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. FYI – I do not intend to flood TSZ with a whole bunch of my essays, but I figure a couple to stir up a few conversations would be fun.

  2. All man-made objects – every single one – are either designed specifically to be replaced or have components that are designed specifically to be replaced.

    Modular construction seems to be a relatively recent thing. I’ve read histories of warfare, where the early rifles were constructed entirely as one-off creations. If a part wore out, some craftsman would need to create a unique replacement, there wasn’t (yet) such a thing as interchangeable parts. I also read that one early rifle manufacturer was indeed claiming true modularity, and demonstrated a bunch of rifles where each part could work in each rifle. But behind the scenes, it turns out a bunch of craftsmen had created what amounted to one single rifle — that is, each part of each rifle in the demonstration would fit ONLY the other rifles in that demonstration, and no others!

    I’m not quite sure if it can be said that entire living organisms are “designed specifically to be replaced”. Unless reproduction is key to the design process?

  3. Flint:
    All man-made objects – every single one – are either designed specifically to be replaced or have components that are designed specifically to be replaced.

    Modular construction seems to be a relatively recent thing. I’ve read histories of warfare, where the early rifles were constructed entirely as one-off creations. If a part wore out, some craftsman would need to create a unique replacement, there wasn’t (yet) such a thing as interchangeable parts. I also read that one early rifle manufacturer was indeed claiming true modularity, and demonstrated a bunch of rifles where each part could work in each rifle. But behind the scenes, it turns out a bunch of craftsmen had created what amounted to one single rifle — that is, each part of each rifle in the demonstration would fit ONLY the other rifles in that demonstration, and no others!

    Hey Flint!

    So, yeah…I know a little about those early rifles and at first I was thinking of those examples as sort of an exception to the rule. But then my wife pointed out that while I might be making a specific point about certain human designed items, there are many other man-made items I was rather arrogantly ignoring. She pointed out that many buildings, particularly in more ancient times, were designed to last without a lot of maintenance. The Angkor Wat, Acropolis, Chichen Itza. And then there are examples such as art…you know, the Mona Lisa for instance and all sorts of statues here, there, and everywhere… So yeah…oops. Clearly, I need to rework the above a bit.

    Thanks for pointing that out!

    I’m not quite sure if it can be said that entire living organisms are “designed specifically to be replaced”. Unless reproduction is key to the design process?

    Yeah, I wasn’t actually going for that as the point, but since the preceding humans-make-replaceable-parts bit is clearly not well thought out, I’ll take a stab at reworking the whole bit.

  4. Very nicely done!

    One of the many aspects of the whole “ID Debate” which I find terribly frustrating is how much it is driven by the ways in which different conceptual frameworks (expectations, assumptions, anticipations, training) drive what we actually perceive and thereby affect what we think needs to be explained.

    This is, I think, why so many people in the ID movement have backgrounds in engineering. If one is trained to think like an engineer, it’s easy to look at organisms as if they had been designed and then think that this calls out for explanation.

    Whereas for people trained in biology (even if only at the undergrad level, like myself) organisms do not even appear to be designed, so there’s we don’t see the same phenomena as needing to be explained.

    Similarly, when people with backgrounds in computer science look at genetic codes, they see a code in the same sense that computer languages are codes. Whereas molecular biologists see “the genetic code” as a metaphor for chemical affinity between nucleotide sequences and amino acid chains.

    I like your point about replaceable parts as a key to why organisms do not even appear to be designed.

    For me, organisms don’t appear to be designed because they are heterogeneous: no two individuals of any species are exactly alike. Whereas manufactured things are overwhelmingly homogeneous — and they become more homogeneous as manufacturing processes become more controlled over time. Even millions of years ago, the hand-axes made by Homo erectus were almost identical because the same basic flaking techniques were used over and over, by different people and on different sizes and shapes of rocks.

  5. Robin:
    FYI – I do not intend to flood TSZ with a whole bunch of my essays, but I figure a couple to stir up a few conversations would be fun.

    Please, flood away ! Your essays are insightful and refreshing.

    And I am really tired of TSZ being mostly futile attempts to get CharlieM to understand reality.

  6. Fair Witness: Please,flood away !Your essays are insightful and refreshing.

    And I am really tired of SZ being mostly futile attempts to get CharlieM to understand reality.

    Agree on both points.

  7. With regard to the history of the concept of teleology, I pretty much agree with what Robin said. Here are a few minor points in response.

    Aristotelian teleology is not cosmological but biological: he sees all organisms as purposive wholes, where the function of each organ is explained in terms of its contribution to the goals of the organism: the function of the heart is to pump blood in order to deliver oxygen to the cells in order to facilitate conversion of chemical energy into usable form in order for the cells to perform work in order for the organism as a whole to continue to live.

    (This is a contrived example since Aristotle didn’t realize that the function of the heart was to pump blood. In fact Aristotle got quite a few details wrong — he thought that the function of the brain was to act as a radiator for the body and cool off the blood before it got too hot!)

    So Aristotle doesn’t take human intentions as a model for the universe: he thinks that all organisms are purposively organized. If anything he biologizes the universe, by arguing that all things have a purpose or final cause. Each kind kind of thing has its own distinct final cause, and the final cause of that thing explains what makes it the distinct kind of thing that it is. (There there’s the unmoved mover, the final cause of all things that explains why all final causes are as they are.)

    But notice that Paley doesn’t argue, as Aristotle does, that each kind of living thing is explained teleologically. He argues that from the intricate contrivance of body parts (e.g. the eye) that there must be a single intelligent agent that explains the intricate contrivance.

    One of the interesting things (for me) about the history of the concept of teleology is how the rise of mechanistic science in the 17th century puts an end to Aristotelian teleology — teleology is no longer to be located at the level of individual organisms — so teleology is then re-located to the universe as a whole and its Creator. This cosmic teleology has roots in Plato, e.g. his Timaeus (the Demiurge designs the material world by copying the Forms)

    Another, maybe more interesting part of the story is the story of how Aristotelian (not Platonic!) teleology has been making a comeback in philosophy of biology in the 21st century. Here are some of the key articles and books on this subject:

    Life After Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality by Weber and Varela (2002 )

    Teleology and its constitutive role for biology as the science of organized systems in nature by Toepfer (2012)

    What Makes Biological Organization Teleological? by Mossio and Bich (2017)

    Organisms, Agency, and Evolution by Walsh (2015)

    Biological Autonomy by Mossio and Moreno (2015)

    On the naturalisation of teleology: self-organisation, autopoiesis and teleodynamics by Garcia-Valdecasas (2021)

  8. Fair Witness: Please,flood away !Your essays are insightful and refreshing.

    And I am really tired of TSZ being mostly futile attempts to get CharlieM to understand reality.

    🙂

  9. Kantian Naturalist:
    Very nicely done!

    One of the many aspects of the whole “ID Debate” which I find terribly frustrating is how much it is driven by the ways in which different conceptual frameworks (expectations, assumptions, anticipations, training) drive what we actually perceive and thereby affect what we think needs to be explained.

    This is, I think, why so many people in the ID movement have backgrounds in engineering. If one is trained to think like an engineer, it’s easy to look at organisms as if they had been designed and then think that this calls out for explanation.

    A good point. I would say it goes a little further than that, though. I’ve worked with a lot of engineers over my career(s) and there are plenty that I’ve come across who do not feel there’s an analogous design framework between man-made objects and living organisms. I think that in order to feel that an explanation for design is warranted, one must also feel some need (on some level, even in some cases an honest one) to engage in apologetics. I just seems to me that most design arguments are rooted in a need to defend someone’s faith.

    Whereas for people trained in biology (even if only at the undergrad level, like myself) organisms do not even appear to be designed, so there’s we don’t see the same phenomena as needing to be explained.

    Similarly, when people with backgrounds in computer science look at genetic codes, they see a code in the same sense that computer languages are codes. Whereas molecular biologists see “the genetic code” as a metaphor for chemical affinity between nucleotide sequences and amino acid chains.

    This I completely agree with.

    I like your point about replaceable parts as a key to why organisms do not even appear to be designed.

    Thanks! As Flint noted though, I need to elaborate a little on the point. Right now it’s too general and does not account for exceptions like art and cast iron pans… 🙂

    For me, organisms don’t appear to be designed because they are heterogeneous: no two individuals of any species are exactly alike. Whereas manufactured things are overwhelmingly homogeneous — and they become more homogeneous as manufacturing processes become more controlled over time. Even millions of years ago, the hand-axes made by Homo erectus were almost identical because the same basic flaking techniques were used over and over, by different people and on different sizes and shapes of rocks.

    This is an excellent point! I’m going to try to wrap this into my essay if you don’t mind.

  10. Robin: This is an excellent point! I’m going to try to wrap this into my essay if you don’t mind.

    Not at all — please feel free!

  11. Robin: The point is, teleology attempts to address ‘why’ things occur, as opposed to scientific approaches that attempt to answer ‘how’ things occur.

    Science is both about why and how. Theology was among sciences because it’s about the ultimate cause. Cause as in why.

    Does the statement “correlation is not causation” have any scientific significance or not? If yes, then why and how are scientifically separate subjects of investigation.

    Robin: 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.

    Assuming no purpose is exactly equivalent, purely logically. But the implications of assuming differently are different. When you assume a purpose to everything, you are motivated to find out the causes and purposes. When you assume there are purposeless things, then why bother.

  12. Kantian Naturalist: For me, organisms don’t appear to be designed because they are heterogeneous: no two individuals of any species are exactly alike.

    In handicraft (and also in mass manufacturing, if we go down to be very precise) no two things are exactly alike either. So even unambiguously designed things are not designed according by this criterion.

  13. Erik: Science is both about why and how. Theology was among sciences because it’s about the ultimate cause. Cause as in why.

    No…actually, cause is how. How did you get that burn on your arm is asking about the cause of a burn. Why did you get that burn on your arm is a question about one’s behavior and, quite likely, questioning one’s poor decision making.

    Does the statement “correlation is not causation” have any scientific significance or not? If yes, then why and how are scientifically separate subjects of investigation.

    Neither correlation or causation attempt to address the why of anything. They are both approaches to data governing how things happen (or happened).

    Assuming no purpose is exactly equivalent, purely logically. But the implications of assuming differently are different. When you assume a purpose to everything, you are motivated to find out the causes and purposes. When you assume there are purposeless things, then why bother.

    You’re trying to address the statement out of context, Erik. The fact is, that a teleological argument for anything is technically tautological because it relies on the premise of purpose. There is no opposite however. There is no non-teleological argument for the non-existence of God. So, I don’t really know what point you’re trying to make here. Claiming there’s some issue with assuming no purpose doesn’t actually address my point that the teleological argument for the existence of God is just begging the question.

    And just so we’re clear, I don’t have to assume anything to note and show that the teleological is begging the question and thus faulty logic. If you don’t like my noting the issue with teleological arguments for the existence of God, complain to the apologists who keep relying on them.

  14. Erik: .When you assume a purpose to everything, you are motivated to find out the causes and purposes. When you assume there are purposeless things, then why bother.

    This is confused. IF you assume a purpose to everything, you are motivated to find that purpose. IF you assume a cause to everything, you are motivated to find that cause. If there IS a purpose to something, it’s entirely possible to find the purpose without finding the cause; similarly, if something has a cause, you can determine that cause without determining a purpose.

    And so it’s not uncommon for religious people to find their god’s purpose in everything around them, without a single clue as to HOW their god actually does it. And it’s certainly not uncommon for people to determine the cause of something in great detail without needing to impose a purpose.

    And finding causes is worth bothering to do, just ask any doctor or any engineer or any research scientist. Ultimately, scientific research converges on a coherent and (fairly) complete understanding of causes. Ask for the purpose of something not constructed by some living organism, and what you get is unsupportable opinions, with no mechanism for resolving disagreements. So while science converges, religions experience schisms. It’s the projection of purpose where none exists that generates the bother. Finding causes solves the bother.

    (Even man-made things don’t all have a purpose. I have debugged a great deal of computer code in my life, and I can assure you no programmer was ever motivated to write those bugs. But finding the cause of the problem, tracking down the bug itself, is worth doing.)

  15. This is a true statement. It is also the most rational position to take. Modern scientific inquiry makes it even more so.

    A comparative analysis of what takes place in the body is light years ahead of what humans have invented with their brains. Since Man is embedded in nature and nature has such advanced technology provided by evolution, why doesn’t Man possess the same technology?

    Secondly, how does The Gazillion Argument upend the Teleological Argument? That 1 over infinity means evolution is true? Carbon 14 dating gives you 4 billion years to work with but that is a drop in the bucket of what evolution would need to overcome the odds put up against any lifeform coming into being through chemical processes in a constantly changing environment. Cleverly creating an arbitrary dichotomy between abiogenesis and evolution to lessen the odds doesn’t help. Even given the abiogenesis mulligan, evolution still faces odds that a 4 billion year old earth cant provide.

    It seems that design denial is mostly a protest against a vociferous yet silent God.

    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.

  16. Robin: No…actually, cause is how. How did you get that burn on your arm is asking about the cause of a burn. Why did you get that burn on your arm is a question about one’s behavior and, quite likely, questioning one’s poor decision making.

    One’s decision-making, poor or otherwise, is solidly among causation, if you are a rational being.

    Robin: Claiming there’s some issue with assuming no purpose doesn’t actually address my point that the teleological argument for the existence of God is just begging the question.

    Assumptions are necessary to get any reasoning started. If you are just anti-rational or a proponent of irrationality, then okay, now I know.

    Flint: If there IS a purpose to something, it’s entirely possible to find the purpose without finding the cause; similarly, if something has a cause, you can determine that cause without determining a purpose.

    Example?

  17. Robin: No…actually, cause is how. How did you get that burn on your arm is asking about the cause of a burn. Why did you get that burn on your arm is a question about one’s behavior and, quite likely, questioning one’s poor decision making.

    One’s decision-making, poor or otherwise, is solidly among causation, if you are a rational being.

    Robin: Claiming there’s some issue with assuming no purpose doesn’t actually address my point that the teleological argument for the existence of God is just begging the question.

    Assumptions are necessary to get any reasoning started. If you are just anti-rational or a proponent of irrationality, then okay, now I know.

    Flint: If there IS a purpose to something, it’s entirely possible to find the purpose without finding the cause; similarly, if something has a cause, you can determine that cause without determining a purpose.

    Example? And does not finding a purpose or cause mean there is no purpose or cause?

  18. Erik:

    Example? And does not finding a purpose or cause mean there is no purpose or cause?

    I thought I explained this, with examples. You want more? We know the cause of rain in some detail, but what is the “purpose” of rain? Why does rain even need any purpose? And, to repeat myself, many people attribute a “purpose” to things like rain (where there is none) by conjuring up some god (I suspect rain has been attributed to many gods over the millennia) without having the slightest clue what causes rain.

    But perhaps I’m missing your point. Perhaps you are arguing that cause and purpose are so closely tied together they can’t be separated. In my world, cause and purpose are entirely separate and distinct things. I don’t need to know anything about internal combustion engines to have the purpose of driving to the store — the car simply works. And the designers of internal combustion engines need not waste a single thought wondering to what purposes they might be put.

    Of course, everything people do, they do for some reason, usually for several reasons. So it’s natural it project this motivated behavior onto our gods; we seek to appease gods (to stop storms or pandemics), flatter gods (lots of prayer and heavy on the flattery) and bribe gods with all manner of sacrifices. The usual model implies gods are humans with special abilities and powers, but nonetheless subject to the usual foibles of human weakness – anger, greed, favoritism, etc. And, of course, they do everything for a purpose.

  19. For the record, no invention is without a purpose. In fact, invention is synonymous with purpose. The internal combustion engine was designed to automate individual locomotion. A clear purpose in mind.

    Rain is multi-purpose. It enables plant life. Rain before vegetation. It enables erosion to breakdown elements into small enough sizes to be absorbed by plants. Rain is part of the earth’s water recycling system. Evaporation of oceanic water into the atmosphere, condensation, rain to lakes and rivers, then back to the ocean. Rain replenished aquifers. Lots and lots of purpose.

    Denying purpose is irrational.

  20. Flint: We know the cause of rain in some detail, but what is the “purpose” of rain? Why does rain even need any purpose?

    Rain serves a purpose to anyone and anything that derive benefit from rain. Rain itself, assuming it’s an inert thing, may not act in a purpose-driven way, because inert things are rather acted on instead of acting by themselves, but whatever happens to it or by it can have a purpose. This should be quite uncontroversial.

    The only potentially controversial point would be whether anything and everything has some cause and purpose in the grand scheme of things. Obviously a teleologist would say that yes, anything and everything has some cause and purpose in the grand scheme of things – because that’s what grand scheme means. You can only deny it by denying that the universe (or whatever level of ultimate existence you can conceive of) is consistent or coherent in itself.

    Flint:
    And, to repeat myself, many people attribute a “purpose” to things like rain (where there is none) by conjuring up some god (I suspect rain has been attributed to many gods over the millennia) without having the slightest clue what causes rain.

    So you deny causes and purposes in order to avoid conjuring up gods? Well, yes, I suspected you had some completely superstitious reason for it.

    Flint:
    But perhaps I’m missing your point. Perhaps you are arguing that cause and purpose are so closely tied together they can’t be separated. In my world, cause and purpose are entirely separate and distinct things. I don’t need to know anything about internal combustion engines to have the purpose of driving to the store — the car simply works. And the designers of internal combustion engines need not waste a single thought wondering to what purposes they might be put.

    In the grand scheme of teleology, purposes (or “ends”) of things are causes of other things. So, cause and end are metaphysically the same thing from different perspectives. But physically, cause and end need not have any necessary connection, just that every thing has a cause (or causes) and an end (or ends).

    Flint:
    Of course, everything people do, they do for some reason, usually for several reasons. So it’s natural it project this motivated behavior onto our gods; we seek to appease gods (to stop storms or pandemics), flatter gods (lots of prayer and heavy on the flattery) and bribe gods with all manner of sacrifices. The usual model implies gods are humans with special abilities and powers, but nonetheless subject to the usual foibles of human weakness – anger, greed, favoritism, etc. And, of course, they do everything for a purpose.

    Are tribal idols the only gods you know? How about God in law (as in “act of God”) or in the science of physics (where “unified theory” is understood as “mind of God”) or in medicine (where “miraculous healings”, “guardian angels” etc. are common occurrences in the profession)? Can you grow up to that level at least?

  21. Erik: In the grand scheme of teleology, purposes (or “ends”) of things are causes of other things.

    I think KN would deny. I say I think, because I really don’t know what he means by teleology. It seems to mean things do things, therefore they are teleological, or something like this. The cause seems to be just what they are. Its nonsensical in any way I can see.

    Teleology without a goal is indistinguishable from chaos, except that chaos doesn’t look as nice.

  22. phoodoo: I think KN would deny. I say I think, because I really don’t know what he means by teleology. It seems to mean things do things, therefore they are teleological, or something like this. The cause seems to be just what they are. Its nonsensical in any way I can see.

    I begin with Kant’s distinction between extrinsic purposiveness and intrinsic purposiveness. Extrinsic purposiveness occurs whenever a purposeful organization of parts is a consequence of conscious intention on the part of the designer. Intrinsic purposiveness occurs whenever a purposeful organization of parts is a consequence of the whole constraining what each part does and each part contributes to the goals of the whole.

    Kant makes this distinction in order to recover Aristotle’s idea that organisms are not artifacts; they are purposive but not designed. Kant realized that this Aristotelian idea was necessary for doing biology and needed to be distinguished from the extrinsic teleology that plays a central role in the argument from design.

    In historical terms, Kant realized that the kind of teleology that was important for the argument from design, from the Stoics to Paley, was really quite different from the kind of teleology that mattered to Aristotle, and which was being revived in 19th century German biology by people like Blumenbach and Treviranus.

    Indeed, it has been recently argued that we should return to Kant’s distinction precisely in order to clarify that “While evolution by natural selection closes the case on intelligent design, it does not close the case on teleology in general”: there is a concept of teleology that is necessary for organism-centered evolutionary theory and that has nothing to do with the teleological argument for the existence of God.

    By organism-centered evolutionary theory, I mean displacing the central place of genes in our thinking about what evolution is and how it happens. There are two main reasons for adopting this approach: (1) gene-centered theories fail to account for the causal interconectedness of different evolutionary processes (Walsh 2015) and (2) gene-centered theories rely on a conception of the gene that is fundamentally incoherent (Moss 2004).

    The question is therefore one of trying to explain what teleology is. From what I’ve read so far, I think that best candidate is the biological autonomy approach developed by Mossio, Moreno, Bich, and others. The key idea is that biological systems are teleological by virtue of having a specific kind of organization in which interacting constraints collectively keep the system far from thermodynamic equilibrium while extracting energy and matter from the environment and converting that energy into work that is used to mitigate increases in entropy. This counts as intrinsic teleology (following Kant) because the need of the system to maintain its own existence determine what goals the system (see What makes biological organisation teleological?).

    So, when it comes to teleology, I’m a post-Darwinian neo-Aristotelian: living organisms exhibit a purposeful organization on account of which they seek the goals specific to organisms of that species, but with the caveat that species are not kinds or types but populations.

  23. Kantian Naturalist: contributes to the goals of the whole.

    I can use your definitions of teleology and goals to describe anything. A building collapsing from cracks in concrete is teleological, because that’s its goal. A bird crashing into a telephone pole and dying is teleological. Leftovers rotting on a dirty plate are teleological, that’s the food’s goal. Asteroids crashing into planets are teleological. That’s their goal.

    Anything can be thus described. It might be useful to talk in such terms. If it wasn’t totally absurd.

  24. phoodoo:I can use your definitions of teleology and goals to describe anything…..Anything can be thus described. It might be useful to talk in such terms. If it wasn’t totally absurd.

    Now you know how some of us feel about the God explanation.

  25. Fair Witness: Now you know how some of us feel about the God explanation.

    You mean you feel there is no fundamental difference between a building collapsing, and the emergence of the human form?

    Well, …it takes all types.

  26. Kantian Naturalist: I begin with Kant’s distinction between extrinsic purposiveness and intrinsic purposiveness. Extrinsic purposiveness occurs whenever a purposeful organization of parts is a consequence of conscious intention on the part of the designer. Intrinsic purposiveness occurs whenever a purposeful organization of parts is a consequence of the whole constraining what each part does and each part contributes to the goals of the whole. ..

    That distinction of Kant’s hits home for me, although I have always use the term “function” for what he calls intrinsic purposiveness, and simply “purpose” for extrinsic purposiveness.

    Purpose exists nowhere except in the mind. It is not an inherent property of a thing.

    Function can arise without there ever having been purpose.

    And function only exists until the causal connection is broken. The organism dies, the car breaks down, Phoodoo’s building collapses.

    I feel it is important to understand this distinction to avoid immediately assuming a designing agency when one sees function in nature.

  27. Fair Witness,

    Then function only exists in the mind as well. If a car breaks down or a building collapses why are you calling that a breaking of function.

    A building collapsing is just as much its function as it is standing. The car breaking is its function. Its all in the mind.

  28. phoodoo:
    Fair Witness,

    Then function only exists in the mind as well.If a car breaks down or a building collapses why are you calling that a breaking of function.

    A building collapsing is just as much its function as it is standing.The car breaking is its function.Its all in the mind.

    Upon further reflection: Does a tree not continue supporting the hammock, long after the campsite has been abandoned?

  29. Fair Witness: Upon further reflection: Does a tree not continue supporting the hammock,long after the campsite has been abandoned?

    If it supports it, that’s its function. If it doesn’t support it, that is also its function.

    At least to design denialists like you.

  30. Erik:
    Are tribal idols the only gods you know? How about God in law (as in “act of God”) or in the science of physics (where “unified theory” is understood as “mind of God”) or in medicine (where “miraculous healings”, “guardian angels” etc. are common occurrences in the profession)? Can you grow up to that level at least?

    And here we find exhibit A for the mind on religion. So a rainstorm leads to a landslide? Wow, your god must have intended that, for reasons unknowable. So physicists think a unified theory is the mind of your god? Really? So medical remissions are engineered by your god? Thoughtful of him, though rather selective.

    I’m sorry, but a tribal god is the only god you can think of. You don’t even seem sophisticated enough to dream up more than a single god. In the real world, magic is superstition. If you do not know the cause of something, you can chant “goddidit” and think you “explained” something, or you can start doing science.

    Some of us simply have no need of your self-serving apologetics. We have grown PAST that level, something I doubt you could do if you wanted to.

  31. phoodoo,

    Fair Witness,

    You guys need to discuss adaptation.

    Adaptation is a major topic in the philosophy of biology, as it concerns function and purpose (teleology). Some biologists try to avoid terms which imply purpose in adaptation, not least because it suggests a deity’s intentions, but others note that adaptation is necessarily purposeful.

  32. Robin,

    I think the comment above goes for the OP as well; it lacks discussion of adaptation. The one thing that gives the overwhelming impression of purpose in biological organisms is the fact that they are adapted to thrive in their environment. Adaptations exist to support the single goal of increasing fitness, which can itself be rephrased in purely mechanistic explanations. This separates biological function from that observed in human artifacts, where function is imposed by the artificer (or sometimes the creative user).

  33. Fair Witness: That distinction of Kant’s hits home for me, although I have always use the term “function” for what he calls intrinsic purposiveness, and simply “purpose” for extrinsic purposiveness.

    Purpose exists nowhere except in the mind.It is not an inherent property of a thing.

    Function can arise without there ever having been purpose.

    And function only exists until the causal connection is broken.The organism dies,the car breaks down,Phoodoo’s building collapses.

    I feel it is important to understand this distinction to avoid immediately assuming a designing agency when one sees function in nature.

    I can see why one would want to use the terms “function” and “purpose” in this way. Nevertheless, I disagree.

    It makes good sense to talk about functions at the level of sub-organismal level (below the level of the whole organism): we can talk about the functions of molecules (chlorophyll, enzymes, neurotransmitters, etc.), cell types (macrophages), tissues (phloem, muscles), and even organs (leaves, thalamus).

    But specifying functions needs to terminate in specification of goals. Here’s why.

    To talk about functions is to invite the “in order to” or “for the sake of” explanatory schema, e.g. the function of chlorophyll is to convert light energy into chemical energy in order to _____. The _______ could be itself another function (e.g. replenishing reserves of chemical energy necessary for powering metabolic activity). But then that invites the question “in order to do what?”

    What terminates the threat of regress is the recourse to specifying the goals of the organism: what needs the organism has and what is doing to satisfy those needs.

    So I don’t see any hope for doing away with all talk of goals and making do with only talk of functions. Functions are necessary for specifying sub-organismal biology, but to avoid infinite regress, they need to terminate in goal-talk at the level of the whole organism.

    I can understand why one would be leery of “purposes” as if they were free-standing entities, just roaming about the place, but I think that doing organismal biology requires understanding organisms as purposive, goal-oriented entities. (Though such a perspective is perhaps not necessary for doing work at the sub-organismal (e.g. molecular biology) or supra-organismal (e.g, ecology) levels.)

  34. Corneel: The one thing that gives the overwhelming impression of purpose in biological organisms is the fact that they are adapted to thrive in their environment. Adaptations exist to support the single goal of increasing fitness, which can itself be rephrased in purely mechanistic explanations. This separates biological function from that observed in human artifacts, where function is imposed by the artificer (or sometimes the creative user).

    I am increasingly skeptical of the idea that fitness can be rephrased in purely mechanistic explanations. Or better put, to the extent that we can define fitness in mechanistic terms, we do so by way of mathematical models of population dynamics, and therein lies all sorts of really interesting questions about how we should understand the relation between models and biological reality.

    I’m coming to this having just finished Dennis Walsh’s 2015 book Organisms, Agency, and Evolution. Walsh argues that Modern Synthesis relies on a rigid separation between inheritance and development (as well as a narrow understanding of what counts as inheritance) that is contradicted by empirical research on epigenetics, DNA methylation, facilitated variation, genetic accommodation, and niche construction. He accepts it as a way of modeling population dynamics but thinks that it fails as a theory of adaptation and of evolution.

    Interestingly, he does not seem to be too thrilled with “the extended synthesis.” The problem with the extended synthesis is that it seems to accept the modern synthesis as being fine, but just needs more stuff added onto it. Walsh, like Richard Lewontin and Susan Oyama, thinks that the Modern Synthesis rest on deeply flawed assumptions — it needs to be abandoned, not extended.

  35. Kantian Naturalist: Or better put, to the extent that we can define fitness in mechanistic terms, we do so by way of mathematical models of population dynamics, and therein lies all sorts of really interesting questions about how we should understand the relation between models and biological reality.

    In my experience, whenever someone expresses wariness of mathematical models this is usually followed by a verbal model with a very tenuous grip on reality. But you’ve certainly captured my interest 🙂

    Kantian Naturalist: I’m coming to this having just finished Dennis Walsh’s 2015 book Organisms, Agency, and Evolution. Walsh argues that Modern Synthesis relies on a rigid separation between inheritance and development (as well as a narrow understanding of what counts as inheritance) that is contradicted by empirical research on epigenetics, DNA methylation, facilitated variation, genetic accommodation, and niche construction. He accepts it as a way of modeling population dynamics but thinks that it fails as a theory of adaptation and of evolution.

    At face value, I do not see how the nature of inheritable information is in any way relevant for whether fitness can be rephrased in mechanistic terms but perhaps I do not understand the argument yet. I am not familiar with the author or the book, so will add it to my list. Thanks.

    Kantian Naturalist: Walsh, like Richard Lewontin and Susan Oyama, thinks that the Modern Synthesis rest on deeply flawed assumptions — it needs to be abandoned, not extended.

    Yeah, that holy grail of the paradigm shift. We’ll see …

  36. Corneel: In my experience, whenever someone expresses wariness of mathematical models this is usually followed by a verbal model with a very tenuous grip on reality. But you’ve certainly captured my interest

    Fair warning, a good deal of Walsh’s critique of the Modern Synthesis is placed squarely upon Fisher. He says almost nothing about Simpson or Haldane and not much about Mayr. So it may be that his criticisms of Fisher don’t generalize to the Modern Synthesis as a whole.

    At face value, I do not see how the nature of inheritable information is in any way relevant for whether fitness can be rephrased in mechanistic terms but perhaps I do not understand the argument yet. I am not familiar with the author or the book, so will add it to my list. Thanks.

    Fair enough! The underlying issue, for Walsh, is the usefulness of treating fitness as a variable in abstraction from what organisms do in their environments, how to engage with their niches, what goals they are seeking, what needs they are trying to satisfy. To talk about what organisms are doing requires, he thinks, teleological explanations.

    We can, if we want, abstract from those messy details and talk about trait fitness as a variable in our models of population dynamics. But what are we leaving out when we do so?

    Yeah, that holy grail of the paradigm shift. We’ll see

    Well, at this point Walsh is only doing what Michael Friedman calls “philosophy as metascience” (this is also what I do): freely speculating on alternative conceptual frameworks when the dominant paradigm has too many accumulated anomalies. But that only becomes a paradigm shift when enough scientists find it useful as a way of moving forward with doing science!

  37. Kantian Naturalist,

    We can make simple models, and they have quantities that we can call fitness, and then we can see how those fitnesses relate to changes of gene frequency and/or genotype frequency. As the models get more complicated, to allow for issues like overlapping generations, we need to use more elaborate definitions of fitness. In a real case we may not be able to take into account all of the complexities, for mathematical reasons or because we just don’t know enough about the organisms’ life cycles and environments.

    But I don’t see how it helps anyone to complain that we don’t know all those complications, or how anyone can claim credit for making complaints like that. It is like saying that there is something wrong with the concept of momentum because, when a ball flies through the air, some of its atoms are shed in the process and some others join it. Raising such issues makes the speaker feel smug, but no physicist, or no biologist, will feel that anything sensible has been accomplished when that objection-from-crackpot-realism has been made.

  38. Anyone else notice there’s a parallel conversation at Uncommon Descent, where a commenter, Fred Hickson, invokes the name of Professor Joe Felsenstein?

    Here

  39. Only that ID supporters are all saying evolution is blind chance and Hickson is an idiot for claiming selection is non-random. Oh, and therefore God.

  40. Joe Felsenstein: We can make simple models, and they have quantities that we can call fitness, and then we can see how those fitnesses relate to changes of gene frequency and/or genotype frequency. As the models get more complicated, to allow for issues like overlapping generations, we need to use more elaborate definitions of fitness.

    Oh really, interesting.

    So, for instance you can have in your model an organsim that is the fastest, or the biggest, and we can call that fitness. The faster the fitter, or the bigger the fitter.

    The we run the models. And in some models (maybe all) the fastest die the most, they leave the least offspring. So then we have learned something.

  41. phoodoo,

    Do you ever try to fix anything that doesn’t work, phoodoo? You change one thing, maybe a fuse, to see if it helps. Limiting the variables is a sort of modelling that helps you trace a fault.

  42. Alan Fox:
    phoodoo,

    Do you ever try to fix anything that doesn’t work, phoodoo? You change one thing, maybe a fuse, to see if it helps. Limiting the variables is a sort of modelling that helps you trace a fault.

    A good technique. I’ve debugged many programs that run fine for a while, then suddenly crash. At first there’s no obvious pattern – it’s not like it crashes every time you try X. So the first step in debugging is to try to find the shortest sequence of steps to invoke the crash, to minimize the number of different things that might be involved. Which might still be many steps — for example, if heap space is eventually overflowing, or if some accidentally uninitialized variable happens to take on some fatal value. Minimizing variables is essential.

  43. phoodoo: The we run the models. And in some models (maybe all) the fastest die the most, they leave the least offspring. So then we have learned something.

    A cheetah can reach velocities of over a 100 km/h. To what purpose is it Designed that way? Does it matter for its survival that it can run that fast?

  44. Corneel: Does it matter for its survival that it can run that fast?

    According to evolutionists (and Joe’s modeling) it only matters if they survive. If they don’t survive and reproduce, its because the speed is not a trait of fitness.

    Flint: A good technique.

    Joe is suggesting a better technique. Decide what causes the problem first, then test what it takes to fix the problem, and if the thing that it takes to fix the problem isn’t the thing that you decided beforehand was the problem, then declare that the thing that fixed the problem is not really what the problem was anyway.

  45. phoodoo,
    Naughty phoodoo!
    Testing a hypothesis is not the gobbledegook you just wrote. It is testing a best guess at an explanation. Guess confirmed, carry on. Guess not confirmed, try another guess.

  46. Joe Felsenstein,

    I appreciate that criticism! I suppose it depends on what one really cares about.

    If one cares about having useful models for solving abstract problems, then perhaps Walsh has nothing to say.

    As a philosopher, I’m interested in (among other things) the metaphysics of evolution, so I found Walsh’s book very helpful in thinking about that issue.

    Since Walsh is a philosopher of biology, he is primarily in dialogue with other philosophers and theoretical biologists: his main interlocutors are Fisher, Mayr, Lewontin, Oyama, Ruse, Sterelny, and Jablonka. To some degree he is also engaged in arguments with contemporary metaphysicians — for example, he has a nice refutation of Jaegwon Kim’s criticism of emergence.

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