Monday, June 02, 2003

Something for Nothing

Neo-conservatives and other rightists with an authoritarian bent reject, or claim to reject, naturalistic theories of evolution such as natural selection. It is interesting to observe, however, that libertarians and Objectivists are, if anything, more Darwinian than Darwin. So Commentary features long articles extolling Intelligent Design proponents like Behe while Reason advertises the ideas of Stuart Kauffman, a University of Pennsylvania biologists and member of the Santa Fe Institute. Kauffman uses computer simulations to support the thesis that order—what he calls order for nothing—spontaneously arises from natural systems under a wide variety of circumstances. Authoritarians favor Intelligent Design because they like bosses. Libertarians favor Kauffman’s version of nature because they can read it as an allegory of the free market.

Unfortunately for the Libertarians, Kauffman’s vision of things really doesn’t offer any particular support for laissez faire economics. Kauffman’s arguments provide an explanation for how complicated and adapted organisms could have arisen without the intervention of an intelligent agent or rather, to take judicial notice of a very important nuance, Kauffman explains why no explanation is really necessary if, as he thinks his computer simulations demonstrate, the order exhibited in the natural world is in fact a minimum. It looks like there is something to explain because of a huge accident of sampling. For obvious reasons we only consider the showy outputs of evolution including, crucially, ourselves, the ones who are supposed to do the explaining. If we go back and for once count the innumerable number of failures along with the infinitesimal number of successes, we’ll recognize that there is no evolutionary mechanism at all—hard to get a patent on a method of chemical synthesis that takes billions of years to run and promises a yield of maybe .00000000000000001%. Now reverse the perspective. If you were standing a patch of cooled lava somewhere during the Hadean period of Earth history, what could you predict on Kauffman’s reasoning? The most you could say is that something complicated is likely to emerge because things can’t get more disordered on one respect without getting more ordered in another. And standing on the cooling patch of the floor of the stock exchange and using analogous statistical reasoning, we predict that a complicated economic structures will always emerge from trading but not that the results will be favorable to any particular human being or to human beings in general. To believe that the market will do us any favors is theological thinking even in an atheist.

Speaking of theology. I don’t know if Kauffman is right or not about self-organization, but his notions are congruent with one of my rare forays into Biblical exegesis. The first couple of verses of Genesis read “When God created heaven and earth, the earth was void and empty and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ” Atheists have simply denied that God in fact created the world, but that’s a clumsy approach to the issue from my point of view. Logically, the prior question is whether the world every came into being at all. And of course it is my position that the earth is still void and empty. Which spares me the trouble of raising the second difficulty, namely, when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ who was he talking to?

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