1/13/2006

Two Classes of Argument from Design, Which Both Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Comments:

The God as engineer model only has troubles if this particular state of affairs is seen as not special. If it is special, then God as engineer becomes significant. Of course one could always argue that seeing this particular state of affairs as special presupposes a belief in God. So you can't prove much from this teleological view. You first have to have that empirical evidence of God. 

Posted by clark

1/13/2006 12:49:00 PM  

Clark, one of the points of the post is that even if one acknowledges something is "special," we have examples of "special" configurations arising without intelligent intervention. It seems to me this is a stronger statement than saying that what one considers "special" depends on what your belief about God is.  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/13/2006 12:57:00 PM  

But that depends upon what one counts as special. i.e. how specific.

If special is just a class, then you're right. As it becomes more narrow things change.

Really this just gets into the issue of anthropic reasoning and at what point it becomes significant. It's like a deck of cards. If a full house is viewed as special in our game we treat it differently than if we view it as part of a class of say certain configurations. Being dealt a full house is understandably more questionable, even if it is possible.
 

Posted by clark

1/13/2006 01:24:00 PM  

Anthropic reasoning becomes valid when good physical reason for the "special" implications is found.

For example, it is true that the universe would need to produce "sites" that are conducive to life if the universe produces carbon based life-forms as a means to efficiently satisfy the second law of thermodynamics in an expanding universe that has an increasing negative pressure component.

There is readily observable evidence that supports that intelligence enables humans to continue increasing entropy via technological development, so you can "reason" from this knowledge that our leap from apes to humans enabled us to make fire for the above given good reason for us to be here, which certainly is no accident... ;)

1/13/2006 03:21:00 PM  

Clark,  my point is that even if a full house is viewed as particularly special within the context of a certain game humans find interesting, this "extra specialness" does not constitute a good reason to think that an intelligent agent intervened to provide that hand. (But I think we ultimately agree on that.)

I'm a little puzzled as to why you bring up the term "anthropic reasoning" in this connection, however. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/14/2006 05:26:00 AM  

island,  I disagree with you about when anthropic arguments might be useful. In the first place, I don't see the second law of thermodynamics as a fundamental law that demands to be satisfied, but instead as a by-product of natural evolution of our universe from a simple initial condition. Moreover, I think we can be quite confident that carbon-based life forms contribute a completely negligible amount to the total entropy budget of the universe. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/14/2006 05:31:00 AM  

Christian,

I enjoyed this post. I like the way you approach the issue from both ends.


the universe produces carbon based life-forms as a means to efficiently satisfy the second law of thermodynamics 

It seems to me that is like saying we flush toilets to help move water to the sea. In both cases it would proceed faster without our intervention. 

Posted by Jared

1/14/2006 07:29:00 AM  

island, I disagree with you about when anthropic arguments might be useful. In the first place, I don't see the second law of thermodynamics as a fundamental law that demands to be satisfied, but instead as a by-product of natural evolution of our universe from a simple initial condition.

That might be true if the negative pressure component didn't increase in an expanding universe... but it does.

Moreover, I think we can be quite confident that carbon-based life forms contribute a completely negligible amount to the total entropy budget of the universe.

1) You don't know how common life in our universe is and you have no basis for which to conclude that it isn't biocentric because anthropic principle readily extends to every banded spiral galaxy that exists on the same evolutionary "plane" as us.

2) Intelligent life is by far the most energy-efficient means for isolating the release of enough energy to make real massive particles from vacuum energy. In at least one cosmological model, this directly affects the symmetry of the universe by driving expansion while holding the universe flat and stable in the process... which solves the flatness problem, the horizon problem the matter/antimatter asymmetry problem, the cosmological constant problem, the causality problem... eg... ALL of the anthropic "problems" are resolved by this model.

FYI: Other scientists have independently derived similar conclusions:

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/edit/archives/2004/09/30/2003204990

1/14/2006 09:40:00 AM  

It seems to me that is like saying we flush toilets to help move water to the sea. In both cases it would proceed faster without our intervention.

And you think that the second law of thermodyamics is about how fast entropy occurs... but that's not what efficiently increasing entropy entails.

You're confusing an effort toward universal "cold death" with the actual effort toward "heat death".

1/14/2006 09:46:00 AM  

island,  the cosmological constant that may be responsible for the observed accelerating expansion does exert tension (negative pressure if you must), but it's not increasing in magnitude---that's why they call it a "constant." Anyway, I am not aware of any reason why the existence of a cosmological constant should negate the perspective on the second law of thermodynamics I mentioned above.

How common life in the universe is has nothing to do with how much entropy humans are responsible for. Every planet with life will require a star, and every star generates vastly more entropy than life on earth. This is all that one needs to know to understand that life makes negligible contributions to the entropy budget of the universe.

The article you linked is worthless, being based on the misconception that life violates the second law of thermodynamics. This "law" applies to closed systems; Earth, with energy from the sun flowing through it, is not a closed system. The combined system of Earth, Sun, and light escaping the Sun is increasing in entropy with that of the Sun and its escaped light completely dominating that of Earth. The article, BTW, says nothing about vacuum energy. Oh, and one more thing, intelligent life has never made massive particles from vacuum energy. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/14/2006 12:58:00 PM  

island, the cosmological constant that may be responsible for the observed accelerating expansion does exert tension (negative pressure if you must), but it's not increasing in magnitude---that's why they call it a "constant."

That depends on what model that you're using, and we're talking about a principle that fell from a Large Numbers theory about a decreasing gravitational constant, where the term "constant" is relative.

Anyway, I am not aware of any reason why the existence of a cosmological constant should negate the perspective on the second law of thermodynamics I mentioned above.

That depends on what causes entropy.

How common life in the universe is has nothing to do with how much entropy humans are responsible for.

You don't know this, and you're making an unfounded assumption that I don't, which is a game of power, not communications.

No surprise there... I play the game with people like that all the time.

Every planet with life will require a star, and every star generates vastly more entropy than life on earth.

No, regular stars can't even begin to isolate enough energy to make matter/antimatter pairs. You seem to be under the misinterpretation that the amount of entropy that a system produces has anything to do with how efficiently it does this.

This is all that one needs to know to understand that life makes negligible contributions to the entropy budget of the universe.

Meaning that you don't know too much.

The article you linked is worthless, being based on the misconception that life violates the second law of thermodynamics.

That was a popularization, but it's very interesting to see that you think that this negates the rest of the article... LOL!

This "law" applies to closed systems; Earth, with energy from the sun flowing through it, is not a closed system. The combined system of Earth, Sun, and light escaping the Sun is increasing in entropy with that of the Sun and its escaped light completely dominating that of Earth. The article, BTW, says nothing about vacuum energy.

No, I do...

www.anthropic-principle.ORG

Oh, and one more thing, intelligent life has never made massive particles from vacuum energy.

lol... no, that's false.

1/14/2006 02:52:00 PM  

I don't understand three-fourths of the science referenced above, and I have to be driving to church in 9.5 hours, so I don't have time to learn. But I'd be interested to know how those of you who reject Alma's argument to Korihor would go about teaching tomorrow morning's Senior Primary lesson ...

I'll probably be teaching it again in a few years, so suggestions are still welcome. ^_^ 

Posted by Sarah

1/14/2006 08:43:00 PM  

Sarah,  I have no quarrel with teaching a Primary or Sunday School class under the assumption that God exists, and teaching what the scriptures say about creation and what that means for our relationship to him.

Just skimming quickly over the lesson, the only part I find problematic is the Attention Activity, which does make an "Intelligent Design" kind of argument. I think that part of the lesson could simply be left out. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

1/15/2006 05:16:00 AM  

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