Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Reflections on Intelligent Design--
Good, Bad or Indifferent Science?

Free RNA strand, from Univ. of Chicago at Illinois
"If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?” 
― Milton Berle
 "Intelligent Design is a remarkably uncreative theory that abandons the search for understanding at the very point where it is most needed. If Intelligent Design is really a science, then the burden is on its scientists to discover the mechanisms used by the Intelligent Designer."  Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design
 “That the universe was formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, I will no more believe than that the accidental jumbling of the alphabet would fall into a most ingenious treatise of philosophy." Jonathan Swift
It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible. When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them." Arthur C. Clarke, 1963


I try to learn from blog comments that disagree with my preconceptions.  One such (on my post  The Theology of Water--Is Design Intelligent?) said that Stephen Meyers' book, The Signature in the Cell,  showed that the Intelligent Design hypothesis was good science, a position with which I did not agree.*   Although as a Catholic I believe in an intelligent Creator,  I do not consider an article of faith like that could be dealt with by scientific methods.   After reading The Signature in the Cell I've modified this stance--somewhat.


In the past, Fr. Stanley Jaki's and Pierre Duhem's descriptions of science have been my guideposts:
"...[a] laboratory [is] a place where one works ...to make observations or measurement which are accurate so that accurate predictions can be made on their basis.   Science, in that sense, is synonymous with measurements, which are accurate because they can be expressed in numbers."  Fr. Stanley Jaki, The Limits of a Limitless Science
"Therefore, if the aim of physical theories is to explain experimental laws, theoretical physics is not an autonomous science; it is subordinate to metaphysics..." Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory.
Pierre Duhem's limitation on physics is based on the following:
  • physics cannot by itself  explain why physics works;
  • a scientist must assume that some rational order exists if his/her work is to be meaningful.   
Fr. Jaki's requirement for quantitative predictions  based on replicated experiments would place much of biology and geology, among other disciplines, into a non-science basket.   Therefore I and others have found this latter limitation to be not altogether satisfactory.

Fortunately, there is another perspective on science, that of "historical science", which Meyers describes in some detail in his book.   Historical science infers from present data what past events might be.    The data may be quantitative, as in cosmology and some parts of molecular biology, or qualitative, as in geology and paleontology.   Historical science uses  "Inference to the Best Explanation"(IBE) ,  or more concisely "abduction", a method which has been criticized by some philosophers of science**.   Nevertheless, it is the only approach possible in those sciences for which replicated laboratory experiments are not feasible.

An everyday example (given by Meyers) of  "Inference to the Best Explanation" (IBE) follows:   You look out your window and see the driveway is wet;  the following three explanations occur to you--it has rained; the sprinkler has been on and set so as to wet the driveway; your car has been washed.   You notice that neither your street nor the grass is wet; thus the rain and sprinkler explanation is eliminated;  accordingly  the remaining one, your car has been washed, must be correct.   Confirmatory evidence for this last would be a pail of water by your car.


"The Signature in the Cell" is particularly concerned with the application of two  principles for understanding the beginning of life, the formation of cells and their critical constituents--proteins, DNA and RNA:
  • "specified information" ("specified complexity") is manifested in biology and molecular biology;
  • such specified information can be brought about only by an intelligence, a designer;  it can not occur by chance or by the working of physico-chemical laws (e.g. chemical affinities).
The second of these principles was expressed in the quotation by Jonathan Swift above.

As an example of "specified information",   consider the phrase "cat in the hat".    This conveys information (for Dr. Seuss fans--a book title and an image).   If one was to draw characters out of a large bag containing the appropriate proportion of spaces, t's, c's,  etc., the probability of getting them in the order "cat in the hat" would infinitesimally small...for all practical purposes, zero***.   Accordingly, if you saw that phrase on a table next to a large bag of characters, you'd assume that a Dr. Seuss fan had arranged them.

Another way of putting the second principle is that specified information is conserved.   Although this seems reasonable at first glance, there is no proof of such that I can find.   If an inverse relation between Shannon information and entropy is made (the greater the information content, the lower the entropy), there is no application of the Second Law that would apply to conservation of information:   The Second Law says that in an isolated system entropy increases (by irreversible processes) or stays constant (for a system at equilibrium) and for open systems sets no general conditions.     So we'll have to accept the second principle as possible, but not proven--a hypothesis.


Meyers discusses how proteins, DNA and RNA are biomolecules encoding specified information.    He argues convincingly that this encoding can not proceed from chance or by natural law.   The probabilities of the sequences occurring by chance are too small, and this view agrees with that of a number of other scientists, not all of whom support intelligent design.

According to Meyers, specified information does not proceed from chemical or physical principals--chemical affinities and attraction, for example, yielding protein folding shapes or sequence order of bases in DNA or RNA.    Were such operative, they might yield order (as, for example, gravity and coriolis forces yield whirlpool shapes in water going down a drain).   However,  such order could not provide for the variety of base sequences needed to encode for the synthesis of many different proteins, nor for the different conformations involved in folding of proteins that yields enzymatic activity.

An important criterion for a theory to be "scientific" is that it can make testable predictions, predictions that can be falsified.   Meyers makes 12 such predictions. The problem with many of the predictions is that they propose  results that may be found with sufficient research, but if they aren't, it won't signify falsification of the prediction.  For example.
"Investigation of the logic of regulatory and information-processing systems in cells will reveal the use of design strategies and logic that mirrors...those used in systems designed by engineers.  Cell biologists will find regulatory systems that function in accord with a logic that can be expressed as algorithms." Stephen Meyer, The Signature in the Cell, Appendix A.
If such results are obtained, it will strengthen the Intelligent Design hypothesis, but it will not necessarily confirm it.

Several predictions propose that positive results from origins of life computer simulations or laboratory work to show spontaneous self-organization require information input.   For example
“Informational accounting will reveal that any improvements in replicase function in ribozymes are the result of active information supplied by ribozyme engineers.” ibid.
I'm not sure how one would show the above, but the fact that it couldn't be shown does not amount to an adequate test of the prediction.  And again, finding such results would strengthen ID, but not confirm it.

The only prediction amongst those listed that might  be falsified--and even here, if the contrary isn't shown, it won't necessarily show the prediction to be true--is the following:
“ No undirected process will demonstrate the capacity to generate 500 bits of new information starting from a nonbiological source." ibid.


The first criticism is given in the quote by Michael Shermer.    Although proponents of Intelligent Design argue that information is put into cell components, they suggest no mechanism as to how this might occur.   Another opponent of the neo-Darwinian thesis, the philosopher Thomas Nagel, has proposed in his book, Mind and Cosmos, that teleology should be considered as a general operating principle in nature.   Although this requirement--purpose as a part of nature--just names, rather than explains the issue, it is a starting point.  And it puts it in such a way that Intelligent Design might proceed from fundamental principles.   Paul Davies puts it very well: 
“...the hypothesis of an intelligent designer applied to the laws of nature is far superior than the designer ...who violates the laws of nature from time to time by working miracles in evolutionary history. Design-by-laws is incomparably more intelligent than design-by-miracles.[emphasis added]Paul Davies,  The Cosmic Jackpot: Why our universe is just right for life." p.200)
The second criticism is that the fundamental assumption of conservation of specified information or specified complexity is assumed.  Although this seems at first like a reasonable assumption, it is necessary that it be justified  from first principles, outside of the realm of biology,  if Intelligent Design is to be considered science.

To sum up,  I do believe in an intelligent Creator--indeed, an omniscient one who orders all for ultimate good--but that belief is an article of faith, not of science. I am glad that I read "Signature in the Cell", because I found a new perspective on what constitutes science, "Historical Science".   But there is still much that proponents of Intelligent Design must do in order that it qualifies as a testable scientific theory.


*I should note that some 15 years ago when I first read Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, I thought that Intelligent Design revealed a whole new realm of science, manifesting biology as the handiwork of the Creator.

**See, for example, works by Bas van Fraassen or Nancy Cartwright.

***The phrase has 14 characters:  3 spaces, 3 t's,  2 a's,  2 h's, 1 c, 1 e, 1 i, 1 n.  By combinatorial algebra, there  are14!/[ 3!3!2!2!] =  605,404,800 possible combinations of these 14 characters.   If one uses rules such as 1) no initial space; 2) no final space; 3) no two like characters next to each other, 4) t followed by space, h, a, e or i...etc.  the number of possible combinations can be reduced, but it will still be very large.  Thus the probability of getting "cat in the hat" by randomly drawing letters from a large bag filled with the appropriate proportion of characters will be very small.

****Although I have published nmr papers dealing with biochemistry and molecular biology, I am not expert in these topics.    Accordingly what Meyers says in these areas I'll assume to be true.

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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.