Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Discussion of Origins

aiguy: I think that life was created by an intelligent computer.
IDguy: How do you figure?
aiguy: Intelligence was needed to create the first life. And it obviously couldn’t have been biological intelligence. The only other kind of intelligence we have any experience with is computer intelligence.
IDguy: But computers need to be programmed by a real intelligence in order to do anything intelligent. Who do you suppose programmed this intelligent computer?
aiguy: Hmm, good point. Ok, what’s your theory?
IDguy: I believe in ID theory. An Intelligent Designer created life.
aiguy: But… the designer must have itself been designed, right? Who do you supposed designed this intelligent designer?
IDguy: You can’t ask that of ID - is not in the scope of the theory! ID is strictly scientific. We leave questions of ultimate cause to religion.
aiguy: Wait a minute. How come it’s OK for you to ask “Who programmed the intelligent computer?” but it’s not OK for me to ask the “Who designed the intelligent designer”?
IDguy: This is absurd. Only people build computers. Before there were people around, there couldn’t have been any computers to design life.
aiguy: That’s true. But only living things are intelligent, so before there were living things around, there couldn’t be any intelligence that could design life.
IDguy: How do you know only living things are intelligent? Maybe something could be intelligent that isn’t a living being.
aiguy: How do you know only people make computers? I think it’s more likely that some sort of computer was around before life started than it is for some disembodied thing to be able to design life. How can the Designer be so brainy when it has no brain? How does it do its handiwork with no hands?
IDguy: Who said anything about being disembodied?
aiguy: If it didn’t have a biological body, then what sort of body did it have?
IDguy: Ok, it was disembodied. But it is no more unlikely for a disembodied intelligent agent to have designed life than for a computer to have done it.
aiguy: In other words, Intelligent Design Theory is no better than Intelligent Computer Theory?
IDguy: Well… Let’s teach the controversy! I say an Intelligent Designer designed life, and you say a computer did it. Who do you think most people will believe?

* * * * *

aiguy: Neither of these theories is any good at all. Just because people already believe in God doesn’t mean this ID theory stands up to scientific scrutiny.
IDguy: Who said anything about God?
aiguy: If it isn’t God, who is this Intelligent Designer?
IDguy: Ok, it’s God. Once you believe in God, ID theory is very appealing.
aiguy: What if I don’t believe in God?
IDguy: Then you must be a moral relativist, and you worship only money. You have no purpose in your life. Oh, and you probably won’t believe in ID theory either.
aiguy: No, I also worship Barack Obama and the liberal media... but that’s beside the point. I thought ID was supposed to be scientific. How can you test this Intelligent Designer hypothesis?
IDguy: I can scientifically demonstrate that random mutation and natural selection is incapable of producing the complex specified information and irreducibly complex structures that we observe in biological systems.
aiguy: But my theory is about an intelligent computer, not evolutionary processes.
IDguy: Well, who programmed the computer?
aiguy: You already tried that one.
IDguy: Here’s what you don’t understand. Intelligence is a fundamental, irreducible force in the universe, like gravity. You can’t detect it directly; you can only detect its effects. That is what is responsible for the complexity of living things.
aiguy: Anybody can make up a force and say it explains whatever they want it to explain. My force is called “orbis” and it explains crop circles.
IDguy: How does “orbis” explain crop circles?
aiguy: Orbis is a fundamental, irreducible force of the universe, like gravity. You can’t detect it directly; you can only detect the crop circles.
IDguy: You don’t really believe all of this stuff you’re saying. There’s no such thing as the “orbis” force. You’re just playing word games.
aiguy: I don’t believe in the orbis force, no. I was just trying to show that inventing a force to explain something isn’t helpful unless there are some specifics to back it up.
IDguy: Maybe, but evolution can’t back up what it says either. Nobody can show macro-evolutionary changes result from mere chance. That’s so dumb, it makes you wonder why these intellectual elite scientists think they’re so smart.
aiguy: But my theory wasn’t about evolution. It was about…
IDguy: Cut it out! You don’t believe an intelligent computer designed life either!
aiguy: You’re right, I don’t. But just because you think you’ve shown that one theory is wrong doesn’t mean some other theory has to be right. Even if evolution fails to account for life, it doesn’t make your ID theory any better. It’s not one bit better than my ridiculous Intelligent Computer theory. And it’s not any more helpful than my “orbis” theory, either.
IDguy: If evolutionary theory is wrong, and ID theory isn’t any better than these silly things you made up, what do you think we should teach our children?
aiguy: Who cares? I’m an atheist – I ate my kids.

* * * * *

IDguy: I’ve figured it out. ID theory is true, but if you want to think that the Intelligent Designer was a computer, that’s ok. The identity of the designer is outside the scope of ID theory, and if you want to think it’s a computer, you go right ahead. You’re still under the Big Tent of ID. All you have to believe is that intelligence was involved. Maybe it was an extra-terrestrial life form, or maybe it was a computer, or maybe it was God. Whatever.
aiguy: But if it was an extra-terrestrial life form, then ID theory still wouldn’t explain the origin of life. And if it was a computer, then ID theory still wouldn’t explain who programmed the computer.
IDguy: I’m not going to talk about that. You can believe whatever you want to. All I’m saying is that whatever it was, it was intelligent.
aiguy: But no matter what I believe about the Intelligent Designer, ID theory fails to explain how life really got started! That is, unless I believe in God.
IDguy: Well, you might want to rethink your rejection of the Lord.
aiguy: So I should believe in God because then ID theory makes sense, and we can explain the mystery of life?
IDguy: Works for me. Once you understand that only God can have created life, everything makes sense.
aiguy: Even crop circles?
IDguy: No, not crop circles. Those really are by aliens.
aiguy: You’ve given me a lot to think about, IDGuy. God might just fill that void in my heart, and help me to quit abusing small animals.
IDguy: And it’s good science, too!

* * * * * (some time later)

IDguy: So, aiguy, how has your ID research been going?
aiguy: It’s been going very well. Once I accepted the design hypothesis, it has been a powerful heuristic for approaching the most difficult problems in science. I’ve figured out how the universe began, why the physical constants have the values they do, why we have such nice solar eclipses on Earth, and why there are so many different kinds of beetles. It turns out that in each case, the answer was intelligent causation.
IDguy: That’s great. I’m currently working on a theory of how proteins fold. My working hypothesis is that intelligent causation is responsible.
aiguy: Sounds like you’re on the right track.
IDguy: Are you still playing around with those computers?
aiguy: Yeah. I built a system that has figured out how to beat the stock market. I use the profits to fund my ID research.
IDguy: Obviously you mean that you figured out how to play the market - the computer is just a tool, remember? It didn’t figure it out all by itself!
aiguy: I guess so. I don’t really know anything about stocks, though. I just let it randomly develop different strategies until it was doing better than any human expert. It came up with such a complicated method for picking stocks – I still don’t understand how it does it.
IDguy: Obviously it just used a brute-force, mindless exploration of the alternatives – it wasn’t actually thinking about the stock market!
aiguy: Still, if I didn’t know how it worked, I would swear that a financial genius was developing those strategies. It seems so… intelligent…
IDguy: Perhaps, but this is merely apparent intelligence, not real intelligence.
aiguy: You mean like the design of living things is merely apparent design, not real design?
IDguy: No, no – that’s real design, not apparent design.
aiguy: I’m a little confused now. How do we tell real intelligence from apparent intelligence again?
IDguy: You see, real intelligence involves the ability to plan, deliberate, choose from among options, and work toward a goal. Your program just mindlessly tries different things, keeping those aspects of its strategy that work and discarding the rest, until it could predict stock market fluctuations. Undirected processes like that don’t count as real intelligence.
aiguy: But what if we didn’t know that’s what it was doing? What if we only saw the end result – a brilliant strategy for picking stocks that even the smartest financial experts can’t match? How could we tell from just these observable effects that a mindless mechanism was involved, rather than a real intelligence?
IDguy: Your computer didn’t make up its own goal – you put the goal in the program. Your “fitness function” to test for beneficial changes was explicitly programmed by you. The computer didn’t decide all by itself that it wanted to play the stock market.
aiguy: It’s funny you should say that. As it happens, I had built a rich simulation of the economy into the computer, including all sorts of ways to make money – manufacturing, service industries, stocks, bonds, money markets... I didn’t know which one it would pick, but it ended up focusing on the stock market for some reason. It’s like it decided all by itself.
IDguy: Mindless, mechanical processes can’t decide anything by themselves.
aiguy: But I certainly didn’t decide what the program should do, and I couldn’t possibly have predicted what it would choose. If I didn’t decide, and the computer didn’t decide… who decided?
IDguy: Anyway, your simulation of the economy wasn’t realistic – you couldn’t have modeled anything as complicated as the actual economy.
aiguy: True. Every model must necessarily simplify to some extent. Even when simulations are used to test new aircraft designs, it’s not like every molecule of air has been modeled in the simulation. Still, aircraft that “fly” in the simulations do actually fly in the real world. And my program for picking stocks certainly has done well…
IDguy: Well, I’m glad you’ve made a lot money to fund further ID research. What’s your next project?
aiguy: I’ve just built a simulation of Earth, and I’m using my random generate-and-test programs to model the Intelligent Designer. So far, this virtual Intelligent Designer has built some pretty interesting virtual life forms.
IDguy: How can you be modeling the Intelligent Designer using random generation and test algorithms? That is the antithesis of intelligent designing!
aiguy: I know. But it seems to work. There isn’t really any intelligence in my simulation at all – just a few simple rules for coming up with random variation and testing the results against the virtual environment. And these complex, functional, virtual life-forms evolve… Do you think the same sort of the thing might account for real biological systems?
IDguy: Nope.
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