Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Platypus of Doom and Other Nihilists

At the end of chapter three, Richard summarises the central argument of his book:


1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the
centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design
in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to
actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artifact such as a watch, the
designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same
logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis
immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole
problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical
improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more
improbable. We need a ‘crane’, not a ‘skyhook’, for only a crane can do the
business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise
improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian
evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living
creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of
design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now
safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that- an
illusion.

5. We don’t yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of
multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as
Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less
satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier
demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more
luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics,
something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a
strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak
cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle,
self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an
intelligent designer.


Because of this argument, Richard states, God almost certainly does not exist.
Clearly, I don’t think that conclusion follows from this argument.

Richard is implicitly assuming two things:

(1) We have all the information we need to explain the universe. I think this is unlikely, on the basis of our experience thus far. We cannot explain the history of life on Earth by taking only terrestrial events into account: there are things like asteroids and supernovae that come from outside the Earth that we need to worry about. Our solar system cannot be explained in isolation: it has antecedents; it cannot be explained without generations of stars that existed before. In a similar way, it looks like our universe is not all that is, and that it can only be explained by considering things outside it, in the rest of all-that-is (which I will call the Universe). The difference between this and our previous experiences is that it is likely to be impossible ever to gain any experimental evidence of conditions outside the universe. This idea that we can explain everything in the system by information we already have in the system is a very tempting assumption, because it makes intractable problems tractable. But in experience it frequently leads us astray. It is the ‘assume a spherical horse’ of the historical sciences.

(2) Our reason, which evolved for problems on our human scale, is nevertheless sufficient to make sense of the nature of the universe. This is another article of faith. I share it, but I have no very good reason to believe it. Historically, this belief has been strong in Judaeo-Christian culture, because a belief in a rational creator suggests a rational universe. In a post-Judaeo-Christian world of relativism, one would expect this certainty to evaporate- as indeed it seems to be doing.

I suggest then that Richard has the first two points almost exactly backwards. We did not observe order in the universe and work backwards to propose a designer. Historically, we stressed the orderly rather than chaotic features of the universe, and we sought out and found regular laws to explain these orderly features, because we already believed in a rational creator. This is why science took off in the Judaeo-Christian West rather than elsewhere. The main function of the ‘God Hypothesis’ throughout history, its main attraction and importance, has not been to explain where the order present in the universe came from, but to explain the human sense of the numinous. Richard does not take a lot of time addressing the adaptive significance of religion. He claims it has no adaptive significance, though I find it hard to believe anyone with a cursory knowledge of history and current events could come to that conclusion. I will take up the deficiencies in his discussion of cultural group selection another time. For now, I want to make the inflammatory suggestion that I don’t think he is really that convinced by his own theory that religion is maladaptive: I think he wants to brush the adaptive significance of religion quickly aside for another reason.

If I live in the Kingdom of the Blind and wish to prove ‘sight’ is a delusion, then an observation that the ‘sighted’ are more evolutionarily successful than regular people is a blot on my theory. It suggests that there may, just possibly, be something objectively out there independent of the ‘sighted’, to which ‘sight’ corresponds. I propose that this is the case with our sense of the numinous. It is a real sense and is just as likely to correspond to something ‘out there’ as the senses of sight, hearing, and phyllixometry.

The question ‘who designed the designer?’ does not imply an infinite regression. In my unfinished story about the android taking the train from Punchbowl to Redfern, the theoretical cosmologists are attempting to model universe formation based on the ‘gebit’ theory. However, their simulation does not generate something that looks like a universe, but something that looks like a single creative intelligence filling all their parameter space- a god. I’m not claiming this is the truth, but there is no reason ‘Our universe was created’ implies an infinite regression. The simplest explanation for the universe being here is the one the classical world had: the universe is self-existent, and always has been here. Up until a century or so ago, this was the common-sense view of all educated irreligious people. However, all the evidence points to our universe not being self-existent. It looks like a watch that is running down. There is clear evidence that it had a beginning. It is very unlikely that it is self-existent. This means that we have no idea whatsoever what a self-existent thing might be like. The tidiest explanation for our universe would be that it was created by, or happened to precipitate out of, something else that was self-existent. But clearly there is no reason why it could not have been created by something that evolved, or evolved out of something that was created, or is at any finite number of levels removed from the ultimate self-existent reality.

‘Where did this quantum foam of multiverses come from?’ we could ask, just as easily as Richard can ask ‘Who designed the designer?’ Neither logically lead to an infinite regression, since we have no idea what a self-existent thing should look like.

I guess this has sort of led me wandering from Richard’s point 3 to his point 5. I have never paid much attention to these sort of anthropic principle arguments before, but Richard seems to take them seriously. It seems that our universe is dependent on the values of six or so constants, and if any of them are tweaked a little bit, no us. Clearly, if they were different, we wouldn’t be here to quibble about them, but it looks like there are two possible explanations for this coincidence of numbers.

(1) We are one of a large number of universes with different sets of constants that were generated by some ‘physical’ mechanism in whatever ‘layer’ of the Universe is the foundation to this universe. This layer may obviously be one or many layers removed from whatever is the ultimate self-existent foundation of the Universe.

(2) We are a universe designed by rational entities in whatever ‘layer’ of the Universe is the foundation to this universe. This layer may obviously be one or many layers removed from whatever is the ultimate self-existent foundation of the Universe.

I think we do not have enough data to decide one way or another, so are free to chose whatever we find most pleasing. Of course, neither are relevant to the God Hypothesis as I would frame it: At some level of the Universe more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe. I assert that Richard’s discussion does not have any bearing on the probability of this hypothesis.

8 comments:

Jenny said...

on another note entirely,

I looked up the Drclam blog site you claimed ahd been taken by your adversary and couldn't find it.

As always, an interesting and logically put response to what you are reading. One of the things that bugs me most about opinion pieces is the easy "this is a rubbish statement and we can henceforth ignore it as wrong" argument.
I often respond to this by thinking "hang on, I really don't think you proved that by any stretch of the imagination. How can I consider any further statement by you without having to constantly weigh it against something you've already rejected as having possible significance?" At this point I decide I have better things to do with my brain power and stop reading.

Marco said...

Hear, Hear. If I owned the book, I would recommend it for mulching my garden bed.

Dr. Clam said...

Thanks Jenny!

I'll trust you to look out for instances when I voice the 'this is a rubbish statement and we can henceforth ignore it as wrong' argument, so you can correct me and I can do better.;)

As for drclam, maybe blogger has removed blogs that have been inactive for many years? the non-evil drclam one was actually me, but I left it for many years and forgot my password.

It is rather expensive for mulch. I guess you would only be likely to end up owning a copy is someone gave it to you as a gift, Marco, and then it might come across as impolite to use it as mulch.:)

winstoninabox said...

I think we do not have enough data to decide one way or another, so are free to chose whatever we find most pleasing. Of course, neither are relevant to the God Hypothesis as I would frame it: At some level of the Universe more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe. I assert that Richard’s discussion does not have any bearing on the probability of this hypothesis.

The God hypothesis! Hey, I know this one.

Doesn't it begin 'well first I assume an anthropomorphic, omnipotent, Being...'?

Dr. Clam said...

Good to see you again, winstoninabox! Dawkins states the God Hypothesis as: 'there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.'

My definition which you quote focusses on the attributes of God which I consider essential. Both Dawkins and I have eschewed the word 'omnipotent', since it seems incapable of definition.

'Anthropomorphic' is just one of those crude button-pressing terms. When we want to interact with an electron, we interact with it in terms an electron can understand: as some sort of distribution of electric charge. When God wants to interact with us, clearly He will interact with us in terms we can understand: as a person.

winstoninabox said...

"anthropomorphic" is button-pressing? I'm beginning to agree. I once had it crossed out in a high-school essay.

There is no difference between the 'spherical horse' and the 'omnipotent Being'. Dawkins may or may not be right, but the God hypothesis uses just as many assumptions, all of which are untestable, as Dawkins does. The very nature of God, as a being beyond nature, means that unless He should make Himself aware to us in a way that we can comprehend, we'll forever be left to interpret His footprints left in the sand. In "the absence of data one way or the other" its understandable that we see everything from naturally occurring footprints to ones left by some sort of chap.

But as you say we "are free to chose whatever we find most pleasing". I think that this is a much more persuasive argument than any amount of logical sidestepping will ever achieve.

I am glad that the most interesting blogger in the world is posting again. I'm looking at you dr. clam.

Dave said...

I have little to contribute to this debate except to note that Dawkins' excessive derogation of his opponents' arguments annoys me a great deal, much mroe than it used to.

Dr. Clam said...

Aw, shucks, winstoninabox! Thanks for the kind words. *looks bashful*

I know the 'in the absence of evidence, chose whatever you find most pleasing' argument lacks logical force, but agree that it has a strong emotional appeal and I know I derive a good deal of comfort from it.

Hmm, Dave, if you find you are getting annoyed by Dawkins denigrating his opponents, you probably haven't spent enough time in the blogosphere recently. You need to get out there and read vicious ad hominem arguments until you are desensitised again! :)