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Karl Popper’s White Swans

If you observe something that has many of the same properties as an apple but you don’t know where it came from, you have observed apples growing on apple trees, then the most reasonable scientific hypothesis about the origin of the apple-like object is that it was produced by something like an apple tree. Indeed, to hypothesize that what you found just spontaneously formed on the ground from inanimate matter would be entirely unsupported.

For the ID hypothesis stated in terms of Karl Popper’s scientific hypothesis of white swans

The only abstract coded information processing and manufacturing machinery where the origin is known is a product of human intellect. There is one other known instance of this type of machinery, it’s found in all in living things, and its origin is undetermined. We only have one confirmed producer of these kinds of machines and the producer is human intellect. The most reasonable scientific hypothesis is that machines of unknown origin were produced by something like a human intellect.

This leads to exactly the type of scientific hypothesis that Karl Popper exemplified with white swans.

Popper’s Hypothesis: All swans are white.

ID Hypothesis: All abstract code driven information processing and manufacturing machinery, which isn’t simply a replication of prexisting machinery of the same type, was produced by intelligent agency.

Popper’s hypothesis, he said, could never be proven because there could never, even in principle, be a way of knowing that a black swan doesn’t exist somewhere. Popper said the key thing that made it a scientific hypothesis was that it could be falsified in principle by observing a single black swan.

ID’s hypothesis can never be proven because we can never know, even in principle, that no non-intelligent process is able to design these kinds of machines. ID’s hypothesis however can be falsified by observing a single non-intelligent process creating these kinds of machines.

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21 Responses to Karl Popper’s White Swans

  1. I have to respectfully disagree. The whole point of “No Free Lunch” and IC is to try to give concrete reasons to exclude unintelligent forces from biological design.

    The ID hypothesis as stated above is unparsimonious–as long as design without an intelligence is possible, it will be favored under Occam’s razor.

  2. ID Hypothesis: All abstract code driven information processing and manufacturing machinery, which isn’t simply a replication of preexisting machinery of the same type, was produced by intelligent agency.

    I like that definition for ID although I still find a resistance to referring to life, even in the sub-cellular level of complex nano-machinery, as “manufacturing machinery”.
    Yet maybe this is a good thing because I naturally know that “material” machinery is never truly the “Life” that I know intuitively to be present in my consciousness.

  3. Reed

    The whole point of “No Free Lunch” and IC is to try to give concrete reasons to exclude unintelligent forces from biological design.

    Dembski proposes a mathematical model for discriminating between chance and design. I don’t understand how that’s in some sort of opposition to the white swans statement of the ID hypothesis. Dembski attempts to mathematically prove the ID hypothesis as I stated it is true. Whether or not it can be proven is irrelevant to the acceptablility of the ID hypothesis as long as it can be falsified in principle.

    The ID hypothesis as stated above is unparsimonious–as long as design without an intelligence is possible, it will be favored under Occam’s razor.

    That’s absurd. We know white swans exist, we’ve never observed a black swan, and you’re saying that because black swans are possible in principle we should presume they exist until proven otherwise.

    Interesting philosophy of science you have there. Imagination trumps observation. You really don’t see what’s wrong with that?

    On Occam’s Razor you’re presuming that chance is the simplest explanation. I hear Occam rolling over in his grave. Suppose the same person wins the Powerball lottery 100 times in a row. It’s possible in principle that it is the result of chance. Chance is the simplest explanation only so long as you are willing to discount statistical probability as a complicating factor. If you do not ignore statistical probability then the simplest explanation is cheating (won by design not by chance).

  4. Dave:

    Chance is the simplest explanation only so long as you are willing to discount statistical probability as a complicating factor.

    That sure hits the nail on the head!

    (And exposes the underlying selective hyper-skepticism in the Cliffordian evidentialism form, i.e we should have consistent standards of criticising evidence and claims — as opposed to finding convenient [too often rhetoric-tinged] objections to what does not fit with our favourite worldview preconceptions.)

    GEM of TKI

  5. DaveScot,

    We know white swans exist, we’ve never observed a black swan, and you’re saying that because black swans are possible in principle we should presume they exist until proven otherwise.

    Black swans exist in Australia. I think Popper used that illustration only because “All swans are white” was a commonplace premise in philosophy and then, those Europeans came to Australia, found black swans, and were dumbfounded.

  6. Actually, all Australian swans are black.

  7. DS:

    One problem with the analogy is that we have already observed the purported falsifying example for ID. Popper (nor anyone else) had never seen a black swan, but if he had, there would be no further discussion about whether the hypothesis had been falsified. We have seen DNA, but there is considerable argument to be had over whether it is “abstract code driven information processing and manufacturing machinery, which isn’t simply a replication of prexisting machinery of the same type,” which was not “produced by intelligent agency.”

    The most reasonable scientific hypothesis is that machines of unknown origin were produced by something like a human intellect.

    I think that Dawkins would argue that RM+NS is “something like a human intellect.” Alternatively, I might argue that a supernatural designer is not “something like a human intellect.”

  8. janice

    Maybe if Popper weren’t dead he’d change it to green and red polka dot swans. Do those work? At any rate the scientific method worked as it was supposed to. The observation of a black swan was incorporated and the hypothesis was falsified.

    bornagain

    Analysis of the nanometer scale electro-chemical machinery found in all cells from bacteria to baboon seems pretty far removed from issues of mind, soul, and stuff like that.

    In any case this is where the predominant paradigm – random mutation as the source of all variation – is most obviously inadequate. Further observation and analysis, which is getting better and cheaper at a rapid pace, is just making it more and more obvious how limited in scope random mutation actually is. Calling the intricate structures inside a cell nano-machines dates back at least to 1986 in Drexler’s “Engines of Creation” when I first encountered it. It’s only become a more apt (much more) description since then.

  9. “Further observation and analysis, which is getting better and cheaper at a rapid pace, is just making it more and more obvious how limited in scope random mutation actually is.”

    speaking of which, MIT unveils 3D movie of living cell…
    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/cells-0812.html

  10. mg

    One problem with the analogy is that we have already observed the purported falsifying example for ID.

    Not to my knowledge. Feel free to provide a link to some complex bit of machinery observed (not imagined but actually observed) forming from a series of random changes in DNA.

    I think that Dawkins would argue that RM+NS is “something like a human intellect.” Alternatively, I might argue that a supernatural designer is not “something like a human intellect.”

    I wouldn’t argue anything about the supernatural. Interesting that you will. Which of us is the materialist again?

    RM+NS is incapable of anticipation and contingency planning. Intelligent agency in the only form known capable of designing complex machinery (ourselves) is at least proactive, capable of anticipation and planning for contingency, and influencing events to obtain specific outcomes from a virtually infinite number of equally possible outcomes.

    In any case the hypothesis that rm+ns can mimic results only known to be obtainable through intelligent agency needs to be tested. So far the testing makes it look severely limited. Behe’s “Edge of Evolution” brings together the best empirical evidence of what random mutation and natural selection has demonstrably accomplished, and just as importantly failed to accomplish, at exacting molecular level in historic times in populations that dwarf the entire number of mammals that ever lived. The observed capability is no surprise to IDists. It’s precisely what was expected of rm+ns.

  11. I think that Dawkins would argue that RM+NS is “something like a human intellect.”

    Dawkins sees apparent design. But he is committed to the notion that there is no designer. To reconcile the two ideas he describes RM+NS as “something like a human intellect”.

    ID argues that RM+NS is not “like a human intellect” and that there is little evidence that it behaves like one. To agree with Dawkins you have to employ a kind of circular reasoning that says “RM+NS must be like a human intellect, because it created all of these nanomachines that are normally only produced by intelligence.”

  12. DaveScot,

    Hi again. I was just checking in on the “record thread” as the mention of Popper caught my eye. You claim that the ID Hypothesis is: “All abstract code [...] was produced by intelligent agency (my boldface) and that it can be falsified by “observing a single non-intelligent process creating these kinds of machines.”

    Stated thus, ID is hardly falsifiable as we can not expect to observe any such creation. As I have understood it from Dr D and Prof Behe, the ID Hypothesis is properly formulated with your “was” replaced by “must have been,” thus possible to falsify not by directly observing unintelligent creation but by arguing that such creation is plausible.

    I think Kairosfocus might agree with me on this one!

    PO

  13. ID is hardly falsifiable as we can not expect to observe any such creation

    It is possible in principle to observe complex machinery being formed by unintelligent processes. Presumably, by the predominant paradigm, it’s going on all around us as we speak. We’ve observed the genomes of populations whose total number of replications in historic times exceeded 10^20 individuals and precisely as the odds predicted no progressive evolution occured requiring more than a few chained mutations. 10^20 individuals is more than all the mammals that ever lived. Calling what was observed in huge populations progressive evolution is misleading as well. It was actually just breakage of prexisting machinery that solved a dire problem. It’s a lot easier to break things than to make them. The former has the law of entropy working for it and the latter has entropy working against it. No additional complexity was created in 10^20 replications under the strongest of selection pressure.

    I certainly share your expectation that no one will ever observe complex machinery self-assembling without direction. Our reasons why differ. My reason is that I think the ID hypothesis as I stated it is true.

  14. Hi Dave,

    This is meant as a message to you personally since I couldn’t find anyway to contact anyone. I have posted comments on this site several time. Each time they do not get pass the moderator. Assuming I might be sounding hostile (my associate and I are can be very passionate when discussing science) each time, so I tried different ways to post a comment conveying a tone of friendly exchange. My points are valid but they still aren’t posted. My last comment I felt was pointing out something I feel is very obvious, circular reasoning. The swan analogy uses a specific proposition to infer general proposition. By replacing the swan with ID you’re using the general proposition you’re trying to validate in the specific proposition you’re using to infer it. If I’m incorrect, I would appreciate it if it were posted so it can be explained to me.

    Please let me know what it is I am doing that is preventing my posts from being accepted.

    I look forward to joining in on the intellectual exchange in pursuit of the truth!

    [email protected]

    Thanks!
    Miguel

  15. Miguel

    The “white swans” are the observed ability of intelligent agents to create novel complex machinery. A good example is the machine you’re using to read this comment. There’s no inference about that. It’s an empirical observation – a given not a hypothesis – just like the existence of white swans is a given. Another example is human genetic engineers modifying the genetic code in living organisms to do such things as cause bacteria to manufacture proteins useful to humanity but useless to the bacteria or to produce bacteria that eat oil spills.

    I thought a careful reading of the article made it evident that intelligent agents (ourselves) have been observed creating complex machinery from scratch. As a general rule any new poster, especially a critic, has to demonstrate a willingness to carefully consider the material and make well reasoned commentary reflective of that careful consideration.

  16. DS & PO:

    I think it is fair to say that in all observed cases, i.e where we directly know the causal story, information systems based on small – or even old fashioned thermionic valve – scale components, were formed by intelligent agents.

    As my microjets in a vat example [App 1 always linked, point 6] shows, it is in principle possible to see chance-dominated forces form such a machine, but the probabilities are such that the exhaustion of probabilistic resources overwhelms that possibility.

    Thus the direct observation has a good reason anchored in probability and in the odds against getting to CSI by chance. So, the scaled down tornado in a junkyard example speaks loud enough with the voice of Sir Fred Hoyle, though he be dead.

    DS is right.

    GEM of TKI

  17. Re DS #11 and my #8:
    I said:

    One problem with the analogy is that we have already observed the purported falsifying example for ID.

    You said:

    Not to my knowledge. Feel free to provide a link to some complex bit of machinery observed (not imagined but actually observed) forming from a series of random changes in DNA.

    All swans are white. Therefore, if this is a swan, then it’s white. I show you that the swan is black; the hypothesis is falsified.
    All abstract code driven information processing and manufacturing machinery, which isn’t simply a replication of prexisting machinery of the same type, was produced by intelligent agency. Therefore, DNA was produced by intelligent agency.
    I show you — what? Here, I think, the analogy breaks down, because falsifying the ID hypothesis requires observation of a process, not a specimen. DNA could well be the falsification of ID, but that can’t be demonstrated before I go to work, or even before I retire.

    Another approach to your analogy would be to deny that DNA is “abstract code driven information processing and manufacturing machinery” because “code” (and “language”), in reference to DNA, are not to be taken literally. (For this, I recommend Pigliucci’s segment of “Darwin or Design.”) Strictly speaking, “code” is associated with intelligent agency by definition, so your formulation of the ID hypothesis is circular.

  18. Re DS #11:

    I wouldn’t argue anything about the supernatural. Interesting that you will. Which of us is the materialist again?

    ??? I suppose I might be conflating “materialist” and “naturalist” as the UD/ID nemesis. But I must say that without a “supernatural” designer, ID is a lot less interesting. Panspermia and Dr. Yakub just shift the questions to a new location — did the aliens evolve, or were they designed?

  19. mg

    falsifying the ID hypothesis requires observation of a process

    Observation of processes are now somehow off limits in scientific investigation? Right. You’re about to observe the process of banishment from UD for polluting threads with nonsense.

    Observing a “specimen” found in nature and figuring out the process that made it is the very heart of scientific investigation. We observe hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes and try to determine the processes that generate them. We observe the earth and try to determine the process that formed it. The sun, the moon, the stars, rocks, fossils, and living things. All are the result of processes that we seek to understand.

  20. H’mm:

    A few points, if you all don’t mind:

    1] MG and DNA etc

    Sad to see the outcome just above; but it should be clear that plainly there are NO obseerved cases of “provide a link to some complex bit of machinery observed (not imagined but actually observed) forming from a series of random changes in DNA.” as DS challenged MG to produce.

    Otherwise, it would be trumpeted to the heavens!

    2] But in fact . . .

    Oddly, the DNA-RNA-Enzyme-Ribosome etc system is a step-by step information-processing system, which uses digital storage units [DNA]. In short, this is not “mere” analogy, it is identification of a physical instance of a major phenomenon studied under the uncontroversial, generally accepted rubric “Computer SCIENCE.”

    Now, in every case of such a system that we directly observe its causal story, it is an artifact of agency. That in itself lends serious support tot he inference that such entities are likely to be caused by agents whenever we see them, pending ounly a counter-example.

    But, too, I am not holdign my breath waiting on such, as there are good — “tornado in a junkyard builds a 747″ improbabilities [Cf my always linked, APP 1, point 6] — Hoylean reasons to see that:

    a] even though in principle it is physically and logically feasible for the undirected forces and random whimsies of nature to create such,

    b] the associated probabilities are credibly — on statistical thermodynamics principles of reasoning grounds — negligibly different from zero on the observed scale of the cosmos.

    3] Let’s get metaphysical . . .

    Of course, that is what makes attempts to make it seem plausible that the universe as a whole is unimaginably larger than what we see suddenly very “popular.”

    But that is a naked resort to metaphysical speculation, not science. And, on Metaphysics, a powerful intelligent and purposeful creator makes at least as much sense as such a quasi-infinite universe.

    On those grounds alone the censorship of the classroom and the instiutions of science should stop. (And that leaves off the empirical data of the millions across centuries who report a personal knowledge of just such a creator, and have the transformed lives to back it up. But, to address and evaluate that is beyond the remit of this blog! I simply point it out to say that here is more to the story than just the science.)

    4] Swanning around . . . Some swans are white, some black, some grue . . .

    So now, back on swans.

    I think that Mr Stove over in Australia had a very interesting argument on the credibility of Induction that we need to bring to bear. From Wiki:

    [Negative case] Consider a claim such as “All ravens [read here: "swans"] are black [read here: "white"]”. Hume argued that we don’t know this a priori and that it cannot be entailed from necessary truths. Nor can it be deduced from our observations of ravens . . . . Stove argued that Hume was presuming “deductivism” . . . the view, explicitly or implicitly accepted by many modern philosophers, that the only valid and sound arguments are ones that entail their conclusions. But if we accept that premises can support a conclusion to a greater (or lesser) degree without entailing it, then we have no need to add a premise to the effect that the observed will be like the unobserved – the observational premises themselves can provide strong support for the conclusion, and make it likely to be true. Stove argued that nothing in Hume’s argument shows that this cannot be the case and so Hume’s argument does not go through, unless one can defend deductivism . . . .

    [positive]Stove argued that it is a statistical truth that the great majority of the possible subsets of specified size (as long as this size is not too small) are similar to the larger population to which they belong. For example, the majority of the subsets which contain 3000 ravens which you can form from the raven population are similar to the population itself (and this applies no matter how large the raven population is, as long as it is not infinite). Consequen[tl]y, Stove argued that if you find yourself with such a subset then the chances are that this subset is one of the ones that are similar to the population, and so you are justified[NB:following Plantinga, I would use “warranted”]in concluding that it is likely that this subset ‘matches’ the population reasonably closely . . .

    So, one may argue that Swans are “Wrue” — observed to be white so far but maybe the next one will be blue – but that does not undermine the point that a good inductive case SUPPORTS, empirically, its conclusion, so it is rational to accept it, and if we can trust its reliability on further evidence, rely on it even while we know too that it is provisional in principle.

    “We all live by faith – for we must!”

    And so Cliffordian/ Saganian evidentialist-style selective hyper-skepticism about inductive arguments that point where we would not go, is to be rejected.

    GEM of TKI

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