Archive for September, 2013

An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part IV of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

September 24, 2013 4 comments

Having done away with the idea that accomplishment as an adjective that can be applied to something like, “all that is.” We can reformulate the argument from design as an argument against the existence of an omnipotent being as follows: if there exists a being that has the ability to create everything, then to call that act an accomplishment means that there was some difficulty that was overcome. If there was a difficulty then the creating being cannot be considered omnipotent.

This week we tackle another problem with the AfD (argument from design). This problem will be labeled the problem of gradient. Part of the argument lies in analogy (which we covered last post) of which a subset is this new gradient problem. The gradient problem is that we are going from something that fits in the hand to something of which the hand is a part of. If the watch is complex then the universe must be infinitely more complex by virtue of its vastness (i.e. the hand is inside the universe). The gradient issue lives on the back of an appeal to common sense, which we all know is neither common nor is it usually sensical. Big things awe us, big things are impressive, but big things are not any more complex than small things. The water that falls as it spills over a rock one inch downward can be explained by the same rules which govern the immense Niagara Falls. The existence of a Megaladon is fearsome but it is no more threatening than its smaller descendant the Great White Shark. As Yoda explained to us in Empire the only difference is in our minds. We can use clockwork as an example as well; the principles by which a pocket watch runs are the same principles by which all clocks no matter their size run. The difference, it must be stressed, is only in scale.

Gravity works in small things as well as in large. The rules which describe the evolution of animals over time apply equally to tabby cats as well as their tiger cousins. Merely to claim that complexity, ingenuity, and intelligence exists because a thing is large is spurious at best. To claim that more intelligence is needed because a thing is larger than another is an abject falsehood that is nearly impossible to support with evidence, either rationally or empirically. The only thing that larger artifacts require is more energy in creating them. Building 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue took no more mental work than building the apartment that I live in, it just took more people, material, and time. Certain intellectual problems do need to be solved in making larger objects, but coming up with the idea of them is not the issue. Only the problem of manufacture is.

The size difference is merely accidental. What we need is an essential difference, something that once changed shifts the very being of the thing which we are considering. This type of analogy may not actually be possible because it would require us to think outside of our own reality. Ultimately the point is that this difference in scale does nothing to prove that a grand intelligence must be the source of all that is. This argument does not do the necessary work.


An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part III of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

September 17, 2013 2 comments

[Continuing from Last week which was itself a continuation from the previous week]

The question we left off with last week was regarding the term “accomplishment.” Proponents of the argument from design in making their comparison between all that is and the human produced artifact need to make the case that the universe is an accomplishment. The cosmos being a greater accomplishment than a pocket watch, the Orrery sphere, or a finely tuned manufacturing machine. This use of the term “accomplishment” seems to be a stretch on the purely linguistic sense of the term.

To claim that X is an accomplishment we have to also make the claim that there was something doing the accomplishing. It is an odd thing to say that nature accomplished something, although it is not unheard of to make such a claim. We may say that an owl hunting a mouse is an accomplishment, or that a single snowflake is an accomplishment; but to do so is to ascribe meaning or teleology to nature. Such a purpose means that nothing is truly random. A snowflake is then, not a random pattern of frozen water but a thing which is purposely designed to be such the way that it is. If we took a bag of letters and tossed them into the air, would we say that it was chance or purpose if the letters formed words on the ground? Obviously we would make the claim that it was random, and the products of randomness are not accomplishments.

The very word “accomplishment” implies an attempt, and attempt implies a will. This means that even considering the formation of the universe to be an accomplishment merely begs the question that something was attempting to create it. The language itself assumes the conclusion of the argument. Thus we cannot, if we wish to preserve this argument, use the word “accomplishment” in good faith.

Perhaps, if we wish to save the AfD (Argument from Design), we ought to shift from “accomplishment” to something like “ingenuity” or “magnitude” when comparing with the Orrery. In magnitude there can surely be no conversation. It is clear that the cosmos is much greater in magnitude than the thing which is created in imitation to it. This however proves nothing. A termite nest is a thermal regulating structure, as is a skyscraper. To compare the two is merely to note that one is larger than the other (all other things being ignored).

Ingenuity is a trickier matter. Because artifacts such as models of cosmoses or measurements of time possess a certain degree of complication it may seem that they are greater than the natural things which they measure, and thus giving us the apparent contradiction Cicero wishes us to deny. If we consider it thoughtfully, is this really the case? One of the easier counter-arguments against this supposition is that the laws of planetary motion are not in nature, but rather we invented them for their predictive capacity. When we think of such laws we are thinking of them as proscriptive laws but in reality they are descriptive laws. It’s the difference between the sign on my street that tells me I must not exceed 35mph on the road and, according to Einstein, the speed limit of the universe being that which light travels. The former is proscriptive; I can go faster if I choose to do so but I risk a traffic ticket. Exceeding the latter is not possible. Light doesn’t travel at 186,282 miles per second because it wants to, that’s just how we have measured its speed in a vacuum. The watch is complicated because it has to be in order to give the correct time, which is another arbitrary set of measurements based on the division of a day into equal segments. To claim that this is somehow representative of a truth of reality is facetious. It would be akin to saying that a kilogram actually exists in reality.

Further we are still accepting the property of “being designed” as something which gives an object greater import than an object which lacks that property. This property is regarded as being so important that the smallest product of reason is greater than the greatest product of chance. That is an assumption, as we discussed last time, made without the slightest proof. From our point of view we may wish to claim this, but desire does not change reality.

As “accomplishments” go, the argument falls completely apart. We would claim that the Orrery was an accomplishment, but that’s because we understand the difficulty in the construction. The ignorant Briton (Cicero’s racism not mine) would marvel at the machine because even though they may not know what it is for they would understand that it is for something. The person who created the sphere did so with their own mind and skill, overcoming the limitations that we all share. I know that I could construct a pocket watch, it would take me years to learn how and I’m sure there would be a considerable number of mistakes along the way but it is not outside of my ability. It seems that anyone wanting to consider the design of the world as an accomplishment needs to also claim that god had to struggle with the creation. Overcoming adversity is what makes something an accomplishment but what difficulty could god have had? Any difficulty would place the creation of the world as a limitation on omnipotence. This would mean that god was, at one time, not complete and that this god undergoes change. Change is a limiting characteristic much like part-hood limits infinity, and any sort of limit is a denial of the omnipotence of god.

Finally to claim that an artifact is greater than the universe is absurd since the Orrery, for instance, is part of the universe. It does not matter if the one is the product of the reason and the other a product of chance if, the one is part of the other. The whole contains that which is greater, meaning that if the AfD is correct an insignificant part is greater than the whole. “Accomplishment” cannot be a factor in bridging design to the existence of a deity.


An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part II of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

September 10, 2013 Leave a comment

[Continuing from Last Week]

Cicero, uses the Orrery because it is [with exception given to the antikythera mechanism] the most complicated device that the civilized world, i.e. the Romans, would have produced. One might be tempted to say that other artifacts were just as complicated in their construction, such as the ballista, the aqueducts, etc.; but familiarity with those artifacts would have dulled the impression that it would have made on the average on-looker. A knowledgeable person could explain how the aqueducts worked and the average person would understand it. There’s no real mystery to water flowing downhill, the ingenuity revolves around the construction of a device to bring in water a long distance but the principle is quite simple. The same with torsion powered siege engines: the principle is simple while the application is what makes the genius. The Orrery is genius both in application and principle. One must understand how the sun, moon, and the planets revolve in order to produce a device to measure their orbits and more importantly predict them. This aspect of measurement is what makes an important foci for Balbus, Cicero’s Stoic mouthpiece in “On the Nature of the Gods” and the person making this argument from design.

A thing which measures, he asks, cannot be greater than that which it measures. Can a ruler measuring the distance of one meter be greater than “the meter”? …We’ll get to the obvious problem of that in a second. Balbus asks the pertinent question of whether or not something which is an imitation of the cosmos can be greater than the cosmos. If we apply this to Paley’s watch, we would be asking if one could claim that the found pocket watch was greater than that which it measured, i.e. time.

Does Cicero’s position regarding mockery make sense? First off, (here is where we return to the ruler and distance issue) when we are talking about the term “greater” we are not merely mentioning it in terms of size or magnitude. We are referring to complication and ingenuity in construction; e.g. the rational thinking that went into the construction of the artifact, thus when we ask whether a ruler can be greater than the meter which it measures we are not talking about length but complication. The ruler cannot be greater than a meter, because making a ruler is simple, whereas making a distance is not. This is the principle of reducibility that which measures must make things less complicated, not more complicated.

Further we must also understand the Roman/Hellenic mindset which put anything under the domain of reason as being superior to that which was the product of chance. If the Orrery sphere is the product of a rational mind then it is, by virtue of this alone, greater than that which is the product of chance. If, as the Epicurean atomists would claim, that the universe is the product of chance it would follow that a mockery of the universe—the sphere which measures it, is greater than the universe. Since this seems absurd, it must be that the universe is also the product of a rational mind. This is like saying that the rock must also be a product of a designing intelligence because the Earth cannot be less than a watch.

As earlier stated, the entire argument rests on this idea of “greater than.” Cicero, through his Stoic mouthpiece, claims that the Orrery cannot be greater than the Cosmos. This is the crux of his claim and it bears one more repetition: that which is produced by random chance cannot be greater than that which is produced by design. It’s absurd, it doesn’t seem right, and intuitively we would want to say that it’s wrong. The trouble with intuitions though, is that they are unproven. We might later find some confirmation of an intuition but by their very nature an intuition isn’t proof it’s a feeling. Even the Epicurean voice in the discussion, Vellus, for whom all is the product of the chance collision of atoms through the void isn’t bothered by the Stoic’s claim. Yet this point, being so important ought to have been challenged. The matter of a star is the product of natural forces on scattered atoms and I wouldn’t want to claim that the coliseum is greater than a star simply because an intelligent mind chose the marble. Why would Cicero merely skip over proving this assertion?

We must first off, understand that this is an old prejudice of the Hellenic Age. Reason was first and foremost, it was this ability to reason which separated us from the animals: the greater the faculty of reason the better the thing. Anything which scoffed at reason, or the rational mind, was scoffing at the pinnacle of man’s capacities. For the representatives of the Epicurean and Academic schools to remain silent as the Stoic makes this claim is understandable in context. They are, in a way competing in a rationality contest. Attempting, not only to understand the nature of the gods but also to display which of the schools have the superior claim on the truth. To do so will be to argue rationally, and for someone to make the claim that what is rational is not necessarily the best will undercut any claim to victory in this contest. In this however they are caught in their own web and Cicero would probably regard it as quibbling to discourse on how we know that the products of rationality are greater than those of chance. However we must keep in mind that no matter what this is an opinion that is given without evidence or proof backing it up.

Next Week: Accomplishment.

An Atheist Perspective: Being Part 1 of an In-Depth of Analysis of the Argument from Design

September 2, 2013 Leave a comment

[While I’ve covered this topic at least twice before on this blog, the next three posts are going to involve an in depth analysis of what is known as the “Argument from Design.” Before I begin I want to indicate one thing: if you believe in the argument from design that doesn’t make you a Creationist or an Intelligent Designee (although it should be known that Intelligent Design is just a cloak that Creationists use), but the inverse is true.]

One of the most popular arguments for the existence of a personal god is what is known as the “argument from design,” or more colloquially the “design argument.” This argument attempts an equivocation between complicated artifacts of human invention that we have regular knowledge of and the entirety of human existence. Most people attribute the development of this argument to a Christian Apologist named William Paley in the 18th century and his “Watchmaker Analogy.” The origin of the argument is much older than that, and is even more ancient that Christianity itself. It has gone through several iterations over the millenniums and every time it is created the person doing the creating believes that they have ended the argument. If the argument were as rationally convincing as the perpetrators of it claim, there would be no doubt that there was a god and we could move on toward other discussions such as fighting over which god is the right one. The argument however isn’t as convincing as adherents of it wish.

Encountering the argument for the first time is going to be more than likely William Paley’s watchmaker. When I was an instructor of Philosophy of Religion it was how I introduced any form of design argument. Like most things, Paley didn’t invent the watch analogy he’s just the one that did it the best and was able to popularize it in 1802’s Natural Theology. The idea is very simple: Paley supposes that if you were walking in the woods and came across a rock, you would assume that the rock had just always been there and would probably give it no more of a thought (if indeed, you had one about a random rock to begin with). If, however, you were to find a pocket watch you would have more questions. You would probably examine it, notice that there was a glass covering that allowed you to see the numbers; it has gears, springs, and numbers. It seems to have some kind of purpose, unlike the lazy rock back a couple of meters. All of this seems to point to a purpose that the watch possesses, everything is designed for a point, and there is very little likelihood that you would assume that the watch naturally formed through the various processes that nature provides. If we went back to examine the rock, we might further notice that it is more than a simple rock, that the processes that went into creating it are much more complicated that we first assumed and we would reason that there must be something which guided the creation of the rock as well.

That’s a rough summary of Paley’s watch, and it isn’t the first time that this comparison between the seemingly natural and the artificial is used. The very first formal laying out of an argument from design was authored by Philosopher/Statesman/Orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, who first proposed such an argument. Cicero’s argument is different only in the accidental features, e.g. he obviously couldn’t have used a pocket watch as an example. His argument involves an appeal to Greek Philosopher Aristotle’s teleology (the idea that everything which is has a specific purpose) that Paley alludes to but doesn’t specifically endorse, but otherwise they are essentially the same argument. Cicero uses the most complex mechanical device that he would have had access to: an astronomical measurement tool called an Orrery Sphere. The Orrery is a crude globe that traces the orbits of the major astronomical bodies (five planets, the sun, and the moon) known to the Romans around the earth. It’s similar to a watch in that it operates with gears and levers and that is displays the passage of time. The most important commonality between the Orrery and the watch is that no one would claim that either was a product of chance.

The very existence of the device seems to imply that it was designed and no design can exist without a designer. Throughout the ages this argument has been adjusted to claim that various complicated artifacts necessitate that there must a designing intelligence behind the universe. The devices have ranged from Cicero’s sphere all of the way to computers in our time courtesy of contemporary philosopher Peter Van Inwagen. However all this proves is that the example is merely an accidental feature of the proof. Why use a watch and not a fountain pen, shoe, or a sword? The answer is that those making the argument need something that is common enough to be aware of but complicated enough that the general public wouldn’t be intelligent enough to build on their own. The artificial artifact being used needs to dazzle and awe the audience or else the argument would fail on an emotional level.

It must be admitted that the argument is a bit of a quibble. Not knowing how to build a watch is not that different from not knowing that if lightening hits sand it will make glass. Does, however not knowing these facts change the argument in an important manner, e.g. if I knew how to make a pocket watch would I fail to be convinced of Paley’s version? Not really. The idea behind the argument is that the universe resembles complicated human constructed artifacts specifically because they are complicated human constructed artifacts. Truthfully Cicero’s argument on behalf of the Stoic school is superior to the later argument which adopted his pagan interpretation to fit their Christian world-view. The reason is that Cicero’s uses an important element of mimicry that Paley and his followers cannot—to their detriment.


Note: further re-readings of some of the dialogues of Plato indicate that the Plato may have been developing his own design argument, but I need more research to verify the hypothesis.