Monday, April 1, 2013

Technoscience, Existentialism, and the Fact-Value Dichotomy

How do values arise from facts? How is the human world of ideals, moral judgments, and priorities justified in the midst of the natural, scientifically-described world of material things and mindless, physical processes? Can we understand values without committing the naturalistic fallacy of inferring a prescription of what’s right solely from descriptions of what’s objectively the case? Or will science eventually explain everything in objective terms, leaving no subjective world of values and ideals, thus dehumanizing us?

The oldest way of explaining the difference between facts and values is to posit some kind of metaphysical dualism: on the one hand, there’s the impersonal world of material bodies, while on the other there’s spirit, soul, or consciousness, some immaterial, immortal essence of personhood. This division in turn is traditionally explained, in ancient religions throughout the world, by saying there’s a supernatural, otherworldly realm which our immaterial essence calls home. Because people seem so out of place in mostly-mindless nature, the ancients assumed that we came from somewhere else, from some heaven in which values and ideals predominate instead of lifeless interactions of atoms. Somehow we fell from grace or some colossal blunder was made by some inferior or meddling deity, and so we wound up here, away from our spiritual home. The reason, then, values and ideals seem so out of place in the world of objective, material facts is that they are literally out of place: there are two places and we’re presently stuck in the wrong one!

That’s why prescriptions don’t follow logically just from descriptions. Just because we may actually want to steal someone’s wallet or even give our money to charity, doesn’t automatically mean we ought to do so. The ideal, heavenly world consisting of whatever ought to be isn’t the same as the natural world of whatever happens as a result of accidents and causal regularities. Thus, there are two independent kinds of laws or logics that these worlds follow. Heaven is governed directly by God, the wise source of all goodness, whereas nature is somehow ungoverned and self-evolving, or perhaps governed by an evil god or demon which would explain why we’re imprisoned where we don’t belong.

Plato’s world of abstract Forms is a classic example, although he took as evidence of the supernatural realm mathematics, especially the set of ideal relationships defined by geometry, rather than the more general phenomena of our striving to achieve our goals and to live up to our ideals. Aristotle famously dealt with the conflict between facts and values by analyzing the concept of a process. He distinguished between potentials and actualities, which allowed him to relate the ideal state of all material things to their actual state. Thus, a rock is better off in one place (closer to the earth) rather than another (in the sky), and the same is true for the air and for all configurations of elements. Thus, it’s not just people who are out of place: all natural states of affairs are in the process of fulfilling their potential, which is to say their purpose, or what’s good for something of their type.

Aquinas merged ancient Greek metaphysics with Christian theology and for centuries that synthesis was the standard way of looking at the problem in Europe until the Scientific Revolution, when scientists successfully explained natural processes without appealing to any purposes or to what Aristotle called “final causes.” Instead, nature came to be thought of as a domain of “efficient causes,” of immediate interactions (concatenations) with no forethought or end in view. This modern naturalism reestablished the old fears that prompted theistic dualism and pantheistic teleology in the first place. The existential worries that people don’t fundamentally belong in nature, and that we’re cursed by our reason and our awareness of how different we are from everything else, including other animals, are primary. Children and teens go through a painful phase of existential awakening; cultures do as well, depending on the persuasiveness of their shifting religious and philosophical solutions. By undermining the Thomistic framework, modern science obliges us to consider existentialism, the philosophy of anxiety and alienation.

And indeed, existentialism did have its heyday in the last century, but this was only a fad driven by the popularity of Sartre and Camus after WWII. Most Westerners deal with modern anxiety not by turning to philosophy, but by embracing the modern substitutes for religion, which are liberal secular humanism and consumerism.

The Technoscientific Undoing of Impersonal Facts

Let’s look a little closer at the modern world of facts. A fact is something that is what it is regardless of what anyone thinks or feels about it. The paradigmatic way of discovering what the facts are is to use the scientific methods to detach from our prejudices and preferences, to look objectively at the evidence and appeal to the best explanation, given certain values of rationality. Scientists employ artificial and highly rigorous languages to describe nature without resorting to rhetorical tricks that prey on people’s emotions. And what scientists have discovered is the atomic cosmos, a world driven not by gods but by chaotic quantum fluctuations that add up to regular patterns. Unlike theistic metaphors which gratuitously import human personalities to natural processes, the impersonal order of nature isn’t a projection of the scientist’s objective stance; rather, we’ve reasoned that fundamentally the real world has only that order. We are not crucial to that reality but are accidental byproducts of the cosmos’s alien evolutions to nowhere. (For the sake of argument, I leave aside the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics.)

So human values are inessential to the real world. Whatever we may feel about physical processes, those processes are as scientific theories explain them with relative neutrality, contrary to New Age metaphysical idealism according to which mind is more primary than matter. And yet this isn’t the end of the story, because as far as I can tell this account of modern naturalism itself presupposes a kind of dualism. The idea is supposed to be that scientific theories are passive, objective mirrors that correspond to the facts that make up the real world. But the theories must be part of that reality, as must the scientists and their methods of rational inquiry. So however neutral, detached, passionless, objective, rigorous, and ingenious a scientist may be, that scientist isn’t torn from all of nature so that she’s afforded a godlike view literally from nowhere, from outside the cosmos.

No, there is some natural process afoot even in the very scientific explanation of things, and I don’t think we need look far to see this process in action. Science is a tool that certain clever mammals use as a means of transforming natural facts to the mammals’ benefit. We learn what reality’s like, to exploit the mindlessness and thus the helplessness of physically interacting chunks of matter; scientific theories lay bare how nature operates on its own, and we naturally use that information to transform nature with engineering. The technological applications of science aren’t accidental, meaning that we don’t choose to apply what our reason tells us, on a whim; instead, the curiosity, audacity, greed, desperation, and other human characteristics that motivate the rational inquiries that are perfected in modern science motivate also the engineering that puts those discoveries to work. Presumably, these motivations are part of some natural development in which mindless reality causes minds to impose mindfulness onto the former reality. Here, then, is the relevant point: whereas scientists discover that nature is mostly mindless, science doesn’t stand alone but is part of a natural process I call technoscience, and the process ends by a tangible projection of human values. Instead of speculating that invisible gods or monsters lie behind natural regularities, what we mammals do in so far as we’re rational is we use science to create technology to erase the mindlessness of nature and replace it with an artificial version that’s defined by our ideals.

In fact, technoscience may be a process of creating the very so-called supernatural heaven that theists have been fantasizing about for millennia. If we feel alienated in nature, because we’re social beings and the universe is cold, indifferent, and mostly lethal, and we have no obvious or proven means of escape back to our longed-for spiritual home, perhaps we can build the escape hatch and the spiritual realm, by creating the perfect civilization. Indeed, if science is a crucial part of this natural development, in which mammals physically personify nature, not just by imagining living things behind natural processes but by engineering those processes and replacing impersonal causes with artificial functions, so too the dualistic speculations may play a part in this development. Perhaps theism is a way of envisioning what we’re naturally bound to create, a way of motivating us by supplying us with models to guide the engineering process, just as a movie makeup artist, for example, sketches the finished creature before attempting to use the raw materials to fabricate the pieces and put together the costume. Perhaps we see ghosts, gremlins, and gods wherever we look not just because we’re afraid of being alone in an inhospitable jungle or because we choose to be superstitious or vain, but because those visions motivate us to transform nature, to make it less mindless. Perhaps the posthuman technological utopia is the end of a natural process that brings heaven to life on earth, all things being equal.

On this view, then, facts aren’t entirely divorced from values. True, nature is what it is regardless of what we think or feel about it. Scientific theories are true because they correspond with facts. However, the process of discovery isn’t the end of the story: how we think or feel about the facts does tend to alter the facts indirectly, through our technology. We aren’t the sorts of creatures that leave the facts alone as soon as we understand them. No, we plan to put that knowledge to use whenever we can. We use science as an instrument in a colossal engineering project. And when we merge our labour with the facts, how we feel about the world does shape what that world becomes. Given modern naturalism, those values and ideals don’t come from some supernatural realm but are elements of a natural process of adapting the world to our preferences. There is no mind that plans from the start this undoing of nature’s mindlessness; rather, minds evolve and are impersonally caused to do what they do best, to impose themselves on everything.

This can be seen, then, as a reworking of Aristotle’s teleological cosmology. Instead of saying that everything has an objective potential in some quasi-normative sense of purpose, the point is that one way in which nature evolves happens to transform at least parts of nature by instilling them with purpose. Initially, the purposes here are subjective, but the minds responsible for them act on their goals and intelligently recreate as much of nature as they can, so that the recreation is as objectively purposeful as any piece of actual technology.

What becomes of the question of how values arise from facts? Well, free-floating values, that is, speculations or ideals that aren’t yet technologically applied, are like prototypes, motivating just such applications which turn facts into hybrids of facts and values, replacing the parts of nature produced only by lifeless evolution with artificial environments filled with technologies that may one day humanize the cosmos. Take all the scientific explanations of the mechanisms involved in our choosing to set priorities, pursue goals, and worship sacred things. These explanations point to neurological processes, natural selection, social dynamics, and historical contingencies, but all of them amount to spelling out the concrete steps in a larger process of transformation within nature, as we take what’s inside us--our dreams, fears, and hopes--and incarnate them in the artificial worlds we build, including the infrastructure of our cities and our cultural practices. First, nature builds transformers, namely minds that entertain ideas, and then those minds embody those ideas in the outer world: we use those ideas as motivations to build things that are as much governed by meanings as they are determined by physical laws.

Existential Revolt and the Fact-Value Dichotomy

To summarize, we have the naturalistic fallacy which takes the logic of values to be the same as the logic of facts. This has been a source of philosophical and religious dualism, the ancient form of which spoke of two realms, fallen nature and heaven, to accommodate two types of entities, the chunk of matter and the immaterial spirit. Modern science focuses on the natural world but establishes another kind of dualism in spite of its monistic tendency to explain as much as possible in the simplest terms. The notion of scientific objectivity leads naïve supporters of science to presuppose that scientists have a view from absolutely nowhere, which allows scientific theories to stand outside of nature so that their special Truth consists in a magical mirroring between the arcane symbols of the scientist’s artificial language and the facts. When we dispense with this dogmatic worship of science, we’re still left with the more modest dualism of directions as opposed to places: technoscience reverses nature’s mindlessness by externalizing our minds.

Now, there’s a nonscientific version of this reversal: the existential, ascetic revolt against nature. Here, the motivations aren’t skepticism, curiosity, greed, or the urge to dominate. Instead, the outsider is disgusted by nature’s inhumanity; anxious about the fact that the fewer delusions we have, the more homeless we feel; and inspired to create art of one kind or another, to make the best of these impulses and to replace the offending world with one more congenial to accursed and doomed creatures like us. Thus, whereas most modernists participate in the technoscientific transformation of nature, by embracing liberal secular humanism and its institutions of democracy and capitalism which dehumanize the masses, turning them into sheep that must consume on an unsustainable scale to keep the money flowing and the wheels of industry turning, a minority go all the way with modern anxiety, turning to existentialism and to ascetic traditions. The revolt against nature has had theistic rationalizations, as in Hinduism and Gnosticism, but the version which best takes into account the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment philosophy proceeds from atheistic existential assumptions. Mind you, Jainism is an ancient atheistic religion of revolt against nature; indeed, Nietzsche was effectively a Jain.

The main point here, though, is that the dichotomy between facts and values can be understood in terms of this revolt. The reason prescriptions don’t follow smoothly from descriptions isn’t that there are two metaphysically separate worlds, but that nature reverses itself when it evolves sentient creatures. Values aren’t reducible to facts, because values indirectly replace facts. This is why there’s a fallacy of speaking as if facts were all-encompassing. On the contrary, throughout our history we’ve turned facts, which is to say things that are what they are regardless of what anyone thinks or feels about them, into cultural products that are subjectively meaningful and also objectively designed and functional.

If you prefer monotheism to atheistic naturalism, you should still consider some degree of existential rebellion. This is because the purest expression of monotheism combines Gnosticism and Philipp Mainlander’s theology, leaving us with the myth of divine creation as an act of deicide, in which case the natural universe is God’s decaying corpse. This amounts to a curious version of pantheism. God is literally dying but not yet completely dead: his body must create all finite configurations of elements, so that God’s transcendent being can be transmuted into a body that can finally be extinguished. This process of divine decay is horrific and depressing, and as sentient transformers of the factual environment, we seem poised to play an unusual role in this process. We embody God’s second thought: while the cosmos shuffles on to its eventual Heat Death or Big Crunch, we become aware of this horror and rebel against it by creating cultural worlds that better live up to our ideals. Now, God’s will shall ultimately triumph: our creations are finite and so they serve God’s suicidal intention, by adding to the list of creations that must be eliminated in time for the expunging of God’s infinite being. Still, although the revolt of the outsider, artist, omega, or ascetic is futile, this revolt is the best we can do under our dire circumstances. I hasten to add that this version of monotheism is an internal criticism of the whitewashes of monotheism that pass for mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is intended as a highly speculative myth in the nonpejorative sense, which is to say that this myth is just a fictional story that encodes certain universal convictions.


  1. If darkness were light, your despair would be brilliant. You are a triumph of the randomization of evolution; of the black jungle whispered to us of our past.

    No red herring, bloody glove, or snooty butler, you, but a mere shadow in the night, missed by even the penultimate among the cleverest of readers. So well-meaning, so honest, and so comparatively minor, you're the highest form of operative, if operative you are, and the most tragic thinker, if honest.

    You have been carefully guided to this point by the subtle manipulations of the presentation of pasts and experiments. Your conclusions will, in time, be the religion of the future: you are a stunning visionary to the corrupt mayor of the 2300s cyberpunk megacity, and a sad, prejudiced, late-feudal ascetic to the irradiated roamer of the 2700s.

    1. Wow! This has to be the coolest backhanded compliment I think I've ever gotten. ;) Thanks, High Arka, for that poetry. I think it's pretty insightful, although I wouldn't expect my conclusions to be part of a future religion. Don't forget that even if some obscure writer's work happens accidentally to be picked up by future generations, that work will be twisted, reinterpreted, and interpolated to suit the agendas of the later dominators. But it is fun to fantasize that the outsiders (artists, omegas, introverts, drifters, and mystics) will somehow have the last laugh.

    2. This one is delighted that you perceived the compliment. =]

      You are not, as you say, a "scientist," in the sense of a formal degree or profession. However, your inquiries are scientific in the sense that you formulate hypotheses, test them against observations, and draw conclusions therefrom. Your observations aren't cited, but formal scientists ignore cited observations, and overemphasize others, when convenient. So, that's not a problem.

      What is a problem, for the purposes of your philosophy, is that not all of your factual bases are correct. You conclude, for example, that we are ruled by corrupt plutocrats, based on your observations of plutocrats in action--that's correct. A lot of people are unable to figure that out, because they are caught up in the plutocrats' illusions of voting, or the existence of nation-states.

      You also conclude, though, that nature is mindless, based on an understanding of the plutocrats' cosmological illusions. The narratives of randomized evolution, and absolute beginnings and endings, are created by elites as a more advanced trap for more advanced people like you: people smart enough to have seen past tribal loyalties, deistic codes, Big Man politics, or consumer-choice freedoms.

      Consider what you think of as "evolution," for example. It seems as though evolution is random, yet the ultimate effect of evolution, even accepting single-instant godlike creation, has been scattered matter evolving to planets evolving to, say, Haydn's music (insert preferred "good" thing here). That seems like several million years of evidence that evolution tends to improve, and if the process were what we think of as random, an aggregate tendency toward improvement would be extremely unlikely.

      Within what you think of as formal science, you might draw more accurate information from the work of Hannes Alfvén, and plasma physics and cosmology. You've rejected the political science of elite corporate media, but not portions of their physical science, so, in a very real sense, they still have you thinking within realms that they control.

    3. To clarify, I don't think oligarchs rule everyone. Some minorities are outside the system (the philosophers, artists, introverts, omegas, mystics, etc). I appreciate your point that intellectuals can be propagandized. Indeed, the sociologist Jacques Ellul said intellectuals are easier to brainwash than less reflective folks, because intellectuals take ideas seriously in the first place and so can become dogmatic. I think politics affects social sciences more than physics and math, though. Any conspiracy theory against philosophical naturalism itself must counter the mountains of evidence in favour of natural selection, quantum mechanics, and the standard model of particle physics.

      But if we're talking about the philosophical debate between metaphysical idealism/New Age mysticism and metaphysical realism/naturalism, I've talked a lot about this in "Varieties of Mysticism," "The Life of Pi's Argument for Theism," and the last section of "The Psychedelic Basis of Theism" (links below). I try to treat these big metaphysical theories as myths, as works of art that move us. Some art moves some people more than others. I'm a naturalist rather than a proponent of New Age spirituality, because existential cosmicism (EC), which assumes naturalism, makes better sense of my life experience.

      So when you say that EC works within the degrading framework of the elite corporate media controlled by the oligarchs, I respond that EC is an internal criticism of the worst-case philosophical scenario (atheistic naturalism). I throw myself into the most gut-wrenching worldview and ask how we can redeem ourselves even if there's no God or transcendent justice or morality, and most of our social conventions are based on delusions. I don't presuppose atheistic naturalism, natural selection, and the Standard Model so much as I set myself the task of sublimating the philosophy that ties all that together, treating it as a work of art that has the potential to degrade us by forcing us to flee to fantasy worlds that rob us of our existential authenticity.

      Again, I try to see EC as an internal criticism of the worst-case scenario philosophy, as a way out that lends us more dignity than philosophies that don't take that scenario as seriously as does EC.

    4. Regarding evolution, I agree with you that it's not just random, but standard biologists agree as well that natural selection doesn't amount to randomness. On the contrary, natural selection is an orderly environmental process of sifting and conserving order, building on the randomness at the genetic level. (Richard Dawkins makes this point against the creationist's strawman of evolution.) Likewise, I talk about cosmic complexification and evolution outside of biology. Complexification is the vertical (synchronic) process of building galaxies out of atoms. Properties emerge from lower levels of physical activity. I think these processes aren't random, but neither are they the work of any mind (unless we're entertaining my dark version of monotheism). Nature is UNDEAD, according to my way of seeing things: neither lifeless nor spiritually alive, but an orderly system that horrifies by its mockery of our spiritual aspirations.

      If you're saying that cosmic evolution is progressive, that natural processes improve on themselves, I'd say those assessments are subjective and anthropocentric. I could just as easily say that the developments are regressive because the advent of humans introduces a greater capacity for evil in the world. Still, I agree that the highest value is creativity, and nature is the undead god because it's self-creative. So when we create art and when we see our lives from an aesthetic viewpoint, we do our best with our existential predicament. To that extent, cosmic evolutions produce something tragically beautiful when they produce us.

    5. If you'd look into plasma cosmology, you'd find that we're actually at the point of a philosophical debate about the merits of current science. You suggest mountains of evidence supporting quantum mechanics and the standard model, but that is evidence interpreted in a certain way. There are also mountains of evidence that the U.S. is the greatest democracy in the world, the most charitable nation in all of human history, and constantly under assault by freedom-hating Islamic supremacists despite its innocent, giving nature.

      Evidence can mean any number of things, of course, and grand consensuses of experts can be reached on any number of flawed conclusions. If you approach plasma cosmology with the intellectual rigor with which you approach other philosophical topics, you'll find that the Genesis creationism of elite physics is overwhelmingly contradicted, yet still enjoys elite funding and a massive consensus of worldview--exactly because it leads to conclusions like yours about the nature of power and the inevitable misery of existence.

      Sudden, cataclysmic, reasonless beginnings, and the inevitable Ragnaroks they imply, void the worth of what we do here, and justify relativism and power abuse. From the Torah to American evangelicals, big-bang creations and fiery deaths go hand in hand with futile outlooks, even if they pay lip service to the occasional unavoidable discovery about larger solar systems or cellular predecessors.

    6. That's an interesting question, High Arka, about the connection between cosmology and politics. I think there's a mountain of evidence for QM and the Standard Model, but questions about ultimate beginnings and endings are more open. The multiverse interpretation of QM complicates this too, I'd think. I'm not dogmatic about the Big Bang theory. I even entertain my version of monotheism, but I give that speculation the lack of cognitive credit it deserves. I think it's possible that most scientists defend the Big Bang theory for conservative reasons in Kuhn's sense (Big Bang Theory is normal science and evidence of anomalies is swept under the rug). But I doubt very much that philosophy comes into cosmologists' nonscientific calculus.

      This is a postmodern criticism of science, which says that issues of gender, power, and so forth are decisive even in any pretense to rationality. I agree that this is often so, but I do think science is exceptional and is therefore perhaps the biggest problem for postmodern subjectivism. One of the easiest responses is the pragmatic one: scientific theories don't just reduce to sexism, racism, or oligarchic conspiracies, because the theories can be technologically applied. Maybe plasma cosmology would work better but isn't being funded, because scientists protect their turf. Sure, I can understand that. But don't you think the scientific methods provide some checks against our tendency to look at problems from our biased viewpoints? Isn't that the best explanation for the success of technoscience?

      I also don't see why Creationism and Big Bang Theory should have the same existential implications. Surely, theists can be more optimistic because they think God comes first and last. Naturalists leave the ultimate beginning as more of a mystery, or at least as much more alien.

  2. "Perhaps the posthuman technological utopia is the end of a natural process that brings heaven to life on earth, all things being equal. "

    Except that our current technological utopia is based on a ready availability of energy (and water, and food, and a STABLE CLIMATE etc. etc. etc.) that may be a delusion. I posit that High Arka's irradiated roamer is a lot closer than the 2700s.

    1. This is a good point, of course. Futurists can be optimistic or pessimistic. Reportedly, there's consensus among scientists that global warming is a done deal and we're screwed unless we radically change our ways or some miraculous technology is invented. But I'm a little torn about this. Naturally, I give credit to scientists, but there are also major political agendas involved. Look at the American medical and psychiatric industries, the way the drugs steer the diagnoses. There's such a thing as pure, theoretical science, but then there's the larger process of technoscience that I talk about in this article and elsewhere. The bottom line for me is that it's hard to know how badly the politics has infected the science unless you're a scientist yourself, which I'm not.

    2. Brian M, consider The Basics of Hope, or Intermediate Hope.

      And dear Benjamin, the politics has not only infected the science; it is the science. Funding goes to weapons design (which includes bioengineering), the control of natural resources for continued elite usage, and the occasional spinoff product for the consumer market. In our current dark ages, there have been no substantial inventions since, what--the car, the airplane, the computer? Things get smaller, go faster, and have more features, but the strides are not occurring right now, because what began as science has become a stunted ideology of toy-trinketing for corrupt, mentally-damaged elites.

    3. Hi Arka ;-)

      What makes the car, the airplane and the computer "substantial inventions"?

      Also you wrote: "if the process were what we think of as random, an aggregate tendency toward improvement would be extremely unlikely."

      I don't really understand why randomness makes improvment unlikely. And don't you make a pretty big assumption by saying "aggregate tendency" when we only have our earthly view into this huge universe?

    4. ;-)

      "Substantial" is relative, there. No doubt, some were missed in that abbreviated list, but take substantial to mean dramatic enough that their changing of the face of the world was many degrees more of an impact than the impact of, say, dirigibles, paper clips, or Gatorade. The relative glut of inventions during industrialism has tapered off, if not vanished entirely. Maybe that's a good thing, if you think cars pollute too much or airplanes lead to long range bombers.

      The closest thing the most recent generation has to an "invention" is the internet, which is just another step in computer networking (or another version of the telegraph). From the perspective here, it doesn't seem like that much of a gap, but if you plot major trinket-design against history, we're in rather a dark ages lull here.

      (Continued for space reasons)

    5. Why does randomness make improvement unlikely? Well, say we have a large oceanic species with organism members consisting of, oh, 10 trillion cells. It reproduces many times, and somewhere over the course of a handful of millions of years, so many of those 10 trillion cells mutate during reproduction, and in such a curiously unified fashion, that a brand new organ is developed which has the potential for breathing what we think of as "air," rather than filtering seawater.

      Let's also go out on a limb and say that this organ develops in such a way that it does not replace the original breathing organ, thereby killing the offspring before they can exit the ocean.

      Now, that seems like a lot of random chances already, even considering millions of years of attempts, but what is the chance that this organ will not only appear to begin with, but randomly mutate into the organism's central mass, rather than growing within a new appendage, upon the organism's skin, replacing or interfering with a different vital organ, or growing in separated pieces.

      Probability suggests that 99%, or some much higher number of these mutations, even if they develop into a functional breathing organ (and not a non-functional one, or one that falls off), will occur in a part of the body where the presence of the new organ will cause immediate mortality.

      But, put all that aside. Assume that, out of the giant conceived universe, billions of light years across, over millions of years of the evolution of life after planets were formed at the right point relative to stars, this sea creature does, in fact, develop that organ; that the organ is within the organism's central mass, and, that it develops in such a way, over thousands of strains of the organism, that it does not replace the original breathing organ during the process, and kill the evolved organisms.

      (space constraint again)

    6. Our probabilities here are extremely tiny already, if we're assuming that those 10 trillion cells are mutating randomly in each new strain. How incredibly unlikely is it that the new organ would be generated for such an outlandish purpose? Why have not an equal number of organisms not also developed new organs that could respirate pure ammonia? Considering that the air-breathing organ is worthless until it's completed, and would kill the creature if it replaced the original ocean-water-filtering organ beforehand, there would be an equal chance that ammonia-breathing lungs, or nitrogen-only-breathing lungs, or some other type of lung, would be developed. The chance alone that an air-breathing lung would develop is, itself, microscopic.

      But, but, putting that aside again, because the universe is big, assume we've bypassed all that, and that somehow, we have this ocean creature which has spent millions of years developing this air-breathing lung, and that it is now ready to go--to climb out of the water and begin developing legs. (Why didn't it also develop legs, randomly, while still in the ocean? The air-breathing lungs were worthless underwater, so obviously, it should be able to develop other worthless random mutations also. An equal number of legs should be developed alongside these cool new air-lungs.)

      Even assuming all that, what are the chances that, simultaneously, this new organ has developed in conjunction with a working set of external openings, connected by operable passages between the new organ and the outside world?

      If you begin multiplying the probability of each change occurring randomly--"one in a million," say, even though that's quite generous, out of 10 trillion cells--by the probability of each other change also occurring randomly, in a way that complements the many other necessary changes, the probability gets so tiny that it overshadows the size of the known universe.

      The conclusion to this is a faith-based one, i.e., "We're here because it worked out that way." Occam's Razor, though, suggests that a random understanding of evolution is flawed. That media stooge Dawkins (and others) have tried to vaguely suggest, without evidence, that it still works out (and Benjamin, this one would be delighted to see which Dawkins thing you were referring to above), but far more likely is that what we call "evolution" is a process that occurs more as an interaction between structured matter, and energy flows. That's why incredibly, impossibly unlikely things, like hominid brain size increasing far more rapidly and uniformly than randomness would allow, happen.

      And if there is such an interaction, how? Do cells communicate with air molecules? Do the air molecules whisper, "Learn how to breathe us" to the DNA?

      Incidentally, everything this one is suggesting here makes Mr. Cain's conclusions about a divine, yet wicked plan more likely. :D

    7. First, I'd like to thank you for the thorough and fast reply. I'm not sure if I can make an equal effort given my limited time and lingual capacities.
      However, so 'sustantial' for you means the degree by which they are changing the face of the world. I could point to the numerous inventions that are part of the computer technology, like the mobile phone, tablet-PCs, photovoltaic cells, bioengineering, Sony Playstation 3 or somethink like that, or more importantly to the improvements of robotics and medical technologies, but I take your reply to this to be "just another step in computer networking". The problem I see is the following: In the case of the internet, mobile phone etc. you point to the context of the inventions, that they are "only" part of another invention (the telegraph and other less recent ones). But in the case of the car, plane and computer you suggest to ignore the context, when in fact those inventions are also only part of a longer chain of inventions that led to them. So why not say that the car is "just another step" in wheel/carriage technology. Every inventions comes with a context so this reply doesn't seem satisfying to me.

      (Continued for aesthetical reasons)

    8. In your argument against the unlikeliness you are also disregarding that your organism is living in an changing environment. Alexander - if you allow me to vigorously baptise him such even if this might falsely imply that we are talking only of one special organism - is strifing to keep as many cells as he needs to survive for as long as a time as possible. And Alexander, having numerous enemies that would like nothing more than to snatch some of his beloved cells, sometimes needs to leave his "comfort zone", the area where he can most fully express himself given his attributes. So over the millenia his comfort zone might vary as much as to transcend the ocean and and slowly Alexander might feel the need to develop the ability breath air so as to better fit into his bivalent environment.

      So you see that the developed organ in no stage of the process is, what you called "useless". It only develops under the special conditions of needing it. But as we all know: language is a bitch (or to use proper censorship: "b****"). Some critics might say: 'There you have your intention, your divine guidance' but to that I have to reply that the closer you look at the random aspect of the process, the more you see that for this no such guidance is needed, to emphasize: possible, but not needed.

      Regarding the unlikeliness which you mathematically suggest I would like to point to the fact that ANY possible outcome in this theory has the same possibility.

      (have to stop for)

    9. Okay, back again.

      For further clarification of my last point. Say that there is a potential for developing "cool new air-lungs", then the probability for them developing is in principle 50/50. Do you know what the quincunx or Galton box is? That's the principle behind this and even if the propabilities of one single outcome is low, the probability of there being an out come is 100%.

      There are a few things that caught my eye in you comments:

      "Probability suggests that 99%, or some much higher number of these mutations,[...], will occur in a part of the body where the presence of the new organ will cause immediate mortality."
      - That may be true and is basically in congruence with the theory of natural selection (survival of the fittest means exactly this: some mutations are bad and don't succeed)

      "...there would be an equal chance that ammonia-breathing lungs, or nitrogen-only-breathing lungs, or some other type of lung, would be developed."
      - That's also true, but if you look at Earth you will see that ammonia or nitrogen exist in much lower quantities than "air" or water, so on Earth developing a system based on them is better.

      "Why didn't it also develop legs, randomly, while still in the ocean?"
      -Maybe it did, but they were of no use so they didn't develop to their full growth.

      "That's why incredibly, impossibly unlikely things, like hominid brain size increasing far more rapidly and uniformly than randomness would allow, happen."
      Can you give evidence or a link that shows why that should be "impossibly unlikely"?

      " should be able to develop other worthless random mutations also."
      It is and that's exactly what is happening every day. Some mutations are minor like for a human to have a big nose and don't have any "positive" or "negative" effect at all.

    10. High Arka,

      I agree there's some politics in technoscience, especially in the funding of applications and in the ways Thomas Kuhn discussed. But the scientific methods (testing of hypotheses, public confirmation, repeatability, etc) take much ordinary subjectivity and politics out of the picture. That's what makes science special.

      As to evolution, are you arguing against natural selection in general or are you talking just about the creation of life? Are you saying adaptations couldn't happen without intelligent design or that life couldn't come initially from nonlife? The Dawkins quote comes from The Blind Watchmaker: "Mutation is random; natural selection is the very opposite of random."

      What I think biologists say about the probabilities (and William Paley's argument for intelligent design) is that miracles look less improbable if you have enough starting tries and thus initial failures. The whole universe looks miraculous until you look at all the false starts in the quantum vacuum fluctuations. Something similar would had to have been so for the beginning of life and for adaptations: for every advance there are many failures. If life came just from nonlife, the nonliving things that served as proto-organisms must have had sufficient variety so that most of them didn't cause life. That's how the improbabilities are overcome, with a lot of time and a lot of space that holds a lot of variety.

      But I'm really not a scientist or a mathematician. I'm interested most in philosophy and religion, and ultimately I accept the standard theories because I think they lend themselves to the worst-case philosophy which provides the greatest challenge to our creativity. I'm not competent to judge those theories on scientific grounds, although my philosophy training gives me some sort of handle on them.

      But it's good to know that there's another path to cosmicist mythology (besides Lovecraft, Mainlander, and Gnosticism, of course). ;)

      [I posted and deleted this a few times so I wouldn't interrupt Dietl's multipart comment.]

  3. dietl, everything is connected. However, we can surely draw distinctions between the magnitude of different types of important events.

    For example, (Example 1): breeding canines to have smaller teeth and less aggressive tendencies is major, particularly if we’re relying on them for assistance hunting or guarding crops/homes/livestock. Breeding faster horses, calmer oxen, or woolier sheep are all major changes in human technology. They may even be vital changes, saving humans from extinction.

    Similarly, (Example 2): networking two chips, or a hundred, into a working “single computer,” networking half a dozen “single computers” into an office network, or networking millions of “single computer” connections into a worldwide web are major developments. Shrinking the size of those computers, refining their display functions, and sending information to them in waveforms that do not require wire: all very important developments.

    Example 3: developing armor-piercing artillery rounds, or armor-piercing rifle rounds; developing portable blunderbusses or wheeled cannons (instead of fixed); developing folded steel katanas to replace iron scimitars; (Example 4) developing autonomous corn-harvesting machines; genetically altering strains of tomato DNA to produce faster ripening and larger per-tomato yield; inventing iron plows to replace stone or copper plows, resulting in faster yearly plowing.

    All of these things are major strides—they are, surely, “substantial,” depending on how we use that term.

    However, they completely and utterly pale in comparison to the significance of these ideas:

    1) Domesticating an animal and forcing it to work for, or feed, humans (“domesticating animals”);

    2) Building a machine that can “think,” and produce or communicate results in numbers or language (“computer”);

    3) Picking up a rock or a stick and using it to hit something, rather than using one’s fist, nails, or teeth (“tool”);

    4) Planting seeds in the ground with the intention of later harvesting resources from the resulting plant much more easily than traversing a wide area to gather resources from plants that might or might not grow there on their own (“agriculture”).

    Like these, more significant technological leaps such as switching from animal power to steam power to electrical power, have stagnated tremendously in the post-industrial age. Once the old nobility had dropped its formal titles in favor of the disguised nobility of capitalism, they regained control of technological progress, and put a stop to dynamic change, leaving us mired in generations of incremental aesthetic and efficiency improvements to existing commodities. This is a new dark age, made no less so by the fact that everything is considered slightly better than it was “before” (which is not true, and which will be easily demonstrated by later scholars less emotionally attached to the coolness of our current toys, herbalists, and engineers). If you compare it to alternate possibilities, it would be metaphorically fair to call this place hell.

  4. If we're allowing Alexander's "comfort zone" to guide his evolution, why have hominids not developed wings, or gills? They've had millions of years to do it, and many, many people have died because of their inability to fly and/or breathe water.

    Please explain to this one Galton's (twisted) Box in the way you understand it, so that we're not discussing different topics. :)

    Now find some of your responses in quotes, with responses below.

    dietl said: "That may be true and is basically in congruence with the theory of natural selection (survival of the fittest means exactly this: some mutations are bad and don't succeed)" and "That's also true, but if you look at Earth you will see that ammonia or nitrogen exist in much lower quantities than "air" or water, so on Earth developing a system based on them is better."

    Exactly. On Earth, developing lungs that breathe ammonia would not be very useful. In fact, it would be a detriment to an organism, because those lungs would consume extra calories and make the organism heavier, while offering no additional benefit.

    However, while that organism was a sea organism (he can be "Alexander" if you like :)), spending millions of years developing air-breathing lungs would be a handicap. Until the air-breathing lungs were functional enough to breathe air, they would be equivalent to a cancerous tumor: a growth of mutating cells that drew resources from other cells without providing a benefit to the organism.

    If Alexander can develop air-breathing lungs over, say, 3 million years, then that means that for 2.999 million years, he is developing a reproducible trait--air-breathing lungs--that are useless until the 3rd million year. In year 3 million, Alexander's lungs give him a huge advantage, because he is able to climb out of the water, breathe air, and get new resources. That would be successful evolution in the traditional random, naturally-selected sense.

    If that is possible, then Alexander still has to spend those 2.9 million years developing those lungs, though. And while he's doing it, he's not breathing air, because breathing air would kill him--he has to keep breathing water for the time being.

    While, then, he is spending 2.9 million years developing those lungs, other members of Alexander's species should be developing, through random mutation, lungs which are designed to respirate pure hydrogen, pure helium, pure lithium, liquid carbon, or every other type of element and/or combination out there.

    And, if Alexander gets to spend 2.9 million years developing those worthless, incomplete air-breathing lungs, and still survive while he is doing it, then some of those other animals should be able to spend 2.9 million years developing those worthless, incomplete ammonia-breathing lungs (and other-element-breathing lungs), and still survive until year 3 million.

    See how this is starting to seem improbable? If Alexander had really developed those lungs to breathe air while living at the bottom of the ocean floor, and air is a complex cocktail of elements, the entire world should be filled with all of Alexander's siblings who randomly developed useless organs to breathe elements not found on Earth, but who developed those random organs and learned how to survive for millions of years with them.

    These organisms do not exist now, and the fossil record does not show the existence of these organisms. Evolution is happening, but ascribing it to the invisible hand of the free market--as arrogant, capitalist, warmaking westerners like Dawkins are wont to do--is as unrealistic as expecting the House of Saud to start treating the Saudi people decently out of the goodness of their hearts.

  5. quote from dietl: [["Why didn't it also develop legs, randomly, while still in the ocean?"
    -Maybe it did, but they were of no use so they didn't develop to their full growth.

    "That's why incredibly, impossibly unlikely things, like hominid brain size increasing far more rapidly and uniformly than randomness would allow, happen."
    Can you give evidence or a link that shows why that should be "impossibly unlikely"?]]

    In answer to your last question--can you give evidence that shows why that should be unlikely or impossible--consider that you might have already answered that question for yourself. When asked why useless appendages didn't develop, you responded, "Maybe [they] did, but they were of no use so they didn't develop to their full growth."

    Exactly: a two-inch-long arm, or a heel without the front of a foot attached, is "of no use," so it wouldn't develop to its full growth.

    Similarly, a thousand brand new neural cells are "of no use." They're just as worthless as two inches of a new mutant appendage sticking out of your back: they take up resources, accomplish nothing extra, and should not, as you put it, "develop to their full growth," i.e., they should not continue mutating and growing and developing into a brain two or three times the size of the original.

    And yet, hominid brain size increased rapidly for the past couple million years. How did that particular organ know to get so big, particularly when it wasn't until the past few thousand years alone that we were using written language, math, architecture, and stuff like that?

    dietl, and Mr. Cain, all of these random mutations--even the positive ones--would have been naturally-selected right out of the ecosystem pursuant to the concept of natural selection itself, as we now posit it. An organism that wastes resources developing something that won't be useful until a million years later will fall faster to predators. We see this now in the natural selection of our own "marketplace," where a company that safely disposes of pollutants goes out of business because it can't compete with a company that dumps pollutants in the river at a lower cost--even though the son of the CEO of the second company will get cancer and die a generation later because of the pollution.

    The "cruel jungle" of natural selection that Dawkins and other vicious intellectuals favor is too cruel to have permitted millions of years of the slow development of squishy, hairless, slow, weak, clawless, fangless apes.

    How did our intelligence develop so perfectly in conjunction with our strength that we were able to begin killing large predators with tools and traps before our abysmal running speed (12-15 mph in a sprint of short duration) and tender skin got us extinct in a generation or two?

    We'll find a better answer in the fact that evolution is the evolution of the planet, and of the verse, and that it occurs in coordinated fashion. It is not a matter of some random mutations being euthanized by nature in order that others go on, but of Earth guiding its internal processes toward more efficient energy flows, being guided in turn by Sol and Milky Way and verse and lightspring.

    Air-breathing lungs developed because there was air, and Earth was striving to have that air pass through the lungs of organisms striving to have that air pass through themselves. Our fossil record shows an orderly progression, rather than a world-sized graveyard of stunted, ammonia-breathing creatures, because evolution is about cooperation and love, rather than struggle and hate.

    1. "If you compare it to alternate possibilities, it would be metaphorically fair to call this place hell."

      I'm intrigued by what this one calls 'alternate possibilities'. Also I conclude that by 'this place' you must mean somewhere in the USA because why else call it hell ;-).

      "why have hominids not developed wings, or gills?"

      Because wings need a lot of energy and a low weight. Furthermore hominids aren't the most capable hunters in the ocean, they would only be easy pray. But are we talking about hominids now? Because they seem to be a very resent development given the age of Earth.

      Regarding Galton's (twisted) Box, which in fact in most of its forms possesses a rather untwisted shape, works like this in my reasoning (you can easily find a picture of it I guess): The dots that are aligned in a isosceles triangle are the environment and the balls that works its way past those dots are Alexander. Every time one of the balls (one of Alexander's specimen) encounters a dot (part of the environment) there is the 50/50 % chance of going the left or the right way. This environment even if it seems to have a random outcome favors the middle way. The more balls you put in it the more clearly you see this. I mentioned the box to emphasise that random processes in a special environment can still have a non-random outcome.

      The air-breathing lungs only started to develop when there was a need for them. Under water there might have been mutations in this direction but they were useless, as you say, but as soon as the comfort zone was part water part land those mutations started to have a use for some of Alexander's specimen could survive longer in this environment and started to develop into a full organ. One day the "water-breathing lungs" started to become less usefull than the air-breathing ones.
      The problem that I see in your post is that you seem to assume that you have a mutation which makes a fullgrown organ, when those changes happen in a much smaller scale. A fullgrown organ needs a lot of enegry so having such a big mutation isn't only useless but negative, which is also a point against ammonia-breathing lungs.

      "Evolution is happening, but ascribing it to the invisible hand of the free market--as arrogant, capitalist, warmaking westerners like Dawkins are wont to do--is as unrealistic as expecting the House of Saud to start treating the Saudi people decently out of the goodness of their hearts."

      There are no invisible hands in the theory of natural selection, anyone who argues otherwise doesn't understand what this is about. If Dawkins or others make a connection of Evolution with the free market, they are dead wrong.

      "How did our intelligence develop so perfectly in conjunction with our strength that we were able to begin killing large predators with tools and traps before our abysmal running speed (12-15 mph in a sprint of short duration) and tender skin got us extinct in a generation or two?"

      You seem to forget indifferent mutations and the possibility that a species can be so successfull as to have the time to develop such features. There could for instance be a natural catastrophy/global changes that wipes out a natural enemy of one species. This might give this species time to develop this advantage. Its not always a big stuggle.

      "because evolution is about cooperation and love, rather than struggle and hate."

      I would say that it is about all of this: Love next to hate, cooperation to overcome struggles...and recycling. This "Either/Or-thinking" paints a picture that is too much black and white and disregards the range of colours in our universe.

      "...Earth guiding..."
      "...Earth was striving to..."

      You seem to regard Earth as a individual, which I don't. I believe in an indifferent universe, which actually isn't as sad as it sounds.

    2. (Wanted to post this on your blog but it seems that I had to make some (Wordpress, Google,... ect.) account to make a comment there.)

      i really appreciate that you used 'Alexandra'. I also like it better in the female form ;-)
      Your post didn't convince me. I think the way you apply maths here isn't fitting, but hey, I believe you have a positive message and I agree that Dawkins isn't the brightest thinker and drawes some really stupid conclusions sometimes.

      Another question: Do you draw moral imperatives from sentences like 'Evolution demonstrates a purpose'. Do you think that people ought to act in accordance to this purpose?

    3. (I adjusted the comment settings so you can put stuff there as "dietl" or "anonymous" or whatever you like.)

      Dawkins' "cumulative evolution" attempt with Shakespeare, and various other ways that pop-biologists try to shrink the numerical possibilities, will be addressed in the next post. Someone else brought up cumulative evolution, but it would be helpful if you'd explain what else you didn't like about the math in the original post.

      When you read "evolution demonstrates a purpose," think of it as a romanticization, or a personification. A certain process happens: matter structures itself in such a way as to capture and utilize energy flows, evolving increasingly efficient ways of doing so. As a by-product, things like emotions and consciousness occur, and tyrannical, deathlusting humans come up with ways to miss the forest for the trees, and declare that there is, in fact, no pattern to existence--that all is meaningless.

      Even if you don't appreciate the impossibility of random evolution to such extreme refinement as air-breathing bipedal mammals in just 4 billion years, you might appreciate the side effects of the different viewpoints. If High Arka is correct, then the world is a wonderful, growing place, destined for greater things, survival, and filled with interdependence. If Dawkins is correct, then the world is a terrible place, destined for endless extinction, and filled with savage genes who only survive by knocking aside the weak.

      Dawkins' worldview is a justification for zero-sum economics, colonialism, deforestation, and genocide. The Arken worldview is a justification for cooperation--a realization that we grow healthier when we work together, rather than when we exterminate one another based on perceived inefficiencies.

      Even so, it is logic and mathematics that disproves Dawkins, not the associated emotions. People "ought" to act in accordance with Lightform Evolution, but they certainly don't have to. Evolutionary history suggests that matter and energy will continue to evolve so as to develop better-integrated forms, ergo the sick minds that argue for selfishness and rapine will not be able to achieve the stoppage they desire.

    4. Thanks :-)
      I replied on your blog.

  6. dietl, "alternate possibilities" refers to different ways the Earth could have developed if humans had not chosen another "dark age." This is really basic stuff, like, "What if we'd spent the 20th century feeding and healing people, instead of building better killing machines?"

    Many places are nicer than the USA, and many places are not as nice. It's still fair to metaphorize this world as "hell," given the unjust suffering that occurs so frequently in so many parts of it. You can make that observation from Sweden, the USA, or Somalia, and have it be equally applicable.

    This one will lay out evolution in more detail in a format that would take up more space than a post allows. Link will be posted soon.