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An 18th Century Debate About Intelligent Design
November 8, 2007 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Sex Ratio Theory, Ancient and Modern - An 18th Century Debate about Intelligent Design and the Development of Models in Evolutionary Biology [pdf file]. The design argument for the existence of God took a probabilistic turn in the 17th and 18th centuries. Earlier versions, such as Thomas Aquinas’ 5th way, usually embraced the premise that goal-directed systems (things that “act for an end” or have a function) must have been created by an intelligent designer. This idea – which we might express by the slogan “no design without a designer” – survived into the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is with us still in the writings of many creationists. The new version of the argument, inspired by the emerging mathematical theory of probability, removed the premise of necessity. It begins with the thought that goal-directed systems might have arisen by intelligent design or by chance; the problem is to discern which hypothesis is more plausible. From Professor Elliott Sober.
posted by amyms (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
sober up, buddy
posted by dminor at 12:46 AM on November 8, 2007


An interesting read, thanks.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as experimental science was getting off the ground, people were always reassuring each other that God's existence was obvious, which is in an of itself suspicious. Even more suspicious is how many different "proofs" they offered for this supposedly obvious fact. The argument from design is not bad, as far as these arguments go -- it seems intuitively quite strong. It's much better than Descartes' arguments, which are terrible.

Just yesterday I ran across Locke's proof of God's existence, which is actually quite nice. It's basically:

-- something cannot arise from nothing. So this whole thing here, this universe, has to have arisen from something -- it couldn't have been nothing.

-- this universe includes both matter and thought.

-- it is impossible to conceive how thought could arise from mere matter. Bodies in space bumping against each other could not conceivable produce our conscious awareness of these bodies in space.

-- so this thing at the very beginning of everything had to have been thought. So the universe was created by an original thinking thing, not by anything material.
posted by creasy boy at 12:50 AM on November 8, 2007


Then what thought created that thought?
posted by p3on at 1:34 AM on November 8, 2007


Define "thought"...
posted by gene_machine at 1:36 AM on November 8, 2007


Turtles. All the way down.
posted by Leon at 1:46 AM on November 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


The thought that created that thought is beyond the scope of our thought.

I don't think it affects the "proof". No matter what we think happened at the beginning, we can always ask how that began, that's the paradox of any ultimate beginning. And I shouldn't derail this thread too much with Locke's proof of God, which I don't believe in anyway, but I thought it was elegant because it rests on two strong intuitions: 1) we can't conceive something arising from nothing, and 2) we can't conceive consciousness arising from dumb matter. Obviously the latter intuition is more questionable nowadays, what with neuroscience and all, but it's still something of a problem, I think. We see our consciousness from the inside, so to speak; we like to think that we hold things to be true because we are compelled by rational insight or evidence, not compelled by little balls bouncing around in our brain. Nowadays science tells us that seen from the outside, this consciousness is just bouncing balls. Well, I think it's hard to grasp this equivalence. That our consciousness might depend on bouncing balls is another story.

The argument from design is basically: this shit is so complicated, and so functional -- the parts of animals seem so well-designed for specific purposes -- that there must be a designer. In other words, functional design couldn't arise from mere collisions of matter. This is a strong intuition but defeasible. Locke's argument goes a little deeper: consciousness itself couldn't possibly arise from mere collisions of matter. I guess this is also defeasible, but it's much more of a fundamental conceptual difficulty than a mere improbability.

I think that's what's really interesting about that article: that the design theorists at some point admitted that it's not impossible, but just unlikely -- it would be a huge coincidence. But I guess with enough time all things become likely.
posted by creasy boy at 2:04 AM on November 8, 2007


I guess with enough time all things become likely.

And with reproduction with modification and natural selection, the amount of time you need is drastically reduced. See genetic algorithms for a simple abstract version of this.
posted by grouse at 2:13 AM on November 8, 2007


Wait wait I'm out of mescaline.......okay....*swallows, waits 3 hours*...right, go ahead...defeasible...shit...fingers are melting.
posted by greenskpr at 3:25 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


With enough time, anything possible becomes inevitable.
posted by jamstigator at 3:29 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually, I wonder now what the likelihood of design theory is. They seem to be saying: if you take some molecules and bounce them around for a while, it's highly unlikely that this will lead to the animal kingdom. OK, that sounds plausible. But if you take a supreme being, let him sit there ruminating on what we wants for a while, what's the likelihood that he creates the animal kindgom? Is this any more likely than evolution through chance?
posted by creasy boy at 3:58 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


They seem to be saying: if you take some molecules and bounce them around for a while, it's highly unlikely that this will lead to the animal kingdom.

But self-organization is an amazing thing.

Take a bunch of molecules and bounce them around for a while, and given that you have billions of years and unfathomable numbers of molecules, there is a reasonable chance that at some point they will join together to form something that is self-replicating.

Once you have something that's self-replicating, you're 99% the way to the animal kingdom. You're no-longer dealing with the chance that bumping molecules will create higher animals. You're dealing with the chance that these self-replicating molecules will continue to self-replicate, and will change and increase in complexity as they do so. Suddenly they're facilitating the creation of other molecules, acting as enzymes. Evolution has been kick started, and you're dealing with a whole new, non-random story.
posted by Jimbob at 4:11 AM on November 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


But you knew that. I just like making the point.
posted by Jimbob at 4:13 AM on November 8, 2007


But if you take a supreme being, let him sit there ruminating on what we wants for a while, what's the likelihood that he creates the animal kindgom?

We can't no god's mind! It is beyond our understanding and he works in mysterious ways. Except for dicks in butts. We know for sure that god doesn't like that.
posted by afu at 6:05 AM on November 8, 2007


>>With enough time, anything possible becomes inevitable.

Are you actually saying that anything with a finite probability is bound to happen sometime? Let me know when Kerry becomes president.
posted by honest knave at 6:16 AM on November 8, 2007


Are you actually saying that anything with a finite probability is bound to happen sometime? Let me know when Kerry becomes president.

You're missing the point.
posted by delmoi at 7:22 AM on November 8, 2007


p3on, there is no reason to suppose that casue/effect relationships which hold in the universe must also apply to God.
posted by oddman at 7:52 AM on November 8, 2007


But self-organization is an amazing thing.

This is where IDers stumble. We live in a self-organizing universe. Energy self-organizes into matter at the subatomic & then atomic level, which self-organizes into molecules, which self-organize into stars & planets, which self-organize into galaxies, which self-organize into hyper-galactic structures. While all that's going on, molecules on planets self-organizes into a new level of complexity called life, which self-organizes into a whole ecosystem of varied organisms ultimately including us self-aware humans who self-organize planet-spanning social structures which allow us to create self-organizing information structures encoded in language & hopefully soon in physical objects as well, kicking off the next phase of self-organization in artificial life forms. It's a beautiful process but self-organization doesn't require any deity's intervention at any level we have access to so far. We don't need to invoke God to explain any of it.
posted by scalefree at 7:56 AM on November 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Actually, I wonder now what the likelihood of design theory is. They seem to be saying: if you take some molecules and bounce them around for a while, it's highly unlikely that this will lead to the animal kingdom. OK, that sounds plausible. But if you take a supreme being, let him sit there ruminating on what we wants for a while, what's the likelihood that he creates the animal kindgom? Is this any more likely than evolution through chance?

Right, and this is (at least to me) the main reason the argument by design doesn't work. Strangely enough, I had dinner with Sober last week and we talked about this a bit. The objection creasy boy makes goes back, in some form, to Hume (Sober tells me) and I don't really see a way around it.
posted by escabeche at 7:57 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


My objection comes from Hume? Shit. I read Hume all the time and here I thought it was my objection. You wouldn't happen to know where Sober actually finds this in Hume, would you?

I was thinking about this again, and the crux is that if you imagine that God made the universe, there must be some process by which he did this. "Beaming it spontaneously into existence by thought" would be one option, I guess -- we could call this the minimalist hypothesis -- and evolution would be another. Now the debate is not between "God" and evolution but the relative likelihood of these two processes. And if we have positive evidence for one of them...

Now tell me where Hume wrote that.
posted by creasy boy at 8:08 AM on November 8, 2007


"It's a beautiful process but self-organization doesn't require any deity's intervention at any level we have access to so far. We don't need to invoke God to explain any of it."

This is fun. The obvious ID response is "Well, who designed the world so that it is self organizing? God. Duh!"
posted by oddman at 8:08 AM on November 8, 2007


That's a fine response, oddman, but I think that sort of reasoning would lead you to a God who designed the universe so that life would evolve. This would go against the primary goal of most ID proponents—the denial of evolution.
posted by grouse at 8:13 AM on November 8, 2007


Oh absolutely, grouse. There are a bunch of morons going around arguing that ID is science, when any reasonable person realizes it's metaphysics.

I'm just messing around (and trying to show that the anti-ID crowd can't simply dismiss the ideas out of hand).
posted by oddman at 8:19 AM on November 8, 2007


creasy boy, you should have a look at Sober's paper "The Design Argument." At least, that's what I think it's called -- MeFi seems to have overwhelmed our philosophy department's server and I can't get to Sober's webpage. Anyway, he explicitly makes your point there that what's at issue is not the improbability of life arising by chance, but the _relative likelihood_ under observed conditions of various hypotheses about the origins of the universe -- and that given that we have no a priori reason to think an intelligent designer would want the universe exactly as it is, there's no a priori reason to suppose an intelligent designer would be any more likely to produce life than chance would. (Note that "positive evidence" -- you mean, like, the fossil record and observed evolution in historical time? -- doesn't enter this argument at all. It is an argument that design doesn't provide evidence for supernatural first causes, not an argument _against_ supernatural first causes.)

The impression I got from Sober (hopefully I am paraphrasing him correctly, so please don't hold him responsible) is that Hume may not have written this in so many words but it's clearly a Humean argument. Since I have _not_ read Hume, you are probably better equipped to take it from there.
posted by escabeche at 9:15 AM on November 8, 2007


Awesome post, amyms, thanks.

The consequences of a mechanistically (and intelligently) designed universe were explored by Alexander Pope:
Cease, then, nor Order imperfection name;
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
Submit: in this or any other sphere,
Secure to be as bless'd as thou canst bear;
Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,
Or in the natal or the mortal hour.
All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All chance direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
- Essay on Man (1732)
posted by nasreddin at 10:19 AM on November 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


"What is cannot not be." - Parmenides

"Reality itself is a thinking thing, and the object of its own
thinking." - Idem
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:16 PM on November 8, 2007


"given that we have no a priori reason to think an intelligent designer would want the universe exactly as it is, there's no a priori reason to suppose an intelligent designer would be any more likely to produce life than chance would"

Well, we might have some grounds to claim that the intelligent designer wanted life to be as it is, if we take on Leibniz's principal of sufficient reason.

- The world is the way it is, because the designer made it so.
- Agents do not act without reason.
- So, the designer must have had a reason to make the world the way it is.
- So, The designer must have wanted this world exactly as it is and not some other.

In fact, if you combine the ideas of an intelligent designer and the principal of sufficient reason, you can make the case that no other world could have been made by the designer. (Leibniz does, indeed, make that claim.)

(On an unrelated note: dude, read Hume. He's great.)
posted by oddman at 12:52 PM on November 8, 2007


Was Pope consciously paraphrasing St. Augustine?
posted by oddman at 12:53 PM on November 8, 2007


Intelligent Design is meaningless without the presupposition of a creator or "God", and since it's not clear what "God" is, it has no real foundation and is ultimately regressive and religious in nature.

Why are the testicles between the legs? God designed them that way!

It really should be called "Stupid Design theory" since there's ample evidence of bad design everywhere you look.
posted by disgruntled at 7:54 PM on November 8, 2007


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