Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe by several folks from The Wetherfield Institute, which Mom mailed and asked me to read.

.. In which extent i've failed; i haven't actually read it, but i've read most of it.
It's been a couple months since i stopped reading, having either gotten the main idea or having had my fill. This was a difficult book for me to read because obviously i'm heavily predisposed against the theses involved, but read it anyhow. (see "Winter's Tale" below) During the reading, i was inflamed w/ the spirit of scientific rhetoric and made numerous, copious, and i now realize often illegible notes in the margins, which amounted to plans for troop movements or quarterback hand-offs or what have you in the battle against the book. I debated the merits of enacting these maneuvers in this "Orion Reads" blog versus establishing a new forum along the lines of "Orion Rebuts". Fortunately, time healed all passions, and a simple review is what remains.

But let's get this out of the way:
obviously the origin of life is a deep and wonderful mystery which will probably and possibly properly never be divorced from mysticism. Noone's arguing that good old life is nothing short of entirely stunningly beautiful.

let's get this out of the way too:
arguments against intelligent design often beg the answer.
it's so, and trivially defeated:
consider a world which is in fact influenced by intelligent design.
posit for example a rat-maze.
if some of the rats were to argue that the maze is not just a random series of walls cast up by cage-techtonics but is actually an intentionally manufactured environment just right for the stimulation of rat-kind,

Science and Evidence presents several shortcomings in current scientific understanding. They're valid shortcomings. But excepting Michaell Behe these guys are arguing that minor fluctuations in the noise of scientific results justify major ontological positions.

Wethersfield Institute Statement of Purpose

The purpose of the Wethersfield Institute is to promote a clear understanding of Catholic teaching and practice and to explore the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic Faith. The Institute does so in practical ways that include seminars, colloquies and conferences especially as they pursue our goals on a scientific and scholarly level. The Institute publishes its proceedings.
It is also interested in projects that advance those subjects. The Institute usually sponsors them directly, but also joins with accredited agencies that share our interests.

The book contains three mostly-concerted essays which begin with William Dembski's essay on his amazing method of detecting whether or not a given set of data contains evidence of design, then on to Stephen Meyer's essay about how our particular biology and physics are way too complex to have ever happened by chance, and finally on to the much more interesting essay by Michael Behe regarding the resistance to intelligent design which seems to be endemic to the established scientific community.

1. William Dembski's paper, "The Third Mode of Explanation" is largely discountable. Dembski claims that he has a method for detecting evidence of intelligent design in any given dataset. Any undergraduate information theorist will tell you that this is trivially disprovable. (eg consider comparing a stream of genuinely random data against an optimally encrypted or compressed stream of "intelligent" data. Proofs which equate these situations are legion.)
Furthermore Dembski does not in fact present the core of his amazing intelligence detector, he instead refers the reader to a separate paper.
Furthermore he challenges what he claims to be a pillar of the "evolutionary complex" school of computer algorithms, an example by Richard Dawkins in which a sequence of random letters "evolves" into a target sequence of ordered letters. But this is an incredibly poor example of simulating evolution. It's more like an exemplar of simulating intelligent design. Frankly, i could program a much more meaningful simulation of evolutionary complexity in about a day and a half. So Dembski's criticisms here are valid, but he certainly stoops to conquer.

2. Stephen Meyer's "Evidence for Design in Physics and Biology" is way more grounded than Dembski's stuff. It's essentially a presentation of several failings in the currently popular scientific theories of the origin of the universe and life on earth. While Stephen has definitely sone his homework and presented it pretty well, in the not-actually-that-big-picture it's pretty inconsequential. He addresses significant problems within physics and biology which have been revealed in the last ten or twenty years. His constant argument is that you can have a system which is, and i quote, quote quote, "irreducably complex".
- by which he means, for example, the flagellum of a sperm. apparently there are about twenty moving parts which make up the flagellum, and if any one of the twenty were to go away, the remaining nineteen would be not only lonely but entirely useless. So the obvious question is: how could evolution produce twenty mutually-dependent parts ? Surely there had to be a first part, then a second part, etc, etc. Which is a deeply valid question. .. but he's trying to prove a negative: that it's impossible for it to have evolved without help. Does he really think that in forty years the evolution of a flagellum by natural means will seem as inconceivable ?

3. I have to go to sleep.

[two months pass]

Essay Three was by far the most interesting and valid of the set. The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design, again by Stephen Meyer basically explored biases against intelligent design within the scientific community and science itself. I've got about a foot of books to blab about here, so i'm going to cut it rather short.
Basically Stephen has some valid points here. It's true that the vast majority of mainstream science rejects theories involving intelligent design a piori, which practice is clearly not itself scientific. Posit, for example, a petri dish of scientists which *was* in fact created by intelligent makers. Obviously they're making a mistake if they refuse to admit the possibility. So we've got that out of the way: you have to admit the possibility of intelligent design, or else you're putting on blinders.
However, it should be taken up only as an explanation of absolute last resort. Historically, all scientific appeals to a Creator have only held up for a handful of years. This is the well-known God of the Gaps, in which any aspect of nature not [yet] accounted for by science (a gap) is attributed to a creator. However, the gaps keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller, shrinking from everything millennia ago to, now, apparently flagella. I'm still keeping my money on science.

.. And that's all i've got on this.