Saturday, September 11, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - When All You Have is a Hammer

I have a confession to make. I think Dawkins is probably quite a bit smarter than I am. I know he is much more well educated than I am. So why don't I defer to his superior intellect and expertise?

The simple answer is that I do, when it comes to evolutionary biology. The man knows a lot more than I do about that subject, having studied it for most of his adult life, and I trust his opinions in that field.

The problem is that even when he's discussing radically different fields of knowledge, he still thinks like an evolutionary biologist. He has this strange idea that the understanding he's gained in his field, the knowledge and information he's acquired through many long hours of studying, can be just as easily applied in any other discipline.

Or at least, I assume that's what's going on. It's the only way I can explain the content of this next section. He writes that the theory of natural selection should make us suspicious of any sort of design hypothesis. He says that it should raise our awareness to the fact that there may be other possible explanations whenever a design explanation seems necessary.

The problem with this approach is that it fails to consider how other scientific disciplines differ from biology. A biologist can rely on the laws of physics and chemistry to explain how DNA and RNA works, how mutations happen, how environments change, and how creatures survive and reproduce, all of which goes into explaining how complex life evolved.

A physicist or cosmologist trying to come up with an explanation for the origin of the universe doesn't have that advantage. As I discussed last week, such discussions really fall outside the realm of pure science and into philosophy and metaphysics.

Still, let us suppose for a moment that the complex and wonderful universe we find ourselves isn't the result of design, but instead is the result of some kind of emergent complexity. Emergent complexity happens when a simple initial state, governed by simple rules, is able to produce complex, interesting results.

As an example, let us look at Conway's Game of Life. The rules to the Game of Life are very simple, and given certain initial conditions it can produce complex, interesting results. It is a tool meant to illustrate the power of emergent complexity.

If we assume that the universe works like a more sophisticated version of the Game of Life, then we have to consider the fact that the rules for the Game of Life weren't arbitrarily selected. Those rules were chosen specifically to allow for emergent complexity. Additionally, not every initial state in the Game of Life produces emergent complexity. Most of them fizzle out or fall into a stable, repeating pattern after a few generations.

If anything, the Game of Life illustrates the problem of trying to use emergent complexity to explain the universe's origins without appealing to some cosmic designer. Emergent complexity only works under very specific conditions. It's extremely unlikely that those conditions would come about by pure chance.

So emergent complexity, as an explanation, doesn't eliminate the need for a designer. It just gives the designer a new job description.

Coming back to the point I made earlier, the reason Dawkins doesn't see this flaw is because he studies evolutionary biology. He's used to studying emergent complexity. He doesn't give much thought to the conditions that make emergent complexity possible.

He takes those conditions for granted. The conditions that make life possible in the universe, and specifically on earth, aren't of much interest to biologists. The laws that govern the formation of complex matter, that govern the formation of stars and planets, that describe the orbit of a planet around a star, all fall outside of Dawkins' area of expertise.

As a biologist, he takes it for granted that our universe, and the earth, are able to support life, as well he should. However, as someone seeking to understand the nature of the universe, he needs to think about these issues. Otherwise he might miss out on the answer to one of mankind's most important questions, "Does God exist and if so what is he like?"

If Dawkins is going to convince people that God doesn't exist, he's going to have to learn to take this question a little more seriously.

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