Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What is an Intelligent Cause?

I was invited to make a guest post on the forum Telic Thoughts. Here is what I wrote (under the name "aiguy"):

What is an Intelligent Cause?

Intelligent Design Theory claims that certain features of the world (like the existence of life) are best explained by an intelligent cause. I'm open to all sorts of ideas regarding the origin of life, the universe and everything, and I'm also of the opinion that our current scientific understanding of how life may have originated – and even how speciation occurs – is probably incomplete in fundamental ways. Still, I think ID theory is very confused, because it relies on a number of implicit and unfounded assumptions about intelligent causes.

ID does not describe the cause of life at all except to say it was "intelligent"; that is the full extent of ID's explanation for how life came to exist. Now, this concept of intelligence – what the word means and how it can be measured – is highly controversial among those who study human psychology, and even more controversial when applied to animals in general. But in ID, the concept has to be applicable even more generally – completely in the abstract! – because ID does not specify what sort of intelligent thing (life form? spirit? force? god?) might have been responsible. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to ask what particular meaning for this term is being used in the context of ID.

Surprisingly, some people suggest that what the word "intelligent" means in ID theory is "capable of creating complex form and function (CSI)". Hopefully it is clear that this won't do, since in that case ID theory is simply saying that the CSI we observe is best explained by a cause which is capable of creating the CSI we observe – hardly a helpful theory. In order to actually provide some meaningful explanation as to how the CSI in living systems arose, ID must mean something more by "intelligent" than simply "capable of producing CSI". The question, then, is what else this word "intelligent" is supposed to convey in ID theory. Just what mental abilities is the intelligent cause of life supposed to have?

Humans, of course, have all sorts of abilities. We can generate and understand grammatical language, recognize objects by processing sense data, solve problems in symbolic math and logic, compose and understand music, make and use tools, infer what other people are thinking, design machines, learn new skills by practicing, make moral and other philosophical arguments… and so on. Well, most of us can; some people have some of these abilities but not others. Some people are just bad at certain sorts of tasks (my wife can't seem to navigate from a map), and some people have deficits due to injury, disease, or genetic conditions that leave them without some of these abilities. Some people have deficits that are very specific: There are people who can visually recognize everything except faces, or who can use language apart from proper nouns, or who lack the ability to distinguish a melody from a series of random notes. Other people, often called savants, are just the opposite, displaying few abilities except a single one at which they excel.

Other species of animals, and computer systems, are like savants too. An animal might display highly developed abilities for kinesthetic and spatial reasoning, visual recognition, and even musical understanding, without sharing other mental abilities with humans. Likewise computer systems may be very good at mathematics, logic, planning, or design, but be otherwise incapable of accomplishing mental tasks that normal humans do.

So, rather than having a single faculty that uniformally enables all our mental abilities, people appear to have a set of specific capabilities that operate – to some extent, at least – independently, and which can be present in different degrees or absent altogether in any given person. Now, it's true that people who are good at some of these things are often good at the rest of them, or at least some of the rest of them. This covariance of mental abilities is what psychologists are referring to when they speak of "general intelligence" (called g). But this covariance is only seen on average; it doesn't hold true for all people. And sometimes – in savants, other animals, and AI systems – this covariance isn't seen at all.

Intelligence, then, isn't a singular abstract property at all, but rather a collection of abilities that tend to group together in human beings, and tend to appear more singly in some other sorts of entities. Another aspect of human mentality that we might (or might not) associate with intelligence is consciousness. There are a few very tentative theories that attempt to address the mysteries of conscious experience, including what consciousness is, what it does (or doesn't do), why it seems to rely on particular neurological functions, and how we experience consciousness as an unfragmented whole. There is no shortage of different opinions regarding each of these issues and many more, and these questions have been debated for thousands of years without resolution.

Nobody can offer any explanation of how – or if – consciousness arises from brain function, nor can anyone show that anything besides brain function is involved. We know that much of the planning, reasoning, and sensemaking that we routinely perform is accomplished without conscious awareness, and we know that our consciousness normally depends on the functioning of various neurological correlates, but the nature of our subjective awareness seems to be something quite divorced from physical cause and effect. Philosophers and theologians continue to advance their disparate ideas on the subject, but at the moment there is very little understanding that we can point to when it comes to the phenomenology of mind.

So, how does all of this relate to ID theory? Again, the question at hand is what ID theory means when it says that the CSI found in biological systems was caused by something intelligent. Can ID support the claim that the cause of life was conscious? I think it's clear the answer is "no": Since we have no theoretical understanding of what consciousness is, what it does, and what is required for it to exist, we can't claim to know that whatever caused life to exist experienced what we call conscious awareness.

And as for "intelligence", we see that it is actually comprised of different sorts of specific skills, each dependent upon various neurological mechanisms that can vary independently, with different sorts of animals or artificial systems (with different neurologies or physical structure and function) exhibiting different subsets of these abilities. Since ID theory says nothing at all about what sort of physical structures and functions might be present (or absent!) in the entity purported to have caused life, and because we have no opportunity to observe or interact with this hypothetic entity, we have nothing upon which to base any claims regarding the set of mental skills this entity might have possessed.

Given all this, what is it that Stephen Meyer (for example) means when he says that our experience-based knowledge supports the idea that an intelligent agent was responsible for the creation of biological information? Unless further qualification is provided, this is a tautologically empty claim, saying only that the cause of CSI in biological systems was capable of doing whatever was required to cause the CSI in biological systems. But to the extent that it refers to specific mental abilities that are seen typically – but not always – to co-occur in human beings, he is making a claim that has no experience-based support at all.

For all ID can demonstrate, if we asked the Intelligent Designer why, say, He created so many different kinds of beetles, the Designer may be unable to answer, because He may be a non-verbal sort of thing with no conscious beliefs or desires at all, acting without any idea of what He is doing or why. Even if current theories of abiogenesis and evolution were completely on the wrong track, for all we can currently infer from the evidence of CSI in biology, the cause of life may be like some theistic religions describe, or it may be something devoid of the mental functions that humans normally display.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A New Prediction by Intelligent Design Theory

In my previous post, I pointed out that contrary to the tenets of "Intelligent Design Theory", we routinely observe that complex form and function arises by means of "blind" (that is, unconscious) natural processes. The example I used was the vertebrate immune system, where the laws of chemistry can be seen to give rise to complex functional structures (viz. antibodies).

Another interesting example of functional information being generated inside the body is protein folding. When amino acids are strung together to make a protein inside the cell, the resulting polypeptide must assume a specific, complex, three-dimensional shape in order for the protein to be functional. While the immune system is reasonably well understood, how proteins manage to assemble into the correct conformation remains a mystery, despite half a century of concerted effort. This "Protein Folding Problem" is generally acknowledged to be the primary unsolved problem in computational biology.

It has been established that if nothing but random chemical interactions were responsible, there are so many possible shapes that many of these molecules could assume it could take millions of years to happen across the correct shape by chance. Somehow, though, our proteins assume the correct shapes in a matter of seconds or even milliseconds, so it is clear that something we don't understand is guiding the process.

So here is a case where no known combination of chance and natural law can account for the existence of these properly folded proteins in our cells. According to "Intelligent Design Theory", since we can't explain how folding proceeds, and our bodies "lack the probabilistic resources" for the functional proteins to be produced by chance, we ought to conclude that some sort of intelligent agent is busy inside each of our cells, folding up all of our proteins, day in and day out!

More reasonable theories do not involve little intelligent beings, however, and it is expected that physical chemistry will at some point succeed in explaining the details of this phenomenon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stephen Meyer's Argument: As Confused as it Sounds

In my previous post, I showed that Stephen Meyer's claims regarding scientific evidence supporting the intelligent design hypothesis were mistaken, essentially because his assumptions about intelligent agency were based on philosophical speculation rather than on the facts of our experience. Here I make an even stronger case against Meyer's argument.

Recall the second premise of Meyer's central argument:
Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power [to create functionally specified information].

As I pointed out, Meyer is assuming that human intelligence does not arise from the chemical processes in our brains, a claim that can neither be supported nor definitively refuted by the scientific evidence. But there are other examples of "undirected" (that is, presumably unconscious) chemical processes which do demonstrably have the power to create functionally specified information (FSI).

A very good example of this is the adaptive immune system found in vertebrates, which is a reasonably well-understood mechanism that is discussed frequently in the context of intelligent design. According to ID proponents, the immune system is "irreducibly complex" and cannot have evolved by step-wise functional improvements. I'm perfectly willing to accept arguendo that evolutionary theory fails to adequately explain how the immune system came to exist; this has no bearing on the argument I am making here.

I believe it is uncontroversial that the immune system is itself an example of an "undirected" chemical process (i.e. we do not direct its operation with our conscious minds, nor are there any other conscious beings directing its functioning within our bodies). It is also uncontroversial that this unconscious chemical process routinely produces FSI, in the form of targeted antibodies. This would seem to be in direct contradiction to Meyer's claim that "undirected" processes are incapable of generating FSI.

Why doesn't Meyer see that his claim is so obviously refuted? For ID proponents like Meyer, the immune response mechanism itself shows signs of being designed, and this is taken to mean it is not the unconscious chemical processes that are responsible for the FSI in our antibodies, but rather the intelligent agency which supposedly designed the immune system in the first place that should be credited. The situation is supposed to be analogous to a computer program which produces FSI by mechanical means; the capability derives from the intelligence of the (human) programmer rather than from the operation of the machine itself.

Put another way, Meyer's argument is this: The immune system is an undirected chemical process which produces high levels of FSI. But the immune system must be the result of conscious design, because undirected chemical processes cannot produce high levels of FSI.

Yes, this argument really is exactly as confused as it sounds. Let's take it step by step.

Meyer argues that whenever we know the cause of FSI, it invariably turns out to involve intelligent agency. Therefore, when we don't know the cause of FSI (as in the case of the origin of the immune system) we ought to conclude that intelligent agency was behind that too. But in the case of FSI-rich antibodies, we do know the cause... and the cause is the unconscious chemical process of the immune system.

Rather than admitting that this presents a counterexample to Meyer's claim, though, ID enthusiasts skip this inconvenient fact and shift the focus to something where we do not know the cause, which is the immune system itself. In other words, ID asks "Who designed the designer?" of these antibodies, and proceeds to make claims about another designer which supposedly designed the immune system which in turn designed the antibodies!

And what if we discovered that whatever designed the unconscious process of the immune response was yet another unconscious process? No problem - ID would simply claim that something still farther up the causal chain must have been conscious. For every instance of an unconscious processes which designs FSI, ID asks who designed the designer, and simply assumes that the answer is a conscious designer.

But of course once ID posits a conscious designer, nobody is allowed to ask who designed that designer.

Obviously, since we can see that both conscious and unconscious designers produce FSI, the fact that Meyer refuses to consider that the original cause was an unconscious design process shows that Meyer's project cannot be considered as evidence-based. Instead it reflects Meyer's a priori beliefs. The question of whether the universe began with FSI or with a conscious mind which proceeded to design it is ancient, unsolved, and unsolvable by recourse to scientific inquiry. Whatever is true about these philosophical conundrums, it should be clear that Meyer's attempt to infer intelligent design based on a claim that FSI never arises from undirected processes is an exercise in futility.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stephen Meyer's Central Argument... Is Wrong

Stephen Meyer has received a good deal of attention for his book Signature in the Cell. He summarizes his position here, and below I reprint his summary with my comments interspersed. What I show is that his theory is not at all supported by the facts in the way Meyer claims. (Meyer's comments are in bold):

The central argument of my book is that intelligent design—the activity of a conscious and rational deliberative agent—best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell. I argue this because of two things that we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which following Charles Darwin I take to be the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past.

This is a very clear statement of the intelligent design hypothesis, and about what constitutes scientific evidence.

First, intelligent agents have demonstrated the capacity to produce large amounts of functionally specified information (especially in a digital form).

That is obviously true. However, it appears that conscious thought per se is not sufficient for intelligent agency, because according to our uniform and repeated experience, intelligence is invariably a property of exceedingly complex physical systems with machinery to process data input, store and retrieve memories, reason, generate plans, and output functionally specified information (FSI). Nothing in our experience can output FSI without using these FSI-rich mechanisms, and we have no theory of intelligence that does not involve such mechanisms. One can imagine something which can do accomplish these feats without complex physical mechanism, and we have no way of knowing if something like that might exist, but it is certain that nothing like that exists in our uniform and repeated experience.

Moreover, it is unsure that consciousness is even a necessary component of intelligence. Science is as yet unable to determine whether or not consciousness plays a causal role in cognitive functions (as opposed to being our perception of them); what we experience as conscious choice may actually be determined by unconscious brain function. Both non-human animals and humans acting without conscious awareness or intent are capable of producing FSI.

Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power.

If by "undirected" Meyer means "undirected by conscious thought" then this statement is demonstrably false. Our bodies are full of systems that routinely produce FSI without conscious thought; the production of antibodies designed by our immune systems to disable specific pathogens is but one example.

Furthermore, nobody knows if conscious thought itself arises from nothing else but "undirected chemical processes" in the brain (in fact most neuroscientsts believe that it does). For all we know it is nothing but the physical events in our brains ("undirected chemical processes") that account for all of our cognitive skills, including our ability to design complex machines.

This is not to say that science has solved the mind/body problem and shown that materialism is true; rather it is to point out that there is no good scientific case for dualism either. Since the question of mind/body dualism is currently undecidable by scientific inquiry, it remains in theological or philosophical debate - just as it has been for many centuries. Therefore it is untrue for Meyer to suggest that we know "undirected chemical processes" cannot produce intelligent behaviors.

Hence, intelligent design provides the best—most causally adequate—explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life from simpler non-living chemicals.

No, it is a particularly poor explanation. Every intelligent agent in our uniform and repeated experience is a living thing (i.e. a complex physical organism containing large amounts of FSI), and obviously the first living thing could not have been created by another living thing. Thus, ID necessarily refers to something for which there is no good evidence at all: An intelligent agent that is not itself a living thing.

If ID wishes to be taken seriously as a scientific explanation, it needs to address this directly, and come up with some way of demonstrating that such a thing exists (or at least could exist in principle). The relevant discipline here is usually called "paranormal psychology", but Meyer does not mention anything about paranormal phenomena even once in his book.

In other words, intelligent design is the only explanation that cites a cause known to have the capacity to produce the key effect in question.

Meyers' conclusion is simply false, because ID is not citing a known cause at all. Instead it cites a cause which is very much unknown, and which violates our experience-based understanding of what is required for intelligent agency to exist. As far as our uniform and repeated experience goes, there is no such thing as a non-living entity with the same sort of mental and physical abilities as we see in living things. We need not believe in materialism, or evolutionary theory, in order to see that ID is inconsistent with the facts of our experience.

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