Category Archives: intelligent design

The Dilemma of Divine Purpose

It is often said that God is the source of human (and indeed, animal) purpose, and that without God, there is no purpose.

But what is God’s purpose, and who can say?

Let’s dispense with the common confabulation offered in response: God’s purpose is to do  just what he does and to be just like he is. Of course, this response defines the difference between an explanation and an assertion, and when it is stated as an explanation, it makes a very tight circle.

When God acts, he manifests divine will.

God created the world, so the world is meant to be a manifestation of divine will. In other words, it is meant to be just what it is.

Any questions?

But there is no real answer within the common confabulation. Maybe the question can be reframed to elicit a precise response.

Can God say why he created the world?

This is not to say that he need explain himself to us. Is he able to explain it for himself ?

If creation was instrumental to some purpose for God – perhaps a cure for loneliness – then creation is actually dependent upon some set of determinants of divine will, i.e. circumstances to which the divine will responds.

If so, whence those cicumstances? Even if God can say, we all (us via God) are beholden to those circumstances. For all of us, the circumstances simply exist, and therefore, all of us simply exist.

But what if creation was not instrumental? Let’s say God simply willed it. In that case, there is no divine insight in principle – not even a Muse to blame – and again, all of us simply exist.

So,  we all simply exist, God too.

 

 

 

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Knock Out Mouse Revolution

mighty-mouse-cartoon-clipart-16

Standing in the New Orleans convention center felt a little eerie. The interior was clean and neat. It looked like an airport. Still, I could not help but recall images of Katrina, when the huge edifice had become a beacon of false hope, luring the populace through its doors with the promise of aid, only to leave those who entered trapped like rats.

We had come to a conference to learn about endocrinology, which I had not considered too creepy before. I was wrong.

The proceedings began innocently. Hundreds of physician scientists, and I, filed quietly into a giant auditorium. I want to make clear my lack of qualifications relative to the rest of the group. I am no scientist, and barely a physician. I would much rather read philosophy books and climb around on crumbly sandstone towers than pipette solutions into a gel matrix.

But my job is mostly about helping people protect themselves from diabetes. Plus my wife had a poster to present. So, there I was, attending as an imposter.

The keynote speaker got a prolonged introduction. He deserved it. He was an important person with important research credentials. It was the kind of introduction where a name is never mentioned, for dramatic effect, and because everybody already knows exactly who the subject is. It is a an effective strategy for generating anticipation in the majority who are already quite familiar with the speaker, as well as in those who have never heard of him. It works for everyone, except my wife. She is honest to a fault, and that means that she is a real subject-object-verb kind of person. When presented with a dramatic, obscure speech, her attention lapses. As the speaker walked onstage to the sound of his name, she asked me who this Francis Collins person was.

After a long moment’s reflection, I told her that Francis Collins was a bad philosopher. She seemed to accept my summary, because she promptly settled back in her theater chair to nap through the rest of the lecture. I could not sleep, though I was feeling a little jet lag as well. The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Collins had been right in the middle of genetic research since the beginning of the human genome project, and he took the audience on a trip through the whole endeavor, right up to the current moment: the Big Data revolution.

The Big Data revolution referred to the use of advanced mathematical and computing techniques to sort through scads of data for druggable targets in endocrine diseases. The special techniques had become necessary because the database had exploded. Dr. Collins and his compatriots had deciphered the genomic book of life, but when they sat down to read it, they discovered that they needed a lamp, reading glasses, bookmarks, and indeed, the semantics of the language. The genes turned out to be active in the context of all sorts of transcription factors, promotors, coactivators, corepressors, etc. There was layer upon layer of conditionals which gave meaning to the genetics.

The source of the Big Data revelation was the knockout mouse. The knockout mouse and its cousins, the knockin mouse and the humanized mouse, were what happened when researchers turned to their traditional test subjects with gene manipulation techniques learned in dissecting the genome. By studying mice with selectively induced genetic defects, the researchers had produced the dense pile of data on gene regulation which advanced computing methods might sort out for us.

By the end of the keynote address, I had mouse fever. I wanted to hear all about the things which these creatures could do, and it turned out that I had come to the right place. Over the next few days, I would hear about mutant mice who could run on a treadmill off the couch like they had trained for months. Mice who developed diabetes. Mice who could turn on their brown fat to alter their metabolism. And many of these mice could serve as their own experimental controls. They had mechanisms inserted in their genomes which could turn their genetic defects on and off in response to substances in their mouse chow.

I’ll admit, when I heard about designer mice and their custom mouse chow, I got a little side-tracked. I had been eager to get out of medicine for a while. It all seemed so futile, and even a bit of a sham. Knockout mice might have been the ticket.

Two incidents elevated that thought to conscious consideration. The first was sighting a booth devoted to mouse chow in the exhibit hall.

To understand the significance of the chow booth, one must understand what the exhibit hall is all about. There is an exhibit hall at every conference. They are huge and opulent sometimes, sometimes modest, but always staffed by beautiful, shiny people and stocked with treats, from lattes to foam-model pancreases. Brands like Coach or Louis V. would feel at home amongst the booths.

Giant pharmaceutical companies ruled the hall, and the mouse kibble guys were right there in the mix. If mouse chow could buy an exhibit booth, the mice themselves must be golden.

The second incident was a conversation overheard in the poster hall.

The poster hall is a huge open space with row upon row of cork boards. Researchers pin up posters with summaries of their investigations on the boards, and attendees walk up and down the rows soaking in the knowledge. Usually there is a clearing in the middle with a nest of round banquet tables where everyone can go to take a break, chat and have a cup of pharma coffee. That’s where I sat while my wife presented her poster. I did not sit randomly.

As I walked up on the tables, I spotted a fat man in a plaid shirt and a yarmulke leaning in to say something to a thin, swarthy, bearded companion wearing a dark olive sport coat and a gold medallion. I needed in on that conversation, so I settled in the chair next to them, and swirled my coffee thoughtfully. Imagine my surprise as I picked up on the subject of their conspiracy.

“Yes,” said the fat man, ” I have been trying to find some of those mice. I need them to finish my work, but you can’t find them anywhere.”

“Yes,” echoed his friend, “those mice are nowhere to be found.”

“The closest I came,” the fat man continued, “was this Korean lady in San Fransisco. She said she had some, even said she would send me a few. But she never came through, and now I can’t get a hold of her anymore.”

The mice must be golden.

But my dreams of becoming a mouse Baron were short-lived. Upon further investigation, I found that genetically altered mice did not thrive. It was hard enough to get them past the embryonic stage. Once they could breathe on their own, they often required special conditions and diets just to survive. Worst of all, most of the really good mice had been patented. You bought the limited rights to a strain of mice when you bought the animals themselves. The patent system was the impetus for the black market discussion in the poster hall. You could trade for mice underground and avoid some costs, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the mouse factory lawyers after publication.

Despite the disappointment on economic grounds, I left the conference optimistic. I still had the image of all those colored bars from Dr. Collins’ slide in my head. Each one was a gene which a mouse model could exemplify, and therefore each one was potentially a druggable target. We had this. It was just a matter of time, and mice.

On my way to work, I have some time to think, though not too deeply. I leave early to beat the traffic, but I never do. Most commutes demand constant attention to collision avoidance. The situation is unfortunate, because the commute is the only time to think. Once work starts, I am behind. Someone constantly needs something from me to satisfy someone else who needs something from them, etc.. My workplace is carefully structured to facilitate this cycle. If I need to communicate with someone, odds are that I can lean over to one side and speak to them directly. Otherwise, my computer contains a messaging system which will pop in on whoever I need to inform or interrogate. Patient rooms cluster around my workstation, so I never need to walk more than 6 steps. However, patient contact occupies only a minor portion of my time. Most of the day is passed on the computer and the phone, addressing questions, requests and lab results. At the end of the day the freeway awaits again. By the time I get home, I am burned out and may or may not have it in me to do some physical training and watch television before retiring to get up and do it all again the next morning.

As luck would have it, traffic was light on the first day back from New Orleans. As I drove, I dreamed of druggable targets; Dr. Collins’ slides with the colored bars swam before me. Most of my patients were already on carefully targeted medications, but reaching down into the genome would ramp up medication effectiveness by orders of magnitude. Yet, not all my thoughts were so happy. Other images kept popping into my head, unbidden. I saw other colored slides, from another lecture by another renowned researcher. They were Dr. Brawley’s slides on the geographic and socioeconomic correlates of life expectancy and the epidemiology of conditions like obesity, cancer and diabetes. I could not banish those intrusive images, and by the time I was walking across the clinic parking lot, my mood had deteriorated.

I made it through the day, and finally got to resume my train of thought as I walked back to the car to drive home. I thought about gene targets and Dr. Brawley’s maps again. Then thoughts of one of the day’s patients joined the fray. She was very overweight, and had the metabolic problems that went with excess adipose tissue. She was on targeted therapy for her diabetes in the form of a monoclonal antibody directed at a counter-regulatory hormone receptor. It was the best science had to offer, but she often missed her doses. She had 2 jobs and no car, so she was up early and home late, and she simply forgot her meds sometimes. She set an alarm, but often could not attend to it, or forgot to reset it. We did not even discuss diet and exercise. She lived on a busy street with non-contiguous sidewalks, had no money for a gym, and no time to travel to a safe park. She could not cook, because she had grown up on packaged foods. In any case, she had grown too heavy by now. Her knees had given out under the weight. She could only mobilize fat stores in the face of severe calorie restriction. To reclaim  her life, assuming that was our aim, she would need two joint replacements and a gastric bypass.

I began to re-experience the rising panic which I had felt at the end of her appointment. Dr. Collins & Co. had let me down; I was not armed for this struggle, nor would I be. I stopped to take a breath and get my bearings. The parking lot was nearly empty. A bad smell rose from a nearby drainage grate, and a noise like water flowing.

I imagined that the noise might be something else. Maybe, instead of waste water, it was all those knockout mice, rising through the  sewers from the depths of the New Orleans convention center where the disappointments of Katrina had flowed down to bring the little fellows back, like a time-delayed Ghost Dance. The mice were coming with their little spectral incisors primed to clip down the cages, the labs, the chow booth, the convention center, and all the rest in a massive, surgical revision. I became convinced that the sound was the mice coming. It had to be. It was the only way that the knockout mice could save us.

mouse

 

 

 

 

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Cult of the Range-Fed Turtles

When my best childhood friend grew up, he decided to become an archaeologist. During his graduate training, he was in charge of  a dig in the Mississippi river valley which unearthed an odd structure. In the midst of the native people’s dwellings, was found a circular enclosure made of closely spaced wooden posts and containing a large pile of turtle shells. The undergraduates were eager to speculate about the purpose of the structure, but my friend cautioned them against it.

“We can’t be sure of its use,” he said”, and we can’t just guess based on what we might use an enclosure like that for today. We can’t just assume they were running a turtle ranch here. Why would they do that with a river full of turtles just a quarter-mile away? We have to put it in context of the surrounding village and the environment of the time, look for other examples and see if there are any modern structural analogs. Then we can make a guess, but it will still just be a guess.”

The next day the professor in charge of the dig came around on a rare site visit to see how things were proceeding. The students were eager to show him the mysterious ring of posts with its pile of shells.

Upon seeing their find, the professor remarked without hesitation, “Huh, must have been a turtle pen,” and promptly resumed his walking tour of the dig.

I don’t know if archaeology has an excuse for this kind of thinking, but medicine does:

Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult.

– Hippocrates

We can be forgiven for resorting to teleological assumptions now and again in medicine. With limited time and incomplete information, we must sometimes act on hypotheses which attribute function to structure and purpose to processes. Lucky for us, there’s plenty of slop in the system, so even if we’re wrong at the start, we usually get a second chance. We are trying to get away from teleology, though. “Evidence based medicine” and “scientific medicine” are the names that we have given that effort.

We are trying to get away from teleology because we have been burned by it. We thought that the body made pus to fight off bacterial infections, so for years, when we saw people with respiratory illness cough up phlegm with pus in it, we gave them antibacterial medications. We were wrong, not just about the purpose of pus, but in attributing a purpose to pus. Again, it was an understandable mistake, given the long history of debate regarding the merits of pus. Was it a good sign, or a bad one? Should we encourage or discourage its formation? It turns out we shouldn’t have been focusing on the pus at all, but on    the outcome of our purposeful intervention in the underlying process that produces the pus.

Purposeful results and final causes apply prospectively to human endeavors alone, and even there it’s often difficult to tell whether, when our actions are associated with the desired result, the outcome is due to our actions or simply due to fortuitous circumstances. Applied retrospectively or to processes and structures beyond our control, teleology is a sure mistake.

When we assign an endpoint to a process, we presume causation and correlation must be proven. Humans are notoriously bad at that. In systems which we can’t duplicate or control, we can always tell a causal story (I’m looking at you evolutionary psychology, intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning). But those stories are just interesting rationalizations, sharing the merits of a fairy tale in that they reveal more about us than the subject matter. Our fairy tales are harmless when they are about the universe, the origin of life, turtle ranches or anything else beyond our control. When we tell teleological stories about processes we do seek to influence (and can) we court tragedy.

The practice of bleeding was based on one such tale: the story of homeostasis. We still tell it today, but we tell it as metaphor instead of fact. The story is based on the simple observation that, when a person becomes ill, they go through a series of changes in their physical state which ultimately ends in either the restoration of their previous state, or death. Having observed other systems, the Greeks thought that the process of illness looked like a disequilibrium. Having observed associated changes in fluids which emanated from the body, they attributed the disequilibrium to an imbalance in those fluids. We can hardly blame them for the limits of their observations. We can’t fault their hypothesis. However, we can fault their method.

They didn’t just postulate an imbalance in the humors as a cause of illness, they presumed a balance of the humors as a state the body sought. The difference in these two points of view is subtle, but crucial. If  the balance of fluids is seen as descriptive  then restoring health by balancing the fluids remains a working hypothesis. It admits that other factors may determine the observed equilibrium. It leaves open the possibility that the observed flux of humors is a secondary phenomenon. Most important, it leaves physiologic equilibrium as a simple description, instead of presuming that it is a purpose with causal powers.

Given a description and a working hypothesis, physicians would look at their efforts to balance a patient’s humors with a critical eye. As a teleological assumption, with equilibrium as a “final cause” under Aristotle’s system, the idea creates an entirely different viewpoint. With  humoral balance rooted in the body’s design, variances in expected observations must be due to inadequate methods or incomplete knowledge of the humors. For this version of the “balancing the humors” hypothesis, failure is not an option.

Now, the ancient Greeks may have weathered this kind of assumption better than their heirs. They loved to fight with each other. In the face of inconsistent outcomes from humor-balancing interventions, they were likely to call Aristotle and Hippocrates idiots or just ignore the under-girding theory of causes altogether in favor of their own pet theory. Definitive statements naturally took a healthy beating in the Greeks’ intellectual environment. The Romans, and the Europeans who came after them, were much more pious.

As a result, no one questioned the teleological assumption, out of reverence for its sources, and the vital fluids persisted in medical thought owing largely to the idea of homeostasis by design. No matter how apparent the flaws in our understanding of the blood, bile and phlegm, they were somehow attached to the homeostatic goal of the body. As long as physicians saw that equilibrium as the body’s goal, they could reconcile any discrepant observations with the over-arching story and persist in practices such as bleeding. It fell to investigators outside of the medical profession to discover the secondary nature of the humors. Only then did the practices aimed at balancing the fluids truly begin to fade.

But long after bleeding and the balance of fluids fell by the wayside, the tale of homeostatic purpose continued to plague medical science. Physicians continued to view physiology as directed toward an end. For example  the heart was seen not to pump blood, but to be a pump. Therefore, medical students were instructed to never administer medications called beta-blockers to patients with heart failure.

Beta-blockers stick to proteins in the membranes of  heart cells called beta receptors, which normally bind adrenaline. Via the beta receptor proteins, adrenaline stimulates the heart to pump faster and with more force. In heart failure, the heart can’t contract forcefully or fast enough to keep up with the volume of blood returning to it from the veins. If the heart is a purpose-built pump, beta blockers should be anathema in the setting of heart failure. But in reality, when given to stabilized heart failure patients, beta blockers reduce long-term mortality by about one-third.

We don’t yet know exactly how these medicines achieve such a feat. We do know why they are not inevitably detrimental in heart failure. It is because the heart pumps, but it is not a purpose-built pump. The heart is instead a group of cells which inhabits a specialized niche in a system of many cells all with complimentary and competing characteristics, existing in a state of equilibrium which, in deference to tradition, we call homeostasis.

Our physiology doesn’t try to maintain homeostasis any more than erosion tries to form a natural arch. The arch forms (rather than crumbling like the sides of a stream-bed) because it is geometrically stable given the geology. The arch persists because it is geometrically stable, and so we frequently see natural arches where the climate and geology allow. Nobody marvels at this, speculating about a conspiracy between sandstone and weather patterns. Then again, few people have an emotional stake in natural arches. The same is true of our physiology, minus the low stakes. There is no overall homeostasis sensor or hormone in the body. There is no homeostasis conspiracy.

So, we have abandoned the notion of purpose in physiology, and that simple maneuver has allowed us to discover things like the survival benefit which beta blockers produce in heart failure. This move is the principle behind the randomized, controlled clinical trial. All along, it wasn’t ignorance holding us back, but the project of rationalizing our knowledge to traditionally understood, teleological models.

Of course, the questions driving evidence based medicine don’t start from nowhere. Scientific medicine asks questions based on the results of previous investigations and hypotheses derived from basic science discoveries regarding the components of physiology and their relationships. Some of these hypotheses are even most easily stated in terms of purpose. But those statements are now understood as metaphor, rather than bare fact.

Beyond the fecundity of this change in method, the move away from teleology finally brings some redemption for poor Hippocrates. Rather than using it as an excuse, we can understand his aphorism, “Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult “, properly again – as an admonition about method. Be skeptical. Remember that your viewpoint is limited. Watch out for overarching narratives. Good advice, and not just for medicine, but for all those turtle-ranch theorists out there (I’m looking at you intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning, evolutionary psychology…).

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Is Intelligent Design Distinguishable from Creation Science?

Yes, as horse shit is distinguishable from bull shit. ID is a deductive argument from analogy and teleology. As such, it is neither valid nor scientific. Both Creation Science and ID are based in the politics of religion, a genre which degrades both politics and religion, but ID is an attempt at subterfuge whereas Creation Science is at least an honest effort to advance an agenda.
Both are like unwanted attention from a belligerent drunk, but where Creation Science is like a shove, ID is like the question, ” What are you looking at?”. As with the shove or the question, one response is in order.

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Blip! Intelligent Design Is Done Before It Gets Going…

I’m republishing this because I think it bears repeating in light of the ongoing activities of intelligent design advocates, and because I realized that I was wrong about something right at the beginning. The core errors in ID do power the evolution-bashing arm of creationism. I’ve noticed that the error of de-contextualization which characterizes the positive argument for ID forms the core of many people’s arguments against evolution. Obviously, I think that this is no accident. To many creationists, evolution is one rationalizing story among many. This would be true, provided one considered the theory of evolution out of historical context. But remember, the hypothesis was derived from observations of biological variation across environments. Then came the archeological evidence predicted, and later the genetic evidence predicted. That historical evolution is the difference between all proper scientific theories and mere rationalizing stories. So, one more time – I swore I wouldn’t get into this anymore. The intelligent design crowd keeps pushing this crap, though, and I have kids who are at risk. Beyond that, I suppose intelligent design’s sort of dishonesty just galls me. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I am about to give an argument by analogy. I do so with trepidation, because analogies are always in danger of going off in the wrong direction and have no deductive validity in the first place. However, I think this form is the only fair tool for the subject since I’m going to use this argument by analogy to critique another argument by analogy: intelligent design (ID). Rather, I’m going to critique the positive arm of the intelligent design argument. This is the withered limb compared to the evolution-bashing arm, but it is necessary to the whole and the negative argument is a morass. Since scientific knowledge is never complete, critics have available to them an endless list of objections. The positive side of the ID case is more a philosophical than a scientific argument, so it can be settled on that level.

The positive ID argument is as follows: when humans start with a purpose (a problem to solve) and devise a tool to serve that purpose, the end product looks a certain way. Biological structures have a similar appearance, so biological systems must result from the same sort of process. An immediate problem arises at this point. Since proponents wish the analogy between man-made objects and biological structures to be precise the argument commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle (Designed structures look like X, Biological structures look like X, therefore Biological structures are Designed structures).

The proponents of ID subsequently introduce a number of modifiers to try to alleviate this situation. Complex specified information is not only used to portray designed and biological structures as essentially similar, it is also used to try to pare down the middle by saying it is statistically negligible. Appeals to abductive reasoning serve the same purpose, suggesting that design is so far and away the “best guess” that there’s no need to worry about the logic. There are deeper problems than the modifiers and the middle but those are the simplest things to consider, so let’s go there first. Let me tell you how I built my son a mountain bike.

The bike came in a big box in a bunch of pieces with a couple dozen pages of instructions. The instructions were complex and very specific. In fact, if you read the instructions through, you would know that a mountain bike and nothing but a mountain bike would result from following those instructions, even without actually building a bike to find out. But, I didn’t read the instructions. I know how bike parts work, so I just eyeballed the problem and figured it out. So, even though the Complex Specified Information (CSI) in the instructions has all the qualities that the advocates of biological CSI wish it to have, it doesn’t have the necessary relationship to the endpoint that those advocates want from it. There are multiple paths through the middle to the mountain bike. There is still a way out for ID, though. I must have picked up on the CSI contained in the parts themselves. It’s true. When I looked at the parts, they fit together in certain configurations and orders of assembly best, as I expected. My expectations were key, too. Over the years, bike designers had shaped those expectations, in effect teaching me to read the information they put in the parts so I could use my abductive reasoning to make a really good guess about how the parts should go together.

I use this “best guess” faculty all the time, because it is a great shortcut and pretty reliable in familiar circumstance. Notice I said ‘pretty reliable’. Also note that I said I didn’t use the instructions, but I didn’t say I threw them away. Sometimes the bike makers come up with an innovation and then my abductive reasoning is worthless and I have to rely on the instructions again to tell me what to do about the new part. I get in trouble if I try to rely on that ‘best guess’ shortcut in clinical medicine, too. The causal history of a manufactured bike is well-defined because people decided to make it that way. If the causal history of a patient’s symptoms is well-defined for me, it’s because I have decided so. Used outside of a situation with known prior constraints on the variables, the ‘good guess’ becomes confirmation bias. So, the problem is with the complex specified information. In biological structures, to achieve ‘specification’ and thus make the ‘best guess’ inference to design, the causal history has to be constrained after the fact. Anything less leaves open those pesky intermediate paths through the middle. ID imposes that constraint by assigning purpose to all biological structures it considers. Assigning purpose is easy for us humans and we like to do it because it lets us use shortcuts like guessing. Attributions of purpose (intent) are so appealing that we have trouble keeping them in the realm of human behavior where they belong (and not even there without some confirmatory process to check the attributions). Who hasn’t said their car “worked hard” to get up a steep hill? It’s just as easy to say that E. coli intends to swim to new food sources with its flagellum. In fact, it takes just that sort of presumption of intent to wrangle an object’s causal history into CSI, resulting in a bit of a Cartesian circle (if the flagellum is made for swimming, then it has a complex history treading a narrow path to that endpoint, which shows that the flagellum was made for swimming). Still, we should be able to safely use this attribution of intent after the fact in limited circumstances, as long as we’re careful, right? For instance, it is surely accurate to say that the guys who designed my son’s bike did so from an original purpose. However, even that presumption of intent from the endpoint is not accurate, and the problem with the retrospective attribution of purpose/intent in such a case leads us back to the problem with intelligent design that predates any attempt to distribute or minimize the middle.

What do we know about design? We really just know what we do and what we do requires an agent (us), a purpose, and means. The problem is that the relationship between those three factors is not linear, nor is it even hierarchical. When considering bike design, for instance, we could go back to the origin of the means via the agent and examine the influence the means then had on the agent’s intent and subsequent development of further means. We could track back to the origin of the wheel in geometry, which is in turn based on observed properties of materials, which are in turn based on some basic laws of physics, all of which humans bothered to investigate and remember in the first place because, if you are a tool-maker, it’s easier to investigate and remember than to, um, ‘reinvent the wheel’. We could trace bicycle history back to the wheel and beyond, but let’s keep it brief and just consider the design of mountain bikes.

Mountain biking started when some California bike racers moved to the country. Their new environment confronted them with the problem of riding, and of course racing, on gravel roads. Their road bikes’ narrow tires were too unstable for that purpose, so they found some preexisting cruiser bikes with wide tires that would at least be ridable on the fire roads near their homes. The cruiser bikes were not perfect. They were heavy and hard to pedal, so the riders raced them downhill. Even that compromise lead to problems though. The brakes and bearings on the cruisers couldn’t survive that kind of abuse. The riders replaced the brakes and bearings with motorcycle and road bike components. The riders soon found that the revised cruisers, now possessing cassettes of gears with the road bike bearings, were capable of riding on rough trails as well as fire roads. Trail riding prompted further modifications to the bikes. These guys in rural California invented the mountain bike, but not all at once and not out of the blue. They worked through a progressive series of problems, each leading to the next, until they arrived at a relatively stable final design that did something very different from the structure they started with. The mountain bike evolved. Of course, this is microevolution; the mountain bike is just a tweaked cruiser bike. Neither the mountain bike nor the cruiser looks anything like an old penny-farthing with the giant wheel in front. The lineage is clear though, and bike development has proceeded by the same basic process from the wheel to the velocipede to the mountain bike. Moreover, the agents in this process acted as selective forces and were acted upon by selective forces – and not just physically. As designers altered the bikes, the bikes’ new capabilities altered their conception of where and why they might ride a bike and thus their purpose in the next set of modifications.

To fingerprint design as the ID scheme misrepresents it, we really must close that Cartesian Circle by presuming intent for any and all endpoints we wish to examine. Then the history of that point is seen separated from any branches or external contingencies. If the mountain bike comes from a mountain bike factory, surely the mountain bike factory holds the entire explanation for its structure. When defined after the fact like this, the history of a structure looks irreducibly complex; if you take away one part it is rendered meaningless because it is its own context. ID’s analogy between designed structures and biological structures not only fails to distribute the middle, it doesn’t even accurately depict design processes as we undertake them. People, the source of everything we know about design, don’t start cold from an undetermined purpose and design toward that purpose in an implacable, irreducibly complex chain of events. Replication may work a bit like that, but not design.

What this method really does is provide for a hierarchical relationship between presumed intent and biological structures, where the intent causes the structure. Such a relationship seems to allow for a supernatural cause. This is why ID’s advocates have gone through such contortions to make it work (or at least look like it might) – see the Wedge Document. Yet the intelligent Design model fails even as a portal for the supernatural. It offers no solution to the interaction problem in dualism. This is a real problem because, as far as I can tell, one tenant of ID is that the design process in nature is ongoing. To drag a spiritual being into the material world and have it start doing things, one has to explain how it does so without being in some way beholden to the same laws, and thus part of the same causal history, as the rest of matter. If there is no good explanation, then the spiritual being from another realm is just a bizarre, unexpected new part of nature. Though this may seem an obscure technicality at first glance, here is an example of just how sticky the problem really is.

Descartes tried to defend the independence of the mind from brain processes. He offered the analogy of a virtuoso violinist asked to play on a broken instrument. The listener would have no clue as to his true skill. Likewise the damaged, diseased, or intoxicated brain may just be a broken instrument unable to give voice to the intact mind which plays upon it. Unfortunately, this analogy raises the question: May the virtuoso be a virtuoso without a violin? Study of music theory or any other purely mental operation is insufficient. He must play a physical violin. Yet the skill he gains is a mental faculty which is subject to his creativity, religious concepts, and emotion. The brain and its adjuncts affect the mind. There is no escape from this problem in a world of two supposedly separate substances in active contact. Deism or a strict idealism offer the only outs (and Deism may just push the problem back in time). Either of these scenarios keeps the supernatural supernatural, but thereby makes it irrelevant to any practical understanding of nature/matter. This is why it is best for religion that science adhere to methodological naturalism. This is why intelligent design is insidious as well as invalid, for all concerned. It robs religion of any hope of philosophical integrity, just as it misrepresents biology. Reason enough for everyone to drop this bullshit for good.

Cult of the Range-Fed Turtles

When my best childhood friend grew up, he decided to become an archaeologist. During his graduate training, he was in charge of  a dig in the Mississippi river valley which unearthed an odd structure. In the midst of the native people’s dwellings, was found a circular enclosure made of closely spaced wooden posts and containing a large pile of turtle shells. The undergraduates were eager to speculate about the purpose of the structure, but my friend cautioned them against it.

“We can’t be sure of its use,” he said”, and we can’t just guess based on what we might use an enclosure like that for today. We can’t just assume they were running a turtle ranch here. Why would they do that with a river full of turtles just a quarter-mile away? We have to put it in context of the surrounding village and the environment of the time, look for other examples and see if there are any modern structural analogs. Then we can make a guess, but it will still just be a guess.”

The next day the professor in charge of the dig came around on a rare site visit to see how things were proceeding. The students were eager to show him the mysterious ring of posts with its pile of shells.

Upon seeing their find, the professor remarked without hesitation, “Huh, must have been a turtle pen,” and promptly resumed his walking tour of the dig.

I don’t know if archaeology has an excuse for this kind of thinking, but medicine does:

Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult.

– Hippocrates

We can be forgiven for resorting to teleological assumptions now and again in medicine. With limited time and incomplete information, we must sometimes act on hypotheses which attribute function to structure and purpose to processes. Lucky for us, there’s plenty of slop in the system, so even if we’re wrong at the start, we usually get a second chance. We are trying to get away from teleology, though. “Evidence based medicine” and “scientific medicine” are the names that we have given that effort.

We are trying to get away from teleology because we have been burned by it. We thought that the body made pus to fight off bacterial infections, so for years, when we saw people with respiratory illness cough up phlegm with pus in it, we gave them antibacterial medications. We were wrong, not just about the purpose of pus, but in attributing a purpose to pus. Again, it was an understandable mistake, given the long history of debate regarding the merits of pus. Was it a good sign, or a bad one? Should we encourage or discourage its formation? It turns out we shouldn’t have been focusing on the pus at all, but on    the outcome of our purposeful intervention in the underlying process that produces the pus.

Purposeful results and final causes apply prospectively to human endeavors alone, and even there it’s often difficult to tell whether, when our actions are associated with the desired result, the outcome is due to our actions or simply due to fortuitous circumstances. Applied retrospectively or to processes and structures beyond our control, teleology is a sure mistake.

When we assign an endpoint to a process, we presume causation and correlation must be proven. Humans are notoriously bad at that. In systems which we can’t duplicate or control, we can always tell a causal story (I’m looking at you evolutionary psychology, intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning). But those stories are just interesting rationalizations, sharing the merits of a fairy tale in that they reveal more about us than the subject matter. Our fairy tales are harmless when they are about the universe, the origin of life, turtle ranches or anything else beyond our control. When we tell teleological stories about processes we do seek to influence (and can) we court tragedy.

The practice of bleeding was based on one such tale: the story of homeostasis. We still tell it today, but we tell it as metaphor instead of fact. The story is based on the simple observation that, when a person becomes ill, they go through a series of changes in their physical state which ultimately ends in either the restoration of their previous state, or death. Having observed other systems, the Greeks thought that the process of illness looked like a disequilibrium. Having observed associated changes in fluids which emanated from the body, they attributed the disequilibrium to an imbalance in those fluids. We can hardly blame them for the limits of their observations. We can’t fault their hypothesis. However, we can fault their method.

They didn’t just postulate an imbalance in the humors as a cause of illness, they presumed a balance of the humors as a state the body sought. The difference in these two points of view is subtle, but crucial. If  the balance of fluids is seen as descriptive  then restoring health by balancing the fluids remains a working hypothesis. It admits that other factors may determine the observed equilibrium. It leaves open the possibility that the observed flux of humors is a secondary phenomenon. Most important, it leaves physiologic equilibrium as a simple description, instead of presuming that it is a purpose with causal powers.

Given a description and a working hypothesis, physicians would look at their efforts to balance a patient’s humors with a critical eye. As a teleological assumption, with equilibrium as a “final cause” under Aristotle’s system, the idea creates an entirely different viewpoint. With  humoral balance rooted in the body’s design, variances in expected observations must be due to inadequate methods or incomplete knowledge of the humors. For this version of the “balancing the humors” hypothesis, failure is not an option.

Now, the ancient Greeks may have weathered this kind of assumption better than their heirs. They loved to fight with each other. In the face of inconsistent outcomes from humor-balancing interventions, they were likely to call Aristotle and Hippocrates idiots or just ignore the under-girding theory of causes altogether in favor of their own pet theory. Definitive statements naturally took a healthy beating in the Greeks’ intellectual environment. The Romans, and the Europeans who came after them, were much more pious.

As a result, no one questioned the teleological assumption, out of reverence for its sources, and the vital fluids persisted in medical thought owing largely to the idea of homeostasis by design. No matter how apparent the flaws in our understanding of the blood, bile and phlegm, they were somehow attached to the homeostatic goal of the body. As long as physicians saw that equilibrium as the body’s goal, they could reconcile any discrepant observations with the over-arching story and persist in practices such as bleeding. It fell to investigators outside of the medical profession to discover the secondary nature of the humors. Only then did the practices aimed at balancing the fluids truly begin to fade.

But long after bleeding and the balance of fluids fell by the wayside, the tale of homeostatic purpose continued to plague medical science. Physicians continued to view physiology as directed toward an end. For example  the heart was seen not to pump blood, but to be a pump. Therefore, medical students were instructed to never administer medications called beta-blockers to patients with heart failure.

Beta-blockers stick to proteins in the membranes of  heart cells called beta receptors, which normally bind adrenaline. Via the beta receptor proteins, adrenaline stimulates the heart to pump faster and with more force. In heart failure, the heart can’t contract forcefully or fast enough to keep up with the volume of blood returning to it from the veins. If the heart is a purpose-built pump, beta blockers should be anathema in the setting of heart failure. But in reality, when given to stabilized heart failure patients, beta blockers reduce long-term mortality by about one-third.

We don’t yet know exactly how these medicines achieve such a feat. We do know why they are not inevitably detrimental in heart failure. It is because the heart pumps, but it is not a purpose-built pump. The heart is instead a group of cells which inhabits a specialized niche in a system of many cells all with complimentary and competing characteristics, existing in a state of equilibrium which, in deference to tradition, we call homeostasis.

Our physiology doesn’t try to maintain homeostasis any more than erosion tries to form a natural arch. The arch forms (rather than crumbling like the sides of a stream-bed) because it is geometrically stable given the geology. The arch persists because it is geometrically stable, and so we frequently see natural arches where the climate and geology allow. Nobody marvels at this, speculating about a conspiracy between sandstone and weather patterns. Then again, few people have an emotional stake in natural arches. The same is true of our physiology, minus the low stakes. There is no overall homeostasis sensor or hormone in the body. There is no homeostasis conspiracy.

So, we have abandoned the notion of purpose in physiology, and that simple maneuver has allowed us to discover things like the survival benefit which beta blockers produce in heart failure. This move is the principle behind the randomized, controlled clinical trial. All along, it wasn’t ignorance holding us back, but the project of rationalizing our knowledge to traditionally understood, teleological models.

Of course, the questions driving evidence based medicine don’t start from nowhere. Scientific medicine asks questions based on the results of previous investigations and hypotheses derived from basic science discoveries regarding the components of physiology and their relationships. Some of these hypotheses are even most easily stated in terms of purpose. But those statements are now understood as metaphor, rather than bare fact.

Beyond the fecundity of this change in method, the move away from teleology finally brings some redemption for poor Hippocrates. Rather than using it as an excuse, we can understand his aphorism, “Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult “, properly again – as an admonition about method. Be skeptical. Remember that your viewpoint is limited. Watch out for overarching narratives. Good advice, and not just for medicine, but for all those turtle-ranch theorists out there (I’m looking at you intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning, evolutionary psychology…).

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Blip!

I swore I wouldn’t get into this anymore. The intelligent design crowd keeps pushing this crap, though, and I have kids who are at risk. Beyond that, I suppose intelligent design’s sort of dishonesty just galls me. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I am about to give an argument by analogy. I do so with trepidation, because analogies are always in danger of going off in the wrong direction and have no deductive validity in the first place. However, I think this form is the only fair tool for the subject since I’m going to use this argument by analogy to critique another argument by analogy: intelligent design (ID). Rather, I’m going to critique the positive arm of the intelligent design argument. This is the withered limb compared to the evolution-bashing arm, but it is necessary to the whole and the negative argument is a morass. Since scientific knowledge is never complete, critics have available to them an endless list of objections. The positive side of the ID case is more a philosophical than a scientific argument, so it can be settled on that level.

The positive ID argument is as follows: when humans start with a purpose (a problem to solve) and devise a tool to serve that purpose, the end product looks a certain way. Biological structures have a similar appearance, so biological systems must result from the same sort of process. An immediate problem arises at this point. Since proponents wish the analogy between man-made objects and biological structures to be precise the argument commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle (Designed structures look like X, Biological structures look like X, therefore Biological structures are Designed structures).

The proponents of ID subsequently introduce a number of modifiers to try to alleviate this situation. Complex specified information is not only used to portray designed and biological structures as essentially similar, it is also used to try to pare down the middle by saying it is statistically negligible. Appeals to abductive reasoning serve the same purpose, suggesting that design is so far and away the “best guess” that there’s no need to worry about the logic. There are deeper problems than the modifiers and the middle but those are the simplest things to consider, so let’s go there first. Let me tell you how I built my son a mountain bike.

The bike came in a big box in a bunch of pieces with a couple dozen pages of instructions. The instructions were complex and very specific. In fact, if you read the instructions through, you would know that a mountain bike and nothing but a mountain bike would result from following those instructions, even without actually building a bike to find out. But, I didn’t read the instructions. I know how bike parts work, so I just eyeballed the problem and figured it out. So, even though the Complex Specified Information (CSI) in the instructions has all the qualities that the advocates of biological CSI wish it to have, it doesn’t have the necessary relationship to the endpoint that those advocates want from it. There are multiple paths through the middle to the mountain bike. There is still a way out for ID, though. I must have picked up on the CSI contained in the parts themselves. It’s true. When I looked at the parts, they fit together in certain configurations and orders of assembly best, as I expected. My expectations were key, too. Over the years, bike designers had shaped those expectations, in effect teaching me to read the information they put in the parts so I could use my abductive reasoning to make a really good guess about how the parts should go together.

I use this “best guess” faculty all the time, because it is a great shortcut and pretty reliable in familiar circumstance. Notice I said ‘pretty reliable’. Also note that I said I didn’t use the instructions, but I didn’t say I threw them away. Sometimes the bike makers come up with an innovation and then my abductive reasoning is worthless and I have to rely on the instructions again to tell me what to do about the new part. I get in trouble if I try to rely on that ‘best guess’ shortcut in clinical medicine, too. The causal history of a manufactured bike is well-defined because people decided to make it that way. If the causal history of a patient’s symptoms is well-defined for me, it’s because I have decided so. Used outside of a situation with known prior constraints on the variables, the ‘good guess’ becomes confirmation bias. So, the problem is with the complex specified information. In biological structures, to achieve ‘specification’ and thus make the ‘best guess’ inference to design, the causal history has to be constrained after the fact. Anything less leaves open those pesky intermediate paths through the middle. ID imposes that constraint by assigning purpose to all biological structures it considers. Assigning purpose is easy for us humans and we like to do it because it lets us use shortcuts like guessing. Attributions of purpose (intent) are so appealing that we have trouble keeping them in the realm of human behavior where they belong (and not even there without some confirmatory process to check the attributions). Who hasn’t said their car “worked hard” to get up a steep hill? It’s just as easy to say that E. coli intends to swim to new food sources with its flagellum. In fact, it takes just that sort of presumption of intent to wrangle an object’s causal history into CSI, resulting in a bit of a Cartesian circle (if the flagellum is made for swimming, then it has a complex history treading a narrow path to that endpoint, which shows that the flagellum was made for swimming). Still, we should be able to safely use this attribution of intent after the fact in limited circumstances, as long as we’re careful, right? For instance, it is surely accurate to say that the guys who designed my son’s bike did so from an original purpose. However, even that presumption of intent from the endpoint is not accurate, and the problem with the retrospective attribution of purpose/intent in such a case leads us back to the problem with intelligent design that predates any attempt to distribute or minimize the middle.

What do we know about design? We really just know what we do and what we do requires an agent (us), a purpose, and means. The problem is that the relationship between those three factors is not linear, nor is it even hierarchical. When considering bike design, for instance, we could go back to the origin of the means via the agent and examine the influence the means then had on the agent’s intent and subsequent development of further means. We could track back to the origin of the wheel in geometry, which is in turn based on observed properties of materials, which are in turn based on some basic laws of physics, all of which humans bothered to investigate and remember in the first place because, if you are a tool-maker, it’s easier to investigate and remember than to, um, ‘reinvent the wheel’. We could trace bicycle history back to the wheel and beyond, but let’s keep it brief and just consider the design of mountain bikes.

Mountain biking started when some California bike racers moved to the country. Their new environment confronted them with the problem of riding, and of course racing, on gravel roads. Their road bikes’ narrow tires were too unstable for that purpose, so they found some preexisting cruiser bikes with wide tires that would at least be ridable on the fire roads near their homes. The cruiser bikes were not perfect. They were heavy and hard to pedal, so the riders raced them downhill. Even that compromise lead to problems though. The brakes and bearings on the cruisers couldn’t survive that kind of abuse. The riders replaced the brakes and bearings with motorcycle and road bike components. The riders soon found that the revised cruisers, now possessing cassettes of gears with the road bike bearings, were capable of riding on rough trails as well as fire roads. Trail riding prompted further modifications to the bikes. These guys in rural California invented the mountain bike, but not all at once and not out of the blue. They worked through a progressive series of problems, each leading to the next, until they arrived at a relatively stable final design that did something very different from the structure they started with. The mountain bike evolved. Of course, this is microevolution; the mountain bike is just a tweaked cruiser bike. Neither the mountain bike nor the cruiser looks anything like an old penny-farthing with the giant wheel in front. The lineage is clear though, and bike development has proceeded by the same basic process from the wheel to the velocipede to the mountain bike. Moreover, the agents in this process acted as selective forces and were acted upon by selective forces – and not just physically. As designers altered the bikes, the bikes’ new capabilities altered their conception of where and why they might ride a bike and thus their purpose in the next set of modifications.

To fingerprint design as the ID scheme misrepresents it, we really must close that Cartesian Circle by presuming intent for any and all endpoints we wish to examine. Then the history of that point is seen separated from any branches or external contingencies. If the mountain bike comes from a mountain bike factory, surely the mountain bike factory holds the entire explanation for its structure. When defined after the fact like this, the history of a structure looks irreducibly complex; if you take away one part it is rendered meaningless because it is its own context. ID’s analogy between designed structures and biological structures not only fails to distribute the middle, it doesn’t even accurately depict design processes as we undertake them. People, the source of everything we know about design, don’t start cold from an undetermined purpose and design toward that purpose in an implacable, irreducibly complex chain of events. Replication may work a bit like that, but not design.

What this method really does is provide for a hierarchical relationship between presumed intent and biological structures, where the intent causes the structure. Such a relationship seems to allow for a supernatural cause. This is why ID’s advocates have gone through such contortions to make it work (or at least look like it might). Yet the intelligent design model fails even as a portal for the supernatural. It offers no solution to the interaction problem in dualism. This is a real problem because, as far as I can tell, one tenant of ID is that the design process in nature is ongoing. To drag a spiritual being into the material world and have it start doing things, one has to explain how it does so without being in some way beholden to the same laws, and thus part of the same causal history, as the rest of matter. If there is no good explanation, then the spiritual being from another realm is just a bizarre, unexpected new part of nature. Though this may seem an obscure technicality at first glance, here is an example of just how sticky the problem really is.

Descartes tried to defend the independence of the mind from brain processes. He offered the analogy of a virtuoso violinist asked to play on a broken instrument. The listener would have no clue as to his true skill. Likewise the damaged, diseased, or intoxicated brain may just be a broken instrument unable to give voice to the intact mind which plays upon it. Unfortunately, this analogy raises the question: May the virtuoso be a virtuoso without a violin? Study of music theory or any other purely mental operation is insufficient. He must play a physical violin. Yet the skill he gains is a mental faculty which is subject to his creativity, religious concepts, and emotion. The brain and its adjuncts affect the mind. There is no escape from this problem in a world of two supposedly separate substances in active contact. Deism or a strict idealism offer the only outs (and Deism may just push the problem back in time). Either of these scenarios keeps the supernatural supernatural, but thereby makes it irrelevant to any practical understanding of nature/matter. This is why it is best for religion that science adhere to methodological naturalism. This is why intelligent design is insidious as well as invalid, for all concerned. It robs religion of any hope of philosophical integrity, just as it misrepresents biology. Reason enough for everyone to drop this bullshit for good.

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