Friday, January 13, 2006

Two Classes of Argument from Design, Which Both Fail

In a recent post that took Alma’s encounter with Korihor as a springboard, my discussion of the possible evolution of Joseph’s views on the nature of God turned on the assumption that Alma’s argument from design points to a kind of God—which for convenience I will call God as First Cause—who is somehow outside the universe, and logically prior to its natural laws, and therefore the ultimate potentiator of the universe’s observed order. I mentioned parenthetically that it was debatable whether Alma’s argument took this form, and invited commenters to call me on it, but no one did. Hence I take it upon myself to clarify the matter by pointing out that there is a second type of teleological argument, and that it is not clear which Alma had in mind. Then I do that effort at clarification the dubious honor of rendering it moot on the larger issue: while it might make some difference for how we interpret the evolution of Joseph’s theology, when it comes to evidence for God it doesn’t really matter which type of argument Alma (or Joseph writing Alma) had in mind (or if he even thought carefully enough to distinguish them), because they both fail—leaving us, in the end, with the testimony of direct experience as the only potential evidence for God’s existence.

The version with God as First Cause takes the apparent messiness of nature as a starting point, and proceeds to the uncovering of simple laws that give rise to these complicated phenomena. It is then the simple underlying universal laws—rather than the complicated phenomena—that are taken to be the hidden manifestation of God’s wisdom. A possible example of this might be Kepler’s faith-shaking discovery that—horror of horrors!—planetary orbits are ugly ellipses with varying speed, rather than uniform circular motion pure and undefiled. Perhaps this result was rendered more palatable to some—which is to say, more consonant with alleged divine æsthetic sensibilities—by Newton’s derivation of a single set of beautiful laws to unify not only different kinds of orbits, but also terrestrial gravitational and projectile phenomena. Here, underlying the bewildering diversity of phenomena, was the hidden simplicity worthy of divine wisdom.

This argument is turned on its head in the other class of argument from design. In this version, simplicity is not the hallmark of God’s handiwork, but marvelous complexity. Simple laws are not the manifestation of the mind of God, since these alone can lead to meaninglessly messy behavior; the real genius is in the use of these laws—whether by setting up special initial conditions, or through more prolonged regulating interventions—to bring about his purposes. In this more organizational version of creation, instead of God as First Cause we have God as Engineer. (If it were not so unwieldy and inflammatory, we might also say God as Most Excellent Advanced Alien Technologist.)

This perspective of God as First Cause has a grave difficulty. What does it mean to say something outside the universe interacts with it? Considering God outside the universe seems to be nonsensical; the right thing to do is expand one’s definition of the universe to include everything that interacts with us, including God. Similar comments apply to alleged non-material entities like souls (or God himself): if it interacts with our physical bodies, it too ought to be defined as material. Moreover, on what basis could this God’s actions be judged good, or even be orderly, except by fidelity to some set of principles external to himself?

Mormons who believe in God as Engineer—a finite and embodied God within the universe, the nature of whose existence depends on laws and order bigger than him and beyond his control—can be justifiably proud of escaping the above-mentioned (and other) dilemmas presented by God as First Cause. They can also avoid a problem facing religionists who, in accepting something like Intelligent Design, believe in both God as First Cause and God as Engineer: If complex things like human bodies must be designed, and the designer is also a complex thing, then who designed the Designer? Even those Mormons disinclined to attribute the origin of humanity’s physical body to an infinite regression of physically procreating Gods can nevertheless hijack the basic concept and renovate it as an infinite regression of designers.

But God as Engineer faces another problem that not even Mormons can avoid: the reality that we have both theoretical and empirical examples of systems in which random initial conditions can give rise, without intelligent intervention, to ‘special’ outcomes that are both orderly and complicated. There are multiple mechanisms for this; I will mention two examples.

One class of order without intelligent intervention might be called ‘specialness amidst randomness,’ arising from the presence of a statistical ensemble with variations in properties. An example here is planetary systems, of which 150 or so have been detected since the first discovery about a decade ago. None of these systems have conditions similar to Earth suitable for life. It is almost certain that this results from a known observational selection effect, but observing the degree of variety we have so far, it is clear that fundamental natural laws are not sufficient to ensure that all planetary systems have suitable conditions like those of our solar system. But the point nevertheless remains that there are billions and billions of planetary systems out there, and given observationally plausible ranges of conditions, it would be surprising indeed if none of them had suitable conditions. Hence regardless of whether Alma means that divinely ordained fundamental laws on the one hand (God as First Cause) or divinely arranged initial conditions on the other (God as Engineer) are responsible for the “regular form” of our planetary system’s motions, he is dead wrong in asserting to Korihor that it constitutes an evidence of God’s existence.

A second class of order without intelligent intervention—which might be called ‘specialness from randomness’—is exemplified by nonlinear dynamical systems with ‘attractors,’ that is to say, systems that deterministically drive arbitrary initial conditions to one of a few special ‘final’ conditions (manifolds of bounded volume with smaller dimensionality than the entire dynamical phase space). Philosophically similar to this—if less mathematically clean—may be evolution, which in Darwin’s view involves the channeling and ratcheting, via natural selection, of arbitrary variations in species characteristics into certain obviously useful features: eyes, for instance, which I gather have been shown by genetic evidence to have independently evolved several times, by different paths from different initial conditions, to functionally similar ‘attracting’ final states.

Does Alma’s argument from design refer to God as First Cause or God as Engineer? The fact that it is more offhand reference than sustained argument means that it’s difficult to say—and difficult even to tell if Alma (or his creator) had thought carefully about it at the time the statement was authored. Alma’s statement has two parts: a general reference to “all things,” and a more specific reference to the regular motion of our planets. Each part could arguably be motivated by either of the two styles, though I tend to think the first reference to “all things” sounds more like God as First Cause, and the second to planets in their “regular form” like God as Engineer. (Note that in arguing for an evolution of Joseph’s conception of God I deftly combined the two parts to slant interpretation of the combined argument towards “God as First Cause.”)

However the conclusion is that neither style of teleological argument from design for God’s existence holds water. To make an analogy admittedly more poetic than strictly accurate, the fact that certain texts are attributed to, say, Aaron B. Cox is not sufficient to establish Mr. Cox's existence. And works alleged by some to depend on God’s intervention—like the creation of Earth and life upon it, or the Book of Mormon—may be similarly pseudepigraphic. (The analogy is deficient because, having observed that most texts arise from human authors, it is most likely that texts attributed to Mr. Cox were also written by some human. But since we have no clear examples of intelligent minds creating either individual organisms or large-scale biospheres, no ‘watchmaker’ argument can be made remotely rigorous, and every example of ‘specialness from randomness’ renders such less necessary—and perhaps, in combination with observations of biological deficiencies and exaptations, less plausible as well.)

Hence scriptural statements connecting God with creation cannot be understood as arguments for his existence. Given other reasons to believe in him—presumably, direct experience with him or his heavenly messengers—such scriptural statements then, and only then, may tell us something about the nature of our relationship to him, and perhaps also something about his and our natures. To the extent Joseph is responsible for the content of the Lectures on Faith, he deserves credit for reflecting this perspective. And to Alma’s credit, his rebuttal to Korihor started off well, with reference to the testimonies of the prophets and other saints; it’s just that that’s where he should’ve stopped!

[This is cross-posted from Mormons and Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]