The Blind Watch Dropper

Here is one of the more essays I wrote based on discussions I’ve had hereon and on other sites like Pandas Thumb. I think this is one of the more appropriate essays for discussions here and it also happens to be one I feel is fully finished at this point. Well…I’m happy with it, but clearly I may edit it a bit given constructive criticism… 🙂

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I haven’t seen much press on this lately, but back in the late 1980s, Creationists – a slice of Christians who hold that the creation of the universe, Earth, and all living things on Earth were created by God exactly as described in the Christian Bible and that the Earth is roughly 10,000 years old…tops – tried an end around to the 1987 Supreme Court decision (Edwards v. Aguillard) barring the teaching of Creation Science in public schools. The attempted end-around was called Intelligent Design (ID).

ID, boiled down, is essentially a dressed up version of William Paley’s The Watch and The Watchmaker argument for the existence of God, or rather, a slightly gussied up Teleological Argument for the Existence of God. Paley’s argument goes like this: if you stumble upon a rock in the woods, you could reasonably surmise that it had been there, in that state, forever (keep in mind that Paley wrote his analogy in 1802 and was not familiar with what we now know about geology and in particular plate tectonics and erosion and similar forces. So, he can be forgiven for thinking that some items of the universe (like planets and stars) and the Earth (like soil, rocks, mountains, rivers, land masses, and so forth) exist unchanged forever) as a simple object of nature. By contrast, if you stumble upon a watch, you would not think that this item had been there forever, but rather you’d likely think that this item reflected the intent of a creator and, in particular given its complex parts working in intricate harmony, functions specifically for a purpose the creator designed it for. Given this, by analogy one can reasonably look at the universe and, seeing its complex interactions working in intricate harmony, infer it too must be designed and conclude, therefore, there is an ultimate Designer.

All Teleological Arguments rely on the same basic argument: certain features and functions of the world exhibit complexity that appears far too harmonious and intricate to have occurred by accident and thus must have been intelligently designed. Ergo…God.

It’s helpful to understand a bit about the history and use of the concept to better understand the application of teleology in theology, but it’s not absolutely necessary. That said, here are a definition and a brief summary:

Teleology comes from the Greek telos, meaning end (as in goal or purpose), and logos, meaning reason. So, teleology is about understanding the purpose of things. In its most basic form, teleology is the study of the purpose that phenomena serve rather than the cause by which they arise in order to provide an explanation for the phenomena. In other words, teleologists hold that the purpose for the sky being blue is more useful in understanding aspects of the world than studying and understanding optics and the Rayleigh Diffusion Effect. I admit, I’ve had no luck digging up a teleological explanation for the sky being blue, but apparently there used to be some popular ones back before modern science’s explanations. The point is, teleology attempts to address ‘why’ things occur, as opposed to scientific approaches that attempt to answer ‘how’ things occur. It’s also worth understanding that teleology, particularly as popularized by Aristotle and Plato in their day, was a reflection by analogy of the fact that nearly all human endeavors are goal-oriented and purpose driven. Thus by analogy, Aristotle saw the universe as rational and purposeful – analogous to human rational and purposeful behavior – and thus felt that all phenomena can only fully be understood when one considers and appreciates the purpose of the various phenomena.

There are a number of issues I have with teleological arguments and perspectives, but I’m going to focus on four main issues here.

First and foremost, technically there is no actual argument in the teleological approach to the existence of God as it’s simply a tautology and thus question begging. If your philosophy’s premise assumes that all things have purpose and goals, using that philosophy to argue for a goal-oriented and purpose-creating designer is simply restating your premise’s assumptions. It’s just arguing in a circle. Intelligent Design tries to dress the argument up a bit by focusing on complexity vs purpose and goals, but the issue remains the same. In ID, the argument is changed slightly to certain biological and informational features of living things are too complex to be the result of natural selection (or natural processes) and therefore must be the result of intentional and rational (intelligent) design requiring an intelligent designer. This, of course, suffers from the same tautological issue noted above: the first premise of ID is that living things are too complex to be the product of natural processes, but if the premise is that living things can’t come about from natural processes, what’s left? By premising that living things can’t be the product of natural processes, the premise implies something other than natural processes – i.e. design processes. To then conclude a designer is simply restating the premise. Yet again, a tautology.

Next, there’s the fallacy of the General Rule. The fallacy of the General Rule is a logical fallacy wherein someone assumes that something in general is true in all possible cases. A standard example is the claim that “all chairs have four legs”. But clearly rocking chairs have either no legs or two legs, depending on the design, and there are plenty of modern chair designs with three legs, and not a few bar stools that are essentially held up on a single pole. In the case of ID, the assumption is that complexity implies design and since biological objects are complex they must be designed. The thing is though, not all designed things – well, human designed things – are complex. Consider toothpicks, paper clips, floss, and Popsicle sticks as but a few examples. These objects are never used in teleological arguments for obvious reasons. And while it’s certainly possible that a toothpick could come about through natural processes, we know a human-designed toothpick when we see it and not because of the harmonious workings of its complex parts. No, it’s because of two things: man-made toothpicks have tell-tale evidence of being manufactured and they exist in greater collected numbers than nature could reasonably produce.

Another issue with ID that is related to the fallacy of the General Rule noted above is that it relies upon a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy wherein someone argues that some condition has only two alternatives when in fact there are more. An example would be someone who insists that the only alternative to driving a car is walking when clearly bicycles, skateboards, pogo sticks, and air travel all exist. In the case of ID, even if one were to agree that most, if not all, living organisms are too complex to have come about through evolutionary processes, it’s questionable at best whether a designer (and specifically God) is the only alternative. There are abundant natural processes that lead to complex organized structures (think snowflakes, tree rings, and the Giant’s Causeway). And even if we grant a necessitated designer, since there’s no way to assess or know anything about the supposed designer inferred by ID, the designer could very well be invisible pink unicorns or aliens. The bottom line is that it’s a rather large (and unrealistic) stretch to assume the only way to get biological complexity is either evolution or God.

Lastly, as noted above, we don’t infer design from complexity so much as we infer design from indications of manufacturing. This, for me, the primary failure of all forms of teleological arguments for the existence of God and ID in particular.  Designs are a very specific form of plan and planning. We make designs (usually written and drawn) to help us visualize how various components and processes will interact and work in a given environment in order to (hopefully) highlight problems and issues before we actually manufacture the object of design. So the truth is that looking at an object tells one very little about the actual activity that went into designing that object. And while looking at an object can indicate something about whether the object was designed, it’s really the indications that the object was manufactured through some tool use process that provides that inference. Manufacturing leaves evidence; design does not.

I’ve never found the ID arguments for the design of biological organisms all that compelling for a number of reasons. The dubious math, the fallacious arguments, the disingenuous bait and switch to Christian apologetics, and so forth. But even beyond that, there was something about the objects in nature – organisms themselves – that just don’t seem designed to me. There is something different about them compared to man-made objects, but I was not able to put my finger on what I felt the difference was. And then it hit me one night: replaceable parts.

All man-made objects – every single one – are either designed specifically to be replaced or have components that are designed specifically to be replaced. Why? Because tool users and manufacturers learn really quick that tools and/or certain parts of tools wear out. So as designers, we anticipate the need for maintenance.

No such anticipation or planning for maintenance can be found in nature. None. If something breaks in an organism, either that organism learns to live without it or it dies. Or, in the case of humans, that part gets replaced by human designed or human configured replacements (as in my case). But even in the later case, humans have to create a work-around, because biological parts actual resist being replaced. You can’t just replace human parts with other human parts willy-nilly. In most cases, the new parts just won’t work, or worse, they’ll be rejected by the body’s immune system. But of particular note, there’s no surplus of replacement parts anywhere; no storage unit somewhere with a bunch of eyes or hearts or toes or hair or kidneys or…anything. Not even bark or leaves or antennae or scales. Nothing.

Of course, this makes perfect sense given evolution and other similar natural processes. It makes no sense if there were an actual designer, particularly an omni-god Designer, behind it all.

467 thoughts on “The Blind Watch Dropper

  1. What is unique regarding earthly life as it is now and life throughout the history of the earth is that now life has reached the stage where it includes creatures that can consciously determine the course of future evolution. Was this just one big accident of blind evolution sending out its tentacles in all directions? Or did the expanding life forms have attributes that allowed for multicellularity, consciousness and eventually self-consciousness?

  2. From the op:-

    Robin: All man-made objects – every single one – are either designed specifically to be replaced or have components that are designed specifically to be replaced. Why? Because tool users and manufacturers learn really quick that tools and/or certain parts of tools wear out. So as designers, we anticipate the need for maintenance.

    No such anticipation or planning for maintenance can be found in nature. None. If something breaks in an organism, either that organism learns to live without it or it dies.

    Below is a photo of a primary flight feather from a wood pigeon. Notice that the tip has started to break up due to the forces imposed on it by constant use. This damage will only slightly affect its efficiency but if it were allowed to continue across all of the flight feathers, the pigeon’s ability to fly would be severely compromised.

    The feathers on each wing are moulted one at a time which allows the bird to maintain its flight capability while replacing worn out feathers. There is no down-time as maintenance is ongoing as the bird gets on with the business of living.

    This is an example of the wisdom found in nature which contradicts your statement in your second paragraph above. There are many other examples such as the healing of broken bones and regeneration of limbs in some animals.

  3. CharlieM: This just confirms the fact that selection is working on what already exists. What creates the diversity in these cases is the changes in allele frequencies over the generations. This is polar nature of Darwinian evolution. There are differences between parent and offspring on one pole and selection on the other pole. Together these processes, when they are well balanced, allow populations to remain viable in an ever changing environment.

    You are using careless language, which has resulted in several misleading statements. It is true that selection, in isolation, cannot create new alleles, so allelic diversity will never increase as a result of natural selection. But for the number of genotypes, genetic variation (heterozygosity), number of discrete phenotypes and phenotypic variation of quantitative traits (phenotypic variance) your claim that “natural selection is a process which leads to a reduction in variety” is not necessarily true. Hence, the fact that natural selection has to act on current phenotypic variation does not imply it cannot result in greater genotypic or phenotypic “diversity”. The only thing that cannot increase as a result of natural selection is allelic diversity.

    You do deserve credit for recognizing that evolution by natural selection allows populations to cope with changing environments. That shows you are two steps ahead of phoodoo and Steve who imagine that species need to have started off maladapted under an evolutionary scenario.

    CharlieM: Limitation analogous to individual development. When stem cells give rise to specialist cells their path becomes determined and it is extremely difficult for these cells regain the plasticity of their ancestor cells.

    Likewise, to take a specific example, it would be very difficult for a population of gorillas to evolve into the more general primate type of their ancestors.

    Heh. I don’t think you have demonstrated that natural selection always results in greater specialization (hint: it doesn’t). Instead, this is a limitation of your model, where species change is analogous to cell differentiation.

    So, will you retract your statement that natural selection is “limited”, as you seem to have confused evolution by natural selection with your own model of species change?

  4. I recall being gently admonished by this blog’s founder when I said something along the lines of there needing to be a constant supply of new alleles for selection to work on. Lizzie pointed out that existing genotypes get shuffled at meiosis so that these new combinations of existing alleles become available for selection. Dog breeders didn’t need new variation, as there was plenty still of recombination to sift through. At some point, in small populations under high selective pressure, either extinction, or sometimes speciation, happens.

  5. Alan Fox: Lizzie pointed out that existing genotypes get shuffled at meiosis so that these new combinations of existing alleles become available for selection.

    Creationists (and the occasional anthroposophist) like to portray natural selection as mere removal of certain phenotypic classes, leaving the implicit suggestion that species cannot change beyond the existing variation by this process. This betrays a deep ignorance of the underlying genetics where the change in allele frequency at multiple loci can definitely result in the appearance of completely novel genotypes and hence, phenotypes.

  6. CharlieM:
    From the op:-

    Below is a photo of a primary flight feather from a wood pigeon. Notice that the tip has started to break up due to the forces imposed on it by constant use. This damage will only slightly affect its efficiency but if it were allowed to continue across all of the flight feathers, the pigeon’s ability to fly would be severely compromised.

    The feathers on each wing are moulted one at a time which allows the bird to maintain its flight capability while replacing worn out feathers. There is no down-time as maintenance is ongoing as the bird gets on with the business of living.

    This is an example of the wisdom found in nature which contradicts your statement in your second paragraph above. There are many other examples such as the healing of broken bones and regeneration of limbs in some animals.

    That’s not a bad counter, Charlie, but it’s a rather extreme exception. It’s like the example of shark’s teeth that constantly get replaced, but then completely ignoring the fact that no other animal has this capability.

    But, fair enough…my statement that such maintenance cannot be found in nature is wrong. I sit corrected. However, I submit there’s a rather obvious difference between the replaceability of fenders, wheels, tires, seats, and headlights and the lack of such replaceability of fingers, eyes, kidneys, shoulders, feet, and pancreas. Just sayin’…

  7. Corneel:
    CharlieM: This just confirms the fact that selection is working on what already exists. What creates the diversity in these cases is the changes in allele frequencies over the generations. This is polar nature of Darwinian evolution. There are differences between parent and offspring on one pole and selection on the other pole. Together these processes, when they are well balanced, allow populations to remain viable in an ever changing environment.

    Corneel: You are using careless language, which has resulted in several misleading statements. It is true that selection, in isolation, cannot create new alleles, so allelic diversity will never increase as a result of natural selection. But for the number of genotypes, genetic variation (heterozygosity), number of discrete phenotypes and phenotypic variation of quantitative traits (phenotypic variance) your claim that “natural selection is a process which leads to a reduction in variety” is not necessarily true. Hence, the fact that natural selection has to act on current phenotypic variation does not imply it cannot result in greater genotypic or phenotypic “diversity”. The only thing that cannot increase as a result of natural selection is allelic diversity.

    I would argue that it is me who is using “natural selection” in the way that Darwin intended. The variability has to be present before natural selection can occur.

    Darwin wrote:

    Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term Natural Selection. Some have even imagined that natural selection induces variability, whereas it implies only the preservation of such variations as arise and are beneficial to the being under its conditions of life.

    Descent with modification and natural selection (which Darwin later equated with the struggle for existence) are, he proposed, the two processes which in combination could result in the emergence of new species.

    Corneel: You do deserve credit for recognizing that evolution by natural selection allows populations to cope with changing environments. That shows you are two steps ahead of phoodoo and Steve who imagine that species need to have started off maladapted under an evolutionary scenario.

    I’ll leave it for phoodoo or Steve to reply to this if they feel the need.

    CharlieM: Limitation analogous to individual development. When stem cells give rise to specialist cells their path becomes determined and it is extremely difficult for these cells regain the plasticity of their ancestor cells.

    Likewise, to take a specific example, it would be very difficult for a population of gorillas to evolve into the more general primate type of their ancestors.

    <Corneel: Heh. I don’t think you have demonstrated that natural selection always results in greater specialization (hint: it doesn’t). Instead, this is a limitation of your model, where species change is analogous to cell differentiation.

    So, will you retract your statement that natural selection is “limited”, as you seem to have confused evolution by natural selection with your own model of species change?

    No. As Darwin realized, natural selection does not create, it preserves.

    Again, Darwin wrote:

    Unless favourable variations be inherited by some at least of the offspring, nothing can be effected by natural selection.

    Natural selection is powerless without the diversity created in a breeding population.

  8. Alan Fox:
    I recall being gently admonished by this blog’s founder when I said something along the lines of there needing to be a constant supply of new alleles for selection to work on. Lizzie pointed out that existing genotypes get shuffled at meiosis so that these new combinations of existing alleles become available for selection. Dog breeders didn’t need new variation, as there was plenty still of recombination to sift through. At some point, in small populations under high selective pressure, either extinction, or sometimes speciation, happens.

    It doesn’t matter whether it is through gene shuffling or a modification of the genome by some external influence the result will be variation in the progeny which may affect their fitness.

    A good question to ask would be, why, without invoking teleology, would division of the sexes have come about in the first place? The separation and consequent progress of variation has to have happened in both the diverging male and female lines in a way that ensured they were well matched. This reduces somewhat the odds of it happening by blind fortuity.

  9. Corneel:
    Alan Fox: Lizzie pointed out that existing genotypes get shuffled at meiosis so that these new combinations of existing alleles become available for selection.

    Corneel: Creationists (and the occasional anthroposophist) like to portray natural selection as mere removal of certain phenotypic classes, leaving the implicit suggestion that species cannot change beyond the existing variation by this process. This betrays a deep ignorance of the underlying genetics where the change in allele frequency at multiple loci can definitely result in the appearance of completely novel genotypes and hence, phenotypes.

    That isn’t natural selection, that’s descent with modification. Naturals selection is the term used for the preservation of particular modifications.

  10. Robin:
    CharlieM:
    From the op:-

    Below is a photo of a primary flight feather from a wood pigeon. Notice that the tip has started to break up due to the forces imposed on it by constant use. This damage will only slightly affect its efficiency but if it were allowed to continue across all of the flight feathers, the pigeon’s ability to fly would be severely compromised.

    The feathers on each wing are moulted one at a time which allows the bird to maintain its flight capability while replacing worn out feathers. There is no down-time as maintenance is ongoing as the bird gets on with the business of living.

    This is an example of the wisdom found in nature which contradicts your statement in your second paragraph above. There are many other examples such as the healing of broken bones and regeneration of limbs in some animals.

    Robin: That’s not a bad counter, Charlie, but it’s a rather extreme exception. It’s like the example of shark’s teeth that constantly get replaced, but then completely ignoring the fact that no other animal has this capability.

    But, fair enough…my statement that such maintenance cannot be found in nature is wrong. I sit corrected. However, I submit there’s a rather obvious difference between the replaceability of fenders, wheels, tires, seats, and headlights and the lack of such replaceability of fingers, eyes, kidneys, shoulders, feet, and pancreas. Just sayin’…

    All the features you mention are being constantly replaced at the cellular level. And of course if you want examples of the renewal of structures take a look at the plant world. A small cutting can quite often produce a whole plant.

  11. CharlieM: A good question to ask would be, why, without invoking teleology, would division of the sexes have come about in the first place?

    LOL. The answer is in the paragraph that you are responding to, viz: “existing genotypes get shuffled at meiosis”, which produces lots of novel phenotypes and has the unforeseen benefit that homozygous lethals get weeded out. The idea that meiosis is good for the species (check out baker’s yeast!) and the origin of sex have been discussed here at some length. For an introduction, you should read this.

    The separation and consequent progress of variation has to have happened in both the diverging male and female lines in a way that ensured they were well matched. This reduces somewhat the odds of it happening by blind fortuity.

    No it does not. This is a classic creationist line, and it is doubly wrong. Firstly, if you think about it for a second, really poorly matched individuals are going to contribute less to the next generation, so there’s an ever-present selective pressure in favor of minimal compatibility. Co-evolution is the default. Secondly, and this is the surprising bit, there’s plenty of species that are NOT “well matched”. As the rather entertaining polemic that I am currently reading makes clear, there is something of a genital war going on (check out ducks and dolphins!).

  12. DNA_Jock: The idea that meiosis is good for the species (check out baker’s yeast!) and the origin of sex have been discussed here at some length. For an introduction, you should read this.

    I’m sure it’s all squared off. In fantasyland that is. But what about this : https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/jun/28/do-we-need-a-new-theory-of-evolution

    I’d say we don’t. We need to drop the whole nonsense. Which, as I showed repeatedly, it’s simply beyond repair. But what do you think?

    And remember, this is the guardian – itself a bastion of the nonsense – you’re up against.

  13. CharlieM: All the features you mention are being constantly replaced at the cellular level. And of course if you want examples of the renewal of structures take a look at the plant world. A small cutting can quite often produce a whole plant.

    This is not accurate. Kidneys, for example, do not – alas – get replaced on any level. I unfortunately know this all too intimately. When renal glomerulus or nephrons become inflamed or get destroyed, they do not heal or get replaced in any way. Livers regenerate; kidneys do not.

    But more to the point, renewal of structures isn’t the same thing as replacement parts in machines. This, I submit, is still a valid way to differentiate the two categories.

  14. Nonlin.org,

    Thanks for the link. It is, as you implied, a truly appalling piece of journalism — “nonsense”, even.
    This paragraph

    At the start of the 20th century, the rediscovery of the work of the 19th-century friar and father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, started to provide the answers. Scientists working in the new field of genetics discovered rules that governed the quirks of heredity. But rather than confirm Darwin’s theory, they complicated it. Reproduction appeared to remix genes – the mysterious units that programme the physical traits we end up seeing – in surprising ways. Think of the way a grandfather’s red hair, absent in his son, might reappear in his granddaughter. How was natural selection meant to function when its tiny variations might not even reliably pass from parent to offspring every time?

    is so egregiously wrong that I nearly stopped there. But I soldiered on to finish the thing. It’s the result of the media ‘covering’ science like it is a sporting competition, packed with mythical rivalries and manufactured dramas, but painfully light on the specifics. Sadly, most of the media also covers politics this way. Sigh.
    I’m with Doolittle:

    We don’t need no friggin’ new synthesis. We didn’t even really need the old synthesis

    and with Wray, Hoekstra, Futuyma, Lenski, Mackay, Schluter, and Strassmann. Do you have any specific criticisms of what they wrote back in 2014?

  15. CharlieM: That isn’t natural selection, that’s descent with modification. Naturals selection is the term used for the preservation of particular modifications.

    You are playing word games. Consider: How did the novel trait (“modification” if you like) spread through the population if all natural selection does is “preserve” it? Assuming the modification is adaptive, then natural selection is probably what fixed the trait. Also note that Darwin was still pursuing ideas of blending inheritance. Under particulate (Mendelian) inheritance changes in allele frequencies are the direct result of differential reproductive success among genotypes.

    CharlieM: The variability has to be present before natural selection can occur.

    I am not contesting that natural selection needs to act on current phenotypic variation. What I am taking issue with is your peculiar insistence that natural selection is not -cannot be- responsible for any diversity or novel forms that result from this process. As I argued above, changes in allele frequencies are the direct result of differential reproductive success among different genotypes. I have shown examples where the change in allele frequency at multiple genetic loci results in novel phenotypes, even without input of new mutations. Hence, natural selection can result in novel phenotypes. Citing Darwin at me, who was pushing a theory of blending inheritance, is not going to persuade me otherwise.

  16. CharlieM: A good question to ask would be, why, without invoking teleology, would division of the sexes have come about in the first place? The separation and consequent progress of variation has to have happened in both the diverging male and female lines in a way that ensured they were well matched. This reduces somewhat the odds of it happening by blind fortuity.

    I see Jock already linked to Allan’s opus magnum. Very good. My money is on the fact that large numbers and resource stocking are both beneficial for gametes but don’t combine so well.
    But, for entertainment’s sake, could you please explain the division of sexes with teleology? You can also have a go at the purpose of sex itself, if you like: that didn’t go so well last time.

  17. Nonlin.org: We need to drop the whole nonsense. Which, as I showed repeatedly, it’s simply beyond repair.

    Go ahead. It’s your website, after all.

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