Design and all that metaphysics

A thread at Peaceful Science tosses around the usual argument-suspects about Intelligent Design. It was set up in an unhelpful way by the common ID argument contrasting Mount Rushmore (a large statue in America, m’Lud, in the form of a carved mountain) with Mount Everest, a “natural” mountain.

Joshua Swamidass rightly points out that there are some analogical dysfunctions in that example, if we believe – as certainly most IDists do when they think about it – that God’s creation covers the natural world. In that case, God would have designed the intricacy of the bacterial flagellum (say), but he would also have designed the beauty of Mount Everest – and so say all of us. It can’t be sensible to argue for God as designer by saying that God designs mountains less than humans do.

Even so, there is something genuine and positive to be said about the human perception of design, especially as an apologetics argument. We only know anything through our perceptions of how things are.We may not know much about how God designs, but analogically to humans it would appear to be the case that he could make both an intuitively obvious design, and one that is less so.

In the comments I gave the example of Michaelangelo carving David from marble, and (being a tidy and thrifty soul) piling the chippings neatly in a convenient place for sale to a paving contractor. Few people would mistake Michaelangelo’s statue for an accidental assemblage under any circumstances, whereas many would mistake the pile of chippings for one, installation artists like Tracey Emin aside. Yet both statue and heap were produced, as I have told you, by the same mind, and both for specific purposes.

I think, humanly speaking, there is a reasonable comparison to be made between that case and some complex biological contrivance – let’s keep it classical and ID, and use the flagellum – as compared to Mount Everest. But bringing the two cases – the human designer and the divine designer – under the same design inference is notoriously hard. The flagellum looks as designed, when compared to Everest, as David does, when compared to the pile of chippings.

But the skeptic will reply that natural processes can explain the flagellum, making its design purely a matter of faith in a way that the statue is not, because in the latter we can see the designer at work. If God is at work on the mountain or the flagellum, he is equally invisible in both cases, and may or may not be designing the outcome. So the argument is: “We see natural process, but we don’t see God, ergo no design but simply nature.” But that’s utterly sloppy thinking.

As I replied to Ann Gauger on the thread, the empirical territory is the wrong one for the argument. The question of design versus non-design is not at the physical level, but at the metaphysical level. The problem is that opponents of design, in particular, tend to deny there is such a thing as metaphysics: to them science does evidence, God is imaginary and metaphysical. Let me try to debunk that if I can.

Now, the argument about, say, the flagellum is not that non-design proponents say it lacks order and organisation, but that these are “natural” – by which, if they know what they mean at all by that weasel word, they mean that processes governed solely by the laws of nature have, or could have, produced it.

So, at that superficial, empirical, level, the possibilities being opposed to each other are (a) the laws did it, or (b) God did it. But the first thing we discover if we think metaphysically is that laws don’t do anything apart from entities – which are contingent – to act upon. The law of gravity, for example, will do nothing whatsoever until some mass finds itself at a height above another mass, whereupon it will fall. The law simply describes the relationship between masses, and is as true for masses that are only values in an equation as it is for planets. Constant mathematical truths do not produce contingent events. It is a particular rock that squashes you, and not the law of gravity, which is simply a harmless equation.

In practice we don’t know why all the entities and motions that come together to form a flagellum exist as they do, so we invoke “chance” as well as laws. But we recognise (or ought to) that in theory there is no “chance” involved, but just our ignorance of the lawlike causes. In fact, then, chance is acting as an epistemological placeholder for “entities acting under laws.” So the question being asked is between “Does the flagellum happen through laws?” or “Does the flagellum happen through God?”

But that’s a stupid distinction, because under theism God designs and creates both entities and laws purposefully, and in that case were a flagellum to be produced by entities acting under laws it would simply be designed. So instead we need to look at what is differenbt between the two beliefs, and that means looking at the metaphysics of primary causation. Then we will ask, if God is not the creator of laws and entities, what alternative is there for the design-denier?

As I pointed out on the P.S. thread, there is only one other ultimate alternative cause of order apart from God; and that is ontological, or Epicurean, chance. If the laws and the entities, and hence the flagellum, did not gain their order through the designing mind of God, then they gained their order spontaneously, by chance. Even if the universe is taken as a brute fact, that brute fact is necessarily an Epicurean one: the universe does what it does a-teleogically.

It is important, though, to be as careful to distinguish this “ontological chance” from the “chance” we deal with daily in nature (which is simply our ignorance of causation), just as we should be careful to distinguish God as the “First Cause” from “God as a superman who visibly interferes with nature.” If such a transcendent First Cause God is an invisible creative entity, to be accepted by faith, then such an ontological kind of chance is equally invisible and equally outside our direct experience. And therefore equally a faith commitment.

(If somone objects that ontological chance is not a real power, and that therefore they are not adding an unnecessary entity as the theist is, they fool themelves: to believe that order will spontaneously arise from nothing is to say, in convoluted terms, that “nothing” is an organising power.)

We may know that “ordinary” chance, in the sense of our ignorance of how the laws of nature are affecting the entities, seems to produce organised results sometimes. In the cases we come to understand fully, we find that highly organised processes are at work whenever highly organised outcomes occur. More often, “chance” in the colloquial sense produces only piles of chippings in the wrong places: we have no significant experience of organisation arising from disorder, but only of one kind of order being transformed into another kind of order, or else into increasing disorder. And that’s why we talk about entropy.

But from experience, we most decidedly do not know that there is an Epicurean power that, undirected, produces consistent laws of nature and ordered entities that will come together to form a mountain. And, I would argue, such an imaginary force’s ability to produce a flagellum is even more in doubt, to the same extent that we doubt that the observed forces of nature would reproduce the faces of US presidents (as opposed to the pareidolic human profile Joshua points out as a feature of the actual Mount Rushmore).

In other words, since laws and entities are postulates shared by theists and atheists alike, they have no bearing on the question of design. That question must be decided by weighing the likely ability to create organised contingency of two rival invisible causal entities. The question is as old as the arguments between the Greek philosophers: is it more likely that the ordered cosmos we see has come together through a hypothetical force with no propensity for order, ie ontological chance; or that it has come together through the ordering of a being whose very nature, intelligent purpose, predicts an ordered creation?

Now, those alternatives really are mutually exclusive. Choose your metaphysics, and stick with it. Embrace the first, and all order and organisation, including human life, are accidental: ultimately the pareidolia of the fifth face on Mount Rushmore is no more illusory than the other four faces. All meaning is subjective in that case… but the subjective is ultimately arbitrary too, because the cosmos has no sense of meaning.

Grasp the second position, and it will give shape and meaning to everything, Mount Everest and Mount Rushmore, Michaelangelo’s David and Michaelangelo’s pile of chippings alike. And, of course, the design of the bacterial flagellum. For ontological chance, if it could even be a reality in a theistic universe at all, could no more produce order than it could in a godless world. Thomas Traherne had it right:

Your enjoyment of the World is never right, till you so esteem it, that everything in it, is more your treasure than a King’s exchequer full of Gold and Silver. And that exchequer yours also in its place and service. Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works? He is Himself in everything. Some things are little on the outside, and rough and common, but I remember the time when the dust of the streets were as pleasing as Gold to my infant eyes, and now they are more precious to the eye of reason.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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