I recently posted a brief essay entitled “Beware of Question-Begging Computer Simulations” (linked below) in which I referenced an article by Eric Anderson. Since then Eric and I have corresponded by e-mail and he offers the following comments.
I was recently pointed to a discussion thread (www.uncommondescent.com/index.php/archives/802) on Uncommon Descent regarding my brief review (www.iscid.org/pcid/2005/4/2/anderson_bits_bytes_biology.php) of the program known as Ã¢â‚¬Å“Avida.Ã¢â‚¬Â Initiated by Gil Dodgen with very kind and no doubt undeserved accolades, the thread contains a number of interesting remarks and counterpoints. Having waded through comment number 27, I came to the tentative conclusion that j was on the right track and that I need not provide any further input. However, the subsequent post managed to convince j that jÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own reading of the material was inaccurate, and things went a bit sideways from there to the end of the thread.
I am unfortunately not possessed of adequate time to respond to each post individually, nor to follow up on this thread for that matter, but Gil has kindly agreed to let me open with observations and then pose a pair of questions for consideration.
First, the observations:
Valerie, who is, by my impression, an intelligent and gifted debater, leads the charge with the following: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Eric AndersonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s essay is fraught with problems. The biggest is that he seems to misunderstand the concept of irreducible complexity as propounded by Michael Behe and William Dembski.Ã¢â‚¬Â This is no small allegation. After all, if I have misunderstood what Behe and Dembski are talking about, then although not irrelevant by definition, my views at least stand in opposition to the primary individuals who have championed and brought to the masses the very notion of irreducible complexity.
The theme proceeds: Ã¢â‚¬Å“To Anderson, any system which can be approached by a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcumulative pathwayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ is not irreducibly complex.Ã¢â‚¬Â This is a remarkable accusation. Valerie has apparently either missed or misunderstood my footnote 6, which references my detailed analysis (www.iscid.org/pcid/2004/3/1/anderson_ic_reduced.php) of DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Irreducible Complexity Revisited.Ã¢â‚¬Â Though admittedly painful in length, my paper details several issues surrounding irreducible complexity and includes a detailed discussion of the possibility of a cumulative pathway. Indeed, it is in that paper that I coined the term Ã¢â‚¬Å“cumulative irreducible complexityÃ¢â‚¬Â and juxtaposed the concept against what I term Ã¢â‚¬Å“per se irreducible complexity.Ã¢â‚¬Â One is free, of course, to object to my analysis and question my conclusions in Ã¢â‚¬Å“Irreducible Complexity Revisited,Ã¢â‚¬Â but the allegation that Anderson does not allow for a cumulative pathway to irreducible complexity will not stick.
Fair enough, Anderson, you may understand that a cumulative pathway is possible, but why did you footnote a definition that excludes such a cumulative pathway, and does not this demonstrate that you do not understand BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s views on the matter?
I think not. First (and it really is an aside in terms of my critique of Avida), my point regarding Avida is not that a particular definition of irreducible complexity is at question, as I clearly indicated in the forgotten footnote. My point is that Avida adopts as its programming functionality the very concepts in question: that a cumulative pathway exists, it is a relatively easy pathway, there are regular rewards for incremental advancement along the pathway, and so forth. The entire exercise is one of question begging, and Avida cannot be saved by nuanced quibbles over the definition of irreducible complexity. That is precisely why I utilized a simple demarcation, footnoted the fact that I was doing so and that such an approach was sufficient for an analysis of Avida, and then moved on.
With regard to Behe and DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s views, their general approach has been to conclude as an initial matter that a cumulative pathway is so unlikely as to be briskly dismissed without extensive discussion. One may uncharitably characterize their approach as Ã¢â‚¬Å“assumingÃ¢â‚¬Â that a cumulative pathway does not exist, but I believe it is more accurately characterized as a preliminary conclusion, based on a review of the probabilities. Again, their paper, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Irreducible Complexity RevisitedÃ¢â‚¬Â is worth reviewing in this regard.
Additionally, Valerie, who references Behe as someone who considers a cumulative pathway to be a live possibility, must have missed BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s overall point. Valerie quotes the following passage from Behe: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Demonstration that a system is irreducibly complex is not a proof that there is absolutely no gradual route to its production. Although an irreducibly complex system canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be produced directly, one canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t definitively rule out the possibility of an indirect, circuitous route.Ã¢â‚¬Â
With the above quote, Valerie attempts to show that Behe considers cumulative pathways to be a live possibility and that my understanding of BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position is in dire need of improvement. Yet Valerie either misunderstands or misrepresents BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position. Specifically, Valerie fails to quote the next two sentences from the relevant passage, which demonstrate that the previous quote is the foil for BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s actual views: Ã¢â‚¬Å“However, as the complexity of an interacting system increases, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously. And as the number of unexplained, irreducibly complex biological systems increases, our confidence that DarwinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s criterion of failure has been met skyrockets toward the maximum that science allows.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Allow me to paraphrase the complete thought: it is possible, as a matter of sheer logic, that an indirect route to the irreducible core exists, but it is not a realistic probability and will not be discussed further. Indeed, if one objectively reviews BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s essay (www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_idfrombiochemistry.htm), it becomes clear, both from the immediate context and the positioning within the essay, that the last sentence quoted above is BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s preliminary conclusion about the likelihood of an indirect route. Indeed, he does not discuss it further in that essay. It is worth pointing out that Behe made the same argument in Ã¢â‚¬Å“DarwinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Black Box,Ã¢â‚¬Â and with very nearly the same words. In quoting the first half of the relevant paragraph from Behe, Valerie has parroted the passage but misunderstood the message.
Dembski has addressed in excellent detail his views on the matter in Ã¢â‚¬Å“EvolutionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Logic of Credulity: An Unfettered Response to Allen OrrÃ¢â‚¬Â (www.arn.org/docs/dembski/wd_logic_credulity.htm), which should be required reading for all inclined to fancy that they possess a special ability to perceive unguided evolutionary pathways through the hazy mists of time.
While Behe and Dembski may be faulted for not attacking the cumulative pathway in a more fulsome manner, I consider this to be principally because they view a cumulative pathway as utterly unlikely. And as long as we are on the subject of sheer possibilities, it is also possible, of course, that I am ignorant of BeheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and DembskiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position on probabilities, their insights on irreducible complexity and their debate on design in general, but in the present matter I believe my analysis stands.
Now, a pair of questions to consider for all who are interested in the concept of irreducible complexity:
1. What is the difference between the quantity and quality of the complex specified information that is required to bring about an irreducibly complex core via a cumulative pathway as opposed to an abrupt pathway? (Note that I am not talking about whether one believes in their heart of hearts that a cumulative pathway is possible and that a selection mechanism will drive the process; I am simply talking about the kind and amount of information required.)
2. What is the basis of the oft-cited distinction between an Ã¢â‚¬Å“improvedÃ¢â‚¬Â function and a Ã¢â‚¬Å“differentÃ¢â‚¬Â function and how can we draw a principled distinction?
While not desiring to limit responses, I would suggest that these are inquiries that call for careful and contemplative consideration.