Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Comment on Intelligent Design

Here is a comment that I received on my essay on 'intelligent design':

Your essay is quite interesting, but I believe it overextends the idea of ID, which is not to prove that a greater power exists, how it exists, and how it subsists. ID sets to prove the existence of a greater power by demonstrating in nature that certain relations are impossible without a guiding force behind it.

It's not relevant to the argument of ID to show how a creator exists in the infinity of the cosmos, but rather show its footprint on our world and thusly demonstrate its existence.

Because, you know, proof is such a messy thing to get. What with all that work and stuff...

This is a thoughtful reply and deserves the courtesy of a considered reply. First let us consider the question of a footprint.

Do you recall the first photograph of a face on Mars? The image is striking and, to many, convincing. But we just do not know whether it is the 'footprint' of an ancient Martian civilization or a "trick of light and shadow". Nor do we know whether the footprints of 'bigfoot' are the prints of an large unknown primate or the result of a hoax.

How can we know the truth? A scientist who discovers a possible footprint will want to know as much as possible about it. He asks, what kind of foot made that print? What kind of creature owned that foot? If the scientist cannot identify the creature that created the footprint, then the discovery is suspect. Thus the so-called bigfoot footprint will not be accepted as conclusive proof. Bigfoot will not be accepted by scientists unless and until a specimen is found, alive or dead.

Likewise, the theory of intelligent design will not be accepted as scientific unless the 'intelligent designer' is discovered.

A second issue in the comment is the question of proving that "certain relations are impossible without a guiding force behind it". How can we prove that something is impossible? Consider the conjecture that a bacterial flagellum cannot be produced by natural causes.

(The term 'conjecture' refers to a statement that the proponent believes true, but cannot prove. There are several famous conjectures in mathematics. The Goldbach Conjecture states that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes. Even after 263 years, this conjecture has neither been proved nor disproved.)

Can this impossibility be proved? What kind of proof is needed? Let me offer a plan of a proof for proving that a flagellum cannot be produced by natural means:

1. Sequence the DNA of many bacteria that lack a flagellum.
2. Record the DNA genomes of these bacteria in a computer databsae.
3. Write a computer program which simulates bacterial change on the recorded genomes.

Specifically, this program:

4. Selects one of the bacteria and apply a natural genetic change upon the recorded DNA.
One process of genetic change is mutation. Also bacteria engage in direct transfer of DNA.

5. If the genetic change kills the new bacterium, eliminate it from further consideration. Also eliminate duplicates, if any.

6. Examine the genome for the signature of a flagellum. In that case, we have proof that the flagellum can be produced by natural means. That would be contrary to the expectation of the advocates of intelligent design. Print out the chain of changes that resulted in the flagellum and stop.

7. Add the new genome to the computer data base.

8. Apply another genetic change to the original bacterium and repeat the steps above starting with step 5. Continue until all of the possible genetic changes have been evaluated.

9. Repeat the process above for every one of the original set of genomes. This completes one cycle of evolution of bacterium.

10. Perform more cycles of evolution on the recorded genomes. Suppose the program performs a cycle without adding any new genomes. If no flagellum has been produced (in step 6 above), it may be concluded that a flagellum cannot be produced by natural means. Stop.

This is a simple sketch of a very complex computer program. Anyone who has even a modest amount of training in computer science should be able to spot immense problems with this plan. Among these problems are:

1. The process of mutation is not well understood. We do not know all the possible ways that a genome may mutatte. Therfore we cannot now write a computer program that models that behavior.

2. The same comment applies to direct gene transfer between bacteria.

3. What criteria should be used to determine whether a genome is viable? Until this is understood, one cannot write a computer program to model this part of the process.

4. Is the starting set of bacteria adequate?

5. This program will require a huge memory. Suppose the program begins with a starting set of one thousand different types of bacteria. After one cycle, there might be one million genomes in the data base. After two cycles, one billion. After three cycles, one trillion. The database will grow exponentially and might very well exceed the capacity of all of the hard disks on planet earth.

6 How long must the program run before a conclusion of impossibility can be reached? If a chain leading to a flagellum is found, then the program terminates in step 6. But if that doesn't happen, how long must the program run? One would probably want a result in a reasonable time, say a year. That might be enough for 100 cycles, probably not enough for a conclusion. Every time a cycle is completed, the next cycle will grind much more slowly. Suppose the program has to run for a thousand cycles or a million cycles to reach a result. That might exceed the lifetimes of our great great grandchildren.

7. There is a problem with the stopping criterium in step 10. Certain mutations may increase the size of a genome. Then every cycle will generate additional genomes, and the process will never end. Then we will be forced to put a limit on the size of a genome, and discard genomes that exceed that limit. What is a reasonable limit? It should be larger than the largest known genome. But how much larger?

8. The methods used by this program would have to be published and reviewed by all interested parties. And there would have to be general agreement that the program will work and produce the desired result. Otherwise the results will not be accepted.

9. By the time that this progam is designed, written, and debugged, scientists may have found a chain of genetic changes that produces a flagellum. This might come from the analysis of the genomes of certain key types of bacteria. That would obviate the need for this program.

I trust that the reader will understand the huge difficulties involved in attempting to prove an impossibility. In spite of our sophisticated science and technology, we simply do not have the capability creating a computer program that will prove that a flagellum cannot be produced by natural means. The proof that a flagellum is impossible is, for all practical purposes, impossible.

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that the proponents of intelligent design are too easily satisfied by insufficient proofs. While they magnify nit-picking flaws in a scientific theory, they put forward theories that have no scientific credibility.

What it comes down to is a matter of faith. Do you put your faith in a nebulous and unkown 'intelligent designer'? Or do you put your faith in the processes of scientific research --experimentation, theory building, logical deduction, and peer review?

I choose science.


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