Cosmic Accidents Are Not Scientific Explanations
Sunday Meditation Oct 3, 2010 — The classic understanding of science is that it explains things with reference to natural laws, makes predictions, is testable, quantifiable, and falsifiable. Depending on the branch of science, many researchers still attempt to hold to those ideals. Eugenie Scott put it this way: “modern science operates under a rule of methodological materialism that limits it to attempting to explain the natural world using natural causes.” Natural causes include natural laws, predictable patterns, probability, or combinations of these. Pure accidents, by contrast, contain no explanatory power. How satisfying would it be to hear a scientist explain a phenomenon by saying, “Weird things just happen sometimes”? That’s tantamount to saying, “We have no idea.” See if the following two articles from New Scientist’s series “Cosmic Accidents” can do better than that.
New Scientist has a headline: “Cosmic accidents: Inventing language, the easy way.” What is this easy way of which reporter David Robson speaks? Here’s how he explained it. He picks up the tale as hominids migrate out of Africa to discover new habitats:
Released from many of the selective pressures that had shackled their evolution, they began to change subtly. Their calls, for example, had once needed to be very specific – one to signal aggression, one to announce feeding time and so on – and were hard-wired in the brain. Any variation from a small inherited “vocabulary” risked a potentially fatal misunderstanding, so mutations that promoted greater flexibility were quickly weeded out.
In the new havens, however, mutations emerged that allowed more complex vocalisations, controlled by wider regions of the brain. Ultimately, these morphed into huge learned vocabularies and flexible grammars that exploded the tight constraints on interpersonal communication. A change of scene had accidentally created that most human of features: language.
The key to the story is “mutations” that “emerged.” If an environment itself could create language, every organism in the environment would end up talking. Selective constraints cannot create anything, either. They can only hold creative powers back. In the end, Robson himself attributed the ultimate cause to chance: an accident created language – one time, in Europe but not in Africa, in humans but not in other animals. Weird things just happen sometimes.
Attempting to explain how bacteria became humans, Michael Le Page wrote another entry for the “Cosmic Accidents” series: “One giant leap for a single cell.” How did single cells cross the “chasm” between simple prokaryotes, like bacteria and archaea, and eukaryotes, which include everything from one-celled organisms to giraffes, orchids and humans? Enquiring scientists want to know. Le Page set the stage: “while bacteria never form anything more complex than strings of identical cells, eukaryotic cells cooperate to make everything from brains and leaves to bones and wood.” Here’s his explanation:
The countless simple cells living in many different environments on Earth have had over 3 billion years to evolve complexity. It could have happened repeatedly – and yet it appears to have happened just once, perhaps 2 billion years ago. All complex life is descended from a single common ancestor.
Why is that so? Because, says Nick Lane of University College London, natural selection normally favours fast replication, keeping simple cells simple. Then a freak event occurred: an archaeon engulfed a bacterium and the two cells formed a symbiotic relationship. That transformed the dynamics of evolution, leading to a period of rapid change that produced innovations such as sex. The incorporated bacterium eventually evolved into mitochondria, the energy generators of complex cells.
Le Page added that “it seems there was nothing inevitable about the rise of the complex cells from which we evolved.” If it was not inevitable in any way, shape, or form that science can get a handle on, where does science enter the explanation?
Once again, the heart of the explanation was pure chance: “a freak accident occurred.” The prokaryotes were trying to evolve complexity for a billion years, but they just couldn’t. Then a freak accident occurred. The archeon was not trying to engulf the bacterium. It had no desire or plan to do such a thing. A freak accident occurred – something completely unforeseen, something weird. It transformed the dynamics of evolution. This freak accident, though, was pregnant with possibilities. It “produced innovations such as sex” and mitochondria – you know, those little organelles with piston engines and rotary engines (09/22/2010). Weird things just happen sometimes.
Other articles in the “Cosmic Accidents” series include Stephen Lawton’s chance explanation for the big bang’s fine tuning (New Scientist), Stephen Battersby’s chance explanation for antimatter imbalance (New Scientist), his chance explanation for the unlikely ingredients of our sun (New Scientist), David Shiga’s lucky impact theory for the origin of our moon (New Scientist), Richard Webb’s lucky fungus theory for our atmosphere’s oxygen balance (New Scientist), Graham Lawton’s lucky asteroid impact for the origin of mammals (New Scientist), Anil Ananthaswamy’s lucky rift theory for the growth of the human brain (New Scientist), and Stephen Battersby’s summary of the “certainty of chance” and the contingency of evolution (New Scientist). “Our existence is perilously perched on a great pyramid of trivia,” he said. Maybe that’s why all these freak-accident explanations are published by New Scientist, not by old scientists.
Science is stuck with chance explanations sometimes. We have no theory at this time for why one radioactive nucleus decays when it does, or why a photon goes through one slit instead of the other. Usually, though, scientists can assign probability values, given a large sample size. Watch enough radionuclei, and you can predict to a high degree of accuracy how many will decay within the isotope’s characteristic half-life. Watch enough photons, and you can predict the pattern that will emerge on the screen. If there were only one nucleus or photon, though, all bets would be off for predicting what would happen. Scientists would have to admit, “We have no idea.” Even in chaos theory, which camps on unpredictability, large sample sizes allow predictable patterns called “strange attractors” to emerge.
Given enough smokers, medical researchers can predict what percentage will get lung cancer; but all bets would be off for predicting the fate of a particular smoker. If either outcome – the smoker lives, the smoker dies – could be “explained” by the probability value, then nothing has really been explained at all. He dies: Just as we predicted, he was part of the 70% group that gets cancer. He lives: He was lucky and beat the odds. Opposite outcomes are encompassed by the theory. The bottom line is, “We have no idea.”
When a scientist is reduced to saying, “We have no idea,” his or her opinion is essentially no better than anyone else’s. For all a neutral observer could tell, a New Guinea shaman or the Oracle at Delphi has just as good an explanation for a phenomenon. A scientist reduced to saying “Weird stuff just happens sometimes” has no claims over a theologian, for sure. “Sheer dumb luck” as David Berlinski calls it is no explanation at all. It is the antithesis of explanation. If science gets reduced to sheer dumb luck, the Stuff Happens Law (SHL), it surrenders all claims to epistemic priority. Possession of a white lab coat, a PhD, and a university professorship amounts to nothing more than costumery the shaman could put on, by all rights.
The GSA talking points say, “Science cannot be used, by definition, to study events or phenomena that cannot be perceived by natural or empirical senses and do not follow any natural rules or regularities.” This statement, though intending to disparage creationism and intelligent design, rules out explanations that ultimately depend on “freak accidents.” It therefore rules out so-called scientific explanations of the Big Bang, the origin of life, the origin of eukaryotes, the origin of sex, the origin of consciousness, and most of the subject matter evolutionists are interested in.
Darwinism itself is outside the bounds. Why? The root of its explanation is contingency – sheer dumb luck. Darwinism is the SHL in different words. Early critics of Darwinism pointed this out. They were appalled that Darwin was introducing contingency into scientific explanation in an era when natural law was king. Darwin believed he had found a law – the law of natural selection – but closer examination shows it is chance masquerading as law. Nothing could be selected without random mutation, obviously, but selection itself is directionless – therefore random. The environment is random. “Selection pressure” is unpredictable; it pushes this way, and that: up, down, sideways. Everything at the fundamental level is explained by freak accidents. Whatever happens happens. Darwinists cannot appear after the fact and say, “natural selection” did it. That’s equivalent to saying, “A freak accident produced this outcome by sheer dumb luck. Weird things (like eukaryotes, like language) just happen sometimes.” As we have shown repeatedly, Darwin’s “law” explains opposite outcomes – therefore it explains nothing (12/19/2007 commentary). Might as well invite the Delphic oracle, the New Guinea shaman and a gambler to give presentations at the Darwin convention. On what basis could they be denied admission? Their clothes? Their taste in cuisine? That kind of diversity already exists at science conferences.
Eugenie Scott, in her talking points on the NCSE website, used to say, “Science and religion are different. Scientific explanations are based on human observations of natural processes,” where processes include laws, patterns, causes and logical deductions other than appeals to chance or so-called supernatural forces taken on faith. The newer explanation, “What is science?” at NCSE web, emphasizes method and “ways of thinking” more than laws and cause. “The process of science is creative and flexible. There is no single scientific method used by all scientists…. All scientific conclusions are tentative.” This looser description, more nuanced and postmodern, appears to have been adopted to insulate the NCSE from charges that evolution is unscientific. But do the gains in defense offset the gains in offense? Scott can keep evolution in science only by widening the tent. If she looks carefully, though, she lets in the Delphic oracle and the New Guinea shaman. After all, they have methods; they are creative; they are flexible. They can even hold their conclusions tentatively.
To maintain a distinction in the wider tent, Donald Prothero adds the only claim in the article to epistemic priority: the hope of converging on the truth, whatever that is, somehow: “Science is not about finding final truth, only about testing and refining better and better hypotheses so these hypotheses approach what we think is true about the world.” But in attempting to kick the shamans and oracles out, Prothero has let in a more fearsome group: the logicians and philosophers. They will ask what he means by truth, what constitutes testing and refining if there is no standard of truth by which one can measure progress, and whether what one thinks is true about the world corresponds to what is really true about the world. Prothero will need more than sheer dumb luck to get out of that predicament.
Have we gotten lost in a postmodern fog, where everyone’s opinion is equally valid and deserving of a hearing? Fortunately, no. Intelligent design (ID) identifies a measurable quantity, complex specified information (CSI), that can dispel the fog. Intelligence is a known, testable cause of CSI – the only known cause. And there is a threshold for separating chance from intelligence as a scientific explanation – the universal probability bound, based on the information content of the phenomenon under study. Human language and eukaryotic cells are rich in CSI. While ID cannot yield final truth, either, it provides an inference to the best explanation for measuring the confidence one can have in design as the cause versus chance as the cause. This can be achieved by running the explanation through the Explanatory Filter (ARN).
With this background, re-examine the articles above and their explanations. The “scientists” (if deserving of that honor) attributed the causes to freak accidents – sheer dumb luck. But the phenomena under question – human language and eukaryotic cells, are rich with CSI that exceed the universal probability bound. Chance is therefore excluded; design is the best explanation.
ID leads to another advantage: a theory of truth. While ID restricts itself to design detection, additional logical inferences can be made once an inference to design has been made – just like when an inference that a string of bits contains a message, rather than being natural noise, leads to additional inferences about the content of the message and the nature of the sender. Given that many phenomena (DNA, the human brain, and the universe itself) pass through the Explanatory Filter into the design explanation, it follows that a designer capable of producing a universe must be greater than the universe, therefore transcendent, and outside of spacetime, therefore timeless. That provides an anchor point for truth to allow it to be timeless, universal, necessary, and certain. Reflexively, it provides the preconditions for intelligibility that a scientist assumed to draw that conclusion. It is therefore logically coherent and explanatorily rich.
So let’s kick the Know-Nothings (10/28/2009, 02/22/2008) mumbling sheer dumb luck and freak accidents out of the lab and give them new jobs in the caves of Delphi and the jungles of New Guinea. Let’s welcome back ID scientists (the heirs of Kepler and Newton, Boyle and Maxwell) to clean up the mess and put scientific explanation back on track: chance for single events of low information content, probability for quantifiable events, natural law for predictable patterns, design for high-CSI phenomena with high information content. Help achieve this if logical coherence is something you value in science.
Suggested Reading: David Berlinski, “The Deniable Darwin,” (1996) and “What Brings a World Into Being?” (2001), The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute, 2009).