Intelligent Design

The Edge of Evolution: I, Nanobot

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To my surprise and delight I found Behe mentioning Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler four times in the opening few paragraphs of Appendix A of The Edge of Evolution titled I, Nanobot. Behe appears to have been as impressed by Engines as I was 20 years ago. Engines was what made me realize cells aren’t just sort of like robotic machines but rather they are quite literally robotic machines – the same kind of robotic machines that we envision ourselves creating in the not too distant future. The following quote is from the notes on page 301 of The Edge of Evolution:

3. The terms “robot” and “machine” applied to the cell are not meant as analogies – they are meant quite literally. That cells and the systems they contain are robotic machinery is widely recognized in the scientific community. For example, Tanford and Reynolds dub proteins “Nature’s Robots” (Tanford, C., and Reynolds, J. A. 2001 Nature’s robots: a history of proteins. Oxford: Oxford University Press) and the term “molecular machines” is routinely used to describe protein complexes. For example, see the December 2003 BioEssays Special Issue on Molecular Machines, containing such articles as “The spliceosome: the most complex macromolecular machine in the cell?” and “Perpetuating the double helix: molecular machines at eukaryotic DNA replication origins.”

Understanding the limits of technology within our current understanding of the laws of physics (without resort to supernatural powers) is critical to the design debate insofar as making reasonable inferences as to what can be created by well characterized material means and what cannot be created by those means. As far as I can determine there is nothing at all about life as we know it that requires a supernatural designer. Behe appears to be of the same persuasion. This is what makes me so frustrated at the chance & necessity pundits’ conflation of ID with religion. It’s a conflation born of ignorance and/or dishonesty.

Engines of Creation (Anchor Books 1986, Oxford University Press 1990, Fourth Estate 1996) is available to read for free in hypertext format here so there’s little excuse for not reading it. The phenomenal growth and integration of hypertext and the world wide web into human endeavour were predictions made in Engines, by the way. Nearly half the book (chapters 4 through 10) are devoted to exploring the limits of the technologically possible. I’d be quite surprised if Bill Dembski hasn’t read it and now I know that Behe has too. A 2007 update to Engines is available as a free ebook here. I’ve recommended Engines to Uncommon Descent readers at least a dozen times in the past. Now it’s a dozen plus one and a reference from Mike Behe to its import. Please read it.

15 Replies to “The Edge of Evolution: I, Nanobot

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Muy interestante!

    Nanotech implies nanotech designer?

    GEM of TKI

  2. 2
    Fr3dY says:

    For those who have problems downloading the ebooks, you can get them from here.

  3. 3
    jaredl says:

    As far as I can determine there is nothing at all about life as we know it that requires a supernatural designer. Behe appears to be of the same persuasion. This is what makes me so frustrated at the chance & necessity pundits’ conflation of ID with religion. It’s a conflation born of ignorance and/or dishonesty.

    Nay. Need I remind you of Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, among other writings? The critics aren’t being lazy or dishonest, necessarily.

    The ID critic has a simple job. If design theory implies classical theism, and classical theism can be logically demonstrated to be self-contradictory (which, to outside observers, is the case), then design theory is false. Modus tollens. No need to even address the claims of design theory.

    In order to preserve the truth of design theory, its leading lights need to distance it from classical theology, at least.

    That, by the way, is what makes Behe so strong a proponent of design. He doesn’t mix the science of design with the theology, doesn’t try to make positive claims from design theory for his theology (he, as a Catholic, probably is a classical theist if he is orthodox, though I didn’t ask last night), and doesn’t overreach. He keeps his scientist hat on.

  4. 4
    Granville Sewell says:

    Dave: How do you define the “supernatural”?

    Opponents of design have long given up arguing that the evidence for design in living things just isn’t strong enough to be considered in science classes; they universally argue now that it doesn’t matter how strong the evidence for design is, it can’t be considered as science because it involves the supernatural. So how do you define supernatural? I can think of only three possible definitions, and no matter which you choose, you’ll have to throw out some key ideas of modern science, because they too involve the “supernatural”.

    1. natural = unintelligent.

    By this definition, we’ll have to throw out any science textbook which admits that human beings are intelligent. And certainly SETI will have to go.

    2. supernatural = in principle, forever beyond the ability of science to predict or explain.

    By this definition, we’ll have to bar any discussion of quantum mechanics, because it states that every natural phenomenon has a supernatural component. The motion of any individual electron in an electron beam is, according to quantum mechanics, in principle impossible to predict exactly. We’ll have to also ban the big bang, because there were no natural causes before time came into being.

    3. supernatural = in principle unobservable.

    Obviously, the attempt to explain the fine tuning of the universe in terms of large numbers of other universes runs afoul of this definition. But we’ll also have to throw out all of atomic physics, because subatomic particles are all, in principle, unobservable. We can never hope to bounce enough photons off of a neutron to get a “picture” of what it looks like, and we certainly can’t observe a neutron with any of our other senses. Of course it is argued that we infer the existence of subatomic particles, by their effect on things we can observe. So how is this different than inferring an unseen designer from its effect on things we can see, in the cell?

    Can anyone think of a definition of the “supernatural” that can be used to exclude ID, but not other important elements of modern science? I guess there is finally the Iowa State physics department’s definition, which is: the supernatural is anything that is unscientific, and we get to define “science”.

  5. 5
    tragicmishap says:

    I recommend Del Ratzsch’s book, “Nature, Design and Science”. He delves deeply into what possible intelligent designers could be, and explores whether or not all these possible types of intelligences would be a danger to science if we studied what they did. It’s an excellent philosophical book on why methodological naturalism is a cage that science doesn’t really need.

  6. 6
    dl says:

    Another ineresting book that deals with ID from a purely natural perspective is The Intelligent Universe by James Gardner. He makes some of the same arguments made by ID proponents and proposes purely natural (although very unusual) mechanisms. If I remember correctly, he has published some peer-reviewed papers to support his ideas. Unfortunately he tries to distance himself from the ID movement, but that may be to avoid the problems that come with publically acknowleding evidence that supports ID. In any case, its an interesting book with some interesting ideas.

  7. 7
    bFast says:

    Granville Sewell, you bring up a very valid question — a good quality definition of supernatural is called for, and it isn’t easy.

    I propose that we consider supernatural = extrauniversal — anything outside of our universe is supernatural. Oh, of course multiverse theories, and any other such speculations would also be extrauniversal, and therefore prohibited by science. If we consider this, however, we still can concieve of biology being developed by an intrauniversal intelligent agent, but we cannot see the big bang being spawned by the same. This definition continues to lead us to a supernatural/extrauniversal agent instigating the big bang.

  8. 8
    DaveScot says:

    jaredl

    You have yet to tell me what godlike powers are needed to create life from inanimate matter.

    Granville

    I generally use the Princeton Wordnet database for meanings. The only definition they offer for supernatural as an adjective is:

    not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws; not physical or material

    That definition is precisely what I meant.

    Engines of Creation devotes half the chapters in the book to exploring the limits of what’s physically possible. There’s nothing I can see about life as we know it that requires supernatural powers to create from inanimate materials. One can certainly make an argument that in an infinite regression (the infamous “Who designed the designer?”) there will come a point where our knowledge hits a brick wall but we’re only talking about one regression – who designed life on earth. That task doesn’t appear to demand supernatural capabilities but perhaps does require intelligent agency.

    bFast

    Stephen Hawking recently conceded that information can’t be destroyed. He spent many years trying to prove it could be destroyed in a black hole.

  9. 9
    bFast says:

    DaveScot, As I write this post, the total information content of the universe increases, does it not? If this post gets caught in a filter, and gets kissed goodbye during the purge, is the total information content of the universe not depleted?

    I honestly think that scientists don’t have a clue what information is, or they would recognize that unlike energ/matter information is readily both created and destroyed.

    If I am wrong, show me the error of my logic in the first paragraph of this post.

  10. 10
    sagebrush gardener says:

    mike1962 (with humble apologies to the topic police),
    Consciousness is wholly other.

    I was originally understanding your use of “medium” to refer to some sort of physical entity. But (since we are not materialists) we agree that consciousness exists independently of any material medium. If so, then information can also exist independently of a material medium. And if all energy and matter is fundamentally made of information (my speculation), then the medium in which all this information exists is a higher consciousness — which I would identify as the mind of G-d.

    I’d better lay down — I’m feeling dizzy. 🙂

  11. 11
    DaveScot says:

    jaredl

    I’ve put you on moderation and will delete any further comments until you either explain what physical laws prevent material intelligent agency such as humananity from creating a living cell from inanimate chemicals or you admit that there are no physical laws preventing it. I’ve asked more than once and you keep dodging the question. A bacterium, given nothing but nutrients and energy, can assemble another bacterium. What scientific reason can you give me that would deny human technology the ability to assemble a bacterium?

  12. 12
    DaveScot says:

    To everyone else – fair warning – this thread is getting far off topic and the commentary is about to get a major cleanup of anything that isn’t relevant to Engines of Creation.

  13. 13
    DaveScot says:

    bfast

    As I write this post, the total information content of the universe increases, does it not? If this post gets caught in a filter, and gets kissed goodbye during the purge, is the total information content of the universe not depleted?

    As a practical matter the information is lost. As a theoretical matter it remains in the universe. For instance, your message generated a stream of photons in specific pattern when it appeared on my screen. Some of those photons streamed out my window and are heading out into interstellar space as we speak while others collided with particles of matter and increased the energy level of those particles. In principle all those interactions and photons retain the same amount of information and with sufficient observational capability your message can be reconstructed in its original form. As a practical matter we don’t have and probably never will have sufficient observation capacity to reconstruct the message but that doesn’t mean the information was destroyed. Hawking’s assertion was that when information goes into a black hole it is lost and can’t, even in principle, ever be recovered. He recently conceded that he was wrong and the information is in principle recoverable.

    This is not relevant even tangentially to the topic of the article so don’t bother responding. If you don’t have anything to write about Engines of Creation don’t write anything at all.

  14. 14
    mike1962 says:

    DaveScot, “this thread is DaveScot, “getting far off topic”

    Sorry about that, Dave.

    Sagebrush, “I was originally understanding your use of “medium” to refer to some sort of physical entity.”

    Sticking to physical reality here, information “obviously” requires a medium. The question then becomes, are subatomic events as we understand them and entities primary or not? It would seem that something somewhere would have to be primary objects, which must have some mediator between them (or they wouldn’t know about each other), or must be a manifestation of some unity, that otherwie has attributes beyond our ability to comprehend.

    How does this relate to Engines?

    “You have yet to tell me what godlike powers are needed to create life from inanimate matter”

    I don’t think it is required. I think that human intelligence is probably capable of this, in theory, although the logistics at present are tough.

    But it does bring about another question, namely, if a natural intelligence invented earthlife, what is the source of that intelligence’s existence? Here’s where the “turtle” question comes into importance. Must intelligence come from intelligence? Or is there a point where intelligence can arise from non-intelligence.

    Dave, are you saying you think that intelligence can arise from non-intelligence? If so, why might not earth be one of those cases?

  15. 15
    bFast says:

    DaveScot 13, interesting point.

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