Philosophers, Science, and Creationism

Investigating the boundary between science and religion

Richard Johns is a Sessional Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He came to my attention because he just posted a note on Uncommon Descent where he points us to a paper he recently published. Here's the link to his posting: The Limits of Self Organization.

You know as well as I do that anyone posting on that blog is a creationist, specifically an Intelligent Design Creationist. Thus, it won't surprise you to read that his work supports that version of creationism even if the paper itself doesn't mention Intelligent Design Creationism. (Where have we heard that before?)
I’m writing to tell people about a paper of mine that was published in Synthese last month, titled: "Self-organisation in dynamical systems: a limiting result". While the paper doesn’t address intelligent design as such, it indirectly establishes strict limits to what such evolutionary mechanisms as natural selection can accomplish. In particular, it shows that physical laws, operating on an initially random arrangement of matter, cannot produce complex objects with any reasonable chance in any reasonable time.
Synthese is "An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science." It is not a science journal. Please keep that in mind. Here's a link to Richard Johns' article published online last month [Self-organisation in dynamical systems: a limiting result]. Most of you won't be able to see that article so he kindly provided a link to Pre-published version.

The abstract makes you sit up and take notice.
There is presently considerable interest in the phenomenon of “self-organisation” in dynamical systems. The rough idea of self-organisation is that a structure appears “by itself” in a dynamical system, with reasonably high probability, in a reasonably short time, with no help from a special initial state, or interaction with an external system. What is often missed, however, is that the standard evolutionary account of the origin of multi-cellular life fits this definition, so that higher living organisms are also products of self-organisation. Very few kinds of object can self-organise, and the question of what such objects are like is a suitable mathematical problem. Extending the familiar notion of algorithmic complexity into the context of dynamical systems, we obtain a notion of “dynamical complexity”. A simple theorem then shows that only objects of very low dynamical complexity can self organise, so that living organisms must be of low dynamical complexity. On the other hand, symmetry considerations suggest that living organisms are highly complex, relative to the dynamical laws, due to their large size and high degree of irregularity. In particular, it is shown that since dynamical laws operate locally, and do not vary across space and time, they cannot produce any specific large and irregular structure with high probability in a short time. These arguments suggest that standard evolutionary theories of the origin of higher organisms are incomplete.
All the code words are there. There's no way the editors of Synthese could be unaware of the implications of this work. It purports to be evidence of the existence of God. We can safely conclude that the discipline of philosophy has admitted the possibility that science could prove the existence of God.

(Don't bother reading the paper. It's one of those complicated lines of argument involving lots of mathematical equations. There probably aren't more than a few dozen people in the entire world who can understand the paper and offer objective criticism. I don't know if any of them reviewed the paper—I suspect not, but what do I know?)

Richard Johns concludes that current evolutionary theory is incomplete.
I have argued that there is an important limitation on the kinds of object that can appear spontaneously in a dynamical system. Such systems, with laws that operate locally and invariantly across space and time, are able to control only the local structure of the state. The state as a whole is therefore uncontrolled, except insofar as it is constrained by the local structure. This led us to the Limitative Theorem, which says that an irregular object, i.e. one that is largely undetermined by its local structure, cannot easily be produced in a dynamical system. Indeed, it was shown that its production is no easier than the appearance of an object of very similar size in a purely random system.

This result, while relevant to biology, does not of course contradict the theory of evolution in its most general form, i.e. that life evolved through a process of descent with modification. This is just as well, since the historical process of phylogeny is very well supported by the evidence. Nevertheless, the Limitative Theorem does suggest that the currently recognised processes driving evolutionary change are incomplete.
Doesn't this create some problems concerning the border between science and philosophy? You betcha, and Richard Johns is fully aware of the implications. Here's what he wrote on his blog [Why should self-organisation be limited?].
My theorem is also pure doom and gloom. Let's be honest: It offers no positive suggestion at all.

Can such negative claims be part of science? It is often said that a scientist must propose hypotheses that are empirically testable. That's not really true, however. While that's a big part of science, a lot of good scientific work is indeed negative. Much useful work is done by experimentalists who show that, while hypothesis H might predict empirical result E, E doesn't actually occur. Also, while most theorists are busily showing that H predicts E, other theorists very helpfully point out that H doesn't really predict E at all, even though we thought it did. A really negative scientist might even show that no hypothesis of a certain type will ever predict E.

I'm afraid I'm one of those really negative scientists. I've shown that no hypothesis in a very broad class predicts the existence of complex living organisms. More precisely, life cannot self organise in any dynamical system whose laws are local and invariant under spatial translation.
This is a very important point. Is it scientific to show that something cannot happen? I think it is.

Let's take a simple case like group selection. George Williams made a name for himself back in the 1960s by presumably showing that group selection could not occur by any known mechanism of evolution. Nobody, as far as I know, suggested that he wasn't being scientific. Lamarckian evolution is anther example. Although it's theoretically possible to pass on acquired characteristics, we discount that possibility because we can show that the connection between phenotypic changes and altering the genome rules out Lamarckian inheritance as a general mechanism of evolution.

If showing that something is theoretically impossible is valid science in some cases then why do we declare that attempts to do the same thing by Intelligent Design Creationists are automatically ruled non-scientific?

Richard Johns faces a special problem because he seems to have bought into methodological naturalism as a limitation on science. Again, from his blog ...
At this point a worrying possibility emerges. This no-go theorem is so broad that it rules out just about any naturalistic theory of the origin of life! It certainly seems to rule out all the naturalistic theories presently proposed. Yet, the whole business of science is to provide natural explanations for phenomena, so this result is unscientific after all. (Even if it is technically correct, take note.)

Well, this is an awkward business! What are we to do?
Indeed. What is he to do? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Johns has made a reasonable case for his argument. Let's assume that there may be ways of showing that life is impossible under the known laws of chemistry and physics. Is that science? Does it fit into the restriction of methodological naturalism?

I think the answer to the first question is "yes." It may be bad science, it may even be really bad science, but it's still science to investigate whether completely naturalistic explanations can account for life as we know it.

Let's not pretend to be naive. If there's no naturalistic explanation then there has to be some other kind of explanation.
So I think we have to broaden our horizons, and be open to new kinds of explanation. Perhaps it won't be that bad? And we have no other choice, if we want our explanations to be true.
We know what that means. By ruling out naturalistic causes, we are forced to consider supernatural causes. Is that what makes Richard Johns' work unscientific but not that of George Williams and many other theoreticians of biology? 'Cause if that's what methodological naturalism is all about then it's an ass.

I think everything is fair game for science. Our goal is not to develop rigid rules that make us feel good by ruling our opponents out of bounds just because we don't like their conclusions. Our goal should be to show that they are wrong.

I fully expect that people like Wesley Elsbery and Jeffrey Shallit and will show us why Richard Johns is wrong, just as they did for similar arguments by Bill Dembski. As they do that, Elsbery and Shallit will be practicing science as a way of discovering truth. It would make no sense to declare that Richard Johns has stepped outside the realm of science but Elsbery and Shallit remain inside its boundaries.

The Intelligent Design Creationist attacks on evolution are wrong because they are bad science, not because they are not science.

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