Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Teleological Thinking...

On this blog, I tend to take somewhat different tacks to classical arguments.  It's not so much because I think the old counterarguments are invalid, but simply because I think there is so much more that could be said that simply isn't being explored.  Reddit's atheism channel had quite a time with my earlier approaches to WLC's favorite -- the Kalam Cosmological Argument -- for a little while because I put forth points and thought experiments that nobody else had apparently considered up until then;  in particular, in part two.  The thought experiment I mentioned has been brought to WLC's attention, but he has not responded in these years since -- either he has nothing to offer without straw-manning it (which he can't afford to after I spent so much time pointing out how often he does that), or he simply didn't care enough to pay it any mind.  Given how long ago this was and how new I was to blogging at the time, I'm inclined to believe that it's the latter.  To be honest, though, I don't think it was a particularly esoteric or brilliant counterargument, but it's merely one that never really gets explored because people don't typically have to go to that extent.

In that sense, I'm going to try in this one to get at some of the hardly -- if at all -- covered issues with the teleological argument, aka the argument from design.  We all know this one : a watch implies a watchmaker, a building implies a builder, therefore life, which appears designed, implies a designer.  Well, the obvious counterargument here is that the analogy falls apart when you compare to living things that can reproduce. Buildings don't have sex with other buildings to make little baby buildings that grow up to become skyscrapers and what not...  that would be terrifying when you think about it.  Living things have that option and the imperfections of the process coupled with natural selection can yield changes in the average probabilities of alleles throughout a population over generations.  That's the obvious counterargument, and most would stop right there;  but you could go further and really start to tear down the concept of teleological thinking to begin with.

First of all, it's worth pointing out that making an analogy is useless as an argument.  Analogies are something you use to explain something, not prove something; meaning that even if the analogy was valid, it still proves nothing.  There are cases where the argument from analogy appears to be valid, but in reality, these are really cases where it is less analogy and more direct 1:1 comparison.

When I hear that a "building implies a builder", my question there is "how do you know that?"  Someone like Ray Comfort will use the words that the building itself is proof of a builder.  Again, I'd press on how a building itself proves a builder?  If you keep pressing on this, at some point or other, the inescapable piece of information that enters into consideration is the fact that we know that crews of builders build buildings.  Therein lies the key detail that teleological thinkers seem to always forget.  In fact, the building by itself does NOT prove a builder.  The building is just one datum.  We don't just take the building...  We include the background knowledge about builders and how they do their work; We include the background knowledge of what forms naturally and how buildings are built and designed;  That is how we know that buildings imply builders.  You can't get from building to builder without those additional bits of information.  It is the sort of knowledge that is so second-nature that we don't typically realize that we're actually including this additional information, but it is there, and it only takes a moment of self-awareness to realize that.  The fact that you don't have to usually think about it doesn't mean you're not considering it.  You don't even really have to be that deeply knowledgeable on the subject either.  Not having a clue how electrical engineers simulate and verify IC designs isn't necessary to know of their very existence and the fact that they do something...  and that's about the depth of knowledge you need to have to be able to associate chips with engineers.

I tend to like to start here because it is a pretty convenient springboard for explaining how biologists arrive at evolution in the first place.  People like to think that they see a painting and think painter without including any other relevant outside information, but that is really never the case.  Likewise, it is not the case that a biologist looks at some one or two animals and concludes evolution.  There's a bigger picture here, and it involves not just a handful of data points, but also millions of others.  Just looking at the genomes of chimpanzees and humans doesn't provide meaningful evidence for evolution.  But when you put it into the context of how that much similarity compares when you are also comparing to other genomes, and look at several other creatures, a pattern starts to develop.  And that's the key to finding that evolution has occurred -- it's not the similarities or the differences between species A and species B, but how many there are of each between species A, B, and C and further more A,B,C, and D, and A,B,C,D, and E and so on ad nauseam.  From there, a pattern emerges showing not only variances in the rate of similarities and differences, but in how they're distributed...  and that pattern is where we get the tree of life.  It's this big picture context that includes a huge amount of additional information that brings evolutionary biology to light.  The failure to comprehend the massive scope of information necessary to arrive at something as significant as the core unifying principle of an entire field of science is a huge factor in why creationists simply don't get it...  they demonstrate how severe the ignorance is when they don't even get that there is a larger scope of information than they realize just in saying that a watch requires a watchmaker.  Sure, we have direct evidence of watchmakers making watches and painters painting paintings...  do we have any background knowledge about mystical intelligent designers designing life?  Anywhere?  Without that, how are you arriving at the conclusion that said designer must necessarily exist?  Is there even one example of that?  And let's be clear...  examples of builders building buildings does not prove that painters paint paintings.  In other words, no analogies are permissible here.  An example of design means one and only one thing -- show me a magical other-universe designer whom we apparently cannot perceive by any means directly tinkering with life forms in such a way as to enact willful design.

One more matter I have to raise in the nature of teleological thinking is that it ascribes final causality and meaning to something without any basis.  When I speak of final causality, I refer to the Aristotelian term of "final cause" which is the portion of causality that relates to the purpose or end goal of something.  Bear in mind that some examples of final causes that Aristotle brings up don't always imply intention -- e.g. the final cause he ascribes to a ball rolling down a ramp is so that it can stop down at the bottom.  In practice, however, even Aristotle notes that not all things necessarily must have a final cause.  His prime example of this?  Chance occurrences.  And while evolution is not random, the reason deniers like to think that it is is because it is at least underlied by individually random events.  It's this disconnect between the random events (and their apparent lack of final cause) and the appearance of design in living things that leads to the idea that there must be intention that guides all these random events.  Of course, missing in that chain is natural selection which of course, isn't random...  but that doesn't mean that natural selection assigns final causality either.  The reason we see it is because we associate the things we see with our background knowledge on other things that are otherwise unrelated without really thinking about it.

Michael Behe mentioned that the first time he saw a diagram of a bacterial flagellum, he thought it looked like an outboard motor.  That's a perfectly passable analogy, since you can make a number of 1:1 comparisons on a functional level (although a real motor is actually simpler), but it's worth reiterating that analogies only serve as tools to explain concepts -- they do not actually have any force in reality.  Failing to realize that is the sort of thing that makes teleology such an easy fallacy to fall into.  It's the same thing that makes those ancient astronaut believers like David Childress or Giorgio Tsoukalos look at hieroglyphs that have been replaced and carved over and see "helicopter"...  therefore, aliens.  People forget something important about all of these analogies; all this apparent purpose, meaning, and function; all these similarities to things we know in this day and age:  these are things that come out of our own personal understandings of the information at hand.

The words on this blog don't have any intrinsic meaning to them.  The meaning is something that we as humans have ascribed to this particular collection of squiggles and lines.  The concept of language and its use is something that we created.  Calling DNA a language, for instance, really misses the point of what it actually does;  it's only a language in the sense of making a useful mnemonic for understanding the mechanisms at play at a higher level than the pure chemistry.  If you ask a scientist for a serious answer, yeah, he'll say that it's convenient to think of DNA as a language (and almost all of them will gladly call it that in metaphor), and most of the work that is done with it in research circles is really operating at that level...  but no one will tell you that view of it gives you a complete story.  At the end of the day, DNA is a chemically active substance that is mechanistically involved in protein synthesis as a sort of insurance policy against errors due to its higher stability compared to other nucelotide polymers.  The idea of treating it as a language exists only in our heads, not in reality.  The need to find an overarching purpose for life itself is something that only exists in the minds of people.  The very concept of finding meaning in something is something that exists nowhere else but in your minds.  This idea of seeking "objective" meaning or purpose is itself entirely nonsensical when you think about it.  If you understand something far from what I meant as you read this, the only sense in which your understanding would be "wrong" is simply that it differs from the intended meaning of the writer.  While it might be an "objective" fact that I intended a particular meaning to these sentences, that is not the same thing that there is objective meaning here.  The simple reason being that the "wrong" meaning you gleaned is entirely possible from the words on this page.  I might tell you it's wrong, but if you want to be really meticulous about it, what I'm actually saying is "that's not what I meant."  That's not the sort of blunder that one can universalize.

It's natural to look for meaning, look for patterns, look for purpose, etc.;  This is an inbuilt cognitive bias that we have as humans.  Along with several others, it's the sort of thing that makes us seek out things that operate on parameters that are distinctly human.  It's natural to find something that looks like it obeys some rules or principles and assume therefore that someone made those rules and principles.  This is the sort of association with our own modes of operating -- since we have to devise our own rules and principles within social contexts -- that is patently absurd, and yet depressingly normal at the same time.  We invented astrology not because there was any reason to think that the stars give a damn about us, but because we gave a damn about the stars and made use of the apparent patterns in the sky.  We invented gods that oversaw nature not because we had some definitive indication that the plants and animals and the rains are concerned with our lives, but because our lives hinged so critically on those things when civilization was a relatively new thing.  We are reflecting our own cognition back on the universe rather needlessly, and people who continue to seek teleology in their lives are still doing it.  They should really learn it's really not getting you any closer to anything true than it did back then.