Monday, September 17, 2007

On Design

Well, since Michael Egnor has sort of answered my questions, it's time for me to try to answer his. I'll try to be less evasive than he was.

One thing I'd like to point out is that Egnor seems to be under the misapprehension that the information theory that mathematicians and computer scientists actually study has something to do with inferring design.* This is simply not the case. Open up, for example, the book on Kolmogorov complexity by my colleague Ming Li, and you won't find a word about inferring design. (It's ID advocate Bill Dembski, of course, who is largely responsible for this confusion.) So, contrary to what Egnor thinks, as a mathematician and computer scientist I have no particular expertise on the general topic of "inferring design". It's just not something we do; maybe he should ask a SETI researcher, or a forensic investigator. But then again, Egnor has no particular expertise on the topic, either.

First, some general remarks about "design". I'll start by saying that I don't know exactly what he means by "designed". One of the favorite games of ID advocates is equivocation, so it's important to pin them down on a precise meaning. ID advocates rarely say plainly what they mean by "design". Do they mean simply that something has a pattern to it (as in "the design of a snowflake"), or do they mean something that has a "function", or must there necessarily be some teleology involved? I think it's incumbent on ID advocates to make clear what they mean. But I'll look at all three possibilities.

If ID advocates intend the first meaning ("pattern"), then the answer is clear: design need not imply a designer. The world is full of patterns that arise from the constrained nature of the physical universe. We can explain the overall pattern in a snowflake, for example, by referring to the symmetry in a water molecule in ice combined with the homogeneity of conditions as the snowflake forms. We don't normally bring in supernatural beings to explain snowflakes.

ID advocates, such as Bill Dembski, have nevertheless tried to rescue this hopeless case by bringing in probability. Dembski has argued that if an observed event fits a pattern, and the probability of this fit is extremely small, then the event must be due to design by an intelligent being. But as Wesley Elsberry and I have shown, his claim is based on incorrect mathematics combined with specious arguments. Dembski likes to say something on the order of 'witnessing specified events of low probability implicates design'. But the correct claim is merely 'specified events of low probability are never witnessed at all; if they are, that is prima facie evidence that your probability estimates are wildly off'.

Here's an example: there's a fellow with a web page who claims to have witnessed at least three independent meteorite falls. (The pictures he shows aren't meteorites, but let's ignore that for a moment.)

Now this page suggests that the probability of witnessing a meteorite land near you during your lifetime is about 1 in 2.5 million. So if the events are independent, we conclude that the probability of a particular person witnessing 3 meteorite falls in their lifetime is about 1 in 16 million million million. Even taking into account the total population of the world, this fellow's claim seems extremely unlikely. Could it have happened? Yes, but if so, we would have to consider some other possibilities: maybe the distribution of meteorite falls is extremely uneven, so that many more meteorites fall at this fellow's location than others. Maybe somebody's having him on, shooting meteorites out of a cannon towards his house. Maybe there's some other explanation entirely. In either case it's not that a specified event of low probability was witnessed; it was that our probability estimates were wrong. Dembski says design must be inferred when all other explanations are ruled out, but if my analysis is followed, inference to design no longer has the privileged place that Dembski accords it.

The second possible meaning of "design" corresponds to the inferred function of some object; this is basically the old argument of William Paley involving the watch found on the heath. While this argument may have been convincing two hundred years ago, it's convincing no longer, for the obvious reason that we know that evolutionary processes can produce function. We have good experimental evidence of this from novel mutations that, for example, allow some bacteria to digest nylon byproducts. As a computer scientist, I must also cite the artificial life experiments of Karl Sims, who showed how nontrivial and novel behaviors could evolve through mutation and selection -- something Dembski claims is impossible. Dembski has never addressed Sims' work.

The third possible meaning of "design" involves teleology; we infer a designer when we see something designed for a purpose. But either this begs the question, or it reduces to the previous paragraph about "function". So in all three cases, I don't think that seeing "design" implies a "designer".

ID advocates are always accusing others of 'wanting to eliminate the design inference from science'. Of course, this is pure nonsense. Archaeologists, for example, routinely attempt to deduce the roles that various objects played in the lives of the cultures they study. But, as Elsberry and Wilkins point out in their article from Biology and Philosophy, there is a huge difference between inferring design based on artifacts for which we have a causal story like human construction, and inferring design based on some causal story lacking any details whatsoever. They refer to this latter attempt, commonly used by ID advocates, as "rarefied design", and characterize it as "based on an inference from ignorance, both of the possible causes of regularities [that might explain the event] and of the nature of the designer."

One more point: I don't think that the question "is it designed?", in the absence of any candidate for a designer, is particularly interesting. That is, in the absence of motive, I don't think that knowing that something is designed tells you anything at all. I can do no better than to quote from Elsberry and Wilkins, who say

The problem with a simple conclusion that something is designed, is its lack of informativeness. If you tell me that skirnobs are designed but nothing else about them, then how much do I actually know about skirnobs? Of a single skirnob, what can I say? Unless I already know a fair bit about the aims and intentions of skirnob designers, nothing is added to my knowledge of skirnobs by saying that it is designed. I do not know if a skirnob is a good skirnob, fulfilling the design criteria for skirnobs, or not. I do not know how typical that skirnob is of skirnobs in general, or what any of the properties of skirnobs are. I may as well say that skirnobs are "gzorply muffnordled", for all it tells me. But if I know the nature of the designer, or of the class of things the designer is a member of, then I know something about skirnobs, and I can make some inductive generalizations to the properties of other skirnobs.

Now to Egnor's question. He wants to know why SETI is different from deducing design in biological systems. Referring to the fictional movie, Contact, where scientists received a blueprint for constructing a mechanical device, he asks, "If the scientific discovery of a ‘blueprint’ would justify the design inference, then why is it unreasonable to infer that the genetic code was designed?"

The answer is that I don't think that these situations are at all comparable. In the case of SETI, the fact that we are receiving a narrow-band signal is already suggestive, since we don't currently know any simple physical process that could produce these signals. This isn't a definite conclusion, though, because we have no idea what the probability of intelligent beings is, and we can't rule out narrow-band signals arising from some other physical process we simply don't know about.

In SETI, we are specifically looking for intelligent beings. These beings presumably live in another part of our universe, and presumably they evolved through natural processes, in much the way we did. This being the case, we hypothesize that, like us, these beings are interested in contacting other intelligent life, and would do so through radio waves. All these are assumptions based on our characterization of the "personality", if you will, of the originators of the signals. If any of these guesses are wrong, or if we are alone, we won't succeed. Our argument is based on analogy with our own thought processes, not "specified complexity" or other ID nonsense.

ID advocates, however, rule out any deductions based on the identity of the Designer. Yet, in real science, questions about intention and identity arise all the time in archaeology. To give just one example: in the 1890's, historian Arthur Evans heard of mysterious seal-stones from Crete. The identity of their creators, as well as the script used, was then unknown. Evans went on to identify the stones as the product of a civilization now called Minoan, and eventually one of the scripts, Linear B, was deciphered. The fact that ID advocates refuse to consider the really interesting scientific questions "who designed it?" and "why did they design it?" shows that they're not doing science.

To say that SETI is like the genetic code means that we have to hypothesize some designer who designed something for some reason. But where's the designer? In SETI, we can pinpoint a place in the universe where the signals are originating from. If the signals encode a machine, we can reasonably deduce that the intention is that we are to build it. But in the genetic code, who is the hypothesized designer? Where did they originate? When did they carry out their design? What is the intention of the design? All the really interesting questions are ruled as 'out of bounds' by ID advocates. Until they really come to grips with these questions, they're doing religion, not science.

As an example of something I'd find convincing, if we were to find a crashed spaceship with plans showing how to build a bacterium, and scientists carried out these plans and found that they really did construct life, then I'd find this very strong evidence that life on earth was designed.

Another point of disanalogy is that we know that DNA changes and evolves through time by processes such as mutation, gene duplication, and selection. There are even some very tentative answers to how the genetic code evolved. So the alternative hawked by ID advocates, that 'somebody made this sometime for some purpose, but we don't know where, when, or how', is not very impressive. In exactly the same way, a theory that lightning is 'caused by some intelligent being, but we don't know exactly how or why' is not very impressive, either.

Finally, DNA doesn't carry any of the hallmarks of human design, the kind of design we are most familiar with. Genes, for example, are often pleiotropic; they have multiple interacting effects. Human design, on the other hand tends to separate systems so they don't interact. Human activities tend to produce texts that are quite compressible; but a typical genome is hardly compressible at all. Biological entities reproduce themselves, but few, if any, human designs have this property. When we consider an analogy, like the one Egnor proposes, to be fair, we have to consider points of disanalogy, too. (For more examples of disanalogy, see Mark Isaak's article in Reports of the NCSE, Volume 23, no. 5-6.)

Let's alter the Contact story. Suppose the signal didn't encode a machine, but rather a sequence of DNA bases S. When we create DNA corresponding to this sequence, and stick it in a cell, we get an organism that tells us all about life on some other planet. Now the analogy is even closer than before; yet I think it is clear that our inference about the origin of S is still different from any inference about our own DNA. Indeed, it is entirely reasonable and scientific to infer that S is designed by intelligent beings on another planet, but our own DNA evolved.

Finally, on an unrelated note, Egnor takes me to task for my lack of civility. This is pretty rich, considering that Egnor's buddies at the Discovery Institute routinely insult the appearance of scientists, call them dishonest, and play games such as adding fart noises to Judge Jones' Dover decision. I say, clean your own stable first. Scientists are angry at the constant misrepresentation and juvenile antics of ID advocates, and we're not going to take it any more.

* Addendum: Because ID advocates have a track record of misunderstanding even the most trivial point, I should add that of course information theory could be used to separate, for example, human-generated text from noise. As I already mentioned, natural language text is quite compressible, while noise would probably not be compressible. But here we are not detecting design per se as some abstract category; rather we are using an empirical distinction between two things we have observed: natural language text, and noise.

19 comments:

mgarelick said...

One more point: I don't think that the question "is it designed?", in the absence of any candidate for a designer, is particularly interesting. That is, in the absence of motive, I don't think that knowing that something is designed tells you anything at all.

Good point, and I think it is also the achilles heel of the ID trope that "intelligent design" is not "creationism".

dete said...

I think the problem is that many of the ID folks don't really understand why "Darwinists" think the way they do. I believe that in the mind of people like Egnor, this is how it goes:

A scientist opens up a cell and peers in and sees incredible complexity and purpose. Since this scientist lacks the faith/creativity/credulity to believe in God, they think to themselves, "Huh. I guess this must have just happened by accident!"

From that perspective, the frustration of those behind ID makes all the sense in the world. By accident? Can something so complex and purposeful really have just happened by accident? Are you crazy? They try the analogies with watches, or signals from outer-space, which -- from their perspective -- are valid. How could you possibly imagine that something many, many times more complex than a watch happened "by accident"?

I think the trick is trying to get them to understand that this is NOT how scientists came up with the idea of evolution through natural selection.

Here is the important point: Scientists did not see complexity, and then just decide it happened through random processes. They saw complexity and spent HUNDREDS of years trying to figure out how this complexity could possibly have come about.

Over time, lots of different scientists had theories that turned out to be wrong. Many of these ideas (for example the theories of Lemark), made a lot of sense, but were ultimately never proven through experimentation and observation.

Eventually, the weight of evidence backed one idea: random mutation WHEN COMBINED WITH NATURAL SELECTION. Yes, there is a random element involved, and yes, without this random element natural selection has no power. But, the ID apologists can only focus on the fact that randomness is involved, and get themselves wound up because they are apparently under the impression that the argument is that ONLY randomness is involved.

In summary: The analogy between evolution and the watch (or the space rays) is flawed because (as Prof Shallit said more verbosely) we have a mechanism (randomness PLUS selection), which we can test and see in action, which leads to the kind of complexity inherent in life. We have no such model for watches and space rays.

(And if SETI ever did find a coherent beam of EM radiation, you can bet that most of the astronomers would assume that it was NOT alien life, and seek an alternate explanation before heralding the discovery of ET...)

Kit said...

Wonderful article and showing the difference from what SETI is doing and what happens when you look at a biological system. However there is one other thing that I think should be pointed out. I don't bring this up because I think it was missed so much as because it is another way to show the difference between what SETI looks for and the complexity in biological life.

But first let me take a step back from the topic of SETI and just at what I can say about the ID movement's claims of design in general. Like everyone else when you address this you need to ask what they mean when they say design?

Here it is useful to take a look at what is stated over and over again by them. It easily gets brushed aside as simple rhetoric by the scientific community because it has little substance, but I do believe that this is their real reasoning.

When the ID community takes a look at a cell they see DNA, RNA, proteins, lipids, et cetera all interacting. In effect, they see mind boggling complexity on a level that is difficult to fathom. From this they make the statement that "this is so complex that it could not have arrived by chance because if any one part were to stop working the cell would likely die." Or, more simply, the Irreducible Complexity.

Ignoring how accurate this view is for now, I believe that is the whole of what is meant when ID supporters say 'Design.' That the system is complex, and since it is complex it is designed. Honestly, I doubt that their reasoning ever goes beyond this for two reasons. First, it is the one thing they repeatedly state. Second, I have never myself seen anything that takes another step past that.

So, complexity infers design is what is meant. Let us go back to SETI.

SETI is commonly used as a tool by the ID community to point out that it is possible to infer design, but I have yet to hear the ID community explain how SETI works. This is because, likely, they do not care how it works. All that matters is that there is some program that is looking for a 'designed' signal which would prove an intelligent designer of said signal. In their view, so long as there is some way that SETI can prove a designer of the signal, it does not matter to them how it works.

However, ironically, SETI actually refutes their very reasoning when you do look at how it works. SETI uses Fourier Analysis to break down the signals it picks up and is looking for, specifically, a drop in entropy below a specific threshold. Once the entropy drops below this threshold it can be said that intelligent life has been found because statistically it will most likely never detect a false positive.

In a sense, it is not looking for this complexity that the ID people hinge their definition of design onto, but rather on simplicity. This is because a designer strives for the most simple form possible. Often times it is the more primitive 'designs' that are the most complex when there is a designer.

There is another prime example for this: history of guns. If you look at the first mechanism that did not require a match to light the gun powder it was not the flint lock but rather the wheel lock that came first. This is despite the fact that the wheel lock is much more difficult to make, maintain, repair and was much less reliable. A designer strives to remove needless parts, but when you take a look at biology it is just one example upon another of needless complexity.

There are many examples of this, but this has already gotten long winded so I will leave the topic be for now. Suffice to say, if the ID movement believes that complexity infers design, SETI is a counter-point to their argument and in no way supports their position.

Papa Giorgio said...

.

I look forward to the counter response.

.

Flint said...

I think it's a mistake to envision creationists looking at the complexity of a cell and concluding design. Creationists do not, as a rule, draw conclusions from evidence, but rather require evidence to fit foregone conclusions.

They know before looking that their god designed life. Then they look at life and see what they expected. Everything else is just rationalizations as to why "godless" approaches must be wrong. Design is not a conclusion in the normal sense, and the Designer is unspecified for both legal/political purposes, and because even when specified (i.e. "The God Of Abraham"), we have never been any wiser about methods or motivations.

Mark Walton said...

I don't think that the ID folks are stupid and I don't think that they are particularly dishonest either. I believe that what we are seeing here is a particularly bad case of confirmation bias -- the ID folks are so emotionally committed to their basic premise that they see only the "evidence" that confirms it. They see the similarities between biological organisms and made-made machines, yet their extreme dislike of evolution blinds them to the many dissimilarities.

I believe that insulting the ID folks will only glue their blinders in place. They aren't stupid or dishonest, and the more we insist that they are, the more it looks to them like WE are the ones that aren't seeing reality. If you accuse someone of lying when he KNOWS he's telling you what he honestly believes, what is he going to think of you?

I believe that civility is a far better way to educate people than insulting them. Let the ID folks add fart noises to a judge's carefully thought-out decision. If we respond to that by being civil, there is a much better chance that people will listen to what we have to say.

John said...

Dete:
"And if SETI ever did find a coherent beam of EM radiation, you can bet that most of the astronomers would assume that it was NOT alien life, and seek an alternate explanation before heralding the discovery of ET..."

That is exactly the way pulsars were discovered.

mgarelick said...

Here's another approach to Egnor's question, but I'm not sure of the science enough to be confident of it. DNA is not analogous to the "blueprint" in Contact because DNA is not really a blueprint; that is just a metaphor, like referring to it as a "code" or a "language".* Part of the evidence for design in Contact was that we followed the blueprint and it worked; but we can't construct anything using DNA. Ironically, this sounds like DNA can't be "designed" because it's too complex.

My problem is that someone could respond that it is conceivable that we could build an organism using DNA as instructions.

*I'm sure there are some ID-believers who think their genes actually have the letters A, C, G, and T in them.

Anonymous said...

However, ironically, SETI actually refutes their very reasoning when you do look at how it works. SETI uses Fourier Analysis to break down the signals it picks up and is looking for, specifically, a drop in entropy below a specific threshold.

OK the person writing this thinks that entropy calculation is something that is routinely done in real systems. This is laughable because it is a theoretical concept which is mainly useful in designing systems and in devising coding schemes. And to consider doing it in real time would require being able to extract "interesting" information (such as generated by an intelligent being) from the contamination of "uninteresting" information such as that generated by thermal emissions (commonly known as noise).

But if the sender were interested in maximizing entropy of the utilized band (such as made possible by viterbi coding), then the "interesting information" would appear to us as noise of rectangular spectrum impressed upon the white noise of the background or thermal sources. In other words the two would be inseparable by us. Unless we knew their coding scheme which we can't. Or if they were not maximizing entropy this would give us a chance of breaking their code (their signal would then have a spectrum looking like multiple peaks moving about).

Lets say they've maximized entropy. The upshot of this would be that in this case we COULD calculate the entropy by taking the ratio of the signal power to the power of the background noise in an adjacent band of equal width. Big deal since there would be no chance of decoding the signal. SO--Why did Kit say a drop in entropy when clearly they would look for rise in entropy, or as I said, signal power? Better yet, why not state that SETI is looking at signal power instead of throwing around words like entropy without knowing of what you speak?

I think the answer is because hardcore Darwinists are obsessed with trying to prove how much more intelligent you are than the 60% of the US population that rejects the Darwinist accounts of origins. The intelligent non-biologists like myself can read accounts of the mind-numbingly complex functionality of the "lowly" cilia and ask you guys to describe to us exactly each gradual step in a random process that accounts for the creation of this structure. And then, if you have a spare evening or two, please tell us how this same random process you worship, in gradual step by step fashion, created the absolutely, devastatingly, mind-crushingly complex structure that constructs the "lowly" cilia from raw materials. And then, when you have another hour or two, tell us, when the first cilia was created in this way, how this first cilia gave the first organism so lucky to have obtained it, great survival abilities over the other organisms which didn't have a cilia. GIVE US DETAILS GUYS, NOT STATEMENTS OF FAITH --groovamos

Glend said...

I have one more question for Egnor, in addition to those I've asked previously at PT. Tell me, Egnor, why it is that selenocysteine and pyrrolysine are specified by what are otherwise "stop" codons, and why does the coding of those two amino acids differ across the taxonomy of life?

I mean, it's almost as if a genetic code with a good many redundancies evolved to "spell out" 20 amino acids along with start and stop codons, and then had to evolve methods of encoding two more amino acids when greater flexibility was needed, or at least was beneficial. And that it had to adapt what had already been encoded to do so, hence the utilization of "stop" codons. Oddly enough, the different patterns of coding those two amino acids happen to follow the predictions of evolution, too, in that related organisms use related methods of signaling pyrrolysine and selenocysteine.

But surely you have a better explanation for why the genetic code appears as it does, Egnor. Now try, try, try for once to come up with an explanation that involves intelligence and rationality behind the various codes and redundancies, as well as for the co-option of stop codons for selenocysteine and pyrrolysine. Sure, it fits the evolutionary pattern, but we'd be interested in your rationalizations for why design hit upon the type of solution that would be expected from evolution.

Glen D
http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

David said...

Excellent post. The argument that SETI is the EF in practice keeps rearing its ugly head, and must be shot down at every opportunity.

Mark said...

I think the answer is because hardcore Darwinists are obsessed with trying to prove how much more intelligent you are than the 60% of the US population that rejects the Darwinist accounts of origins.

Don't you think this is a rather silly statement, Anonymous? I'm not sure what a "hardcore" Darwinist is, but those of us who are scientists and deal with or study evolution, have no need to prove we have greater intelligence, more expensive cars, or larger rogers than anyone else. We are discouraged that as many as 60 percent of the US population reject well-founded scientific knowledge, but then, scientific knowledge is not determined by polling.

The literature is replete with the results of investigations which explain various facets of evolution--today, I read a report on the formation of plant species, by L.H. Rieseberg and J.H. Willis in Science 317(5840):910914. Such reports do not detail every single detail of every single evolutionary event. Some explanations even turn out to be incorrect, as determined by further study. Because of the long history of life on this planet and the dynamics of geology, we very likely will never find answers to all of our questions. But the answers we have found thus far possess far more consistency, explanatory power, and usefulness than the empty wordfroth emanating from the proponents of Intelligent Design.

ruidh said...

oponents get a lot of mileage out of conflating the information theoretic concept of "information" with the common perception of "information". In everyday language, "information" carries meaning. Nonsense is not information. But in the information theoretic world, random static carries lots and lots of information. It also happens to be very unlikely. So the result is that they consider unlikely events as being evidence of design when unlikely events are merely evidence of randomness.

Mark Walton said...

An anonymous poster (apparently an ID fan) challenged "Darwinists" to explain, in detail, the evolution of cilia.

My suggestion is that he or she go to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez and search for "cilia" and "evolution". You won't find anything approaching the level of detail you are asking for because a perfect understanding of the molecular evolution of something like that would require a time machine and at least several decades of hard work.

Nonetheless, you will find that the level of detail "Darwinists" provide is considerably greater than the level of detail that Intelligent Design proponents offer.

ID advocates won't tell you anything beyond "An intelligent Being designed that". Outside of speaking engagements at fundamentalist church groups, they won't even tell you who the "Designer" is.

Anonymous, if you aren't willing to even tell us who your Designer is, or how He did it, or when He did it, I don't see how you can reasonably criticize biologists for not providing the perfectly detailed, step by step account that you seem to want.

To put it another way, "YOU FIRST!" :-)

Kit said...

But if the sender were interested in maximizing entropy of the utilized band (such as made possible by viterbi coding), then the "interesting information" would appear to us as noise of rectangular spectrum impressed upon the white noise of the background or thermal sources. In other words the two would be inseparable by us. Unless we knew their coding scheme which we can't. Or if they were not maximizing entropy this would give us a chance of breaking their code (their signal would then have a spectrum looking like multiple peaks moving about).

Lets say they've maximized entropy. The upshot of this would be that in this case we COULD calculate the entropy by taking the ratio of the signal power to the power of the background noise in an adjacent band of equal width. Big deal since there would be no chance of decoding the signal. SO--Why did Kit say a drop in entropy when clearly they would look for rise in entropy, or as I said, signal power? --groovamos


To answer your question I will point to several flaws in your logic:

First of all, while I cannot be certain it sounds like you do not understand the concept of entropy. I presume this because it appears that you are associating entropy with signal power (I could be wrong, the way it is written it could also be two different ideas in one statement).

There are several different ways to look at entropy in the case of SETI: Information entropy and Thermodynamic entropy. Both are completely different from each other, and it appears that you are mixing the two together.

What you are talking about sounds like Information entropy. I say this because you are talking about an increase of entropy bringing an increase of information. This is in fact true, you seem, however Information Entropy is not what is being looked at by SETI.

SETI looking at thermodynamic entropy. This is distinctly different from Information Entropy specifically because entropy in thermodynamic entropy does not carry what most people would consider information (in other words, by looking at it the correct ways you can discover stuff, but it is mostly white noise until you are able to filter things out, assuming that you can).

For instance, lets look at your example of a 'code'. I am going to use the unaltered alphabet because if you do not know the alphabet it is the same as not being to break a code. In this instance entropy would refer to how often the different letters are being used. Obviously if I just sat down and typed one letter over and over again no information could be transmitted from me to anyone else. Observe:

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

This carries very little information. All you can say is that a single event is happening repeatedly and the most likely outcome for the next event in the sequence is 'z'. That tells us very little unless, say, for some reason we see a q instead of the expected z.

However if I were to hit different keys:

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.

The introduction of additional factors has increased the information available. Not only are there other letters for you to figure out what they mean or why they go there (assuming you are cracking the code), but also it now carries a meaning.

However, even this use of entropy has its limits. To show what I mean, I shall now randomly generate a letter sequence:

zbuqvvhwzc

This was done using a random letter sequence generator. Let us assume that the generator is completely random (i.e. the random number generator is actually completely random).

Well, using this there is all kinds of things we can potentially find out. For instance, given a large enough sample size it could potentially tell us all the letters in the alphabet. If the pattern is not truly random we can spot that as well (but again, we are assuming it is). But what about for deliberate communication from me to you? Can you decode any meaning in that sequence of random letters? No.

So, to answer your question: Will some alien beings maximize entropy when they are communicating? Yes, they will. However in this case there is a limit to how far you can "maximize" the entropy before it becomes meaningless. First off, if you increase it to the point where you cannot tell the difference between the signal and the background noise it is, obviously, useless. And aside from that problem, even if they did get the transmission, if it was maximized to the limit possible it would be nothing different from white noise.

One final thing: You use the example of SETI picking up some huge power spike as an example of entropy. This is, ironically enough, a prime example of a DROP in entropy (also, it is not information entropy in the sense that SETI would pick it up, but rather Thermodynamic Entropy). The strength of a signal by itself has nothing to do with the entropy of the system, but if the signal is much more (or much less) powerful than the background noise this is a much more ordered system as the energy has not yet had a chance to spread out and disseminate.

Thus, if SETI were to pick up such a power spike it would likely put it in the "this may be intelligent life" pile for further calculations, but not because of an increase in randomness but rather a DECREASE.

I also find it amusing that you are looking for a "simple" answer to what you yourself call mind-numbingly complex that can be described in an evening.

Rather than take up a lot more space on something that is off the topic for this post I shall point you in the correct direction.

There are currently two generally accepted and competing theories of how cilium evolved. First is the exogenous model (sometimes called symbiotic or endosymbiotic) and the second is called the direct filiation model (sometimes called autogenous or endogenous).

I would suggest that anyone interested look those two up, but you will be disappointed if you are looking for a single afternoon or two of reading if you really want to understand the theory. You are asking for details, well they are out there if you look. You now have no excuse other than that you did not want to or didn't care.

It would also be who of you to brush up on the topic of entropy since it sounds like you are getting two different and distinct theories of entropy mixed up.

Anonymous said...

Good reply to the redoubtable Dr. Egnor -- many thanks. Over at Darwin Central ("The Conspiracy that Cares"), we've done another blog piece on the DI you might enjoy: "The Argument from Disgust"

http://blog.darwincentral.org/2007/09/18/discovery-institute-the-argument-from-disgust/

Ian said...

Incidentally (though I'm sure this is nothing new) on Monday night Dembski prattled on a bit about how you haven't said anything about his work since 2003, implying that you had no answer. Sure, he mentioned your reason, but did so in a very patronising manner, as if to imply it was unreasonable of you or something.

Chris R said...

Jeffrey Shallit:
“I don't think that the question "is it designed?", in the absence of any candidate for a designer, is particularly interesting. That is, in the absence of motive, I don't think that knowing that something is designed tells you anything at all.”


Exactly. The ID crowd is fond of using criminal forensics and anthropological cases as analogies (see, for example, “The Arsonist’s Tale” posted by Denyse O’Leary at UD on 3/28/07 or “Identify the Indian or Shut Up” at UD on 7/31/07). It’s probably no accident that a fundamental term of ID theory is the same as the name of a television police drama, CSI. Yet they overlook the fact that in both criminal forensics and anthropology the key question, after determining whether the observation at hand (a fire, a chipped stone) had a natural or unnatural cause (or “intelligent agency” in their usage), is this: Who did it? O’Leary posits several important questions for a fire investigator in her essay, but tellingly not one of them is, “Who started the fire?” Yet that is precisely what any arson investigator wants to know.

Every time I hear ID proponents say that ID theory can’t speculate on the identity of the designer, I want to grab them by the lapels and scream, “Why the heck not?” That is the only question that matters once you infer design. Of course, we know why. Their avoidance of the question is not related to their philosophy of science but instead is a political strategy to be able to slip ID into the classroom.

Chris R said...

Papa Giorgio:
I look forward to the counter response.


See Dr. Egnor’s response posted today (26 Sep) at Evolution News & Views:
http://www.evolutionnews.org/2007/09/dr_shallit_replies.html#more