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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Just up at The Mindful Hack

New Scientist hit piece an "unusually atrocious" article?

New Scientist: From the "Just connect the dots, and ... " files

Lighter Moment: Why Richard Dawkins's anti-God bus ad campaign would tank in Australia

The Mindful Hack is my blog on issues in neuroscience and spirituality.

Straws in the wind: Atheists and agnostics support constructive debate on design

Here's a debate that illustrates the real intelligent design controversy - if anyone wants to know:

Distinguished scientist and professor James M. Tour (pictured) will moderate a debate next month in Texas about intelligent design and evolution featuring four prominent scientists and philosophers. What's interesting is that defending intelligent design are an agnostic who is skeptical of ID and an atheist philosopher. That would be Dr. David Berlinski and Dr. Bradley Monton, respectively. Defending evolution will be British theologian Denis Alexander and well-known physicist Lawrence Krauss.
Here's the lineup on line for the debate(s), which took place last night and today. TLast night's debate will be made available in DVD and MP-3.

Also, here's a podcast with Monton, who is attempting to "elevate the debate." I assume that means getting it out of the hands of people like fellow atheist PZ Myers, who is well represented by this exchange with an interviewer:

In a related matter, how come when I enter the search term "demented f*ckwit" into Pharyngula I get about a zillion hits?

Somebody's got to be in charge with slapping around the demented f*ckwits. The position has devolved on me.
To the extent that most people can distinguish between an argument and a knuckle sandwich, Monton has everything to gain by advancing an intelligent discussion.

A similar debate took place in England this fall, between agnostic sociologist Steve Fuller, for design in the universe as a legitimate perspective and Christina scientist Denis Alexander against it.

The big change is that the debate is increasingly around a reasonable interpretation of the evidence from nature, not the conspiracy theories of an entrenched Darwin lobby whose materialist - or anti-realist Christian - view of life is being dramatically disconfirmed. Increasingly, their Darwinism is a mantra, invoked against the evidence.

Anti-realist Christian? Well, the Faraday Institute's Denis Alexander, standard bearer for "anti-ID" Christian academics, would certainly qualify. He says, "We live in a universe created and sustained by God which displays design, but design is not particularly located in those aspects of the created order that science currently understands." In other words, we must accept on pure faith that the universe is designed because it doesn't look that way.

The trouble is, it does look that way, which is why Alexander's brand of "theistic evolution" is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Krauss's materialist position may be defensible, but Alexander's position is simply a relic of the days when Christians in science thought that the tide of evidence was running against them, and wanted to move the discussion to sheer existential "faith" - which, for what it is worth, was a brand new definition of faith, not known to the historic Christian tradition, which insisted that belief in God is a matter of reason. A friend comments,

As ever Phil Johnson puts it so perfectly succinctly when he asks “How can God guide an unguided process?” Simon Conway Morris is talking about convergent evolution – that is, the randomness of RM+NS = Teleology. There are too many of these folks who don’t understand basic geometry: Circles can’t be squared.
Well, they don't understand geometry, but they have faith.

Here are the preface and launch questions for the Dallas-Fort Worth debate:

1 Intelligent Design has been defined differently by different people. But one definition which has the advantage of simplicity and non-circularity is this one -- The study of patterns in nature best explained by a goal-directed cause capable of adapting means to achieve ends.

2 The Issue -- Preface: Recent advances in scientific knowledge concerning the physical properties of the universe have shown the remarkably precise requirements requisite for a universe in which carbon-based life might exist. It has oftentimes been stated that the universe almost looks fine-tuned for habitability. Similar advances in our understanding of the nature of life within the universe have shown many biological systems existing and functioning in such delicate and precise patterns of interdependence which appear to reflect evidence of information and intelligent design.

Question: Is it necessary or even helpful for the scientific method to assume the absence of a designer in a universe manifesting such features? Or might it be helpful toward an accurate understanding of the universe and life within it to examine certain of its features in light of the possibility of intelligent design and empirically detectable evidences of the same?
Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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Intelligent design and high culture: A thoughtful engineering prof skewers the big mantra - "Natural selection does it all"

A friend alerts me to this interesting article, "Does Nature Suggest Transcendence?", by Neil D. Broom in The Global Spiral (a Metanexus publication). Broom is Professor of Materials Science at the University of Auckland New Zealand.

My friend describes the article as "broadly pro-ID" - and I would be inclined to agree, except that I would not want Broom to be assailed by a horde of ass hats demanding that he recant. It's the sort of article you must read to get the benefit of his careful thought, especially because it is adorned by well-chosen photographs and drawings:
... can natural selection be so easily dismissed as a wholly material, unconscious, purposeless process? I think it is fair to say that at one popular level the expression natural selection serves as a kind of mantra, an almost magical utterance that quickly allays any doubts a skeptic might entertain. It is uttered with power and authority when any kind of biological achievement required to be explained, and in the currency of a wholly material world. My argument is that the claim that natural selection explains the extraordinary (read life processes) while drawing only on the ordinary (read material processes), is not only bad science, it is also contradicted by the very narrative the materialist seems compelled to employ to present his or her story of life.
Referencing British biologist's comparison of natural selection to engineers in a soap factory, he writes,

Now Steve Jones should, of all people, know better than to use such a misleading illustration. The trial and error or hit and miss type of process which he claims is analogous to natural selection is actually loaded with intentionality, or to be exact, intelligent scrutiny. Firstly, a better nozzle is being sought. So, a nozzle, said to have been modified at random, is tried and found to do a better or worse job than another. And who decides whether it is an improvement or not? A rather discerning “nozzle operator,” one skilled in the art of recognising whether the change is for better or for worse, one who is able to detect subtle degrees of improvement or deterioration.

Even the expression “trial and error” presupposes an expectation against which an altered performance can be judged. “Hit and miss” is all about a target that is being aimed for. The men on the Liverpool soap factory shop floor knew precisely what end result they wanted (a better performing nozzle) and this surely robs Steve Jones of his convenient metaphor for natural selection. The words “design without a designer” are little more than misleading sloganeering and what he presents to his readers is more a piece of materialistic fiction. Natural selection, even if simplistically illustrated with the soap powder analogy, is a truly intentional process.

But why should Jones "of all people" know better? Steve Jones was the biologist who insisted that, in the dramatic sequence in March of the Penguins where the male penguins are moving slowly in and out of a vast spiral - each taking a turn with his egg in the warmer centre, the penguins are really competing.

A group of penguins standing upright looks like co-operation, but in fact the ones on the outside are struggling to get in and those on the inside are trying to stand their ground: it’s a classic Darwinian struggle.
(The male penguins, left alone with the eggs in a harsh climate while the females return to the ocean to feed, spiral in and out of their “turtle” formation, in a slow and orderly way, taking their fair turn in the warm center of the huddle.)

In fact, there is no struggle, and if there were, the eggs would be the first casualties. The explorers' own account of the scene is:

The males can be aggressive the rest of the year. But they are docile and cooperative now, united to protect the eggs and survive the cold. Each takes turns getting warm by spending time near the center of the turtle. The huddled mass coils around itself in an undulating spiral. The penguins on the outside move in toward the center, the ones on the inside go outward. And this rotation happens very gently in order to safeguard the eggs. (March of the Penguins, p. 75)
Jones is merely repeating his "mantra" about natural selection when he insists that there is a struggle.

About Dawkins's claims that he can simulate evolution on a computer, Broom writes,

... there are glaring conceptual flaws in Dawkins’ whole analogy. Firstly, he has committed a fatal error by mixing his metaphors. In effect he confuses systems that achieve with objects that simply are. What he produces is a series of computer-generated objects, in essence, digital doodles that certainly go through an interesting sequence of transformations resulting from the accumulation of small random alterations in the values of his shape-determining instructional ‘genes’. But they are nothing more than objects and can never be used to explain, in even the simplest analogous sense, how any living system might have arisen.

Dawkins appears to be exploiting the fact that his computer model generates shapes that crudely resemble all manner of objects, both living and non-living, and he even calls them by a name designed, I suspect, to evoke in the reader’s mind a living connotation - biomorphs. An unsuspecting reader might then imagine a plausible connection between these computer-generated pictures and the real thing. But in reality Dawkins' program produces pictorial representations of anything and everything, living and non-living - a great variety of recognisable shapes or ‘digital doodles’, Lego-like biosymbolic fantasy objects, crude and simplistic symbols of reality, but little more.

His computer program is a fantasy-generating machine - of a digital kind!
A computer fantasy in support of a mantra - how bo-bo (= bohemian bourgeois)! Anyway, enjoy Broom's essay.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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