the semantic mire.

[rhinoceros] It has been very useful to me to go over this. Often I feel that I understand some concept or other, but as soon as I try to explain or use it in a specific context dark corners appear. Isn't the devil in the details?

Were you taken aback by Dawkins' irritation and strong reaction when the interviewers asked him if information increases? I was. By now, this reaction should make more sense. He had probably seen enough of this wordplay already, so he went on to write a whole primer in Shannon information in his article, before starting to say anything about information. Definitions of words in a context. Although people often skip an introduction and go straight to the meat.


[Blunderov] The Biologists seem to use 'complexity' as an index of the progression of a system towards order/organization. And the particle physicists seem to use it as an index of the progression of a system towards entropy/chaos. Is it possible that there are two kinds of 'complexity'; negative and positive?

[rhinoceros] Much more err... complex(!) than positive and negative.

I don't think that the distinction "progress towards order/organizaion or entropy/chaos" will resolve it. All these terms face similar or worse problems than complexity, which does not help when a well-meaning layman or philosopher cannot keep it all in the same framework. Dawkins did not use "order" or "chaos". He seems to follow something like "structured organization"/"information entropy" (the latter is analogous but not identical to thermodynamic entropy).

What's the opposite of "ordered"? Something which could be ordered but is not, or something where ordering does not apply? It is extemely context-dependent. If you hadn't added "/organization" I wouldn't be able to say which one has more order: a repetitive centipede or a mammal with its many different structures. Also, it is only in common speech that "chaos" is used to denote randomness -- not in chaos theory, where they probably adopted the term from what people used to think as random or unpredictable.

Dawkins did use the term complexity -- I think it can be roughly thought as related to how many different parameters the system has, which is related to how many different kinds of parts are there. A more formal treatment of complexity, based on algorithms, has been done by Kolmogorov. According to this, complexity of an object is the length of the shortest program possible which can generate this object.

Algorithmic information theory
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolmogorov_complexity


[Blunderov] To add to the confusion, there is the Hegelian view of 'historical complexity' as a wave function:

Problem Solving: Complexity,
http://64.233.161.104/search?q=cache:OnyvzacI4WAJ:garnet.acns.fsu.edu/~jstallin/complex/readings/Tainter.pdf

[rhinoceros] Wikipedia's "disambiguation page" on Complexity is very helpful. The quotes too. The 6th case seems somehow related to what you found.

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

  • In information processing, complexity is a measure of the total number of properties transmitted by an object and detected by an observer. Such a collection of properties is often referred to as a state.
  • In physical systems, complexity is a measure of the probability of the state vector of the system. This is often confused with entropy, but is a distinct analysis of the probability of the state of the system, where two distinct states are never conflated and considered equal as in statistical mechanics.
  • In computer science, the study of how much time and memory a computer algorithm may take is the field of computational complexity theory. (For finite state machines in automata theory, Krohn-Rhodes complexity is used.)
  • In social science, the study on the emergence of macro-properties from the micro-properties, also known as macro-micro view in sociology. The topic is commonly recognized as social complexity that oftenly related to the use of computer simulation in social science, i.e.: computational sociology
  • Complexity is often used as a shorthand for the field that developed in the late 1980s around the use of mathematical and computational modeling of biological, economic and technological systems known as "complex systems" (sometimes complex adaptive systems). These systems tend to exhibit high-dimensionality, non-linearity, and often, sensitive dependence of initial conditions.
  • In the sense of how complicated a problem is from the perspective of the person trying to solve it, limits of complexity are measured using a term from cognitive psychology, namely the hrair limit.
  • In mathematics, Krohn-Rhodes complexity is an important topic in the study of finite semigroups and automata.

    Quotes about complexity

  • "When I hear the word 'complexity', I don't exactly reach for my hammer, but I suspect my eyes narrow. It has the dangerous allure of an incantation, threatening to acquire the same blithe explanatory role that 'adaptation' once did in biology". Philip Ball, Nature Materials 3, 78 (2004), doi:10.1038/nmat1069
  • "The complexity of a document is proportional to the number of fingers that you need to read it." DeMarco's Law is a paraphrase from Tom DeMarco. For example, 'The complexity of a computer program is proportional to the number of fingers you need to read it.'
  • "The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity" Jacob Burkhardt, Swiss historian.


    [rhinoceros] I couldn't resist looking up the 6th case, "hrair limit", and I came up with this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hrair_limit
    The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information


    [Blunderov] All of which does nothing to dispel my doubts as to the concreteness of ‘complexity’. It seems fair to say that the meaning of the word is demonstrably context dependent.

    [rhinoceros] That should have become obvious by now. I think that the word itself invites this usage... Whenever someone is puzzled by a problem or whenever someone tries to address problems which puzzle others, the word "complexity" is a natural candidate.


    [Blunderove] (For all that my own mathematics is non est, my usual understanding of the word is closer to what I take to be the mathematical meaning:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/computability

    [rhinoceros]
    This is a very good one, although a bit technical.


    [Blunderov] Why, it may well be wondered, am I making such a fuss about all of this?

    "Supporters of "intelligent design" guiding evolution, by the way, should be deeply committed to the view that information content increases during evolution."

    is really what is getting my knickers in such a twist I suppose. I contend that ‘complexity’ cannot justifiably be considered to be any more miraculous than any other word. Numbers are not gods.

    [rhinoceros] Heh, Dawkins appears helpful there. Essentially he tells them "You want to put a God in there? Give him a pump and have him pump-in complexity."

    About numbers, that's all we have... Trying to keep them straight and match them to what we see.

  • Report to moderator   Logged
    Blunderov
    Archon
    *****

    Gender: Male
    Posts: 3160
    Reputation: 8.87
    Rate Blunderov



    "We think in generalities, we live in details"

    View Profile WWW E-Mail
    Re:Wright vs. Dennett
    « Reply #12 on: 2005-06-14 02:02:04 »
    Reply with quote

    Hi there Rhino
    Thanks for a most absorbing post. I will get onto the Shannon information theory soon.

    I hope that in all my fuss and potheration I didn't appear to be looking askance at our esteemed
    Dawkins and Dennett. As you say they must already be weary of explaining these word games.

    But it has worried me for some time that the core of the creationist position, the miracle of 'complexity', doesn't seem to have been overtly refuted, at least nowhere that I have been able to find. Hopefully we have gone some way towards this.

    (I'm inclined to rephrase myself in one respect though; 'numbers are the closest we will ever get to gods' then?)

    Another quote for our list:

    http://physics.about.com/od/philosophy/a/hunting1.htm

    "At the heart of the scientist's version is the image of experimental apparatus as a 'closed', perfectly well understood system... They are better regarded as being performed upon "open", imperfectly well understood systems[.]"

    from 'The Hunting of the Quark'

    (Nice to know that the fate of the Universe is in literate hands.)

    Best Regards.





















    Report to moderator   Logged
    rhinoceros
    Archon
    *****

    Gender: Male
    Posts: 1318
    Reputation: 8.25
    Rate rhinoceros



    My point is ...

    View Profile WWW E-Mail
    Re:Wright vs. Dennett
    « Reply #13 on: 2005-06-28 12:05:57 »
    Reply with quote

    An addendum to the discussion of Shannon's  Information Theory. In many occasions, this concept of information seems unintuitive -- different from how people understand "information". I think I can explain why if you bear with me at least up to point #3.

    1. Getting information about a system means reducing our uncertainty about this system. So, the total information content of the system is all the uncertainty that it holds. For a physical body, that can be all the possible different configurations of its atoms. So far so good.

    2. A system which can be fully described by a single law contains less information. A system which can be fully described only by using a dozen different laws at the same time obviously contains more information. Now here comes the unintuitive part: Consider the molecules in a gas which move randomly. There is no law guiding their motion, so to fully describe this system we have to describe the position and momentum of each one molecule at any one time. This system contains much more information than the "ordered" ones.

    3. But this seems absurd! What kind of information is this, if it resides in random systems, and what good is it? The trick is that in real life we don't care about the gas molecules at all. We don't care for a full description. When we say "information" we only mean the laws and regularities. Pressure... temperature... this kind of things.

    The gas does have the information content which Shannon says, but we don't care. Just like Newton said, we are only looking for "a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary" while the ocean lies ahead. Information theory is correct, but not always suitable for the problem at hand.

    4. I think there is one more issue. We talked about the information "content" of a system. What about the question "Is this a chair?"

    What is a chair? Does it have to be an artifact? Will a rock of the right shape and size do? How much can its dimentions vary, and still be a chair? Apparently this information is not contained in our "chair". It is deduced from both the chair and people's minds. It is even possible that I'll vary my definition of a "chair" depending on where I am or who I am talking to.

    Report to moderator   Logged
    Blunderov
    Archon
    *****

    Gender: Male
    Posts: 3160
    Reputation: 8.87
    Rate Blunderov



    "We think in generalities, we live in details"

    View Profile WWW E-Mail
    Re:Wright vs. Dennett
    « Reply #14 on: 2005-07-02 01:39:18 »
    Reply with quote

    [Blunderov] This book review from Austin Kline at About.com addresses some of my previous concerns
    Self-Organization, Complexity, and the Origin of Life (Book Notes: Evolving Creation)
    June 27, 2005
    Self-Organization, Complexity, and the Origin of Life (Book Notes: Evolving Creation)
    One of the most common arguments used by creationists against evolution is that it is "impossible" for complexity or novelty to come about without the direction of some outside intelligence directing the entire process. This isn't true - it's known to happen not only in biology, but also elsewhere in some very familiar circumstances.
    In Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, Loren Haarsma and Terry M. Gray write in the essay "Complexity, Self-Organization, and Design" about how self-organization can appear under the right conditions — and, therefore, the existence of complexity in nature is not automatically a reason to discount the truth of evolution. They offer an interesting analogy with the self-organization of a complex economy:
    Our modern industrial economy is very complex. There are thousands of different industries and occupations. Occupations range across agriculture, health care, education, manufacturing, transportation, energy, and many others. Within a given industry , there are many specialties. ... If one industry or subindustry... were to stop working altogether, the entire economy would suffer greatly unless a substitute industry were available.
    There is an obvious connection here to the principle of "irreducible complexity" used by Intelligent Design supporters. According to "irreducible complexity," some biological forms are so complex that the removal of any one feature would lead to a total breakdown and, therefore, it could not have evolved this complexity naturally — instead, it must have been designed.
    There have been many critiques of this argument, but if we were to accept it then shouldn't we also conclude that our modern industrial economy was also designed from above? After all, the removal of oil refining would lead to a collapse of the economy; therefore, it couldn't have come about without the direction of an outside designer.
    Haarsma and Gray explain why this conclusion is false:
    Industrial economies do not achieve their complexity all at once. Their complexity is built up slowly, over time, from much simpler economies. As new technologies or techniques are invented, a few people specialize in providing that particular good or service. Others specialize in providing the raw materials for the new good or service, while others use the good or service to produce other things. The entire economy adjusts and becomes more efficient and productive. The interlocking complexity builds up slowly, over time, as individuals interact with each other in new ways, finding combinations of interactions that increase their productivity.
    Obviously the evolution of an industrial economy is not a perfect analogy with the evolution of something like a cell because the building blocks of an economy — people — are intelligent agents while the building blocks of cells are not. However, the people which make up an economy are not "designing" that economy with its final form in mind. They are not analogous to a "Designer" that creationists claim is behind the development of life.
    Haarsma and Gray explain how and why complexity evolves in an economy:
    An important feature of the economy — necessary for the self-organization of complexity and novelty — is the presence of redundancy and multitasking. As an example of redundancy: one factory produces racing bicycles, while different factories produce mountain bikes, children's bikes, scooters, or unicycles. If the racing bike factory reduces or stops production, some people who rely on those bikes will be inconvenienced, but most could adapt to using the alternatives.

    As an example of multitasking: the racing bike factory might spend only half of its time making racing bikes and the other half making related products, such as exercise bikes. Another example of multitasking: the factory supplies racing bikes to not one but several different industries (e.g., professional bicycle racers, amateur biking clubs, bicycle messenger services, people who use bikes to commute to work, etc.). This sort of multitasking increases the likelihood that the bicycle manufacturer will interact with another industry (e.g., an electric motor manufacturer) to combine resources. The combination of resources could produce totally new products (e.g., electric mopeds, or perhaps electric gear-and-chain winches).

    The presence of redundancy and multitasking allows, under the right circumstances, for the self-organization of novelty as well as complexity.
    Once again, the relationship here with Intelligent Design should be obvious. Creationists complain that the appearance of complexity and novelty are not possible under the blind processes behind evolution. What we have here, however, is an explanation of exactly that occurring on the macro-level of a nation's economy. No one "designs" the development of complex interaction. No one "designs" the development of novel industries or products. These developments are the natural outgrowth of how economies work.
    There is something even more interesting at work here. If you stop and think about it, the above description could easily function as an explanation of why market capitalism is so good while command economies (like under socialism or communism) or so bad. It's not possible to "design" or "plan" an economy that is as efficient and nimble as one that evolves naturally.
    This perspective is generally accepted as true by religious conservatives, but among these conservatives are those who simultaneously reject the same principle when it comes to biology. In other words, religious conservatives who reject the idea that "this is too complex to occur naturally and must instead be planned" when it comes to a national economy will turn around and accept it when it comes to biology.
    As Mark A. R. Kleiman explains:
    [The Intelligent Design argument is] based on the idea that something that works must have been designed to work. But of course if that were true, then individuals interacting in their own self-interest couldn't create the spontaneous order of a market. If we wanted to make sure that everyone had bread, we'd need to have a Ministry of Bread to plan the bread supply.
    It's very ironic that some of those who insist that an economy works best when novelty, complexity, and organization are allowed to spontaneously develop on their own will turn around and insist that none of this could possibly happen in biology. Once again, I think we are seeing an example of what happens when a person allows themselves to be led around by faith and ideology rather than science, facts, or reason.
    Report to moderator   Logged
    Pages: [1] 2 Reply Notify of replies Send the topic Print 
    Jump to:


    Powered by MySQL Powered by PHP Church of Virus BBS | Powered by YaBB SE
    © 2001-2002, YaBB SE Dev Team. All Rights Reserved.

    Please support the CoV.
    Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS! RSS feed