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.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Hard Determinism

The hard determinist doesn't say we don't make choices, but they just say that we don't know the causes of our actions, and if we knew them, we would realize that the ultimate reason why we did this and not that had to do not so much with a choice of our own, but instead has to do with a series of events going back to, say, the Big Bang. Once the Big Bang banged, whatever happened after that had to happen, given the laws of physics. If that is really true, are people still responsible for their actions? 

Sunday, February 09, 2020

No more punting to impeachment!

Unfortunately, the Justice Department punts to impeachment as a reason why a President can't be indicted. Given the partisan nature of the last two impeachments, I think this punt is a mistake. A free and independent Justice Department is our best defense against a truly rogue President (had Spiro Agnew become President, that would be an example we could all agree on). If there's a case to be made against a President, he should be indicted and go through the court system like any other citizen. It would be hard even for partisans in the House and Senate to avoid removing an indicted and convicted President.

The autonomy objection to religious morality

The autonomy objection to religious morality puzzles me. If you think there is a perfect being who loves you, and who has some clues as to how to live a better, more moral life, would you be foolish not to take them? On the other hand, if no such being exists, that would be another matter.

On hypocrisy

If there are high moral expectations on people, and people think they can benefit from appearing to others as if they meet those high expectations (whether they do or not), that of course opens the door for hypocrisy. The only sure cure for hypocrisy is to lower your standards to such an extent that most people meet the standard easily. But then, you have low moral standards. Is that a good thing?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nonconsequentialist moral theories

I think there is some connection to consequences in many nonconsequentialist ethical theories. For example, people who look to God's commandments typically think that God is pretty smart, and that the reason God commands what he does it that the consequences will be the best in the long (eternal) run.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Support for Trump: The Conservative Shibboleth

Nowadays, the shibboleth for conservatism is support for Trump.

Judges 12: 1-15 12, 4 Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, art thou an Ephraimite? If he say Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.