David Berlinski is one of our best critics of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. He spends some time on this in his new book, which is a collection of pieces from hither and yon on a variety of subjects, all tied together on the theme of the philosophy of science—more or less.
That beasties, birdies, bacteria, and creepy crawlies of the land and sea of every sort occupy the planet, and that they all had to get here some how, everybody agrees.
Academia has coalesced around the idea that this how is “random” “incremental” changes that, they say, take place over a long time. But this is a bluff. It is a bluff because if they could prove this, they would. They cannot. Circular references to models do not count as proof.
It is therefore of some worth to explore rival theories. And, no, not the simplistic “And a miracle happened…then another…then another…then etc. etc.” variety, either. (Things like this.) Yet bruit theory exploration in front of academic biologists and you very quickly learn the meaning of sacrilege.
It’s always been obvious why neo-Darwinians are so rabid in their defense of “randomness”. Because they have concocted the idea that if “randomness” rules they have dispensed with God. Also, they like to feel picked on. Getting rid of God is absurd at least for the excellent, and true, reason that there has to be a reason why any life exists at all, and why the world is the way it is, including why “randomness” would work. Randomness tout court is an absurd answer to this.
About being picked on, Berlinski says, “Like other men [namely Francis Crick], molecular biologists evidently derive some satisfaction from imagining that the orthodoxy they espouse is ceaselessly under attack.” We honor and cherish Victims. Who doesn’t want to be one? Not all scientists. Johnny von Neumann, no cerebellar slouch, said, “I still somewhat shudder at the thought that highly efficient, purposive organizational elements, like the proteins, should originate in a random process.”
Berlinski and I differ on the nature of probability, I think, as evidenced by his commentary on “random” changes in genes and quantum mechanics. I say probability is entirely epistemological, and he hints it can be ontological. Give you the simplest example. Word ladders.
It is more likely that the word WORE changes to the word GORE than that it changes to the word DOOR. The first two words are closer to one another than either of them is to the third.
Yes, but only if changes to GORE are possible from WORE. There has to be a mechanism; there must be a cause. It could be that, because of the way the world works, you cannot get to GORE from WORE. The change can’t be caused. But you might, for whatever reason, get to THICK by one jump, skipping right over DOOR and a bunch of other words. Big weird jumps matches how organisms change better than minuscule vanishingly small incremental changes.
I cannot say it enough: nothing has a probability. Not word ladders, not genes, not electrons, not nothing. But every change—every actualization of a potential—has a cause. Whether you can know that cause, or whether Nature, even, blocks knowledge of that cause, that cause is always there. Probability is only used in absence of knowledge of cause. Probability is in the intellect, not in things.
Context is missing in some of the book’s essays. Some of Berlinski’s pieces are rebuttals to arguments made by some guy reviewing a Stephen Meyer book, but we don’t see what the guy said, and if you haven’t read Meyer you will be somewhat at sea.
There is a long, a very long, chapter on the usefulness of mathematical modeling and what it might mean with respect to Reality, which takes up a good chunk of the book. The going is rough and most of you will not like it, finding the equations indecipherable.
The topic is necessary all the same. Just how much of our math really exists out there? Hard to answer when most of the focus of science is only on those aspects of Reality that can be quantified. In an earlier essay he writes:
No one quite knows why mathematicians have been unable to settle even the simplest of questions about quantum field theory. What are the fields about?
They never will be able to answer, either, if they cannot let go of Democritian metaphysics. All is not atoms and void. Berlinski doesn’t offer the alternative metaphysics, but naturally I think a return to Aristotle is the key. We’ll leave that for another day. Except that to remark atomistic thinking leads us to bizarraries like the multi-verse.
And to the denial of free will. Best part of the book is his teasing of physicist Brian Greene’s many attempts to say that he, Greene, does not exist.
Having been persuaded that he has no say in the matter, Greene feels himself curiously obliged to keep saying so, and is pleased to trace the paternity of the least of his remarks backward to the throat of the Big Bang.
Berlinski is a clever writer, and funny, as that one brief snippet illustrates. Yet sometimes, just now and then, his prose can veer towards shades of plum, not to say purple. Anybody who writes for a living cannot resist these temptations, he said guiltily. We all remember Flaubert: “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”
There is more, like small bios on some past masters and a brief entry on Kolmogorov complexity, a subject which I want to return to later.
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Categories: Book review