Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Divine Materialism

I've been reading the articles for the Institute for the Study of Nature's Summer Seminar. Certainly one of the most provocative that I've read so far is "Protein Folds as Platonic Forms," a 2002 paper by New Zealanders Michael Denton, Craig Marshall, and Michael Legge.

The article begins with an historical overview: biologists before Darwin believed organic forms to be eternal givens of nature: "Form came first and function was viewed as a secondary and derived adaptive feature" (326).

In contrast, the Darwinians (ironically) adopted Paley's watch metaphor: the organism as a machine, i.e., contingent order imposed from without. While the creationists emphasized God's work in imposing order on matter, the Darwinists replaced the Divine Designer with chance mutation and natural selection.

It's difficult to imagine a proto-lifeform reproducing itself before the cell, so chance locked in by reproduction isn't plausible in the case of life's original coming-to-be (the progenitor of the first cell):

The only area of modern biology where a strong deterministic and naturalistic element is still evident is the ‘‘origin of life’’ with many researchers viewing life’s origin as an inevitable and determined end of planetary and cosmic evolution (Kenyon & Steinman, 1969; Lehninger, 1982; De Duve, 1991; Morowitz et al., 2000; Sowerby et al., 2001). (329-330)

The Denton group's project is to extend this determinism beyond the origin of life, to show that the forms of proteins are determined by the natural laws of physics and chemistry, and not by the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and selection:

Here we argue that in another important area of modern biology, one related to the origin of life, that involves the evolution and origin of one of the most important classes of complex biological forms—the basic protein folds — the pre-Darwinian concept of organic forms as ‘‘built-in’’ intrinsic features of nature determined by natural law provides a more powerful explanatory framework than its selectionist successor.1 (330)

The data show that proteins folds come in only about 1000 different natural kinds. These forms are determined from within, not from outside by the contingent choice of an intelligence or natural selection. In other words, the folding motions of proteins are natural to their materials, not artificially or violently imposed.

So you can see where this is going, I'll cut to the "money quote" from further on in the paper:

For the lawful nature of the [protein] folds provides for the first time evidence that the laws of nature may not only be fine tuned to generate an environment fit for life (the stage) but may also be fine tuned to generate the organic forms (the actors) as well, in other words that the cosmos may be even more biocentric than is currently envisaged! (338)

In other words, matter is pre-determined to bring forth life; the living order of the universe was front-loaded.

More Details

There's a lot more in this paper to recommend it, much more than I can capture in a single post. Here's a great quotation: "Natural forms are robust, contingent artificial forms are fragile." (333) The authors contrast a polypeptide's natural gravitation to its energy minimum with the contigent order of a watch or a Lego construction. While a perturbed natural form settles back into its minimum like a marbel settles into the bottom of a bowl, a perturbed artificial form usually loses its function.

The authors also note that that protein forms have a degree of independence from what they're made of:

The fact that in many cases where the same fold is adapted to different functions, no trace of homology [sameness] can be detected in the amino acid sequences [that compose it], suggesting multiple separate discoveries of the same basic structure during the course of evolution, further reinforces the conclusion that the folds are a finite set of ahistoric physical forms. (332)

This manifests what Robert Laughlin calls "protection": that the behavior of macro-phenomenon is unaffected by its particular micro-dynamics.

A Telling Contrast

It's interesting to contrast this conclusion with the divided Intelligent Design approach of Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in The Privileged Planet. Gonzalez and Richards tried to show that while the universe is "fine-tuned for life and discovery," life's organization didn't arise by necessity. They are walking a fine line: on the one hand, they want to show how God created the world to be good for life, but on the other hand, they don't want life to be the natural outcome of creation: "for a pattern to reliably indicate design, it will need to be relatively independent of the event or structure in question" (299).

But why do they trouble to walk this line? A passage from the book explains their fear:

Objection 13: You haven't really challenged naturalism. You've just challenged the idea that nature doesn't exhibit purpose or design.

It's possible to be both a naturalist and to admit design in nature. In fact, in the ancient world, both Aristotelians and Stoics did just that. Perhaps, for instance, design is somehow an inextricable part of an eternal cosmos, like matter and energy. We can't conclusively rule this out. The problem in our modern setting is that this strategy would require an essentially pantheistic view of nature that most naturalists deny. A cosmos that includes design and purpose—as well as chance, matter, and natural law—is quite different from "nature" as most modern naturalists understand it.

So they're afraid of "pantheism." Notice that they don't and can't rule out what they call "pantheism"; they just say that it's not a concern in today's world. It's unfortunate that they're too busy responding to exigent concerns to look more deeply into the full truth of the matter.2 And of course, pantheism is basically what Carl Sagan's Cosmos advocates, albeit without an explicit belief in purpose or design3. Furthermore, why do they oppose design and purpose with natural law? Doesn't natural law express purpose? The second paragraph of the passage is a little better, but still goes astray:

Moreover, current Big Bang cosmology discourages the view that the cosmos is eternal, which is necessary if design is coextensive with matter, time, and natural law (note also that law is not iself a material entity, nor is it a causal agent). A causal agent that somehow transcends the cosmos is a much more natural explanation for the Big Bang and the resulting physical universe we know than are purely immanent patterns of design. But either is a better explanation than the currently popular view that the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever shall be [opening line of Sagan's Cosmos!], and that chance and impersonal necessity exclusively explain its existence. (329, emphasis added)

The first sentence about law not being a causal agent is excellent. The highlighted sentence, on the other hand, shows a profound ignorance of philosophy. The use of the word "natural" is wrong on a couple levels. First, nature is an immanent source of motion and rest. Second, they make it sound as if God were a natural agent, when the whole philosophical point of invoking God is that the Existence of everything requires a source in a Agent that derives its Being from nothing else—in other words, a cause so completely unlike the changing world we see because it doesn't receive its being or motion from outside itself. Of course they're using "natural" loosely to mean reasonable. They fail to realize that even if the universe is eternal and all of its order completely immanent, it still requires a God to explain that order, as well as the existence of the universe in general. Philosophically speaking, the God (of the philosophers, not necessarily of revelation) is the only explanation possible.

In sum, ID proponents are afraid of pantheism, though it's not clear that they even understand what it is well enough to distinguish it from natural law, or purpose and design for that matter.


Three different views discussed here can be separated by the source of order:
1. From chance (Darwinism)
2. From intenvention by an intelligent agent (ID)
3. From within (Denton, et al.)

As we've already seen, all three of these require an Intelligent Designer, one who truly transcends nature. The ID folks are afraid of attributing too much self-organization to nature because they are frightened of pantheism—as if God wouldn't have to be responsible for whatever order the universe has through whatever mechanism! Contrary to the ID claim, there is no opposition between intelligence and law; laws require a Lawgiver. Contrary to the Darwinist claim, "chance" operates according to a law, which also requires an intelligence.

As Francis Bacon wrote so wisely in one of his Essays, "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." It is only the philosophical ignorance of the Darwinists that allows them to claim that chance obviates the need for God. The irony is that the ID approach feeds off this philosophical ignorance that "inclineth man's mind to atheism."

The Darwinists deny that God is necessary to make the "watch" of creation (Hence Dawkins's blind watchmaker). The ID crowd repudiates the deniers, but in doing so, they've imbibed the atheistic materialists' rather diminutive definition of God: a god who doesn't so much create matter as manipulate already existent matter.

When it comes down to it, it's impossible to devise a scientific scenario that doesn't need a Creator (science can't say anything about Being in itself). Intelligent design says that the order in the universe that can't be attributed to chance or law should really be attributed to an Intelligent Designer (God). There's nothing wrong with this belief in itself, but by denying that God can work through chance or law it sections off an unnecessarily small territory for theism—a territory that actual experience of the world seems to be chipping away.

The work of Michael Denton and his collaborators shows that at least some of the order of living things is native to the matter that constitutes them. Science cannot speak to the ultimate source of this order, but natural philosophy tells us that the source cannot be natural, but what men call God.


1. I've omitted references from this and all subsequent quotations.

2. It is sad that an organization like Discovery Institute with such a noble purpose tends to take such short-sighted approaches.

3. There's actually a whole Wikipedia discussion on Sagan and pantheism.

Michael J. Denton, Craig J. Marshall and Michael Legge, "Protein Folds as Platonic Forms," Journal of Theoretical Biology 219 (2002), 325–342

Michael J. Denton, et al., "Physical law not natural selection as the major determinant of biological complexity in the subcellular realm," BioSystems 71 (2003), 297-303.

Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004).

Note: Next week I'll be traveling. I don't know what my network access will be like, but I may be unable to post.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Brownback on Faith and Reason

In case you missed it, Senator Brownback wrote an excellent op-ed in the New York Times. The piece is called "What I Think About Evolution" and the Senator has an appropriately thoughtful take on the subject. But I think especially good the first couple paragraphs on the lack of thought in the current debate on the issue (and in our media culture in general):

In our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not 'believe' in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and [young earth] creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

It's also worth noting the superb job the Senator does defending the value of the human person against the materialism implicit in so much Darwinian propaganda1. This erroneous philosophy cuts directly against the notion of human rights, as Walker Percy describes so well in this selection.

1. Stephen M. Barr points out in First Things (e.g., this article, which requires a subscription to access) that Darwinism need not be materialistic.

Sam Brownback, "What I Think About Evolution," New York Times (May 31, 2007).

Global Warming and "Scientific" Consensus

Michael Griffin, Administrator of NASA, is taking a load of flak for questioning in an NPR interview the "fact" that climate change is a bad thing. Here's a selection from the interview:

I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change. First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings.1 I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

Of course NPR paraded through a number of scientists to give the "correct" word and of course all of the scientists interviewed for the story disagreed with Griffin's evaluation. The firestorm that these remarks have stirred up signal a radical misunderstanding of science. Science only tells us about the world; it doesn't decide what's good and what's bad. Ethics and political philosophy tell us what's good and bad in human action, and the arts (in the broad sense) tell us what's good in production. The proper understanding of science as purely speculative (descriptional) is reflected in NASA's charter, as Griffin describes it:

Nowhere in NASA's authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I'm proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, battle climate change.

NASA's authorization is to do science, that is, only to tell us the actual fact of the matter, and not evaluate what's good or the bad. Scientists too easily forget that while as human beings (all of whom are implicitly philosophers) they can speak about the good and bad, when they do so, it is outside their expertise, and not as scientists. To claim special expertise in the good and the bad is like a lawyer claiming expertise in medicine.

Michael Crichton has been a consistent and articulate opponent of the global warming fad. His 2003 speech "Aliens Cause Global Warming" upholds his tradition. I recommend reading the full speech for his insightful words on climate change, but the remarks on "consensus science" are of particular interest to this forum, as they have much broader applicability:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of. Let's review a few cases.

In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth . One woman in six died of this fever. In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no. In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent "skeptics" around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women.

There is no shortage of other examples. In the 1920s in America, tens of thousands of people, mostly poor, were dying of a disease called pellagra. The consensus of scientists said it was infectious, and what was necessary was to find the "pellagra germ." The US government asked a brilliant young investigator, Dr. Joseph Goldberger, to find the cause. Goldberger concluded that diet was the crucial factor. The consensus remained wedded to the germ theory. Goldberger demonstrated that he could induce the disease through diet. He demonstrated that the disease was not infectious by injecting the blood of a pellagra patient into himself, and his assistant. They and other volunteers swabbed their noses with swabs from pellagra patients, and swallowed capsules containing scabs from pellagra rashes in what were called "Goldberger's filth parties." Nobody contracted pellagra. The consensus continued to disagree with him. There was, in addition, a social factor-southern States disliked the idea of poor diet as the cause, because it meant that social reform was required. They continued to deny it until the 1920s. Result-despite a twentieth century epidemic, the consensus took years to see the light.

Probably every schoolchild notices that South America and Africa seem to fit together rather snugly, and Alfred Wegener proposed, in 1912, that the continents had in fact drifted apart. The consensus sneered at continental drift for fifty years. The theory was most vigorously denied by the great names of geology-until 1961, when it began to seem as if the sea floors were spreading. The result: it took the consensus fifty years to acknowledge what any schoolchild sees.

And shall we go on? The examples can be multiplied endlessly. Jenner and smallpox, Pasteur and germ theory. Saccharine, margarine, repressed memory, fiber and colon cancer, hormone replacement therapy…the list of consensus errors goes on and on.

Finally, I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

But back to our main subject.

In other words, a lack of scientific evidence hides behind the plea of "consensus." "Consensus" tells us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, but (to mix media quotations) there is a truth out there and honesty demands we find it.


1. Of course one might wonder whether or not it's arrogant for people to decide virtually—as a by-product of their actions—what the climate will be, assuming the climate scare is apt.

"NASA Chief Questions Urgency of Global Warming," Morning Edition (May 31, 2007).

Michael Crichton, "Aliens Cause Global Warming" (Caltech, Pasadena, CA, January 17, 2003). (I emailed Crichton's rights department some time ago and never heard back. Silence implies consent, so I assume it's okay to reproduce part of his speech here.)