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Frankston on Gilder and the bcell curve

Bob comments on George Gilder’s promotion of the “intelligent design” idea in an interesting interview with Gilder in the Boston Globe yesterday. (My take on the article was simply that Gilder has made an admirable career out of being wrong in public.) Bob says that bell curves look like they were intelligently designed, too, but as the famous exhibit at the 1964 Worlds Fair shows every time it’s run — I was there and I remember it — when you drop balls down a set of pegs, you get a bell curve every time.

Bob’s right, IMO, but his example isn’t going to cut the mustard with someone like Gilder who comes to the intelligent design conclusion not on the basis of faith. (Those who get there by faith can only be moved from it by another faith.) Gilder et al. point to far more complex examples than balls forming bell curves. In fact, the entire argument rests on finding examples so complex that they seem impossible without an intelligent designer. So, Bob’s tactic of finding something simple to understand that looks intentional but isn’t can’t work on ID believers, for they will always be able to find an example of something complex for which we don’t yet have an explanation.

Here’s my point of view on the intelligent design argument. I’m not claiming that it’s a sophisticated point of view. It’s just what I think.

I don’t know if there’s an intelligent designer. It seems unlikely to me for a few reasons: As SJ Gould pointed out, much of life is rather haphazardly and ad hoc-ly formed (e.g., the panda’s thumb), not as elegant as you’d expect from an ID and not like the elegant examples ID believers point to. Also, if there is an ID, I can’t imagine that the two words we use to describe it — “intelligent” and “design” — actually are anywhere near to describing it; it’s got to so far transcend our understanding that those terms don’t really make sense. Also, a belief that nature was intelligently designed raises the problem of evil — why do bad things happen to good people? — that argues against ID. I mean, if it turns out that it took an ID to design an eyeball, then why the hell didn’t it build in a tsunami warning system so the eyeballs of millions of children wouldn’t be dimmed? ID solves an engineering problem but raises an insoluble moral problem.

So, I don’t know if there’s an ID. As I say, if I had to guess, I’d say no, but if I don’t trust my judgment about whether my subscription to PC Gamer counts as a tax deduction, how can I trust my judgment about the origin of the universe? So, maybe there is an ID. But if there is, we sure can’t look to our ignorance as proof, because historically we know not only that we solve problems that once looked impossible, but our understanding of the domain within the which the problems exist changes radically. For most of recorded history we thought nature only had a few thousand years in which to operate. We were stuck with real-time apparatus for calculating. We were stuck running experiments about physical events by using physical events. We lacked the tools for understanding complexity. Human ignorance evolves, so it is unwise to base any argument on its nature.

Personally, I find absolutely nothing objectionable about people who believe G-d is the architect of nature. (Why pussyfoot around this? ID=G-d.) For the believers I know personally, this is a way of contacting the ineffable beauty, orderliness and complexity of our world. It is a way of acknowledging our dark-inked ignorance, our fallibility, our humanity, just as the best of our knowing always has. But taking ignorance as an excuse for remaining ignorant or, worse, for using it as an argument against science? The believers I know don’t do that. It would feel like a betrayal.


Bob also has a terrific essay on the damage DRM will do to the marketplace and innovation…and to the long tail. [Technorati tags: ]

12 Responses to “Frankston on Gilder and the bcell curve”

  1. But, what if we eventually realise that the universe is actually indistinguishable from an ‘intelligent designer’, albeit unknowable by our puny minds?

    That could lead us to conclude that intelligence superior to ours could emanate as a simple side effect of a complex system, i.e. itself undesigned.

    How could our collective ego cope with the realisation that our intelligence, although designed, was a work of a spurious, undesigned and superior intelligence?

    Humanity is divided into those that can accept existence as a combinatorial permutation, and those who can’t. The latter cope with the implicit insignificance by inventing something significant to become a significant ambassador thereof.

    Who has a bigger ego? Those who can live without god, or those that need to invent it?

  2. David, I think that Intelligent Design would actually be contrary to the concept of God as a supreme being. The reason is that a supreme God doesn’t stop to think. A supreme God creates directly as he thinks. The nature of such a God is to go beyond himself, for example, from the unbounded into the bounded. A supreme God experiments with real people. That’s the whole point of having real people. A supreme God is willing to have all manner of bad happen if that’s what it takes to have a little bit more good happen. A supreme God is bold to the point of recklessness. Such a God lets everything unfold as eternal life. In summary, a supreme God is a megalomaniac. Megalomaniacs may condescend to exhibit intelligence, but not by design, at least not by forethought. “Those things are that show themselves to be” – “I am who I am”.

  3. Actually, The Bible, specifically, The Flood but also other stories, supports the view that God doesn’t think ahead, but rather sets things in motion and lets them take their course.

  4. I respect religion except for the dogma and delusion part. And the faith. The faith is embarassing somehow. It doesn’t hurt to seek good and add a little community and structure to one’s life through religious practice, but high energy physics is good too. And bridge. And bicycle riding.

    Personally I don’t believe in god but I do believe in public schools. I believe in libraries, but only LC, no Dewey, no Cutter.

    I believe on a good day 24 virgins will surround me and have at the callouses on my feet and wash my elbows with lavender water.

    I haven’t actually ever had a good day by those lights.

    I believe the freeway system is a gift from a loving god, except the Kennedy in Chicago which was put there by Satan. And the Nimitz between Fremont and Oakland… intelligently designed but too congested.

    Butterflies. Monsoons. Mongeese. Buffalos. Organic gardens. None of these things will matter if the Chthulu believers have their way.

    The button hole is an example of intelligent design, but not the button. The button invariably gets ripped off the garment at the laundry.

    Existence knocks me out.

    Are people necessary for evil to exist?

  5. I was sorry to see my somewhat free associative comment bite the dust. Wondered if I’d broken one of the rules? Intelligent design is an idea I feel compelled to criticize. As complex open ended systems self organize to greater and greater complexity it is not inconceivable that intelligence could be a result of the elaboration. And ultimately if that intelligence should take over the direction of the acceleration towards chaotic and random and generally expanding universality I wonder if we could from that point forward posit an intelligent design? And if we could agree on this, how meaningful would it be in the context of understanding the framework, the boundary conditions, of our existence? In other words… so what? I intend to read further in the links you’ve provided to find out what the poisson distribution may have to do with any of this, but I wanted to get a vote in against intelligent design before the brighter lights convince me otherwise. Later I’ll probably recant as I have almost done in the case of stupid networks.

  6. I was sorry to see my somewhat free associative comment bite the dust. Wondered if I’d broken one of the rules? Intelligent design is an idea I feel compelled to criticize. As complex open ended systems self organize to greater and greater complexity it is not inconceivable that intelligence could be a result of the elaboration. And ultimately if that intelligence should take over the direction of the acceleration towards chaotic and random and generally expanding universality I wonder if we could from that point forward posit an intelligent design? And if we could agree on this, how meaningful would it be in the context of understanding the framework, the boundary conditions, of our existence? In other words… so what? I intend to read further in the links you’ve provided to find out what the poisson distribution may have to do with any of this, but I wanted to get a vote in against intelligent design before the brighter lights convince me otherwise. Later I’ll probably recant as I have almost done in the case of stupid networks.

  7. Hi David and God and Intelligent Designers, I’m reposting my comment. (God, if you want to delete this, please remove it from the Google cache as well. Then I will get the point. Thank you!)

    David, I think that Intelligent Design would actually be contrary to the concept of God as a supreme being. The reason is that a supreme God doesn’t stop to think. A supreme God creates directly as he thinks. The nature of such a God is to go beyond himself, for example, from the unbounded into the bounded. A supreme God experiments with real people. That’s the whole point of having real people. A supreme God is willing to have all manner of bad happen if that’s what it takes to have a little bit more good happen. A supreme God is bold to the point of recklessness. Such a God lets everything unfold as eternal life. In summary, a supreme God is a megalomaniac. Megalomaniacs may condescend to exhibit intelligence, but not by design, at least not by forethought. “Those things are that show themselves to be” – “I am who I am”.
    Posted by: Andrius Kulikauskas on July 28, 2005 05:52 PM

    Actually, The Bible, specifically, The Flood but also other stories, supports the view that God doesn’t think ahead, but rather sets things in motion and lets them take their course.

  8. Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?
    http://www.simulation-argument.com

  9. What sort of predictions does ID make?

    answer: none that I know of, although I’d be happy to be corrected.

    “an inordinate fondness for beetles”

  10. The fact that there is evolution does not lead to the conclusion that there is no intelligent designer. This is the mistake that religious people that are inconfortable with evolution are making.

    Another thing that make them inconfortable is the notion of the survival of the fittest that some advocated as a “logical conclusion of Darwinism.” This notion is fine for bacteria and ants but in my opinion applying this notion to consciousness human or not is a huge philosophical and scientific mistake.

    This have nothing to do with the theory of evolution.

    Science are really good at studying matter but for asking the big questions of the meaning of all of this and if ever or not there is an intelligent designer, it is right now quite powerless.

    It remain that scientifically we just don’t know and for the time beeing have no way to know if there is an intelligent designer or not. We don’t even know if the scientific method that (like any other method has it’s own limits) will ever be able to answer this but who knows?

    This issue therefore can and should stay in the domain of personal believe.

  11. (My comments got wiped out somehow for this day. I apologize to Bob Frankston, Frank Paynter, and others who had left comments. I don’t know what happened.)

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