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October 24, 2006

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 2: Complexity

In his review of Richard Dawkins' attack on religion, Jim Holt raises an interesting question about complexity and simplicity. Holt says Dawkins relies on the premise that:

a creator is bound to be more complex, and hence improbable, than his creation (you never, for instance, see a horseshoe making a blacksmith).

By this logic, God would be more complex than the universe He created. But the whole point of evolution Dawkins says, according to Holt, is that "the simple can give rise to the complex" -- not visa versa. Hence, the complex, God, couldn't have come before the (relatively) simple, the universe.

Here is Holt's response to this use of evolution to dismiss God as the creator:

Not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat).

Doesn't Holt have a point here -- even if something as improbable as God may seem too improbable to imagine?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at October 24, 2006 10:54 PM


I've been working on religious fundamentalism & infantility as a sort of spinoff from my latest book & while I am not as up to speed on the background as you, Mitchell, I am encountering many of the same problems. It seems to me that we have two primary problems that almost overrule the significant one of emergent complexity.

First, we tend - for obvious reasons - to put the ontological cart before the epistemological horse. We assume we "inhabit" a single and consistent episteme (which I'd disagree with on theoretical grounds anyway) and by the dubious methods of induction and extrapolation we assume a single consistent universal episteme. I doubt that that can be theoretically validated, and not just on some dubious and illegitimate extension of Goedel.

Second, we tend to consider the "imaginable" as a sort of second-order intentionality (we imagine ourselves imagining the possession of an infinite imagination), which is in itself impossible. You can go at it from a reductionist angle (imagination is an emergent property of biological complexity, which is itself finite, and therefore imagination is prima facie finite) or from a sort of tricksy empiricism (the old chestnut of trying to imagine infinity) but there is a high probability that imagination is finite, cut it how you will. Therefore there is a finite probability that there is more in heaven and earth than can be dreamed of in our philosophy.

The complexity argument seems to me to be central, but not in the way it's deployed here. The Genesis proposition -- that god created man in his own image -- is an artificial boundary case which maybe suggests that our imagination is at least potentially coextensive with god's, and it is only our (empirical? positivist?) knowledge and our power of action which are constrained. The trouble with that is it gets us precisely nowhere, since we have no way of testing whether it's a delusion or not.

I had better rein myself in here or I will turn into a bandwith-hogging Comment Pig. But, hey, "The Genesis Proposition" is a good title. (But for what?)

Posted by: Michael Bywater at October 25, 2006 12:54 PM

I happened to get stuck on that same particular sentence of Holt's.

The way I understand entropy in a cosmic sense is that only tiny bits of the universe are more organized than they were in the beginning and the rest is actually even messier than before. Thus it wouldn't be a paradox to claim that the universe has moved from a disorganized state into an even more disorganized state.

Now, my physics might be completely wrong, but at the time of the Big Bang the universe was very much in order and to paraphrase Douglas Adams things have gotten worse ever since. Isn't the situation analogous to gas that's been packed tight (a limited amount of ways for the molecules to organize themselves = simple) and then released (spreading into a larger space = more configurations for the molecules = complex).

Or am I completely missing the crux of the argument here?

Posted by: Olli Sulopuisto at October 25, 2006 5:33 PM

This whole argument seems to be based on the idea that God is the start of the universe. God is the creator of the universe, like the blacksmith in the original analogy is the creator of the horseshoe. You'll learn about as much about God by looking at the beginning of the universe as you'll learn about a blacksmith by looking at a block of iron.

Posted by: Noah SD at October 25, 2006 9:44 PM

This whole argument seems to be based on the idea that we can draw analogies to God from what we see in the universe. I don't see where this idea came from, and I think it's a pretty narrow view of what a possible God would be like.

Posted by: Noah SD at October 25, 2006 9:46 PM

well said Noah - once again Dawkins and co assume any and all talk of "gods" must fit somewhere into the gaps-in-the-process - he talks about "gods in the universe" and "gods as explanation" (by which he means scientific explanation).

Since this idea (such as seen in ancient gods of processes, eg sun god, rain god, harvest god, war god, wine god, etc, etc) clearly must be distinguished (eg from the God of the bible), doesnt dawkins insistence to be "just going one god further" in his atheism completely lose its warrant?

I'm interested what you or he means by "improbable". Is he doing more than re-hashing Humean metaphysics on miracles. If so, this is outdated, self-defeating here inapplicable, yet made to sound plausible because all talk of gods must be in the same bracket - process-explainers not purpose-explainers. I would contend that ultimately, if we are only dismissing a creator God on "improbability", we must dismiss existence altogether, which is something we kinda cannot do.

good critical thinking conversation going on here. appreciate it.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at October 26, 2006 7:35 PM

Dawkins is right. Science consistently describes the simple giving rise to the complex. The second law of thermodynamics is -- in fact -- a fine example of that.

Holt misstates the relationship between probability and entropy. Neat is improbable only as a successor to messy. The law (informally) describes neater as more probable when it's in the past.

When Holt describes the second law as implying that "order always gives way to disorder," he additionally suggests -- I think -- another argument: Order precedes Disorder; God is the ultimate Order (gives us the Word, the commandments, etc.); therefore physics suggests that God preceded the current disordered universe. This argument relies on a misunderstanding of the second law: order, in the sense of the law, is "a small number of possible states;" simplicity is a better word. It cannot encompass a conscious, Creative God.

Posted by: A. Amar at October 27, 2006 5:41 PM

But wait: 'order' means absolutely nothing unless conceptualized *in relation to* disorder/mess etc., no? In other words, difference is the condition of possibility for 'identity' (as order, truth, light, purity, oneness, and so forth through all the privileged terms of western metaphysics).... where is the sense of relationality in this discussion?

Second, why is this conversation so rooted in teleology? why can't we seem to get past a conceptual framework that privileges 'progress'?

Posted by: JM at October 27, 2006 9:57 PM

The real problem is the lack of a rigorous definition of complex and complexity. Complexity is erroneously being equated (by almost everyone) to emergence. Emergence is emergence. Why attach another name to it? Complexity, in our view, is an attribute of every system, just like energy or momentum. If you have enough of it, you can accomplish certain things. If you have enough energy, you can establish a stable orbit. If you have enough complexity, you can "produce" life. Our metric of complexity - seen as an attribute - grows spontaneously up to a certain threshold, after which the system starts to age. Our metric shows how before aging starts, entropy has a positive constructive effect while after the threshold is reached, entropy is responsible for decay. Without a sound definition of complexity you cant' build a solid philosophy through which attempt any understanding of God or creation.

Posted by: Jacek Marczyk at October 30, 2006 4:54 AM

No, Holt has no good point with this probable/improbable line. He just has a vague but attractive turn of phrase. I don't even see the relevance. What good are intuitions about physics and entropy during even the first femtosecond after inflation begins, let alone before? What is the "closed system" of which the entropy before creation is less than after and less than now? Is "God" the whole system, or else why suppose the "God" subsystem must have less entropy than our whole system or our universe. "Before" may have been lumpy too. Why suppose "entropy" means everywhere and always the same thing as "complexity"? Notice it has its own word and unlike "complexity," it is mathematically constrained.

Posted by: MT at November 11, 2006 11:21 PM

Complexity is bounded. Any system can evolve to its upper complexity threshold, after which decline kicks in. This is inevitable. As the entropy of the Universe steadily increases to its maximum, so does complexity. However, complexity will reach a peak before entropy will. In fact, up to a certain point, entropy causes an increase in complexity - it is constructive. After the complexity peaks, entropy assumes a destructive role and progressively erodes complexity. This is known as aging.

Posted by: Jacek Marczyk at December 16, 2006 11:26 AM

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