Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does the concept of an intelligent designer make sense?

Human beings explain features of the world around them in two main ways. One way is to supply naturalistic explanations that appeal to features of the natural world, such as natural events, forces and laws. The explanations of physics and chemistry fall into this category. The other way is to offer intentional explanations – explanations that appeal to the beliefs and desires of more or less rational agents. Why is there a tree in this spot? Because Ted wanted to see a tree from his bedroom window, and so planted a sapling here correctly supposing it would grow into a handsome tree.

When we are unable to explain something naturalistically, it is, of course, tempting to look for an intentional explanation instead. When we could not offer naturalistic explanations for why the heavenly bodies moved about as they did, we supposed that they must be, or must be moved by, agents - gods of some sort. When we could not otherwise explain diseases and natural disasters, we put them down to the actions of malevolent agents, such as witches and demons. When we could not provide naturalistic explanations for the growth of plants and the cycle of the seasons, we again invoked agents – sprites, fairies, and gods of various sorts.

As our scientific understanding of the world has increased, the need to invoke witches, fairies, demons and other such agents to account for features of the natural world has diminished. However, when we ask: why does the natural world exist at all, and what explains why it has the fundamental laws does? such naturalistic explanations are not available. So an explanation in terms of the activity of some sort of transcendent agent might seem attractive.

But does such an explanation even make sense? Suppose I claim that there exists a non-spatial mountain. It’s a mountain – with a sharp summit flanked by valleys and steep crags. Only it is not located or extended in space at all. It does not have spatial dimensions. This mountain transcends our spatial world.

You might well ask me why I suppose there is any such mountain. And if I cannot give you good reasons, you will rightly be sceptical. But actually, isn’t there a rather more fundamental problem with my claim that such a mountain exists? Can’t we know, before we get to the question of whether there is any evidence for the existence of my non-spatial mountain, that there can be no such thing?

For the very idea of such a mountain makes no sense. My hypothetical mountain has a summit and valleys and steep cliffs, but these are all features that require spatial extension. A summit requires that one part of the mountain be higher than another. A valley must be lower than the surrounding terrain. The concepts of a mountain, summit, valleys, and so on are concepts that can only sensibly be applied within a spatial context. Strip that context away and we end up talking nonsense.

But if we now turn to the concept of a transcendent designer, does that make any more sense?

The concept of an agent has its home within a temporal setting. An agent is someone or thing that performs actions as a result of its various beliefs and desires. But actions are events that happen at particular moments in time. And beliefs and desires are psychological states that have a temporal duration.

Now when we suppose that the spatio-temporal universe was created by some sort of agent, we are presumably supposing it was designed by a non-temporal agent – an agent that does not (or at least did not then) exist in time. For there was not yet any time for the agent to exist in. But if desires are psychological states with temporal duration, how, then, could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did it perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed? It is hard to see how talk of a non-temporal agent makes any more sense than talk of a non-spatial mountain.

We could sidestep these puzzles by supposing that God exists, and has always existed, in time. This provides God with the necessary temporal dimension in which he might possess the desire to produce a universe, draw up a design, and perform the act of creation But it raises a host of other bizarre questions, such as: why did God wait so long before creating the universe (presumably, if God did not himself have a beginning, an infinitely long time)? And what was he doing in the meantime?

26 comments:

Roy S said...

This is a really provocative point. I wonder if any religious proposition can avoid being incoherent in the way you've described. This incoherence might be an essential property of religious discourse. It may be that coherent propositions are not useful for what religious apologists want to accomplish.

dsurber said...

The argument seems to assume that TIME experienced by the designer is the same as time within our universe. That does not have to be the case.

Suppose that our universe is a computer simulation. The designer is the programmer of the computer. Our universe had a beginning, when the simulation was started. But time within the simulation is not the same as TIME for the programmer. The programmer can suspend the simulation, stopping time, while TIME marches on. There might be two dimensions of TIME so time within the simulation is radically different from TIME. The simulation might be such that time is infinite yet it occupies finite TIME. I'm not enough of a physicist or mathematician to describe how that could be accomplished, but I'll guess it is possible.

wombat said...

The religious warping of time has long been a sticking point.

Anyhow to come to the defence of the "outside time" brigade there would seem to be a couple of options:

(1) Perhaps our current view of time is wrong or at least incomplete, much in the sort of way that Newtonian mechanics is superceded by the Einsteinian desrciption. All very well but it remains for the outside timer to come up with something at least a plausible description for what happens at the extremes, where one might expect conventionally accepted view to break down. i.e. the beginning and the end.

(2) Perhaps there is more than one time dimension - some of the theoretical physical models, I believe, have more than one time-like dimension. Perhaps our designer lived/lives/will-have-lived there. Even if one stipulates simply that agency requires a temporal setting and permit the desires and actions to occur in the any time-like dimension(s) we would still have the problem that any such agent was acting completely orthogonally to events in our perception of the world.
If we could examine the other dimension, as far as we would be concerned there would be no "intention preceeds action". And indeed the view from the other dimension would presumably suffer in the same way.

wombat said...

dsurber -

i) Doesn't any Universe as simulation cosmology simply run into a regress problem?

ii) If we are in a simulated universe or a bubble of spacetime within a higher dimensional space that might sort out a lot of physics but the philosophical view of "Universe" surely encompasses the whole lot.

Roy S said...

"time within the simulation is not the same as TIME for the programmer" -- If the Programmer lives in a different cosmos from us, with a different sense of time from us, then I'm not sure what sense it makes to impute intentions or emotions to Him. People can say "God has a plan," or "God wants what's best," or "Let God's will be done," but if God lives in a very different universe then these statements have no discernible meaning for us mortals. Yet they are pronounced as if they are full of meaning and very important.

Alexander said...

If you're right about the impossibility of a timeless agent, this seems to create an interesting contradiction in the Kalam argument.

If God is infinite but not timeless, an infinity of thoughts must have preceded his desire to create a universe. Since premise two of the argument (the universe had a beginning) is typically defended by denying the traversability of actual infinites, this also wrecks the theistic interpretation of the conclusion. If actual infinites aren't traversable and the set of God's thoughts before creating the universe is infinite (which follows from your argument in this post), it follows that the universe doesn't exist. But it does, so either theism is false or infinites are traversable. (Or the concept of a timeless agent makes sense.)

dsurber said...

wombat said: Doesn't any Universe as simulation cosmology simply run into a regress problem?

It's turtles all the way down.

My point is an argument that constraints imposed by the time dimension measured within our universe--and according to current cosmology was created with our universe--apply to a designer who lives outside of that universe are not convincing. At least not to me. It seems an error to assume that our time dimension applies to a designer who by definition is outside our universe.

There are lots of other arguments against a designer, but this one doesn't work for me.

Brian said...

Nice work Stephen.

There are lots of other arguments against a designer, but this one doesn't work for me.

I think this is where we need to have another look at Hume's dialogues. A designer, if it makes sense at all to call something a designer, must be more or less a person. Thus it means that time for the designer must be more or less as time is for us. For the analogy of design to have any weight, the designer must be very person-like. So to try and avoid Stephen's argument by saying this or that doesn't apply, you destroy the argument to design. Shooting oneself in the foot I reckon.

wombat said...

"It seems an error to assume that our time dimension applies to a designer who by definition is outside our universe"

Quite, but this seems to be where many/most of the "God is outside time" advocates fall down - they then carry on as if it did apply. They say "outside time" and then proceed as if the outside were just more of the same.

One error is I guess conflating time in our everyday world with some other timelike dimension call it TIME if you like. Just remember that before and after in our time do not correspond to BEFORE and AFTER in TIME.

The other point is that the creator has to have created the whole lot - not just outr observable bit of universe.

dsurber said...

wombat wrote: Perhaps there is more than one time dimension - some of the theoretical physical models, I believe, have more than one time-like dimension. Perhaps our designer lived/lives/will-have-lived there.

This seems to assume that the time dimension of our universe is embedded in the TIME dimension(s) of the designer. This does not have to be true. The two space dimensions of an Asteroids game are not embedded in our 3 spacial dimensions. The time dimension of a simulated universe does not have to be embedded in TIME as within the simulation time can run backwards, forwards or sideways as the designer wishes. It is not necessary that time be embedded in TIME.

It is also not necessary that the designer experience a time-like dimension. The designer may be in a space with no time-like dimension. This designer would be eternal and unchanging from some perspectives.

brian wrote: A designer, if it makes sense at all to call something a designer, must be more or less a person. Thus it means that time for the designer must be more or less as time is for us. For the analogy of design to have any weight, the designer must be very person-like.

I don't follow this reasoning at all. Considering my universe as simulation example, the entity that chose the nature of the simulation, the rules it would follow, could reasonably be called a "designer." It does not seem necessary to me that this entity occupy a space with the same or similar time-like dimension(s) as the simulation. It is fair to argue that the ships in Asteroid do not experience the same time like dimension as the programmer who wrote the code. Time in Asteroid is finite and discrete at a very large scale.

Brian said...

Considering my universe as simulation example, the entity that chose the nature of the simulation, the rules it would follow, could reasonably be called a "designer."

Exactly, it is a person who programs. That's the analogy of design. A designer is a person as we understand person. The analogy of design is only as strong as the putative designer is close to a person.

is fair to argue that the ships in Asteroid do not experience the same time like dimension as the programmer who wrote the code. Time in Asteroid is finite and discrete at a very large scale.

And that's why the analogy to a computer is not good. We are not like ships in an Asteroid game. Do ships in an Asteroid game have an argument to ship? That would be the equivalent analogy (Ship to ship is equivalent to designers to designer).

If we mean anything useful by design, we understand what is a design and what is a designer from experience, it must be close that understanding. Otherwise, it's just using common words without any sense behind them.

Mr G Montag said...

Actually, here's a problem: It looks as if at least some believers believe psychological states aren't temporal. How else does "God is Love" make sense?

Luke said...

A most excellent book on these issues is Gregory Dawes' Theism and Explanation.

Roy S said...

"It looks as if at least some believers believe psychological states aren't temporal. How else does "God is Love" make sense?"

It doesn't make sense.

We don't have to explain how 'God is Love' makes sense. We have to explain why people keep saying it even though it doesn't make sense. Come see my talk at the AAI convention October 2nd.

wombat said...

dsurber said "It is also not necessary that the designer experience a time-like dimension. "

Isn't that one of Stephens points though? Agency implies temporal extension. In order for us to be able to speak of agency (intentions leading to actions etc) the agent must experience time or TIME. Multiple temporal reference frames may appear to provided a get out but this is simply a consequence of our usual way of thinking about time. Consider the SF staple of the person who exists in state where only he or she is able to act and everything else is held in hiatus. From the POV of the lucky person they can do all sorts of seemingly wonderful things like rifling through other peoples pockets whilst the poor victims stand immobile and unaware. However one explains away the problem of breathing or moving through an atmosphere where the air molecules cannot move is a separate issue but the hero of the piece still experiences a sort of time. There is an ordering to things from his/her perspective.

Martin said...

"And what was he doing in the meantime?"

According to the Christian model, he was doing two things. Dreaming up sins, and dreaming up ways to punish sinners.

Interesting to see that Brain says the agent "must be more or less a person". Isn't this a case of anthropomorphism? Why couldn't the agent be extremely lizard-like? Or entirely alien in form but still with the requisite universe creating powers.

The multiple dimension explanations for big bang theory suggests to me our universe could even be a particle in some other universes' large hadron collider. Thus God could be a collection of white coated rational atheist scientists in a universe we can never experience for ourselves. I am suggesting both a naturalistic and an intentional cause for our existence.

The Atheist Missionary said...

It all makes perfect sense if:

1. you live in a bubble;

2. it's what you desperately want to believe;

3. your philosophy professor is Douglas Groothuis;

4. all of the above.

Greg O said...

Hmm... I do wonder if there might be accounts of psychological-state language ('belief', 'desire' etc.) that were compatible with the ascription of such states to an atemporal God. If you move away from the mechanical/paramechanical picture of a brain/mind that is the causal ground of an agent's overt actions, with 'beliefs' and 'desires' picking out whatever features of that brain/mind play some specified role in the production of those actions, maybe things don't look so bad for the theist. Maybe there's something in Ryle or Dennett to suggest that it might be fair enough to adopt the 'intentional stance' towards a being which is not the subject of temporal, psychological goings-on. (I did a bit of work in this area for my MA dissertation and expect it to crop up again in my PhD, so some of this is quite close to home for me!)

Greg O said...

Here's a sketch of an argument that surely has the potential to wind up IDers if nothing else - not sure if I've come across this:

1. If God exists, then he is omniscient.

2. Intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do [was this Piaget?]. So only beings which sometimes don't know what to do can be intelligent.

3. So if God exists, then he is not intelligent.

4. So, if the universe was created by an intelligent designer, it was not created by God.

(I'm not sure how silly this is - on the one hand, it seems unfair to suggest that the actions of an omniscient being wouldn't be (or appear) 'intelligent' in some sense, but on the other hand it does serve to remind us that design arguments rely on stretching analogies between the actions of ordinary, intelligent agents and extraordinary all-knowing whatsits.)

wombat said...

greg - Surely even the term "a being" implies temporal extension?

Greg O said...

Wombat - don't know about that one... if so, of course, the theist will just say: "Oh, you theologically illiterate fool! God's not supposed to be 'a being' anyway!" (The old 'now-you-see-it, now-you-don't' trick.)

That still leaves open the question of whether 'personal agent'-type psychological terms could meaningfully be applied to God, which is the question I was responding to.

I can't say I really fancy the theist's chances of reconciling God's personhood with his 'otherness', which is the central issue here - I suspect any account of theological language is going to leave it saying either too much about God (making him look too much like an ordinary human person) or too little (making him too mysterious to describe at all). I'm just suggesting one possible line of defence for the theist against the view that psychological terms like 'belief' necessarily denote temporal goings-on in a mechanical/paramechanical mind.

wombat said...

Greg - It just strips away another layer. "Well of course He's not an old guy with a beard.." through "not any sort of being we can understand...". Well if it isn't a being at all what is it? An abstraction of some sort like a perfect sphere? Sure that fits the timeless aspect well enough. A mythic figure? Even better.The ancients understood this well enough. Gods did things in mythic time. Dreamtime to the Australians. It's only a problem for modern day theists who insist on some sort of objective reality for their gods. They then spear themselves on the fork you describe in having to get god "outside time" but still leaving intact all those attributes which have a temporal aspect like intelligence, volition, freedom.

Put gods back in dreamtime where they belong and that whole set of problems goes away.

Terje said...

"Does the concept of an intelligent designer make sense?" I think it does so very much. Although bizarre questions may arise, but then you have this very existence of reality, universe, life, and consciousness. These are clearly anomalies to the scientific understanding today. Therefore, I think the best solution is the kind of non-dogmatic religious view, the view of the DEISTS. Why shouldn't there be infinity to thrive in?

Roy S said...

The deists were people who could not QUITE imagine that religious propositions are ENTIRELY meaningless. Two hundred years later, some people are finally able to do this.

James Urban said...

Dr. Law, apart from prefacing your point with what seems to be an implicit genetic fallacy, I'd like to ask about the theist who believes that the Designer was timeless prior to creation and in time subsequent to it. Namely, how does your incoherency objection affect such a theistic belief?

Roger Penney said...

The above is very interesting though I do not think I make sense of all of it.
Do we see evidence of design in the Universe? Do we see evidence of Design in ourselves?
If our physical brain is material and it is a sort or supercomputer then what is it that uses the computer?
I think that was one of Anthony Flews arguments.
To go back to the design point. We assume, say in detective work, that finding an artifact proves an artifficer exists or existed. There is nosuch thing as a blind purposeless Artifficer, such a thing is a contradiction.
Add to this the point that our design also shows irreducible complexity.
Clearly such an Artifficer must be greater than His artifact. There is then no other explanation than that we are created beings, more than material since we use the non-material(soul and/or spirit) to control the material. That is Self-Control, thinking, using our brain/intelligence, planning and purpose.
On top of that it is also possible for such a cosmic Artifficer to reveal Himself and to communicate with His creations. The materialist may mock that but who is to say that we who claim that such is true are wrong?