Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stupid Philosopher Tricks: Thomas Nagel

In a previous post, I said, "Whenever scientific subjects are discussed, you can count on some philosopher to chime in with something really stupid."

Here's another example. Thomas Nagel, a philosopher of some repute, nominates Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell as his pick for book of the year in the Times Literary Supplement.

Does Nagel have any biological training? None that I could see. Does he know anything about evolution or abiogenesis? Not if he thinks Meyer has any valid contribution to make. Did he bother to check if biologists think Meyer's book is a good contribution to the literature? I doubt it. Did Nagel spot all the phony claims Meyer makes about information? I doubt it again.

Just to cite one: Meyer claims, over and over again, that information can only come from a mind -- and that claim is an absolutely essential part of his argument. Nagel, the brilliant philosopher, should see why that is false. Consider making a weather forecast. Meteorologists gather information about the environment to do so: wind speed, direction, temperature, cloud cover, etc. It is only on the basis of this information that they can make predictions. What mind does this information come from?

It's sad to see such an eminent philosopher (Nagel) make a fool of himself with this recommendation.

77 comments:

Adrian Petrescu said...

Here's a paper by Nagel that you would probably find interesting.

Vladimir Levin said...

It seems to me that the brilliant trick played by these ID people is to wrap up their ideas in formalisms that are just complicated enough that most average people (and philosophers) can't really parse them.

RichardW said...

Adrian, thanks for that link to a paper by Nagel. While I disagree with much of what he writes there, I do share his view that it's wrong to rule ID out of science a priori, as many of its critics do. Of course, many of those critics also go on to show that the ID arguments are nonsense, and they do that very well. But they distract attention from that strong case by also making a bad case for rejecting ID a priori.

Brian Leiter said...

Nagel has become a disgrace. He was a philosopher who made some significant contributions, but in areas far afield of this one. A small irony: the other book he chooses to recommend is by a colleague and friend with whom he co-teaches. High standards of integrity here!

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

RichardW: I do share his view that it's wrong to rule ID out of science a priori, as many of its critics do.

There seems to be plenty of variation with some labeling ID non-science, others bad science, still others pseudo-science. It is clear however, that there is a broad consensus that it is not good science.

RBH said...

RichardW wrote

While I disagree with much of what he writes there, I do share his view that it's wrong to rule ID out of science a priori, as many of its critics do.

Which critics rule it out a priori? I'm a critic of ID. I've actually read Dembski (three of his books and many of his essays), Behe (both of his books and some of his essays), Johnson (two of his books), Meyer (most of his book and several of his essays), Wells (his two books and a couple of his essays), and others of the modern ID movement, and I've read historical intelligent design arguments going back to Paley's Natural Theology and earlier (e.g., John Ray).

In addition, I've read the 'traditional' creationists -- Morris (two of his books) and Gish (two of his books) and their colleagues (e.g., one of Josh McDowell's 1970s-era books), and I see the identical arguments.

On the basis of all that reading I reject ID after having considered what it has to offer science, which is nothing.

Or consider your host, Jeffrey Shallit, who has published at least one critique of modern ID arguments in the peer reviewed literature and was a prospective expert witness for the Kitzmiller trial until Dembski ran for the hills. Is he ruling ID out a priori? I don't think so.

So Richard, please show us those ID critics who rule it out a priori, please, with appropriate citations.

David said...

Hi Professor Shallit,

You criticize Nagel for lack of knowledge of biology. What are your own qualifications in this subject? Also, what is your training in philosophy? You are an authority on information theory, but this doesn't carry with it expert knowledge of biology or philosophy. This isn't to say that you don't have such knowledge---I'd just like to know the basis from which you pass judgment on Nagel.

On a different point, why does Brian Leiter think that to recommend a book by a friend shows lack of integrity?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

David,

You seem confused. One need not have qualifications in field X in order to validly point out that someone else has no qualifications in field X.

As for philosophy, I don't see why my qualifications are relevant here. I am not criticizing Nagel for his philosophy, but for his stupidity in not seeing the trivial counterexample to Meyer's argument, and for not consulting with biologists to see whether Meyer has anything to say that interests them.

Anyway, I have a paper published in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. Does that count for something?

David said...

Thanks for your reply. Why do you think that Nagel failed to consult biologists on whether Meyer's book had anything to say of interest to them? I may be misunderstanding you. but I think you are reasoning, "Had Nagel done so, the biologists would have told him that the book was worthless and he wouldn't have recommended it." But if this is what you think, then isn't it reasonable to ask how you know that they would say this?

Having an article in a peer reviewed philosophy journal does count for a great deal, but if I am not mistaken the paper was a criticism of Dembski on information theory, your professional specialty.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

David:

You don't need to be a biologist to know that biologists-in-general view Meyer's "work" as junk. Just go look at discussions of his work by actual biologists.

If you are not an expert in field X, and you say in a justified way that experts in field X say Y, this is hardly objectionable. But if you are not an expert in field X, and you say that person Z has something interesting to say about X, while nearly everyone in field X who reads Z thinks the opposite, then you're on shaky ground.

Joe G said...

Well all the experts in biology have to do is step up and demonstrate that genetic accidents (all mutations are genetic accidents in your scenario) can accumulate in such a way as to give rise to novel, useful, complex protein machinery and novel body plans.

However those experts cannot even account for the differences observed in primate feet via any amount of mutational accumulation.

We exist people.

And there is only one reality behind that existence.

So if you could just start supporting your position ID would fade away.

However given our knowledge of cause and effect design appears to be the best explanation.

For example just basic transcription and translation requires knowledge to pull of as both have proof-reading and error-correcting.

Blind and undirected processes putting together proof-reading and error-correction?

The only "evidence" for such a thing is the refusal to accept the design inference.

Miranda said...

"Meteorologists gather information about the environment to do so: wind speed, direction, temperature, cloud cover, etc. It is only on the basis of this information that they can make predictions. What mind does this information come from? "

Why do I have a feeling that your usage of the word "information" is not the same as Meyer's?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Shallit

Thomas Nagel may not have biological training, but as a philosopher, he will no doubt be trained in assessing logical fallacies.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but your rant was one long ad hominem argument, buttressed by appeals to authority and straw men.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous:

You're wrong.

I specifically pointed out a fatal flaw in Meyer's book which anyone with half a brain should be able to see.
Why didn't Nagel?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

How about addressing the error in Meyer's argument instead of babbling incoherently?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Miranda:

What definition of information do you think I should be using? Kolmogorov, Shannon, or something else?

RBH said...

For Miranda's benefit, I'll note that a critical form of information in Meyer's book is what he calls "active information." He uses that term numerous times in the text, as for example when he wrote

Informational accounting will reveal that sources of active information are responsible for putatively successful computer-based evolutionary simulations. (p. 496)

However, he does not define "active information" and it is not even in the index of the book. So a critical quantity -- "active information" -- that is central to Meyer's argument is left undefined. Elsewhere he mentions Shannon information, though he doesn't employ it in any argument that I recall, and I don't recall any mention of Kolmogorov information, though there might have been; in any case he doesn't use it in his argument. Hence his notion of "information" is idiosyncratic and undefined, and one doesn't know what he meant by it.

RBH said...

I should add that Meyer also uses Dembski's "Complex Specified Information" a great deal. That's another kettle of rotten fish. As far as I can tell, no ID proponent has ever actually calculated the complex specified information content of any biological structure. and so claims about it as a metric ring pretty hollow.

As far as I can tell, complex specified information is different from "active" information, so the latter is undefined.

Joe G said...

Jeffrey,

The error is in your "argument".

You are the one who is babbling incoherently.

You don't seem to understand what Meyer said.

BTW he provided the definition of information used- it's on page 86 of "Signature in the Cell"-

It can be found in perhaps any standard and accepted English dictionary:

b : the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects

He, as others before him, explains why Shannon's definition is useless- it only deals with mere complexity and not content.

But anyway to refute Meyer all you have to do is demonstrate that living organisms can arise from non-living matter via blind and undirected processes.

Babbling incoherently isn't going to get the job done.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

Thank you so much for instructing me on the meaning of the word "information". It will be so helpful in the courses I teach at my university. And the sheer brilliance of using an online dictionary to establish the meaning of a technical term! Why, it is simply astonishing!

What a shae, then, that your dictionary seems so unhelpful when it comes to the other technical terms I use in my course, such as "primitive", and "border". Come to think of it, maybe I should simply invite you to teach in my place, because then you could tell my students the best way to ascertain the meaning of these terms.

Now, given that definition of "information", could you please explain why things like temperature, wind speed, etc. do not constitute "information"?

Joe G said...

Meyer, in his peer-reviewed paper that caused so much whining, tals about "information" equaling biological function.:

"Dembski (2002) has used the term “complex specified information” (CSI) as a synonym for “specified complexity” to help distinguish functional biological information from mere Shannon information--that is, specified complexity from mere complexity. This review will use this term as well." Meyer in "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories".


Jeffrey:
Now, given that definition of "information", could you please explain why things like temperature, wind speed, etc. do not constitute "information"?

Why don't you tell me why they do?

Then tell me if that information is complex and specified.

And what do you teach that a dictionary isn't good enough as a reference for the meaning of words?

Do you and your students have different meanings for every word in the English language?

Doesn't that make communication outside of your group a little difficult?

Joe G said...

RBH,

Meyer talks about Shannon information in that he points out it only pertains to mere complexity.

Shannon did not care about actual content/ meaning.

To Shannon a string of 1 million random characters has more "information" than 900,000 characters arranged to form important instructions.

IOW "active information" is information that has a meaning/ purpose.

Joe G said...

Jeffrey:
Meteorologists gather information about the environment to do so: wind speed, direction, temperature, cloud cover, etc. It is only on the basis of this information that they can make predictions. What mind does this information come from?

Someone measures the wind speed and checks its direction.

Someone has to check the temperature.

Someone has to check the cloud cover.

So all the information the meterologist gathers comes from the people who actually gather it based on the instruments they used- hopefully correctly calibrated instruments.

Also to make accurate predictions meterologists have to know/ understand quite a bit about weather patterns and jet streams.

The information for that comes from years of research.

386sx said...

Joe G says: So if you could just start supporting your position ID would fade away.

Great. Now we know how to tell when a position is correct. When a position is correct, then opposing positions will fade away. Thanks a lot!

RBH said...

Joe G wrote

BTW he provided the definition of information used- it's on page 86 of "Signature in the Cell"-

It can be found in perhaps any standard and accepted English dictionary:

b : the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects


The problem is that Meyer doesn't stick to that definition. For example, his "active information" doesn't correspond to that definition, as far as I can tell from context.

Further, he provides no way to actually measure "information" in that definition. Absent a way to measure it, statements like 'evolutionary mechanisms cannot increase information,' which are common in his book, are impossible to test. Without an operational definition, it's a scientifically useless notion.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

You say "Someone measures the wind speed and checks its direction. Someone has to check the temperature. Someone has to check the cloud cover."

You seem very confused. The question is the origin of the information, not who measures it. By the same token, I could dismiss Meyer's claim about information in DNA because someone has to sequence it.

Nice try at the evasion, but you lose.

You also say, "And what do you teach that a dictionary isn't good enough as a reference for the meaning of words?"

I'd really recommend to you a remedial course in reading at your local community college.

Dictionaries are not good at defining technical terms. To understand the meaning of technical terms such as "primitive" and "border" in computer science, you need to consult a textbook, not a dictionary. Most students have this figured out by their first year in university.

RichardW said...

RBH wrote: "Which critics rule it out a priori?"

I'm talking about the many critics who say that, because ID is supernatural or unfalsifiable, it cannot possibly be science. As for the rest of your post, you seem not to have read the remainder of my mine, where I wrote:

"Of course, many of those critics also go on to show that the ID arguments are nonsense, and they do that very well."

You and Jeff are certainly among those who have done an excellent job of showing that the ID arguments are nonsense. I don't recall whether you are among those who also rule ID out of science a priori.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hi, Richard:

If the claimed design is done by something in the universe, of course it can be studied by science. I am open to the possibility that life on Earth was created by aliens -- and if one supports that theory, then all one has to do is produce the crashed spaceship and the blueprints.

If the claimed design is done by a supernatural being whose motives, goals, and techniques are eternally hidden from us, then I think it is much harder to claim it is science. This is, essentially, the distinction between ordinary and rarefied design made by Wilkins and Elsberry.

Joe G said...

RBH,

One measures the information by counting the number of bits.

As for scientifically useless, well that sums up your position very nicely.

For example what do you have that can be measured?

How many mutations does it take to go from an invertebrate to a vertebrate?

How about from a land mammal to a fully aquatic mammal?

How about from a light-sensitive spot to a fully formed mammalian vision system?

Joe G said...

Jeffrey,

I notice you did not answer my question-

You were suppoosed to tell us why your "argument" is valid.

You did not.

Also Meyer is talking about the information required to bring something about.

For example I could tell the difference between a house built by a well-designed plan and one built willy-nilly.

So tell us how many bits of information are required for wind?

How many bits are required for temperature?

Methinks you don't know what you are arguing against.

BTW ID does not require the supernatural.

Also if you require a meeting with the designers then you are not interested in science as it is obvious tat all you will accept is proof.

Yet when one takes a look at your position all you have is the refusal to allow the design inference.

Sweet...

Joe G said...

386sx,

If you have two opposing positions and one is verified/ confirmed while the other is not, which does science align itself with?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

"You were suppoosed to tell us why your "argument" is valid."

Sorry, I didn't think anyone was moronic enough to not be able to figure that out.

The argument is valid because the information needed for weather predictions satisfies the definition you proposed:

1. There are many alternative possibilities to wind speed, direction, and temperature.

2. The different alternatives produce different results.

So by the definition you yourself proposed, my example refutes Meyer.

Glad to see, though, that you have tacitly abandoned your moronic "humans have to measure wind speed" argument.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

So tell us how many bits of information are required for wind?

That's a good question. A good estimate can be provided by the number of bits that meteorologists actually measure. A single measurement is often in miles per hour, and wind speed usually is between 0 and 30 mph. So each measurement is about 5 bits. Since I'm not a meteorologist, I don't know how many measurements they integrate into a forecast, but I would bet it is hundreds, if not thousands. Each forecase, then, depends on hundreds or thousands of bits of information.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

By the way, I think the reactions to my counterexample to Meyer's claim are interesting.

The counterexample is so clear and unambiguous that only someone with a religious attachment to ID could debate it.

Can you believe it? ID advocates are actually claiming, in effect, that meteorologists somehow do their forecasts without using any information gathered from the environment at all! I wonder how this magic is carried out.

Contrast this with the way a real scientist behaves when a counterexample is found. They would say, "Hmm. That's a good exception to the rule I proposed. Maybe I need to rethink it a little." But ID advocates don't act like scientists - they act like politicians.

RichardW said...

BTW "active information" is another bit of nonsense concocted by Dembski, this time in collaboration with Robert Marks. I'm surprised to hear that Meyer doesn't even cite them.

Dembski's "active information" is not information in any reasonable sense but is actually a measure of the performance of a search algorithm. Dembski performs his usual bait-and-switch routine by taking a ratio of two probabilities, applying a mapping of -log2, and deceptively calling the result "information". He then makes absurd statements like Meyer's quoted above:

Informational accounting will reveal that sources of active information are responsible for putatively successful computer-based evolutionary simulations. (p. 496)

Since "active information" is defined in a way that makes it a measure of search performance, Meyer's statement is at best mere tautology: sources of the effectiveness of evolutionary simulations are responsible for the effectiveness of evolutionary simulations.

More on "active information" here:
http://talkreason.org/articles/active.cfm

Blake Stacey said...

Dembski performs his usual bait-and-switch routine by taking a ratio of two probabilities, applying a mapping of -log2, and deceptively calling the result "information".

Yes — Dembski and Marks measure probability on a logarithmic scale and then call it "information" as a cheap rhetorical trick.

RBH said...

RichardW wrote

I'm surprised to hear that Meyer doesn't even cite them [Dembski & Marks].

Actually, Meyer does cite them somewhere in the book in a paragraph a few sentences after he uses the term "active information," so it's not at all clear he's referring to their papers. And, as I noted, the term isn't in the index.

Joe G said...

Jeffrey,

Thank you for admitting that you don't know what you are talking about:

The argument is valid because the information needed for weather predictions satisfies the definition you proposed

Not even close.

The information for making weather predictions comes from making many, many observations.

Ya see as I told you and IDists have written about- the INFORMATION we are concerned with is the INFORMATION that is required to bring something into existence.

So it is as Dembski blogged- you have stuck your foot in your mouth and you don't even realize it.

Thanks for the entertainment though.

I feel really bad for your "students"...

Joe G said...

Jeffrey,

How many bits of information are required to bring "wind" into existence?

You are soooo freakin' clueless that you don't even understand the argument you are trying to refute.

Par for the course...

Joe G said...

Shallit:
Each forecase, then, depends on hundreds or thousands of bits of information.

RotFLMAO!!!!!

That has nothing to do with anything!

The information we are concerned with is the information that makes "wind", the temperature, the rain, the torndo, etc.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

"we are concerned with is the INFORMATION that is required to bring something into existence."

Clearly the number of bits required to measure it is a lower bound on the number of bits required to bring it
"into existence", whatever that means.

I am sorry you are unable to present a coherent argument.

Jason A. said...

Joe G.:

"The information for making weather predictions comes from making many, many observations."

Golly, are you going back to the dumb 'the information comes from the people making the observations' thing? Ridiculous. The question is where does the information come form, not who is measuring it. Or are you suggesting that wind does not actually exist, and the people making the 'observations' are making up the wind speed information out of the blue?

You're so committed to your ID position that you cannot see the exact argument you're trying to use to refute weather information (it comes from meteorologists making observations) can be applied to DNA information (it comes from the geneticists making observations).

Joe G said...

Jeffrey:
Clearly the number of bits required to measure it is a lower bound on the number of bits required to bring it
"into existence", whatever that means.


Clearly you have not demonstrated that and obviously you don't even understand the debate.

"whatever that means"? Are you serious?

Joe G said...

Jason A.,

It is not my fault that you people don't understand the debate.

Mike from Ottawa said...

I want to thank whatever performance artist produced the comedy stylings of "Joe G". He's the funniest creationist I've seen in some time.

It's nice to have some levity injected into what is otherwise merely a sad tale of yet another creationist who, instead of actually doing some science, says "There's a gap in our knowledge that can never be bridged! Let's stick God in it!" and comes up with some sciency verbiage to make it seem new.

Alan said...

Mike from Ottawa

Nice ad-hominem for starters Mike. You managed to humour and dismiss Joe G as a creationist, before finishing him off with a straw man.

I like your compact style, and the way you avoid addressing the substance of the arguments.

Keep up the good work!

Gauss said...

I like your title. You leave it vague whether you mean:
Stupid (Philosopher Tricks)
or
(Stupid Philosopher) Tricks

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

You remind me of the man who drunkenly enters a freeway in the wrong traffic direction, and wonders why every other jerk on the road is driving the wrong way.

When you start claiming that all your opponents "don't even understand the debate", it may be time to check if you're driving on the wrong side. After all, incompetent people don't seem to know it.

Joe G said...

Jeffrey,

Your posts betray you.

I was just trying to help you out.

However it is obvious that you are beyond help.

Keep setting up those straw men so you can knock 'em down.

You must be very proud of yourself...

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joe G:

Do you always try to "help" people by calling them "soooo freakin' clueless"? If so, I recommend counselling.

Joe G said...

If people are clueless it is always helpful to let them know.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a Christian or intelligent design adherent, but I find it remarkable that no one here seems to believe that one can endorse a book with a thesis with which one disagrees. Even if Meyer's thesis were "the moon is made of cheese," conceivably he could offer and interesting account of both moon and cheese before reaching this absurdity. This is not as unlikely as it sounds: Descartes argument for the existence of God, after all, leaves something to be desired in a ways related to the deficiencies of intelligent design. But the argument is still magnificent. And I find the overly emotional and defensive appeal to personal attack remarkable: "disgrace," "stupid," etc. As an appeal to character rather than evidence, it is its own sort of inverse intelligent design theory. And then there is the very intellectually passive appeal to authority "we must always trust and defer to the reputed experts, we are simply not qualified to make these evaluations": a very religious seeming appeal to authority. With time, even the Christians allowed their protestants to read and evaluate the sacred text for themselves. As for your emotions: I promise you that science will get along without your attachment and your ire. It doesn't need your loyalty. It's very grand to feel that ideas and people are stupid and unworthy of consideration -- in which case you should ignore them. But if someone well-respected shocks you by giving them attention, the advised route is to offer a sober rebuttal -- not to appeal merely to authority, the established opinion of the day, and so on. In this case, of course, the rebuttal wouldn't even concern the intelligent design thesis -- which Nagel didn't endorse. It would involve arguing that Meyer's account is so poor in all its parts as to be unworthy of attention -- even for the purposes of rebuttal or for sharpening one's own counterarguments. But again, even this position could hardly account for the ire directed toward Nagel: we have something more and tribal here. Nagel has offended what should be his tribe by even dignifying the ways of another. And these ways are felt as a threat. But again -- I simply don't see the threat. Yes: fight the Christianists -- tooth and nail -- in their attempts to bastardize education or thwart public policy based on scientific consensus. And if Meyer is an activist of this sort, fight him -- no holds barred -- on that turf. And if you think this book is merely propaganda, merely a tool of these politics, then again I think it's probably best to ignore it. But if you do decide to engage something like, then it's time to stop acting like an intemperate yahoo and put on your little science or philosopher cap for a little while and make some real arguments. It does not add to the credibility of science or philosophy to have its practitioners act like hysterical yahoos when they are challenged -- no matter how absurd the idea; in fact, the more absurd the idea, the less concern for worry.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Anonymous Concern Troll:

Certainly it's possible to endorse a book with which one disagrees. But Meyer's book is mistaken and dishonest in so many ways, it is only possible to endorse it so wholeheartedly if one is blissfully unaware of what's going on.

As for the rebuttals - Meyer's arguments are unoriginal and the arguments have been rebutted over and over and over again. But like the Energizer bunny, creationists keep going and going and going and going...

As for real arguments, you have read my paper in Synthese, right? If not... perhaps you should do some reading before you start the concern trolling.

Alan said...

Dear Jeffrey Shallit

If

"Meyer's arguments are unoriginal and the arguments have been rebutted over and over and over again."

Then why don't you remind all the "stupid" people out there, i.e. those who happen to disaggree with you, of the flaws in Meyer's arguments.

By way of advice, your approach is not only lazy and arrogant, but it is also likley to repulse potential allies. Unfortunately, the evidence for ID, and the problems with Darwinian evolution, are too widely known, for the "brush off", "stra wman", "demonisation" tactic to work.

You will only serve to undermine your own credibility further, if you persist with this approach.

I hope this helps

Alan

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Alan:

Then why don't you remind all the "stupid" people out there, i.e. those who happen to disaggree with you, of the flaws in Meyer's arguments.

Been there, done that. Go read this paper. You know, the one I mentioned in the previous comment? It's about Dembski, but Meyer uses Dembski's results and makes exactly the same mistakes.

your approach is not only lazy and arrogant

And you're a moron if you can't bother to read the paper I already friggin' mentioned before responding. Happy?

You will only serve to undermine your own credibility further, if you persist with this approach.

Concern troll!

Aaron Baker said...

I generally think "concern troll" is one of the most over-used and questionably warranted expressions on the internets. But here it seems completely justified.

Why don't you intelligent design proponents JUST ONCE come up with a respectable argument for your position? Until you do that, you have no business even mentioning the word "credibility."

Calling a fool "a fool" when one has reached the last degree of exasperation doesn't undermine one's credibility in the least.

Alan said...

Dear Jeffrey Shallit

According to Dembski, the points you raise in your paper “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information” have been addressed:

"Shallit’s criticisms of my work, insofar as they have any legitimacy, have been responded to at length in The Design Revolution and in my recent papers “Searching Large Spaces” and “Specification: The Pattern That Signifies” (the latter two available at www.designinference.com). Moreover, he now indicates that he won’t be analyzing my future work because, and I quote from a recent email, “I do not intend to waste my time finding more errors in more work of yours.”"

Pardon me for doing the same as you by merely appealing to some papers. My point was that you should bring forth your arguments in clear and accessible terms, rather than appealing to your work and describing people who disagree with your line of reasoning as "morons".

There is clearly a scientific controversy, and this should take place at a dignified and rational level. You may not like to hear this, but the jury is out as far as Dembski's ideas are concerned. It also appears that you are unwilling or unable to address his latest work. You merely assert that Dembski has been refuted and proceeded to assume the authority to write articles attacking those who take his side. Since reading Dembski's blog, I have become aware that this is your stock and trade.

If you have the arguments, then present them to us, and please stop trying to compete with Richard Dawkins for straw men and ad hominems.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Dear Alan The Concern Troll:

If you are trying to see if the claims of Meyer and Dembski are correct, you need to read my paper -- not search the internet for reasons to avoid reading it.

When Dembski claims "Shallit’s criticisms of my work, insofar as they have any legitimacy, have been responded to at length", he is just blowing smoke. Go read Searching Large Spaces and Specification... and you will find not a single reference to our criticisms.

My point was that you should bring forth your arguments in clear and accessible terms...

Been there, done that. Read my chapter in Why Intelligent Design Fails, Rutgers University Press, 2004.

You may not like to hear this, but the jury is out as far as Dembski's ideas are concerned.

No, it's not - if the jury is a scientific and mathematical one. Dembski's work has been soundly dismissed by nearly everyone who is competent to understand it.

It also appears that you are unwilling or unable to address his latest work.

There is only a limited amount of time, and an unlimited supply of idiocy.

You merely assert that Dembski has been refuted and proceeded to assume the authority to write articles attacking those who take his side.

You lie. I don't "merely assert", I publish my articles in the peer-reviewed literature. If you refuse to read them, I can't do anything about that.

If you have the arguments, then present them to us, and please stop trying to compete with Richard Dawkins for straw men and ad hominems.

Don't make me laugh, Mr. Troll. I have presented them, but you are so scared, you have not read them. You just go off to others and find reasons for avoiding reading them.

Ingo said...

I don't "merely assert", I publish my articles in the peer-reviewed literature.

Indeed, Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski's 'complex specified information' has not appeared in print yet, but is already being cited.

underthought said...

I imagine when Meyer talks of "information", he means something with semantic content, rather than Shannon information.

There has been considerable debate in philosophy of biology concerning whether biological explanations make an indispensable appeal to semantic content carried in DNA sequences - and whether DNA is the only source of semantic information in heredity.

Maynard Smith, for instance, wrote a widely read article in Philosophy of Science arguing that biologists do need such a notion.

The worry is that there is longstanding view, associated primarily with Searle (Nagel too, I think, but it's not really his area) that only sources of "original intentionality" (viz. minds) can give things semantic content.

Many others (e.g. Dennett) deny this. But it's very much a live debate.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Underthought:

There's no need to imagine what Meyer meant when it is spelled out in his book.

He refers to "functionally specified information", "information content", and "specified complexity" and distinguishes it from "information-carrying capacity. He refers to Dembski without acknowledging that Dembski's claims have been refuted and are not accepted by the information theory community.

By the way, the chance that philosophers are going to come up with anything definitive or ground-breaking on the origin of information -- semantic or otherwise -- is pretty much zero. We already know that randomness can generate Kolmogorov information, and we already know that evolutionary algorithms can generate novel behaviors. So for the scientific community, the question is already settled.

Anonymous Kim said...

its funny that shallit writes a concern troll post on his blog, and then proceeds to call other people concern trolls.

only trolls cry troll.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous Kim:

You don't know what the term "concern troll" means, do you?

Danny Pi said...

I would further like to protest the attacks against Prof. Nagel. I think there is a very easy and very clear way to legitimately attack his endorsement of the book. Namely, if you read the book and find it poorly written and bereft of interesting ideas, then you might rightly criticize him for recommending a bad book.

But to criticize him for not being a biologist is a rank ad hominem fallacy. He is not commenting on the plausibility of ID. He does not even believe in ID, and he makes no pretension of having any expertise in evolutionary biology. His endorsement of a book about ID is not tantamount to an endorsement of ID. There might be many other reasons why the book was good. It may have made many interesting philosophical points about what ought to count as free speech, and what ought to count as science education. Such issues are not solely the domain of scientists, and a philosopher might very well be in a good position to evaluate those merits. The point is that he is not endorsing ID, ergo, he should not be criticized for making an evaluative claim about research in biology, which is, incidentally, a straw man fallacy to boot.

I probably disagree with Nagel insofar as I think that ID should not be taught in public schools, even if the local school board votes to include the teaching of ID in science classes. I think there are compelling non-constitutional, non-legal reasons for banning the teaching of ID in science classes. And I think that his endorsement of that book, however sincere and however intellectually honest he may have been in endorsing it, was something of a PR misstep. That said, I feel saddened that he is, in my view, being unfairly lambasted.

That is, he is being criticized for endorsing views, which he does not believe, and he is being criticized for lacking qualifications which he never claimed to have, nor needed to have to comment on the merit of a particular book (i.e. not the conclusions it contains!).

To make my point crystal clear with a personal example, I am not an economist. I have probably a slightly above-average knowledge of economics, but I am by no means an expert in the field. Furthermore, I am politically slightly left of Dennis Kucinich. And yet, I would wholeheartedly recommend Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom to anyone interested in economics. I don't agree with the vast majority of Friedman's conclusions (with the exception of his disapproval of rent control). In fact, I wildly disapprove of the social consequences of many of Friedman's recommended economic policies. Nonetheless, I believe it is a very good book, which offers very many interesting ideas worth considering. I don't think that my lack of qualification as an economist (it is written as a popular book anyway), nor my disagreement with his conclusions makes my recommendation of Capitalism and Freedom at all intellectually dishonest or disingenuous. Likewise, if you want to criticism Nagel's book recommendation, then you should criticize it for being a bad book, rather than attacking Prof. Nagel's qualifications and sympathies.

Danny Pi said...

I see there has been some trolling and flaming on this item, and I don't want to get mired in anything like that, so I will try to make this post relatively brief, uncontroversial, and clear.

I studied very briefly with Prof. Nagel at NYU, and in class discussions which veered into the nitty gritty of hard science (e.g. quantum physics, the details of evolutionary biology, and other stuff that philosophers would often like to talk about, though they too often lack the expertise), he was always extremely responsible in corralling the discussion away from subjects best left to scientists.

If you read his paper on the teaching of ID in public schools, I think you would agree that he seems to have very little interest in donning a biologist hat and pretending to be Darwin. He obviously has sufficient knowledge to speak about evolution intelligently, and he certainly does not claim more expertise than he has, and he does not deign to evaluate or contribute to ongoing research.

And indeed, the crux of it is that Nagel does not endorse ID. He endorsed the book. I have not read the book, and I rather doubt that most of the people criticizing his endorsement have read the book. It may, in fact, be a good book. Who is to say that it doesn't toe the fine line of expressing some Popperian falsifiability condition, whilst carefully avoiding any direct references to supernatural entities? Someone who has read the book, presumably.

Nagel himself does not seem to believe in God, nor does he believe in ID, nor does he believe that ID should be taught in schools. He is a legal scholar, and so he does make the point that if local school boards vote to teach ID, then there is no constitutional reason to prevent it.

He seems to believe, and I agree, that incorrect theories, so long as they are consistent with empirical data and so long as they have falsifiability conditions, can still be "scientific" theories. To this extent, ID is a scientific theory, it's just a bad one that is very likely incorrect. This is not a scientific assertion, nor does it require more than an reasonably educated layman's understanding of biology. It is an issue in the foundations and philosophy of science, and not a particularly nitty gritty issue in that subject, either.

At any rate, I would agree that it was ill-advised of him to lend his good name to the endorsement of a book on such a politically charged subject, the conclusion of which he does not even believe. However, I do not think it was intellectually dishonest of him to do so, provided he actually thought it was a well-written book, which made interesting points.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The point is, how can the layman tell whether a book on a scientific is even making valid points, if the layman has little or no training in the area? Frankly, it's pretty hard.

Even renowned mathematicians and mathematical physicists often say really stupid things when talking about complexity theory -- I have had to correct the misunderstandings of Nobel laureates -- so how likely is it that the average person will analyze a popular science book from a position of knowledge?

Danny Pi said...

The point is that you don't generally need to speak from a position of expert knowledge, when reviewing a book putatively written for a general audience.

I just don't see how you can claim that I.D. is not science (or "bad science" at least), but then demand that Nagel have scientific qualifications to review it. I mean, if it's not science, then why does he need to be a scientist to evaluate the book?

Okay, sure, it's making scientific(ish) claims, so perhaps Nagel would need to have some degree of expertise if he were trying to evaluate the truth of its claims, which he did not do. He never said that Meyer was right, he simply said that the book explored interesting issues in an interesting way. In fact, he doesn't think Meyer was right. I hardly see how that warrants the big ruckus that has ensued.

RkBall said...

A captain of a ship is at sea. The wind is blowing. The salt sea is spraying on his face. He hears an S-O-S signal. Surely the S-O-S constitutes information in a way that the blowing of the wind and the spraying of the salt sea does not. And, for the speed of the wind to be determined, and, perhaps communicated to someone else, does it not take an intelligent agent?

Does not the finding of a treasure map on a rock constitute information in a way that e.g., the observation that there is also lichen growing on the rock, does not?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Surely the S-O-S constitutes information in a way that the blowing of the wind and the spraying of the salt sea does not.

When you say "surely" it seems to me you are assuming what you want to prove.

It's up to you to quantify precisely how this information is different. To a mathematician or computer scientist, who uses Shannon or Kolmogorov, things like meaning do not enter into the definition of information.

Furthermore, consider instead of receiving an SOS, the captain observes a meteorite entering the atmosphere and striking another ship within viewing range. Viewing that scene would convey exactly the same message - namely, that assistance is needed - yet no intelligent agent was involved.

Even further, consider instead that the captain receives the message "TPT" instead of "SOS". Would that be more or less information than "SOS"? How about if you knew that the sender loved to send messages by advancing each letter one position?

Does not the finding of a treasure map on a rock constitute information in a way that e.g., the observation that there is also lichen growing on the rock, does not?

Mathematically I suspect the lichen contains much more information than the treasure map.

groovamos/MSEE said...

Jeffrey says in his example that weather information does not originate in mind(s). I disagree in part; he is on to something regarding the nature of/ or inherent existence or nonexistence of information in the weather. Does weather have informational content? No. Do units of measure? Yes. Do the designs of transducers and sensors? Yes again. The last two arise in minds and in the Shannon sense are part of the coding problem, and are indispensible for collecting weather information. And so weather information does originate in minds, because the coding originates in minds. This in my view is a conundrum for Jeffrey's argument, and is in fact laughingly related to the insistence of scientists that there is a "genetic code", a term used to wow each other and the public in general. By maintaining the "wow" factor to keep the funding coming, life scientists in this case are unintentionally implying a mind behind the "genetic code", because codes originate in minds.

But then if coding originates in minds, then information only exists for minds that have a knowledge of coding. So there would have to be a mind in the cell to appreciate the genetic code if it is indeed a code. I think the ID crowd may have a problem here. I support ID but am increasingly skeptical of the ID folks' usage of informational terms of which they have little understanding.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Does weather have informational content?

Certainly it does. Take, for example, whether it is raining or not in a place where it rains half the time. Knowing whether it is currently raining gives you one bit of information.

En├ęzio E. de Almeida Filho said...

No offense, please, but have you ever considered yourself a stupid mathematician?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Sure. I'm a mathematician (and computer scientist) and I'm stupid about many things. Don't ask me anything about Etruscan thought, or Thai cooking, or the history of rugby.

Ensjo said...

In the forming of an intricate snow flake, the physical forces provided by nearby water molecules can be seen as constituting information for every incoming molecule to position itself. Yet no mind is involved in the process.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming late to this, but I read the ramblings of an intellectual hack like the this Shallit character, I cannot help myself.

You yourself, Shallit, seem to be ruling out a priori that just because Nagel recommends a book, he seems to be endorsing all of said book's claims, and that if a community of scientists disagree with him, then he must be wrong. If we prize the community version of scientific knowledge, and if somehow all of our scientists collectively came together and told us that black people are inferior to white people (which scientists have actually done), then you would have to agree with those scientists, wouldn't you? Remember what Kant said: "Dare to use your own reason"...unless of course you object to Kant because he had no knowledge of Darwin? ;)

Furthermore, philosophers really deal with matters that are unanswerable by science. Consider ethics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology. Ethics is supposed to show us that which should be, not that which is (which science helps to show us), logic is presupposed by science, metaphysics by its very definition explains that which science cannot explain, and epistemology is the field where we engage in questions about how we come to know the validity of certain claims, including such claims as "the scientific method is a valid method of gaining knowledge".

Nagel has made consistently one of the best points about evolution which no else seems to bring up: the probability of life evolving out of nonliving matter is about one in a billion billion, which should lead to some doubts about the supposed certainty of naturalistic evolution. Why does he need to consult scientists for this, unless of course scientists have proved that life evolving without a designer is indeed highly probable, which seems unlikely.

Nullifidian said...

To be blunt, Anonymous, you are in no position to call other people intellectual hacks.

You yourself, Shallit, seem to be ruling out a priori that just because Nagel recommends a book, he seems to be endorsing all of said book's claims, and that if a community of scientists disagree with him, then he must be wrong.

Case in point. By saying that Dr. Shallit is "ruling this out a priori" you are firmly implying that he is not making this argument you described. So either you've come here to tell Dr. Shallit what he is not doing, or you simply threw a priori in without caring what it actually means. This is the sign of a pseudo-intellectual poseur.

If we prize the community version of scientific knowledge, and if somehow all of our scientists collectively came together and told us that black people are inferior to white people (which scientists have actually done), then you would have to agree with those scientists, wouldn't you?

No. It is possible to make a dissident argument that challenges the prevailing consensus. It just helps your reputation if you do so honestly and not by substantially misrepresenting the consensus science, by refusing to subject your own work to experimental verification, and by plugging it in front of school boards and state legislatures instead of in peer-reviewed journals, professional conferences, and symposia. Guess which way the cdesign proponentsists have chosen to do this?

Furthermore, philosophers really deal with matters that are unanswerable by science.

Peachy. So what is Nagel doing recommending pseudoscientific texts instead of sticking to his admitted areas of expertise?

Nagel has made consistently one of the best points about evolution which no else seems to bring up: the probability of life evolving out of nonliving matter is about one in a billion billion, which should lead to some doubts about the supposed certainty of naturalistic evolution.

I'd love to see the Bayesian priors that went into that calculation. Since you like quotes from philosophers so much, here's one from Friedrich Nietzsche: "The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments" (The Gay Science, aph. 191).

Contrary to your claim that "no [one] else" brings this up, the probability argument is one of the oldest and tritest arguments in the creationist arsenal. If there has been any diminution in how often it appears, it may be because its proponents are too embarrassed to bring it up any more. It is based on nothing but numbers pulled out from the rectum and asserted with the finality of holy writ. It also has the fault of being completely irrelevant. What you call "naturalistic evolution" is perfectly consistent with any origins of life scenario, as long as it results in organisms that has heritable variation and a finite population.

If this is what Nagel has actually argued, then Nagel is a fucking chump. Fortunately for Nagel's dwindling reputation, I highly suspect that you are putting words in his mouth.

Anonymous said...

I read that paper (or at least am still reading it) that was presented in an early comment.

I can't believe a philosopher of such distinction would engage in a discussion which he clearly (by his own writing) as not the slightest information about.

Especially when the use of genetic algorithms remove all requirement to propose ID... unless god is also acting on the functions in a computer program that mutate the digital genotype to create a solution.

He also can't claim he didn't know about these, as an eminent philosopher he would surely have gone off to find out if there were any non biological examples of mutation and selection...If I can do that and not be a philosopher of merit...then surely he has no excuse?

Had he taken such a detour from his typing enterprises he would have come across genetic algorithms in seconds.

So the next question for him would be...is this designer also fiddling about with the correct functioning of software along with the checksums put in place to ensure it runs correctly?