Friday, 12 December 2008

Designing the Designer

Last night I watched Judgement Day: Intelligent Design On Trial, and one of the things that fascinated me was Michael Behe talking about design in the universe. This got me thinking about an argument I've heard time and time again about, that because we exist that there must have been a creator much in the same way that because a car exists it must have had a designer. We exist, therefore God exists.

A hurricane in a junkyard
One undeniable fact about reality as far as we can tell is that we exist, even if we were nothing more than a computer simulation that simulation is our reality. Atheists, theists, deists, pantheists and spiritualists all can agree that for the sake of argument we are real. The question of why we are here is an unknown, so what makes theists so sure that because we are here that means there is a deity behind it all?

300 years ago, Newton proposed that the movement of the planets in such precision could only have been the work of a greater intelligence. 200 years ago, Paley's version of the teleological argument involved the complexity of life. Even in the last century Fred Hoyle proposed that a cell could not simply happen by chance and equated it to a hurricane through a junkyard randomly assembling a Boeing 747. This is the more formalised way of thinking about it, the same justification can be given without even the slightest knowledge of the universe beyond the self. i.e. we are here so God must be too.

The fact that we exist is not proof or disproof of the supernatural, the universe is how it is and if it were any different we wouldn't exist to be able to speculate on the matter. The best we can do is look at the parameters for the universe, look at the natural occurrences and from there try to understand the processes behind it all. From there we need to set up conditions that indicate design, but even then we are limited by own own biases and post-hoc reasoning. Upon some contemplation I came to regard the laws of physics as constants from which everything is an expression of. Can the laws change in different universes? Are they an expression of pure luck, or is there deliberate intent there? Or simply could it be that the laws just are and there is no other way they could be. This is the constraint of our observable reality, we simply cannot know beyond the limitations of observation.

The ultimate 747
So if everything is unknown, why do I reject that a deity is behind it all? Firstly I reject the idea of an interventionist deity because there's simply no need for one. The interventionist deities of the past: the weather-maker, the solar system harmoniser, the watchmaker, and the conjurer of original life - these are ideas that do have an adequate explanation through observable reality. We have a far better idea of how stellar bodies form, we know now of evolution, and we have good insight into the origin of life.

These arguments have typically been "god of the gaps" type arguments, it takes a void in human knowledge and fills it with God. So while many gaps exist in our knowledge now, there's simply no reason to put a deity in there to understand it. In scientific terms, the interventionist god has been a hypothesis that has constantly failed. Well not so much failed but cut away by occam's razor. Thor could very well be causing lightning, but the explanation of atmospheric electrical discharge requires no supernatural force. God could have made the planets orbit the way the do, but now we have a good understanding of how planetary formation can come about without requiring an appeal to a deity.

As for a tweaker of physical laws, it's answering complexity with something even more complex. It seems to beg the question "who created the creator?" A question that has the property of infinite regress. Once the question of complexity is resolved with an answer of an even greater complexity, the new greater complexity is an even greater problem to explain. If it turned out that an alien race seeded life on this planet, it would be pertinent to ask how that alien life got started. If they were started by another alien race, then the same problem arises. Eventually the explanation is going to have to be grounded in a process that can give rise to the first aliens.

Newton (among others throughout history) remarked "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." All we know in society now has been a steady accumulation of knowledge throughout time. Why is it that Egyptians of 3,000 years ago rode chariots instead of driving cars? Why did the Native Americans lived in tipis as opposed to skyscrapers? Why did the early wars be fought with stone axes instead of high-powered rifles? Our understanding of the way nature works has been shaped over time, it's changed and while some understanding has been lost, the understanding we have now has progressed at a staggering rate. In effect, our ability to design in the 21st century has become because of all the centuries previously where the foundation was laid.

In that same respect, to invoke God without a cause is contrary to what we know about accumulated knowledge. Things don't just exist that have supreme intellects, the only way we know how intelligence can come about is through evolution. We may be improbable beings, and if but a few small events had slightly different outcomes we wouldn't be here today. Our improbability though is the same as the improbability for any creature that exists, we are all 3.5 billion year old survival machines. Now it may be there's a God behind it all, it's beyond the realm of human knowledge. But as a causeless cause, the concept of God breaks it's own rule of design. It's the ultimate 747, something that is just too complex to be without explanation. The universe may be a mysterious place, but it shows nothing that would indicate that such a being can just be. Any design we see in the universe is nothing more than speculation.

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