Sunday, July 27, 2008

Backstage at the Evolution Debate: Designed or Human-made?

I used to wonder why Evolution was such a polarizing scientific discovery. It seems to be the driving force behind both a renewed atheist confidence (see "The Blind Watchmaker" and "God Delusion") and a corresponding fundamentalist-theist backlash on science (see the "Intelligent Design" movement). But why evolution? Why is it more of a threat than paleontology, cosmology, neuroscience, or anything else? Why not even something bland and uncontroversial, like geology? Why aren't atheists driving around with famous geologists names inscribed in fish symbols on the back of their cars? And why isn't the Intelligent Design crowd clamoring for equal time when the friendly geologist shows up at school with his rock hammer and a pile of geodes to explain?

The central issue behind the supposed debate over evolution - for both atheists and their opponents alike - is the concept of differentiating "designed" from "naturally occurring." The famous analogy in use is that of a person walking along a beach who stumbles upon a watch lying in the sand. The person would know immediately the watch was designed - that it was fundamentally different from the surrounding sand in which it lay. Folks suggested that similarly, biological forms - species diversity, the eye, whatever - were just as complex as that watch and thus evidence of a Designer (a form of the teleological argument for the existence of God in philosophical terms). When Evolution was discovered, it showed for a fact (yes a FACT) that these biological forms could and did emerge through "natural processes" such as variation (imperfect copies occur with each generation) and selection (only some of the copies survive).

Apparently, a lot of thinkers, particularly atheists, had been stumped by the "watchmaker" argument as applied only to biology. Because they seized on poor old Darwin and biological evolution as somehow different and more profound than any of the other prior scientific discoveries that also explained complex results from natural processes, from star formation to rocks. In fact, the bland and uncontroversial field of modern geology predated evolution by several decades. While James Hutton's prose was dense, Charles Lyell's discoveries later on at Niagara cemented Hutton and in fact became an influence on Darwin. Geology gave us the first real proof of a 4 billion year old planet, not to mention the "inert version" of how constant gradual change and natural forces can result in amazingly impressive, complex structures - from Niagra Falls to the continents to geodes! For some reason, atheists never trumpeted Hutton's or Lyell's discoveries, nor did fundamentalists get as worked up about them (personally I think geodes and canyons are far more demanding of an explanation than a worm or a fish, but I'm not into squishy things). I suppose it's because evolution eventually leads to Humans that made Darwin's version of "natural processes that lead to complex results" get all the attention, and thus the backlash.

Worse, instead of taking on the inherently atheist presentation of science as philosophy, the theist attackers actually adopted the atheist view of science and attacked the detail - evolution itself. But the near complete obscurity of Lyell and Hutton is telling. Geologic theories they developed or which flowed directly from them are probably better known in pop culture - erosion, volcanism, plate tectonics, etc. All of these are at least as threatening as evolution. Yet neither atheists are writing books about how rocks disprove God, nor are theists arguing for equal time in geology classes. This strongly suggests there's nothing in ANY actual science at the heart of these intense debates supposedly about "evolution." The debates are philosophical and/or theological - what IS "design?"

There are plenty of theist proponents who still argue from design on the basis of "complexity in the universe as a whole," such as the fine precision required for universal constants and physical forces in order for matter, let alone us, to exist. Similarly, their dogged atheist counterparts suggest a multiverse or cyclical emergence of universes, that, like evolution (or geology!), produce the variation and forces for selection required so that the complexity and conditions we find ourselves with only seem special because in all the other universes, nothing could emerge to notice them.

The problem with all this, the proverbial man behind the curtain, is that vague concept of "design" in the first place. The flaw with the watchmaker analogy is that it's NOT "design" that we so easily see in a watch lying in the sand. Rather we see that a watch was "man made" while the sand was not. The same is true for archaeologists who can spot ancient pottery shards and stone tools in debris. We're very good at pattern matching. In particular, we can tell whether something was made by us, or those like us. It's not in the thing at all, but because of our point of reference or context that we know. Consider, for example, a piece of modern abstract art. We can tell the difference between that art and a paint spill, but nothing intrinsic in the patterns of paint is the reason. Indeed, what makes abstract art work is the knowledge that it was done that way on purpose.

And conversely, while atheists love to point out things like termite mounds and bee hives, the only reason we know those things were NOT "designed" is because we know so much about termites and bees. And we know how a geode came to be because we understand those forces of geology now too. Without context, we're powerless. Imagine yourself an "astro-anthropologist" of the future, examining only the scant images of structures sent back by a probe or telescope of some totally alien planet. With only the properties of the thing itself, how would you know whether it signified "design?" You'd do what astro-biologists do today when they look for alien life - compare what you find to what you know from Earth and wait for more data to align. That is, you apply the only context you have.

The problem behind all of this is that as we go from humans, to Earth, to alien worlds, to the universe as a whole, we have no real definition of "design" except our own. All we have is a sense that what WE do and therefore a way to detect "human made" or perhaps "made by entities with a consciousness similar to humans." Whether we're looking for design, or looking to rule it out, we first need to know it when we see it.

If we allow only "human made" to be meaningful, we are forced into a circular conclusion on "design" before we start. Since we humans are a product of evolution ourselves, even what we do cannot scientifically be distinguished from anything made by any other product of evolution. There may be a meaningful difference between "human made" and "termite made" but NEITHER would be evidence of "design" (or both would be). If we go back to the watch analogy, either both watch AND the sand suggest design (hmm, sand - back to geology!), or neither one needs it.

So facing the question of design means firstly we must face our own experience of "design" our sense that we "reason" or act on any other thought with a purpose. Calling what we do "design" must either be a delusion, or this capacity is real, and is simply the first proof of a concept of "design" or reason that is "above" human. If "reason" in humans is something emergent, then it cannot be explained (or "explained away") by the underlying constituent elements - further study of humans and their neurons won't help one way or another. That is, if Reason exists, it exists whether reasoning beings exist to experience it or not. Since belief in God, in simplest terms, means only "the universe DOES have intent or purpose or reason behind it" then belief in God is depends on and is suggested by a belief in the reality of Reason. Our ability to Reason itself is then the best (though inductive) evidence we have that reason, design, etc. exists in the abstract. A purposeful God is likely, because, why would reason stop with us? On the other hand only the conclusion that what humans experience as rational thought is a delusion seals the case against God. Dawkins would need to write a sequel "The Reason Delusion." Of course, there's not much point in trying to lay out a rational argument for the non-existance of reason.

The hard part is, our own ability to reason is only suggestive or inductive of a greater reason in the abstract. An analogy can be made in the argument for alien life. We can assume that since we're here, it's highly unlikely we're the only ones who got this far, but it doesn't help answer what the range of other life is like or whether entirely different levels of life and consciousness exist above our own. And that's just for organic life, which at least has some fairly well established definition in physically observable properties. For the much more abstract and ill-defined concept of "design" it's far worse. How can we get beyond our ability to see design and purpose in what we do - the human made - and detect purpose or design in anything else, from an alien world, to a higher life form, to the universe itself?

To start, we need to go back to the only example we have - to "reason" in our own experience. Reason is not found by picking apart the constituent pieces (reason isn't found in our neurons), nor by studying the properties or complexity of the "resulting artifacts" (reason is not found in a watch or a work of art). To find "intent" or "reason" or "design" in what we do, we go beyond the resulting artifacts and constituent elements and use our own experience as context. So, to find reason or design in anything else, in the universe itself, we must go beyond analysis of the "resulting artifact" of the universe itself or of further breakdown of its constituent pieces and their properties. We must establish context in the abstract - a context shaped by our own experience, but one that applies outside of ourselves, one that defines NOT "human made" but "designed."

Is that possible? Well, it's a topic for another post at least.

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