Saturday, 3 July 2010

Promiscuous Teleology

Being fair, not all arguments are born equal. One argument that fails utterly is the argument from design, it is both philosophically impoverished and empirically unjustified. Yet so much effort is put into discrediting Darwinian evolution as if the only barrier to design being accepted is the current scientific paradigm. It isn't! Nonetheless implicit and explicit arguments from design still emerge as if they are proof of a divine hand in nature.

Reading Pharyngula, I came across this article. While the content of this article is horrible (PZ sums it up well), what I want to focus on is this one passage from the article.
As with many atheists, Hitchens’ non-belief got its start in childhood, when he heard a religious person say something that, even to a child, came across as dumb. With Hitchens’s mentor, it was something about the color of the sky and human eyeballs.

For me, there’s something inane about an adult beginning to base their adult worldview on something wacko recalled from childhood.
I have read God Is Not Great (which is my least favourite of the recent atheist literature) and the idea that the child Hitchens found as dumb was an argument from design that creeps into so much religious thinking.

What I find odd is that he's dismissing Hitchens as if it's a child not understanding an adult worldview. This couldn't be further from the truth! Design of that magnitude is something children normally impose on nature. There is a psychological term for that kind of thinking: promiscuous teleology.

This is not a child failing to understand an adult worldview, it's an adult failing to recognise that he has the explanation of a child. It's a childish inference, any adult making such an observation should be ashamed that they haven't grown out of childish thinking.

A bee has a different spectrum of light to us, it can't see the red we do but can see into the ultraviolet. There are flowers with patterns on them only visible in the ultraviolet, something our eyes can't detect but bees can. To us they just look plain, but to a bee they see the patterns that we can't detect.

Thus this kind of argument falls into absurdity. If our eyes detected at a different wavelength, then we would see things we don't see now, and would not see things that we do see now. Of course things are going to look to us a particular way no matter what way we can look. Is there any particular reason why we should value the colour of the sky or trees or water beyond that we do see them the way we see them?

If we could see in the range of bees, some flowers might seem even more beautiful. After all some of these flowers are that way to attract pollinators. Would that be proof of God's handiwork? What about if we were colourblind? The different shades of grey would be all that we know. Then trees would be a particular shade of grey and the sky another. And wouldn't it be just a perfect testament to God's handiwork that the sky is just the right shade of grey for us?

That a child thinks in such a manner is expected. It's how cognition has been shown to work through extensive psychological research. Adults, however, should be able to avoid such mental trappings. It's not a child trying to understand an adult worldview and failing, the adult worldview if it entertains such childish notions is right to be mocked by people of all ages.

But now, let’s talk, one grownup to another.* If your worldview at its core has this kind of thinking, then it isn't an adult worldview. If not, then you should be praising Hitchens for being able to see through such obvious falsity and correct him on what the belief really entails. Otherwise you can't claim that your worldview is adult, it is anything but. If you think like a child, don't be surprised if another child is able to see through it...

*I can't take credit for this condescension, this pure George Berkin

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