Purpose, specification and function


Two threads combine in this posting. First my comments on the Beckwith thread where I show how Dembski and Behe use the term specification or purpose to refer to “function”, and secondly a thread on strings in which the concept of purpose arose again.

First let’s revisit Dembski’s and Behe’s position on function which shows that their use of the term specification or purpose clearly refers to function.

van Till Wrote:

However, when it comes time for Dembski to support his conviction that the bacterial flagellum is specified, the procedure becomes considerably more casual, almost facile. Speaking on the specification of biological systems in general, Dembski simply asserts that, “Biological specification always refers to function. An organism is a functional system comprising many functional subsystems. In virtue of their function, these systems embody patterns that are objectively given and can be identified independently of the systems that embody them. Hence these systems are specified in the sense required by the complexity-specification criterion.”NFL, p. 148.In these four brief sentences the foundation of Dembski’s entire strategy for certifying the specification of biotic systems is laid.

Or in Behe’s terms “a purposeful arrangement of parts” where purpose and function are interchangeable.

Behe Wrote:

Q The whole positive argument for intelligent design as you ve described it, Professor Behe, is look at this system, look at these parts, they appear designed correct?

A Well, I think I filled that out a little bit more. I said that intelligent design is perceived as the purposeful arrangement of parts, yes. So when we not only see different parts, but we also see that they are ordered to perform some function, yes, that is how we perceived design.

Page 44 of Behe’s cross examination on Day 11 of the Kitzmiller trial. See also Analysis of Behe’s Testimony, Part 1: Purpose and Function at “Dispatches from the Culture Wars”

In other words, the use of such terms as ‘specified’ or ‘purpose’ merely serve to obscure that the authors are really talking about function. But function in evolution is an inevitable outcome of variation and selection. In other words, when Dembski argues that something is specified and complex, he merely observes that something is functional and we do not fully understand its history (or at least we do not understand its history sufficiently to Dembski’s liking). When Behe talks about ‘purposeful arrangement of parts’ he merely is discussing how various parts work together towards a particular function.

Dr Francisco Ayala has advanced the following prepositions

Ayala Wrote:

I advance three propositions. The first is that Darwin’s most significant intellectual contribution is that he brought the origin and diversity of organisms into the realm of science. The Copernican Revolution consisted in a commitment to the postulate that the universe is governed by natural laws that account for natural phenomena. Darwin completed the Copernican Revolution by extending that commitment to the living world.

The second proposition is that natural selection is a creative process that can account for the appearance of genuine novelty. How natural selection creates is shown with a simple example and clarified with two analogies, artistic creation and the “typing monkeys,” with which it shares important similarities and differences. The creative power of natural selection arises from a distinctive interaction between chance and necessity, or between random and deterministic processes.

The third proposition is that teleological explanations are necessary in order to give a full account of the attributes of living organisms, whereas they are neither necessary nor appropriate in the explanation of natural inanimate phenomena. I give a definition of teleology and clarify the matter by distinguishing between internal and external teleology, and between bounded and unbounded teleology. The human eye, so obviously constituted for seeing but resulting from a natural process, is an example of internal (or natural) teleology. A knife has external (or artificial) teleology, because it has been purposefully designed by an external agent. The development of an egg into a chicken is an example of bounded (or necessary) teleology, whereas the evolutionary origin of the mammals is a case of unbounded (or contingent) teleology, because there was nothing in the make up of the first living cells that necessitated the eventual appearance of mammals.

I conclude that Darwin’s theory of evolution and explanation of design does not include or exclude considerations of divine action in the world any more than astronomy, geology, physics, or chemistry do.

In other words, teleology in evolution is inevitable although one needs to differentiate between internal teleology which describes ‘function’ or external teleology which results from the actions of an external agent. Read more about Ayala’s thesis on Meta Library

So what has been established is that all the fancy footwork by Dembski or Behe has done nothing to resolve internal versus external teleology other than to obfuscate by using terms which are suggestive of the latter even though they refer merely to ‘function’.

Now something more interesting: Based on the comments by Island, let’s apply the Second Law of Thermodynamics for once against creationists. Would that not be ironic.

Sagan and Schneider have published an interesting book called “Into the cool”

From the blog I quote

It turns out that the question of the purpose, or function, of an organism s whole body is related to that of the observed evolutionary trends.* The functioning of the whole organism connects to the observation of evolutionary trends via the science of energy flow. The key observation of this science, thermodynamics, is the second law. The second law of thermodynamics, which has wrongly been argued to conflict with life, says quite simply that energy disperses. You may have thought that the second law of thermodynamics says something about entropy rising, or disorder. Well, it does, but not exactly. The use of the terms entropy and disorder have been bandied about in many confusing ways. But the spreading of energy also leads to what we would call ordered or organized systems.

Sagan and Schneider argue that there is purpose in nature. Their definition of purpose seems to be equivalent to ‘function’ so it is interesting to show how two different approaches lead to a similar assertion. Behe and Dembski use the term purpose to imply a higher entity being responsible, Schneider and Sagan show how purpose is what follows from the laws of nature. Again we return to apparant versus actual design, apparant versus actual CSI, apparant versus actual IC, internal versus external teleology. Of course, scientists present (detailed) explanations as to how these apparantly designed systems may have arisen. All ID has to offer is: “An Intelligent Designer did it because He wanted to do it using means available to Him”. And yet ID activists complain that evolution deals in ‘just so stories’. The irony…

Examples include hexagonal structures called Bernard cells, whirlpools and hurricanes, and complex chemical reactions of which life, of course, is a most fascinating example. In each case the complex structure arises in an area of energy flow, and represents nature s “attempt” to follow its second-law mandate of energy dispersal. I put “attempt” in quotes because obviously it is considered an example of the pathetic fallacy, silly personification

What do these examples tell us? That life thrives not at equilibrium but far away from equilibrium where the SLOT leads almost inevitably to increase in complexity. Much of the early work started with Prigogine but more recently, much research has been added to Prigogine’s ground breaking work

People at the Into the Cool Blog waste no words about ID

“Most people–even many who are writing in this group–do not appreciate how unbelievably dishonest the ID crowd is, Behe and William Dembski in particular. Dembski is really the principal ‘go to’ science guy for the ID crowd. The one thing Dembski and Behe share with the creationist crowd in general is a deep aversion to the term ‘natural science.

And similarly to many others they have found that ID is scientifically vacuous

I have spent several months on their non-science. There is nothing there. It is like one hand clapping; the one reason they have received so much press is that the media says that it is only “fair if we cover both sides.” But there is no “other side” as far as the science goes. They should cover it as a religious story.


Another Behe quote which shows why ID is scientifically vacuous: Please describe the mechanism that intelligent design proposes for how complex biological structures arose.

A: Well, the word “mechanism” can be used in many ways. … When I was referring to intelligent design, I meant that we can perceive that in the process by which a complex biological structure arose, we can infer that intelligence was involved. … Q: What is the mechanism that intelligent design proposes? A: And I wonder, could—am I permitted to know what I replied to your question the first time? Q: I don’t think I got a reply, so I’m asking you. You’ve made this claim here (reading): “Intelligent design theory focuses exclusively on the proposed mechanism of how complex biological structures arose.” And I want to know, what is the mechanism that intelligent design proposes for how complex biological structures arose? A: Again, it does not propose a mechanism in the sense of a step-by-step description of how those structures arose. But it can infer that in the mechanism, in the process by which these structures arose, an intelligent cause was involved.

In other words, I believe that God is involved and although I cannot provide any mechanisms, I am convinced that His Hand can be seen. So much for ‘proposed mechanisms’… So much for ID’s hopes of becoming scientifically relevant.

Excellent post! I really liked the Ayala link.

Vaughan Wrote:

Excellent post! I really liked the Ayala link.

Yes, Ayala has some very interesting ideas and viewpoints. Rather than being ‘afraid’ of teleology, science needs to embrace that ‘function’ in evolution gives the appearance of (external) teleology.

There is a common mistake made in arguing about the second law of thermodynamics. This law is descriptive, not proscriptive. It is the underlying fundamental interactions among the constituents of a system and its containing environment that really do all the work and determine the available states and how a system evolves. These fundamental interactions follow quantum mechanics and relativity. The first and second laws are a grand overall description of what happens in all cases.

Of course, once these laws are known, we tend to turn the description around and say that systems must “obey” the laws of thermodynamics, but that is just a way of saying what the final result of all the interactions produces (e.g., what happens to the entropy).

This fine distinction often leads to confusion in the arguments because people tend to forget the underlying fundamental interactions and how these evolve as the system evolves, especially far from equilibrium where there are extensive exchanges of matter and energy with the larger environment.

I can’t remember in which of Mayr’s books on biological thought and philosophy - they are both at my office and I’m NOT driving 20+ miles one way to check ;^) - he used the terms “teleomatic,” “teleonomic,” and “teleologic” to express what Ayala is saying.

IIRC, embryology is a teleomatic process; there exists a “functional program of development” leading to “an end.” However that end result is inherent within the program. It is not imposed from outside, except as physical forces such as diffusion or osmosis act. Evolution is a teleonomic process, the “end” is merely what we see as a result of the identified and yet-to-be-identified processes of variation, natural, sexual, and neutral selection, etc. Teleologic processes are the ones we classically understand from undergrad courses on Plato and Aristotle.

If I Also Recall Correctly, Mayr credits a philosophical paper from the mid-1950s for those terms.

fusilier James 2:24

As Ayala deftly presented there is more in the world of knowledge beyond science that is worthy. And that is precisely why we have to keep up the defense of science against the dark forces of ID. Since these ID guys will make the world a diminished place by robbing us all of the sense of awe and amazement about this wonderful universe we live in.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PvM published on February 10, 2006 2:56 PM.

Beckwith, ID and science was the previous entry in this blog.

Darwin Day in New Mexico - Sun. 12th at 2 PM is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter