Friday, May 01, 2009

Statistics & Biogenesis

Today, critics compel me to compose a long and dull commentary on probability and biogenesis, which will nevertheless be terrifyingly important to some people. The rest of you can skip all the way down to the last section marked "conclusion" and just read that. Everyone else, bear with me. In Sense and Goodness without God I briefly summarized the conclusion and justification for a naturalist theory of the origin of life (on pp. 166-68). Among the points I make is this:


"All the planets around all the billions of stars in all the billions of galaxies are organized at random with practically infinite variation, and because there are so many, the law of big numbers prevails: every possible planet that could be (given the universe and its physical laws) probably has been, is, or will be. Thus, that one or more planets should have all the right properties for biogenesis is probably a foregone conclusion, and our planet is known to be one of those rare few. Though we have none of the information we need to calculate any of the relevant statistics, this is still a reasonable conclusion, for two reasons."
...which two reasons I then go on to summarize, followed by a bibliography for further reading and confirmation of that summary, which includes Richard Carrier, "The Argument from Biogenesis: Probabilities Against a Natural Origin of Life" in Biology & Philosophy (19.5, November 2004, pp. 739-64). I have discussed these issues before, most notably in my debate with Wanchick (see Atheistic Cosmological Argument, and then search for my sections on the CDA here and here and on the ACA here) and in my past blog entry on Yockey. In the latter I discussed the role of probability thresholds in determining when an improbable event is too improbable to be considered a chance event. I also discussed this in my article for Biology & Philosophy, where I demonstrate why we can't ascertain the relevant statistics, but that we can ascertain some of their limits, and as it happens, they correspond to my argument in Sense & Goodness.

An Irrational Complaint

In his negative (and arguably delusional) review of my book on Amazon.com, Christian apologist David Marshall claims the argument I summarized in Sense & Goodness is without logical and scientific foundation. Of course, he failed to mention that I cited numerous books and articles by scientists and others in support of my conclusions and that I specifically directed my readers to these works in the bibliography. Instead, he claims my "discussion of biogenesis is terribly glib" (glib here being in As*hole Dialect a synonym for "brief"), and then claims I "[don't] seem to notice, let alone deal with any of the real problems in this field," even though that is exactly what the bibliography does.

Among other things, Marshall complains that, taken hyper-literally, I can't mean what I say, since (for example) extremely bizarre planets (like, oh, let's say, gigantic mushy balls of spontaneously-formed bunny rabbits) surely are too improbable to have occurred even once in the known expanse of space and time (though he didn't put it that way--he's not particularly funny). But then, anyone who takes words in a book hyper-literally is probably a fundamentalist. The rest of us act like normal people. Of course, literally I wrote that every possible planet (on known physics) probably has been, is, or will be, and if the universe continues forever, and that disturbing bunny-planet is physically possible, it will indeed exist eventually. But obviously, from context, that isn't what I was talking about. I was only referring to the possibility of biophilic planets, i.e planets capable of harboring the origin and evolution of life.

I'll certainly grant that literally every possible planet has not yet been realized (e.g. every possible pattern of alternating red and yellow striations as viewed from space), but every possible general configuration probably has (e.g. a planet almost certainly exists with some pattern of alternating red and yellow striations), and I say "probably" here because some extremely bizarre general configurations will not be realized. But we don't generally care about them. Because as the scientists I cite explain, a planet being biophilic corresponds to a likely general configuration, one that has almost certainly been realized many times in the known universe (for many reasons, some of which I summarized). As I go on to argue in the book, this conclusion is supported by considerable evidence in many ways, most especially by the fact that nothing required for biogenesis is observably uncommon (p. 167), so we needn't even consider the probability of the extremely bizarre (like planets made of clumps of spontaneously-formed animals).

Nevertheless, Marshall also claimed my use of "The Law of Big Numbers" is just a "pseudo-scientific phrase," thereby proving his ignorance of the basic math. For this is a formally proven concept in statistical theory, taught in every introductory college course in statistics (e.g. see the textbook discussion of The Law of Large Numbers by professor of statistics Philip Stark at UC Berkeley). According to this law, as the number of occasions increases, the probability of an event approaches 100% (if it has any probability of occurring at all). It's just a matter of time--or, more exactly, of the number of opportunities, which are spread not just across time, but space as well.

In the case of biogenesis, this law entails that if the probability of biogenesis is (let's say) 1 in 10^40, but there are 1 in 10^50 trials, then the number of biogenesis events will almost certainly not be zero. In fact it will approach 10^10, or ten billion biogenesis events, scattered across the universe. But even if there are just 1 in 10^50 events (not just of mixing organic molecules, but everything else), the Law of Large Numbers still entails we should expect that ten billion or so events (give or take) will occur in this universe which have a probability of 1 in 10^40. Since one of those events could as easily be the origin of life as anything else, if life has a 1 in 10^40 probability of originating by natural accident, then we cannot conclude (at least from observing a single instance of it) that life didn't so arise. That's what I argue in Sense & Goodness (i.e. that the natural probability of biogenesis is small, but the number of events, and even trials, in this universe has been vast). The Law of Large Numbers does indeed entail my conclusion from the premises, and the works I cite establish the premises.

Marshall nevertheless says I don't deal with the "real" problems in biogenesis, yet I refer readers to where I did (my article in Biology & Philosophy) and where others have (naming several books by experts on the subject). My own article on biogenesis is 26 pages long. My section on the subject in Sense & Goodness is 2 pages long. So in effect, Marshall irrationally wants a me to expand every section of my book 13-times-over, merely because he wants every little item discussed. Such a demand is quite irrational. Satisfying it would make the book an unbuyable (and unreadable) 5,700 pages long! Instead of attempting something so absurd, as I explain in the introduction of Sense & Goodness (p. 5), all my claims are backed up by the works cited in the bibliographies. Therefore, if you want to know how we deal with the problem of obscure issues like homochirality, you need to consult the bibliography. Had Marshall done so, as my book explicitly instructed him to do, then he would have known I have an entire section on homochirality in my cited article, supporting the generalizations in the book (the topic is also discussed by some of the other authors I cite). And so, too, for anything else of importance.


Dembski's Filter

Though I and others pointed out much else that was wrong with Marshall's remarks (on this and other subjects) in comments on Amazon responding to Marshall's review (producing a long and boring thread that must surely rival in size most you are likely to find on Amazon, and that eventually became pointless as he continued ignoring or misrepresenting almost anything we said), there is one issue worth further elucidation, since it is often not understood. And that's the difference between trials and events, and how and why cosmic probability thresholds pertain to both.

One of the most useful books in this regard, you may be surprised to hear, is by the notorious creationist William Dembski. In fact, I highly recommend his book No Free Lunch. In it he discusses the issues of probability and information theory that pertain to ascertaining when an event is too improbable to be a coincidence, and thus must be either a product of physical necessity (like crystallization or planet formation) or intelligent design (like excavated coins or arrowheads). Contrary to what his many critics claim (though they raise many valid issues and concerns one should be aware of: e.g. see "Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates" by Richard Wein), Dembski is right about the logic of his argument, and is only wrong in two respects:


(1) First, in trusting the creationist biochemist Michael Behe, Dembski (also a creationist but only a mathematician) mistakenly concludes there have been mutation events in the history of evolution with a random increase in information content greater than 500 bits (which he rightly argues would be unbelievably improbable). But there is no confirmed evidence of this, no evolution expert believes any such event has occurred, and Behe has never published his demonstrations of irreducible complexity (supporting such a claim) in any peer reviewed journal and has never conducted any experiments or laboratory research necessary for such a demonstration to be scientific.

Dembski fully agrees that increases in information of less than 500 bits can and often do arise by chance, and that in fact this happens routinely in evolution, and if that's all there has been, he would agree evolution by natural selection is sufficient to explain all life on earth. Similarly, I fully agree that if, instead, Behe is right (and there has been at least one spontaneous increase in specified information content greater than 500 bits in the development of any genome), then Dembski is right, and some degree of intelligent engineering of single-celled life billions of years ago would be the best explanation of observed phenomena. But until Behe (or anyone) actually scientifically confirms such an observation, this is merely a hypothetical. Indeed, it's worse than that, really, since scientists have shown the evidence is very unlikely to favor Behe, even if he ever does do any actual scientific research on the matter (e.g. see "Irreducible Complexity and Michael Behe"). Either way, without this evidence, Dembski's argument cannot reach his desired conclusion, no matter how correct his method.


(2) Second, in focusing exclusively on the role of a probability filter, Dembski underplays the fact that Intelligent Design is usually identified by much more direct means, which curiously fail to confirm ID in the very case in question (the origin and evolution of life). For example, if I receive a brief email from my wife asking me to buy some eggs, the probability that such an email could have been typed and sent at random (such as by her cellphone accidentally being switched on in her purse and its buttons being pushed by jostling against her lipstick and ladysmith revolver) might be nowhere near any probability threshold at all--it could be well within the realm of cosmic probability or even earthly probability (indeed, I'm sure some such random event has happened at least once, somewhere at some time, to someone on earth)--yet I still don't conclude this message from her is an accident.

Though I fully believe such a random event could happen (and my only folly in trusting it in such a case would be buying some eggs we didn't need, a tragedy my wife and I would have no problem rectifying by baking some cookies and cake), I base my conclusion that she intelligently composed and sent the message instead not on the improbability of it being sent otherwise, but on my past observations of my wife's interests and behaviors. From considerable direct evidence I know she exists and how she communicates with me and that we often do need eggs and she often asks me to buy things we need. I have ample confirmed evidence that sending intelligently designed messages to me is exactly the sort of thing she does. I also have ample confirmed evidence that most such electronic text messages (in fact, in my own experience, all of them sent to me so far, numbering easily in the hundreds) turn out to have been intelligently designed and not randomly composed (a fact I have also confirmed by strong and abundant independent evidence).

Similarly, if we had the same evidence that God makes things, we wouldn't need to prove something was improbable to conclude he made it: if we knew for a fact he does things like that, and he told us outright what he did, we would be as justified in concluding he did it, as I am justified in concluding my wife sent me an emailed request for eggs. If, for example, the Bible had an accurate description of the genetic code for a bacterial flagellum and stated correctly that it was inserted into single-celled organisms two billion years ago, and God personally spoke to us still today, affirming what the Bible said, about this and many other things besides, especially things we then confirmed independently, then we would have very strong evidence for ID (see my more detailed example in Why I Am Not a Christian, particularly "Christianity Predicts a Different Universe," although the whole article pertains).

Of course, God in such a scenario could still be lying, but we could rule that unlikely the same way I rule unlikely the possibility that my wife is lying about her wanting eggs: all I would need is considerable past experience confirming my wife's general honesty in such matters (= considerable past experience confirming God's general honesty in such matters). And sure, we might still debate who "he" really is and how he does what he does. But once we'd ruled out lying and other causes of the data, there would be no question in such a case that life was probably at least partially engineered by someone remarkable, no matter how he did it or who he really was.

But I must still take issue against Dembski's critics here: his error lies not in adopting the wrong method or ignoring other methods, it lies in not recognizing the fact that his opponents are also correctly applying the same method, just without the math. For what makes the conclusion about my wife's email valid is the improbability of the whole conjunction of affairs (e.g. all the evidence I have of my wife's interests, powers, and behaviors, and of all the past correspondences between text messages sent to me and independent evidence confirming they were not randomly composed = all the evidence we could have had of God's interests, powers, and behaviors, and of all the past correspondences between divine messages sent to us and independent evidence confirming they were not likely hallucinatory, etc.). We conclude such a collection of evidence cannot exist by chance accident (it's too improbable), therefore we conclude it is all meaningful data that indicates just what we conclude it does (e.g. that my wife exists and has those interests, powers, and behaviors, and now wants me to buy eggs = that God exists and has those interests, powers, and behaviors, and once deliberately engineered the bacterial flagellum), and this is what warrants the conclusion that a particular event or message sent to us is not random noise but intentionally designed.

If we were to do the math, I am quite certain we would find the improbability of such a collection of background evidence arising by chance must be way beyond any probability threshold, thus confirming the merits of Dembski's probability filter. Provided we do indeed rule out both physical necessity (as Dembski agrees we must) and random chance (which is what the threshold is for), intelligent design does become the most likely explanation.And this is in fact how we actually infer intelligent design in the world, even though we are unaware of it. The trouble is, in the case of biogenesis, we don't have the vastly improbable set of background evidence that, for example, makes my wife's egg message unlikely to be random. There is simply no direct evidence at all of God's acting in or on the world (at least none comparable to what I have with respect to my wife doing so), much less of God's specifically splicing engineered strips of genetic code into bacteria, or deliberately assembling self-replicating proteins to jump-start life on earth.

In other words, all Dembski has is the mere improbability of random assembly. Thus, he must find all the improbability exceeding the threshold entirely in that singular event itself, whereas I do not have to do this in the case of my wife's message. For the improbability in that case is spread out over the total conjunction of the entire field of pertinent background evidence warranting the conclusion that this particular message was intentional. That's why that specific message need not be very improbable as a chance event (and indeed, it would only require the accidental production of barely 100 bits of information). Rather, it's the conjunction of its content, with all the other evidence warranting my interpretation of it, that's too improbable to regard as accidental (since the total specific information content of all of this is far and away more than 500 bits). But Dembski lacks that. Which is why he needs to find evidence of at least one instance of a spontaneous specified information gain of over 500 bits, somewhere in the history of genetic evolution (outside, of course, human genetic engineering). But as no one has actually found such a thing, his desired conclusion lacks scientific support.


Line of Argument

1. The Borel and Dembski Thresholds (1 in 10^50 and 1 in 10^150, respectively) indicate the least likely thing that can happen in the known universe purely by chance. This is explained by William Dembski in No Free Lunch and in my own work (as cited above).

2. That least likely chance event can be anything, literally anything (as Dembski himself correctly argues): a galaxy cluster accidentally arranged to spell out a section of the Hebrew alphabet, a rock formation on a distant planet exactly identical in topography to a recreational water park in San Dimas, a talentless child randomly striking piano keys and reproducing part of a Bach concerto purely by accident (which is an example similar to one Dembski himself uses), or (as Dembski also acknowledges) the accidental linking of amino acids in a self-replicating sequence, or any mutation producing a sequence that confers amazing biological advantages (like a complex organ)--all provided the probability of any of those things matches the threshold.

3. Therefore (as Dembski again correctly argues), if we witness such an event, and it is a singular event (i.e. we only see it once), then we cannot argue that it's too improbable to have happened by chance, because at least one such event will in fact happen by chance in the known universe, and the event we are witnessing may indeed be that one chance event.

4. Only if we saw several such events (producing a combined improbability so high it falls well above the threshold and therefore whose conjunction is not likely to happen anywhere in this universe purely by chance) or an event that all by itself is so improbable it exceeds the threshold, can we argue that intelligent design is the more likely explanation of why that event occurred (and then only if we can rule out physical necessity, as Dembski himself explains).

5. We have already discovered in the lab self-replicating peptides and proteins of such a low complexity that the probability of their accidental combination is far below these thresholds. And we have ample scientific reason to believe these are not the only such combinations possible or even close to being the only ones (and the more possibilities there are, the more likely an accidental production of a self-replicator becomes). For example, one such peptide has a probability of accidental combination of 1 in 10^41 (see Carrier 2004 for these and other scientific facts and references, also Carrier 2005, pp. 167-68). That means we can expect roughly a billion such accidents to occur in the known universe under the Borel threshold (since 10^50 - 10^41 = 10^9 = one billion), and roughly 10^109 such accidents under the Dembski threshold (that's a 1 followed by 109 zeroes--which is, by the way, a lot).

6. Therefore, even if forming that one replicator were the only possible way to get life started by accident (and the science proves it is not), we still cannot claim such an event wasn't one of the billion or more random accidents (of all sorts) that are already expected to occur by chance in this universe. For it could well be one of them, as Dembski agrees. He might argue the actual probability must be much lower than his threshold. But if it isn't, even Dembski concedes that in such a case we cannot argue to an event's Intelligent Design merely from its improbability. And he is right.

7. The scientific facts now prove the combination of attributes necessary to produce a biophilic planet is not highly complex, and certainly far less complex than even the simplest self-replicating peptide. This is demonstrated by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee in Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000), and others (see the bibliographies in Carrier 2004 and 2005).

8. Therefore, whatever the improbability of accidentally generating a biophilic planet in the known universe may be, science proves it must be much lower than the improbability of randomly assembling a self-replicating peptide or protein.

9. The improbability of randomly assembling a self-replicating peptide or protein is scientifically certain to be lower than 1 in 10^41 (as discussed under point 4 above), so a fortiori the improbability of accidentally generating a biophilic planet in the known universe is scientifically certain to be much lower than 1 in 10^41.

10. 1 in 10^41 is well below the Borel and Dembski thresholds.

11. Therefore, the probability that a universe, of the size and age we observe this universe to be, would produce a biophilic planet by accident (without any intelligent design), is well below the Borel and Dembski thresholds, as is the probability that such a universe would then produce a self-replicating peptide or protein by accident (without any intelligent design).

12. Whatever is below the Borel and Dembski thresholds cannot be attributed to Intelligent Design based solely on its improbability.

13. Other than its improbability, there is nothing else about the origin of life that is indicative of Intelligent Design.


14. Therefore, the origin of life affords no evidence of Intelligent Design.

Q.E.D.


Working It Out

We have two different statistical considerations here: the probability of getting life given a certain number of trials, and the probability of getting life in this universe regardless of the number of trials. In the first case, if we randomly combine amino acids into 10^50 combinations of sufficient length, then the Law of Large Numbers entails the probability will be virtually 100% that one of them will be the self-replicating string that has a probability of 1 in 10^41. In such a condition, the appearance of self-replicators is inevitable on Naturalism. It effectively has a final probability of 100%. Scientific evidence suggests we are actually in that situation, and Ward & Brownlee argue that we are. But in the second case, we could have only one random combination of amino acids of sufficient length, occurring only one single time in the whole age and expanse of the universe, and still we cannot infer design, even if that one single instance is the self-replicating string that has a probability of 1 in 10^41.

This is because even though that latter result would be remarkably lucky (though only from our subjective point of view), at least a billion events exactly that improbable will already inevitably happen in this universe, so we cannot be surprised to have found one of them. For the final probability that such an improbable event will occur in the known universe is virtually 100%. That doesn't mean the probability that this universe would produce life is 100%. That probability (in this completely artificial "one single chain of amino acids formed in the whole universe" scenario) remains 1 in 10^41. It's just that so many things happen in this universe, that some event of that unlikelihood is guaranteed to happen. In other words, whatever the probability of biogenesis is, it will be the same exact probability as a billion other things that will in fact inevitably happen without intelligent design, and since none of them will have been intelligently designed, we cannot infer merely from this event being one of them that it, unlike them, was intelligently designed.

But as I explain in Sense & Goodness, we are definitely not in this artificial "one single chain of amino acids formed in the whole universe" scenario. Nor are we in a universe where biophilic planets are rare. To the contrary, as Ward & Brownlee explain, we are in a "buttload of amino-acid chains formed in the whole universe" scenario, and though ideal planets may be rare (arguably no more common than one per dozen galaxies), biophilic ones are not. We observe this universe contains at least a hundred billion galaxies (10^11), and there are certainly a great many more than that, we just can't see them because they are beyond our horizon. Each galaxy contains on average a hundred billion stars (10^11), which harbor altogether many more planets and moons of significant size.

Of course many stars have no planets or moons, but those that do will usually have a great many of them (due to the nature of how they form). Our star alone has over fifteen of them (at least eight planets and seven moons with planetoidal mass). And as Ward & Brownlee explain, seven of those were biophilic at one point or another in our star's history (three currently are: Earth, Ganymede, and Titan; two possibly are: Europa and Callisto; and two once were: Mars and Venus). Titan, especially, looks remarkably like Earth (a recent photograph is shown to the right), though it's habitable zones would still be subterranean. Earth, meanwhile, would probably look a lot more like Mars or Venus had life not taken hold and begun altering and regulating its atmosphere. If our solar system is not unusual in having over a dozen planets and moons in a variety of configurations (and there is no reason to believe it is), then on average there is likely to be at least one biophilic planet or moon for every star (which does not mean one in every planetary system, as many will have none, but some, like ours, will have many).

So 10^11 galaxies x 10^11 biophilic planets and moons = 10^22 biophilic planets and moons. Currently. But stars form in the known universe at a rate of 10^12 per year and live an average of ten billion years, so there have actually been a great many more biophilic planets in the known history of this universe (which spans over 13 billion years so far), and there will be a great many more as time goes on. So our count remains conservative. The more relevant time scale is the planetary period of opportunity.
The window for life to originate and take control of a planet is at least half a billion years (since the substantial changes in conditions needed to close that window take at least that long to develop).

On any given biophilic planet or moon there will be at least a million cubic kilometers of region suitable for biogenesis (10^6). The earth's oceans alone exceed a billion cubic kilometers and don't even exhaust all possible venues for life. Even a planet or moon with only a 1500 km radius (the smallest we should count) will have 9 million viable cubic kilometers if only a single kilometer of depth is considered across or near its surface. In reality, the viable regions would be scattered about at different depths and locations (individual pools of sludge or sheets of chemically reactive clay or undersea volcanic vents, etc.), but the total volume will be at least 10^6 km^3 for any given planet or moon we consider, most of which will be far larger than 1500 km in radius (the earth alone is four times that).

The number of amino-acid chains of sufficient length that must randomly form per cubic kilometer (of every viable area in the universe) every year in the available window, for the near certainty that a polymer with a probability of 1 in 10^41 would form somewhere in the universe by now, is only 100,000 (10^5), per the equation completed below, using all the estimates above, which we know are all far below what they must in fact be. That's just one random chain forming every ten thousand cubic meters in a whole year (since a cubic kilometer is a billion cubic meters, and 10^9 / 10^5 = 10^4 = 10,000).

Even if there is only one volcanic vent or active sludge pool or plate of reactive clay or any comparable chemical system per planet, and we exclude all other locations, so that to get the same result an average of 10^11 chains must form at each localized system per year, such systems can easily do that. A single liter can contain over 10^20 amino acids (less than a kilogram of organic material), and in highly active systems their chaining is not only natural and inevitable, but rapid. If every amino acid in such a mass formed one link per minute (which is slow: the rate in biological systems is many per second), it would take less than an hour to form chains as long as the simplest self-replicators we already know about, and in that hour at least 10^9 chains of such length would form (if every stage halves the available amino acids available for the next stage). If no autocatalytic system or self-replicating protein or peptide arises, they would start chaining to each other (producing more experiments) or dissolving and linked anew (also producing more experiments), either way recycling and continuing the process. It would only take 100 days of this to have tried 10^11 chains, and that's with only a single liter undergoing all this chemistry. So one way or another, 100,000 trial chains per cubic kilometer of viable area is well within natural means.

Following here is the calculation I just ran through, for the number of biogenesis trials (not just events of any kind) that we can expect there to have been. The only unknown variable is N. All the others are known for a fact to be the values here assigned or higher:

G (Number Galaxies Known) x S (Average Number of Stars per Galaxy) x B (Average Number of Biophilic Planets or Moons per Star) x K (Number of Cubic Kilometers per Planet or Moon in Which Amino Acids Could Form and Chain) x N (Number of Amino-Acid Chains That Likely Will Form per Cubic Kilometer of Viable Area per Year) x Y (Average Number of Years a Prebiotic Window Will Last) = G(10^11) x S(10^11) x B(1) x K(10^6) x N(10^5) x Y(5 x 10^8) = 5 x 10^41

Thus, if N = 10^5 (and as just argued, it seems entirely reasonable to believe it must be at least that), then the Law of Large Numbers entails any specific peptide of probability 1 in 10^41 has already appeared at random in this universe at least five times over (give or take a few). And since there are certainly many different simple self-replicating molecules (not just one), biogenesis must have occurred many more times than that. The exact math can be much more complicated (as I explain in my article for Biology & Philosophy), but no matter how you run the numbers, some peptide chain with a probability of 1 in 10^41 has definitely appeared many times in the known universe, and there are certainly many self-replicating peptides no more complex than that.

The Talk.Origins Archive has a collection of articles for further reading on this subject (in its Abiogenesis FAQs), and that is amply supplemented by Dr. Robert Hazen's Origin of Life 101. Plus, again, the bibliographies in Carrier 2005 and 2004.


Conclusion

The way I framed all this in Sense & Goodness was much briefer and more colloquial. But the basic argument was that the way we would expect things to be if biogenesis was an inevitable random accident (and therefore well within the threshold even for trials, not just events), is exactly what we observe, a coincidence that suggests the conclusion: natural biogenesis was a likely outcome of the universe. But things would be different if we could predict that this is also exactly what God would do. If we could deduce from the definition of God that he would make the universe so vastly big and old, and so numerously populated with stars and planets and moons, and wait ten billion years or so before thinking to create life somewhere, and then do this with a single-celled (or even pre-cellular) string of commonplace naturally-chaining organic molecules of relatively simple construction, and then noodle around with these single-celled life forms for three billion years before thinking of the idea of assembling them together to make multicellular life forms (or if God had already clearly communicated all this to us before humans could have guessed it, or if he otherwise proved he did all this), then we could say that Intelligent Design was more likely than natural accident (as I believe a proper Bayesian argument would show).

But the evidence all goes the other way: for all of these things are 100% expected if life was a natural accident, but not at all expected if a God did it (much less a God who had specific plans in mind for humans, who are neither single-celled nor essentially strings of proteins), since a God has so many other ways to do it (in fact, infinitely many, if we grant his omnipotence--and in any case, so many more obvious and efficient ways to do it, and thus more expected ways of doing it...I can think of five just sitting here). And that completes the actual argument in my book: even though we cannot ascertain the exact probability of biogenesis (p. 166), all the evidence is exactly as expected if it was indeed an accident (and thus had a probability within a reasonable threshold, pp. 166-67), but not at all expected (in other words, not at all predictable) if it was intelligently designed. In fact nothing points to the latter at all, except the event's improbability.

Yet as demonstrated here, there have surely been enough trials (events of amino-acid chaining) in enough places to make biogenesis not just a likely accident, but virtually inevitable. And yet even at its most improbable (if we imagine just one chain of amino acids randomly occurring in all the universe to date), it still wouldn't be improbable enough to conclude it was an act of design. For even by the creationist William Dembski's own calculation, over 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 events have occurred in this universe, purely by accident, that are even less probable than that. And if they weren't designed, why would life be?
 

39 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Dembski's argument is indeed fallacious, but you have failed to grasp the essence of his fallacy.

Similarly, I fully agree that if, instead, Behe is right (and there has been at least one spontaneous increase in specified information content greater than 500 bits in the development of any genome), then Dembski is right, and some degree of intelligent engineering of single-celled life billions of years ago would be the best explanation of observed phenomena. -

It's not at all clear in the context of evolution and biology what would count as an increase in specified information (indeed the essence of Dembski's fallacy is in the definition of specified complexity). If we saw some particular correlation between two (or more) increases in presumed information, we would first have to exclude the hypotheses that some mechanical process was responsible, and the presumed information isn't really information.

The Borel and Dembski Thresholds (1 in 10^50 and 1 in 10^150, respectively) indicate the least likely thing that can happen in the known universe purely by chance. -

This is not precisely correct, and constitutes a dangerous oversimplification. You are misinforming your readers about probability. Shuffle 10 (distinguishable) decks of cards together; the probability of their order is about 10^-1188. Combinatorial math sneers at merely astronomical numbers. It's necessary to introduce more rigorous qualification to become astonished at probabilities of only 10^-150.

For example, one such peptide has a probability of accidental combination of 1 in 10^41 (see Carrier 2004 for these and other scientific facts and references, also Carrier 2005, pp. 167-68). That means we can expect roughly a billion such accidents to occur in the known universe under the Borel threshold (since 10^50 - 10^49 = 10^9 = one billion), and roughly 10^109 such accidents under the Dembski threshold (that's a 1 followed by 109 zeroes--which is, by the way, a lot). -

You have made a minor arithmetic and/or typographical error here. 10^50 minus 10^49 ~= 9 x 10^49. I think you mean to say divided by and 10^41: 10^50 / 10^41 does indeed equal 10^9.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Talk.Origins hosts several refutations of Dembski's work — such as Richard Wein's Not a Free Lunch that correctly identify Dembski's central fallacies and do little violence to statistical mathematics.

This essay could have been made much shorter by merely observing that according to our present scientific knowledge, the origin of life does not appear to be unusually improbable; indeed the evolution of eukaryotic organisms from prokaryotic organisms seem less probable by many orders of magnitude.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

I like the elaboration. When I read S&G, I must say I hoped for a bit more on abiogenesis, but I purchased books from the bibliography and those have been quite interesting. I look forward to seeing any mature critiques of what you've presented here.

Ben

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Oh yeah, and I like the irony of that you are accused of dilettantism on the one hand by people like Holding and Steve Hays, but then being glib on the other on things outside of your expertise. *sigh* I guess they just don't like what you do and don't have to say! haha

Ben

joseph palazzo said...

If God exists why can't he just show up? Or better, cure the millions of those who are afflicted with multiple sclerosis, Pakinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gherig's disease, and those afflicted with incurable diseases, and cure them all in ONE single day so we would ALL know that this would have to be miraculous as no science could ever explain such an incredible deed?

JT Eberhard said...

Well done as always, Dr. Carrier.

JT

Richard Carrier said...

War_on_Error: Just FYI, I hope some day to find time to publish some bibliography updates. Some really good books on biogenesis have come out since I published, for instance. But I haven't harvested them into a list yet. And I might even like someday to ask fans (especially experts in their fields) to send in recommendations for the newest and the best in each category, though I would have a very strict list of parameters they'd have to satisfy, otherwise I'd just get sent lists of thousands of books people just perchance have read or heard about, rather than ones that actually should be read or preferred. Anyway, my point is, you needn't restrict yourself to my recommendations in Sense and Goodness. Keep an eye out for any books published on a subject after 2003 (since I wrote in 2004), in case anything really pertinent and readable strikes your eye.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Rick,

Oh sure. I just took your bibliographies as a place to start.

Ben

Richard Carrier said...

The Barefoot Bum said... Dembski's argument is indeed fallacious, but you have failed to grasp the essence of his fallacy.... It's not at all clear in the context of evolution and biology what would count as an increase in specified information (indeed the essence of Dembski's fallacy is in the definition of specified complexity).

That is actually clear enough. Biologists have no trouble telling the difference between convenient and merely random sequences of DNA. What I think you mean is that the math is a lot harder than Dembski and Behe realize (or pretend, depending on your estimates of their sincerity).

It is certainly true that calculating the specified complexity of a gene for a bacterial propulsion system is much harder than Dembski claims in NFL, but that's only because he trusts Behe (who certainly knows better, as he is a biochemist, so I question his honesty in this affair, but that's a whole other issue I'll set aside). All the criticisms of Behe amount in Dembskian terms to demonstrations that he isn't calculating information specificity correctly.

For example, how many strings of code would produce a flagellum (as opposed to the actual one in E. coli), or more properly, how many would produce any comparable propulsion system (since a flagellum isn't the only trick possible)? The specified complexity of such a string of code will be a function of the answer to that question, and not a half-assed counting of phylogenic parts like Behe attempts.

Behe must know this (or else his biochemistry degree is a sham). Yet he doesn't even attempt to identify the gene or genes that code for the flagellum, much less calculate even their simple complexity, much less their specified complexity. Already I guarantee, E. coli genomes alone must contain many diverse versions of the flagellum gene(s), this diversity surely increases many times as we look at all other species, and magifies many more times when we calculate for all possible configurations, not just the ones evolution has actually stumbled on so far.

This problem is a defect in Dembski's premises (i.e. in his effort to establish that there has been a 500-bit jump), not his overall method (the probability filter). I quite agree he has f'd up the premises. But if he derived them correctly (which at the very least would require a biochemist like Behe to get off his ass and start assaying some E. coli DNA to isolate the relevant genes and running comparative functional and genetic studies with ancestral and descendant copies of those genes, and so on), and then we had the 500-bit leap left over, Dembski would be right. It's just getting the facts to support that premise that's a bitch.

...we would first have to exclude the hypotheses that some mechanical process was responsible, and the presumed information isn't really information.

Yes, certainly. As I said: Dembski fully agrees with this. He explains this fact correctly (at least in terms of generic method--he isn't a biochemist, so he doesn't know jack about how one would actually do this in bacterial genetics, for example, but his job as a mathematician is only to explain the mathematical procedure, the empirical challenges are then up to the scientists--it's just too bad Behe never acts like one :-).

You are misinforming your readers about probability. Shuffle 10 (distinguishable) decks of cards together; the probability of their order is about 10^-1188. Combinatorial math sneers at merely astronomical numbers. It's necessary to introduce more rigorous qualification to become astonished at probabilities of only 10^-150.

This is a whole other matter. You are talking about the difference between simple complexity and specified complexity. That isn't at issue in my blog this week. Here I was only discussing the difference between trials and events. There are many other issues one could further explore besides. It's not possible to address them all at once. In the present case, it should be obvious that randomized complexity can far exceed 500 bits, but such noise is never claimed to indicate design. A spontaneous appearance of 500 bits of specified complexity is all that Dembski's filter employs as a premise, and NFL fully explains this.

That's why everyone agrees--including every evolutionary biologist that breathes--that a random pool of electrified amino acids in a hat won't kick up a randomly assembled rabbit--even though that will indeed have a non-zero probability, just like your proposed card shuffle. But no amount of sneering is going to escape the conclusion that if we see a rabbit pop out of such a hat, we're being punked, not just witnessing some random card shuffle.

You have made a minor arithmetic and/or typographical error here.

Yes, typo. Obviously I was using the number announced earlier in that sentence (10^40). I've fixed it. Thanks for catching that.

Talk.Origins hosts several refutations of Dembski's work — such as Richard Wein's

Umm....dude...I cited and linked to exactly that. No need for the redundancy. :-)

This essay could have been made much shorter by merely observing that according to our present scientific knowledge, the origin of life does not appear to be unusually improbable.

It is exactly that claim that my critics claim is unfounded. Hence the entire purpose of this blog is to show that it is not. So, no, it could not have been made much shorter the way you suggest. Rather, I did exactly what you suggest in my book.

...indeed the evolution of eukaryotic organisms from prokaryotic organisms seem less probable by many orders of magnitude.

Why?

Richard Carrier said...

Joseph Palazzo said... If God exists why can't he just show up? Or better...Indeed. Hence my link to "Why I Am Not a Christian" (in the blog above), which brings up exactly that issue. Of course I also have a whole chapter on it in Sense & Goodness without God.

Arizona Atheist said...

Hi Mr. Carrier,

That was an excellent post; very interesting and informative. I feel your frustrations about that apologist David Marshall. I only recently bowed out of discussions with him (which were ongoing for over a year) and his delusional allies at the Amazon.com forums where I did my best to counter many of their illogical arguments and have first hand knowledge of his oftentimes rude (I've been called a "fool" and other such insults on more than one occasion) and illogical attitude and arguments.

I bought those books you recommenced. I'm finished with The History of Science but I've been reading so much lately I think I've gotten a bit burnt out and have stalled on the reading of Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. I've only read two or three essays so far in that one. They're both excellent. Thanks again for your recommendations. Since I'm writing I was curious about the historian David C. Lindberg and his views on the interaction between religion and science. He doesn't say much in his book I have, The Beginnings of Western Science but his essays in Science & Religion seem very good (I noticed he criticized Jaki in one essay). Do you think his book with Ronald Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science has good information?

Thanks.

Take care.

straightgodless said...

This is off topic, but Richard I think you should write a post discussing the "presentiment" experiments. These highly repeatable effects are by far the best evidence against strict metaphysical naturalism(materialism).

For information and references to experiments go to: http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.com/2007/11/brain-response-to-future-event.html

AIGBusted said...

Hey Richard,

Good to see that you made another post on this topic! I recently wrote about the argument from biogenesis in my book "Atheism and Naturalism" and you can read the section on biogenesis here:

http://godriddance.com/book.php

I reference your article (as well as an article by David Deamer and another by Ian Musgrave) as a great resource for countering creationist claims about biogenesis.

polofsso said...

Hello Richard & others,
I enjoyed reading these posts, and would like to provide a link to my articles on the topic of ID and probability/statistics. I think there are many ways in which Dembski is wrong, although I too, like Richard, tend to put his work in the best possible light before ofering criticism. If nothing else, I proide a counterexample to Dembski's claims that nobody with expertise in probability has offered any criticism of his methods. Another such example is provided by Olle Haggstrom who has written two brilliant pieces of criticism of No Free Lunch.
Cheers,
Peter Olofsson
Trinity University
San Antonio, TX

Andrew said...

Richard's very first quote in his post, from his Sense and Goodness book, is a philosophical pronouncement, not a scientific statement.

A scientist he ain't.

Tyro said...

Richard,

I think you're mistaken on several points regarding Dembski's arguments and giving him far too much credit.

** The entire application of the NFL to evolution was badly misguided from the beginning.

** He purports to discuss "information theory" (and you freely credit him as doing so), yet he totally mangles the field by mixing Shannon, K-C and his own ill-defined intuitive notions of information. Instead of explaining information theory, he just muddies the waters and tries to hide behind people's confusion. In reality, his IT work is a mathematical shambles.

** Chemical and physical events do not occur with the same probability. Hydrogen and Oxygen do not bond randomly but are attracted to one another and bond preferentially. Other bonds require a considerable input of energy before they will form.

** He grossly misapplies probability when calculating his UPBBut I must still take issue against Dembski's critics here: his error lies not in adopting the wrong method or ignoring other methods, it lies in not recognizing the fact that his opponents are also correctly applying the same method, just without the math.If we assume that Dembski's math and his application are valid then your statement would be right. But the fact is that, while he may be making the mistakes you point out, he is also making many other fundamental mathematical and modelling errors.

I think you're making the mistake that when a mathematician criticizes Dembski, he is attempting to criticize ID as a whole rather than Dembski's flawed mathematical approach. From what I've seen, just as you only tackle the philosophical problems with his application of math to reality, other people tackle the mathematical problems alone. There's nothing wrong with that and by saying that they're mistaken I think you're misunderstanding their argument and, ironically, making a mistake in saying they're mistaken :)

Richard Carrier said...

Arizona Atheist said... I was curious about the historian David C. Lindberg and his views on the interaction between religion and science. He doesn't say much in his book I have, The Beginnings of Western Science but his essays in Science & Religion seem very good (I noticed he criticized Jaki in one essay).

If you recall the page number(s) where he mentions Jaki, let me know. I'd like to look over that again.

Just FYI, in my book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire I will be criticizing Lindberg considerably.

Do you think his book with Ronald Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science has good information?

As with all the others, same caveats: they rightly criticize the war model but go too far in the apologetic direction. For example, Lindberg's chapter in it on antiquity isn't factually wrong, but if you read it carefully you'll see its arguments are often rather specious.

Perhaps more relevantly for your question, I consider that book obsolete. I haven't checked it all, but too much has happened in all the relevant fields since 1986 to count on it (that was over twenty years ago). I wouldn't even bother reading it unless I had a particular reason to.

Richard Carrier said...

Straightgodless said... This is off topic,...

Yes, but I'll let it slide on the tenuous connection that it has to do with science, statistics, and the inference to naturalism. :-)

...but Richard I think you should write a post discussing the "presentiment" experiments. These highly repeatable effects are by far the best evidence against strict metaphysical naturalism(materialism).

As a rule, you need to send these requests to CFI or (I recommend) CSI, with a special request that they assign someone with expertise to investigate (e.g. reading the published work and interviewing those involved) and write on it for Skeptical Inquirer. Such a research task I can't afford to undertake unpaid, and there are people better qualified to evaluate it (Hymen and Blackmore, for example).

Until I see someone I trust conduct such an inquiry, this is all it looks like to me:

In re: Brain Response to a Future Event? I find the studies reported to be highly dubious. You'll notice none of them appear in any real peer reviewed journal except Bierman & Radin 1997 and Lang et al. 1998. The rest are in parapsychology and alt-med front journals that, like creationist journals, only have "believers" peer review submissions (hence their actual peer review process is a joke). This blog article, for example, seeks to impress you with the shear number of articles in these bogus journals (plus parapsychology conference papers, which aren't peer reviewed at all), hoping you won't notice that they have utterly failed to convince actual scientists that they've even used proper methods, much less gotten scientifically credible results. If they had, they wouldn't be publishing in propaganda vehicles. They would be publishing in real journals.

This is confirmed by what happens when you look at the only real science papers they cite: you don't find what they claim. Lang et al. 1998 doesn't even document presentiment (it only confirms the fact that images produce differential emotional arousal in localized brain regions, not that this happens presciently) and Bierman & Radin 1997 simply report that randomization of stimulus can produce a pattern of brain response that mimics a prescient response and therefore studies that use pre-stimulus measurements as a baseline need to keep this effect in mind. They do not arrive at any conclusions as to cause but call for further research.

But as they show signs of realizing even in that one-page report (yes, it consists of a single page), if you randomly show sexy and boring images, the brain starts to anticipate the pattern based on frequency estimations (as, IMO, any mechanical computer could be programmed to do) and thus starts anticipating the sexy images better than chance (for example, if you were asked to "predict" rolls of a 6 on a die, you would start to guess better than chance due to the obvious frequency pattern: 6's turn up on average every six rolls). All this means is that our brains are really good pattern recognizers, which is not anything we didn't know, nor anything unlikely on metaphysical naturalism. Notably, the effect does not work unless there is a sequence (and thus a pattern to detect). Actual presentiment should work better than chance without any run-up sequence to pattern-match. Thus the clue is the existence of a pattern to match, which supports naturalism, not supernaturalism.

Most suspiciously, the blog article you refer to was written in 2007, yet fails to mention the more detailed follow-up study of the same effect by Bierman & Scholte in the Journal of Parapsychology (which might actually have credible peer review standards) in 2002. Therein they took steps to eliminate the pattern-matching explanation (as well as, notably, a few other causes resulting from experimental error that they had discovered since their 1997 trials) and found the effect vanishes with larger sample sizes and only appears when individual cases are cherry-picked, which is congruent with standard statistical (not paranormal) anomalies. They still claim there are some effects still residing, but admit their results are inadequate to confirm this and further study is needed. I can already predict what the results will be.

That effects disappear with trials has been the case so often before (see New Analyses Raise Doubts About Replicability of ESP Findings and Anomalous Cognition?) I don't see any reason to expect any different result here.

But as with all fringe claims in science, the responsibility is on Radin and others to convince the actual scientific community. Until they do, we have no more reason to believe them than any other scientist with a fringe unconfirmed claim.

Richard Carrier said...

Polofsso said... I enjoyed reading these posts, and would like to provide a link to my articles on the topic of ID and probability/statistics. I think there are many ways in which Dembski is wrong, although I too, like Richard, tend to put his work in the best possible light before ofering criticism. If nothing else, I proide a counterexample to Dembski's claims that nobody with expertise in probability has offered any criticism of his methods. Another such example is provided by Olle Haggstrom who has written two brilliant pieces of criticism of No Free Lunch.

Superb. Thank you so much for pointing me to those.

Your paper for B & P, esp. p. 8., is particularly a well-written example of what I was referring to above (in response to Barefoot Bum): Dembski's filter isn't wrong, it's his method of ascertaining the premises that's wrong. As I would put it, his errors are not of method, but application. And as you rightly suggest, a correct application is impossible without particular scientific data that no one (curiously not even Behe) is endeavoring to collect.

Richard Carrier said...

Tyro said... I think you're mistaken on several points regarding Dembski's arguments and giving him far too much credit.

No, I actually agree with you more than you think. I think you're just missing my point about the difference between method and application. To wit...

** The entire application of the NFL to evolution was badly misguided from the beginning.

Only because applying the required math to the actual biological facts is far more complicated than he knows or pretends, exactly as I said. His critics are entirely right to ding him on that.

** He purports to discuss "information theory" (and you freely credit him as doing so), yet he totally mangles the field by mixing Shannon, K-C and his own ill-defined intuitive notions of information. Instead of explaining information theory, he just muddies the waters and tries to hide behind people's confusion. In reality, his IT work is a mathematical shambles.Now that may be the case, although I have not seen this demonstrated anywhere. Is there any article you can refer me to, that specifically discusses his treatment of these issues?

All I have seen (even from mathematicians) is criticism of his applications, and contentious assumptions that correspond to real debates in the field (e.g. his rejection of Bayesianism). Otherwise, you might be asking too much of a book written for a broad audience. I can pick up any college science or history textbook and find plenty of mangling or muddying. Such works by definition over-simplify.

** Chemical and physical events do not occur with the same probability.

A point I note in my own article in B & P. Again, this points to a problem of application.

** He grossly misapplies probability when calculating his UPB.

Misapplication of premises of probability is again an error of application.

while he may be making the mistakes you point out, he is also making many other fundamental mathematical and modelling errors.

It would help if you could list some specific examples of the latter (particularly if they are discussed by experts anywhere).

I think you're misunderstanding their argument and, ironically, making a mistake in saying they're mistaken :)

I think you've misunderstood me. I wasn't saying anything about what you suggest. The mistake I credit to his critics is simply one of confusing method with application. Just because he gets the math wrong in building his premises, doesn't mean the logical structure of the argument is wrong.

As with the difference between validity and soundness, the difference here is between application and argument. The argument (in a nutshell) is that if known physical necessities are ruled out or accounted for and the remaining specified complexity of an event has a probability of less than 1 in 10^150, which mathematically corresponds to 500 bits of specified information (since 2^500 = 10^150), then intelligent design is the most likely explanation of the event. I see no fault in that statement: it is entirely correct. The Devil, however, is in the details, and it's in the details that Dembski stumbles--his every effort to find an event matching his criterion is plagued with error and inaccuracy.

Richard Carrier said...

Andrew said... Richard's very first quote in his post, from his Sense and Goodness book, is a philosophical pronouncement, not a scientific statement. A scientist he ain't.

Thank you Captain Obvious.

As my book's own introduction says, it is indeed a work of philosophy.

Arizona Atheist said...

Hi Mr. Carrier, thanks for the info.

The page where Lindberg is cited as criticizing Jaki is at the bottom of page 24 in Science & Religion: A Historical Into.. It's basically only mentioned in passing in an essay by David B. Wilson. Jaki's name popped out at me because of my reading of your criticisms of him on your blog. Originally I was thinking it was an essay by Lindberg but I guess with my bad memory I confused the two David's. : )

It says,

"In their historiographical introduction to the book they edited, God and Nature (1986), David Lindberg and Ronald Number judged that Hooykaas and Jaki had 'sacrificed careful history for scarcely concealed apologetics' (Lindberg and Numbers 1986, 5)."

It may be too early to say, but I'm curious when your book The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire will be published? I absolutely loved Not the Impossible Faith and I'm very much looking forward to the new one. In fact, I cited Not the Impossible Faith a hand full of times in my refutation of David Marshall's book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism. It really came in handy at times.

Dave M said...

Sleazy, Richard, real sleazy.

You can't win the argument, so you grossly misrepresent my claims, attack my character and call me names on your blog. I can see why you discourage your fans from reading our exchange for themselves.

I've posted a response to your blog below on the God Delusion site, where I was first introduced to (and began poking holes in) your arguments. But I'd be happy to rebut you here, too, if you'll let me; and then do what damage control you may.

Pikemann Urge said...

Richard, if you have the time can you skim over this article by the late Michael Crichton:

http://crichton-official.com/speech-alienscauseglobalwarming.html

He writes of a very similar equation to the one you wrote about above. Though his speech was about ETs, not evolution theory.

He said, "The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science."

Now, Crichton spoke about this in 2003. Do you think he was well informed in that article? Or, if he was, has that much changed in six years?

Tyro said...

@Richard

Now that may be the case, although I have not seen this demonstrated anywhere. Is there any article you can refer me to, that specifically discusses his treatment of these issues?There are a few sources which may be accessible to educated non-mathematicians. I imagine you've read them so if there are some specific questions (e.g.: more detail on Shannon or K-C theory), I can try to find something.

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/information/dembski.html

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/information/shannon.html

http://www.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~shallit/nflr3.txt (In particular, the brief mention of equivocation)

And of course the much longer and more detailed: http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/ (Footnote 36 discusses Information Theory and how Dembski is misusing it. There are many other good examples of mathematical abuse throughout but it is _long_)


I see Dembski's use of "Information" as a form of bait-and-switch or equivocation, using "information" to mean one thing and then shifting definitions mid-argument to something else so he can apply different properties. This isn't just misapplying good math, this is making fundamental mathematical errors.

My background is in computing theory and studied Shannon Information Theory and in the places Dembski mentions this, he gets it totally backwards. "Information" in this sense represents the difficulty of compressing the data. The more data may be compressed, the more fluff there is, the less the information density. Makes a kind of sense when you think about it from the computer's perspective. Dembski gets this totally backwards and says that if something may be compressed, it has high information density. He does this, I think, not out of a mistake but because he is dogmatically trying to show that intelligence alone creates information, whereas according to the Shannon definition, randomly generated numbers have extremely high information density. Exactly what he cannot deal with.

He is really discussing probability but calls it "information". We can speculate on his motives but it isn't merely sloppy speech since he explicitly tries to borrow from several different theories relating to information without justification (and his use of the theories is, as shown, totally backwards).

Treating it strictly as probability has other huge issues as the very long discussion on http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/ shows.

I think all of these sources include references and citations if you wish to track down more info. If you have some specific questions, please let me know. I wasn't sure what you were looking for so I may have gone broad :)

Tyro said...

@Pikemann Urge

Crichton isn't a scientist and has actually championed some very anti-scientific causes so he definitely cannot be used as an authority. That he should express a concern about legitimate science when he frequently and flagrantly dismisses science to suit his political agenda makes it doubly ironic. Doesn't mean his arguments are necessarily wrong but it does mean that dropping his name isn't enough. Indeed, if he's associated with it, it means we must be doubly careful to check the background.

Regarding SETI and the Drake Equation, it's an interesting case. It is theoretically possible to test the Drake Equation but we do not have the resources yet. It's like saying that General Relativity wasn't scientific until it had been fully tested. Much of physics these days is in the unfortunate circumstance of having theory advance farther and faster than experimental confirmation but this doesn't mean it isn't scientific, it just means that it's in the fuzzy line between hypothesis and theory.

SETI is an applied science, using scientific methods to conduct exploration, another grey area. Like paleontology, it uses science to study the results of a search but the search itself is often negative. They certainly accept failure and respond appropriately to new data so they are certainly not cranks like UFO hunters or cryptozoologists and if they discovered anything, I've little doubt that experts would accept it so yes, I think that does put them on the side of science. This does require acknowledging that "science" isn't some absolutist, black/white area but does have nuances.

Pikemann Urge said...

Tyro, I appreciate what you're saying so forgive my curtness below (trying to keep it brief).

I am not interested in whether Crichton is a scientist or not (he's trained as a medical doctor and anthropologist, for those who don't know). Nor am I interested in using him as an authority. His comments differ to Richard's, hence the question.

There is nothing wrong with SETI or anything non-scientific, whatever SETI is. I take your word for it in any case (it's not one of my main fields of interest).

I am well aware of the nuances of science. Psychology may be a 'soft' science but that fact does not undermine its value to society. Medicine is not a science at all and yet a good doctor is a godsend. Etc.

Andrew said...

Tyro, Richard Carrier is not a scientist.

And SETI is not science, in the sense that it is not falsifiable.

Because you can always say, we just haven't discovered life YET...maybe next year.

Hence, it can never be disproven and is unfalsifiable.

Tyro said...

@Andrew,

And SETI is not science, in the sense that it is not falsifiable.That's not very fair or accurate.

You're right, superficially, that SETI will never prove that there's no life, they can just show that they haven't found any yet. However saying this means it isn't scientific is like saying that trying to cure cancer or AIDS isn't scientific because they'll never conclude there is no cure.

SETI (and the quest to discover cures and other exploratory ventures) do make use of scientific principles and methods, they do reach many intermediate conclusions, they do discard many candidates and are constantly falsifying working hypotheses. SETI is continually changing their methods and techniques as they falsify old ones and learn new.

To just say "SETI isn't scientific" because you are misapplying criteria from a totally different sphere and missing all the nuance leaves you with the same BS conclusions that Crichton is fond of. It leaves you treating SETI and the search for Bigfoot, ghosts, Alien abductions and Noah's Ark in the same category which is nonsense. These latter groups are truly non-scientific because they have no working theories, use no science in their investigation, and refuse to abandon any hypothesis no matter how negative the search. There is a world of difference between these frauds and when you make these ridiculous comparisons you're lumping SETI in with them instead of with those groups who are using genuine science to explore and search for novelty which is where they really belong.

So yeah, SETI is scientific.

Andrew said...

So tell me how you could falsify SETI.

polofsso said...

I agree with Tyro. The stress on falsifiability is perhaps valid from some philosophical point of view, but doesn't have much to do with how science is conducted.

Tyro said...

@Andrew,

So tell me how you could falsify SETI. Tell me how you could falsify the search for a cure for cancer or HIV or the search for a new fossil.

Are they no longer scientific?

I can think of dozens of ways that we could definitively falsify the theory that there were other intelligent, technological forms of life in our galaxy but they're all impractical. What SETI is doing is taking specific approaches and systematically examining (and falsifying) claims for specific stellar systems. The problem is that there are a huge number of systems and a huge number of ways we might detect them and limited amounts of time and detectors. Just as testing a candidate antibiotic against a sample yields useful information (even if that's typically "no, does not work"), the SETI program is yielding useful information. No positive confirmations yet but not even Popper would list that as a criteria.

Pikemann Urge said...

I'm not that informed on SETI and so have no useful opinions to give there.

Finding a cure for cancer is, strictly, not science. It's technology.

But maybe the proper question is whether or not a particular substance can cure cancer or not. That certainly is falsifiable. The general question vs. the specific one. Seems that the general one is a waste of time, then.

peter olofsson said...

When Mendeleev predicted the existence of elements that were yet to be discovered, he made claims that were scientific, yet not falsifiable in a strict sense. I suppose the same is true for any statement that starts "There exists," yet I think many such statements are clearly within the realm of science.

C. Tygesen said...

@ Dave M

I can see why you discourage your fans from reading our exchange for themselves.Yes, I find that I'm usually discouraged from reading an offsite exchange when Dr. Carrier links directly to it, as part of the discussion.

Richard Carrier said...

Dave M said... Sleazy, Richard, real sleazy. [Etc.] ...I'd be happy to rebut you here, too, if you'll let meBy all means do.

Why don't you post comments here taking specific quotes from my blog post and explaining why they are in error?

That would be better than making vague denunciations and snide remarks.

You can repeat material you may have posted elsewhere. I otherwise don't have time to galavant around other blogs and threads. If you're concerned about anything I have said on this blog, please respond to it on this blog, and let's have a sound dialogue.

But I suggest you stop acting like such an ass. I really don't think that's helping your case. There's a reason I criticized you for this behavior. Repeating it here only proves my point, don't you think?

Ma Dixiong said...

Richard: If by "acting like an ass," you mean, "refute a number of wild claims in my book, then calmly rebut my new arguments when I respond by calling you "liar," "dishonest," and an "a*hole," then I'll have to plead guilty.

Even one of your supporters admitted to being shocked by your tone. He added, "Thankfully it appears DM is taking the high road. We'll see if we can get RC to follow suit." Anyone can read the initial exchange and see that that is, in fact, the real contrast between your posts and mine.

No doubt like all writers, your book is as precious as a ring to you. So maybe your initial bluster can be overlooked. But your post above is, as any fair-minded reader can see, also pretty nasty.

Your supporter has been trying to persuade me that despite appearances, "Rick is one of the more empathetic atheists on the net and most of the time I'm trying hard to follow in his footsteps in terms of etiquette." I find that hard to believe. But the man knows you better than I do, so maybe you're more reasonable when you're less emotionally involved.

Anyway, I've responded with a forum on the God Delusion page, where you have plenty of silly allies. I agree it may not be the best place. But neither is the 37th comment at the end of a long post largely about Bill Dembski.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

David,

While I won't complain of being quoted out of context per se, I will say that the spirit of my participation was to help advance the conversation in a civil manner. Using my quotes to "get" the other guy doesn't seem very appropriate. I understand that Carrier's honest opinion of you is not very pleasant, but neither is your honest opinion of him. If anything is going anywhere, you both have to just stop bringing it up.

Ben

Richard Carrier said...

Evidently DM isn't interested in defending any of his claims here. All he has are excuses. So far, no facts. Shame.