Friday, October 9, 2009

Navy Takes on Rice in PAPER FOOTBALL!

Another oldie-but-goodie spirit spot from 2005. That year Navy routed the Owls 41 - 9.

Let's hope for a similar performance. Rice went a' bowling last year, and even though they are 0-5 this year, and have been outscored by an average of 25 points this season, Navy should enter the game with no assumptions.

Go Navy! Fry Rice! Bill the Goat loves to eat uncooked whole grain rice, and the box it came in.

Final score? Navy 28 Rice 17

Chance, Design, Function and Complexity: Improbability stacked upon improbability?

An interesting point made by William Dembski and Stephen Meyer, two ID guys:

Chance and Design

Of these two possible explanations of the origin of life, chance is considerably less likely to have brought about the complex information and machine system of DNA, RNA and proteins that mediate the life process, in the amount of time that Earth has been in existence.

The reason they propose, is this:

The basic molecular building blocks of that system can be combined in many ways that do not accomplish what DNA and cells accomplish. The functional combinations, being but very few denizens in a vast sea of potential combinations, (logical and physical possibilities) are too unlikely to have been brought about by what is essentially chance operation of natural laws.

So, even granted some sort of gradual build-up of today’s DNA/Cellular machine-complex from simpler progenitors, it is demonstrable, via some probability calculus, that the probability is vanishingly small given the time allotted. The event most likely did not happen in the amount of time the universe has ‘given’ such random processes to do business.

When you consider the few combinations that do function, you are not only looking at a large statistical improbability of those particular combinations, but you also see that they are wedded to functionality. Those particular combinations do something. Dembski is very impressed by this 'wedding' of improbability and function.

Very much like Paley, Dembski argues that the combination of these two features in organisms should push us to seek explanations other than the pre-biotic Earth lottery. The combination pushes us this way in every other area of human inquiry. In fact, any time we are confronted with this combination of high improbability and functionality, we immediately infer that, of the competing explanations, agent based explanations are the most likely. The Rosetta stone is a case in point.

Now, Hume would probably say that we leap in that direction in such cases as the Rosetta Stone only because we have previous experience of human beings doing the sorts of arrangements or modifications of the very sort of natural objects that we find, whereas there is in this case of molecular machinery significant disanalogy in precisely that regard.

We did not, until recently, witness human beings arranging or modifying amino acids, genetic materials, etc. with certain end states in mind. True, we can still agree with Hume that no human has ever witnessed anything like an intelligence fiddling around with molecules in the distant past, but we can no-longer say that we cannot witness things like this in the present. So, it is open to us to point out to Hume that we take away at least some of the force of his objection the further such genetic nano-technology advances.

For, we often analogically reason, or infer from present instances of intelligent activity, to similar events in the past that we have not witnessed, and for which we have no eyewitness reports. Consider the Rosetta Stone, Stonehenge, Clovis points, the Nazca lines, and hundreds of similar cases. In each case we know of human beings that now create similar things. The similarities to these ancient cases are obvious and straightforward. So, we make the inference that the best explanation, the most likely explanation of these objects we find in our environment, is an agent based explanation, given that the non-agent based, naturalistic explanations that are the main competitors, look to be very implausible. Dembski asks: Why can we not make similar retrodictive inferences in the case of molecular machines?

Let me explain with an analogy that Stephen Meyer uses:

Consider this string of letters (ignoring the spaces and punctuation mark just for simplicity’s sake):

tta hme ct in oet tah.

Consider drawing individual letters from the 26 letter English alphabet from a hat, each time placing the letter back, before you draw again. You can calculate the probability of drawing just that string of letters in that order. It will be very low. For each draw you have a 1 in 26 chance of drawing that specific letter. Doing the math, you have a highly improbable event. Considering all possible combinations of 16 letters of the English alphabet, you can see it is very unlikely.

Now, all the possible combinations or strings of 16 letters of the 26, picked in this way, can be laid out in a table. There are 26^16 such strings. That is: 479,615,345,916,448,342,016. So the table would have to be huge. (Remember here that I’m conveniently ignoring the spaces and punctuation marks. Add those puppies in, and that number is larger.)

If you set about reading these strings, besides exhibiting infinite patience, and demonstrating that you have a lot of time on your hands, you will see that most of them amount to nothing. Some small sample of them will actually SAY something in English.

So, let’s say you draw that string of letters from the hat. Should you be shocked? No. Improbable events like this happen every day. We don't invoke a designer to explain them.

Suppose you happen upon the combination of letters, perhaps on a table in an empty classroom, written on a sheet of paper. Alongside sit a pencil and a hat, containing the letters on small cards. You would probably infer that some sort of random drawing had occurred and someone recorded the results.

OK. Now consider this set, composed of just those same letters:

the cat is on the mat.

This string is equally as unlikely, in the sheer combinatorial sense, but it also has the additional feature of functionality. It specifies a sentence of English, carries a meaning.

The situation with the building blocks of DNA (nucleic acids and such) is a bit like this latter sentence, but involves much larger improbabilities. You must take into account not only the possible combinations of the four base pairs, but, the arrangements of these combinations along the double-helix spine in millions of places, slots or steps along that ladder. There are many more possible sequences of these amino acid base pairs than there are letters of the alphabet. A vast majority of such sequences, like our first string of letters, don't do anything at all. Only a very few sequences of the many that are logically and physically possible are also functional, and can code for and build organisms from materials found in their environs, or brought into the environs. If Meyers' math is correct, (and I am in no position to make a determination on this) the chances that functional cell-building, self-replicating sequences having occurred by chance are vanishingly small, even given the age of Earth.

Whenever we see things that are both highly improbable, and which function, we normally infer that the activity of intelligence is the best explanation for the existence of those things. That's the point of Dembski's Rushmore example. Yes, such shapes could have come into being by chance erosion etc... But the functionality points to an intelligence as being the most likely explanation, given the low probabilities and limited amount of time within which random processes can operate.

Returning to our hypothetical empty classroom: Suppose you walk in, see written upon the sheet of paper our second sentence, and by that sheet, the pencil, and the hat full of letters. What would you likely infer? I believe that your first inference would be that someone wrote the sentence, not as a record of the results of a drawing, but perhaps as a target for a drawing, or you may not even consider that there was a drawing, but that the person simply had intentionally written this sentence of English for some purpose, probably pedagogical, given the setting. It would be unlikely that you would first infer that someone had by chance drawn and then recorded just that sequence of letters. In fact, if someone was to suggest that possibility, you would probably say something like ‘OK, I grant that it is possible, but I don’t take that possibility seriously.’

Why? To be clear, it’s a function of time allowed for random processes to bring about such functional or significant results, and the plausibility of agent based explanations as competing explanations to naturalistic explanations.

Returning to the sentence in the classroom example, let’s generously assume that someone set about using the random drawing method to generate the meaningful sequence. For each draw of 16, the chance of hitting the jackpot is 1 in 479615345916448342016. Now, suppose also that we make a 16 character draw once a second. Suppose that we do pick a total of 479615345916448342016 times. We can expect, so probability calculus tells us, to draw the magic combo once in that set of draws.

But, let’s suppose we manage to hit it big exactly halfway through our draws. How long has it taken? 23907672958224171008 seconds, or approximately 7,604,251,425,616 years. So, roughly 7.6 trillion years. The universe is a mere 14 billion years old. So, if I were to seriously consider the random drawing hypothesis, with these parameters, I would dismiss it as an unlikely explanation after having calculated these things. I would conclude that the more likely hypothesis for the origin of these marks on this sheet of paper is that a literate speaker of English wrote them down. Notice, things don’t improve all that much if I assume a faster rate of speed, in line with computer technology, for the random picking mechanism. Suppose that it can pick 1000 16 letter combos a second, and that the lottery hits the jackpot halfway through the process. Now it takes 758,107,336 years. 758 million years. Once again, I’m forced by that immense number, to take that candidate explanation as remotely possible, given what I know about the age of the university!

But, suppose I take into account that there are other 16 letter meaningful sentences of English, say (and this is a guess folks) fully 1/10 of the total number of combinations. Maybe a random process generated one of this set? Is that really too much to expect? Then, if my math is correct, it would take only 75.8 million years to hit one of these targets. Once again, unlikely given what I know about the age of the human race, and random number generators, even the low tech draw-from-a-hat kind.

So, given that natural processes here on Earth are a sort of analogue to the random process in the classroom, it seems very implausible that those processes brought about the origin of life.

But, you might say, take a wider view, and things don’t look so implausible. Earth is but one planet of many billions and billions. Some significant number of those planets is going to be Earth like. So, if nature is uniform throughout the cosmos and the same sorts of processes are taking place on all of these planets, then perhaps there has been enough time for random processes to have generated life.

Working with our sentence analogy, the situation is much more like this: Instead of there being only one room and one lottery going on, there are lotteries going on in every room of every university on the planet. So, even though it looks very surprising from my point of view, in that single room at that single university, that there be a meaningful string of letters on that sheet of paper, and I thus conclude that they were written by a literate English speaker, nevertheless taking the broader perspective, if I were to be taken on a guided tour of all the rooms, all the ongoing lotteries, I should really not be surprised to find one of them that has generated a sentence. This is the essence of what is called “the anthropic principle.” We find ourselves very surprising, and improbable creatures, when considered via a narrow point of view (our own planet’s history) but are perhaps quite likely to have come into being via random processes when viewed from the totalizing point of view.

Dembski and Meyer have answers to this objection. They go to great pains to use this assumption of the whole- universe lottery, and demonstrate that even then, when considering the DNA molecule, the situation is still more like the one-room lottery than the thousands-of-rooms lottery. In essence they say that even granting the large number of lotteries, it is still extremely unlikely that there has been enough time to generate the functional molecules of life even once by that process. The mathematics gets complex, and is quite frankly beyond my laymen’s ken, but needless to say, this is a fascinating discussion.

Additionally, I think you can say this: Even granted the many lottery view, the draws from those other lotteries do not help my lottery along. They do not affect any sort of increase in its rate of making drawing. Here on Earth, or here in my one room, the drawings are still only going on at the slower rate. So, it is still damn surprising, and extremely unlikely that I have these results right here and right now, results that are amazing to me.

Now, I’ve got to stop. My brain hurts.