Naturalizing Teleology and Intentionality? (Must Nature Be “Disenchanted”?)

Over the past year or so, two very interesting books in the philosophy of nature have attracted attention outside of the ultra-rarefied world of academic discourse: Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  Both of these works have been extensively discussed in popular magazines, radio shows, blogs, and esp. at Uncommon Descent.  Here, I want to briefly describe what I see going on here and open up the topic for critical discussion.

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Some thoughts on causality

I have been enjoying a lengthy debate with Stephenb on causality (Lizzie also contributing brilliantly). It has made me think about causality a bit more deeply. Here are a few loosely connected ideas for comment:

  • We should be wary of making causality into an unnecessary philosophical mystery. To say A causes B is just another way of saying that if A had not happened then B would not have happened. The way we investigate if A causes B experimentally is exactly this – we remove A and see if B still happens, we bring back A and see if B returns.The detail will vary immensely form one situation to another – A and B might be billiard balls moving, A might be a magnetic field coming on and B iron filings aligning, A might be the French revolution and B the rise of Napoleon – but whatever the detail that is the story. If I observe a white ball run into a red ball and the red ball moves then I can see that if the white ball had not run into the red ball would have not have moved.  There isn’t another metaphysical attribute of the event to be deduced – the causal relationship. This is an example of “language bewitching our intelligence” into thinking we need to find something which a word refers to.
  • The law of causality is a methodological tool not a law of logic. The assumption that every event has a cause is methodologically extremely useful. It drives us to investigate the circumstances under which things happen. But it is logically possible that we may find events that sometimes happen and sometimes do not and there are no circumstances that dictate when they happen. This is what appears to have happened in quantum mechanics.


  • The assumption that every contingent thing that comes into existence was brought into existence by something seems to be plucked out of the air.  Among other things “coming into being”, as Lizzie has pointed out, for most things is just a rearrangement of elementary particles and as such is just another event which may or may not have a cause. We are perhaps confused by dwelling on objects with very clear boundaries in time and space such as living creatures or manufactured objects such as balloons. It becomes clearer that there is nothing special from a causality point of view about coming into existence when we  think about fuzzier objects such as mountains and rivers.

“Naturalism” and “Rationality”

At Uncommon Descent — though not only there! — one often come across the view that naturalism is inconsistent with rationality: if one accepts naturalism, then one ought not regard one’s own rational capacities as reliable.   Some version of this view is ascribed to Darwin himself, and we can call it “Darwin’s Doubt” or simply “the Doubt.”   Should we endorse the Doubt?  Or are there reasons for doubting the Doubt?

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AI Skepticism

In another thread, Patrick asked:

If it’s on topic for this blog, I’d be interested in an OP from you discussing why you think strong AI is unlikely.

I’ve now written a post on that to my own blog.  Here I will summarize, and perhaps expand a little on what I see as the main issues.

As you will see from the post at my blog, I don’t have a problem with the idea that we could create an artificial person.  I see that as possible, at least in principle, although it will likely turn out to be very difficult.  My skepticism about AI, is because I see computation as too limited.

I see two problems for AI.  The first is a problem of directionality or motivation or purpose, while the second is a problem with data.


Interestingly Patrick’s message, where he asked for this thread, contained a picture of Spock from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek character, Spock was known to be very logical and not at all emotional.  That’s what I think you get with computation.  However, as I see it, something like emotions are actually needed.  They are what would give an artificial person some sense of direction.

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A Question for those that doubt Common Descent

Recent posts by Sal remind me that there are some intelligent educated people who doubt Common Descent.  What I don’t understand what they think the alternative is. Put simply I take Common Descent as the position that :

* At one time there was only very simple unicellular life on earth (this is not a debate about how that unicellular life originated)

* Complex life forms (eukaryotes) are created by slight modifications from other life forms (which are their parents). We have never observed them being created any other way!

* All complex life forms are the descended from a very small number of simple life forms – quite possibly just one.

The alternatives I can imagine are:

* Complex life descended many different times from simple life forms – so e.g. mammals descended from a different simple life form from fish. This flies in the face of the fossil record and the hierarchical nature of complex life but I can sort of understand it.

* Complex life from time to time gives birth to wholly different species – massively implausible.

* Complex life is created anew by some process never imagined or observed – even more implausible but presumably what Young Earth creationists believe.

But maybe there is another option?

If Sal or someone could explain I would be interested.

Kairosfocus and his son

At UD, kairosfocus writes:

I have a son, now on his way to major medical intervention overseas in light of recent developments, of such delicacy that the difference between success and devastating failure is literally 1/8 of an inch.

Accordingly, I request prayers for the proverbial guidance of the final diagnosis and surgical interventions and follow up care that lie ahead; also, for the logistical details connected therewith.


Though I can’t in sincerity offer my prayers, I do offer my heartfelt and earnest wishes and hopes for your son’s successful treatment and speedy recovery. I’m sure others here at TSZ do as well.

Please keep us posted on your son’s progress.

More on split brains and souls

The immaterial soul, at least as most theists conceive of it, does not exist.  There is an abundance of evidence for this assertion, but I have focused recently (both here and at UD) on observations of split-brain patients in particular.

split head

My argument, in a nutshell, is that split-brain patients have two minds in one skull.  The left hemisphere can believe, know, desire, choose, and act on things separately from the right hemisphere, and vice-versa.  Since theists typically attribute these characteristics to the soul, they can only conclude that there are two souls in each split-brain patient – or more sensibly, that the unified soul was a fiction all along.

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The Myth of Absolute Certainty

I was banned from Uncommon Descent this morning for reasons unknown (though here is a plausible hypothesis). At the time of my banning, I was in the midst of a long discussion of absolute certainty and whether it can rationally be claimed. Since I can’t continue the discussion at UD, I’ll start a thread here instead and solicit the opinions of the very smart locals here at TSZ.

The question is whether there we can be absolutely certain of anything. I am not speaking of absolute certainty in the colloquial sense (“I’m absolutely certain I left the keys on the counter!”), but in the precise sense of 100.0% (unrounded) certainty, with literally no possibility at all of error — not even a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent chance of error.

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The Blind Watchbreaker would dispose of lunches even if they were free — mootness of anti-NFL arguments

[cross posted at UD: The Blind Watchbreaker would dispose of lunches even if they were free — mootness of anti-NFL arguments]

Our colleague Elizabeth Liddle has described the process of human design as trial and error, tinkering and iteration. Like Dawkins, she has argued nature (like human designers) is able to construct biological designs via trial and error, tinkering and iteration. However, when nature is properly compared and contrasted with the way humans go about creating designs, it is apparent Dawkins’ claim of a blind watchmaker is false.

I refer to Elizabeth’s description because she articulated some aspects of the blind watchmaker hypothesis better than Dawkins, but in so doing actually helped highlight why Dawkins’ blind watchmaker is refuted by the evidence.

[this is a follow up post to Selection falsely called a mechanism when it should be called an outcome]
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I think I just found an even bigger eleP(T|H)ant….

I just checked out Seth Lloyd’s paper, Computational Capacity of the Universe,  and find, interestingly (although I now remember that this has been mentioned before), that his upper limit on the number of possible operations is 10^120 (i.e. 400 bits) rather than 10^150 (the more generous 500 bits usually proposed by Dembski).  However, what I also found was that his calculation was based  on the volume of the universe within the particle horizon, which he defines as:

…the boundary between the part of the universe about which we could have obtained information over the course of the history of the universe and the part about which we could not.

In other words, that 400 bit limit is only for the region of the universe observable by us, which we know pretty well for sure must be a minor fraction of the total. However, it seems that a conservative lower limit on the proportion of the entire universe that is within the particle horizon is 250, and could be as much as 10^23, so that 400 bit limit needs to be raised to at least 100,000, and possibly very much more.

Which rather knocks CSI out of the water, even if we assume that P(T|H) really does represent the entire independent random draw configuration space, and is the “relevant chance hypothesis” for life.


But I’m no cosmologist – any physicist like to weigh in?

cross posted at UD

What theists don’t understand about atheists


I so often find that people who reject “atheist materialism” seem convinced that scientists are engaged in a desperate effort avert their gaze from the evidence that would force them to confront the truth that they fear: that there is a God who will Judge Us. Often they seem remarkably impervious to evidence of the seriousness with which many atheists treated their religion, and the reluctance with which they rejected it. One of the things that has opened my eyes during internet discussions over the last few years is the number of atheists, including atheist scientists, who were actually committed YECs for many of their younger years.

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Configuration and Configurational Entropy

From Wiki:

In statistical mechanics, configuration entropy is the portion of a system’s entropy that is related to the position of its constituent particles rather than to their velocity or momentum. It is physically related to the number of ways of arranging all the particles of the system while maintaining some overall set of specified system properties, such as energy. The configurational entropy is also known as microscopic entropy or conformational entropy in the study of macromolecules. In general, configurational entropy is the foundation of statistical thermodynamics.[1]

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C14 Dating of Dinosaur Bones

Jean De Pontcharra, a Phd in Physics, has a presentation for creationist conferences entitled “Is Radiocarbon dating reliable?”

De Pontcharra and a colleague got hold of some dinosaur bones and decided to date them with C14. This was reported at Uncommon Descent. Could someone who knows something about science spot the error? Bueller? Cordova?

So why did Pontcharra do what he did? Why has this been reported in various places on the web as evidence of a young Earth?

On a charitable interpretation, the best we can say about this story is that ID has always been plagued by gross incompetence.

An uncomplicated mind might conclude that the Intelligent Design movement is all about creationist propaganda for the uneducated and uninquisitive.

Is ‘Darwinism’ Science or Ideology or Both or Neither?

Recently, Neil Rickert wrote to me:

“To me, the technical distinction between “Darwinian” and “Darwinism” is that “Darwinian” is a adjective while “Darwinism” is a noun.

Please start a separate thread to help clear this up.”

Similarly, this post was added recently at UD and has generated some feedback from TSZers who dialogue there:

“Everyone now knows that Darwinism, adn [sic] its parent materialism, are ridiculous, but for some people they are the only possible position. Those people would abandon the follies in an instant if they could just come up with a reliably non-theistic alternative. Meantime, the public face of Darwinism is dominated by anti-religious fanatics and self-condemned trolls. That is a key reason we can dispense with any notion that Darwinism is some kind of a science. A real science offers few attractions for such types.” – Denyse O’Leary

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The ID explanation is too easy to vary

I like David Deutsch’s description of explanations (I think it comes from him): a good explanation is hard to vary.

An explanation says that some particular settings of claimed causes best explain some observed pattern in nature.

An explanation is likely to be good if other settings of the proposed causes predict a different pattern from what we observe – it is hard to vary the settings and still explain things as they actually are.

To make it concrete, a particular setting of gravity (acceleration of 32 feet/sec/sec) at the surface of the Earth explains the pattern we see when apples fall off trees. Any other setting of gravity would not yield the pattern we actually observe. The explanation is hard to vary and still explain the observed results.

An explanation is likely to be bad if a wide range of settings of the cause(s) can be chosen and the resulting pattern remains the same.

The basic argument of intelligent design is that there is a cause (the Intelligent Designer) for the observed pattern of life. Any number of other, subsidiary causes may be involved, but it is impossible for the diversity of life to have arisen without the intervention of an intelligent designer.

How should we assess this explanation? Look at the settings. As Daniel Dennett advises, twiddle with the causal knobs. What do we find in the intelligent design explanation?

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Assume the IDers are right.

When we look at designed objects we can often tell a lot about the designers. For example, if we look at medical tools, fluffy teddies and cellos, we can see that the designers are compassionate and Value music. When we look at iron maidens and racks, we can see they have a sadistic streak.

Look at life on earth and assume it is designed, what can we tell about the designer?