Friday, September 10, 2010

Past the Horizon

A comment from JRDS a few posts back observes as follows:

It is extremely difficult to understand how the heck a single-celled organism could have originated via purposeless laws of nature. Consider the cell wall, DNA, mitochondria. Even the simplest of living cells looks more like an extremely sophisticated machine than it does a meaningless purposeless matter + chemistry event.
The difficulty of understanding evolution does not count either for or against its veracity. The same applies to the difficulty of understanding the specific evolutionary history of any given organism -- the complexity of the account doesn't imply anything about its truth-value. Some things are intuitive and simple yet false; other things are counterintuitive and abstruse yet true. There's no good reason to expect the universe to conform to the limits and biases of the human mind; there's even less reason to expect the universe to conform to the contours of your mind. The exact same applies to my mind or anyone's mind -- that's not a cheap jape, or if it is, it applies to every person.

JRDS continues that going from simple organisms to
... complex mammals and to people, the complexity seems way too much to explain without some kind of conscious creative force -- what that may be -- we certainly don't have enough data to know. But that such a conscious creative force doesn't exist, we certainly can't assume.
I agree there's no use in merely assuming the existence or non-existence of a "conscious creative force" and then treating the assumption as a warranted conclusion. That kind of assuming is a dead end; rather I balk at believing it to be true or treating it as a valid working hypothesis because there simply isn't any good reason to do either. As a truth claim, it lacks a basis in reason and evidence. As a working hypothesis, it has been suggested and analyzed at length, and has not generated anything but additional speculations that are, themselves, even less fruitful and plausible.

Moreover -- as David Hume covered more thoroughly in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion than I could, and certainly more so than I will here -- there's actually no precedent in nature that proceeds from consciousness to life. We know of our own consciousness, and something of how it operates; it does interesting things, but it doesn't generate forms of life. New life forms always rise from extant life forms, and precisely how and when this process started is the subject of ongoing research. As above, I favor seeking the answers rigorously and methodically rather than assuming an answer and declaring the assumption to be the final truth of the matter.

I don't know and I don't pretend to know "through faith" or otherwise, but I do know that I can't reject the possibility of a conscious creative something merely because Catholics make bad arguments.
Whatever arguments Catholics make or fail to make, I reject the possibility of a "conscious creative something" unless and until there's reason and evidence for accepting it.

Returning to where this began, with those poor arguments made by a Catholic: if the "conscious creative something" is, in principle or by definition, beyond the limits of our perceptions and powers of reason, then we've already said too much about it. If it's amenable to methodical scrutiny, I favor doing the work of that scrutiny in good faith, noting the results, and moving forward on the basis of the findings.


JRDS said...

Playing Devil's Advocat:

I see your point that complexity does not necessarily imply design. (I think that was your point). But the real question is whether the origin of life looks more like something that occurred without purpose or design or more like something that was purposefully designed. I would argue for the latter. Using again the example of the most simple single-celled organism, consider its DNA. Its DNA contains a complex code that tells the cell how to build proteins and how to do all the things a cell does. DNA is an error-correcting, redundant, self duplicating, information storage and retrieval system. Consider the following from the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Genetic Code:

The genetic code is the set of rules by which information encoded in genetic material (DNA or mRNA sequences) is translated into proteins (amino acid sequences) by living cells. The code defines a mapping between tri-nucleotide sequences, called codons, and amino acids.

This sounds to me a lot more like something that was designed than something that occurred naturally without purpose. To update an old argument: "if you find an iphone on the beach, you know it didn't occur naturally . . . yada yada yada".

Granted, we have witnessed people design and build iphones and we've never seen a "conscious creative force" make DNA. But even if we'd never seen an iphone before, we'd know it was a created artifact and not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Change the example a little and put the iphone on a beach in 1750. They would have no idea what the thing was or how it was designed and manufactured, but they'd know it WAS designed and manufactured. The question is does DNA look more like an iphone (a designed thing) or more like a piece of -- say, igneous rock -- which people have witnessed being formed naturally from volcanoes and such without a designer?

I come down on the side of "designed thing". The whole idea of "coding" in the DNA is persuasive to me on this point. In my experience of the world, a code is always associated with a creator/designer/coder. No one has ever observed a "code" form naturally without a conscious coder. (Although there are some nit-wit programmers out there). Not only have we not seen such an event, but no experiment has ever been able to produce DNA/life from non-life. And, not only has no experiment been able to produce life from non-life but no one has been able to come up with a plausible hypothetical scenario by which DNA could have come into existence naturally.

Does the conclusion that life was designed help us figure anything else out if we use it as a working hypothesis? I can’t claim that it does. But this not a reason to accept or a least lean toward this conclusions if reason so dictates.

On to the issue of consciousness. Design requires consciousness. If there is design, there is a conscious designer -- its just part of the definition of "design". I will admit that natural selection might appear to "design" some change in a species, but that's a separate issue which doesn't affect the argument about the origin of life -- and DNA in particular. The bottom line is that natural selection does not get us to that first single celled organism.

JRDS said...

OTHER RANDOM THOUGHTS ON CONSCIOUSNESS.Consciousness is hard to get a handle on. If we didn't have subjective experiences of our own consciousness, we would have no way to "see" consciousness in anything else. Consider the subjective experience of say, pain. Pain is not only a stimulus -- it also HURTS. The difference I'm trying to highlight is the following. Say you build a robot that via its software/hardware construction can detect and report sensation on its mechanical hand. Now, say you're a really kick ass programmer / robot designer and you can program the robot to scream out and wail and appear that it is hurt whenever it detects stimulus that would be painful to a living creature. Is the robot really in pain? Heck no. Its actions are merely the mechanism ploughing through its algorithm/programming.

Now consider, could you ever make robot that really felt pain? Even if you had super futuristic technology, the answer is no. No matter how good it is, you can’t make the robot “hurt”. You might be able to make it so human-looking and life-like that it could fool everyone around it into thinking it was human. Then you could waterboard it, torture it — whatever – and it could cry and scream and – you get the picture. At the end of the day, however, it is not really suffering. It’s just running through its code; it’s thing that reads its code and responds accordingly. It doesn’t “know” anything. It doesn’t subjectively “feel” anything.

Consider the ethical question – if you own the super human looking robot and you “torture” it – even it if can detect the stimulus – is that wrong? The answer is pretty simple: “no”. It’s not wrong because the robot has no subjective self that experiences the ‘hurt” of pain.

It’s pretty clear, and all would agree, that people and animals are different. Is it wrong to torture people and animals? Well, of course. They have subjective selves that do more than coldly detect painful stimulus. If you hurt them, they subjectively hurt. So what is my point. I kind of lost track of it but if I might try to salvage a helpful observation from the foregoing, it is this. There is really no objective observable difference between the super futuristic robot that looks and acts just like a human and an actual human which explains why the human can “hurt” in a way that the robot never can. You can’t see the human’s subjective pain – just like the robot, the human’s bio-chemical self is just doing what it does. If we didn’t have the experience of our own subjectivity, there would be no way we could tell that another person was doing any more than “reading his own code” when he cried out in pain, etc. There would be no way to see that he or she was really subjectively experiencing the unpleasant hurt of pain.

What is the difference between the human or animal and the robot. Nothing really that we know of except that humans and animals are alive. Robots and computers are not. Consciousness and the capacity for subjectivity are something that our current paradigm is not equipped to handle. Consciousness may be part of the universe in a way we just don’t yet have grip on. We know our current paradigm is insufficient to explain the above human vs. robot capacity for consciousness/subjectivity, but we don’t yet have the new paradigm. If progress continues, we’re going to have a different paradigm that explains this difference. Whether this paradigm will hold a place for a creator/designer of life, maybe. It’s something we should be free to think sensibly about and not write off merely because the nutty God-believers of the past have left such a bad taste in our mouths.

Dale said...

JRDS, it sounds like you're talking about a Turing Machine that specializes in representing pain. I agree that opens up some interesting questions.

I don't agree it establishes mind-body dualism -- or maybe I should say the factuality of mind-body dualism -- which is what your argument needs.

Dale said...

JRDS, that "natural selection does not get us to that first single celled organism" is straight out of orthodox Darwinism -- Darwin put it in almost exactly those words.

There are, today, camps within Darwinian (i.e., modern) biology that propose to extend the theory to account for the very beginnings of life -- by proposing, for example, that a selection-like process winnowed the chemical formations until something counting as life came into being -- but these are *extensions* of the theory as Darwin propounded it.

Darwin himself, and mainstream biology still today (as I understand it), draws a bright line between the *origin of life* and *the origins of life's diversity.*

Darwin's book is *The Origin of Species*, not the origin of life; abiogenesis is not the same as evolution by natural selection.

You say: I come down on the side of "designed thing". The whole idea of "coding" in the DNA is persuasive to me on this point. In my experience of the world, a code is always associated with a creator/designer/coder.

This is simply question-begging. Everything you *know* to be designed code is indeed designed code. The status of DNA -- designed or not -- is the question in dispute.

You're also not looking at the considerable body of evidence showing that the extant genetic codes (and the corresponding phenotypes) display horrible design flaws, flaws no non-moronic human-like designer would ever make. Consider the panda. Or consider the coccyx, or the appendix (with its handy might-burst-at-any-time "feature"), or the prostate. Or how we humans can so easily inhale bits of food and thereby choke. We're a smorgasbord of flawed designs. Here's a longer listing: