Archive for July, 2010

From Philosophy Pathways issue 146

S.C. Meyer Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design
Harper One 2009

This is a well-written text, for the most part clearly argued in an engaging, relaxed style. What there is to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis seems to me to be well presented in this book.

We must accept that there is currently no known spontaneous physico-chemical process that could explain the origin of the genetic apparatus in living systems. This — the ‘DNA enigma’ — might be said to be an outstanding challenge to science.

That is, if we consider that origins of anything are genuine scientific questions. Science typically works with existents — with the world as it is now, or as the world was, given that it was earlier much as it is now. Change, including evolutionary change, can be accepted as a bona fide scientific problem, but I think origins inherently resist systematic investigation.

Much of this book is devoted to examining various attempts that have been made to understand the origin of life within the current physico-chemical framework, and the book is valuable for this critical exposition alone. A chapter on the popular ‘RNA World’ hypothesis is especially useful. Meyer shows that physico-chemical suggestions on the origin of life using chance or necessity, alone or together, have so far been unable to construct a convincing scenario for this supposed originary event.

Yet, even so, some scientists continue to wish to produce a plausible explanation using nothing more than known physico-chemical principles, abetted by chance. The latter involves historicism — here it would be, a concatenation of physico-chemical events influenced by multiple contingencies (combining chance with law). Such a sequence of contingencies may be where the Intelligent Design program ought to be pitched. Since the origin would presumably be unrepeatable and so untestable as such, it might be useful to point to other unexplained sequences of events that would have been originary in a similar way. Meyer briefly mentions the ‘anthropic principle’ of cosmology. If one could find several more such enigmas, the collection together might seem to have more explanatory power than just one or two examples.

Meyer claims that the only agency known by us today to produce ‘specified information’ is the human (it should be ‘Western technological’) imagination, which he calls ‘intelligent’.

He suggests that, since physico-chemical attempts at understanding a spontaneous origin of the specified information associated with life have so far failed, then the only remaining possibility would be an intelligent agency (left unspecified).

Meyer has little discussion of how this intelligent construction would have been carried out beyond suggesting supposed parallels with the creation of informational structures in computers. This seems a bit too glib. He does not attempt to give us a picture of the intelligence-mediated origin in anything like the detail presented in discussing various physico-chemical attempts (where he delights in pointing out how the intelligence of researchers intruded here and there as adjustments in the experiments). As Meyer says in another context, ‘sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’!

This leads one to suspect that in fact there is no imagined scenario for the intelligence-directed creation of life. Would it have been too ineffable to describe? It seems possible (likely?) that any clear description of that process would be as easily criticized as he shows the physico-chemical attempts to be. If the implication is that we do not have sufficient intelligence to imagine the originary process, then one suspects that there might be a deity ‘waiting in the wings’ (note that his Chapter 16 is entitled ‘Another Road to Rome!).

In any case, pitting a non-testable one-sentence claim (e.g., ‘Life was designed by an intelligent agent that existed before the advent of humans’) about the origin against forty or more years of failed conceptual, laboratory and computational efforts seems a bit unbalanced.

Meyer’s approach also begs the question of whether in fact the information embodied in, and carried by, the genetic apparatus is in fact ‘specified’ information — that is, information meaningful to the cell. Or, more to the point, that it was ‘specified’ at its origin (to do or inform what? — he does not tell us). Presumably early metabolism would have been simpler and vaguer than what we find in the cell today. Meyer is well aware of, and describes, the elaborate manipulations carried out by the cell in the process of using the information in DNA. In hardly any case is a DNA sequence used ‘as is’. The specifications useful to the cell are generated de novo in an elaborate process of cutting, stitching, and chemical modification. In what sense, then, can the information DNA holds be said to be ‘specified’?

Meyer insists upon the logical structure of the genetic apparatus without considering that it is we, Western scientists, who in our models work hard to try to impute logical organization to that inordinately complicated system.

Science is founded upon a simple logical foundation, and its models are all based in logic. But we have no assurance that the world is based in or informed by logic, allowing it to be intelligible. Scientists implicitly take that ‘on faith’, and so does Meyer. In this sense he conflates the ‘map’ with the ‘territory’. In science this conflation has proven fruitful as a support for the construction of technology. That is, science ‘works’ in the short run as a basis for limited pragmatic activities. But questions of origins go far beyond the pragmatic.

Meyer handily knocks down various ‘demarcation arguments’ that were made by philosophers of science in order to show that ID is not a bona fide scientific enterprise. He spends a good many words on the historical sciences (his own is historical geology), and how they choose between various theories using abductive reasoning, on the basis of which one tries to choose the ‘best’ explanation of some current phenomenon. It is here that he claims that ID comes out best because the various physico-chemical proposals have not been able to explain the origin. But, unless I missed something, I did not see in these pages a proposed layout of the ID process of origination. ID seems at present to be just words.

Meyer attempts, with varying success, to show nevertheless that ID — as a scientific theory should — has inspired some testable models. But, insofar as ID remains at base an opinion or intuition about logical structure (‘specified information’), it remains itself untestable, as such, and, perhaps, self-evident grammatically. Is the ID hypothesis for the origin of biological information a substantive hypothesis or merely a vacuous faut de mieux attending the deconstruction of some physico-chemical attempts that used chance and/ or lawfulness to understand the origin of life?

It might be worth pointing out here that there is no logical way to distinguish between a chance event and an arbitrary (creative) action — that is, an act not assimilable to one or another of our theoretical expectations. Since physico-chemical approaches mediated by chance have failed to deliver a convincing story of the origin of ‘specified information’, that, it seems to me, impugns the design hypothesis as well. That is, if it were found that specified information could be mediated by chance, then that would be a good argument in favor of design!

So design is not ‘beyond the reach of chance’ — for outside observers design could look like chance. An intelligent procedure which we view ignorantly from outside would look random to us upon doing a statistical analysis. External statistical analyses will show that ensembles of creative acts conform to various probability density functions. Creativity is an internalist mood, not accessible as such to external investigation. We might note that externalism and internalism require different grammatical constructions — respectively, First Person, present progressive tense versus Third Person, universal present tense. These can never directly mix together. In Meyer’s book the erstwhile physico-chemical attempts are in the Third Person, while ID, lacking definite description, is implicitly in First Person.

At one point Meyer raises the possibility of self-organization. But he does so in a very mechanistic, bottom-up manner that would better be labeled ‘self-assembly’, following various natural laws. At other points he refers to the evident hierarchical structure of the world. In that perspective, self-assembly takes place amid various constraints imposed top-down from higher, including larger scale, levels. That scenario would increase the degrees of freedom for self-assembly, given that this would depend locally upon, e.g., temperature, pH, density of various molecular species, and so on. The increased degrees of freedom in this context might suggest to some that self-assembly could get incorporated into a more flexible self-organization. But, to others it might suggest the possibility of a deity manipulating boundary conditions (given that this agent would be of larger scale or level of organization).

The hierarchy connection leads me to think about information as detected in scales much higher than the cellular. In particular, one might note that the widespread occurrence of convergent evolution has no neo-Darwinian interpretation, as it conflicts with their ‘descent with modification’ conceptual program. Evolutionary convergence is hardly mentioned by anyone any more. It has no doubt become unfashionable and old-fashioned, and that leads me to guess that there is conceptual gold to be mined there.

In truth, the opposition of most scientists to ID is at base ideological. They will have none of it simply because it doesn’t play by their rules, which in the context of the origin of life would be to present an explicit scenario suggesting how it was done.

We may note that scientists have been trying to construct the cell, just as any other investigated system, as a machine. This metaphor, not surprisingly, invites the notion of design and thus implies designers. I think that scientists ought to take note that it is their own philosophical mechanicism that has conjured up the possibility of design. But what if the cell is not a machine? Then scientists would have no basis for fully apprehending it with logical methods, and — to boot — ID would no longer have even a fingerhold (as in this book) on the problem of its origin either. All scientists — IDers or not — implicitly credit the aphorism ‘In the beginning was the word.’

It seems clear that Meyer is yearning for a re-enchantment of the world, something that has largely been destroyed by the hegemony of logic and science as deployed by various ‘interests’ in our culture. A quote on Page 450 from Bertrand Russell describes well our current spiritual malaise. But the likelihood of co-option of Meyer’s proposed route to a renewed enchantment by ancient religious traditions is a major impediment to serious minds.

(c) Stanley Salthe 2009

Email: ssalthe@binghamton.edu


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The Divine Inspiration of Porn and the Beginning of Sexual Metaphysics

by Nick Acocella

Available for review from ISFP Publishing http://www.isfp.co.uk/publishing/


This book shows more understanding of sex than any other book on philosophy of sex I have read.

It approaches sex and pornography from a unique angle in which I see no influence from other philosophy of sex and porn books.

The first section is on the “Practical Grounds of Sexual Significance” which includes:

– A Brief Anatomy of Inference

– A Brief Anatomy of Immorality

– A Brief Anatomy of Stimulation

– The Legend of Gender

– The Nature of Enjoyment

– The Crisis of Beauty

The second section on “Sexual Significant in Its Basic Dimensions includes:

– The Sexual Significance of Beauty

– The Sexual Significance of Teleology

– The Sexual Significance of Morality

Then comes the final section on “Theological Implications” with the single awesome chapter on “The Perfection of Porn”.

This book should be made available to a wider audience than those interested in philosophy. It will not just be of interest to academics (though much interest has been shown in that quarter) but is likely to draw general readership and become a cult book. It will appeal to those who are interested in sex (and who is not?) as well as those with a love of language and words.

It is poetic, beautiful and very well conceived. It is outrageous but strangely convincing.

It is a very timely book. Novels based on the theme of sex are becoming quite prolific so this is a philosophy book which is tapping into contemporary literary interests.

It is a difficult book to publish. Academics are showing interest and the book is worthy of an academic publisher, but it has readability that also makes it literature. A pro-pornography book is always slightly pornographic in itself, but this author goes out of his way to make it so, though in a beautiful and sensitive, and, of course, literary way.

The basic argument is outrageous. We would have no idea of sinfulness without God; without sinfulness we could not appreciate porn which is essentially sinful. The appreciation of porn is dirty, normal sex is good. The book quotes Anselm and St Augustine but also describes why men like nipples. This juxtaposition is previously unheard of.

Although Acocella quotes theologians, this is not a theological book. It is philosophy. Although he rejects the idea that sex can be explained in evolutionary terms, he does not seem to be a member of the religious camp although most of his quotes seem to be theological. He seems to be stirring things up.

So he rejects evolutionary explanation and largely ignores the religion/evolution debate, and plumps for the significance of meaning and thought and how these guide us in sexual acts. There is a thread of the irreducibility of meaning, but the book manages to be extremely sensitive to the sexual act. An approach through meaning and thought is a gentler, more human, and more realistic approach than starting with God or evolution. Acocella says, for instance, that sex can be fragile. Interest can dwindle and the mind can wander but something can get us back into the act. We focus on the meaning of what we are doing, the teleology of the act, the aim of orgasm. This is philosophy of mind as well as meaning.

It has been suggested to me that analytical philosophers use pain as an example of a sensation because they are “simply used to unrelenting mental pain and afraid of orgasms” (private e-mail). Properly accused, perhaps, Wittgenstein. Sex is interesting and pain isn’t. As a woman I don’t find pornography interesting but Acocella makes it so. Sex is good, he says, but porn is profane and it has to be. This makes porn interesting. Further, there is the ethical aspect to pornography. Acocella asks “What sort of morality is needed to be pornographically realised” (p. 199). He seems to know about looking at porn and takes it to involve an awareness of sinfulness and the profane but can also bring feelings of shame and so he urges us to take porn “where it must go” (p.121). He argues that since porn is profane (it seems open whether it is perverse) we must contrast the profane with the sacred and “no morality is sacred without God” (p.121).

The argument is radical. He doesn’t start from God, but rather from a self-confessed interest in porn. But he gets to God through profanity. This is philosophy but it is also a work of art. I have had no sense from communicating with the author that he is actually religious.

Many like myself, who are not particularly interested in pornography will be brought to think about it due to this book. Why should we not? It is a phenomenon which is strange. This book might make people more sympathetic to those who look at pornography. It may be a sin, or at least involve feelings of sinfulness, but feelings of sinfulness can be regarded as moral feelings.

This isn’t a moralising book. It is acute on sex and subtle on meaning. Acocella elucidates the attraction of nipples and the penis, in rather a psychoanalytical way drawing on childishness and he captures the sex act to perfection. He is very funny on masturbation, asking what it is we enjoy. Our resourcefulness? Of course his answer is the significance, the thought and the fantasy.

The book is brilliant and deserves to be published. A problem is that Acocella is not an academic and I suspect that academic publishers don’t publish books by non-academics. However, the book itself IS academic philosophy. Requests for review copies have been made by PhD students and professors.

My vision for this book is that it will be published by an academic publishers, while we at the International Society for Philosophers will continue to make it known outside the world of universities.

(c) Rachel Browne 2010

ISFP Fellow and Board Member

E-mail: RachelEBrowne@aol.com

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From Philosophy Pathways Issue 154



International Society for Philosophers: ISFP Publishing


Publishing is not a new venture for the International Society for Philosophers. We have two electronic journals, Philosophy Pathways and Philosophy for Business, both of which were added this year to the Directory of Open Access Journals http://www.doaj.org hosted by the University of Lund, Sweden.

However, the idea of book publishing is something else entirely. This is not a great time to be a book publisher from an economic standpoint, and the ISFP is hardly in a position to take the considerable financial risks involved. The reality is that the ISFP is run on a shoestring, staffed entirely by volunteers. It is only the wonder of the internet which enables an international organization such as ours to exist at all.

That was my thinking up to a month ago, when I received an intriguing offer from ISFP Board member Matthew Del Nevo. The argument was made that we have a respected name in the academic world, which gives us a very real advantage compared to a publishing venture starting from square one. But still, the lack of finance was a major obstacle.

Meanwhile, Rachel Browne another ISFP Board member had been corresponding with two authors, Nick Acocella and [Removed] both frustrated by the difficulties in finding a commercial publisher for their very original works. The two books, in different ways, push the boundaries in a manner which would make many publishers extremely nervous. What do you you do? Do you send off proposal after proposal, hoping eventually that you will strike lucky and find a publisher prepared to go the extra mile?

So we formed the idea of a service which would help authors by offering the chance to attract academically qualified reviewers who would put their weight behind a book publishing proposal, as well as providing, in effect, an ongoing in-depth editorial service.

We are not offering these books for sale. The only way to get a copy is to request a copy for review. Membership of the ISFP will be a point in favour of your request for a review copy being granted, but it is not a guarantee.

We are issuing a call for manuscripts, on any topic related to philosophy. Philosophical novels will be just as welcome as works on philosophical anthropology or the philosophy of physics.

Manuscripts need to be in a tidy state — which have been checked for grammar, spelling, factual errors etc. — but not necessarily up to full publishable standard. The assumption is that a manuscript will go through several revisions before the author is ready to submit a proposal to a commercial publisher. The ISFP would be able to give its full backing, having seen the work through each stage of its progress.

We are launching ISFP Publishing with a list of just four works. In addition to the books by Nick Acocella and [Removed] Pathways mentor Martin Jenkins has agreed to allow us to include the expanded version of his ISFP Fellowship dissertation on Nietzsche which he is hoping to get published. To encourage others, and to show a good example, I have added an updated version of my work ‘Ethical Dilemmas’.

It is fair to say that all four works court controversy, in different ways. As I state on the front page of the ISFP Publishing site, ‘We welcome authors who are prepared to take risks and rock the boat. No subject is taboo. Philosophy should push you out of your comfort zone.’ — That is not to say that a book has to be controversial in order to be included on our list. But it should at least encourage the reader to think differently.

Books should be submitted as a single document in Word (.doc or .docx). This will be converted to a PDF file. Details of the work and the private download location will be circulated to members of the Board of the ISFP. In order to be added to the public ISFP Publishing list, a work needs at least one member of the Board who is prepared to sponsor it. Knowing the expertise which the Board collectively muster, I am confident that this will be sufficient to keep the list looking ship shape.

Here is the current list which you will find on the ISFP Publishing web site:

  1. Nick Acocella — The Divine Inspiration of Porn and the Beginning of Sexual Metaphysics
  2. [Removed]
  3. Martin Jenkins — Aristocratic Radicalism or Anarchy? An Examination of Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Will to Power
  4. Geoffrey Klempner — Ethical Dilemmas: a primer for decision makers

For more details, including short descriptions, reviews and authors bios, go to the ISFP Publishing site http://www.isfp.co.uk/publishing/. There is a form for submitting requests for review copies on the web site.

Please send all comments, inquiries, submissions to me at klempner@fastmail. net. I look forward to hearing from you!

(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2010

E-mail: klempner@fastmail.net

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