The purpose of this blog is to formulate ideas - and as ideas can be molded and refined please feel free to comment with agreement or disagreement, as long as it is thoughtful.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Irreducible Complexity" Not a Killer of Evolution

I periodically get interested in looking at the "debate" between creationists and evolution.  I quote the word "debate" as I don't think there is any real debate between religion and science (see other blog posts).

However, the politics of the debate are intriguing.  The creationists have succeeded in several fronts with making their minority opinion on Intelligent Design seem like an actual scientific theory.  They've done so with marketing in a clever manner.  By arguing that schools should "teach the controversy" they are, in fact, creating the controversy out of nothing - very clever marketing.  The fact that the Intelligent Design worldview is not present in any significant numbers among scientists is lost in the seemingly fairness-based argument about teaching "both sides" of the issue.

The more insidious plot is the attempt for the creationists to set up a "straw man" arguments that will "kill" evolution as a theory.  As a science, evolution is subject to being "killed" through contrary evidence that can't be accommodated in the model, or in revisions of the model.  This holds for all scientific theories, and is the actual strength of the paradigm - when evidence is contrary to a theory, the theory must go, either "evolve" to a new theory, or be discarded.

Irreducible complexity is the idea that some aspect of an organism is so complex and interrrelated that removal of any part would destroy the function, and thus it could not have been derived through step-by-step evolutionary methods.  Thus, there is a search among creationist-scientists to discover a process or organ that is structured that it doesn't appear to allow for an evolutionary origin.  The eye is often cited, as is the flagella in bacteria.  Evolutionary arguments supporting the step-by-step development of both the eye and flagella have been produced.

The simple logic of irreducible complexity is compelling, but is based upon two problematic ideas.  Firstly, the fact that we can't "see" or understand the evolutionary history of a particular mechanism doesn't infer that it didn't evolve - we just might not be clever enough to deduce the chain of events.  The second problem is that some aspects of the evolutionary history may have been completely erased over time.  Imagine a suspsension bridge - remove the supports and it collapses.  However, there were supporting structures during construction, which are now gone, so it would be difficult to understand how the existing structure was created, only using the observation of the bridge.

Similarly, there may be a convoluted evolutionary path where the current structures are remnants of a more inefficient but easier to understand primitive set of mechanisms.  Parts that no longer required in a newer mechanism may be evolved away, assuming they "cost" energy but don't contribute to the organisms' fitness.  It would then be difficult to trace or understand the mechanisms of evolution that led to the current state because significant evidence no longer exists.  Thus, irreducible complexity creates a logic problem to explain, but no "kill shot" to evolution.

In one of Dawkins' books he talks about the fact that evolution, as a scientific theory, can be disproven by relatively simple evidence to the contrary (e.g. primitive tools from humans with dinosaur bones).  I agree that significant departures from the timing sequences of evolution and geological strata would be problematic to account for, I was more worried that some creationist was buying primitive tools and digging into dinosaur bone sites and planting them.

I think the "science" end of the debate should ignore the creationist end, as they tend to do, as any argument does seem to support the "controversy".  However, I also agree that Intelligent Design and other pseudo-scientific arguments need to be confronted when they begin to cause damage (e.g. change to science curricula in schools).  This paradox shows the cleverness of the current creationist arguments.

In reality, the history of evolutionary change is difficult to find, as fossilization only occurs under unusual circumstances and is best suited for large structures like bones.  Evidence of under-utilized structures in living organisms provides hints to evolutionary history as do developmental stages in growth cycles.

The real compelling arguments for evolution are not "back-facing" explorations of what happened to cause the current state, but the predictions of what will happen given current starting point and conditions.  Evolution of micro-organisms and viruses are real-world adaptations to the methods we devise to kill them - evolution in action.  Also the predictive power of evolutionary theory is what distinguished it as a scientific theory, not just an explanatory fiction.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fighting or killing over religion

Faith is about looking upward, not side to side.  You might occasionally have to, or want to, explain why your are looking upward.  Because you are looking upward, you can never see if others are looking exactly where you are.

Every time you look side-to-side you aren't looking up.  Let others look up where or when they can.

Questioning your faith

Questioning your faith is like fighting with your brother.  You might be irritated with your brother, he might bother you, you might even hate your brother sometimes.

But...he'll always be your brother.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Favourite Quote

Scientific American - November 2010 - Michael Shermer

I have a new favourite quote from Michael Shermer's Skeptic column in November's Scientific American -
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” - Christopher Hitchens

I think this sums up lots of arguments and really sets up what "science" actually is....not opinion...not majority rules.  Science may not be everything, but it certainly sets a bar.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why Science Can't Disprove God

Regardless on your religious beliefs or your scientific background, the ultimate extreme question ("Does God Exist?") cannot be answered by science.

1) You can't prove the null hypothesis.  Every science experiment is set up to test, that is, disprove the null hypothesis (ie. there is no relationship) and "proof" in science is shown by finding enough of an effect through your experiment that you can establish an estimated probability that your null hypothesis is incorrect.
The more thorough and controlled the experiment, and the repeatability of the findings provides evidence that the effect under investigation is legitimate.  There is no scientific experiment that can prove that the null hypothesis is true - the best you can do is repeatedly show that you don't have enough evidence in the current testing environment to say it's not true - perhaps subtle, but a legitimate limit of science.

2) Religion is faith-based, not evidence based.  There cannot be an experimental finding that disproves God in a faith-based discipline.  It certainly may be possible to prove that some aspects of a faith-based system did not happen exactly as written, or that times/circumstances were not exactly as portrayed, but that does little, if anything, to affect the underlying belief system.  (e.g. you may cite geological evidence to dispute the timeline of literal Bible interpretations, but this does not necessarily alter the belief system - "days" can be re-interpreted to be longer intervals...).

3) There is likely no single point of conjecture that one could point to that would disprove faith.  Even at the extreme, if science could explain all aspects of existence in our universe (or even multi-verses), it still would not stop the argument that "God set it up that way".  Stephen Hawking's book "The Grand Design" postulates that M-theory comes very close to the "theory of everything" and that the presence of gravity alone can explain how the universe forms, how particles come into and out of existence etc.  However, this still can be countered with "That's how God intended it to be".

Please note, I'm not trying to be facetious - the realms of science and faith are fundamentally opposed - science doesn't rely on faith, and faith doesn't rely on science.  Any particular line in the sand drawn as "the" point between Science and Religion will likely be problematic (Richard Dawkins argues this point, as he is uncomfortable with considering Religion as being outside of science), but arguing for or against any particular "location" for this delineation doesn't fundamentally alter the fact that it is only a waypoint - not a destination - in the quest.

However there will always be the possibility (at least among faithful) that all of the universe was set in motion, exactly as uncovered by science, by an undetectable being.  Science is certainly welcome to design experiments to show that that hypothesis is either statistically unlikely, or irrelevant to the issue under investigation, but the very fabric of Science cannot disprove it.

This hypothesis is sometimes referred to dismissively as the "Flying Purple Spaghetti Monster" hypothesis, as science cannot explain <insert your favourite observable effect here> as not being caused by the Flying Purpose Spaghetti Monster.  Take away the dismissiveness, and this does show a natural and legitimate limit of science - the explanation of observed effects can change as more experiments are run and more complete understanding of issues is available (see the evolution of Newton to Einstein - a more complete understanding of the physical world altered the explanation of observations).

Explanations (theories and hypotheses) in science rely upon the ability to explain existing observations and to predict outcomes in novel experiments - the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be real, but that knowledge does not help predict what will happen in the next experiment, so as a scientific explanation it is discarded. Faith-based explanations (regardless of whether or not you think they are true, or if they are in actuality true) also fail as scientific explanations for the same reason (e.g. "God caused the chemicals to react and turn the solution blue" is fine as an explanation, but as a scientific explanation, it falls short, as it cannot explain what will happen in future circumstances when additional substances are added etc.).  Again, this is neither a failure of science, nor a failure of faith, just an illustration of the difference.

From a scientific standpoint, it would certainly be possible to prove the existence of God by setting up experiments that would provide differential results when God exists vs. when s/he doesn't.  Oddly, however, this experimental evidence may suffice for scientists, as it it based upon the scientific method, but would likely not be sufficient for the faithful.  Should any "proven" God not match the faith-based ideal, it is likely that it wouldn't be accepted, particularly if it should differ in significant and important ways from established scripture or teaching.

All in all, I don't see the clash between science and religion.  The fundamental underpinnings of faith cannot be changed by any scientific discovery or theory.