Monday, January 02, 2006

On Wolfram and Dembski

Jeffrey Shallit has written an interesting post in his new blog comparing Dembski and Wolfram in their "never retract, never explain, never apologize" approach to science. I've been meaning to say something about Wolfram's New Kind of Science (NKS) for a while. It is true that Wolfram, like Dembski, does have a very high opinion of himself. For example, while Dembski had someone compare him to Newton, Wolfram compares himself to Newton. This makes reading NKS (the main text) a much more irritating experience than it ought to be -- and no, I didn't find Wolfram's explanation for his Nietzschean "tone" convincing.

However, Wolfram is no Dembski, even when it comes to evolutionary biology: I believe Wolfram's work to be much more interesting and substantive. I have read most of NKS carefully, as well as many reviews of it (I quite like Weinberg's), and I have never seen any criticism that is nearly as damaging as, say, Shallit and Elsberry's critique of Dembski (see, for example, pp. 13-17). Although Wolfram is not as interested in biology as he is in computation, mathematics or physics, I still found what he had to say on complexity very interesting in the context of biological complexity and, therefore, don't agree with Shallit's conclusion that: "if he did use a more formal definition -- let's say Kolmogorov complexity -- then his claims become incoherent, trivial, or wrong." Also, Wolfram's work, unlike Dembski's, has stimulated a fair amount of research in several areas of science -- whether it will all turn out to be as "New" as Wolfram so passionately believes remains to be seen, but it should not be dismissed.

What I find most disturbing about Wolfram is his suggestion that just because some of the simplest programs imaginable can produce complexity, therefore it will be helpful to model complex systems using these simple programs even when there is no reason to believe that there is any correspondence between the mechanics of the models and that of the actual processes involved. As a biologist I have generally found this "model in search of a question" approach (common in other physical scientists, by the way) very unproductive. I also don't agree with some of Wolfram's ideas on evolution, but I think he got more flack on that from my colleagues than he deserved. I'm actually working on something which is relevant to this discussion, so I'll come back to it at some point.