Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt: Still Unresolved?

I would like to begin by congratulating Kantian Naturalist on his recent post, Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt, which squarely faces the epistemological issues raised by Darwin and Wallace, regarding the reliability of human knowledge. In this post, I’d like to explain why I don’t think Kantian Naturalist’s statement of the problem quite gets it right, and why I believe the solution he puts forward is a flawed one.

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Solving Wallace’s Problem and Resolving Darwin’s Doubt

I want to consider, in light of fairly new philosophical and scientific research, two long-standing conceptual objections to evolutionary theory: Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt.

It is well-recognized that Wallace saw the need for some supernatural intelligence in explaining human evolution, in contrast to Darwin’s naturalistic speculations in Descent of Man. What is less recognized is that Wallace was, in an important sense, right. He squarely faced the problem, “can natural selection alone account for the unique cognitive abilities of human beings, such as abstract thought, self-consciousness, radical reshaping of the environment (e.g. clothing, building), collective self-governance by ethical norms, and the symbolic activities of art, religion, philosophy, mathematics, logic, and science?”  Whereas Darwin thought there was continuity between humans and non-human animals, his evidence is primarily amount emotional displays, rather than the genuinely cognitive discontinuity.

A closely related problem, however, was squarely faced by Darwin: the question, nicely phrased in his famous letter to Asa Gray, as to whether it is plausible to think that natural selection can have equipped a creature with a capacity for arriving at any objective truths about the world.  (It is not often noted that in that letter, Darwin says that he believes in an intelligent creator — what is in doubt is whether natural selection gives him reasons to trust in his cognitive abilities.)

These two questions, Wallace’s Problem and Darwin’s Doubt, are two sides of the same coin: if natural selection (along with other biological processes) cannot account for the uniquely human ability to grasp objective truths about reality, then we must either reject naturalism (as Wallace did) or question our ability to grasp objective truths about reality (as Darwin did).

Call this the Cognitive Dilemma for Naturalism. Can it be solved? If so, how?

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Jeff Lowder presents one of the strongest rebuttals against theism, and cases for naturalism I have so far seen

Jeff Lowder of The Secular Outpost debated Frank Turek 22nd september in Kansas. From this debate (video is not available yet), Jeff has compiled a narrated presentation of his powerpoint slides used in the debate, which I think now amounts to one of the strongest cases for naturalism and against the type of theism offered by the likes of William Lane Craig, I have seen to date.

It is long but if you are interested in this sort of thing, it is definitely worth a watch:

John Harshman thinks Nilsson Pilger’s fairytale on eye evolution is science?

In an early post John, who wants to be called doctor, urged readers to take a look at a little paper by Dan Nilsson and Suzanne Pilger. He says it is a good conceptual example of how natural selection acting on variation can gradually create a new feature.

Gee, that must be quite a paper.  He says it can’t be beat!  So what does their paper actually show?  The paper is called , “A Pessimistic Estimate of the Time Required for an Eye to Evolve.” Well, that does sound interesting! Continue reading

Axe, EN&W and protein sequence space (again, again, again)

So I wanted to write a post on the whole “density of functional proteins in amino acid sequence space” because, it seems to me, most ID proponents have some completely unwarranted beliefs about it. Recently it seems the main champion of the idea that evolving new protein functions would be so unlikely as to be practically impossible for evolution, even given several billion years, planet-spanning population sizes and natural selection, is Douglas Axe. He produced a paper in an (actual) peer reviewed journal back in 2004, and ID creationists have been spinning it ever since.

In 2007 a review of Axe 2004 appeared on Panda’s Thumb, by Arthur Hunt: Axe (2004) and the evolution of enzyme function. It recaps what Axe actually did and what he concluded from it, and I will add a bit about how it’s been pushed in ID circles since (see for example how it is pushed here: Imagine: 60 Million Proteins in One Cell Working Together.

This paper is interesting because it relates to the work of Douglas Axe that resulted in a paper in the Journal of Molecular Biology in 2004. Axe answered questions about this paper earlier this year, and also mentioned it in his recent book Undeniable (p. 54). In the paper, Axe estimated the prevalence of sequences that could fold into a functional shape by random combinations. It was already known that the functional space was a small fraction of sequence space, but Axe put a number on it based on his experience with random changes to an enzyme. He estimated that one in 10^74 sequences of 150 amino acids could fold and thereby perform some function — any function.

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Is evolution smarter than you are?

Evolutionists are fond of citing Orgel’s Second Rule: “Evolution is smarter than you are.” I have previously expressed skepticism about this rule (see here and here), but I’ve had no success in persuading people with a naturalistic metaphysical outlook. Yesterday, however, I came across a LiveScience article by Tia Glose titled, The Spooky Secret Behind Artificial Intelligence’s Incredible Power (October 9, 2016), which might prove to be a game-changer. We’ll see.

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Over-egging the case for protein design

Recently, I was browsing through the latest posts over at Evolution News and Views, and an anonymous article titled, Imagine: 60 Million Proteins in One Cell Working Together, caught my eye. By now, most readers at TSZ will be aware that I consider it overwhelmingly likely that the first living thing was designed. However, I’m also highly critical of attempts to over-egg the case for intelligent design. The article I read was one such attempt: it contained some unfortunate errors and omissions.

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How to think about science.

The physicist Arthur Zajonc provides us with his view of science that gives me hope for the future

Science can lead us away from reality into abstractions. It is too easy for the model to take over from the reality it is supposed to represent. The lived experience of the phenomenal world often takes a back seat. Zajonc gives us a couple of examples where the model dominates. The genetic code is one, and the neuroscience of the brain as a representative of the mind is another. If we are not careful our models become idols and the living reality is forgotten.

From a radio documentary featuring Arthur Zajonc he gives his views on Goethe’s science:

If you look at the actual practice that he undertakes it is I think faithful to the core principles of science, namely, it is empirically grounded, it proceeds from one methodical experience to the next, and it comes to a kind of insight, a moment of aperçu, of discovery.

He thinks that all good science proceeds in the way Goethe describes. It begins with insight. An example of which is Newton connecting a falling apple with the movement of the moon.
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