Monday, 2 February 2009

Accidental Design

This will be my 100th published post (yay for me) and because I couldn't figure out what else to write, I decided to expand on a false dichotomy I often hear from theists as an argument for God - that us / life / universe is either designed or an accident. And of course an accident could not account for what seems design, so of course that needs a designer and that designer has to be Jesus. While that latter part never follows logically, what of the former dichotomy between accident and design? Is there merit in the dichotomy or is it merely anthropomorphising reality?

No accident
There seems one element of pure chance in nature - that is physics on a quantum level. Beyond that set processes shape reality to how it is now. When a star forms from a collapsed hydrogen cloud, the size determines it's life cycle. Size matters and it determines how long a star will burn for, and how the star will die. A large star will go supernova, it will get to such temperatures that make the heavier elements. Thus we can safely conclude that for the earth to have existed it must have needed a supernova explosion to account for the abundance of heavy elements that exist on our planet.

When a star forms, it doesn't form by accident or by random. It follows on the causal effects of the universe. The fundamental forces of nature and the distribution of material and the effect of gravity are what build stars. The sun is how it is now thanks to the previous 13.7 billion years of the universe, likewise the earth was built through the gravitational effects of the sun. Life on earth would take a similar measure, life being the result of a series of chemical reactions, and the diversity of life is the result of adaptation and selection over a long period of time.

Is it pertinent to call the planetary system designed if we know that the designer is a blind force acting on particles that have causal reasons for being there in the first place? Would we call a canyon shaped by wind and water erosion designed? Obviously given what we know about how the universe works that a canyon is no accident, that it didn't just happen randomly. A rainbow appearing in the sky after rain is again no accident, nor is the way a foetus develops in the womb. This is where the dichotomy hits a limit, either natural processes are a satisfactory designer or that there is no design at all and the dichotomy becomes a false one.

Anthropomorphising the universe
It's so easy to talk with intent when talking about inanimate objects, for we humans play the role of designer so often in everyday life. Even something so simple like the food we prepare is not done without our wills being imposed to shape nature around us for our benefit. So when looking at the intricate motion of the planets or the complex and diverse life that exists, it's only natural to conclude that a similar will must be behind the process - but one that is far more powerful and knowledgeable.

It's astounding to contemplate that such large and complex structures like stars, planets and even life, all has come about through natural forces. That everything in this universe is an expression of energy acting within a few fundamental forces. Blind processes have shaped the universe and everything in it for well over 13 billion years now, everything from black holes to bananas, from stars to starfish - all is an expression of but a few forces interacting in a causal chain.

The dichotomy presented above is one of humanity, we need to understand causal events and the ability to create in order to function properly. We understand that cause and effect that is a vital underpinning to nature, and from there can manipulate nature to suit us. It's not a matter of finding shelter anymore, it can be built to suit our needs. That is deliberate design the way we know. But that understanding cannot be adequately representative of a nature where blind forces are at play.

The words design and accident almost by definition imply intent regardless of actuality. Reading Slaughterhouse Five recently, the phrase "so it goes" is now embedded in my head. Something good happens - so it goes. Something bad happens - so it goes. Something I can't control happens - so it goes. i.e. things just happen, neither by accident nor design. A comet may plunge into the earth tonight killing all humanity and it may take 10 million years for the re-emergence of large life forms. Was it an accident, or was it because of the gravitational forces that for the last 4.6 billion years have been acting on it? It's neither accidental or design that would lead a comet to destroy life, it just happens. "So it goes" is a far better explanation for the universe as it stands than using either accident or design. Blind processes with causal interaction over time produce the state of the universe at any given time, no will, no intent, it is because of what came before it just as it will be in the future. So it goes.

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