Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Teleology vs Teleonomy: Can a "Program" Exist Before Its "Programmer"?


This post is a follow-up to the previous post on the subject of the "randomness" in the processes that generate the variation that is necessary for biological evolution.

Can a "program" exist before its "programmer" (and therefore bring it into being)? This seems to be the core of the disagreement between ID supporters and mainstream scientists. The former (which include Charles Darwin's very close friend, Asa Gray) advocate the idea that the variation upon which natural selection and other evolutionary processes work is neither random nor unintentional. The latter (which include Darwin and his intellectual heirs) do not disagree with the idea that such variation is not "random". What they disagree with is the idea that there is some "intention" or "plan" guiding the variation that occurs, so that certain outcomes (including, but not limited to, the origin of humans) are more likely than others.

To answer the question that stands at the head of this post, I think it's essential to emphasize (as I did in the original blogpost) that the terms “foresighted” and “goal-oriented” are not equivalent, nor are the processes to which they are applied. As I have pointed out in many posts, there is no inherent contradiction between a process being purely "natural" (i.e. the result of the operation of purely natural processes) and being "goal-oriented".

Ernst Mayr (surely no advocate of "intelligent design") argued forcefully (and, in my opinion, convincingly) that biological organisms are indeed "goal-oriented". That is, their genomes provide a program, the function of which is to bring about a particular state of affairs: the survival and reproduction of the organism via its interactions with its environment.

The origin of the genome (i.e. the "program" itself) is an entirely different situation, however. Ever since Darwin it has been a standard assumption that the evolutionary processes by which the genetic "programs" that direct the assembly and operation of living organisms are not goal-oriented. These evolutionary processes – natural selection, sexual selection, founder effects, genetic bottlenecks, neutral "drift" in deep evolutionary time, exaptation, heterochronic development, changes in homeotic development, interspecific competition, species-level selection, serial endosymbiosis, convergence/divergence, hybridization, phylogenetic fusion, background and mass extinction/adaptive radiation, and internal variance – do not require any kind of "goal orientation" to produce the living entities and processes we observe around and within us. And, since such processes do not require goal-orientation or intentionality, these are not included in evolutionary explanations. Some, but not all, evolutionary biologists extend this idea to the assumption that goal-orientation or intentionality do not exist in nature, in the absence of pre-existing genomic "programs").

The main reason for this assumption has been that it is extremely problematic to agree on how one would go about showing that the aforementioned evolutionary processes have indeed been goal-oriented. The most serious objection to this idea is that there seems to be nowhere for such a "directing agency" to exist in material form, nor any natural means by which its goals could be impressed upon physical organisms.

The genomes of organisms are physical/chemical "stuff", which is translated via physical/chemical "machinery" into biological entities and processes. That is, there is a physical/chemical "vehicle" in which the information for assembling and operating organisms is carried and expressed.

The same would not the case for the putative source of the "evolutionary program" which might direct the evolution of the genomes of living organisms. Since such an "evolutionary program" would cause the evolution of the "genomic programs" which direct the assembly and operation of living organisms, such a program would necessarily have to exist before the origin and evolution of biological genomes, as it would be necessary for it to do so to direct their coming into being.

This presents two serious problems:

• By what mechanism(s) would such an "evolutionary program" cause "genomic programs" to come into existence, and

• Precisely where in the physical universe would such a pre-existing "evolutionary program" itself exist?

We seem to have two direct logical contradictions in terms:

• How can a non-natural "evolutionary program" cause a natural "genomic program" to come into existence, and

• How can a programmer pre-exist the program which brings itself into existence?

There is a proposed answer to these two questions, but one which most ID supporters seem loathe to invoke:

• That the "pre-existing program" that directs the evolution of the genomic programs of living organisms is woven into the structure of physical reality itself.

This is the line of inquiry pursued by Ilya Prigogine and Stuart Kauffman (among others), but which is rejected out-of-hand by nearly all ID supporters (most notably Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Phillip Johnson), who prefer a purely "supernatural" source for the "pre-existing program" by which evolution has been directed).

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!

--Allen

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18 Comments:

At 3/04/2009 08:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How would a pre-existing program come to be woven into physical reality to begin with?

 
At 3/04/2009 09:46:00 PM, Blogger Steve Petermann said...

"• That the "pre-existing program" that directs the evolution of the genomic programs of living organisms is woven into the structure of physical reality itself.

This is the line of inquiry pursued by Ilya Prigogine and Stuart Kauffman (among others), but which is rejected out-of-hand by nearly all ID supporters (most notably Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Phillip Johnson), who prefer a purely "supernatural" source for the "pre-existing program" by which evolution has been directed)."


Actually if you'd read Behe's latest book you'd see that he is an uber-frontloader. In that book he talks about an intelligent "program" from the creation of the cosmos that frontloads for the highly improbable events that create the complexity we see.

 
At 3/05/2009 02:17:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Steve Petermann:

Does this mean that when the universe began it already had all of the natural laws and physical parameters necessary to produce the current biosphere, without any subsequent intervention by an "intelligent designer"? That's not what I interpreted him to be asserting in The Edge of Evolution.

Rather, I interpreted him as asserting that, despite the rather comprehensive set of natural laws and physical parameters that the universe began with, it has still been necessary for the "intelligent designer" to intervene in evolution since then, for example to alter the resistance of Plasmodium falciparum to chloroquin and related medicines.

 
At 3/06/2009 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Steve Petermann said...

On page 229 of Behe's "The Edge of Evolution" he starts a section called "No Interference". In that sections he says:

But the assumption that design unavoidably requires "interference" rests mostly on a lack of imagination. There's no reason that the extended fine-tuning view I am presenting here necessarily requires active meddling with nature any more that the fine-tuning of theistic evolution does. One can think the universe is finely tuned to any degree and still conceive that "the universe [originated] by a single creative act" and underwent "its natural development by laws implanted in it." One simply has to envision that the agent who caused the universe was able to specify from the start not only the laws, but much more.

 
At 3/06/2009 11:01:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

To me, this quote from Michael Behe seems to give away the farm. Isn't he essentially saying that, once the universe was created (with the particular properties it has), no further intervention would be necessary, and therefore the processes that comprise the theory of evolution are sufficient to explain everything in biology? If not, it seems that Behe is asserting a self-contradictory hypothesis: that the creation of the universe was enough, yet some "intelligent designer" must still intervene in some otherwise natural processes to get the various biological entities and processes we observe.

 
At 3/06/2009 11:03:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

When you "fine tune" something (like a car, for example) you are still intervening directly into the operation of the car. Either the car is originally designed to require no further tuning of any kind (for example, because it has an internal process by which it fine-tunes itself), or it requires the active intervention of an agent that "fine tunes" it. You can't have it both ways.

 
At 3/06/2009 12:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Either the car is originally designed to require no further tuning of any kind (for example, because it has an internal process by which it fine-tunes itself)..."

It sounds like this is what Behe is suggesting is possible when he talks about natural development by implanted laws.

This blog entry is very interesting because what you have described IS intelligent design. You just describe the intelligence as a pre-existing program. This still leaves you to answer for yourself whence the program came.

 
At 3/06/2009 01:44:00 PM, Blogger Steve Petermann said...

Isn't he essentially saying that, once the universe was created (with the particular properties it has), no further intervention would be necessary, and therefore the processes that comprise the theory of evolution are sufficient to explain everything in biology?

Yes he is saying exactly that accept for the characterization in evolutionary theory that changes are all "random" (i.e. unplanned). Rather he is saying that the highly improbable events that result in things like IC have been frontloaded from the beginning.

If not, it seems that Behe is asserting a self-contradictory hypothesis: that the creation of the universe was enough, yet some "intelligent designer" must still intervene in some otherwise natural processes to get the various biological entities and processes we observe.


No. I think what he is saying is that along with the laws (that are not violated), the initial conditions are set up such that there is a frontloaded guidance to what subsequently happens. This would be kind of like a computer program where the "laws" are programmed but the inputs to the program are set up such that a certain type of result will ensue.

 
At 3/06/2009 07:38:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

It occurs to me that the admission by Michael Behe that he has now essentially abandoned the idea that the creator of the universe has continued to intervene in the evolution of life on Earth is the reason that his latest book, The Edge of Evolution has completely dropped off the radar of both evolutionary biologists and ID supporters.

Evolutionary biologists recognize that Dr. Behe has now pushed back the "window of action" for the Intelligent Designer to the creation of the universe, which effectively removes it from any contradiction with evolutionary biology, especially as originally proposed by Charles Darwin.

ID supporters recognize that Dr. Behe's deistic conception of the Intelligent Designer is so far from the deity of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Mormon traditions* (and especially the core dogma of Young Earth Creationism) that they can no longer in good conscience support it.

Which leaves, of course, the small subset of ID supporters who are not committed to the idea that the Intelligent Designer is the Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Mormon deity Who has actively intervened in the evolution of life on Earth. To be as blunt, the Intelligent Designer of "front-loaded" ID supporters is pointless as a God (He either can't intervene in nature and human affairs, or chooses never to do so) and leaves the whole of evolutionary biology virtually completely unchallenged and untouched.

*Dr. Behe even admits this in the chapter about the origin of chloroquine resistance in The Edge of Evolution, in which he wonders about the "mercy" of a God Who would intentionally provide such a horrific pathogen with such a "beneficial" characteristic. Yes, God's intentions are not ours, but Behe's observation cannot be squared with the traditional belief in the Christian God's omnibenevolence (without, of course) rendering Him a utilitarian).

 
At 3/06/2009 09:01:00 PM, Blogger Steve Petermann said...

I think what we are seeing in the likes of Behe and Miller for that matter is a striking cognitive dissonance. On the hand, they claim to be Christians but with their theological speculations they seem at such odds with the theology of their own traditions. They are not alone. I've seen this so many times with scientists and the science minded. They either aren't aware of the contradictions inherent in their positions or their psychological mechanisms kick in and ameliorate the dissonance.

For the standpoint of theological progress I view this as a step in the right direction away from the dualistic ontologies emergent in Western theology.

It can be progress in the sense that eventually non-dual "naturalistic" ontologies might be entertained by some. By "naturalistic" ontologies I do not mean non-theistic but rather those that see no ontological divide (supernaturalism) between God or what one wishes to call an ultimate agency and the cosmos.

As I understand it you have studied under the non-dualistic approach of Zen. While forms of Buddhism like Zen are said to be non-theistic, in the popular realm they do have elements similar to theism even in the worship of the Buddha.

Personally I find theistic ontologies like that of Visishtadvaitism more amenable to a "modern" sensibility. While Hinduism has an excess of speculations, I feel its qualified ontology has much appeal. I call my own personal minimalistic version and "aspect monism":
http://theology3m.blogsome.com/2006/10/21/aspect-monism/

My view is that religious sentiment has to evolve like everything else. Folks like Behe are making a few steps that may lead to a more friendly stance toward everything we can learn about out world.

 
At 3/06/2009 09:32:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

"While forms of Buddhism like Zen are said to be non-theistic, in the popular realm they do have elements similar to theism even in the worship of the Buddha."

The founder of the Zen tradition that I have practiced was the so-called "Sixth Patriarch", Lin Chi (transliterated from Chinese), known in Japan and most of America as Rinzai. One of his most famous sayings was "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" To me, this hardly qualifies as "worshiping the buddha".

My own roshi (Japanese for "old man") was adamant that Zen is not a religion. It has no gods or other supernatural entities, no concept of a soul, no written or spoken creed, and teaches that everything arises out of the "law of cause and effect". So it should not be particularly surprising that people who practice Rinzai Zen not only have no problem with science, they also find evolutionary biology particularly resonant with their outlook on life and reality.

 
At 3/06/2009 09:37:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

As to Behe and Miller's "backpedaling" on their religious beliefs, I think that's because they are also working scientists, and as such they do indeed recognize the enormous discontinuity between what science and their religions teach about reality. To reduce their "cognitive dissonance", both of them seem to be downplaying the more "literal" aspects of their religious beliefs. However, to many more fundamentalist believers (including, apparently, an increasing percentage of the supporters of ID), their "revised" positions on the "reality" of religion are indistinguishable from apostasy.

 
At 3/07/2009 12:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wikipedia on Behe's EoE: "He concludes that purposeful design plays a major role in the development of biological complexity, through the mechanism of producing "non-random mutations", which are then subjected to the sculpting hand of natural selection."

Say these non-random mutations were guided by some pre-existing program that was woven into physical reality. Say this pre-existing program was even woven into LUCA or LUCAs. This doesn't strike me as evidence for a God that can't (or won't) intervene in nature. This describes a God that wrote the whole program for nature from the very beginning. All necessary guidance was there from the get go. This isn't a failure to intervene, it's foresight. It's...pre-intervention. Now I'm not sure this is what Behe is suggesting happened. In the quote Steve Petermann gave Behe only suggests the EoE doesn't "necessarily require active meddling with nature". The nature of the intervention isn't central to his argument that there is a limit to what random mutation can do.
It also says nothing about God's willingness to intervene in human affairs. There is good reason to believe God did intervene in human affairs when he sent Jesus to die in our place. That's a pretty significant intervention.

"Evolutionary biologists recognize that Dr. Behe has now pushed back the "window of action" for the Intelligent Designer to the creation of the universe, which effectively removes it from any contradiction with evolutionary biology, especially as originally proposed by Charles Darwin."

What difference does it make when the intervention occurred? If design can be detected that contradicts the idea of unguided evolution it doesn't really matter if the actual intervention occurred prior to the origin of life. The presence of design (that cannot be explained by natural processes) is a refutation of Darwin's proposal.

 
At 3/07/2009 09:46:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Anonymous wrote:

"This describes a God that wrote the whole program for nature from the very beginning. All necessary guidance was there from the get go."

Precisely my point. An Intelligent Designer with sufficient creative power (shall we agree on "omnipotence"?) could indeed "write the whole program for nature from the very beginning".

But someone else said it better than I can:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

I leave the identity of the author of this quotation as an exercise for the reader.

 
At 3/07/2009 09:57:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Anonymous also wrote:

"What difference does it make when the intervention occurred? If design can be detected that contradicts the idea of unguided evolution it doesn't really matter if the actual intervention occurred prior to the origin of life. The presence of design (that cannot be explained by natural processes) is a refutation of Darwin's proposal."

It makes a huge difference; all the difference in the world, in fact. As Daniel Dennett pointed out almost two decades ago, Darwin "started in the middle". That is, he assumed that life had begun at some uninvestigatable point in the past, and set about to explain how it has evolved since then.

Therefore, the assertion that "guided evolution" can be set in motion by the creation of a set of natural laws that produces everything on Earth without further/later intervention is completely compatible with Darwin's theory. Indeed, it is exactly what Darwin described in the last sentence of the Origin of Species (quoted at the end of the previous comment, for those who didn't recognize the author).

Furthermore, as Will Provine has repeatedly pointed out, a deity who winds up the clock of the universe, sets it in motion, and then lets it run by itself is completely compatible with Deism, and also completely pointless as a deity to Whom one might pray for intervention today (i.e. it's not His job, which He finished about 14 billion years ago).

Anonymous, you're making a strong case for what is generally known as "theistic evolutionism", not ID. For that matter, the whole "front-loaded ID" movement is nothing more than classical Deism, dressed up with some scientific terms to make it seem less 18th century-ish. And, like Deism, "front-loaded ID" is about as relevant to current evolutionary theory as 18th century biology is...an historical curiosity, but not much more.

 
At 3/07/2009 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

As for Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution:

"He concludes that purposeful design plays a major role in the development of biological complexity, through the mechanism of producing "non-random mutations", which are then subjected to the sculpting hand of natural selection."

My reading of this quote says exactly the opposite of what Anonymous has asserted here. If Behe is asserting that the Intelligent Designer is not sufficiently omnipotent or omniscient to create a universe that can produce life (and even humans) without further "tweaking", then he is not asserting that the Intelligent Designer is the deity of Deism, as Anonymous has asserted.

So, which is it? The omnipotent/omniscient deity of Deism (who, by definition, doesn't intervene in the universe after He has created it), or the incompetent Intelligent Designer of "mainstream" ID theory, who (like Mr. Incredible) has to keep coming back to "fix things up some more".

You can't have both, Anonymous.

 
At 8/14/2009 03:56:00 AM, Anonymous Hamid Y. Javanbakht said...

A program is its own programmer, it is a self-configuring self-processing entity, not in a tautological sense, but closer to autological, perhaps it is supertautological in the sense of a self-defined predicate? This is no longer evolutionary biology, but philosophy of science, particularly model theory:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_theory

"In teleology, Kant's positions were neglected for many years because in the minds of many scientists they were associated with vitalist views of evolution. Their gradual rehabilitation recently is evident in teleonomy which bears a number of features, such as the description of organisms, that are reminiscent of the Kantian conception of final causes as essentially recursive in nature. The gist of Kant's position is that even though we cannot know whether there are final causes in nature, we are constrained by the peculiar nature of the human understanding to view organisms teleologically. Thus, teleology is a necessary principle for the study of organisms, but it is only a regulative principle, with no ontological implications."

 
At 3/29/2011 03:52:00 PM, Blogger David Andrew said...

By the close of the second millennium the metaphor of ‘biotic cognition’ was widely taken for granted (Margulis & Sagan 1995, Jablonka & Lamb 2005). Very few researchers have directly attributed ‘intelligence’ to bio-systems. Mostly they merely suggested a metaphor of such based on the known attributes of Systems Theory and ‘self-organisation’. Self-organisation itself is no longer seriously in doubt. Natural selection is seemingly a key ingredient in most of the self-organising system known to date (Riegler 2008, Kurakin 2005). Those parts of the system that are self-destructive tend to drop-out. It is similar to the cells and lines method of improvisation in jazz. Several lines or licks are tried, and those that work well together are preserved. Those licks that fail the test are discarded.

 

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