Cause and effect – or ends and means?

Since radical re-appraisals of the nature of reality are still buzzing around my head, I’m going to indulge myself by pointing out a small one of my own. It’s been said, quite rightly, that one of the problems with Creationism is that it has unconsciously bought into the agenda of materialism that it seeks to oppose. Thus the Bible is used as an alternative scientific text to give an alternative materialistic theory of origins: the world was not formed gradually by the outworking of the natural laws of the Universe, but suddenly by the outworking of God’s divine fiat, as described in Genesis. The problem with this, again often commented upon, is that Genesis does not set out to be a science text, or more precisely it doesn’t seek to give an account of material origins at all.

The Intelligent Design Movement, though, is careful to indicate that its agenda is a scientific one, namely the exposure of inadequate aspects of Neodarwinism (notably random processes) and the detection of causation by design. That is, to me, a perfectly valid exercise whether or not it succeeds, and maybe all one should hope to achieve within a scientific framework. Assuming, of course, one can get the scientific community not to rule it out a priori. Nevertheless it seems to me that ID too has often unconsciously adopted a key point of the materialist agenda. At the heart of the reductionist scientific method of the past few centuries is the centrality of cause and effect. We see an effect now, and science’s task is to determine its causes. In classical determinism, every event now would be explicable in terms of the laws of physics, and one would hope to discover a single principle that underlies them in turn. In the original days of theistic science, the first cause would be God. As the supernatural has been increasingly sidelined, a material cause has been sought. Quantum physics has, as we ought to know, largely dealt a death blow to determinism, but cause and effect are still virtually the whole sum of our science.

If, though, one begins to posit a crucial role for information, as Paul Davies and his associates do and as, par excellence, ID does, one ought to be looking less at cause and effect and more at ends and means. Conscious beings actually conceive ends – in the form of purposes and goals – and then use whatever means are available and desirable to achieve them. In other words, the real cause of planned events is the end result.

For example, if a composer were to conceive the purpose of getting local school kids to perform and record his major new musical work, the first job would be to write the music. The task of recruiting players and rehearsing them would follow of necessity. As for the music itself, it would first be heard as a messy rendition of small sections, gradually increasing in complexity and cohesion until the day of the performance, when all the planning and arrangement would come to fruition. If all that was subsequently available of this process was a set of recordings of every rehearsal, it might be a natural conclusion that the music had gradually evolved into the complex and sophisticated final work. But in fact the first event in the causal sequence was the final performance, or at least the composer’s initial conception of the final performance. The preceding events were simply the necessary steps towards the performance. Rather than spreading out from a simple cause, the process is being drawn towards a complex purpose.

The subordinate nature of the steps leading up to an intended action are clearly seen in every human volition.If I choose simply to go across the room, the end result is all that I consciously consider. I barely even register a decision to walk as opposed to any oher means of locomotion. And not only do I ignore the individual muscle actions required in so doing, but I am not even able to perform the individual actions consciously. I have no specific voluntary control over the gastrocnemus or psoas muscles, and probably the global function of “walking” is the lowest level I’m likely to think about. Mostly I just think about my destination, just as when I’m writing I give my attention to the message rather than the mechanics of doing so.

In both these examples the laws of nature are operating, but they do not give an adequate cause for the effect – a musical performance or a walk across a room. The events are subject to the laws of nature, but cannot be predicted from them. They could only be rightly predicted as necessary results of the final purpose of whoever’s setting the goal. Put another way, although one might find some evidence of causal intelligent design in, say, genetic change, the real source of information is the end state.

I understand that Jonathan Wells of the ID movement has an analogous idea, that evolution serves the purpose of leading to the emergence of mankind. I wouldn’t argue too much with that, except that we’re not actually at the end state yet, and at least in the Bible God has stated an ultimate purpose of uniting all things together in Christ. Human existence is, though, at least one point on the trajectory. It would hardly be proper to make that revealed purpose a scientific axiom (though it’s actually no more or less unwarranted than the assumption that the Universe arose from a natural cause). Nevertheless we won’t find ultimate causation without considering it.

But though it’s not a scientific viewpoint, it may enable some new thinking about processes and events that are known to be of low probability. Information, as Shannon’s work showed, is by definition of low probability. It resembles random strings, and semantic meaning is only demonstrated by the rational end result. If one observes the result of an input of information (like a bunch of kids playing their rehearsals of a concert) without actually being able to detect the input of information, one is simply going to see a vanishingly unlikely event. The only valid explanations are that statistically improbable events are happening with some frequency on a cause and effect basis, or else that the low probability has been introduced through some information input. If the observed events were irrational (students making an increasingly cacophonous imitation of white noise), stochastic causes are likely. If there is increasing order (sweet music), then it’s a fair bet intelligence is drawing events towards an end purpose.

So if, say, evidence for the whole Neodarwinian process were actually to be found, with useful mutation rates bucking the calculated probabilities, this in itself would constitute good evidence for teleology on the grandest scale. The existence of complex life dictates it.

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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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