Friday, September 11, 2015

I was a teenage demarcationist

It's been a while since I stirred the pot on the issue of intelligent design theory.

And yes, I know that it's 9/11, but at the moment, I have nothing new or special to say about 9/11, so I won't. I sure wish our leaders would get wise about Islam, but I'm not looking for flying pigs anytime soon, and in the absence of learning concrete lessons about jihad and our enemies, talking movingly about 9/11 just begins to sound more and more like a yearly self-indulgence of pointless sentiment.

So I'm going to write about demarcationism instead.

Demarcationism is the idea in the philosophy of science that there are clearcut and interesting criteria that distinguish those activities and theories that constitute science (or learning about science) from those that don't. It sounds like demarcationism should be true until one sets out actually to try to set up such criteria. We might agree, for example, that to be science, some activity should involve statements about the physical world. But nobody thinks that that constitutes a sufficient condition. If I say that rain is caused by fairies, that intuitively doesn't seem to be a scientific theory, but it is a theory about the physical world. Similarly, it doesn't do to say that some theory is not scientific if it's a stupid theory. That's not very clear-cut, for one thing. And for another thing, what looks stupid in hindsight might not have been stupid when it was proposed. Or the other way around. What sounds stupid at first may come to look reasonable later when the world is better understood.

Karl Popper suggested that it is a necessary condition for true scientific endeavor that one's theory be falsifiable and that unfalsifiable theories are not science but pseudo-science. This is attractive. We all have known people who insist that some bromide cures many ills and who are always willing to explain away contrary evidence. The combination of cherry-picked anecdotes of the wonders of the bromide with refusal to acknowledge counter-evidence certainly seems like what one would call an unscientific attitude.

But at that point the problem arises that it is not the theory that Bromide X cures all ills that is unscientific but rather the advocates of Bromide X who are being unscientific in their approach to investigating the theory. In this context, it seems that words like "scientific" and "unscientific" are rough stand-ins for "rational" and "irrational" in the realm of investigating theories about the physical world. But that wasn't what we were originally looking for. Rather, the original search was for a demarcation criterion that would apply to theories and to the investigation of those theories, not primarily to people. In fact, it would be perfectly possible to investigate the alleged healing properties of Bromide X in a rigorous fashion and to draw a conclusion from it--probably a negative conclusion--and no one would contest that that was not a scientific endeavor.

Some cousin of the notion of falsifiability--suitably upgraded with more nuanced probabilistic interpretation--might well be a useful way of giving the honorific "scientific" to people who are approaching physical theories rationally, with a willingness to examine evidence on both sides and admit disconfirmation. And it could provide a reason for criticizing those who are doing otherwise. In that way we might dismiss Freudian psychology or horoscope reading as "unscientific" not only or even chiefly because the theories behind them appear, on consideration, to be egregiously false but also because their practitioners appear unwilling to admit contrary evidence concerning the accuracy and effectiveness of the methods and theories involved. That's progress in some kind of demarcation, but it isn't what the demarcationists actually wanted. For one thing, an unscientific attitude could bedevil people engaging in the areas of investigation that we generally think of as science. It would be possible to be dogmatic and closed to contrary evidence if one were a credentialed geologist or epidemiologist, for example.

This has been a big debate in the philosophy of science for a long time, and the truth is that demarcation criteria to distinguish science from non-science have proven surprisingly elusive.

Nevertheless, there was a time when I was a demarcationist. This was probably partly because of a Popperian influence. But it was also because I was not thinking clearly. In particular, I wasn't thinking clearly enough about the contentious issue of evolution. The demarcationist controversy has been especially important in the creation/evolution debate, with expert witnesses using a pretense that the issue is settled in the philosophy of science in order to get the teaching of intelligent design ruled "religion" and hence "unconstitutional." (By what logic it was supposed to follow that intelligent design theories are automatically religious, much less an "establishment of religion" if taught in public schools, even if they are not scientific, I never understood. But logic is not the hallmark of the anti-ID crowd, including the judges.)

Some twenty-odd-ish years ago, I wasn't at all opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in schools, but largely because I'm a constitutional originalist and knew that the entire imposition of "no creation in public schools" as a matter of constitutional interpretation was baloney. In fact, though, I did tend to think that, even if a conclusion of intelligent design is sometimes justified in the biological realm, it definitely wasn't a scientific conclusion. So whatever else we should say, we should say that this isn't science. And I thought that mattered somehow. To something. Clarity of thought, perhaps?

But it was exactly the opposite. As a dualist about the human person, I should have known this. After all, I myself am (in part) immaterial, yet the investigation of my actions can't be designated clearly as non-science. So let's even suppose that someone draws a conclusion that God himself was the designer of some biological entity. How does it follow that investigation in that vicinity is "not science"? It doesn't follow from the fact that God is immaterial.

Well, but I'm an embodied being. Maybe it follows from the fact that God, in the creation of biological entities, was not incarnate. But that isn't right, either. Consider: If you were present on the day of Pentecost with the right equipment, you could have decided whether the sound waves coming from the apostles' mouths formed words in other languages or whether they were just one language, while the hearers reported hearing different languages. In one sense, this would count as scientific investigation of an act of God! Similarly, if you'd been in the right place at the right time with the right tools, it would have been possible in principle to discover something of the mechanism behind the fall of the wall of Jericho. Did the lower levels of the wall disintegrate, disappear, crack, or what? Was the sound of the trumpet sufficiently sharp to be causal, or did the fall just happen on the occasion thereof?

It may be objected that these are all investigations of the physical events in the world but not of the mind of God. True enough, but that much is true of us as well, despite our embodied nature. You can trace neural firings up to the brain, but there comes a point at which mechanism fails. The human mind itself is measurable, detectable, and investigable only indirectly. Yet, once again, we don't therefore make heavy weather out of saying that it is "impossible to investigate human action scientifically." Of course it's possible to investigate human action scientifically, in at least one straightforward sense. You can see the bridges we build, read the books we write, and hear the words we speak. And you can also see God's causal acts in the world.

For the most part, the barriers to investigating God's miraculous and creative acts in a manner that would normally be called "scientific" are sheerly practical. The events happened long ago. Nobody happened to be hanging around with precise instruments. We'll probably never know many details, and so forth. Some details would be practically impossible to gather. (Did God create a sperm cell for the virgin conception or did he just create such DNA as could have come from a sperm cell? There's a fact of the matter, and it's a scientific fact, but there would have been no practical way to know, even if you were there.)

There is, moreover, an extremely good reason not to make dogmatic pronouncements that a design theory of biological origins "shouldn't be taught in science class." Let's just entertain for a moment the hypothesis that the whole neo-Darwinian shebang, and the abiogenesis origin of life theory, are utterly false. Suppose that, in fact, all of these things were kicked off via various interventions (the bogyman word) by an intelligent being whom Christians and Jews call God. In that case, everybody who is putzing around with speculative theories of how the first cell came into being by purely natural processes or how sexual reproduction evolved or any of these other things is engaging in a pure waste of time with theories that are all totally false. And not just a little bit false but wildly false. Completely off-base. Yet those theories are being taught as "the best theories scientists have today" or even just "the truth, according to science" about where these things came from. They are being taught that way in science class, with the prestige of Science (capital S) behind them, even though they are ludicrously false. While, if this scenario is correct, the true theory of where these things came from is relegated to the speculative, allegedly subjective realms of religion. And that would be pretty silly.

Look at it this way: If the question, "Where did the first cell on earth come from?" is to be regarded as properly a scientific question, and if one hypothesis that purports to answer it is to be regarded as a scientific answer, then a different hypothesis that purports to answer it isn't just automatically "non-science" and hence to be taught in a completely different venue, simply because it mentions a designer or even (gasp!) God. That's totally artificial. If they are both theories that purport to answer the same allegedly scientific question, then why not teach about them both in the same class, that being a science class?

Now, of course one answer from the anti-ID people will be, "Because it's stupid" or "Because it's crazy" or "Because it has no good evidence for it." That may or may not be true (I happen to think it's not true), but that isn't the same thing as, "Because qua theory it cannot, by definition, be science."

Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't be thrilled to have some rabidly anti-ID high school science teacher teaching a caricatured version of ID theory, ridiculing it to the students, and then saying to the parents, "There, are you satisfied? I discussed design theory." That isn't desirable at all, from my perspective. But suppose there were a well-read high school science teacher who didn't think that and who was willing to give an even-handed presentation of the evidence on both sides. Why should he be fired or hounded, like Roger DeHart, for doing so?

See, at that point it's a lot easier for the anti-ID crowd to say, not, "Because Roger DeHart is an idiot and knows nothing about biology" (though I'm sure many of the more loudmouthed among them would say that) but rather, "Because ID isn't science, so we don't need to discuss whether Roger DeHart is an idiot and doesn't know his biology." It's a dodge. It's a ruse. (Pun intended.)

And that's why I'm sorry that I was a teenage (actually, older than teenage) demarcationist. Because I fell for it. For a while, I thought there was something to be gained by stating that a design conclusion in biology is, by definition, not science. Maybe (I strained and stretched) ID could just say that no natural explanation can be found for some phenomenon. Maybe that would be okay. But the positive conclusion couldn't be science. Because it's God, and because reasons.

I changed my mind long ago on that. For over a decade I've subscribed to Michael Behe's broad and non-demarcationist definition of science as "a vigorous attempt to make true statements about the world." Even if we beef it up slightly to "a vigorous and intellectually rigorous attempt to make true and significant statements about the physical world," ID can certainly be in there, since origins statements are statements about the physical world, and ID research can be carried out vigorously and rigorously. In fact, if anybody nowadays is acting like Popper's unscientific theorist who refuses to let his theory be responsive to negative data, it's the neo-Darwinian.

We haven't seen the last of the politicized demarcationists. In recent years they have even tried to ban the discussion of design theories in physics, where they are usually considered less of a threat than in biology, and at the university level, where a widespread notion of academic freedom for professors has previously permitted greater latitude in discussing a variety of theories.

Christians of a philosophical bent, in particular, should refuse to be put into a demarcationist strait-jacket. We can think more clearly than that about science, design, and God, and we should.


Bedarz Iliaci said...

Is there a philosophical problem with Popper's falsifiability criterion?

One way to rule out pseudosciences such as astrology is to look at their computational method. In normal sciences, the result of the calculation has less information than the inputs to the calculation. We have to feed in many quantities in order to output a single number. However, an astrological "calculation" has very few inputs but the output is indefinitely large.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, there actually is a philosophical problem. Popper wasn't working with probabilistic reasoning but rather with deduction. Now, the problem is that no theory, not even the best scientific theory, is strictly falsifiable *by deduction*. In order to get deductive consequences from the theory, you have to supplement it with what are known as auxiliary hypotheses. If the deduced prediction does not occur, then, it is always a matter of logical possibility that it is one or more of the auxiliaries that is false rather than the main theory, and it is a matter of epistemic judgement which of those conclusions to draw. There is literally no way to make an empirical theory by itself yield deductively predicted consequences unless you define the consequences as strictly part of the main theory. But that isn't what Popper wanted either.

Popper in fact did not believe that theories are _confirmed_, either, and that is another problem. In essence, his entire system needs to be fairly radically revised from the perspective of confirmation theory. From that perspective, of course it is possible for theories to be both confirmed and disconfirmed, but that will always be partial and probabilistic, and the extent of confirmation and disconfirmation will always be sensitive (against) to auxiliary hypotheses chosen, background information, prior probabilities, and the like.

Where he was onto something was, as I said in the main post, that it is indeed an intellectual fault to refuse to admit disconfirmation. I have an article published on ad hocness in which I argue that there is a kind of probabilistic cousin of unfalsifiability in the attempt to use ad hoc theories to refuse to admit disconfirmation.

I think that in plain terms what you are getting at in astrology is that it appears that the practitioner is making things up. That's probably true, though frankly one can think of some areas in the legitimate sciences where it also appears that the practitioners are making things up. (Cough cough climate change.) They just go to more trouble to make what they are doing appear scientific. I suppose a clever astrologer could do the same if he wanted to work harder at it.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

It is not simply a question of "making things up". Weather or climate prediction employs normal scientific computation with definite outputs. It is certainly possible for a particular scientist to make things up, but that does not affect the question whether climate prediction is a science or pseudoscience.

Whereas, the astrological predictions are always indefinite in the sense that there could be arbitrary number of output points for a strictly limited input data.

For scientific computations (I work in computational field myself), the input required to output some given number of output data increases. Even in climate science. It is just that some input data is made up. But it has to exist.
For astrology, the input data is very sparse and does not increase in due fashion with increase in output data.

Lydia McGrew said...

So you're proposing vagueness in inputs with claimed confirmation from specific outputs as a possible demarcation procedure. By that criterion, I'm afraid there would be a fair amount of modern medicine, particularly in the psychological fields, that would be pseudoscientific. Consider the diagnosis of various "syndromes," such as ADHD, from a range of vague symptoms.

R.C. said...

Hi Lydia:

Good post. I've been worrying about "demarcation" myself.

Evan Fales has made, I think, a similar point to yours with respect to intelligent design. He concludes, I think, that ID is not science, but it fails on its merits, not because of in principle objections to super-natural hypotheses.

He wrote about ID in the schools here, if you're interested:

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, no, because Fales *still* tries to say that ID is not science. From a brief look, it's not clear to me what his criteria are. It *appears* (but this is from a very brief look at the article) that his criteria are that something isn't science if its arguments are poor, and he deems the ID arguments to be poor. That's odd. I mean, it doesn't seem to allow for a category of "poor science." Why doesn't he say that ID is science but, in his view, poorly done science, or somethign like that? The only other demarcation principle I saw that he proposed for saying that ID is "not science" is that it is somehow held to argue in conformity with religious _creeds_ and cannot propose anything that would contradict them.

This is absolute b.s. I don't use that phrase very often, but it shows a complete lack of rudimentary acquaintance with the actual ID literature which, in turn, calls into question his competence to assess ID arguments. ID arguments are *all over the map* as far as the theology they imply, encourage, or are compatible with. Indeed, the fact that most ID theorists embrace an old earth shows that they are *precisely not* beholden to any particular creed. He doesn't give a single example in which an ID science writer refuses to draw a particular conclusion because it would be incompatible with a religious creed. He's just blowing smoke.

Needless to say, I also disagree with his tired "god of the gaps" criticism and his evaluation of the strength of the ID arguments generally.

I suppose I should be mildly positive about his statement that a supernatural conclusion doesn't in and of itself rule out something's being science, but it is oddly amusing to see that he's still bound and determined to conclude that ID is, somehow, non-science.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

"vagueness in inputs with claimed confirmation from specific outputs"

Not really. It is "too many specific outputs from too few specific inputs". It is not about confirmation or disconfirmation but about the specifics of the calculation procedure.

Normal computations in physics do not lead to higher information content in the outputs, relative to the inputs.
Whereas, in astrology you merely have to enter your date of birth and they purport to compute all your future life. Such a "computation" is impossible, irrespective of any possible disconfirmation.

Lydia McGrew said...

I accept your correction, but I still think that a) this move allows astrology to claim (by cherry picking) confirmation from a variety of events and b) this move can be found in other areas generally considered "really scientific"--in particular, mental health.

If the astrologer, by taking one's birthdate, claims to be able to make many other predictions or statements about you, he can then pick and choose those where he turns out to be right and claim confirmation from them. I have seen a cold reader do something similar, though she also relied on vagueness in statements about what she "saw" when looking at the other person.

In mental health, one can take symptoms such as fidgetiness and difficulty staying on-task, to derive a diagnosis (such as ADHD), and from there to "predict" other outputs. These "predictions" (such as aggressive behavior) might in fact be expected in many normal boys, for example, in any case, even if they didn't "have" that diagnosis. But they can then be taken as confirmation of the diagnosis.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

If an astrologer, by merely picking one's birth date, makes many predictions ("indefinite in number") in , these predictions simply CAN NOT be based upon any computational procedure aka algorithm.
That is, the astrological method is non-formalizable.

I repeat, this point has nothing to do be whether the astrological predictions are confirmed or disconfirmed. Thus, it is possible to rule out astrology as being a pseudo-science just on the basis of its lack for a formal calculation procedure,

A wife, based upon her experience and knowledge of her husband's behavior is able to make many successful predictions of his actions. but you won't call these predictions "scientific"-- for the wife did not use a formal procedure to make the predictions-same with astrology (only the astrology claims to use formal procedures).

Lydia McGrew said...

If astrology were strongly successful, I suppose we would find some way to figure out "how they do it." In any event, the lack of a formal calculation procedure is a *poor* way of distinguishing science from pseudo-science. Plenty of *good* clinical diagnosis of disease, for example, puts together a variety of behaviors and symptoms without a *calculation*. Archeology, forensics, etc., involve making probable hypotheses based on a variety of clues. They are therefore based on inference to the best explanation, not on formal calculation.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

1) Astrologers claim to calculate. This is how they insist on being scientific.
2) If you are not calculating, eg clinical diagnosis of disease, then is it science or art?

Bedarz Iliaci said...

Actually, I am not claiming to have a demarcation criterion. My point was rather specific to astrology and related things. My claim is, If you claim to predict things by calculation, and this is your basis for claiming scientific status, then your calculation procedure must satisfy certain conditions.

Lydia McGrew said...

To 1: I don't know many astrologers (any, actually), so I don't know if they claim to calculate or just somehow "base" their conclusions on your birthday and other info., or what. What I would say is that they are blowing smoke, because the information they claim to be basing the conclusion on does not justify the conclusion, neither as a calculation nor as an explanatory or other type of inference. This makes them irrational, which takes us back to the question of whether irrational activities can be science. If we take it that science should be, or at least attempt to be, rigorous (see my expansion of Behe's suggestion in the main post), astrology would not qualify on that ground, though calculation is not the only road to being careful and rigorous.

To 2: I think clinical diagnosis of a disease could be scientific even if not calculative. It could be careful, rigorous, etc., though explanatory rather than calculative.

To the follow-up. I think that is a fair point. I don't know precisely what the astrologers claim but if they claim that your birthday _justifies_ their conclusions, then that is baloney, whether one calls it calculating or something else.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

Michael Behe's broad and non-demarcationist definition of science as "a vigorous attempt to make true statements about the world." Even if we beef it up slightly to "a vigorous and intellectually rigorous attempt to make true and significant statements about the physical world."

The definition does not discriminate between the study of the first cause
(philosophy) and the study of the secondary causes of the phenomena (the special sciences).In this, it is analogous to scientism. This attitude which seeks to subsume all knowledge under the science rubric is,perhaps, making you not appreciate all the points ID-opposers are making.

"If the question, "Where did the first cell on earth come from?" is to be regarded as properly a scientific question, and if one hypothesis that purports to answer it is to be regarded as a scientific answer, then a different hypothesis that purports to answer it isn't just automatically "non-science" and hence to be taught in a completely different venue, simply because it mentions a designer or even (gasp!) God."

Acts of God are not a matter for science. Either they are miracles, by definition, a suspension of the laws of nature, or are entirely metaphysical creation
and sustaining of the universe. The creation of the universe is not a matter
of science either, regardless of what careless physicists say.

Strictly speaking, ID could be construed as science if it just aims to show that the Darwin's theory does not work as claimed. To appeal to a designer would be dubiously science while any mention of God rules it out as science.

Lydia McGrew said...

The whole point of the broad definition is not scientism but rather to treat demarcationism itself with a shrug. It's understandable that we want to rule out irrationality and hokum, which is why I included "rigorous," but I have pretty much zero interest in trying to distinguish "natural philosophy" from science. I see no point in it.

As to all of your other points, I spent an entire post answering them. E.g. Why should "any mention of God rule it out as science"? Why should appeal to a designer render some theory "dubiously science"? If we were investigating another planet and found robots, examined their workings, and appealed to a designer who made them, would that be "dubiously scientific" as a conclusion, because...? There is no defensible generalization that supports any of those generalizations, and that was the point of my post.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

Is it pointless to distinguish metaphysics and physics?
Popper's falsification criterion itself does this discrimination--falsifiable statements are those that refer to contingent state of affairs which is the proper realm of special sciences.

Does the word "rigorous" cut it? Can't astrology and alchemy be done rigorously?
Astrology is an interesting case--a general consensus exists that it is nonsense, a paradigm of pseudoscience. Yet it may be hard to say precisely why. Could you explain how exactly astrology is to be regarded as non-science?

Robots-are obviously artifacts and are subject matter of engineering. Living things are not artifacts. They have their own autonomous life or telos. Thus, it would be "dubiously scientific" to ascribe a designer to them. Instantly, the subject changes from biology to engineering.
In other words, the word "designer" is appropriate in an engineering investigation but not in a biological investigation.
And the term "God" is inappropriate in all special sciences investigations.
What you seem to be doing is confounding all sciences and philosophy together and not respecting their autonomy and hierarchy.
Your definition "true statements about physical world" excludes psychology as a science while neglecting that scientists rarely make "true statements". What they do make are models that are useful in some particular context.

Lydia McGrew said...

If science is not even the _attempt_ to make true statements about the world, then the hell with it. I don't know why anyone should care tuppence about it. But in fact, even the statement that such-and-such is a useful model in a particular context is either true or false.

A design model, by the way, is _extremely_ useful in biological contexts. Biochemists constantly treat biological entities as designed via reverse engineering. Scott Minnich explained this in his testimony in the Dover case and has explained it to me in person.

Astrology and alchemy cannot be done rigorously if one is saying that they work, because it's irrational to say that they work. I meant "rigor" to be connected to rationality.

I already explained (briefly) the problem with Popper's falsification criterion. There is a large literature on this in the philosophy of science literature. Feel free to read up. It is actually false that the proper realm of science yields falsifiable statements in the sense that Popper believed, though I have tried to explain a probabilistic reconstruction concerning disconfirmation which would capture what was legitimate in his intuition.

Living things have, at multiple levels, many of the properties of artifacts. You can foot-stomp to the contrary, but the facts do not bear you out. Their possessing a telos actually supports this conclusion rather than undermining it.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

Are you saying that certain parts (e.g. eye) of living things can be studied or modeled as being artifact-like or the living thing as a whole is artifact-like?

For in the later case, you reduce biology to a branch of engineering. Is there no difference in kind between a robot and an animal? You are not impressed by the distinction between internal telos and imposed telos?

Why is it irrational to say that astrology and alchemy work?. Plenty of intelligent men in past believed in these--perhaps a majority of Christians too. Indeed, this widespread ancient belief in pseudosciences provides a strong argument to atheists-if ancients were wrong about astrology, they could be wrong about Christianity. Indeed, a strong argument was provided by CS Lewis himself-in The Discarded Image, he writes that for medievals, they took the truth on authority and "believed" a lot of weird stuff provided it was written up in an old, respectable book. What he does not add that this argument could be used against Christian belief also.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

Curiously there is no demand to teach the Genesis account of the creation of the universe alongside the Big Bang cosmology. Physicists ponder about how and why of Big Bang but there is no corresponding call to say that "God did it" should be included in the physics text books.

Thing is, your insistence on defining science as making of true statements about the physical world and while disregarding the usual division of metaphysics and special sciences in which God is not brought as an explanation in special sciences, how much of this is consistently applied across the spectrum of science? After all, "God did it" would be a true statement for ALL physical facts. No one doubts that forms of the animals pre-existed in divine mind before their creation, special or otherwise. How do you actually envisage this designing? Aren't you imagining a human-like designer, only with super-power?

Lydia McGrew said...

"Are you saying that certain parts (e.g. eye) of living things can be studied or modeled as being artifact-like or the living thing as a whole is artifact-like?" Both, in fact. But in our own day what most often happens (actually happens, in labs, though without acknowledgement) is that things like genetic structures and their results at the cellular level are worked with as if the biological entities were artifact-like.

" You are not impressed by the distinction between internal telos and imposed telos?" Not much. The "internal telos" is _explicable_ in terms of _structure_--sometimes the most incredibly complex structure, consisting of multi-level interactions of coding. This is something we know pretty well in computers, though at a much higher level of complexity. The allusion to "internal telos" as something mystically, vastly different usually takes the form of acting as though these things are black boxes rather than getting into the nitty gritty of how they work, which modern biology has actually told us a great deal about. A cell has "internal telos" in very much the same sense that a computer does. For example, virus scanning software, script-running, and so forth, all serve purposes internal to the computer, but it would be insane to say that this is evidence that the computer was *not* designed. It is just the opposite. It is evidence that the computer *was*. The computer's "purposes" had to come from somewhere.

"Why is it irrational to say that astrology and alchemy work?" If you think they do, you are welcome to argue for them. Alchemy depends upon false views about physical reality, which we now understand better than the ancients did. They may not have been irrational to hold it, because they didn't know what we know about modern chemistry, so it could be regarded as just the mistaken science of a particular time period, not necessarily irrationally held. What they thought their reasons were for believing astrology I'm not fully sure, but certainly the _practitioners_ of astrology should have had their doubts and should have started to realize that their alleged positive results were cherry-picked. That is certainly what a well-informed person today would realize.

" After all, "God did it" would be a true statement for ALL physical facts. " Not in the same sense. It is not, for example, true of the weather today in my town in the same sense that it is true of the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism.

"How do you actually envisage this designing?" It appears to have happened at various times over a long time period. It seems to have involved teleological planning and intent, planning of whole entities rather than the chance build-up of those entities by random mutation and natural selection. That is part of why it provides a better explanation than those non-intelligent processes for what we find. In fact, biological is chock-full of chicken-and-egg problems of _precisely_ the sort that we would expect to arise in entities that were planned and executed originally as wholes, even in some cases as pairs (male and female), that in any event did not develop piece-meal. But I don't have to picture a _mechanism_ for it in a given case to be justified in drawing the conclusion any more than I have to explain the _mechanism_ whereby your _mind_ interacts with your body to produce the words you are writing now.

These are all rather hoary chestnuts you're bringing up. It never ceases to amaze me how people think they are being original and bringing up devastating points when in fact what they are raising has been answered again and again, to the point that it has become somewhat boring to the one answering.

Lydia McGrew said...

To clarify: I meant to say that in living things the level of complexity of coding is much higher than in our own computers, not vice versa.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

I am surprised that you would say that "A cell has "internal telos" in very much the same sense that a computer does.". Would you be willing to say that living things are automata in the sense of Descartes?

W4 did publish a series of biological articles by Talbott to the effect that genetic determinism does not work and the living things must be understood holistically. One implication of the holistic view is that the living things are not formalizable in the sense a computer is. (Computer==Turing machine, a formal object capable of being defined formally, a physical computer is a formal object apart from informal aspects of the physical matter if any).

Thus, a living thing, including a living cell, is certainly not the same or even similar type of thing as a computer. And 'internal telos" is not incidental here but fundamental to the understanding of how living things differ from artifact.

A significant implication of your denial of essential internal telos of living things is the necessary view of human soul as a "ghost in the (human) machine" that it entails.
For if animals are just as machines so is human body and thus human soul is just an superadded substance to the soulless human body. Thus, in your picture, body and soul have no essential unity.
And this leads to futher problems including theological.

Lydia McGrew said...

Genetic determinism in fact does not work and living things do need to be understood far more holistically than genetic determinism would indicate. This shows a degree of complexity in living things beyond what would be indicated by genetic determinism. (Though DNA itself is complex enough alone to argue for design.) It does not follow *in the slightest* that an Aristotelian view of all living things is accurate. I did not (that I recall) write those posts at W4, by the way. I have always been highly friendly to intelligent design theory since before I wrote for W4. There are in fact Aristotelians who are also friendly to ID. Rob Koons is an example. ID as a movement attempts to be very big tent and is happy to have Aristotelians on board. My own belief, however, is that it would be a mistake to abandon the nano-machinery analogy which comes up in a variety of contexts, because that analogy is _accurate_. Indeed, if you look at a video simulation of something like, say, protein synthesis or the operation of kinesin the analogy simply leaps out.

Talbott rejects ID. Naturally, I was mildly sorry that it might appear that W4 was endorsing him, for that very reason. However, I have written enough at W4 supporting ID that I figured readers would be capable of putting it down to variety of perspective among contributors.

I would argue that it's important not to have a simplistic notion of machines. Certainly the more complex a computer is, *with* all of its software (I stress), the more it makes sense to say that it, too, must be understood holistically. If different software programs interact, for example, any sort of reductionism to one program or the other will fail to explain the way the computer operates.

I strongly suspect that the development of, say, a mouse embryo involves layers of complexity to boggle the mind--interactions between and among _hierarchies_ of coding involving the egg, perhaps the cell membrane, and of course including the DNA, but where the genetic code is just one layer of coding. There could readily be meta-coding involving the interaction of various layers. This is just one way in which it could be said that the development of the mammalian embryo must be understood holistically and cannot be reduced to its genetics, and that in fact appears to be the case. It does not follow that there is some *non-structural* aspect to "being a living thing." I think in fact that what Aristotle would have _meant_ by internal telos can be _parsed_ (at least for creatures without sentient consciousness or at stages prior to sentient consciousness) in terms of structure--incredibly complex structure.

I don't think Descartes had the slightest notion what automata actually _are_, living as he did prior to the computer age. In any event, my understanding is that he denied that even mammals have any consciousness, whereas common observation shows that an animal like a dog or cat is _sentient_ though not able to think in the same way that human beings are.

It actually does not follow from anything I have said that there is no "essential unity" between human mind and body. It is clear that human beings are the type of thing that are meant to have heavy interaction between mind and body. This occurs itself via complex feedback loops with actual consciousness, not via any simplistic "ghost in the machine" model. And nothing that I have said about parsing the "internal telos" of a blade of grass or a mouse embryo in terms of biological structure has any implications to the effect that mind-body interaction is a simple matter or that the body is "just a machine" where consciousness exists.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

The complexity argument does not reach into the heart of difference between a living thing and an artifact which is that the living things strives to attain its own flourishing while the artifact does not. The materialists, seeking to deny the obvious, take recourse to the complexity argument.

You take recourse to the complexity again to explain the essential mind-body unity. That again, this explains nothing. Complexity to the nth degree could not yield even in principle, either the organic life or mind-body unity, leaving aside the fact that nobody has been able to put forward a working model of how complexity alone could generate life and consciousness.

Lydia McGrew said...

The difference between a living thing and an artifact is not the real challenge to a materialist. The real challenge is explaining how the living thing got there in materialistic terms. For that purpose, the immense and highly specific complexity of the living thing is a huge problem for the materialist, since it vastly lowers the probability that the living thing got here by non-intelligent processes and makes a deliberate and intelligent process a better explanation.

I never said that complexity can _generate_ consciousness. I don't think it does. I think there are psycho-physical laws that cause a mind to be conscious in a being that is naturally conscious when particular aspects of the body are developed and working. But it doesn't follow that consciousness supervenes on complexity or is a result of physical complexity in and of itself. So the materialist cannot explain either how the physical complexity got here in non-conscious entities (e.g., plants) nor either the physical complexity nor the consciousness of conscious entities. He has a whole world of problems!

My assertion of the complexity of mind-body interaction was a denial of an image of non-interactive or ghost-in-the-machine dualism. You may not _like_ it, but strongly interactive dualism does explain our own experience, experimental results, and also the _naturalness_ of the mind-body union in mankind in ways that other forms of dualism do not. In any event, Christian doctrine tells you that *in theory* it is possible for me to exist (though in a non-natural state) without my body, since that is what Christianity teaches is the state of both the blessed and the damned between death and the resurrection. It is really they who exist, but without their bodies. So be careful what you wish for in terms of what you keep calling "essential" mind-body unity, or you'll end up a heretic. On this point, that is always a problem the dogmatic hylemorphist faces. Jesus Christ himself existed without his body between the crucifixion and Easter morning, and it doesn't seem to have stopped him from harrowing hell.

I'm still happy to use a phrase like "essential" to describe mind-body unity, but it cannot be _logically_ essential. It must rather refer to something like "the intention of God as to what the human creature is supposed to be like" and or "intimate connection" or something like that. All that I'm happy to agree with.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

The question of what a living thing IS and how it differs from artifacts is prior to the question of origin of the living things. And in this question, you appear to be agreeing with the materialist that complexity is what distinguishes living things from artifacts.

Whereas, the Aristotelean say that the mark of living things is that they display self-perfective causation. May I ask why you reject this definition?

Lydia McGrew said...

There's nothing wrong with the phrase "self-perfective causation" per se, but it gives us no idea of why or how living things demonstrate it. Modern biochemistry has given us lots of information, though of course not omniscience, on that subject. And we see, again and again, that the underlying explanation is one of structure and perfectly timed and interlocking interaction of structures. A living thing engages in cellular reproduction, replacing cells that have died, not by some black-box process about which we can say nothing more than that it is "self-perfective causation," but rather by a detailed and enormously complex interaction of proteins and other underlying structures. And the same for digestion, reproduction of the organism as a whole, etc.

We don't find rocks doing that. To be sure. That's because the rocks don't have the proteins, cell membranes, etc., etc., ad infinitum. They are different kinds of things. But a rock is a different kind of thing from an amoeba _not_ because an amoeba has an invisible soul but because a rock is physically a different kind of thing. We can see this by looking, by studying amoebae and rocks. That's *why* the amoeba demonstrates "self-perfective causation" and the rock doesn't.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

So, in your view living things differ from nonliving things in merely having a certain kind of complexity i.e possessing complex networks of complex molecules. They do not possess an overall unity ("the form") that makes a living thing living.

Logically, your view entails a complete reduction of biology to chemistry. So, I take it that you do not share Talbott's view that the biochemistry of the living things can only be understood from the perspective of the living thing as a whole.

There is also a revelant fact that a complete reduction of chemistry, even inorganic chemistry of simple molecules such as water molecule, to physics has not been accomplished. To this can be added that even the fundamental physics is believed to depend on consciousness of the observer in a holistic manner.

So, the idea that living things can be understood purely as complex matter, this idea does not appear to be tenable.

Lydia McGrew said...

" They do not possess an overall unity ("the form") that makes a living thing living." I think we could say that a highly complex computer possesses a "form" and an overall unity. For example, its software is set up to download new updates to "patch" problems in its security systems or to make it work more smoothly. Its fan runs to cool the motor so it doesn't overheat. Its virus scanning software repeatedly, sometimes multiple times per day, updates itself, guards against invaders, and is timed to scan the entire system periodically. It is ordered to its own preservation. It does that because that "intention," that "trying" to take care of itself, that ordering, has been programmed into its software. An amoeba is much the same.

Notice, again, that I am leaving aside the question of animals with _genuine_ consciousness. A dog tries to get food in a different sense from the sense in which a plant tries to get to the sun. We infer (rightly, I think) that the dog has something akin to our experience of hunger, desire, seeking, etc., in a literal sense. Whereas the sense in which heliotropism represents the plant's "trying" to get to the sun is a metaphor. No one sensible actually believes that the plant feels a desire for the sun and seeks it in the same literal sense that a dog (or for that matter a human) feels a desire for food and seeks it. When I am making the computer analogy, I am not intending that to "cover" the dog's seeking for food. I am talking about living things qua living things, which is meant to apply to living things as simple as single-celled organisms, plants, and other creatures that no one sensible believes _really and literally_ have conscious states in which they are seeking particular ends.

That being made absolutely clear, I think part of the problem with the talk of "forms" with reference to living things is that, in the attempt to make a hard and fast distinction between them and *any possible* non-living thing, such talk simply does not admit the obvious fact that *we already know of* non-living things that have a pattern, a form, built into them that guides their activities. That's precisely why we talk about software, functions, etc. It's impossible really to _understand_ a computer without talking about teleology and function, and many of those teleological functions (though not all) relate to the entity as a whole.

This relates to your statements about reduction and the need to understand the biochemistry of living things from the perspective of living things as a whole. In any meaningful sense of "understand," I think Talbott is right about that. But that is _also_ true of entities that we know are non-living that have been constructed for purposes, functions, and to preserve and care for themselves.

Lydia McGrew said...

For that matter, even many non-living artifacts that are less complex and hence not capable of "seeking" their own flourishing are poorly understood, or not understood at all, if we try to describe them below the level of the relation of the parts to wholes. A bicycle is a good example. One does not understand the wheels if one doesn't understand that their function is to move the bike forward and that they perform this function by way of going around on the axles. And one doesn't understand the axles well except with relation to this overall function of the bike and the role played by the wheels in that function.

Lydia McGrew said...

This is what I wrote on Facebook today, together with the link below. I realize that the tone is more grouchy than I have allowed myself heretofore in this thread, but the fact is that living things are *chock-full* of structures that simply _are_ molecular machines, and anyone who tries to challenge that on a priori philosophical grounds is closing himself to straightforward evidence. Who are you going to believe, your particular version of Aristotelian metaphysics or your lyin' eyes? (And as I say below, I think Aristotle was more scientific than many of his modern followers.)

I am to the point where I quite frankly become annoyed with people so committed to an ideological philosophy (such as some form of Aristotelianism) that they harrumph and think _they_ are in a position to challenge _me_ or advocates of intelligent design when we use machine language concerning living things. Look at this type of thing! I'm sorry, folks, but this just _is_ a machine. That isn't even just a metaphor or an analogy.There are micro-machines in living things. They work like machines. They act like machines. They don't need anyone telling them what to do. They are robotic. They are built. No amount of mystery and muddle can suppress it. If this is what you _mean_ by saying things like, "Living things perfect themselves" or what-not, then fine and dandy. But guess what? That's because of structure. That's not a black box. It's explicable in machine terms! And that makes some philosophers unhappy. Too bad, folks. Man up and accept empirical evidence, for once. Aristotle himself would have been thrilled to learn what the "form" and "soul" of bacteria really meant when you got down underneath.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

There are micro-machines in living things but is a living thing itself a machine?
Living things seek their own good. And machines do not.

Lydia McGrew said...

Certainly. It is entirely possible for there to be micro-machines inside other machines! This happens all the time. It is also possible for there to be micro-machines inside other things that are partly machines and partly not. For example, your heart runs on its own, but you _decide_ whether or not to go jogging, which will alter your heart rate. But if you go jogging, your heart will cope with it by automatic programming without your having to "tell" it what to do. At the level of a microbe, there is no reason to believe that the microbe has any consciousness whatsoever, so the more we find out, the more it seems highly probable that what we have are structured _levels_ of interaction all the way up to the entire organism, which operates on its own . This, again, is what it looks like the biological world _is like_. Moreover, we also get a glimpse of it in our own world of artifacts when we have computers that _do_ seek their own good. You can keep foot-stomping about it, but that is pretty much an example of the unscientific attitude of unfalsifiability and closed-mindedness. Which is funny, because you seem to like Popper.

Bedarz Iliaci said...

"computers that _do_ seek their own good"
What is the good of a computer?

Bedarz Iliaci said...

A concise statement of the traditional understanding of what an organism is (from the Ryan Anderson site today)
"If we think of organisms as complex machines, then they are nothing more than arrangements of distinct parts. That is, the order among the parts of a machine is a kind of extrinsic order, imposed by an outside force. By contrast, a living organism is a unified whole that is the subject of its own existence and actions. The parts of an organism are produced as the organism grows and develops, and their functions are determined by the organism as a whole, that is, from within. Organisms maintain themselves in existence through processes such as metabolism, respiration, and self-movement. There is an intrinsic principle of unity by which an organism exists and acts as a unified whole."

I wonder how much would you agree with it?

Lydia McGrew said...

What is the good of an amoeba? The good of an amoeba in the terms we are discussing includes such physical processes as development as its own continued existence and function. The same for a computer. That is why virus scanning software is called what it is called, and why viruss are called what they are called. They attempt to stop the computer from being able to run its programs.

I think I've made clear what I would agree with and disagree with in the statement you quote. I think it underestimates the possibilities for artifacts. I have discussed repeatedly in the above comments the fact that artifacts themselves have overall principles of unity, that, when programmed with sufficient complexity, they can repair themselves, develop, etc., and moreover that in living things (setting aside literal consciousness) the very fact that these abilities come "from within" is a result of the delicate interaction of structures. It is not a black box. The "intrinsic principle of unity" is not something ineffable anymore than it is in a computer. It is a result of the way that teleology has been baked into the physical nature of the entity.

You seem to be merely repeating yourself, thus leading me to have to repeat myself. That's getting a little tedious.