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The Accidental Design Apologist

Back in 2004, a well-known philosopher appeared in an interview and appeared to make a startling concession – that there was evidence that evolution itself was in some sense designed, and perhaps even directed towards a goal. This let to a lot of buzz on the internet, eventually resulting in back and forth between the philosopher and interviewer – the philosopher backed away from his previous statements and insisted he made no such concession, while the interviewer (himself a self-declared agnostic, even materialist) held to his guns and (armed with the actual interview) argued the philosopher had made this concession and was now changing his story and backing off.

So, who was this philosopher who stood accused of conceding evidence for design and purpose in nature?

Some Theistic Evolutionist, perhaps? A reasonable guess, but no. Besides, many TEs are too good at the fine art of saying nothing noteworthy to find themselves making such a concession.

Maybe Anthony Flew? Again, a good guess, but still no. Besides, when Flew went deist he no longer regarded ‘design’ as a dirty word.

No, the philosopher in question was none other than (once upon a time) fourth horseman of the Atheist Apocalypse Dan Dennett, being interviewed by Robert Wright.

And there’s a lesson to be learned from the whole affair.

Robert Wright has kept his replies to Dennett online, complete with his and Dennett’s responses to the interview, and the original interview itself. The entire back-and-forth is fairly long, but Wright’s argument largely comes down to two exchanges he had with Dennett:

Wright: “So, I’m just saying that to the extent—I think we’ve agreed that observing, what is it, I guess ontogeny is the term, you know, the development of an organism, that it has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that’s in fact a hallmark of design. Would you agree that to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design—to some extent, to any extent?”

Dennett: “Ummm, Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Yeah.

Wright [after describing ontogeny, i.e. the maturation of an organism]: “I would submit that if you step back and observe life on this planet in time lapse, including not just the evolution of human beings, but the cultural–including technological–evolution that led to where we are today, the process would look remarkably like that. And in fact you yourself in your most recent book, Freedom Evolves, you say–there’s a sentence something like, `The planet is growing its own nervous system, us.’ And it’s true—it looks like that.”

Dennett: Yeah, absolutely.

Wright: “And there is a functionality about it”

Dennett: Yeah, yeah.

Wright: “And you agree there’s been a directionality about it”

Dennett: Yes.

As I said, Dennett reversed himself on this after the fact (or ‘clarified’, if you accept Dennett’s view). I have to agree with Wright, though, that the most natural way to interpret Dennett is the way Wright did: As conceding that there was some evidence that evolution itself was designed, and that it was proceeding as if following some goal. Wright qualifies this heavily – towards what goal we can’t definitely say, designed by what (or who) we can’t be sure – but insofar as that’s the case it has some things in common with ID-style arguments. If we found a Mount Rushmore kind of artifact on Mars, we’d be in a similar situation.

But let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether or not Dennett himself truly was conceding Wright’s point. Notice that Wright describes himself as an agnostic, even as a materialist – he’s not approaching the question as some Theistic Evolutionist trying to somehow import Darwinism into his beliefs. He’s also not bringing in irreducible complexity style arguments, he’s making reference to no religion. Yet when he takes a look at evolutionary history and progress – even a fairly mainstream, orthodox, Darwinian view of it – he finds himself arguing for what amount to design inferences. And really, he’s not even trying very hard; it falls out naturally for him just by going through the past development of life from a cell to multicellular organisms to (eventually) worldwide communications, networks, and perhaps even expansions into space.

This goes far beyond the questions of one man’s psychology (or two men, if we include Dennett.) Despite being a TE of sorts myself, I’m typically disappointed with how most theistic evolutionists engage the design question, to say nothing of the evolution question. But part of that disappointment is the reluctance for many TEs to even go as far as Wright did in this exchange, to say nothing of going far beyond it (as I think they have plenty of license to do.) I’m willing to admit that Wright is, even as an agnostic accepting evolution, considering the question in a way that is ultimately non-Darwinian – if you view Darwinism as necessarily being devoid of design or purpose.

I bring all this up to encourage this simple idea: It is possible that evolution, even macroevolution, is filled with areas, aspects, and developments upon which one could make design inferences, even to the point of identifying teleology in the process at large. Indeed, our knowledge of biology, nature, and even evolution itself has changed drastically since Darwin, and saying “But natural selection is still central!” isn’t enough to safeguard against teleological, directional, or purposeful findings. And I think ID proponents, even ones who reject the sufficiency of macro-evolutionary explanations and elsewise should – if the Big Tent really is big – be willing, even eager, to throw support behind those who make design inferences about evolution itself.

Which brings me back to Dennett. See, even while standing by his claim that his reading of Dennett was the correct one and that Dennett was backtracking from his previous statement, Wright had some speculation for the sudden change.

Still, even if the atheists’ slope isn’t all that slippery, there are reasons for them to balk at the first step. The concession Dennett (in my view) made on that videotape could be enough to move a person from atheist to agnostic. Further, this concession highlights the fact I noted above: that Dennett’s assertions of ultimate purposelessness have never rested on any solid logical or empirical foundation. He says of natural selection (rather as monotheists say of God) that it is the undesigned designer, the prime mover of purpose. Well, maybe so. And maybe not. Neither view is self-evidently true or self-evidently false. That’s why I’ve long thought agnosticism is the most intellectually defensible position one can take: it is just the plain acknowledgment of uncertainty. But some people on both sides of the question—true believers and confirmed atheists—seem to find uncertainty threatening.

Now, I dispute Wright’s claim that agnosticism is the most intellectually defensible position one can take – I think theism is the most defensible position, that the arguments for certain particular theisms are compelling, and that atheism is ultimately the least likely option. But I do agree that a concession like Dennett’s – and a view like Wright’s – could be enough to shift a person in the direction he notes. Indeed, I’ve long thought that one of the greatest fears some atheists have of ID is that it would do precisely that – start advocating a design perspective in evolution itself, either kicking the claims of ateleology into the ‘unknown’ column, or out and out leading to a more teleological reading of evolution. It would disarm them of arguably the only intellectual weapon they have.

Put another way: I think it’s clear that many design-deniers are very emotionally and intellectually invested in evolution, in the broad sense. Many design proponents have seen this as reason to try and sink evolution, reasoning that if they succeed in that capacity they’ll take the design-deniers with them. My own advice? Consider planting the ID flag in evolution as well. I think design proponents will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

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23 Responses to The Accidental Design Apologist

  1. Thumbs up.

  2. Point

  3. Very interesting Nullasalus, intriguing in fact. Your position as a “TE of sorts” interests me. I’m a theist who has been courting evolution for some time. However, I’m not sure I would want to call myself a TE as I’ve endeavored to take up a position of studied detachment – or rather “unattachment”; I try not to get wedded to ideas. With evolution it’s more a case of having it on my bench for interested examination, but you wouldn’t catch me calling it “fact”.

    One of the criticisms I have with the design detection flow chart featured on this site is that it doesn’t bring out clearly (although it may be there implicitly) that if one goes down the evolution route one still is ultimately faced with a startling particularity in nature that prompts the design question. In other words entanglement with the design question is ultimately unavoidable whatever route one takes through the flow chart. Unfortunately on the face of it the flow chart seems to admit that there is actually a “non-design” option – I don’t see any non-design scenarios or at least scenarios where the design question doesn’t start to lurk ominously in the background – as perhaps your reported conversation above suggests.

    Given the foregoing, then if the following observation by you is right…

    Despite being a TE of sorts myself, I’m typically disappointed with how most theistic evolutionists engage the design question, to say nothing of the evolution question. But part of that disappointment is the reluctance for many TEs to even go as far as Wright did in this exchange, ….

    …I too would be disappointed. However, I would like to mention that when I once attended a lecture by Christian Evolutionist John Polkinghorne I noted that he was very clear in claiming to be an “Intelligent Design Creationist” who sees design manifesting itself in the fruitfulness of evolution.

    Although I agree with this sentiment of yours:

    And I think ID proponents, even ones who reject the sufficiency of macro-evolutionary explanations and elsewise should – if the Big Tent really is big – be willing, even eager, to throw support behind those who make design inferences about evolution itself.

    …..I have grave doubts about that support and willingness coming about. The field seems far too polarized into mutually hostile camps for that to happen. There is far too much humble pie to be eaten for people to give up on a life’s work intellectual investment. (But I really hope I’m wrong, I really do) Moreover people feel uneasy in a really big a tent. A movement that recognizably stands for something clear, or should I say recognizably stands against something satisfies deep tribal instincts and the desire to identify. Therefore I don’t think the days of the ID community as the de facto anti-evolutionist party are over. Anti-evolution is the flag to which many in the ID community rally. In the small tent you know who to boo and who to cheer. So your position, Nullasalus, looks to me fascinatingly anomalous.

    Anyway thanks for your post. I like your position, but above all I like your attitude. Let’s have more of it!

  4. 4

    I think anyone who claims to have never even been tempted to believe that living things are designed is being dishonest. Even Charles Darwin wrote “One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions and man without believing that all have been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.” So how is it that ID advocates have, in scientific circles, come to be more outcast than UFO believers, if everyone has at least struggled with the idea?

  5. TVR:

    You may want to look at this chart here, noting how it focuses on ASPECTS of phenomena.

    The issue there is to identify on empirical signs, what is credibly — per inferred best explanation on evidence — responsible for this aspect, then we move on to the next . . .

    When we look at biology we get one set of inferences. An examination of the cosmos is where design of nature as a whole becomes an issue, on its signs.

    GEM of TKI

  6. Timothy V Reeves,

    Unfortunately on the face of it the flow chart seems to admit that there is actually a “non-design” option – I don’t see any non-design scenarios or at least scenarios where the design question doesn’t start to lurk ominously in the background – as perhaps your reported conversation above suggests.

    If you’re saying that even the evolutionary picture as typically presented, minus the usual atheist spin, has the reek of design about it.. I’d agree entirely. My own position is one of believing the evidence for guidance, purpose, and elsewise is considerable and compelling, and in ways that make evolution and natural selection largely moot. That said, I don’t close the door on the possibility of direct intervention (or who knows what else) in the history of life on earth, and I just don’t have that animated passion against those who reject evolution – to say nothing of questioning its mechanisms – that seems almost mandatory in most TE circles.

    However, I would like to mention that when I once attended a lecture by Christian Evolutionist John Polkinghorne I noted that he was very clear in claiming to be an “Intelligent Design Creationist” who sees design manifesting itself in the fruitfulness of evolution.

    I like Polkinghorne – in fact I read his co-writer’s blog regularly. However, Polkinghorne has a couple things going for him many TEs do not: For one he’s a physicist who focused largely on cosmology in his writings, so the evolution question for him rarely comes up. Second and more importantly, insofar as he is a TE, he’s one who never defined himself by his opposition to ID or even YEC, much less his support for Darwinian evolution.

    Biologos is a good counter-example. I hoped, and continue to hope, that they would be a group dedicated to making positive arguments about design in nature, even evolution. I have been tremendously disappointed. For example, I was heartened to see their endorsement, however qualified, of ‘Homo Divinus’ models of Adam and Eve – something I personally find powerful, valid and intriguing. And almost immediately they turn around and nearly disavow it. Why? Because Jerry Coyne, the Shemp Howard of the New Atheists, wrote an angry blog entry of no substance. When the premiere TE organization is concerned about getting a pat on the head from that guy, something’s deeply wrong.

    There is far too much humble pie to be eaten for people to give up on a life’s work intellectual investment.

    I don’t think any humble pie is required. I’m not at all saying that ID proponents who reject evolution should now accept it – far from it. Nor is what I’m saying all that revolutionary for ID; if I recall right, I’ve seen Bill Dembski, and certainly Michael Behe, say explicitly that one can accept Common Descent and even macroevolution and still be an ID proponent. (Certainly Behe would have to take that line.) It would cost little to say, “Even if evolution, even macroevolution, were true, non-design arguers are still in a terrible position.”

    No revolution needed – merely emphasis.

    Anyway thanks for your post. I like your position, but above all I like your attitude. Let’s have more of it!

    Thank you for the compliments. Much appreciated.

  7. Granville Sewell,

    So how is it that ID advocates have, in scientific circles, come to be more outcast than UFO believers, if everyone has at least struggled with the idea?

    Perhaps you’ve answered your own question. Maybe that gut feeling of seeing design everywhere (and in the spirit of the post, I’d say – even in evolution) makes the threat of ID proponents seem all the more urgent. Maybe, as Wright suggested, design is so easy to see – even in places where it’s traditionally been declared absent – that some people feel, if this was acknowledged too openly, their whole world could come under attack.

  8. Granville RE 4

    Pretty easy to answer,only takes three words, the metaphysical implications.

    The animosity against design especially since Darwin is all about metaphysics not science. To quote P Johnson “Darwinism is metaphysics disguised as science”

    Design proponets are heretics and must be excommunicated.

    Vivid

  9. Nullasalus @ 6
    Thanks for the reply Nullasalus: Picking up some points:

    If you’re saying that even the evolutionary picture as typically presented, minus the usual atheist spin, has the reek of design about it.

    Yes I agree I am saying that. Neither do I close the door on direct intervention.

    Sorry to hear that Biologos seem unwilling to make positive representations about design even from an evolutionary standpoint. Call me a cynic (And you’d be right!) but my guess is that the usual tribal complexes are implicated. Viz: Wanting to be seen with the right people, group identification, posturing, reputation building, polarisation, leadership lionization etc. Also, I suspect political fault lines have their influence on this subject.

    if I recall right, I’ve seen Bill Dembski, and certainly Michael Behe, say explicitly that one can accept Common Descent and even macroevolution and still be an ID proponent. (Certainly Behe would have to take that line.) It would cost little to say, “Even if evolution, even macroevolution, were true, non-design arguers are still in a terrible position.”

    Yes, positive signals from both sides would go a long way to cooling heads. It’s true that a situation of mutual contention can increase motivation and raise productivity as each side then does its damnedest to prove their points, but set against that is a concomitant pressure suppressing intellectual integrity.

  10. vividbleau,

    ‘Pretty easy to answer,only takes three words, the metaphysical implications.’

    That is exactly what I have never understood about atheistic Darwinists. They act as if the ‘metaphysical implications’ of Design, of there actually being a ‘living God’, Who created this universe and all life in it, would just be a horrendous thing if it were proven to be true to them. And thus, for whatever misguided reason of them finding it ‘horrendous’, they fight tooth and nail using all sorts of tactics for maintaining their self-deception, just to deny what is becoming more and more overwhelmingly obvious to everyone else who looks into this as our knowledge progresses. Yet for me the ‘metaphysical implications’ of Design, far from being ‘horrendous, are something wonderful to behold, as they give us our only hope for ‘eternal life’ in the face of a world which is relentlessly gripped by senseless death, from which there would be no possibility of escape save that Design, with a capital D, is actually true.,,, That Christianity goes even further in its ‘metaphysical implications’ and promises a ‘eternal personal relationship’ with this ‘living God’, who created this universe and all life in it, should be no less than the greatest wonder that would consume a person’s life, certainly to the point of at least honestly and carefully weighing these things out instead of practicing such unreasonable self-deception;

    THE EIGHT-FOLD WAY TO KNOWING GOD
    A Study From The Second Epistle of Peter, Chapter One by Lambert Dolphin
    Knowing God Personally and Intimately
    Excerpt: Can a person embark on a journey that leads to knowing God? The overwhelming claim of the Bible is yes! Not only can anyone of us know the Lord and the Creator of everything that exists, we are invited—even urged—each one of us, to know him intimately, personally and deeply.
    http://ldolphin.org/Eightfld.html

    Nicole C. Mullen – My Redeemer Lives – Video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpCaNBhK4S0

  11. “They act as if the ‘metaphysical implications’ of Design, of there actually being a ‘living God’, Who created this universe and all life in it, would just be a horrendous thing if it were proven to be true to them.”

    Here I actually disagree. I do not think that the acknowledgement of design requires the acknowledgement of a personal God. I think that sometime in the future design will be accepted once a form of it can be reconciled with materialistic metaphysics much the same way that the big bang was.

    Vivid

  12. vivid; perhaps they can start this path of acceptance, within materialistic metaphysics, by acknowledging that information, and consciousness, are their own uniquely ‘physical’ entities separate from any matter and/or energy basis?

    “Those devices (computers) can yield only approximations to a structure (of information) that has a deep and “computer independent” existence of its own.” – Roger Penrose – The Emperor’s New Mind – Pg 147

    “Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day.”
    Norbert Weiner – MIT Mathematician – Father of Cybernetics

    Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger by Richard Conn Henry – Physics Professor – John Hopkins University
    Excerpt: Why do people cling with such ferocity to belief in a mind-independent reality? It is surely because if there is no such reality, then ultimately (as far as we can know) mind alone exists. And if mind is not a product of real matter, but rather is the creator of the “illusion” of material reality (which has, in fact, despite the materialists, been known to be the case, since the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925), then a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism (solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist). (Dr. Henry’s referenced experiment and paper – “An experimental test of non-local realism” by S. Gröblacher et. al., Nature 446, 871, April 2007 – “To be or not to be local” by Alain Aspect, Nature 446, 866, April 2007 (personally I feel the word “illusion” was a bit too strong from Dr. Henry to describe material reality and would myself have opted for his saying something a little more subtle like; “material reality is a “secondary reality” that is dependent on the primary reality of God’s mind” to exist. Then again I’m not a professor of physics at a major university as Dr. Henry is.)
    http://henry.pha.jhu.edu/aspect.html

  13. vivid, I have to also ask that if it was simply a matter of design being ‘reconciled with materialistic metaphysics’ for design to be accepted by neo-Darwinists, then why in the world do people like PZ Myers spend at least half their time, as Dr. Hunter clearly points out, making Theistic arguments about how God would and would not design something? No vivid, as much as I would like to agree that it just a matter a setting proper scientific and ‘physical’ definitions for design to be accepted, I have to admit that when I see and hear the arguments of the ‘new atheists’, I am compelled to believe there is something far deeper at work here than mere grumblings of practicing science properly, something much deeper!

  14. There’s no point on people of faith trying to accommodate Darwinian Theory at just the point the scientific community is beginning to recognize that the theory itself is bankrupt.” Stephen C. Meyer

    God and Evolution – Can you be a Darwinist and a theist?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwgVdoEXnzE

  15. Heya all. Some scattered comments.

    Timothy V Reeves,

    Well, I agree with your general estimation of the problem with Biologos. As for ‘tribes’, well, everyone’s got a tribe, myself included, given one standard or another. I still hold out hope that something useful, perhaps even inspiring, will come out of Biologos. That’s going to require a spine, though. (Created, evolved, either will do.)

    Vividbleu,

    Here I actually disagree. I do not think that the acknowledgement of design requires the acknowledgement of a personal God. I think that sometime in the future design will be accepted once a form of it can be reconciled with materialistic metaphysics much the same way that the big bang was.

    Now that turns my head – you’ve hit on the theme of a post I want to get to soon! I agree about the acknowledgment of design and a personal God (really, this seems like the standard ID view besides.) As for reconciling such with ‘materialistic’ metaphysics, I’d say that’s actually pretty easy and well underway (another thing I’ll be discussing.) (To see how easy it is, look at how the Big Bang was ‘reconciled’. Basically, “It just happened. Don’t ask.”)

    The problem is that so long as ID is around, the reconciliation is moot. I sometimes get the vague impression that one reason ID proponents are particularly resented is because they made talking about design, even from a materialist (that word grows more useless with every passing day) or agnostic or whatever perspective, impossible due to the political/social costs. There’s no way to advance the case for ‘materialist design’ without advancing the case for ‘design, period’ now. Just look at the ultimate fallout from Crick’s flirting with directed panspermia – it’s still being felt today.

    There’s no way to talk about simulated universes a la Nick Bostrom, or actual universes being created a la John Gribbin, or otherwise so long as ID is around.

  16. Hi Kairosfocus@15

    Thanks for the link. I believe the explanatory filter is a robust methodological heuristic. If irreducible complexity holds then the case for ID operating in the Cosmos at a very direct and low level is compelling.

    However, if for the sake of argument we imagine evolution eventually proves to be satisfactory to abductive standards (implying that organic structures are reducibly complex) then the filter has the unfortunate side effect of making it look as though the game is up for theists; it is all too easy to read into a filter which provides “competing” explanatory objects, a God vs. “Law and Disorder” paradigm (“Law & Disorder are my terms for “chance and necessity”) or even a “God vs. Science” opposition, thus inadvertently playing into the hands of anti-theists.

    In fact Ken Miller appears to exploit this apparent dichotomy in this somewhat anti-ID YouTube video . Now, he’s a man who must surely believe in at least a high level version of ID, but instead he plays to the gallery and proposes what looks to me like a kind of NOMA. He’s one of those people who, as Nullasalus puts it, has a disappointing engagement with ID.

    If we do apply the methodological filter at the highest level, namely to the total Cosmic context, it gives interesting results. If, as the filter suggests, we might be able to explain Law and Disorder in terms of Law and Disorder, then that possibility, as far as I can see, ultimately results in either an enigmatic logical hiatus of brute givens or some kind of “turtles all the way down” scenario (multiverse?). So in the face of this unsatisfactory outcome for “Law and Disorder” I opt for the transcendent totalizing intelligence; an a-priori (infinitely?) complex object that probably embodies aseity or self-necessity

    But it has to be said that the application of the filter to the largest context throws up some puzzles and the results have an ambiguous feel about them. So I can see why the application of the filter at the lower level is preferred because the results are closer to home and more compelling, hence leading to a natural polarization of ID away from evolution and thence the big fight we are all familiar with

    Although I think the filter is robust as a methodological operator, it is after all a heuristic and thus leaves a residue of ambiguity giving room for dissenters and no room for a methodological authoritarianism that seeks to bend people to a particular way of operating.

    Nallasalus@15

    There’s no way to talk about simulated universes a la Nick Bostrom, or actual universes being created a la John Gribbin, or otherwise so long as ID is around.
    Very likely. Nick Bostrom’s “simulations” look to me like ID by another name. Another symptom, I think, of a highly polarized impassioned debate where terms become loaded and blighted and no-go areas are created

  17. TVR:

    Quick note, DV more to follow.

    The issue pivots on aspects and the overall context of inferences to design. Once we understand that design is real and designers leave reliable traces, we then have confidence to see design where it manifestly is.

    “Aspects” is key: that a particular aspect of a phenomenon traces to chance or necessity says nothing about other aspects.

    And once design is inferrable confidently on traces, it is to be inferred. And once it is inferred for one of the key origins cases, it makes the design inference on the others mutually reinforcing.

    If body plan level biodiversity were reasonably and empirically accountable for on chance plus necessity — frankly, about as likely to be true as that the 2nd law of thermodynamics, statistical form is disconfirmed [directly related!] — that would be a very important conclusion for that indeed.

    Nobel Prize stuff that.

    The origin of life capable of such a feat, would then need to be explained, on the irreducibly complex, language-based, algorithm using von Neumann replicator at the heart of life in the cell. That is a much stiffer challenge, as the very mechanism by which body plan evo would have to depend, now has to be initiated by chance and necessity. Including writing languages and algorithm based programs that create astonishingly complex and functionally specific machines, using current iterations of said machines.

    Then the slope gets steeper yet: the cosmos in which such C-chemistry cell based life exists is fine tuned, on the evidence.

    That makes the very atoms that make up cell based life an aspect that credibly reflects design.

    GEM of TKI

  18. kf:
    Nobel price material indeed. I urge you to submit your thoughts to the (relatively) new and active ID journal bio-complexity. You will need to reformat a few things (many people would love to help with that) and maybe go into some more depth here and there but you have everything for a great article at your disposal. I would also add a FOSCID calculation of a reasonable simple biological system. I bet they would be very happy to accept your paper!

  19. Hi KairosFocus@17

    Thanks very much for the links – very good refreshers and very useful if you want to get up to speed on the debate; I’d recommend them for reading.

    I would like to point out a distinction between a computational model or engine and a computation itself. A particular computation can be realized by a range of “Turing complete” computing machines from the Turing machine itself, through counter machines, to cellular automata. The computational engine is transcendent, as it were, to the physical computation just as the laws of physics transcend the objects they control and these laws have no reification in any machinery we can point to. What this means, then, is that replicators do not necessarily need the components you list in material form; a very crude example being the “replicator” cellular automata. Given that we have a far more sophisticated rule set in the real world and that we suspect a transcendent intelligence to have created this world then it is difficult to rule out reducible complexity absolutely; or even to abductive standards – if the computation of life is computationally irreducible then nothing less than the reification of the computation in all its detail is sufficient evidence of itself, placing great demands on a pre-cellular fossil record that is all but absent – either because it was never there or because of organic fragility it has been lost.

    The above is really a just word of caution rather than to detract from your main argument which was to point out the extreme complexity of biological replicators (which do have the components you list) as against the very patchy state of abiogenesis. I can’t think of any incremental routes that build up to the “basic” organic replicator, a sophisticated machine which seems to burst on the scene at an early stage in the history of the Earth. But then I’m no biochemist; although I do appreciate that TV documentaries which show cells as “simple” blobs of jelly set against, say, dinosaurs and apes are misleading

    Given the forgoing, then the direct and low level manipulation of matter by ID should at least be entertained by theists. Although it has to said that the methodological cliché “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” will show up great differences between theists and atheists in their subjective estimates of just what constitutes “extraordinary” and what beliefs are therefore legitimate on methodological grounds in their respective communities.

    Although there is likely to be considerable difficulties in finding the “ratchets” of reducible complexity required to resource abiogenesis (if indeed these ratchets exist), there is, I suppose, always the chance that one day they might creep out of the organic slime. So going back to my original point: In that case do we then conclude that the game is up for ID? – a conclusion suggested, unfortunately, by the explanatory filter, but not in my books. For it is ironic in this connection that for me the very existence of a transcendent intelligence will always make abiogenesis at least a mathematical possibility; for that intelligence is presumably great enough to design the required computation of abiogenesis (presuming it to have a platonic existence).

    In summary it seems that abiogensis, if it exists, is a bit like God himself – a very large complex object that the “dots” of evidence will never quiet do justice to.

  20. Hi TVR:

    Thanks for thoughts.

    I hear you on: replicators do not necessarily need the components you list in material form

    I do differ, though, on the importance of doing it with atoms, not bits. Bits make up a model, mental world that needs to be validated against reality.

    When it’s done with real atoms from the list of 100+ elements, there is no question that the dynamics of reality, not a model world, are at work.

    In this case, too, the machine on which the replicator model software runs, is not itself a self-replicating entity. In short, what we have is self-replicating pictures or the like, in a model world, on its stage.

    Perhaps interesting and instructive, but a step or two removed from reality still.

    I want to see things happen on the ground, thanks. (I’se be a physicist . . . )

    When it comes to the issue of debating reducibility, the logical necessities of process-logic organised connexions between the key elements of a self-replicating entity [and I use automaton generally as a self-operating, self regulating system] that has a replicating facility associated with something that does something else and so has its own function that has to be recorded and stored as a blueprint for the replicator facility, undercut the idea of reducibility.

    No code, no useful representation. No stored representation and assembly initiating and terminating instructions, no controlled action. No reader, no ability to interpret. No effector with tool-tip, and no means to give effect to instructions and stored structural elements.

    Irreducible and complex.

    GEM of TKI

  21. PS: And, remember: the self-replicating machine has to do something besides replicating itself, in the real world. Cells metabolise, for example. The envisioned von Neumann ships would replicate and maintain themselves and explore the galaxy. (And, I let my personal cat out of the bag on that one . . . THAT’s where I want to go.)

  22. ..hmmm; that’s interesting; it has similarities to the ideas I’ve seen mooted about space borne bacteria and/or viruses doing that anyway; e.g. Fred Hoyle and our very own Robert Sheldon.

    Do you see these (presumably molecular level) machines replicating and evolving?

  23. Hi TVR:

    Been busy these past few days.

    Asteroid belts and clanking — macro-scale — replicators go very nicely together. [But, self-replicating nanomachines would probably be helpful too.)

    Turn an asteroid into a colony ship (and, before that, into a colony)!

    G

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