Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Against the blind watchmaker


The title of one of Richard Dawkins’s books is entitled The Blind Watchmaker, but its subtitle is How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World without Design. The subtitle, it seems to me, makes a paradoxical claim. On the one hand, it maintains we ought to draw the conclusion that the world lacks design. On the other hand, the subtitle suggests that he has reached this conclusion through examining the evidence of evolution, but examining the evidence is a process designed to discover the truth. In fact, Dawkins is fond of contrasting his own methods for reaching conclusions with methods based on faith, which to his mind involve a lack of design. But if the world really is without design, how is this possible? Of course, it could turn out that the paradox is resolvable. But the attempt to ban teleology from the bioverse, but then to insist that one’s own convictions are justified because a kind of teleological explanation can be given for these convictions, is a fact that, at the very least stands in need of explanation.
The paradox is certainly not Dawkins’s alone. Bertrand Russell maintained that we were products of forces that had no prevision of the end they were achieving, and that we were accidental collocations of atoms, yet insisted that, if it were to turn out that God did exist, God was in fact remiss for providing us insufficient evidence for his existence, again implying that human beings are the sorts of beings who can choose one belief over another believe because the evidence for one is better than the evidence for the other.
One apparent resolution to this paradox is to make the point that the design Dawkins professes to be absent from the world is divine design, coming from a being transcendent to the universe. What he does not intend to deny, perhaps, is human design, functioning within the physical universe and having no transcendent source. 
However, this response is not sufficient. To understand why, we have to look at what causation looks like in a world without design. Consider what happens when I am at the bottom of a mountain and rocks are falling down the mountain in an avalanche. Will the rocks avoid my head because they want to spare me, or hit me because they think I deserve to get my head smashed in? No, they will blindly follow what the laws of physics require that they do, given their trajectory and velocity. If physical determinism is true, the laws and facts, which are blind to purposes of any kind, guarantee all future states. Any even that occurs other than those which the laws and facts require would be, in fact, in a significant sense, miraculous. But what if the physical level is not deterministic, on the basis of some quantum mechanical indeterminism? Even there, a cause which introduces design at the basic level of analysis still introduces a miracle to the blind universe.
One could reply that one pattern of movement on the part of basic particles is the acceptance of evidence, while another pattern of movement of basic particles is the rejection of evidence. But evidence is not a fundamental force in the universe, at least as understood by science. The basic causes of the universe operative in the universe, at least according to standard science, operate blindly, with to quote Russell, no prevision of the end they are achieving.
Indeed the impetus toward atheism in over the past 160 years has been powered by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the plausibility of replacing explanations in terms of design with design-free explanations, the idea that time, chance variation, and natural selection can produce results that might appear on the face of things to be the result of intelligent design. Indeed, Dawkins remarked, reportedly, remarked to A. J. Ayer that “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In the intellectually fulfilled atheist world, it is still possible to talk about “design” in the biosphere, but that design-talk is not literally true, since such design claims are merely placeholders for an account in terms of blind forces such as random variation and natural selection.
Darwinian biology replaces or promises to replace design explanations with non-design explanations in it diachronic explanations of how rational agents come into existence, going from no life at all, to one-celled living things, to animal life, and finally to the transition from animal life to humans with the mental capacities we possess. But this leaves us with a puzzle. It looks as if evolution has brought into being creatures who act for reasons. But does that mean that natural selection and random variation have brought into existence a kind of causation that is not blind? Prior to the arrival of humans, or whoever the first beings in the universe are who act for reasons, causation in the universe was blind, according to the standard model. But new kinds of causation do not just pop into existence. So, the materialist picture has to be that, in the final analysis, no one really acts, or thinks, or believes anything for a reason. Hence the process that produced the mind of Richard Dawkins, and the atoms and molecules in Dawkins’s brain when he concludes that everything is the work of a “blind watchmaker” are equally blind. On the face of things, this would tend to undercut the claims of people like Dawkins that their scientific beliefs, unlike the beliefs of, say, creationists, are formed by evidence and therefore are more justified than those of their opponents. If they are really consistent in their understanding of the world, they have to conclude that their own beliefs are caused in the same blind way as those of the creationists. Just as claims about the design of, say, the human eye are not literally true, claims that an agent has concluded anything based on evidence, should, if people like Dawkins and Russell are right, are also not literally true.
There is at least an apparent conflict between the claim that the world proceeds, at its base, in a non-purposive manner, and the claim that there are rational agents who form beliefs on the basis of rational evidence. Arguments that attempt to show that a) this conflict is real and not merely apparent, and b) it constitutes a reason for rejecting in which all causation is ultimately blind, can be regarded as versions of the argument from reason.




39 comments:

John B. Moore said...

Both evolutionists and creationists are deterministically caused to believe what they do. It's not a different kind of causation; it's just a different cause.

Evolutionists are deterministically caused to believe things due to evidence about the world.

Creationists are deterministically caused to believe things due to evidence about their own selves.

Evolutionists say, "The world looks like life evolved."
Creationists say, "I feel better thinking life was created."

When evolutionists talk about evidence, they mean materialistic causes out there in the world, as opposed to materialistic causes that are just in a person's brain.

Rational reasoning means taking sensory input from the world and using that sensory input to predict future sensory inputs.

Irrational thinking disregards sensory input from the world, instead just considering the status of the person's self-image. Irrational thinking makes pronouncements that the thinker predicts will improve his own self-image.

bmiller said...

John,

It appears you start out telling us that both evolutionists and creationists are caused to believe different things due to the consideration of different evidence. So it appears that, since both are following evidence (albeit different evidence) they are both being reasonable and rational. They were both caused to reach their conclusion by their consideration of evidence.

How then, do you conclude that one set is rational and the other is irrational.

John B. Moore said...

On the one hand, we could simply define "rational" as using sensory input from the world to predict future sensory input. But maybe what you're really asking is why someone should be rational, or why they would be better off being rational. The answer is all the health and welfare benefits that modern technology has brought us. Those benefits were achieved through looking carefully at the world, not through contemplating our deep spiritual souls.

Maybe you want to define "rational" simply as considering evidence, but I want to define "rational" as considering evidence about the world in order to make predictions about the future. As Victor points out, everyone seems to be considering evidence. But some evidence is more important than other evidence.

bmiller said...

John,

I guess I've never seen anyone define "rational" the way you just did. For instance, you can do math without predicting future sensory input.

But maybe what you're really asking is why someone should be rational, or why they would be better off being rational. The answer is all the health and welfare benefits that modern technology has brought us. Those benefits were achieved through looking carefully at the world, not through contemplating our deep spiritual souls.

I'm wondering how the question of why someone would be better off or not by being "rational" even makes sense since they have no choice to be "rational". In order to choose differently they would have to make a different choice than the one they were caused to choose. I don't get it.

bmiller said...

But I don't think determinism is the heart of Victor's post. I think this is:

In fact, Dawkins is fond of contrasting his own methods for reaching conclusions with methods based on faith, which to his mind involve a lack of design. But if the world really is without design, how is this possible? Of course, it could turn out that the paradox is resolvable. But the attempt to ban teleology from the bioverse, but then to insist that one’s own convictions are justified because a kind of teleological explanation can be given for these convictions, is a fact that, at the very least stands in need of explanation.

You can't use sensory input from the world to predict future sensory input without nature exhibiting predictable regularities. Things always or for the most part exhibiting the same behavior in the same circumstances just is teleology. If evolution is a science and can make predictions about the future it depends on teleology being a fact of reality.

Legion of Logic said...

Evolutionists are deterministically caused to believe things due to evidence about the world.

Only about evolution. They are wrong about tons of other things. So looks like they are determinalistically caused to be a proverbial broken clock.


Creationists are deterministically caused to believe things due to evidence about their own selves.

I was a (young earth) creationist, and your statement is not true.


Evolutionists say, "The world looks like life evolved." Creationists say, "I feel better thinking life was created."

No, creationists say the world looks like it was created.


Irrational thinking makes pronouncements that the thinker predicts will improve his own self-image.

Then all evolutionists are determinalistically irrational, as they all do this.

John B. Moore said...

(a) It's true that math doesn't predict specific instances of sensory input, but it certainly predicts general categories of sensory input. If I say 2+3=5, that might apply to any occasion similar to me getting two apples and then three more and noticing I now have five. It doesn't have to be apples, but ultimately it has to be something countable, which means it's a material thing out there in the world. Math relates to the world out there.

(b) I thought teleology means someone has a plan for things, but bmiller seems to suggest that teleology means orderliness in the world. He writes, "Things always or for the most part exhibiting the same behavior in the same circumstances just is teleology." So I don't understand that. I think orderliness is a given.

(c) It's true of course that creationists talk about things in the world, as Legion of Logic points out. My claim is that creationists only point to things in the world after they have firmly decided what they will believe. Creationists decide what they believe by observing their own psychology and their own brain patterns. Then they point to things in the world as a rather pathetic attempt to justify their preconceived beliefs.

Starhopper said...

The evolution/creation debate is fatally flawed (on both sides) by its myopic focus on this little planet of ours. As a longtime amateur astronomer, I have spent countless thousands of hours contemplating galactic and stellar evolution, the origin of the elements, and the birth of planets.

So what constitutes "evidence" for a designed universe? (If it quacks like a duck...) If we do not live in a designed universe, then it is certainly doing a good job of seeming to be so.

The same holds true for whatever scale you wish to observe things at, from the macroscopic to the human to the microscopic to the quantum level. Such coherence is not the result of chance.

bmiller said...

John,

It doesn't have to be apples, but ultimately it has to be something countable, which means it's a material thing out there in the world. Math relates to the world out there.

The study of pure mathematics is indifferent to it's relationship to the physical world.

(b) I thought teleology means someone has a plan for things, but bmiller seems to suggest that teleology means orderliness in the world. He writes, "Things always or for the most part exhibiting the same behavior in the same circumstances just is teleology." So I don't understand that. I think orderliness is a given.

The term comes from Aristotle's work. He did not define it as "someone has a plan for things", but instead uses it for what is proper to classify as a subject for study under the classification of physics (science).

Aristotle:
The end and the means towards it may come about by chance. We say, for instance, that a stranger has come by chance, paid the ransom, and gone away, when he does so as if he had come for that purpose, though it was not for that that he came. This is incidental, for chance is an incidental cause, as I remarked before. But when an event takes place always or for the most part, it is not incidental or by chance. In natural products the sequence is invariable, if there is no impediment.

John B. Moore said...

Well, I agree with you, bmiller, that the world must have a certain amount of orderliness in order for us to predict things. Yes, it seems clear that the world is orderly to a significant degree. Thank goodness!

bmiller said...

Yes, it seems clear that the world is orderly to a significant degree. Thank goodness!

The orderliness of the world then stands in need of an explanation. And that is Victor's point.

Dawkins designed his argument in an orderly manner and everyone can recognize this. Yet somehow we are asked to ignore the reason for order in nature (of which Dawkins himself and his product are part of).

Jeremy Pate said...

I remember when I was a teen experimenting with religion, atheism, and philosophy, and I checked out all of Dawkins' books from the local library. I read them all, although I rather lost interest halfway through: it seems as though he made the same argument in every book, and it was an argument against Christianity (or, at best, the Abrahamic God) rather than against religion or even theism in general (sadly, a problem with almost all the standard atheist arguments: it's a sort of single-target myopia that atheism seems to have suffered from since the Enlightenment). Rather disappointing, given all the hype about Dawkins as an atheist champion and crusader.

I've already said that the determinist can't really prove their claims, due to a lack of testability, and one of the reasons I couldn't accept atheism in the end was that I could see evidence of the power of the human mind - which is to say, everything we've done in just a few thousand years of civilisation - and I really cannot accept any theory which discards that as the result of mere organic machines without evidence of its own - not theory or argument, but testable, verifiable evidence. That's what science is all about, after all.

John B. Moore said...

Why does orderliness in the world need an explanation, bmiller? Depending on how you define orderliness, it could be that orderliness is inevitable and simply necessary. I can't really imagine the world existing at all if it were not orderly.

Hey, this sounds a lot like God. He doesn't need an explanation, does he? People say God is simply necessary. Is God the same as orderliness? But God is also said to be a person, and I don't think it makes sense to claim that orderliness is a person. Are you guys arguing that orderliness in the world proves that God exists?

bmiller said...

Why does orderliness in the world need an explanation, bmiller? Depending on how you define orderliness, it could be that orderliness is inevitable and simply necessary. I can't really imagine the world existing at all if it were not orderly.

I guess if you're not curious about how things work then you don't need an explanation for anything. I tend to be a curious sort.

So being curious as I am, why do you think if you define orderliness in certain different ways, it actually changes things?

John B. Moore said...

When people say God needs no explanation, is that just a lack of curiosity, or is there something about God that makes a prior explanation impossible? It's the latter, right? And the same could be true about orderliness.

Let's suppose orderliness means sameness. If I see something one moment, and then I see it again the next moment, that suggests it stayed there (same place) and didn't randomly disappear. That's orderly. Or if I see something moving one moment, and then I see it still moving the same way in the next moment, the movement stayed the same. That's again orderly.

Change does happen, such as when two moving things collide. But change itself is fairly predictable. We have Newton's laws of motion and that kind of thing. So it looks like the various phenomena of change do not themselves change. The laws of nature stay the same, apparently. So that's orderly. Orderliness means sameness.

If you accept this concept of orderliness, then one could argue that nothingness would be orderly. Or also, if the Big Bang was preceded by a zero-dimensional universe that was perfectly uniform, that would also count as orderly. In other words, orderliness preceded space and time. Orderliness could have preceded existence itself.

It's almost like a basic principle that we can't doubt in any coherent way. Just like God, right?

bmiller said...

John,

I'm having a hard time following you. Why don't we just rely on the dictionary for the definitions of words.

For instance:
If you accept this concept of orderliness, then one could argue that nothingness would be orderly.

Nothingness is neither orderly nor disorderly. Nothingness is non-existent. Doesn't matter if I accept a new definition of the existing word "order" as I would have to accept a new definition of the existing word "nothing". Don't you think the conversation will go better if we use standard English definitions?

Normally, order can refer to an intelligible arrangement of a static object, or it can also refer to an intelligible pattern in change. Something could be a static jumbled mess or random chaotic motion and neither would qualify as being orderly.

But the crux of the OP was whether Dawkins' argument that evolution banished the idea of teleology from biology was valid or not. It seems we both agree that teleology has not even been banished from physics, much less than from biology.

John B. Moore said...

You don't seem to know how words work, bmiller. Just look in the dictionary - how many words have only one definition listed? Who decides which definition you should use? (You do.) And where did those definitions come from in the first place? (Please invented them.)

How can we ever make progress in our quest for knowledge? Part of the process will involve us inventing new word-definitions, or expanding or amending existing definitions. If you just rely on definitions published in a dictionary, you will be stuck with the understanding that people had in the past.

A dictionary is a very brief and concise listing, but many words have many complex implications and usages. An encyclopedia would be better than a dictionary. Some words merit whole books, or whole fields of study.

The typical philosophical discussion involves people stating their working definitions of words, and comparing word-definitions. Many disagreements can be overcome simply when the people recognize that they are using the words differently, as if speaking different languages. Only after they define their terms clearly can people get down to the real disagreements about things in the world.

----

But anyway, you seem to be using the same definition as me for the word "orderly." You speak of an intelligible arrangement of a static object, or a pattern in change. That's just what I had summarized in the term "sameness," using similar examples.

One difference is that you use the word "intelligible," which brings in a subjective aspect. Something could be intelligible to one person and unintelligible to another, couldn't it? On the other hand, I was trying to define orderliness in an objective way.

----

Speaking of word-definitions, you realize we disagree about the definition of "teleology," right? You quoted Aristotle, but I really think most people would be confused if you insisted that teleology meant the same thing as orderliness.

----

I repeat my earlier question: Are you guys arguing that orderliness in the world proves that God exists?

Starhopper said...

"Are you guys arguing that orderliness in the world proves that God exists?"

I would not go so far as to say that orderliness is proof of His existence, but I do believe that it points in that direction.

An atheistic universe has no requirement for such. In fact, it would have no mechanism to either bring orderliness about or to maintain it. There would be nothing to prevent something to act in one way today and in a totally different way tomorrow.

bmiller said...

John,

You're free to use words anyway you want. But if you do that, it makes communication difficult.

From the OP:
But the attempt to ban teleology from the bioverse, but then to insist that one’s own convictions are justified because a kind of teleological explanation can be given for these convictions, is a fact that, at the very least stands in need of explanation.

The term *teleology* is not the same as orderliness in the manner you described it although a regularity can be seen as natural processes proceed to their final causes.

Dawkins thinks that evolution somehow killed off the notion of teleology in nature and thereby made atheism a respectable philosophical position. It seems we both recognize now that teleology does indeed exist in nature.

StardustyPsyche said...

Victor,
"But this leaves us with a puzzle. It looks as if evolution has brought into being creatures who act for reasons"
Not such a puzzle. The brain forms abstractions of the outside world and stores them as physical arrangements in the brain. Intent is when an intelligence compares stored abstractions to present sensory observations and calculates motor actions that are likely to lead to a time sequence of events wherein future sensory observations will correlate with stored abstractions.

Calculating machines have the mechanical capacity to internally represent time sequences as well as present moment observations.

Intent is entirely reducible to mechanistic processes.

"But does that mean that natural selection and random variation have brought into existence a kind of causation that is not blind?"
Yes, in some sense we are, each of us is, the universe becoming aware of itself.

"But new kinds of causation do not just pop into existence."
Right, large collections of mindless robots do things as a collection that the individual robots do not do individually. Nothing new just popped into existence, while we look at the aggregate processes of large collections of robots at base they are simply still just tiny robots interacting mindlessly.

That's how finite element analysis works, if you happen to be familiar with iteratively solving a differential expression matrix.

"On the face of things, this would tend to undercut the claims of people like Dawkins that their scientific beliefs, unlike the beliefs of, say, creationists, are formed by evidence and therefore are more justified than those of their opponents."
Sure, if you consider things only "on the face of things" then you will arrive at incomplete answers.

"claims that an agent has concluded anything based on evidence, should, if people like Dawkins and Russell are right, are also not literally true"
Indeed, and many atheistic philosophers of mind have concluded that our perceptions of the self and of our agency are illusory.

"There is at least an apparent conflict between the claim that the world proceeds, at its base, in a non-purposive manner, and the claim that there are rational agents who form beliefs on the basis of rational evidence"
Yes, incomplete analysis leads to apparent conflict.

" Arguments that attempt to show that a) this conflict is real and not merely apparent, and b) it constitutes a reason for rejecting in which all causation is ultimately blind, can be regarded as versions of the argument from reason."
An atheist who claims absolutely true and certain knowledge beyond the immediate claims supported by self awareness is himself engaging in simplistic analysis, agreed.

Starhopper said...

"But does that mean that natural selection and random variation have brought into existence a kind of causation that is not blind?"
Yes, in some sense we are, each of us is, the universe becoming aware of itself.


Interesting. The Catholic anthropologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said the exact same thing in his The Phenomenon of Man in the 1930s. Perhaps Stardusty is without his knowing it a Catholic?

bmiller said...

Careful. There is some question as to if Chardin was even a Catholic.

Starhopper said...

"There is some question as to if Chardin was even a Catholic."

This is questioned only by persons with no poetry in their souls. Chardin was a Jesuit priest and a faithful Catholic to the end of his days. His ideas were radical, but so were St. Paul's.

Radicalism is the driving force of progress. This is true not only in politics, but also in science, philosophy and the Faith.

bmiller said...

I really haven't read anything by de Chardin, and only vaguely remember I heard he was a controversial writer that had his writings on the naughty list.

Didn't he have a problem with the idea of sin?

bmiller said...

Aleister Crowley was pretty radical too. Just saying.

bmiller said...

Last comment was wrt to Radicalism driving progress.

Starhopper said...

The Book of Thoth? Really?

But if you've actually read it, then my opinion of you does go up (a bit).

bmiller said...

Ha ha!

Figured it was on your bookshelf.

Starhopper said...

Actually, it's not. I would never have heard of Thoth, were it not for James Joyce's Ulysses (which yes, I did read), in which he references "Thoth, the God of Libraries".

bmiller said...

OK. I'm relieved to hear you're not dabbling in Thelema.

bmiller said...

OT, but Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars will all appear together just before dawn Saturday.

Who's gonna watch?

Starhopper said...

Actually, I just got back indoors from an evening of stargazing. I took out my 102mm Stellarvue refractor and spent a few hours enjoying the Great Nebula in Orion (M42), the Rosette Nebula in neighboring Monoceros, the Beehive in Cancer (as well as the absolutely gorgeous Iota Cancri double star), M81 and M82 in Ursa Major (2 interacting galaxies about 12 million light distant), four or five other open clusters.. oh, and the planet Venus (the only "close" thing I looked at tonight). Venus looked like a perfect little half Moon - pure white.

There were about 15 of us out there this evening. I was one of the first to leave, because I was FREEZING (the temps were in the mid 20s). The hardier (and younger) souls were just getting started when I called it quits.

Starhopper said...

Uh, that should have read "12 million light years distant".

bmiller said...

Before dawn is too early for me on a Saturday morning. Weekdays I'd be up and ready to look.

One Brow said...

The subtitle, it seems to me, makes a paradoxical claim. On the one hand, it maintains we ought to draw the conclusion that the world lacks design. On the other hand, the subtitle suggests that he has reached this conclusion through examining the evidence of evolution, but examining the evidence is a process designed to discover the truth. In fact, Dawkins is fond of contrasting his own methods for reaching conclusions with methods based on faith, which to his mind involve a lack of design. But if the world really is without design, how is this possible?

It's a mistake to think of design as something that either exists or does not exist, like an electric circuit that is wither on or off. Design comes in stages, levels, types, and degrees, much like reason itself. Those who design can build upon other designs.

One Brow said...

Starhopper said...
I would not go so far as to say that orderliness is proof of His existence, but I do believe that it points in that direction.

An atheistic universe has no requirement for such. In fact, it would have no mechanism to either bring orderliness about or to maintain it. There would be nothing to prevent something to act in one way today and in a totally different way tomorrow.


Were the universe not orderly, but indeed prone to act one way today and another way tomorrow, than theists would be using that as an indication of God, and saying that orderliness would indicate a lack of God.

Why should consistency of behavior require maintenance?

Starhopper said...

"Why should consistency of behavior require maintenance?"

Atheists (and polytheists) think of creation as a one-off event in the distant past. Judaism and Christianity (I don't know about Islam) regard creation as a process that is ongoing even now. The Church of England in The Book of Common Prayer uses the term Preservation to describe this. St. Paul writes, "In [Christ] all things hold together." The present tense is key here. John also refers to the Word as "coming into the world" - not "He came into the world." Creation is every moment.

So I can't say whether it requires maintenance, but it appears that it is being maintained.

One Brow said...

Starhopper said...
Atheists (and polytheists) think of creation as a one-off event in the distant past. Judaism and Christianity (I don't know about Islam) regard creation as a process that is ongoing even now. The Church of England in The Book of Common Prayer uses the term Preservation to describe this. St. Paul writes, "In [Christ] all things hold together." The present tense is key here. John also refers to the Word as "coming into the world" - not "He came into the world." Creation is every moment.

So I can't say whether it requires maintenance, but it appears that it is being maintained.


If you mean "creation of the space-time continuum", then I would agree that seems to be a one-off event.

I accept that if you already hold certain religious positions, you can see the universe as constantly being maintained. However, for those of us who do not hold such positions, what is there to say this maintenance is needed? Why would a proton suddenly stop being a proton (excluding proton decay for now), without a non-physical force to prevent it?

Starhopper said...

One Brow, I agree with you that this is a matter of one's "position". For a believer in Abraham's God, existence is maintained by the One Who is existence itself ("I am who am"). For the atheist, brute fact is enough.