Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Some Responses

Several people made comments on my recent posts about evolution that I feel are worthy of response in a top level post. So here goes. intgonnatakitnomore asks:

are you alive? what does that mean? are you aware? how does that work? do you wake up every day the same person as before you went to sleep? are you intelligent? are you emotional? are you human? what is that? do you believe anything other than what you trust that you see? I too can see how the hypothesis of evolution might work. Is it testable on the macroscopic scale? Why does something exists instead of nothing? If you are alive as a result of a cause / effect relationship that started from nothing and according to quantum mechanics could have resulted in any number of outcomes, each with a given but unknown probability, then how do you justify your place in this world. How do you justify what you believe that you know for sure. I guess that's enough to get you thinking beyond the spoonfed obvious.

That's probably too many questions to answer all at once, actually, but I think the correspondent is mostly invoking three major problems. The first is the problem of consciousness. ("Are you aware? How does that work?") Consciousness is indeed a profound mystery and it seems to me entirely possible that it will remain, for the foreseeable future if not forever, at best on the border and arguably outside the realm of scientific explanation. The main reason is that we have to depend entirely on self-reports in order to describe and measure it. Our consciousness belongs exclusively to each of us, and is detectable to others only to the extent they are willing to believe what we say about it. Nobody else can perceive my consciousness directly. That is all worthy of pondering. So, what is the point vis a vis evolution?

The second problem invoked by Mr. or Ms. takitnomore is the fundamental epistemological problem. How do we "know" anything? Of course that applies to religious explanations too. The scientist's response is essentially pragmatic. We accept truth only on a provisional basis, insofar as our theories a) make testable predictions which turn out to be vindicated, and b) our observations can be shared by others and come out the same no matter who is looking -- or at least for the vast majority. (The problem of people who are psychotic, or have sensory disturbances, or are just too stubborn to see what others see can't go away completely, but we deal with it in science in more or less the same way we do in everyday life.) The degree to which we are certain about any proposition increases as it holds up to more and more tests. For example, Copernicus's proposition that the planets revolve about the sun was used to predict that if you sent a robot into space on a trajectory calculated in accordance with the Copernican model of the solar system and Newton's laws of gravitation, it could go into orbit around Venus or land on Mars, and take pictures. It worked! That's pretty convincing to me.

The third takitnomore problem is the problem of meaning. How do I "justify" my place in the world. I don't. Why should I have to? Here I am. Nah nah nah nah nah. What it means to me is up to me. What it means to you is up to you.

Ken says:

i believe evolution is part of God's plan, like karma and photosynthesis. still, your charming description of the leap from prok to euk reminds me of one of those myths where the sun and the moon got it on and peopled the earth. like einstein said, "imagination is more important than knowledge".

I can't stop anybody from believing that evolution is part of God's plan. But, in the first place, it isn't clear what that means -- you have to define God. If you mean the God of the Torah or Old Testament, there is certainly no evidence for that, and in fact, the Bible argues clearly and convincingly against it, since it tells a story of creation which is not consistent with evolution. If you mean some intelligent entity, I can't rule it out, but there is no reason to suppose so and certainly no need to invoke intent or intelligence to explain evolution. If you think that God is the whole universe or something like that, you're just redefining the word. Okay if you want to do that, not sure what the point would be. The evolutionary origin of the eukaryotes is not comparable to myth. It's a deduction from evidence.

Armen writes:

I'd have to disagree with your hope in the theory of evolution. Surely you don't really believe that continual steps in micro evolution can lead to macro evolution? It's impossible!

Not much of an argument, there obviously, but Armen is referring to the fall-back position creationists have recently adopted. Since the evolution of drug resistant pathogens, laboratory experiments, and natural history observations have now indisputably proved that Darwinian evolution does indeed happen and is happening on earth right now, they have conceded the existence of something they call "micro evolution." This doesn't exactly mean anything, it's just a semantic trick that can be translated as "yabbut just because evolution is real and is happening, that doesn't prove that evolution explains the diversity of life on earth." Well no, it doesn't, but it sure doesn't hurt. The rest of the overwhelming proof is now better than ever.

Eric writes:

Here's the rub: DNA is information. I don't know anyone who seriously denies that. However, if that is true, then information has to imply an "Informer." While 'design' does not have necessarily imply a "Designer," information clearly requires an intelligence.

Not at all. If I see footprints in the sand, I can deduce that a bobcat walked on the beach. That's information, but no intelligence put it there. If I see lightning, I know to expect thunder. Technically speaking, the concept of "information" corresponds to the degree of order in a system, or put another way, it refers to "non-randomness." Lightning contains the information that thunder is coming because the workings of the atmosphere are non-random. There are orderly, describable mechanisms which produce lightning, and they inevitably also produce thunder. The second law of thermodynamics says that the universe moves relentlessly to greater disorder over time. However, the earth is not a closed system. The sun continually pumps in energy. This produces highly ordered events such as thunder and lightning. It also means that that the biosphere, over the eons, has developed counterentropically. Its information content has increased, in part in the form of DNA. No intelligence or intent is needed to explain this.

I love science asks:

Why is the idea that an intelligent being was involved in ordering the universe unscientific in theory?


Why does God have to come from somewhere?

The idea that an intelligent being was involved in ordering the universe is not unscientific. If you can show me evidence for it, I'll consider it. So far, nobody has.

"Why does God have to come from somewhere?" Why not? If you don't need to explain God, you don't need to explain anything. Saying, "God did it, and I don't have to explain God," is just giving up. It's saying you have no need for understanding, you don't want to know anything, and you don't care about truth or meaning. If that's how you feel, there's nothing else I can say to you.

So, that's it for now. Keep those cards and letters coming, folks.

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