Monday, February 07, 2005

Intelligent Design

Here's my letter to the New York Times in response to the 2/7/05 opinion article by Michael Behe, biology prof at Leheigh, in defense of Intelligent Design. As you could have surmised, not a word of biological science was included, just phenomenological apercus by someone who looks at biological phenomena a lot.

Editor: Michael Behe is a scientist when he's at work and a philosopher when he's at home. His nice arguments for intelligent design owe nothing to science. They are a familiar rework of the philosopher John Wisdom's* musings back in the 40s: in a nutshell, "if there is a garden then there is a gardener." Dr. Behe talks of "the appearance of design" in nature. There you have it. Nature appears designed to us because we experience it entirely through our brains and specifically through our intelligence. We see intelligent design because that is all we are physiologically able to see. Frogs might see the world as stupid, since a frog's perception of it is "that which passes near enough my tongue to get eaten." At bottom, there are two schools of thought: 1. The world is too complex to have been created by blind physical processes." 2. "The world is too complex to have been created except by blind physical processes." If you can't appreciate the humbling redundancy and scope of random physical process, then you have settled for a lesser God.

*My apologies. An earlier version of this article attributed the "garden" argument to J.O. Urmson. Here is the text from which Wisdom's account was elaborated:

"Two people return to their long neglected garden and find among the weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other. 'It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these plants'. Upon inquiry they find that no neighbour has ever seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other, 'He must have worked while people slept'. The other says. 'No, someone would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants would have kept down these weeds'. The first man says, 'Look at the way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes. I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find confirmation of this'. They examine the garden ever so carefully and sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work."

Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944-5, reprinted as Ch. X of Logic and Language, Vol. I (Blackwell, 1951), and in his Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).


Blogger David McCullough said...

Why are computers so stupid when it comes to processes that humans, even children, handle routinely? Such as using concepts and relational terms like "in" "of" "about" etc?
Because computers were created by intelligent design. If they are going to progress much further, they will have to evolve. By analogy, even God could not escape the constraints of natural selection if he created anything to begin with.

12:47 PM  
Blogger David McCullough said...

On why computer are so stupid: here is a quote from Jana Levin, in Seed magazine (online)--"Absolutely. And of course, the ideas of Turing and Gödel became central to the invention of the computer and, ultimately, the ambition for artificial intelligence. Yet one thing that their theorems require is that artificial intelligence programs are not perfectly logical, because then they can't do the kinds of strange things that we do. It's actually embedded in their theorems. That's a remarkable consequence. And still it took the computer-science community a very long time to say, okay, we can't literally program these things. We have to watch them somehow evolve in all their complexity."

4:07 PM  
Blogger David McCullough said...

My comment on Levin's comment, in the Seed magazine online forum: Jana Levin hits the nail on the head when she talks about how computers need to evolve. The problem with computers is that they were created by intelligent design. So they are stupid. People interested in the history of science should take a look at Herbert Simon and Allen Newell's pioneering report on their study of chess players as a lever for generating artificial intelligence. Their method for codifying mental processes of the players? They asked them! AI went off the tracks right there. By forcing answers into first person reports, the only acceptible answers were those that recapitulated the logic of the positions--quite independently of whether the chess players actually used such processes. (In fact, most chess players when interviewed claim they "see" rather than "calculate.") The point is that the logic of an action is only half the picture; the other half is the interaction with an environment. So far, computers are mostly programmed by logic, whereas the potential for evolution requires dynamics and dialectics. Why was Stephen Wolfram's magnum opus stillborn? Because it is static. There is no provision for the interplay of processes. One topic than Levin and Lethem might have touched on but didn't was what reality has in common with invention. The answer is representation. This is most evident in looking at the "character" of a process or reality--we can lift the character off like a skin and reproduce it in a narrative.

6:11 PM  

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