Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Naturalistic explanations as an alternative to Design-based (teleological) explanations

The design arguments has captured the imagination of thinkers since the ancient times. The arguments attempts to conclude the existence of  a intelligent mind as the cause of the complexity and order of the universe or some aspect of the Universe (e.g life)

It is generally remarked that the progress of science has had a fatal effect on the strength of classical Design arguments. Why is that so? I believe the reason is this: when we look at the history design argument its strength has always arose from the fact that we know of only one alternative to Design :random chance. So if something is not the result of intelligent planning by a mind it must be the result of sheer coincidence. For example Epicurus an atheistic Greek poet proposed that atoms are always in motion and sometimes they collide and clump together and those chunks can accidentally take the shape of complex systems e.g. human beings. (he relied on the possibility of an infinite regress to increase his probabilistic resources). However the complexity of the world and the way things are interconnected with each other (E.g. human beings suited to their environment) is simply too much to be explained as a sheer coincidence (moreover infinite regress idea itself has some puzzling implications). Our intuitions strongly seduce us towards an intelligent planner. and I tend to agree. Infact had I lived in such a time I would have considered the design argument to be an extremely powerful demonstration of a mind.

The sentiment is understandable for when ancient humans pondered on the world they were aware of only one model of how organisation and complex systems arose and that was the model of intelligent agents making things (the Design model). Design is how humans crafted material and we were familiar with that so it was natural to extrapolate that to the natural world and assume that natural object must have also arose via design.

But with the progress of science we have discovered the concept of laws of nature. Every scientific explanation appeals to these laws (along with chance ofcourse) in order to explain natural phenomenon. What do we mean by law of nature ? We observe that mindless matter has certain attributes that gives it certain abilities e.g. the ability to attract other matter, ability to carry charges, ability to release energy and break apart etc. It is these powers , abilities and liabilities of matter that we are referring to as laws of nature. So when I throw a ball in the year its not just a coincidence that it falls down. Had it been a coincidence it could have continued moving upwards or went sideways or diagonally but rather it falls down as the natural law called gravity dictates that matter must behave such and such way.The project of science is to attempt to explain every natural phenomenon in terms of interaction of these powers and abilities of mindless matter.  Any explanation that appeals to these laws of nature as an explanation of the world is termed as a 'naturalistic explanation'.

For example given Newtonian mechanics and gravitation its very easy to explain how space dust can come together to form star.-planet systems. No intelligent designer is needed in this respect. Similarly Consider biological evolution , which is excellent example of how natural law interacts with chance to give an naturalistic explanation of a complex phenomenon. In evolution the natural selection represents a non-random (guided) selection of organisms based on their ability to survive in the environment. This guidedness arises due the organisms own attempt to survive against environments , predators, sexual selection. Natural selection work on the variation generated via random mutations which itself is a purely chance event. Hence evolution is a non-random selection (law of nature) of random mutations (chance).

Similarly Consider how how geographical features such mountains and seas and rivers arise due to the movement of tectonic plates. Look at how snow crystals are formed thru very simple laws of of geometry, symmetry and crystal formations. Look at how fractal-based natural patterns emerges via the action of very simple rules being repeated over and over. Why is intelligence needed to explain this when the powers of mindless matter are themselves enough to account for the incredible complexity of the world? 

Laws of nature can generate a sense of guidedness and an illusion of teleology(purpose) in nature even when their is no minds or intentions behind things.  Every succesful scientific theory is an empirical evidence of the power of natural laws to generate complexity and organization in the world.

But what bout the Origins of the laws themselves ? The fact that science has not yet been able to explain the existence of these laws has motivated theologians to construct a design argument asking for the very existence of these laws rather than the effects these laws can create. This is often remarked as the Finetunning argument.  The idea being that the laws of nature (or the physical constants) must be in a certain way in order for them to cause the complexity of the natural world. I plan to dedicate a separate post for discussion of finetunning but for now i will note the following 3 things:

firstly, it should be kept in mind that the laws themselves explain the other natural phenomenon e.g. planets, life etc so here we have literally less to explain. Our burden of explanation is now only limited to explaining the laws themselves. its not that we have two tasks left e.g. explain laws and also explaining the resulting complexity of the world.

Secodly,  the question of "why these attributes and not others" can be asked in respect of anything that we would invoke to explain the laws of nature. so we can ask why if god had slightly different intentions , powers , knowledge , motivations then universe as we know it would not have existed.  so its as if someone fine-tuned the attributes of god.

Thirdly, It seems hard to deny that God himself is not a form of order . Perhaps he is not a physical order but certainly a mind capable of producing 'complex' ideas and transforming them into complex 'realities' is a form of order. and so the question of "where does order and complexity comes from" is still unanswered. at one point or another we must concede that some order and complexity might just be a brute fact of nature.