Monday, September 07, 2015

James Barham, A Very Confused Philosopher

As you know, I'm very skeptical about the ability of most philosophers to say anything interesting (or even true) about science. Here is yet another example of bad philosophy, this time from James Barham.

Really, I wish anyone who wants to prattle on and on about the deficiencies of Darwinism would take, at the very least, undergraduate courses on the theory of computation and artificial intelligence. It would save a lot of electrons being wasted the way Barham does.

It starts badly, with a claim that the "Darwinian consensus" (whatever that means) is "gradual[ly] crumbling" and that the "official explanation" (no kidding -- like a 9/11 truther, he really says that) "of the nature of living things---and therefore of human beings---that we've all been led to believe in for the past 60 or 70 years turns out to be dead wrong in some essential respects."

Yeah, yeah. We've heard that for more than a hundred years; it's what Glenn Morton called the "longest-running falsehood in creationism".

"The machine metaphor was a mistake---organisms are not machines, they are intelligent agents."

This is precisely the kind of silliness that a good course on the theory of computation could avoid. Why does he think that a machine cannot be an "intelligent agent"?

"For one thing, it [Darwinism] meant that all purpose is an illusion, even in ourselves, which is absurd. We know that is not true from the direct evidence of our own experience."

No, the biological theory of evolution does not mean that "all purpose is an illusion". Trouble results from using the vague word "purpose", which means many things to different people. It is not a concept that has a precise scientific definition (what are the units of "purpose"?), although Barham tries to provide one: he says, "Purpose is the idea that something happens, not because it must tout court, according to physical law, but rather because it must conditionally, in order for something else to happen." Well, that's not what most people mean by purpose, but even so, practically any computer program would exhibit purpose under Barham's definition. And nature is filled with objects that can serve as a basis for computation, including DNA and sandpiles. There is simply no logical barrier at all to computing devices arising through natural processes.

There are a few philosophers who have something interesting to say about evolution, but Barham is not one of them.


Steve Watson said...

He seems to have a thing for teleology in biology -- his Ph.D. dissertation was on it.

I'll leave you with this tidbit from the abstract of one of his papers:

"The main challenge for information science is to naturalize the semantic content of information."
-- A Dynamical Model of the Meaning of Information,” BioSystems, 1996

Enjoy ;-).

Keith Buhler said...

Your snark notwithstanding, I was hoping you might go on to say about more about how computational science and artificial intelligence is supposed to refute Dr. Barham's point that biological systems are fundamentally different from non-biological systems -- and that this difference is empirically verifiable? (Self-regulation, self-organization, self-movement, etc.)

I am reading Barham's dissertation and it is quite good.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Basketball is fundamentally different from baseball. English is fundamentally different from German. Turing machines are fundamentally different from finite automata.

What's the point?

Any idiot can see that biological systems are different from non-biological systems. But the difference arises precisely because of their origin through the process of imperfect reproduction, not because of anything more mysterious than that.

Unknown said...

I've never heard of an organism with a user's manual, unless you consider a man and his bible as such.

Steve Watson said...

Considered as a user manual, the Bible is a *lousy* piece of technical writing: Lots of irrelevant narrative diversions, no enumerated procedural instructions (no, the Ten Commandments aren't a procedural sequence, they're more in the character of cautionary warnings), and an imprecision that has allowed multiple incompatible readings to arise and circulate.

Unknown said...

All true, and the one living soul that nonetheless can make sense of it all didn't need these instructions in the first place.

Keith Buhler said...

Thanks for the reply, Jeffrey.

You said that "the difference [between biological and non-biological systems] arises... because of their origin through the process of imperfect reproduction."

If I may push back, my question is this: what is the difference between biological and non-biological systems? Answering with a statement about their origin seems a non-answer that that question in particular.

The answer I am looking for is a property that one has but the other doesn't. For example, if you asked me the difference between ethics and metaphysics, it would be no good to answer, "one arose in China and the other arose in Greece." I would have to give you a distinguishing feature that one has but the other doesn't. Something like: "Ethical arguments aim to provide reason to do or not do φ; metaphysical arguments aim to provide reason to believe or not believe π" may not be the right answer but it is the right kind of answer.

So what distinguishing property is it that any idiot can see?

I've already offered a set: self-regulation, self-organization, self-movement, etc. But I'm curious if you think it's same properties or different ones that are so obvious, or how you would articulate and name those properties.

Thanks again for the interesting post, and for the follow up. I'll contact Dr. Barham and let him know we are discussing his work.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Why do you think their origin is not a property?

If I ask you what the difference between a German car and an American car is, and I answer, "One was built in Germany and the other in America", why is that not an answer?

I see no reason why "self-regulation" and "self-movement" need be a property of living systems. After all, some living systems hardly move at all. And "self-organization" seems so vague as to be useless.