Thursday, January 03, 2008

Contrasting Views on the Nature of Causality

I previously blogged about the paper Top-Down Causation by Information Control: From a Philosophical Problem to a Scientific Research Program which is authored by G. Auletta, G. F. R. Ellis, FRS, and L. Jaeger. Differences between the perspective of mainstream biology advocates and Intelligent Design supporters ultimately come down to differences in perceptions of causal patterns.

The causal contrast pits emergence theorists, who believe complex biological systems self-assembled from simpler components, against top-down theorists who view causality as flowing from a direction of higher complexity to lower level components. Emergence theorists think basic forces evidenced in physics and chemistry ultimately account for causal pathways to complex biological systems like cells and cellular structures. A top-down approach to cellular information systems cites their function as an indicator of a different causal reality.

Conspicuously the origin of life is absent from the category of documented emergent phenomenon. Emergent theorists look for chemical outcomes that generate cellular hardware associated with information storage and the biochemical synthesis of encoded end products. Emergence advocates look to chemistry for solutions on how information was initially generated.

While top-down theoreticians are free to view coded information abstractly as represented by biochemical symbols (codons) coding for chemical properties (amino acid side chains) that determine protein function, emergent theorists are constricted to viewing abstractions only as useful cognitive tools that do not reflect causal realities. It is as if we are to ignore the possibility that symbolism implies intellect and tuck the idea away in a mental category reserved for apparent realities rather than actual ones. There is precedent of course for suspecting that our senses may not accurately convey reality. What IDist, with any significant experience observing internet exchanges, has not come across the flat earth argument aimed at clueless rubes by their sophisticated critics.

The appearance of a flat earth is a sensual feedback phenomenon (sensual perceptions being consistent with the extrapolation) while symbolism is imputed based, not on a visual picture, (my cat views the same screen as me without a recognition of the symbolism of the words) but rather based on a capacity to correlate a visual object with a concept. Symbols retain their physical nature while conveying a concept to those with an understanding of the encoding convention rules. So emergence demands that a process, not influenced by the input of a mind, generates the hardware, symbolism and rules by which a coding system functions. Paradoxically it also requires intellects to discount an option having the earmarks of reason embedded in the designated cause (a symbolic code) in favor of an option (emergence) that requires a belief that nature mimicks reason through a mindless chemical process.

Top-Down Causation by Information Control: From a Philosophical Problem to a Scientific Research Program focuses on what are called functional equivalence classes of operations in an effort to establish an experimental basis for determining causal flow. In biological terms higher level signals that influence action on a lower level would indicate information control. As the authors state: "A key issue here is that of equivalence class of lower-level operations, ...where operations occurring in biological systems can be considered as coordinated space-time pathways of physical-chemical interactions. The criterion for an equivalence class of operations is the outcome that an operation brings about: if two different operations give the same outcome, they can be considered equivalent. Thus, what is of concern here are functional equivalence classes (sets of operations that produce the same outcome)."

I'll explore specific biological testing possibilites in future posts.

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