Sunday, October 15, 2006

On Inference to Design in the North Korea Bomb test case

The properly scientific status of the inference to design from traces in the physical world, is often controversial. So much so, that those who attempt it are often dismissed as making improper injections of the religious into the domain of science.

Some time ago, I took this issue up, by pointing out first of all, a longstanding observation made by Cicero:

Is it possible for any man to behold these things, and yet imagine that certain solid and individual bodies move by their natural force and gravitation, and that a world so beautifully adorned was made by their fortuitous concourse? He who believes this may as well believe that if a great quantity of the one-and-twenty letters, composed either of gold or any other matter, were thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such order as legibly to form the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether fortune could make a single verse of them. How, therefore, can these people assert that the world was made by the fortuitous concourse of atoms, which have no color, no quality—which the Greeks call [poiotes], no sense? [Cicero, THE NATURE OF THE GODS BK II Ch XXXVII, C1 BC, as trans Yonge (Harper & Bros., 1877), pp. 289 - 90.]

In that context, I then observed that we routinely make design inferences in contexts where we detect a functionally specific, complex message; e.g. when we download a web page -- there is, strictly speaking, no logical or physical reason why we should not "receive" a web page which is in fact just a matter of "lucky noise." But, once the thresholds of "sufficient" complexity AND specified functionality are passed, such an inference is so highly improbable that we instead routinely conclude that web pages are artifacts of intelligent agents at work. Oddly, even Dawkins makes such a remark, in his The Blind Watchmaker (1987), p. 8:

Hitting upon the lucky number that opens the bank's safe is the equivalent, in our analogy, of hurling scrap metal around at random and happening to assemble a Boeing 747. [NB: originally, this imagery is due to Hoyle, who used it to argue that life on earth bears characteristics that strongly suggest design. His suggestion: panspermia -- i.e. life drifted here, or else was planted here.] Of all the millions of unique and, with hindsight equally improbable, positions of the combination lock, only one opens the lock. Similarly, of all the millions of unique and, with hindsight equally improbable, arrangements of a heap of junk, only one (or very few) will fly. The uniqueness of the arrangement that flies, or that opens the safe, has nothing to do with hindsight. It is specified in advance. [Parenthetical note added, in tribute to the late Sir Fred Hoyle.]

So, when we see other cases of such FSCI, we need a good reason indeed to infer to such equally improbable chance causes, or else we are being grossly inconsistent.

Thus, we need to look carefully indeed at the cases: the
origin of life, the origin of macro-level biodiversity, and the origin of the cosmos, all of which evidently exhibit the same pattern, FSCI. In so doing, we need to re-examine whether we are improperly begging worldview level questions, buy allowing the attempted -- and historically inaccurate -- redefinition of science as in effect the best materialistic explanation of the world from hydrogen to humans, to prevail without first subjecting it to critical analysis.

Now, in
the North Korean bomb test claim case, a similar issue is at work, according to Luskin of Evolution News and Views, a Discovery Institute affiliated newsblog:

This week, seismologists were met with the unfortunate news that North Korea probably tested a nuclear weapon. The task of seismologists in the free world has been to confirm whether the North Korean government was truthful when they claimed they tested a nuke. Whether they realize it or not, scientists currently working to verify if North Korea has conducted a nuclear test are actually engaging in an exercise in intelligent design. They are trying to distinguish between naturally caused seismic energy and seismic energy which was artificially produced by an explosion caused by intelligence. Such studies are possible because explosions, particularly large ones like nuclear blasts, produce a distinctly different seismic signature from natural earthquakes . . . . In short, nuclear explosions produce strong compressionary waves (called p-waves) with energy that travels like compressions along a slinky, and weak shear waves (called s-waves) with energy that moves up and down, like the motion created when one snaps one end of a rope. Naturally occurring earthquakes produce the opposite signature: stronger s-wave energy but weaker p-waves. (See Seismic detectives go underground or Monitoring Clandestine Nuclear Tests for good discussions.) These distinct signatures allow for design inferences to be made, or rejected . . . .
Making such design inferences can require much scientific analysis. For example, "if an underground blast is smaller than one kiloton, it's difficult to distinguish between the natural sounds of the earth and an actual explosion," and "it takes a long time to interpret data" (see Verifying Nuclear Test Blasts FAQ).
But difficulties in detecting intelligent causation in seismic energy don't prevent scientists from trying to detect, or reject design. When they do verify a nuclear explosion, they have made a design inference. One scientist stated in the overtly anti-ID Seed Magazine that the recent North Korean seismic event was not a natural event, but was designed: "The peculiarity of the seismic waves indicated there was an artificial explosion, not a natural earthquake."

So, inference to design is popping up as a scientific question with policy implications in some very interesting places, indeed. Maybe, then, those who think Judge Jones had the last word on Design theory need to do a rethink? END

1 comment:

Bart Nielsen said...

Hi Gordon,

Good catch on the intelligent design aspect of detecting nuclear tests. Thanks for the links, too. It seems like the opponents of such things as irreducible complexity like to just stick their fingers in their ears and shout,"La la la!" It really is nice to read your articles without the usual suspects trotting out the same objections over and over and never interacting with anything you say.