Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, September 08, 2006


Nato approves of my Popperian epistemology, i.e. Karl Popper's idea that scientific claims are distinguished from other claims in that they're falsifiable. That is to say, they make predictions such that there is an event or object or phenomenon A that would prove they are false. Thus, the statement "All swans are white" is falsified by the appearance of a black swan.

The theory of gravity is a good example of a theory that meets Popper's falsifiability criterion. If I jump up in the air, and, instead of falling back to earth, I simply hover there in the air, then voila!-- I have disproved the theory of gravity. Well, in practice, our experience is generally so consistent with the theory of gravity that we would probably look for some reason that this odd event had occurred which was consistent with the theory-- perhaps I have magnets in my shoes and happened to jump over a magnetic field that repelled them?-- but still, in principle, gravity is falsifiable by a single counter-example, and we can easily conceive exactly what that counter-example would be like.

Now let's take evolution. What's the falsifying counter-example of evolution? Doug Kern addresses the question in satirical fashion:

"Divine messages etched in cells -- what bosh!" The professor rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on the table. "It means nothing, nothing at all."

"Professor," said the journalist, "with all due respect, I find that difficult to believe. As you know, earlier this week, researchers applied a powerful new sub-electron microscope to human tissue samples for the first time. They found hitherto-undetected sub-atomic particles on each and every examined human cell, from hundreds of donors. And on each cell, the particles seem to spell out a message in English: I, God, am the designer of this cell. Scientists across the globe have independently verified this discovery."

The scientist shrugged. "I suppose the physics community will find the discovery of the new particles mildly diverting. But I fail to see why those of us in the biological sciences should care."

"But, professor...this discovery appears to be a message from, well, God!"

"'Appears!' 'Appears!' The appearance of design is nothing more than a trick of the mind -- a mote in the eye of the beholder. Abraham Lincoln 'appeared' in my cereal this morning. Was I visited by a ghost -- or an overactive imagination that found patterns amidst random assortments of Corn Flakes? A lump of coal, held under pressure for a million years, will rearrange its molecular structure into the precise pattern of a diamond. Order, yes, but is it design? Only for those who feel compelled to find it. Rivers rush to the sea; the planet spins on its axis; the cycle of life carries on across the globe. Intricately ordered, all of it! But not designed. I assure you, young man, it would not take very many chimpanzees in front of very many typewriters to produce something like I, God, am the designer of this cell. And the chimpanzees in question have been at the typewriters a very long time. Life on this planet is tremendously old, and the mundane laws of physics coupled with mere chance could have produced any number of extraordinary phenomena."...

This essay is more than blatant Intelligent Design partisanship (though unfortunately there is an element of that). Kern gets to the heart of the matter. If "I, God, am the designer of this cell" were written on every cell, would that be taken as counter-proof of Darwinism? If not, surely we're not dealing with a falsifiable theory here, and we should not regard it as scientific. If so, well, then, what else would be a falsify Darwinism?

Hence, the challenge: Darwinists are invited to offer a potential falsifying counter-example to the Darwinian theory. What fact(s), event(s), phenomenon(a), or object(s), if observed, would prove the Darwinian theory false? Comments are open.

(By the way, I'm not necessarily a supporter of Intelligent Design theory myself. As with Darwinism, my problem is the epistemology. Only with Darwinists, I think I understand how they think and why their epistemology is inadequate; but with ID people, I don't really understand what they're saying. But that's another topic.)

UPDATE: Nato responds, sort of:

But what could count as disconfirmation? Well, Dennet has certainly suggested a something along the lines of a stream of codons that code bitwise for "Copyright 234453257 Zoltan Empire" - the xenological equivalent of the theological example quoted. That's clearly setting the bar too high, especially considering that even such a case would, if the string was stamped into DNA more than a short while ago, be too illegible through random mutation (against which nature does not select when it's in non-coding DNA) to be read by now even if we could unambiguously translate it from the Zoltan Empire's lingua franca.

"Specified complexity" might be a good measurement if anyone besides Dembski thought it was as easy to measure as he seems to think. Perhaps someone else who is a little less confused about the relationship between pure math and the impurely stochastic realities of genetics will come up with a useable analogue.

Okay. Let's think about this hear. A floating rock could falsify the theory of gravity. A person who suddenly finds himself unintentionally levitating. A rock that falls but accelerates at 2 meters per second squared. Or that falls up. Or to the side. You can easily imagine an infinite number of disproofs of gravity. In fact, if you hold a rock and then dropped it, every conceivable behavior except one would disprove gravity. Only if the rock accelerates downwards at 9.8 meters per second per second is the theory of gravity left standing. Of course, it always does that.

Now, evolution. The best that we can offer-- and apparently that Daniel Dennett, the professional evolutionist partisan, can offer, since Nato seems to know his work so well and presumably would put forward the best argument he could think of-- is an extremely narrow hypothetical, which isn't really even offered seriously since the translation of Zoltan's language would clearly offer insuperable difficulties (not to mention concepts like "copyright" etc., plus the random mutation/illegibility issue that Nato mentions). Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe Nato isn't trying to offer a potential falsifying counter-example to Darwninism. Maybe he's still thinking. But why should it be so hard? Is it hard with other scientific theories? Let me add another challenge: Can supporters of Darwinism offer me another scientific theory-- or theory that is taken to be scientific-- which is so difficult to give a falsifying counter-example for?

I've asked this question before to evolutionists. One said: "If God appeared and told us that evolution was false..." How would you ever know that God was God? How could God prove that he had infinite power? (Another interlocutor, Max Borders, got in a debate with me which unfortunately TCS didn't publish; I made the same point, and he basically conceded that evolution was not falsifiable.)

Another-- the TCS editor, Nick Schulz-- actually gave me a pointer to some literature on falsifiability; it seems Darwin had actually thought about the issue, long before Karl Popper introduced his criterion. What was Darwin's falsifying counter-example (though he wouldn't have used that term)? I wish I still had the e-mail, but it was something like this: If it could be proven that some creature had evolved a trait solely for the purpose of benefiting another organism, said Darwin, that would disprove my theory.

Nice try. To see why this doesn't work, note that the Darwinian theory transforms the meaning of the word purpose. Purpose is traditionally associated with conscious agents, but in Darwinian theory purpose becomes linked to survival of the fittest: life-forms "want" to preserve and reproduce themselves in the sense that their ability to preserve and reproduce themselves is why they are there. Now, how could an organism have a trait which had the purpose of benefiting another organism? Of course this could occur in a symbiotic relationship: organism A has trait B which benefits organism C, which in turn has trait D which benefits organism A. But the purpose of trait B is not really to benefit organism C (except as a means) but to benefit organism A. Obviously this doesn't disprove Darwin's theory, as Darwin no doubt understood. Organism A might also have trait B which benefits organism C, because organism C evolved to take advantage of organism A's pre-existing trait B. Or, organism A might have trait B which just happens to benefit organism C, by mere chance. That wouldn't disprove Darwin's theory either. We could never observe the falsifying example Darwin suggests, because the meaning of the word "purpose" in Darwin's theory excludes it from existing.

EVOLUTION IS NOT FALSIFIABLE. This really needs to be shouted from the rooftops!

One more thing: Dennett's pseudo-falsifier is typical of his whole methodology. Dennett is forever dodging the burden of proof and foisting it on his opponents. In the final chapters, Dennett reviews a number of purported disproofs of Darwinism. The arguments are a bit arcane; I sort of understand them but don't feel qualified to judge whether Dennett actually gets Darwinism off the hook or not. But that's the most he does: gets Darwinism off the hook. He shows, at best, how Darwinism's opponents don't quite manage to disprove the theory. But the burden of proof is not on Darwinists' opponents, it is on the Darwinists. The burden is on them to tell us under what conditions Darwinism will be proven false, such that the theory can be subjected-- in practice preferably, but even if only in principle, that's an improvement-- to an infinite and ongoing array of empirical tests, any one of which would disprove the theory.

If they can't, they need to admit that this is not science in the sense that physics or chemistry or biology (observational/experimental biology) is science. It's just an unusually ingenious and fascinating line of speculation.

But if I'm wrong, the challenge is still open. Falsifying counter-example of Darwinism... Step right up... You could be the one...


  • A friend of mine once said, when presented with a position of certain (Christian) ID advocates in opposition to Darwinism, "Well, why would they even think that supports their position?" For an atheist from a Jewish background, apparently, the next best solution to algorithmic design isn't theistic design. Aliens, of course, can design, as can all sorts of other imaginable agents who are fairly poor candidates for godhood. Personally I've spent about as much time trying to imagine alternatives to the modern synthesis as I have alternatives to gravity, so I'm sure others could suggest more.

    But what could count as disconfirmation? Well, Dennet has certainly suggested a something along the lines of a stream of codons that code bitwise for "Copyright 234453257 Zoltan Empire" - the xenological equivalent of the theological example quoted. That's clearly setting the bar too high, especially considering that even such a case would, if the string was stamped into DNA more than a short while ago, be too illegible through random mutation (against which nature does not select when it's in non-coding DNA) to be read by now even if we could unambiguously translate it from the Zoltan Empire's lingua franca.

    "Specified complexity" might be a good measurement if anyone besides Dembski thought it was as easy to measure as he seems to think. Perhaps someone else who is a little less confused about the relationship between pure math and the impurely stochastic realities of genetics will come up with a useable analogue.

    By Blogger Nato, at 5:18 PM  

  • I should clarify: Dennett wasn't exactly racking his brain for the most plausible disproof of evolution, but rather that disproof of even the core tenets was obviously logically possible.

    Let's think about the rock example. If I dropped something and it failed to fall straight down, you can bet that I would not immediately assume that gravity had been disproven, since many things are known to counter that expected scenario. The obvious ones are so obvious we don't think about the: perhaps it's sitting on a table. Okay, obviously we don't expect it to fall then. Moving along to where there's nothing visibly holding it up or otherwise influencing its fall, perhaps I notice that it doesn't truly fall stright down, but actually curves slightly (so slightly, in fact that I have to use sensitive instruments to realize this). Turns out the planet is turning and so it doesn't fall perfectly straight down. Then there's wind current, magnets, density variances in the Earth's crust, tiny strings attached to the object and I'm sure a huge number of which I can't immediately conceive, all of which would in no way challenge current science. Say we had in some way eliminated all that - have we disproven gravity? Well, we're beginning to doubt it, I suppose, but it's still simpler to presume that there's an as-of-yet unexplained dynamic that's affecting the fall of whatever the object is rather than jumping to the conclusion that gravity is all wrong and we've just been fooled by something gravity-like all along. It's pretty hard to come up with a simple, convincing single-experiment counter to gravity after all. One might want to say this throws doubt of the disconfirmability principle, but really it just means that disconfirmation is more tricky in practice than in principle.

    Interestingly, evolutionary science has been disconfirmed countless times, after which it has incorporated changes to better represent what really happens rather than the earlier, less sophisticated ideas. It happens with every science, of course, and so this doesn't mean much on its own. What has not happened is that someone has come up with a disproof that all biological design has come about (until recently) through broadly evolutionary mechanisms (many of which have surely not yet been described). A conclusive single experiement/discovery disproof of this hypothesis is difficult to imagine in a plausible way for the same reason I have a difficult time imagining a circumstance that actually disproves gravity all at a swoop.

    In a sense, though, I think that algorithmic design, being at its heart a fairly simple process, could plausible someday be shown in a deductive way to be incapable of generating certain kinds of structures. This is, I think, a close analogy to a high-energy physics experiement that shows the topology of space to be different in such a fundamental way from the standard model that we would be forced to declare that gravity was, after all, just an illusion. Can I imagine how this would work? No. Maybe gravity isn't disconfirmable after all, but I think it's more along the lines of it's so well confirmed that of course we have a hard time imagining ahead of time what might really disconfirm it.

    To be honest, the fundamental evolutionary algorithm is perhaps better established as a design mechanism than gravity is as a fundamental force, since it's fairly a-priori. The hypothesis that all life on earth was generated by such design is not al all a priori, though, so it needs to be disconfirmable empirically. If we find one example of a creature that's designed by an intelligence, then we've disconfirmed that hypothesis, but not in an interesting way. What one would really need is an understanding of what algorithmic design can do and what it can't, then look for the latter. This is a strategy that many have used, but they have frequently ended up showing that algorithmic design can work in different ways than wed thought at first. A large number of items remain outstanding: "how is it that algorithmic design can generate THIS?" but our lack of answers so far isn't generally regarded as a categorical disproof for the same reason that if I drop something and it doesn't fall I don't immediately think that gravity is a lie, even if I don't know why it didn't fall.

    By the way, Dennett is certainly an evolutionist partisan but his day job is cognitive philosophy. Since he, like so many, relies heavily on the evolutionary toolbox, he has considerble reason to defend adaptionist thinking, amongst other things. I once thought that this was a strange departure for him, but in retrospect, it was perhaps necessary to detour in that direction to show how vital exactly such thinking was if we wanted to solve the old mysteries without losing the sacred things about which they tend to wrap. Of course, many take him to be instead dissolving the sacred things themselves and so fight this project. More power to all those who defend the sacred, but I have no interest in mysteries for their own sake.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:06 PM  

  • One caveat - it would obviously be fabulously interesting to find an organism designed by an intelligence. It would even cast doubt on all other organisms, because if an intelligence meddled once, who knows where else it meddled? But it would be in a way a mere historical discovery, like finding out that Lincoln was actually swapped at birth with an alien child of humanoid physiognomy. It wouldn't change our interpretation of all of US history by itself. Now, if we found out that a great many children had been swapped in some systematic way, then we might have to look at alien influence on US history in a larger sense and from that perspective. Ditto if we somehow prove that features of type X are truly impossible for any unassisted algorithmic process to achieve, and we find these features in more than just one or a few organisms. Then the idea that algorithmic design is capable of all the amazing feats of engineering we see around us would be seriously called into doubt and possibly even disproven.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:19 PM  

  • BALONEY! :)

    Nato writes: "I drop something and it doesn't fall I don't immediately think that gravity is a lie, even if I don't know why it didn't fall."

    If I let go of a rock in mid-air and it doesn't fall, I will be absolutely stunned. I know perfectly well that I am witnessing something that defies the laws of nature. Yes, I check for magnets, I see whether the rock is full of helium gas, and a couple of other things. But there is a very limited number of possibilities which could reconcile this anomaly with the laws of gravity. Yes, maybe I don't doubt the law of gravity, since it's operated my whole life; I doubt my own sanity, perhaps. I think I'm hallucinating. But I must reject either the experience or the law of gravity.

    Nato seems to be trying to reinterpret the law of gravity as being as non-falsifiable as the theory of evolution. But it's not. The theory of gravity makes rigid, clear predictions, which are a very narrow range within the set of what could possibly be observed. It is not difficult to imagine occurrences which would violate the law of gravity; it's just that they never happen.

    Nato goes on to write: "What one would really need is an understanding of what algorithmic design can do and what it can't, then look for the latter." Exactly. Does Nato realize that he has just conceded my point here? If we don't know what algorithmic design "can't" do, then evolution is not falsifiable, and therefore should not be classified with sciences like physics and chemistry, which are.

    This is even more revealing: "To be honest, the fundamental evolutionary algorithm is perhaps better established as a design mechanism than gravity is as a fundamental force, since it's fairly a-priori." A priori. Yeah. Not inductive, a priori. A priori and the scientific method don't mix. Evolution theory needs to be reclassified.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 6:25 PM  

  • Still, while I'm by no means convinced, it's quite helpful to see an effort to see how someone would go about trying to reconcile the theory of evolution with Popperian epistemology. This is probably the best answer I've seen yet, actually. Nato DODGES the question, which is a little bit better than simply being STUMPED by it, which is how my previous interlocutors have reacted. (No offense?)

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 8:57 PM  

  • Would you really, upon see the rock jsut hover there, think "Jeez, I guess there's no such thing as gravity after all?" (once you get over the initial shock). Or would you think that some principle or activity heretofor unknown was in operation? I'm firmly in the latter camp. It's generally only after a larger body of experiments has suggested a fundamental reinterpretation of prior experience that we truly abandon things like the law of gravity. Otherwise, it's just an unexplained anomaly that invites further research.

    Evolution, like meterology, deals with system dynamics while chemistry and physics deal with rules and forces. The predictions of the former kinds of science are probably always going to be different qualitatively than the latter. Therefor, we should look at the kinds of things that would disprove modern meteorological theories (for example - other dynamical systems could work as well or better) for disconfirmation models. Also, I do sort of wonder what type of disconfirmation for which we're looking. Specific portions of evolutionary theory have been disproven many many times, to be replaced with better, improved models as well as plenty of question marks. If we want to overthrow all of it - a bit like overthrowing thermodynamics in meteorology? - then I suppose we should expect large classes of problems to come up that challenge the best guesses we have that remain stubbornly unsolvable in an evolutionary context for a long period of time or easily explainable in an alternate context. "God did it" isn't, of course, an "explanation" in any scientific sense, even if that's what happened so if God did it, then we'll probably have to wait a very long time as unexplainables (anomalies) pile up and pile up until no progress is being made*. That will convince everyone that a new theory is needed, though I'm sure atheist sorts like myself might hold out for a physicalist replacement to supplant evolution. Then again, if a pillar like evolution fell, I might really start to believe in magic, so who knows?

    *Enumeration of new facts isn't progress in the sense I mean here. If evolutionary explanations aren't constantly proving capable of producing good answers to previously insoluble conundrums, then we're not making progress.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:05 PM  

  • Actually, I suppose I wouldn't be all THAT surprised to find out some relatively local aliens have been tinkering with Earth biology in their free time.

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:21 AM  

  • Also, if I were that easily offended, I'd be obliged to give up the blogosphere or die of apoplexia.

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:22 AM  

  • I don't think you have to worry about evolution "falling," my friend. The theory has got a firm tautological foundation which no evidence can overturn.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 6:09 AM  

  • Of course :)

    By Blogger Nato, at 6:57 AM  

  • Ok, I'll bite. To falsify anything requires experimental evidence. So, to falsify "Darwinism" of the sort that claims that we're descended from lower life-forms would require a controlled and repeatable experiment that shows (or does not show) that 1) living organisms can occur "naturally" at all (ie without divine intervention), and that 2) living organisms can produce things/patterns with reproductive capabilities themselves that are more complex and complicated. Parts of the description of this experiment are of course pretty vague considering it involves words/ideas that have varied and unclear meanings, so I'll give an example of the sort of thing that we could look for. For instance, if we found some way to observe experimentally a transistion from an organism with X amount of genetic information to an organism with X+Y amount of genetic information, then presumeably we would have data by which we could produce a theory that would either confirm or disconfirm Darwinism. Now, I would say that most Darwinists believe we already have such experimental evidence through fossil records and experiments with fruit flies and hereditary analyses and so on. Of course, none of that evidence is *sufficient* even taken altogether to prove without a doubt evolution's veracity as a whole, but each experiment does prove, in the sense that gravity is proven, bits and pieces of evolutionary theory. For an example of something that would disconfirm parts of present-day Darwinist theory, if strong evidence were ever discovered that suggested the Earth really was only ~10,000 years old, then there wouldn't have been enough time (according to Darwinism) to produce all of the life that we see today through evolution. That sort of evidence wouldn't disconfirm evolution as a whole, just the notion that we're descended from apes. (Incidentally, that sort of evidence would disconfirm all sorts of other scientific theories, though.)

    Honestly, it's not that hard to envision experiments that would falsify Darwinism. Basically, almost every single observation we make has some implication or other for Darwinist theory. Like, I notice that whales have these strange floating bones in their blubber that sort of resemble bones used for walking in other land mamals. Or I notice that my baby boy has eyes just like his daddy, but his nose is more like his mother's. Or the cross-polenation between my orchids and hydrangeas just produced a flower I'd never seen before. All of these little observations add up into a cohesive whole. Even your example of dropping a rock to confirm or disconfirm gravity is only a very tiny observation of an extremely large and vast picture. And what's the alternative to gravity and evolution (at the moment)? Divine intervention and intelligent design, otherwise known as "I don't know, it's a mystery".

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:25 PM  

  • That's true - if the earth were younger than it appeared by several orders of magnitude, that would be something of a "single experiment" refutation of the idea that life on Earth as we know it came about by evolutionary processes.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:46 AM  

  • I should also note that the power of algorithmic design to create information (X+Y) is proven experimentally. I don't believe it's possible for this to be "taken back" in an empirical way since it's an experimental proof of a mathematical process. The only way to claim that this does not show the power of evolutionary processes to create design is to say the experimenters imported the additional information they attribute to the results. If anyone wishes, I'll hunt down a link.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:51 AM  

  • Why should the criterion of falsifiability be the test of science? Popper was taken to task on this. It's useful, but not absolute.

    Popper also referred to Darwinism as a "metaphysical research program" versus a scientific theory. Why not?

    By Anonymous Max, at 9:36 AM  

  • Re: Popper being "taken to task" - if a philosopher doesn't get roundly criticised for a major work, it must be beneath comment. That's obviously not to say that Popperian epistemology is beyond reproach, just a comment.

    Re: "Darwinism" being a metaphysical research program - well, it fits that bill, but it's not the only bill it fits. That said "Darwinism" really is more of a way of thinking than evolution, which I gloss as carrying the whole freight of evolutionary findings (results) as well as the research program (process).

    By Blogger Nato, at 1:42 PM  

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