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Liddle Stirs It Up


  08:54:39 pm, by Nimble   , 2192 words  
Categories: Thoughts, People, Religion, Science

Liddle Stirs It Up

I must admit, after seeing the sort of commentary and reaction she generated with her extremely well-spoken remarks about evolutionary theory, Elizabeth Liddle has earned herself a new fan. Well, there's actually a line-up of fans now; I might just be able to make out the front of the queue.

Essentially, she took the words of William Dembski, a pioneer of the scientifically vacuous 'Intelligent Design' movement, at face value, and used his operational definition of intelligence to show that the random mutation plus natural selection process is intelligent, according to that very definition.

It's a long read of the saga over at Panda's Thumb.

One of her posts stands out in my mind, though the entire series of posts is amazing. I'll have to chop it into pieces to make it easier for the casual reader, though, since it's pretty long:

Febble [Liddle's handle] wrote:

Thanks for the welcome.

I think what I find odd about the Intelligent Design versus Theory of Evolution debate is that there seems to be very little discussion of what constitutes intelligence. And as a neuroscientist, intelligence - or cognition - is what I am interested in.

So, having spent a day at the workface trying to figure out the kinds of algorithms an intelligent person might be using to solve a cognitive task I have set them (and trying to get measures of the patterns of neural firing that might shed light on this problem) , it feels odd to be confronted by an argument about whether or not a design could be the product of “natural” or “intelligent” processes. For me, intelligent processes are natural, and figuring out their nature is what earns me my living.

So in the post of yours that you link to (and thanks for the link), you define something as “designed” (presumably “intelligently”) if cannot be accounted for by “natural law ” or “chance” .

The usual Intelligent Design saw is that life is too complex to have evolved "by chance", and therefore must have evolved "by intelligence". They usually come right out and equate "evolution" with "chance". Liddle sets it up interestingly.

Now I understand that there may be legitimate philosophical and theological debate about whether cognition is the product of anything more than a vast array of neural processes, and my own view, as a theist, is that there is more to the person than the sum of the neurons by which they know and interact with the “natural” world. But I regard that view as an act of faith - I do believe, as I said upthread, in individual responsibility on some cosmic scale that matters. I think it matters to God. I define God to myself as the entity to whom my actions ultimately matter, and who is present in everyone. But enough theology…

As a neuroscientist, I consider the bit of me that does that kind of theosophizing is my brain. And it’s made of neurons, which, through a cascade of processes, transmit electrical impulses through my nervous system. It’s a complex system. But I see no reason to suppose it is not a natural one.

It's an intriguing position for a theist to take, to hardly embellish the natural system with anything supernatural. That squares very well with many of the smart theists I've known over the years.

So the question as to how that complex system came to be “designed” is not for me a particularly burning one. I assume it was designed by the same kinds of process by which I think - in fact, by which I myself “design” By a natural intelligence. And I consider the mechanism by which variance in our genetic inheritance interacts with natural selective pressures is an intelligent system. An extremely intelligent system, though not, I suggest a conscious one (although I suppose you might conceivable call it the mind of God….).

So my problem with the arguments I have read that pit ID arguments against the ToE is not that I think the evidence invoked for ID is invalid, but that that the intelligence it is evidence for is the intelligence of a complex natural system.

I don’t know at what stage one can sensibly call a system of rules “intelligent”. As I said, upthread, ordinary English usage would not allow a sieve, and certainly not an unreliable sieve, to be called “intelligent”. But if we define intelligence as Dr. Dembski has done as, essentially, being an agent with the power of choice between options, then the reductio ad absurdum is to a sieve. Or, more sensibly, any “natural law”.

The normal attack on the Intelligent Design position is to take their implied position, that when they say "intelligent", regardless of what else they say, they mean God, and a specific God, sneaking it in the back door. The Wedge Strategy clearly indicates this. We thus argue against the implication (often made through personal incredulity, false dichotomy, i.e. implying two choices when there are many-to-infinite, etc.) that the evidence in any way indicates this.

I myself was unaware of Dembski's operational definition of intelligence. By that operational definition, and taking Intelligent Design at face value (though it really hardly deserves to have it taken at face value), then the evolutionary process counts as intelligent. Liddle develops this thought very nicely.

I think one of the most misleading words in the whole debate, in fact, is the word “random”. Without getting into whether or not the universe is deterministic or not (and I’ll stick with the quantum physicists who say that it is not), for practical purposes, things have causes. Chemistry is full of rules. Some things bind to other things in a particular way. Some things have affinities for other things; some things don’t mix, like oil and water. Some things are catalysts, and affect the way other things bond. This system of rules means that natural algorithms are occurring all the time, and varied, often complex structures and compounds are the result. Now this all might be the product of a vastly intelligent First Mover, or it might just be the Way Things Are. But it is, nonetheless, the Way Things Are, now, and were, as I consider the evidence suggests, on the earth four billion years ago. And I see no intrinsic reason to doubt that, given that we are here now, as complex organisms whose minds and bodies function by means of complex cascades of chemical “if…then” algorithms, that we didn’t emerge from much simpler chemical algorithms four billion years ago.

When I was investigating the degeneracy of the genetic code (degeneracy meaning in this case redundancy), finding out that most mutations, even when they change something, result in a chemical, an amino acid, with very similar properties being substituted.

She's not being facetious when she describes chemical reactions as algorithms. The same thought has struck me repeatedly.

The universe, as I see it, is an intelligent system. As soon as it diversified, with different forces having different rules, it became a vast algorithm, generating complexity, not by “chance” but by a sequence of algorithms so complex (and at stochastic at a quantum level) that “random” is often a convenient shorthand by which to describe it. I don’t think we are the result of random processes. I think we are the result of intelligent processes, and that that intelligence, as with our own, is embodied in the “natural laws” that govern the matter of which we - and the entire universe - are made.

For which, of course, as a theist, I give thanks to God.



Well, after a lot of this sort of exchange, and raising the ire of Uncommon Descent's rather odd proprietor, DaveScot, he banned her from the forum.

Some further posting today from DaveScot re-explains the ban:

Just for the record, Febble (Elizabeth Liddle) was banned because she claimed to be a scientist yet didn’t have the first clue about how natural selection works to conserve genomic information. She was writing long diatribes about how rm+ns is “intelligent” yet she didn’t understand and couldn’t be made to understand an important and basic bit about how rm+ns operates. I know people like Richard Hoppe don’t care at all about the evolutionary science being accurate at Panda’s Thumb, but I do care that it’s accurate on Uncommon Descent, and when someone displays that much ignorance, can’t be schooled, and is a critic they get the boot.

It's pretty safe to say that the one who does know know how rm+ns (random mutation plus natural selection) works is DaveScot.

As he "patiently explained",

You’re still making mistakes in describing rm+ns. Saying it learns from mistakes is misleading. It needs constant reinforcement of what it learns or it forgets even faster than it learned. This known as conservation of genomic information. Anything that is not immediately useful (no selection value) is not conserved within the genome forever. The genomic information with no immediate use gets peppered with random mutations and quickly becomes useless as a result. This is really basic stuff you don’t know.

Wow, this is really basic stuff a lot of people don't know! Who knew that genetic 'learning' like this wasn't actually 'learning' for anything like survival, but was rather something like higher calculus, which everyone forgets because they find it tough to find a use for it in every day life.

Looking over some of the comment areas, you can see more depth of his knowledge.

bFast posted:

Patrick, “Even if natural selection weeds out mistakes what is to prevent them from popping up again?”

Though we see a lot of mutations happen, it is because there is so darn much DNA to mutate. According to the molecular clock hypothesis, mutations in humans happen at a pace of about 1% of base pairs per million years. A base pair can mutate 4 different ways, therefore a particular point mutation will not occur again for about 400,000,000 organism-years. If a point mutation is devistating enough to be knocked out in a single generation, to say that it “doesn’t repeat that mistake” is reasonable enough for me.

As far as genetic disease goes, I understand that they fit into three classes,

Down syndrome is not a carried disorder — its not like the child gets it because the parents are carriers. Rather it is a weak point in the genetic code that sometimes causes a chromosome to duplicate, giving the person a chromosome triplet rather than a pair. Ie, it is a weak spot that exists in everyone that allows for a genetic accident to take place.

cystic fibrosis, on the other hand, is carried in a recessive gene. This kind can float around in a population for a long time, however, it never becomes very common. That said, in europeans 1 in 22 are carriers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cystic_fibrosis).

Huntington disease, believe it or not, is in a dominant gene. The reason it is carried at all is because its symptoms only show up after common child-bearing years. It shows, however, just how weak of a filter natural selection really is.

I think that the case for natural selection being able to weed out “really bad” diseases is fairly good. However, to pretend that this weak filter, not even able to purge humanity of huntington disease, can be held responsible for selecting all of life’s variety is a bit on the “get real” side.

You know, bFast almost has a handle on it. What they say is true for the most part, though the answer to their "weak filter" assertion right at the end is surprisingly already contained in what they wrote. "The reason it is carried at all is because its symptoms only show up after common child-bearing years." Those common child-bearing years used to be earlier, as well, and it goes to show that natural selection loses its force when reproductive years come to an end, because anything bad that shows up after that has already been passed on.

There are other explanations as well, for the likes of Cystic Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia and the like because of certain immunities heterozygous carriers (that is, people with one copy of the gene, which causes no disease, instead of two, which does)

However, regardless of the otherwise really good content in bFast's post, DaveScot knows better, in the best hand-waving of waves:


I’m utterly amazed that you haven’t learned how natural selection works after all this time.

Well, Liddle may not be able to stir up his pot after this for a while now, but it stands in grand testament to the vacuity of Intelligent Design. If you rely on a definition of 'intelligent' that can withstand scrutiny, you run the risk of real science actually already occupying that explanatory space.

Thank you, Febble, for taking them up on their definition and for showing us a new approach to poking to hornet's nest. Thank you, too, for showing them up for us, even if that was not your original intent :)

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