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. Joe Felsenstein,

    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.

    Is it wrong to raise the issue if the person providing the model is also claiming that universal common descent by natural evolutionary mechanisms is factual yet the model is currently too simple to support this claim.

    If the latest models and the claims match I don’t really see room for quibbling. A bunch of scientific papers assume universal common descent as a working hypothesis.

  2. phoodoo: 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.

    Sounds reasonable to me. Kind of like starting a business producing an extremely high quality widget nobody wants. Attracting customers is a fitness trait. Most startups fail; where are all the slow cheetahs?

  3. colewd:
    Joe Felsenstein,

    Is it wrong to raise the issue if the person providing the model is also claiming that universal common descent by natural evolutionary mechanisms is factual yet the model is currently too simple to support this claim.

    My layman’s understanding is that universal common descent is consistent with all known relevant data. That’s good support, but certainly not proof. If scientists should find solid data inconsistent with that model, I suppose they’d change the model – but the new model would STILL have to be consistent with all else we know as well.

  4. Flint,

    My layman’s understanding is that universal common descent is consistent with all known relevant data. That’s good support, but certainly not proof.

    The data that supports this is the nested hierarchy or tree. If methodological naturalism is used universal common descent is the only rational conclusion.

    The problem is this does not eliminate separate starting points and common design or teleology. The eukaryotic cell has dozens of innovations not present in the prokaryotic cell. Vertebrates (fish) have many new innovations so do birds, mammals, aquatic mammals and primates.

    There is no model that explains the origin of these innovations from reproduction and variation alone. No one including the 3rd way guys have a viable model. Eliminating the design or teleology argument as KN refers to is leading to dicey assumption by those writing papers in this field. This field is too broad with too many origin events to limit it to methodological naturalism without getting potentially mislead IMO.

  5. Flint: where are all the slow cheetahs?

    Where are all the horned cheetahs? I think being unhorned is the secret to survival. No wait a second, where are all the spitting venom cheetahs? I believe the secret to being a long life cheetah is not having spitting venom.

    Hold on a second, when was the last time you saw a cheetah with a machine gun? I propose we make a model of cheetahs with machine guns and cheetahs without machine guns. I am going to call having a machine gun as being fit, and not having a machine gun as not fit. I sure hope the ones with machine guns survive, because think how embarrassing it will be to have a model in which the least fit survive? But results are results. If that’s what the science says. Nature is weird.

  6. colewd:
    Flint,

    The problem is this does not eliminate separate starting points and common design or teleology.The eukaryotic cell has dozens of innovations not present in the prokaryotic cell.Vertebrates (fish) have many new innovations so do birds, mammals, aquatic mammals and primates.

    There is no model that explains the origin of these innovations from reproduction and variation alone.No one including the 3rd way guys have a viable model.Eliminating the design or teleology argument as KN refers to is leading to dicey assumption by those writing papers in this field.This field is too broad with too many origin events to limit it to methodological naturalism without getting potentially mislead IMO.

    The problem I have here is, what is an “origin event”? Viable mutations are ubiquitous – you have a great many yourself, that neither of your parents had. They happen all the time, and are unavoidable. Are all of these mutations “origin events”? Breeders of animals and plants have no control over what mutations occur, they can only conserve those they find desirable. But their efforts, over time, result in a truly stunning variety of physical forms. Where along the line from, say, teosinte to corn, was the “origin event” producing corn?

    The problem with a model resting on magical “origin events” goes beyond actually identifying the event, and extends to testing the model. “Wait long enough and new stuff will appear” isn’t exactly a test. If your model involves an external agent that by definition cannot be observed, it may satisfy you but most people would not find it very useful.

  7. phoodoo: Where are all the horned cheetahs?

    I would say, the slow cheetahs are to be found in the past. Horned cheetahs may be found in the future. If cheetahs go extinct (and everything does eventually), maybe their ability to evolve horns or venom would have saved them.

  8. Cheetah speed is useless against it greatest adversary, the human. Cheetah’s cannot rely on evolution to solve this problem for them.

    So how do Cheetas deal with the human danger? Where is evolution when they need it? Humans are at the same time the Cheetahs’ nemesis and savior.

    It seems life moved on from evolution a long time ago.

    Flint: I would say, the slow cheetahs are to be found in the past. Horned cheetahs may be found in the future. If cheetahs go extinct (and everything does eventually), maybe their ability to evolve horns or venom would have saved them.

  9. fitness is a useless concept. Fecundity is what drives the survival of species, not fitness.

  10. Flint: I would say, the slow cheetahs are to be found in the past.

    Really? And were there blue ones also? Unsuccessful blue ones? And some with wings that didn’t work well? And were there humans with fish scales at one time, but it turns out that fish scales for humans weren’t useful enough so they went extinct?

    Because to believe your theory, there should have been.

  11. phoodoo: Where are all the horned cheetahs? I think being unhorned is the secret to survival.

    Steve: Cheetah speed is useless against it greatest adversary, the human. Cheetah’s cannot rely on evolution to solve this problem for them.

    Hang on. Am I reading you guys correctly that you are denying that the capability of cheetahs to run at high velocity serves a purpose in their hunting behaviour?

    Dare I enquire what other thing makes you say that there is teleology in living organisms, if it is not obvious biological adaptations like this?

  12. Steve: fitness is a useless concept. Fecundity is what drives the survival of species, not fitness.

    So organisms are Designed for the purpose of maximizing their fecundity? This is your position, right?

    Incidentally, fecundity, being an important determinant of reproductive success, is recognized as a component of fitness, along with other traits like age-specific survival and age at maturity.

  13. phoodoo: Really?And were there blue ones also?Unsuccessful blue ones?And some with wings that didn’t work well?And were there humans with fish scales at one time, but it turns out that fish scales for humans weren’t useful enough so they went extinct?

    Because to believe your theory, there should have been.

    In general, the best way to critique a theory is to address a full and accurate description of what the theory actually says. Attacking a misrepresentation distorted beyond all recognition only makes you look as stupid as you are dishonest.

  14. Steve:
    fitness is a useless concept. Fecundity is what drives the survival of species, not fitness.

    You might like to read about the various approaches to reproduction. The ability to reproduce surely influences survival, right? Fecundity is one common strategy – produce a zillion offspring and a few will usually survive. But another successful strategy is to produce very few offspring but protect them very carefully. Humans do this, and are probably too successful for their own good. Yet another strategy is to breed very early in the life cycle. These and other strategies are all drivers of fitness, suitable for those species that use them.

  15. Flint,

    The problem with a model resting on magical “origin events” goes beyond actually identifying the event, and extends to testing the model. “Wait long enough and new stuff will appear” isn’t exactly a test. If your model involves an external agent that by definition cannot be observed, it may satisfy you but most people would not find it very useful

    The universe is full of origin events that science cannot explain. Your breeding example shows variation but not transitions. If the model is uncertain but has become dogma it has the potential to be very wasteful of precious scientific resources.

  16. The diversity of life may be thought to have arisen from very simple beginnings, by the addition of complexity, little by little over time.

    It could also be explained by the deposition of substance in physical forms which partially conform to an inclusive archetype. The complexity was there in the archetype only to be realized in the evolving organism. Convergence is a case of creatures conforming to the archetype in their own unique way. Marsupials and placentals are a case in point.

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

    You’re engaging in equivocation, Erik – you’re using the term “why” in two different ways and insisting they are the same.

    “Why” in terms of causation is actually a “how” question and thus can be assessed via science.

    “Why” in terms of the metaphysical and philosophical questions such as, “why is there something rather than nothing”, is not accessible by science. As such, teleological arguments are outside the scope of scientific investigation.

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

    This would be a non-sequitur, Erik.

  18. Corneel:
    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).

    An excellent point, Corneel. I’ll work on adding something to that effect to the essay. Thanks!

  19. Flint: In general, the best way to critique a theory is to address a full and accurate description of what the theory actually says. Attacking a misrepresentation distorted beyond all recognition only makes you look as stupid as you are dishonest.

    Why would it be distorted to say that if one is going to espouse that the reason there are fast cheetahs is because there were once slow ones, but they didn’t survive for very long, so now we see only the fast ones, the same shouldn’t also apply to color, skin, wings, etc..? How is that ME making a distortion of the theory when this is just what Flint suggested was what existed before with cheetahs. So they were also very bad flying birds, fishes that could hardly swim, etc…Its an obvious extension of HIS proposal.

    One has to wonder though why Flint didn’t suggest that there used to be cheetahs that could run at 200kpm, but it turns out that speed is a hindurance to survival, so only the slower ones survived.

  20. Corneel: Hang on. Am I reading you guys correctly that you are denying that the capability of cheetahs to run at high velocity serves a purpose in their hunting behaviour?

    Hnag on is right.

    What I am suggesting is the notion that there were all these BAD forms, that were just to useless at doing anything, like running after prey, so they just didn’t leave many fossils. Bad flying birds, ants that can’t build squat, bats that couldn’t catch a single moth, snakes that couldn’t crawl so shriveled up and baked in the sun, chickens that couldn’t lay eggs, dogs that can’t smell…

    Imagine all the loser fossils buried deep under the permafrost. I can’t wait for climate change so we can finally uncover them and actually find evidence for your batshit theory.

  21. Robin: “Why” in terms of causation is actually a “how” question and thus can be assessed via science.

    “Why” in terms of the metaphysical and philosophical questions such as, “why is there something rather than nothing”, is not accessible by science. As such, teleological arguments are outside the scope of scientific investigation.

    I don’t agree. Let me see if I can articulate how and why. (Ha, ha.)

    Let’s start with the idea of an explanation, and what makes explanations different from descriptions.

    One crucial element of explanations is that they involve counterfactuals. For example, “if the salt had not been placed in water, it would not have dissolved’ or “if oxygen had not been present, the fire would not have started.”

    We want good explanations to capture underlying patterns in the data or events described, and one way we do this is by counterfactuals. (The importance of experimentation is that we test which counterfactuals are causally relevant.)

    We can also think about explanations as telling us why laws hold, to the extent that they do. For example, the kinetic theory of gases tells us why the Boyle-Charles law is true (to the extent that it is); general relativity tells us why the inverse square law is true (to the extent that it is). So I don’t think that it makes good sense to say that “why” questions don’t belong in scientific explanations — even in mechanistic explanations!

    Returning to the main theme: are there teleological explanations and do they have a legitimate role in science?

    Here are some examples that make me think the answer is “yes”

    1. The vulture is riding thermals because it is searching for carrion without expending unnecessary energy.

    2. The bacterium is tumbling because it is randomly searching for a glucose gradient.

    3. The vervet monkey is giving a false alarm call because it wants to break up a fight.

    These are examples where the organism’s goal — what it is trying to do — is playing a crucial role in explaining what it is doing. If the vulture were not looking for food, it would not be riding thermals; if the vervet monkey were not trying to break up a fight, it would have giving a false alarm call.

    Of course, one could, in principle, give a mechanistic explanation for all these behaviors, involving fantastically complex details of neurophysiology, genetics and epigenetics, etc. But why bother? Teleological explanations like these are perfectly useful across lots of scientific disciplines (e.g. cognitive ethology).

    Maybe one lesson here is that there’s a distinction between teleological explanations and teleological arguments. Teleological explanations use concepts like “goal” and “purpose” to capture the counterfactuals at work in generating an observable pattern, just as mechanistic explanations use concepts like “cause” and “effect” to do the same.

    By contrast, teleological arguments (such as Paley’s argument from design) attempt to establish, in a sort of ‘inference to the best explanation’ or what Peirce called ‘the abductive leap’, a claim that goes beyond what can be tested by manipulating observable patterns.

  22. Robin: You’re engaging in equivocation, Erik – you’re using the term “why” in two different ways and insisting they are the same.

    “Why” in terms of causation is actually a “how” question and thus can be assessed via science.

    “Why” in terms of the metaphysical and philosophical questions such as, “why is there something rather than nothing”, is not accessible by science. As such, teleological arguments are outside the scope of scientific investigation.

    Here’s Stephen Hawking answering the question “Why we should go into space” https://space.nss.org/stephen-hawking-why-we-should-go-into-space-video/

    Is he really talking about how we should go into space? Is he talking about a metaphysical and philosophical question inaccessible by science? These are rhetorical questions. The answers are obvious.

    Robin: This would be a non-sequitur, Erik.

    You are a mess of non sequiturs and you likely cannot help yourself.

  23. phoodoo: Why would it be distorted to say that if one is going to espouse that the reason there are fast cheetahs is because there were once slow ones, but they didn’t survive for very long, so now we see only the fast ones, the same shouldn’t also apply to color, skin, wings, etc..?

    I’ll try to treat you as sentient. What most likely happened in the past, and continues to happen (not just with cheetahs but with many organisms) is what amounts to an arms race. In the past, likely cheetahs were slower but so were the prey. Selection would favor faster cheetahs (to catch more prey) and faster gazelles (to avoid more cheetahs). It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to speculate that cheetahs (and gazelles, and rabbits, and foxes, and any other fast animal chasing fast prey) have gradually all been getting faster, so long as we suppose that speed is advantageous to all these critters, and therefore selection for speed has been occurring for a long time.

    The problem with imaginary cheetah features like horns and wings and venom (but not skin color – cheetahs have evolved effective camouflage) is, species have no control over the sorts of variation provided by mutation. What does not occur cannot be selected. You seem to be aware that your hypothetical characteristics HAVE occurred in some lineages, and selection has been refining those as well. Assuming people don’t kill Mother Nature, the far future will doubtless see the appearance and subsequent refinement of features no organism possesses today.

    But to paraphrase H. L. Mencken, it is very difficult to get someone to understand something his religion depends on his NOT understanding.

  24. Erik: Here’s Stephen Hawking answering the question “Why we should go into space” https://space.nss.org/stephen-hawking-why-we-should-go-into-space-video/

    Is he really talking about how we should go into space? Is he talking about a metaphysical and philosophical question inaccessible by science? These are rhetorical questions. The answers are obvious.

    You’re offering up another equivocation, Erik. Hawking isn’t addressing a metaphysical or philosophical “why” question; he’s addressing a cost/benefit “what” question. As in, “what beneficial reason is there for going into space.” And that is perfectly accessible via science.

    You are a mess of non sequiturs and you likely cannot help yourself.

    Feel free to show one of my non-sequiturs. Methinks you don’t actually know what one is.

    Here’s an example of one: while your claim that assumptions are necessary to get any reasoning started may or may not be true, the claim itself is a non-sequitur as it does not in anyway address my comment to which it was applied.

  25. phoodoo: What I am suggesting is the notion that there were all these BAD forms, that were just to useless at doing anything, like running after prey, so they just didn’t leave many fossils. Bad flying birds, ants that can’t build squat, bats that couldn’t catch a single moth, snakes that couldn’t crawl so shriveled up and baked in the sun, chickens that couldn’t lay eggs, dogs that can’t smell…

    Question: Was the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 BAD at infecting people? No, in fact it was spectacularly successful at it. Yet in a few months it got displaced by Omikron and now it has all but disappeared. In a similar vein, the ancestral cheetah must have been a fantastic predator, ancestral ants most likely were highly efficient parasitoid wasps and ancestral snakes were nimble lizards. It’s just that new, more rewarding, opportunities opened up to them and so they adapted.

    BTW Not sure why you mentioned egg laying in chickens. This behaviour goes back a loooong time: egg laying is the ancestral condition for vertebrates.

  26. Kantian Naturalist,

    I think I sort of understand where you are going with your point, KN, but I feel – at least as far as my essay goes – that it’s a tangential issue at best and really misses the point overall.

    First off, I think of counterfactuals as “what if” type modal concerns and not truly “why” modal concerns. I’m likely splitting hairs here as this is really not my area of study, but my understanding is the counterfactuals deal with alternative ways things could and/or would be if X had or had not occurred. As such, I don’t see how this rebuts my point concerning “why” questions, particularly since I’m not aware of counterfactuals being applied to science, but rather in things like semantics, epistemology, and metaphysics.

    To your second item, I don’t dismiss (and I feel I have not argued against) teleological explanations, per se. My essay, I feel, is specifically focused on teleological arguments for the existence of God (as applied by Paley, Behe, Dembski, et al). That said, I guess I just don’t much care about teleological explanations regarding biological organisms. I don’t find the information one can puzzle over regarding why barred owls perch about 10 – 15 feet up on branches over 75% of the time (and yeah…I’ve gone after a lot of barred owls to photograph and they are mostly at that height) all that scientifically interesting or even necessarily valid. I mean, knowing that barred owls perch at that height is certainly explainable in terms of optimal prey spotting height/optimal glide distance/prey capture success ratios, or whatever. I am fascinated by the variety of “solutions” biology can offer to various “problems”, but I still don’t see “why” being the pertinent question from a scientific perspective.

    So…yeah…mea culpa…I’m far more interested in mechanistic, practical, predictive explanations than teleological ones.

  27. Corneel: Question: Was the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 BAD at infecting people? No, in fact it was spectacularly successful at it. Yet in a few months it got displaced by Omikron and now it has all but disappeared. In a similar vein, the ancestral cheetah must have been a fantastic predator, ancestral ants most likely were highly efficient parasitoid wasps and ancestral snakes were nimble lizards. It’s just that new, more rewarding, opportunities opened up to them and so they adapted.

    This is a fantastic point and a great illustration of one of, what I feel, is a key misunderstanding some folks have about extinctions and ancestral relationships. I have been working on another essay that touches on this idea, but I had not come up with a way to illustrate the issue quite so well. I just tend to hear or read someone implying or outright stating that, “well clearly they weren’t that great…they ain’t here no more!” and that’s just not accurate. One should not infer that dinosaurs were “losers” simply because they went extinct. I’m sure that some detractors with say something along the lines of, “yeah…well…it’s still the same coronavirus…” or some such, but I think it’s a good description myself. Thanks!

  28. Are viruses alive?
    My professor says viruses are dead but they become alive (they get resurrected) when they need to …
    A story like that, in science, has gotta be true….
    It’s a hell of a thing fairytale.. if you would like to believe it…

    https://youtu.be/QD7YLLyh_HE

  29. J-Mac:
    Are viruses alive?
    My professor says viruses are dead but they become alive (they get resurrected) when they need to …
    A story like that, in science, has gotta be true….
    It’s a hell of a thing fairytale.. if you would like to believe it…

    https://youtu.be/QD7YLLyh_HE

    It might help if you knew anything about viruses, rather than about playing word games.
    There is an old debate about whether viruses are “alive”. On the one hand, they can evolve and adapt, but on the other hand, they can’t reproduce by themselves. So if one of your criteria for a living organism is that it can reproduce, viruses don’t quite qualify. But the problem here doesn’t lie with the viruses (and there are a very great many of them; most of them prey on specific bacteria), the problem is with trying to paste the terms “alive” or “dead” onto them, when neither term captures the nature of the virus (and thus both are misleading).

    I’ve noticed that articles about covid struggle with this problem. We say that if the virus is capable of infecting a cell, it is “alive”, but when it degrades to the point where it can’t infect anything anymore, we say it is “dead”. But epidemiologists don’t use these terms. They describe a virus particle as “infectious” or “viable”. If it’s not, it’s not a virus anymore, it’s simply inactive chains of RNA.

  30. Evolution doesn’t have strategies, only small, incremental changes over time. there is nothing in evolutionary theory that says one type of organism will have x number of offspring because small incremental changes over time leads to that conclusion.

    Challenge: Explain evolutionary theory without reference to teleological language.

    Flint: You might like to read about the various approaches to reproduction. The ability to reproduce surely influences survival, right? Fecundity is one common strategy – produce a zillion offspring and a few will usually survive. But another successful strategy is to produce very few offspring but protect them very carefully. Humans do this, and are probably too successful for their own good. Yet another strategy is to breed very early in the life cycle. These and other strategies are all drivers of fitness, suitable for those species that use them.

  31. Actually no. Organisms are designed to have different levels of fecundity in order to survive to the next generations AND in order to contribute to the food chain to ensure the survival of the whole of life. Rabbits produce several to keep a couple, snakes produce hundreds to keep several, etc.

    Design has a meta-strategy. The evolution narrative does not.

    Also, please note there is only alive or dead. The weak and the strong are both susceptible to not surviving to the next generation. Design anticipates a loss % range and accounts for it through variable rates of fecundity throughout the animal kingdom. No need for a ghost in the machine.

    Brilliantly written biological software.

    Corneel: So organisms are Designed for the purpose of maximizing their fecundity? This is your position, right?

    Incidentally, fecundity, being an important determinant of reproductive success, is recognized as a component of fitness, along with other traits like age-specific survival and age at maturity.

  32. Steve: Challenge: Explain evolutionary theory without reference to teleological language.

    Challenge to Steve. Clearly indicate what is and isn’t teleological language .

  33. Well, geography is taking a crack at this perennial problem of slipping into teleological language:

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/03091325221093639

    Maybe someday an evolutionist will take on the task of creating non-teleological grammar for discussions of evolution.

    The fact that teleology has to be so studiously avoided shows you the power it hold over our minds. But why is that? Why are humans predisposed to see the world teleologically as opposed to non-teleologically? Did we ever look at the work in a non-teleological way? It seems God has been on human minds since day one. Curiously, why are we now making such great efforts to disown teleology?

    It could be that some of us are simply tired of waiting on a silent God to speak to us in the way we wish to be spoken to. How rude can that be? Is God that difficult to hear?

    Alan Fox: Challenge to Steve. Clearly indicate what is and isn’t teleological language.

  34. J-Mac: Are viruses alive?
    My professor says viruses are dead but they become alive (they get resurrected) when they need to …
    A story like that, in science, has gotta be true….
    It’s a hell of a thing fairytale.. if you would like to believe it…

    https://youtu.be/QD7YLLyh_HE

    Good question.

    In my opinion viruses are dormant in a similar way that plant seeds can lay dormant until conditions allow their etheric “body” to build the form of the physical substances into daughter viruses.

  35. Robin,

    I agree that we’re basically concerned with different things: you’re concerned with the equivocations in the argument from design, and I’m concerned with the importance of teleological explanations in biology. To allude to Haldane’s quip, I’m interested in how the biologist can afford to be seen with teleology in public.

    That said, two specific points I’d like to address:

    Robin: As such, I don’t see how this rebuts my point concerning “why” questions, particularly since I’m not aware of counterfactuals being applied to science, but rather in things like semantics, epistemology, and metaphysics.

    Scientists may not use the word “counterfactuals,” but that’s because scientists usually don’t get any training in philosophy of science. Despite that, counterfactual reasoning is implicit in any well-designed experiment: “what would happen to X if we did Y to Z?” In science we’re constantly trying to discern the underlying causal structures by manipulating some aspect of what we’re interested in, and measuring what happens when it’s manipulated in this way or in that way. Knockout experiments in genetics, lesioning in neuroscience — any attempt to reverse engineer something involves counterfactual reasoning, even if we don’t call it that.

    Robin: I’m far more interested in mechanistic, practical, predictive explanations than teleological ones.

    Teleological explanations can generate predictions than can be tested. To go back to the example of vervet alarm calls: we would predict that vervets would usually give veridical alarm calls (because a constantly deceitful vervet would eventually be ignored by the others) but that they would be deceitful under specific conditions, and we can figure out what those are. Cheney and Seyfarth’s How Monkeys See the World and Baboon Metaphysics are excellent examples of cognitive ethology done in the wild that relies on teleological explanations: the goals and intentions that these animals have and what they do in order to achieve their goals.

  36. Kantian Naturalist,

    I tend to agree that teleology is — or should be — important in biology.

    But then I notice the posts of Erik and of phoodoo, which badly garble everything. And then it becomes obvious why many scientists want to avoid using the word “teleology”.

  37. Steve: Why are humans predisposed to see the world teleologically as opposed to non-teleologically?

    Well, why are we? An evolutionary explanation, such as social groups beyond family function better if individuals accept a given hierarchy, seems reasonable.

  38. Robin: I’m sure that some detractors wi[ll] say something along the lines of, “yeah…well…it’s still the same coronavirus…” or some such, but I think it’s a good description myself. Thanks!

    The only good thing that came from the pandemic: an instructive demonstration of evolution in action.

  39. Fair Witness,

    Colin Pittendrigh coined “teleonomy” because for him the term “teleology” had been irrevocably poisoned by Paley’s natural theology. Mayr and Monod popularized it for their own purposes — Mayr because he was promoting the idea of a “genetic program” as the motor of evolution and Monod because he was using the modern synthesis to promote Epicurus at the expense of Aristotle.

    I guess my own view is this — rather than coin a new term (“teleonomy”) because teleology has been tainted by theologians, I’d rather reclaim teleology for doing what Aristotle used it to do: describing and explaining the behavior of plants and animals.

  40. Steve: Organisms are designed to have different levels of fecundity in order to survive to the next generations AND in order to contribute to the food chain to ensure the survival of the whole of life. Rabbits produce several to keep a couple, snakes produce hundreds to keep several, etc.

    If the purpose of the gazella is to feed the cheetah, why does it keep running away I wonder? What is the purpose of thorns? What is the purpose of toxins? Are those not adaptations to avoid being eaten?

    Steve: Design has a meta-strategy. The evolution narrative does not.

    You appear to see purpose in the universe, rather than individual organisms. That is a rather widely shared sentiment, also among non-creationists. So why is this relevant to the question whether organisms are Designed/created or evolved?

  41. Kantian Naturalist:
    Robin,

    I agree that we’re basically concerned with different things: you’re concerned with the equivocations in the argument from design, and I’m concerned with the importance of teleological explanations in biology. To allude to Haldane’s quip, I’m interested in how the biologist can afford to be seen with teleology in public.

    Right! Exactly! And I’m not trying to blow teleology off as a principle for use in science altogether; the essay is focused specifically on the teleological argument for God in all its manifestations. That’s the issue I have.

    Also for reiteration: these essays are a product of two primary functions (and a minor secondary item): 1) I was ridiculously ill for the just over two years and needed something to do to keep me going and writing down essays was very therapeutic and 2) I have been (well…errm…technically still am…) trying to write a novel and simply writing for the sake of writing is very helpful for writing and creativity in general. The point is, these essays were not an attempt to deal with the such complex philosophical and metaphysical concepts in scholarly detail. I just sat down and felt I needed to write, so I did. And yeah…it turns out that the minor secondary item was to rehash, sort of, in my mind and on paper, some issues I have had about theology (mostly) and similar concepts, some of which I spent years hashing out here and on Panda’s Thumb and on similar sites. So, I haven’t spent nearly the amount of time or energy I ought to have to really, truly, and scholarly delve into the philosophical and metaphysical arena that I’m sure covers a vast array of the issues that I’ve attempted to articulate in these essays. The cool thing is that a lot of you (wink wink, nudge nudge) have given me more things to think about and include. So…that’s been great!

    But the point is, I’m sure I’m missing and outright dismissing, arenas of approach to these subjects. That’s fine. The work was never intended to be that comprehensive. Clearly if some of the essays or the work in general begins to garner more interest, I may (ugggh!!! Will!!!) have to do some serious work to reframe some of the essays to include a more in-depth and scholarly overview of the subject matter.

    As an aside, I do hope you realize how much I really respect your comments on the subject, KN! 🙂

    That said, two specific points I’d like to address:

    Scientists may not use the word “counterfactuals,” but that’s because scientists usually don’t get any training in philosophy of science. Despite that, counterfactual reasoning is implicit in any well-designed experiment: “what would happen to X if we did Y to Z?”In science we’re constantly trying to discern the underlying causal structures by manipulating some aspect of what we’re interested in, and measuring what happens when it’s manipulated in this way or in that way. Knockout experiments in genetics, lesioning in neuroscience — any attempt to reverse engineer something involves counterfactual reasoning, even if we don’t call it that.

    Teleological explanations can generate predictions than can be tested. To go back to the example of vervet alarm calls: we would predict that vervets would usually give veridical alarm calls (because a constantly deceitful vervet would eventually be ignored by the others) but that they would be deceitful under specific conditions, and we can figure out what those are. Cheney and Seyfarth’s How Monkeys See the World and Baboon Metaphysics are excellent examples of cognitive ethology done in the wild that relies on teleological explanations: the goals and intentions that these animals have and what they do in order to achieve their goals.

    Yes…yes…yes…(mumble mumble…more humble yes)

    I really do get your point here and I’m not actually dismissing it. Technically, some of the zoological work I’ve done touches on exactly what you are describing (though at this point I feel I need to be a contrarian just on principle :p) I was involved in a study concerning the impact of invasive flora on nesting behavior of passerine species. One of the implicit question we investigated was, “why would certain passerines pick one type of plant over another?” Am I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. I get that some “why” questions open us up to investigating more perspectives on a complex system. Hurricane and other storm behavior is a great example (“why do hurricanes take the routes across land that they do and, more specifically, why do they hit mobile home parks statistically more often than multi-million dollar home areas (to which, there is, actually, a pretty good answer)). I just see such questions when trying to ponder existential quandaries and waaaay beyond the actual capability of science or logic.

  42. Corneel: If the purpose of the gazella is to feed the cheetah, why does it keep running away I wonder? What is the purpose of thorns? What is the purpose of toxins? Are those not adaptations to avoid being eaten?

    🙂

    If the purpose of purpose of vistas is that they should be admired, why are some folk near-sighted? If the purpose of chocolate is to insight an orgasmic endorphin response, why are some folk diabetic? The mind boggles…

    Clearly Steve’s god has a bit of mischievous streak…

  43. This is faulty reasoning. Big cats rely on both speed AND stealth. They mostly prey on the old and weak because their speed is not enough to take on the young healthy antelope and other such animals.

    First big cats use their stealth to get close to the herd. Then they use their speed to sprint, which starts a stampede and in turn allow the cats to discover where the weak and old are, then target those easier prey.

    The evolutionary arms race narrative in no way follows observational evidence. It merely seeks to support a small, step-wise change over time improving organisms narrative.

    Selection maintains an organism’s fitness. It cannot increase it. the example with humans is a case in point. Can cheetahs rely on evolution’s speed of change through selection to give cheetahs the tools they need to fend off its greatest adversary? It doesn’t and step-wise change over time could never give what cheetahs need.

    Evolution is silent in the face of Man’s capability. Why is that? Unless of course you believe that evolution is so crafty that rather than increasing the physical and mental skills of cheetahs, it will simply knock Man down several pegs to even the playing field. Is that what is happening?

    If not, is it that cheetahs are shit out of luck and man is the fitter animal so cheetahs will go extinct. Truth is not only cheetahs but the vast majority of organisms are in the same boat as cheetahs. So evolution is bery, bery good to Man but not to the rest of the animal kingdom. Why such evolutionary power to a single organism?

    Evolutionary narratives are a mess.

    Flint: I’ll try to treat you as sentient. What most likely happened in the past, and continues to happen (not just with cheetahs but with many organisms) is what amounts to an arms race. In the past, likely cheetahs were slower but so were the prey. Selection would favor faster cheetahs (to catch more prey) and faster gazelles (to avoid more cheetahs). It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to speculate that cheetahs (and gazelles, and rabbits, and foxes, and any other fast animal chasing fast prey) have gradually all been getting faster, so long as we suppose that speed is advantageous to all these critters, and therefore selection for speed has been occurring for a long time.

    The problem with imaginary cheetah features like horns and wings and venom (but not skin color – cheetahs have evolved effective camouflage) is, species have no control over the sorts of variation provided by mutation. What does not occur cannot be selected. You seem to be aware that your hypothetical characteristics HAVE occurred in some lineages, and selection has been refining those as well. Assuming people don’t kill Mother Nature, the far future will doubtless see the appearance and subsequent refinement of features no organism possesses today.

    But to paraphrase H. L. Mencken, it is very difficult to get someone to understand something his religion depends on his NOT understanding.

  44. If the purpose of the gazella is to feed the cheetah, why does it keep running away I wonder? What is the purpose of thorns? What is the purpose of toxins? Are those not adaptations to avoid being eaten?

    The purpose of the gazelle is not to feed the cheetah. The purpose of fecundity is to do that. No matter how good the gazelle is, it will always lose a portion of its population to other animals but in turn they can survive. they have a large enough number and the number of animals requiring them for food is not equal to or larger than their population. as well, cheetah do not rely soley on gazelles for their survival. they will hunt a range of animals. They may go after a warthog if it happens to be in their territorial range.

    cheetahs are also subject to the same dangers as the gazelle. Adults rarely if ever succumb to an attack by another animal but their young do. Hyenas are know to pick off cubs. But just like the gazelle, the cheetah has a set of skills that allows it to protect at least one or two of its three or four cubs and lets those one or two come to maturation.

    Why would you think toxins are adaptations? If an organism which relies on toxins for defense didn’t have the toxins to begin with, how did they protect themselves before toxins? If their earlier defenses didn’t work, how the hell did they survive long enough to evolve toxins?

    Same with roses? If rose thorns evolved to protect roses from being eaten, how did they prevent being eaten before the advent of thorns?

    Why would an adaptation confer an advantage when the organism already has an advantage. It it didn’t already have an advantage it would be dead. so the new adaptation would be useless. How do organisms survive with suboptimal skills while waiting for an advantageous adaptation?

    From a teleological perspective, organisms have to be fit from the get go because small, step-wise change over time is not up to the task. It doesn’t have the speed of change organisms would require.

  45. Alan Fox: Well, why are we? An evolutionary explanation, such as social groups beyond family function better if individuals accept a given hierarchy, seems reasonable.

    Function better? He does not need to function better to outdo other animals. Man dominates the animal kingdom. Humans don’t need to function better for survival.

    Again, its back to quality. Man wants to function better to increase quality of life. Not for survival. Brute strength is enough for that. And we still use brute strength. But it leaves us wanting more. Where does that yearning for quality of life come from? Why aren’t the basics clothes, food, shelter enough?

    Evolution is silent on the one thing all humans strive for.

    Quality.

  46. Steve: The purpose of the gazelle is not to feed the cheetah. The purpose of fecundity is to do that.

    What I understand you saying here is that the purpose of some gazelles is to feed predators whereas the purpose of others is to breed and continue the lineage. However, that still fails to explain why gazelles try to avoid predation.

    Steve: Why would you think toxins are adaptations?

    Because this view has received support from dozens of ecological and experimental studies. During my teaching days I have personally made students perform experiments that demonstrate selective grazing by slugs on clover plants polymorphic for cyanogenesis.

    Steve: If rose thorns evolved to protect roses from being eaten, how did they prevent being eaten before the advent of thorns?

    LOL! Are you now actually denying that the purpose of thorns is to protect plants against herbivory?!?

    Steve: Why would an adaptation confer an advantage when the organism already has an advantage.

    Please read my reply to phoodoo. It should also address your concern.

    Although this is all highly amusing, I am more interested in your answer to the question I asked earlier: Many people see purpose in “the whole of life”, but I believe the watchmaker analogy requires a specific purpose for individual organisms, analogous to the specific purpose of telling the time of a watch. To what extent does the ecological purpose you see for prey animals help you distinguish between direct intervention (Design/creation) as opposed to an evolutionary unfolding of a divine plan (evolutionary theism)?

  47. What I understand you saying here is that the purpose of some gazelles is to feed predators whereas the purpose of others is to breed and continue the lineage. However, that still fails to explain why gazelles try to avoid predation.

    Again, no. You seem to be having trouble with the word purpose or perhaps you are being intentionally obtuse. All animals are either predator or prey. A meta-design does not require that specific predators are matched to specific prey and visa-versa. The attributes and characteristics of each animal will sort themselves out as to which is which. It need not be determined by a gnome behind a nano-wheel.

    The key point is that the evolutionary narrative is impossible to get off the ground without a starter kit. I do believe that life had a starter kit that enabled variation. Attributes, characteristics, skills etc were pre-determined. That is actually what evolution means; a rolling out (of pre-determined parameters). its an AI scientist’s dream. So learning from the Master, it is possible that one day humans will re-invent what God has already done; which is to find a way to put software in matter that will roll out autonomous self-replicating, self-repairing sets of different structures similar to the organism we find in our biosphere. When that is achieved, it will actually confirm that in fact what is contained in the nucleus of cells is actually designed software, not the product of undirected, small step-wise changes over time.

    LOL! Are you now actually denying that the purpose of thorns is to protect plants against herbivory?!?

    More obtuseness. I said why do roses need thorns? Didn’t their previous adaptation work? If it didn’t work, how did they survive waiting for their upgrade? Your evolutionary narrative imagines that animals have lots of time to adapt to a changing environment. You imagine that roses started out with smooth stems, then one day nubs showed up that didnt do anything. But then after some unknown period of time the nubs for some unknown reason kept getting larger and lo-and-behold sharper. And lookie here, whaddaya know? It works to keep the rabbits away. The rose decided well this is a keeper. we like this new armour. Lets hold on to it.

    To be sure it is a great story but doesn’t match reality. People can pluck rose leaves and eat them any time they want. The rose is at man’s mercy. What is a rose to do?

    Although this is all highly amusing, I am more interested in your answer to the question I asked earlier: Many people see purpose in “the whole of life”, but I believe the watchmaker analogy requires a specific purpose for individual organisms, analogous to the specific purpose of telling the time of a watch. To what extent does the ecological purpose you see for prey animals help you distinguish between direct intervention (Design/creation) as opposed to an evolutionary unfolding of a divine plan (evolutionary theism)?

    I support the idea that God did create the earth just like the Bible said. Weather system first, plants next, then birds, then creepy, crawly things, then mammals. Don’t remember the exact order but you get the idea. Evangelical christians, since they like to ready the Bible literally, actually believe that God is up there envisioning each type of animal and shaping them one by one; and they are welcome to believe that. But that pigeon-holes God and inverts the relationship with God. They imagine God in their image rather than we in His image. We are limited to creating with pre-existing matter and doing it sequentially on an assembly line. God is not limited to that.

    However, that also does not mean that god chose an undirected evolution. The software contained in organisms is evidence that a meta-design is in place that sets parameters for how life interacts. It is not open-ended. What was destined to be created has been done. Life has been rolled out. Nothing new under the sun. There is no speciation, only variation. Nothing is improving. Why? Because the biosphere is complete. It is saturated. The evolution you imagine is obsolete.

    Teleology says its sideways or downhill. Evolution says its sideways or uphill. We only observe the former.

  48. Well, people can enjoy vistas, just not all people. But why must it be that all vistas should be enjoyed by all people. some people will enjoy vistas and some will enjoy newspaper print.

    Likewise, chocolate may help non-diabetic libidos but diabetics can enjoy the blue pill. Everybody wins!

    Purpose, like quality is undefeated.

    Robin:

    If the purpose of purpose of vistas is that they should be admired, why are some folk near-sighted? If the purpose of chocolate is to insight an orgasmic endorphin response, why are some folk diabetic? The mind boggles…

    Clearly Steve’s god has a bit of mischievous streak…

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