Monday, March 21, 2005

Gatekeepers, ghettoes, design, and self-organizing systems

Kevin over at Short Attention Span is wrestling with the idea that Christian bloggers exist in a kind of "Christian blogger ghetto" created by a dearth of links from A-list bloggers.
What makes me believe that La Shawn is right that the A-list is functioning as a gatekeeper --deliberately or not-- is that there seems to be a discernable gatekeeper effect. An effect has a cause.
Most of the time, that's correct. Most effects have causes. But not all. Some things "just happen that way." Systems do self-organize, and can exhibit seemingly intentional behavior that actually derives from unintentional effects of simple initial conditions.

At the risk of a heresey charge, this is a weak area in the argument for Intelligent Design. I really like Stephen Barr's "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith", but he builds a case for the sphere being an elegant, symmetrical object without discussing a very basic fact: Of any three-dimensional shape, the sphere has the smallest surface area for the enclosed volume. That's not a design feature, it's just the way the math works out.

A drop of water, a bubble, a planet, a star - they're all spheres because that shape is mathematically the smallest package.

Now, then. We certainly could have a discussion as to why it should be that the smallest, most efficient shape for a given amount of matter should just happen to have all these kinds of symmetries. That might closely related to a discussion of why i has a value of nearly 1, when its factors are on the order of plus and minus 10^6. (According to Barr, i controls the relationship fo the strong and weak nuclear forces. If i were much different than 1, the universe would either be all hydrogen or all helium - other elements could not exist.)

"Why should things be the way they are instead of some other way" is a question for deep thinkers and insomniac sophomores, but it's a different question than "Why are things the way they are?"

As parents know very well, sometimes the answer to that question is, "Because that's just the way it is."


DM said...

Self-organization is pretty interesting. There are lots of systems which do self-organize, some in really sophisticated patterns. Google "stone stripes", for example.

Since you submitted this post for "Meeting of the minds", I'm guessing you think this has something to do with Intelligent Design. It is true that self-organized systems can look intelligently designed (if I found a stone stripe, I'd probably think it was a path someone had put there) -- but it turns out that there's a physical principle that operates that requires things to end up that way. Things don't self-organize just because they like to be organized -- they self organize when forced. To use your example, the sphere doesn't just "want" to become a sphere -- it has to minimize its surface area, so it is forced to.

Things aren't so simple when it comes to life. There's no physical principle that required life to arise here, as far as I know.

Giff said...

This is why Dembski's explanatory filter has three stages: contingency, complexity, and specification. Raindrops, planets, crystals, snowflakes all have complex and organized structures, but they have them because of mathematical rules which compell them to have such shapes. This is not "information" or "specified complexity" because there is no, or little contingency.

The thing about DNA (or lego building blocks, or letters in the english alphabet) that makes it suitable for infering design is that their structure allows for any number of possibilites - that a complex structure is not inherent in the nature of the bonds between neucleotides. AAGGTTTC is as possible as GTCAAGCT, just as "I am sam" is as possible as "fdjdi dfI". It is precisely this contingency that implies design.

Corrie said...

Thanks for dropping by!

An old and wise friend once taught me that if you want to be able to argue for a position, you need to be able to effectively argue against it. The same is true in sales - you need to know all the potential objections, so that you can answer them. That's what I'm trying to do here, look for potential holes in the fabric of the ID argument.


I'm not sure if "forced" is a word I'd agree with. Perhaps "consequent outcome?"

For example, flocking behavior is a consequent outcome of having a group of individuals each of which follows a few simple rules.

Yes, in digital flocking simulations it's clear that the rules and initial conditions were designed. But that doesn't mean that they HAD to be designed - as you said, there may be purely physical processes at work that create the appearance of design. Certainly that's the assumption of materialists.

giff - I need to look at Dembski in more depth, but "contingency" seems to be the old argument from incredulity.

The materialist might argue that, yes, of course, DNA Pattern 1 (which is useless) is just as likely as DNA Pattern 2 (which is useful). But, they will say, #2 is more likely to be replicated because it is useful. Therefore, over time (lots and lots of time), the non-useful patterns get supplanted by useful patterns, and passed down. (That, btw, is the logical conflation of Natural Selection and Common Descent that Behe recently argued against.)

Giff said...

Contingency isn't something that stands on its own - it is part of a larger explanitory filter. It's pretty straightforward: If I have a keyboard with only the letter "A" on it, and get a string of "AAAAAAAAAA" then that is not surprising. But if I have a normal keyboard and claim I got the string "AAAAAAAAAA" from random typing is certainly cause for more question and discussion.

Similarly, if I have a huge bunch of H2O molecules, and they form into some crystaline structure due to the fractalline mathematical nature of their shape and bonds, this is cool, but quite different in kind to biological machines. Ameno Acids are analagous to an alphabet because they can form almost anything - their bonds have no inherent preference. Water molecules are analagous to only having the letter "A."

The materialist may think that in a sense all structures are contingent since the entire universe is one big undirected cause and effect machine. Life arises and flourishes for the same reason falling water forms into raindrops, but this just strikes me as obtuse - to expand the definition of a word to include everything is to make the word mean nothing. Contingency is only the starting point. To fully develop the argument, you need complexity and specification.

You might want to grab a copy of "Signs of Intelligence" and review Dembski's chapter in it - it's the best and most accessible summary of his argument I've seen.