Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Design Argument

The fifth of Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God is the Design Argument. This is perhaps the most important argument in the whole collection. It’s the one that seems the most obviously valid to most theists and the most obviously invalid to most atheists, who consider it to have been definitively debunked by Darwin.

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Summary of the argument

  1. The universe shows a remarkable amount of intelligible order.
  2. Either this order came about by chance, or it was designed by something intelligent.
  3. Chance is not a credible explanation because “we can understand chance only against a background of order.” Darwin’s theory of the nonrandom survival of random variation also assumes the prior existence of intelligible order (“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit”) and can therefore not explain it.
  4. Therefore, the universe was designed by something intelligent.
  5. In order to have designed the entire universe, the designers must exist outside the universe and be non-physical in nature. It is therefore natural to identify them — or, rather, “him” — with God.

The intelligent design (ID) hypothesis is usually presented as a stripped-down version of creationism, an alternative to Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. However, while K & T appear to be evolution skeptics themselves (they cite Michael Denton and Phillip E. Johnson with approval), they maintain that the Design Argument would still be just as valid and convincing if the Darwinian hypothesis were true. In my critical comments below, I will therefore assume biological orthodoxy: that all organisms arose from a common ancestor via descent with modification driven primarily by natural selection.

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Chance and design do not exhaust the possibilities.

Why does my reflection look like my face? Should we ascribe the correspondence to chance or design? (Note that I am not asking about the origin of the reflective surface, which could just as well be a naturally occurring puddle as an intelligently designed mirror, but about the reflection itself.) We unhesitatingly ascribe the resemblance between Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Anna Whistler to design, and my reflection resembles my face far more exactly than any portrait resembles its subject — so should we infer that there is some unseen intelligent agent busily designing all the reflections we see? After all, the only other option — that the incredibly detailed, point-by-point correspondence between my face and my reflection is just a coincidence — is even more absurd.

Clearly this is a false dichotomy, and the true explanation for the correspondence is what we might call blind regularity. (Another term which suggests itself, necessity, carries too much philosophical baggage to be suitable here.)

A detailed discussion of chance, regularity, and design is beyond the scope of this post (as I realized after typing out a very long tangent on the subject, which I decided not to include). The point I want to make is just that “chance,” as it is used in this argument, doesn’t really mean chance; it covers anything that isn’t intelligent design, including mindless adherence to the laws of physics. The dichotomy K & T are advocating would force us to say either that the sun always rises in the east and never in the west just “by chance” — an absurdly improbable coincidence — or else that it is guided in its path by an intelligent agent — Phoebus in his chariot, essentially. The parody theory of “Intelligent Falling” comes to mind.

So, wherever K & T write “chance,” read “unintelligent forces” — not necessarily chance as that word is ordinarily understood.

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What Darwinism presupposes — and what it doesn’t

“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit” sounds right at first but is actually a misrepresentation of Darwin’s theory. K & T write:

If the Darwinian theory has shown anything, it has shown, in a general way, how species may have descended from others through random mutation; and how survival of these species can be accounted for by natural selection—by the fitness of some species to survive in their environment.

This makes it sound as if natural selection plays no role in the actual origin of new species but serves only to explain why some species, after having come into existence by pure chance, continue to survive. This is obviously not what Darwin had in mind when he wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Although it is true that natural selection is a wholly negative process, weeding out some of what comes into being by random mutation, it nevertheless plays a creative role. Without natural selection, new “fit” species would never come into existence in the first place because every random change for the better would be canceled out by thousands of random changes for the worse. Natural selection functions as a ratchet, preserving only the good changes and allowing them to accumulate in a way which would never otherwise be possible. Or, to vary the metaphor, random mutation would never serve up anything other than a structureless hunk of marble were it not for natural selection chipping away everything that doesn’t look like David.

So Darwinism does not presuppose the arrival of the fit; it is a true theory of the origin — not just the survival — of species. It explains a great deal of the apparent design in nature. However, it does presuppose the existence of DNA or something like it — bodies capable of creating copies of themselves with not-quite-perfect fidelity. That alone implies a pretty impressive level of intelligible order, perhaps enough to motivate the ID hypothesis even without the help of eyes and hearts and brains and all the other things for which natural selection is an adequate explanation.

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Everything, including design, presupposes order.

Obviously the Darwinian theory itself cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of self-replicating structures.

Even more obviously, intelligent design cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of intelligent designers.

However, evolution and design do show us broadly what kinds of explanations of intelligible order are possible.

Watches, and the watchmakers who make them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to be the creation of an intelligent designer. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were designed by, say, George-Emile Eberhard — but perhaps by something like Eberhard, by some as-yet unknown intelligent agent.

Likewise, living organisms, and the Darwinian mechanism that makes them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to arise from a combination of random chance and blind regularity. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were created by natural selection as we know it — but perhaps by something like that, by some as-yet unknown unintelligent process.

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Unfortunately, neither evolution nor design can offer a real answer to the ultimate question of why there is order rather than no-order. This is probably just as unanswerable as Leibniz’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Any conceivable answer to Leibniz’s question would itself be a “something” in need of explanation — and in the same way, any conceivable explanation of the origin or order would imply a mechanism of cause-and-effect, and thus some underlying order.

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Design is an empirical question, not a philosophical deduction.

None of this means that there is anything illegitimate about the design hypothesis. Obviously, intelligent design is the correct explanation for the existence of a great many things — watches and computers and motorcycles and so on — and there’s no a priori reason why it couldn’t be the correct explanation for the existence of life or even of the entire known universe. Evolutionists who dismiss ID as unacceptable even in principle because it presupposes a creator and thus explains “exactly nothing” (Dawkins) are going much too far. Evolution may be more elegant and philosophically satisfying than ID because it explains more complex things in terms of simpler ones rather than vice versa, but none of that changes the fact that ID undeniably is the correct explanation for many things, and therefore cannot legitimately be ruled “meaningless” or “unscientific” or otherwise intellectually non-kosher.

However, creationists who assume that ID is the only possible explanation for complexity or intelligible order are also going too far. Design is a legitimate hypothesis — but that’s all it is. Like any other hypothesis, it must stand or fall on empirical grounds. “Order, therefore design” is not good enough because (1) design cannot logically be the source of all order, since it presupposes order; and (2) we have in Darwinian evolution an actual example of order arising without design, showing that this is possible in practice as well as in theory.

Proponents of ID often try to use Sherlock Holmes’ maxim from “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” — that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth — in an invalid manner. The argument goes something like this:

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes (“chance”).
  2. No known unintelligent process can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, even in the absence of any positive evidence of design, we can conclude that X was designed.

This is invalid because there are actually four possibilities. X could be the work of (1) a known intelligent agent, such as Eberhard or some other human being; (2) an unknown intelligent agent, such as the “designer(s)” postulated by ID proponents; (3) a known unintelligent process, such as Darwinian evolution; or (4) an unknown unintelligent process. Of course no one takes the first possibility seriously where life or the universe is concerned; however, it’s hard to see why the fourth should be excluded from consideration. A more logically valid form of the above argument would be

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes.
  2. No known agent or process — intelligent or unintelligent — can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, the cause of X is unknown and could be either intelligent or unintelligent in nature.

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Locke on the obviousness of God’s existence

I’ve been reading Locke and found this in his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding.

It is as certain that there is a God, as that the opposite angles made by the intersection of two straight lines are equal. There was never any rational creature that set himself sincerely to examine the truth of these propositions that could fail to assent to them; though yet it be past doubt that there are many men, who, having not applied their thoughts that way, are ignorant both of the one and the other.

This little passage stopped me in my tracks. How to process such an outlandish claim? In the portion of the Essay leading up to this passage, Locke has established himself as an honest and fastidious critic of received opinions — scrupulous almost to a fault, almost to the point of tedious nitpicking — and then he comes out with this!

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Could it be that Locke didn’t really believe what he wrote here, that he included this conspicuous but insincere nod to orthodoxy merely for purposes of self-protection? That seems rather out of character for Locke, but the possibility cannot be ruled out. His belief in God was clearly sincere (the rest of his oeuvre puts this beyond dispute), but he may have deliberately exaggerated his level of certainty. I’ve known many religious people to do that, including my own past self. Locke lived in intolerant times, perhaps even more intolerant than our own, and perhaps the generally unorthodox character of his thought made it advisable for him to make it clear that absolutely never no way not in a million years could he ever be considered an atheist.

Why go so far, though? People don’t normally use such comically extreme wording when they’re merely bowing to goodthink. Have you ever heard anyone compare one of our contemporary shibboleths of intellectual respectability (evolution, global warming, the Holocaust, racial and gender equality, etc.) to a theorem in geometry? The ringleaders of the American Revolution did famously call human equality “self-evident,” and Richard Dawkins did coin the unfortunate word “theorum” in order to express just how certainly true Darwinian theory is, but these are just figures of speech. If pressed on the point, I’m sure (well, fairly sure) that Jefferson, who was both an extremely intelligent man and a slave-owner, would have conceded that human equality is not quite self-evident the way Euclid is self-evident. Locke, on the other hand, spells out exactly what he means — and does so, moreover, in a context (an Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, not a political manifesto) in which casual exaggeration would have been most out of place.

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I can only conclude that Locke meant what he wrote — that it was his considered opinion, after making a meticulous study of the nature and grounds of human understanding, that all atheists are either (a) people who have never really applied their thoughts to the question of God’s existence or (b) irrational the way someone who denies basic mathematical truths is irrational.

I’m in the first category, at least when it comes to “God” as most theologians understand that term. As I continue my project of examining various arguments for God’s existence, I hope to uncover just what it is that Locke found so convincing. (I’m still working on the next in the series. These arguments are so interconnected with every other area of philosophy that evaluating them always turns out to be more complicated than it looks. As the Salman Rushdie character says, “To understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”)

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German dominance at the very highest levels of accomplishment

A discussion between Bruce Charlton and commenter Dearieme here brought up the question of whether or not France, given its long cultural dominance and large population, was underrepresented among the ranks of civilization-making geniuses.

At first I supported Bruce in saying that France was roughly equal to Britain and Germany. In Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment, he identifies a total of 4,0002 significant figures in the arts and sciences, and roughly equal numbers of them from the period 1400-1950 come from those three regions. (Italy is a respectable runner-up, but no other region even comes close.)

Upon further consideration, though, it still seemed that there was a qualitative difference between the great Germans and Englishmen on the one hand and the great Frenchmen on the other. As great as Lavoisier and Descartes were, they and their compatriots still seemed to be a notch below the likes of Newton, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Beethoven. So I went back to Human Accomplishment and looked only at the best of the best — the top 72 of the 4,002 greats identified by Murray, those who scored at least 50 on a scale where Shakespeare is 100 and Richard Wright is 1.

Here’s how the nationalities of those 72 super-greats break down:

At this level of accomplishment, Germany is clearly in a class of its own, with both France and England lagging behind.

If we lump together countries which are culturally and historically akin, the chart looks like this:

The Germans still dominate, and would do so to an even greater degree if the Netherlands (usually considered part of Großdeutschland despite the language difference) were included, but the Anglosphere is now close behind it — and, yes, the French do seem to lag a bit. The real underachiever, though, is Spain — historically one of the most powerful countries in Europe, on par with England and France, but with only a single dubious name to contribute to the ranks of the super-great.

Here are the names of the people represented on the charts above:

  • Greater Germany
    • Germany: Beethoven, Einstein, Mozart, Kepler, Koch, Herschel, Bach, Gauss, Goethe, Wagner, Kant, Leibniz, Paul Ehrlich, Dürer
    • Switzerland: Euler, Paracelsus (both German Swiss)
    • Poland: Copernicus (German Polish)
    • Austria: Haydn
  • The Anglosphere
    • England: Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Faraday, Cavendish, Halley, William Smith, Harvey, J. J. Thomson
    • Scotland: Lyell, Watt, James Hutton, Maxwell
    • USA: Edison, Thomas Hunt Morgan
    • New Zealand: Rutherford
  • Italy: Galileo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, Titian, Virgil (Roman), Giotto, Bernini, Cassini (Italian French), Marconi
  • France: Descartes, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Lamarck, Cuvier, Laplace, Fermat, Cezanne
  • Greece: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy (Greek Egyptian), Homer, Archimedes
  • Scandinavia
    • Sweden: Berzelius, Linnaeus, Carl Scheele
    • Denmark: Tycho, Bohr
  • Netherlands: Rembrandt, Huygens
  • Spain: Picasso

Many of the specific fields of art and science catalogued by Murray are dominated by a particular nationality. Below I list all the fields in which a single nationality accounts for at least 50% of the super-greats.

  • Music: 5/5 (100%) are German (including one Austrian).
  • Physics: 6/9 (67%) are from the Anglosphere; 4/9 (44%) are from England proper.
  • Chemistry: 2/3 (67%) are Swedish.
  • Art: 6/10 (60%) are Italian.
  • Mathematics: 4/8 (50%) are German (including one German Swiss).
  • Earth sciences: 2/4 (50%) are Scottish.
  • Philosophy: 2/4 (50%) are Greek.

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Filed under Greatness / Genius, Statistics