It’s all about information, Professor Feser
|January 29, 2012||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
Over at his blog, Professor Edward Feser has been writing a multi-part critique of Professor Alex Rosenberg’s bestselling book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. Rosenberg is an unabashed defender of scientism, an all-out reductionist who doesn’t believe in a “self”, doesn’t believe we have thoughts that are genuinely about anything, and doesn’t believe in free will or morality. Instead, he advocates what he calls “nice nihilism.” In the last line of his book, Rosenberg advises his readers to “Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.”
Edward Feser has done an excellent job of demolishing Rosenberg’s arguments, and if readers want to peruse his posts from start to finish, they can read them all here:
Professor Rosenberg’s argument that Darwinism is incompatible with God
In his latest installment, Professor Feser takes aim at an argument put forward by Rosenberg, that Darwinism is incompatible with the idea that God is omniscient. In his reply to Rosenberg, Feser also takes a swipe at Intelligent Design, about which I’ll have more to say below. In the meantime, let’s have a look at Rosenberg’s argument against theistic evolution.
Rosenberg argues as follows: Darwinian processes, being non-teleological, do not aim at the generation of any particular kind of species, including the human species. What’s more, these processes contain a built-in element of irreducible randomness: variation. Mutations are random, and no one could have known in advance that evolution would go the way it did. Therefore if God had used such processes as a means of creating us, He could not have known that they would be successful, and therefore He would not be omniscient.
In his response, Feser criticizes Professor Rosenberg’s argument on several grounds, arguing that:
(i) belief in the God of classical theism does not logically entail that the emergence of the human race was an event planned by Him (i.e. God might have intentionally made the cosmos, but we might have been an accident);
(ii) God may have intended that the universe should contain rational beings (who possess the ability to reason by virtue of their having immortal souls) without intending that these beings should be human beings, with the kind of body that Homo sapiens possesses – hence our bodies may be the result of an accidental process;
(iii) if you believe in the multiverse (which Feser doesn’t but Rosenberg does), it is perfectly consistent to hold that while the evolution of Homo sapiens may have been improbable in any particular universe, nevertheless it would have been inevitable within some universe; and
(iv) in any case, the probabilistic nature of Darwinian processes does not rule out divine intervention.
Professor Feser’s big beef with Rosenberg’s argument: Divine causality is of a different order from that of natural causes
But Professor Feser’s chief objection to Rosenberg’s anti-theistic argument is that it ignores the distinction between Divine and creaturely causality. At this point, Feser takes pains to distinguish his intellectual position from that of the Intelligent Design movement. He remarks: “What Aristotelian-Thomistic critics of ID fundamentally object to is ID’s overly anthropomorphic conception of God and its implicit confusion of primary and secondary causality.” (I should point out in passing that Intelligent Design is a scientific program, and as such, it makes no claim to identify the Designer. Nevertheless, many Intelligent Design proponents would be happy to refer to this Designer as God.)
God, argues Feser, is like the author of a book. Intelligent natural agents (e.g. human beings) are the characters in the story, while sub-intelligent agents correspond to the everyday processes described within the story. The key point here is that God is outside the book that He creates and maintains in existence (i.e. the cosmos), while we are inside it. God’s causality is therefore of an entirely different order from that of creatures. To say that God intervened in the history of life in order to guarantee that Homo sapiens would emerge (as Rosenberg seems to think that believers in God-guided evolution are bound to believe) is tantamount to treating God like one of the characters in His own story. In Feser’s words, it “is like saying that the author of a novel has to ‘intervene’ in the story at key points, keeping events from going the way they otherwise would in order to make sure that they turn out the way he needs them to for the story to work.” In reality, authors don’t need to intervene into their stories to obtain the outcomes they want, and neither need we suppose that God intervened in the history of life on Earth, so as to guarantee the emergence of human beings.
Feser then argues that things in the world derive their being and causal power from God, just as the characters in a story only exist and alter the course of events within the story because the author of the story wrote it in a way that allows them to do so. For this reason, Feser has no philosophical problem with the notion of Darwinian processes being sufficient to generate life, or biological species such as Homo sapiens. Causal agents possesss whatever powers God wants them to have, and their (secondary) causality is genuine, and perfectly compatible with the (primary) causality of God, their Creator. Just as “it would be absurd to suggest that in a science fiction novel in which such-and-such a species evolves, it is not really Darwinian processes that generate the species, but rather the author of the story who does so and merely made it seem as if Darwinian processes had done it,” so too, “it is absurd to suggest that if God creates a world in which human beings come about by natural selection, He would have to intervene in order to make the Darwinian processes come out the way He wants them to, in which case they would not be truly Darwinian.”
The problem isn’t one of insufficient causal power in Nature; it’s all about information
When I read this passage, I thought, “Aha! Now I see why Professor Feser thinks Intelligent Design proponents have got the wrong end of the stick. Now I see why he thinks we are committed to belief in a tinkering Deity who has to intervene in the natural order in order to change it.” For Feser inadvertently revealed two very interesting things in his thought-provoking post.
The first thing that Professor Feser inadvertently revealed was that he thinks that the difficulty that Intelligent Design proponents have with Darwinian evolution has to do with power – in particular, the causal powers of natural agents. As an Aristotelian-Thomist, Feser sees no difficulty in principle with God granting natural agents whatever causal powers He wishes, so long as they are not powers that only a Creator could possess. Why could not God therefore give mud the power to evolve into microbes, and thence into biological species such as Homo sapiens?
But the problem that Intelligent Design advocates have with this scenario has nothing to do with the powers of causal agents. Rather, it’s all about information: complex specified information, to be precise. By definition, any pattern in Nature that is highly improbable (from a naturalistic perspective) but is nevertheless capable of being described in a few words, instantiates complex specified information (CSI). So the philosophical question we need to address here is not: could God give mud the power to evolve into microbes and thence into the body of a man, but rather: could God give mud the complex specified information required for it to evolve into microbes and thence into the body of a man?
The answer to this question, as Edward Feser should be aware from having read Professor Michael Behe’s book, The Edge of Evolution (Free Press, 2007, pp. 238-239), is that Intelligent Design theory is perfectly compatible with such front-loading scenarios. Indeed, Behe argues that God might have fine-tuned the initial conditions of the universe at the Big Bang, in such a way that life’s subsequent evolution – and presumably that of human beings – was inevitable, without the need for any subsequent acts of God.
A second possibility is that God added complex specified information to the universe at some point (or points) subsequent to the Big Bang – e.g. at the dawn of life, or the Cambrian explosion – thereby guaranteeing the results He intended.
A third possibility is that the universe contains hidden laws, as yet unknown to science, which are very detailed, highly elaborate and specific, unlike the simple laws of physics that we know. On this scenario, complex specified information belongs to the very warp and woof of the universe: it’s a built-in feature, requiring no initial fine-tuning.
Personally, my own inclination is to plump for the second scenario, and say that we live in a cosmos which is made to be manipulated: it’s an inherently incomplete, open system, and the “gaps” are a vital part of Nature, just as the holes are a vital feature of Swiss cheese. I see no reason to believe in the existence of hidden, information-rich laws of the cosmos, especially when all the laws we know are low in information content; moreover, as Dr. Stephen Meyer has pointed out in his book, Signature in the Cell, all the scientific evidence we have points against the idea of “biochemical predestination”: simple chemicals do not naturally arrange themselves into complex information-bearing molecules such as DNA. I also think that front-loading the universe at the Big Bang would have required such an incredibly exquisite amount of fine-tuning on God’s part that it would have been much simpler for Him to “inject” complex specified information into the cosmos at a later date, when it was required. (When I say “at a later date”, I mean “later” from our time-bound perspective, of course, as the God of classical theism is timeless.) However, this is just my opinion. I could be wrong.
Complex specified information has to come from somewhere
One thing I’m quite sure of, though: not even God could make a universe without finely-tuned initial conditions and without information-rich laws, that was still capable of generating life without any need for a special act of God (or what Intelligent Design critics derogatorily refer to as “Divine intervention”, “manipulation” or “tinkering”). The reason why this couldn’t happen is that complex specified information doesn’t come from nowhere. It needs a source. And this brings me to the second point that Professor Feser inadvertently revealed in his post: he seems to think that information can just appear in the cosmos wherever God wants it to appear, without God having to perform any specific act that generates it.
This is where the book metaphor leads Feser astray, I believe. The author of a book doesn’t have to specify exactly how the events in his/her story unfold. All stories written by human authors are under-specified, in terms of both the states of affairs they describe – e.g. what’s the color of the house at 6 Privet Drive, next door to Harry Potter’s house? – and in terms of the processes occurring within the story – e.g. how exactly do magic wands do their work in Harry Potter? What law is involved? J. K. Rowling doesn’t tell us these things, and I don’t think most of her readers care, anyway.
But here’s the thing: God can’t afford to be vague about such matters. He’s not just writing a story; He’s making a world. Everything that He brings about in this world, He has to specify in some way: what happens, and how does it happen?
One way in which God could bring about a result He desires is by specifying the initial conditions in sufficient detail, such that the result is guaranteed to arise, given the ordinary course of events.
A second way for God to bring about a result He wants is for Him to specify the exact processes generating the result, in such detail that its subsequent production is bound to occur. (On this scenario, God brings about His desired effect through the operation of deterministic laws.)
A third way for God to produce a desired effect is for Him to make use of processes that do not infallibly yield a set result – i.e. probabilistic occurrences, which take place in accordance with indeterministic laws, and which involve a certain element of what we call randomness. In this case, God would not only have to specify the probabilistic processes He intends to make use of, but also specify the particular outcome He desires these processes to generate. (This could be accomplished by God without Him having to bias the probabilities of the processes in any way: all that is needed is top-down causation, which leaves the micro-level probabilistic processes intact but imposes an additional macro-level constraint on the outcome. For a description of how this would work, see my recent post, Is free will dead?)
Finally, God may refuse to specify any natural process or set of initial conditions that could help to generate the result He desires, and instead, simply specify the precise spatio-temporal point in the history of the cosmos.at which the result will occur. That’s what we call an act of God, and in such a case, the result is said to be brought about purely by God’s will, which acts as an immediate efficient cause generating the effect.
But whatever the way in which God chooses to bring about the result He desires, He must make a choice. He cannot simply specify the effect He desires, without specifying its cause – whether it be His Will acting immediately on Nature to bring about a desired effect, or some natural process and/or set of conditions operating in a manner that tends to generate the effect. Whatever God does, God has to do somehow.
But couldn’t God make evolution occur as a result of a probabilistic process?
Let’s go back to the third way available to God for generating a desired result: namely, working through probabilistic processes. What does Intelligent Design theory have to say about this Divine modus operandi? Basically, what it says is that it is impossible for God to remain hidden, if He chooses this way of acting, and if the desired effect is both improbable (in the normal course of events) and capable of being described very briefly – in other words, rich in complex specified information. For even if the micro-level probabilities are in no way affected by His agency, the macro-level effect constitutes a pattern in Nature which we can recognize as the work of an intelligent agent, since it is rich in CSI.
Professor Feser, working from his authorial metaphor for God, seems to have overlooked this point. The human author of a story can simply write: “Y occurred, as a freakish but statistically possible result of process X.” Here, the author simply specifies the result he/she intends (effect Y) and the process responsible (probabilistic process X, which, as luck would have it, produced Y). Because the effect in the story (Y) is both the result of a natural process (X) occurring in the story, and the result (on a higher level) of the author’s will, it appears that nothing more needs to be said. Feser seems to think that the same holds true for effects brought about by God, working through probabilistic processes: they are both the work of Nature and the work of God. Hence, he believes, nothing prevents God from producing life by a Darwinistic process, if He so chooses.
Not so fast, say Intelligent Design proponents. Probabilistic processes have no inherent tendency to generate outcomes that can be concisely described in language. If an outcome that can be described in a very concise manner is generated by a probabilistic process, and if the likelihood of the outcome is sufficiently low, then it is simply wrong to put this down to the work of Nature. The real work here is done by God, the Intelligent Agent Who specified the outcome in question. It’s fundamentally wrong to give any credit to the natural probabilistic process for the result obtained, in a case like this: for even if God works through such a process, the process itself has no tendency to aim for concisely describable outcomes. God-guided evolution is therefore by definition non-Darwinian. Contrary to Feser, it is not absurd for Intelligent Design proponents to argue that when “such-and-such a species evolves, it is not really Darwinian processes that generate the species,” since Darwinian processes are inherently incapable of generating large amounts of complex specific information, and when we trace the evolution of any species back far enough, we will find that large amounts of complex specific information had to be generated.
Putting it another way: not even God could make an unintelligent natural process with a built-in tendency to hone in on outcomes having a short verbal description. Such a feat is logically impossible, because it would be tantamount to making an unintelligent process capable of making linguistic choices – which is absurd, because language is a hallmark of intelligent agents. Not even God can accomplish that which is logically imposible.
I hope Professor Feser now recognizes what the real point at issue is between Darwinism and Intelligent Design theory. I hope he also realizes that Intelligent Design is not committed to an anthropomorphic Deity, or to any particular Divine modus operandi. ID proponents are well aware of the distinction between primary and secondary causality; we just don’t think it’s very useful in addressing the problem of where the complex specified information in Nature came from. The problem here is not one of finding a primary (or secondary) cause that can generate the information, but rather one of finding an intelligent agent that can do so. Lastly, ID proponents do not think of God as a “tinkerer who cleverly intervenes in a natural order that could in principle have carried on without him,” for the simple reason that Intelligent Design is a scientific program concerned with the detection of patterns in Nature that are the result of intelligent agency, and not a metaphysical program concerned with the being of Nature as such. Metaphysical arguments that Nature depends for its being on God are all well and good, but they’re not scientific arguments as such. For this reason, these metaphysical arguments fall outside the province of Intelligent Design, although they are highly regarded by some ID proponents.
Is Variation Random?
Finally, I’d like to challenge the claim made by Professor Rosenberg and other Darwinists that biological variation is random. Stephen Talbott has skilfully dismantled this claim in a highly original article in The New Atlantis, entitled, Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness. Talbott takes aim at the oft-heard claim, popularized by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, that Nature operates with no purpose in mind, and that evolution is the outcome of random variation, culled by the non-random but mindless mechanism of natural selection. Talbott’s scientific arguments against Dawkins and Dennett are devastating, and he makes a convincing scientific case that mutation is anything but random in real life; that the genomes of organisms respond to environmental changes in a highly co-ordinated and purposeful fashion; and that even the most minimal definition of random variation – i.e. the commonly held view that the chance that a specific mutation will occur is not affected by how useful that mutation would be – crumbles upon inspection, as the whole concept of “usefulness” or “fitness” turns out to be irretrievably obscure. At the end of his article, Talbott summarizes his case:
Here, then, is what the advocates of evolutionary mindlessness and meaninglessness would have us overlook. We must overlook, first of all, the fact that organisms are masterful participants in, and revisers of, their own genomes, taking a leading position in the most intricate, subtle, and intentional genomic “dance” one could possibly imagine. And then we must overlook the way the organism responds intelligently, and in accord with its own purposes, to whatever it encounters in its environment, including the environment of its own body, and including what we may prefer to view as “accidents.” Then, too, we are asked to ignore not only the living, reproducing creatures whose intensely directed lives provide the only basis we have ever known for the dynamic processes of evolution, but also all the meaning of the larger environment in which these creatures participate — an environment compounded of all the infinitely complex ecological interactions that play out in significant balances, imbalances, competition, cooperation, symbioses, and all the rest, yielding the marvelously varied and interwoven living communities we find in savannah and rainforest, desert and meadow, stream and ocean, mountain and valley. And then, finally, we must be sure to pay no heed to the fact that the fitness, against which we have assumed our notion of randomness could be defined, is one of the most obscure, ill-formed concepts in all of science.
Overlooking all this, we are supposed to see — somewhere — blind, mindless, random, purposeless automatisms at the ultimate explanatory root of all genetic variation leading to evolutionary change….
This “something random” … is the central miracle in a gospel of meaninglessness, a “Randomness of the gaps,” demanding an extraordinarily blind faith. At the very least, we have a right to ask, “Can you be a little more explicit here?” A faith that fills the ever-shrinking gaps in our knowledge of the organism with a potent meaninglessness capable of transforming everything else into an illusion is a faith that could benefit from some minimal grounding. Otherwise, we can hardly avoid suspecting that the importance of randomness in the minds of the faithful is due to its being the only presumed scrap of a weapon in a compulsive struggle to deny all the obvious meaning of our lives.
My response to Rosenberg
I would like to briefly respond to Professor Rosenberg’s argument that belief in God is incompatible with Darwinism. He is right about one thing: not even God can use randomness to bring about highly specific results, without “injecting” the complex specified information that guarantees the production of the result in question. If you’re a thoroughgoing Darwinist who believes that evolutionary variation is inherently random and that Nature is a closed system, then there’s no way for God to do His work. However, on an empirical level, I see no reason to believe that evolutionary variation is inherently random: Talbott’s article, from which I quoted above, cites evidence that the effects of environmental change on an organism’s genome are highly co-ordinated by the organism itself. What’s more, recent scientific evidence that even the multiverse must have had a beginning, and that even the multiverse must have been exquisitely fine-tuned, points very strongly to the fact that Nature is not a closed system. (See my article, Vilenkin’s verdict: “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning”, which also contains links to my recent posts on cosmological fine-tuning.) And of course, Professor Feser has done an excellent job of expounding the metaphysical arguments showing that Nature is not self-sufficient, but requires a Cause.