Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nature as Machine: Inverting the Assumption

Intelligent Design (ID) advocates call attention to the ways in which nature works. They says it looks like a complex machine. And, they have a point. Photosynthesis in plants, nucleosynthesis in stars, complicated nanoscale assemblies, and so on, make nature look like a high-tech science project.

But the metaphor—nature as machine—does not reveal nature as having been intelligently designed. It’s a metaphor.

Invert the assumption: Maybe it’s not the case that nature is a machine, with an implied design (as if technology was primordial and nature modeled on its principles). Maybe it’s the obvious case that nature came first, with humans being smart enough to study nature’s ways and apply that experience to building tools and towns and space stations. Nature inspires. But that does not make it an example of what it inspires.

Technicians make progress when their designs harmonize with natural law, but that does not mean that nature itself, with all its laws, was designed. Nature is just ground level, ontological bedrock. It does not come with a requirement that something supernatural, behind the scenes, got it started or propels it along.

Certain chunks of nature resemble humanly crafted artifacts, and so some people conclude that nature must itself be an intelligently designed artifact. But many things resemble things that they are not. Sometimes the similarities are striking.

A bat is in striking ways similar to a bird. Both are warm-blooded vertebrates, send out distinctive vocal signals, eat insects, flap wings to fly, congregate in social groups and so on. But an expedition in search of bat eggs will end up with egg on its face.

The God of classical theology, a deity that preceded and designed the physical universe, is a kind of bat egg.

The conclusion that bat eggs and a classical God must exist is justified if bats are birds and nature is an artifact. But if the similarity between bats and birds and between nature and high-tech is just a resemblance, then both conclusions land in the dump.

You don’t need intelligence to create life, as every parent knows. My wife and I did not pore over CAD drawings or consult engineering tables when we started a family. Creatures can occur in the absence of technical acumen, because living is just what nature does.

But isn’t nature too complicated not to have a blueprint behind it? Its sheer strangeness and its seeming unlikeliness—that “specified complexity” to which ID advocates direct our attention—argue for a supernatural designer. So generally runs the theistic rebuttal.

But if the issue of origins is settled by discovering a thing that exists without itself ever having come into existence, as, for example, the classical God, then the cosmologists’ supposed multigenerational ensemble of universes, called the multiverse, is the more parsimonious candidate for the unoriginated entity, because it is simpler than God.

No strangeness of nature can compare to that of an immaterial all-powerful entity that wields an infallible omniscience; was neither born, crafted by a predecessor, nor will pass away; passes judgement on the deceased; and so on. Classical theism asserts the existence of something more fantastic than the specified complexity of nature, so that if nature needs to be explained by way of a designer, so does that designer. Classical theism proposes something so outré, so unparsimonious, that it deserves to be ruled out of contention. It is at best superfluous.

Nonetheless, the star larvae hypothesis acknowledges in nature many grades of subjectivity, with that of greatest scope being entitled to the name, God. But a mind does not precede its body. Mind and body feel and impart influences mutually from and to one another. But no mind designs its own body