Intelligent design and the unexplained analogy

Bit of new book for comments. I did something similar to the following in the Humanism book.

Another version of semantic goalpost shifting is the unexplained analogy.

In the introduction I outlined an objection to a certain sort of argument for theism – the argument that the universe appears, for example, to be fine-tuned, and that a designer god provides the best available explanation for its fine-tuned character. The objection is based on the thought that if God is a non-temporal agent, a sort a cosmic super-intelligence that creates time and space, then we run up against the objection that talk of a non-temporal agent appears to make scarcely more sense than, say, talk of a non-spatial mountain.

To recap: for something to be a mountain is for it to have parts spatially arranged in a particular way. It must have a summit and sides, for example, which requires that one part must be higher than another. If we strip away the spatial context, talk of a mountain no longer makes sense.

Similarly, to talk of an agent is to talk about a being that has beliefs and desires on the basis of which it more or less rationally acts. However, the concepts of belief and desire are concepts of psychological states having temporal duration. If desires are states with temporal duration, how could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did this agent perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed?

In order to deal with this sort of difficulty, we might, as some theists do, insist that theistic talk of an intelligent designer should not be understood literally. We are positing, not literally an intelligent agent, but something merely analogous to such an agent.

But does this appeal to analogy, as its stands, succeed in salvaging the explanation of fine-tuning in terms of an intelligent designer? No.

Compare s similar case. Suppose I try to explain some natural phenomenon by appealing to the existence of a non-spatial mountain. Critics point out that talk of non-spatial mountains is nonsensical. I roll my eyes and insist they have misunderstood. I am not talking about a literal mountain, but something merely analogous to a mountain. Does this save my explanation?

It depends. Suppose my analogy is this: that the guilt of a nation concerning some terrible deed weighs like a huge mountain on the collective psyche of its citizens. This is an interesting analogy. Moreover, it does actually avoid the conceptual problem that plagues the claim as literally understood. Guilt, it would appear, isn’t the kind of thing that occupies space in the way a literal mountain does. So there’s no conceptual problem with talk of a non-spatial mountain of guilt.

But remember – I am supposed to be explaining some natural phenomenon by means of this analogy. Suppose the phenomenon is a major earthquake. People wonder why the earthquake occurred. I maintain that the earthquake is a result of the vast weight of this something-analogous-to-a-mountain pressing down and causing a seismic shift.

Now that my analogy is clear, it is also clear that my explanation is hopeless. Collective guilt doesn’t cause earthquakes. Something merely analogous to a mountain doesn’t possess the same causal and explanatory powers that a real mountain would possess.

You can now see why those who try to explain features of the universe by appealing to something merely analogous to an intelligent agent have a great deal of explaining to do. The onus is on them to explain:

(i) exactly what the intended analogy is,
(ii) how the analogy avoids the charge of nonsense levelled at the literally-understood version of the claim, and
(iii) how this something-merely-analogous-to-a-so-and-so is supposed to retain the relevant explanatory powers that a literal so-and-so would possess.

My explanation of the earthquake by appealing to a non-spatial mountain did answer (i) and (ii). However, I failed to explain how my something-analogous-to-a-mountain could cause or explain an earthquake.

Often, theists don’t even bother to explain (i) and (ii). When asked how we are supposed to make sense of such a non-temporal intelligent designer, they simply say, “Oh dear – you’ve misunderstood, my talk of an intelligent designer is not meant to be understood literally. It’s merely an analogy.” As if this remark, by itself, were sufficient to deal with the objection. It is not.

Unless the theist can provide satisfactory answers to all three questions, their “explanation” is hopeless. They haven’t explained anything. Such appeals to unexplained analogy bring the debate about intelligent design, not up to a level of sophistication and profundity, but down to the level of evasion and obfuscation.

None of this is to say that the use of analogy might not provide us with a useful tool in thinking about God. The objection is not to the use of analogy per se, but to the use of the unexplained analogy to deal with objections: “Ah, it’s merely analogy. So, problem solved!


Trevor said…
Re: "If desires are states with temporal duration, how could..."

I don't think it is inherently self-contradictory talk about temporal things outside of our time. It at least makes mathematical sense that there could be two independent time-lines, God's and ours. If time is just a parameter with which things change, then there's no reason why there can't be two separate time parameters.

By analogy, consider someone editing a video. There is a sense of time in the video (measured in frames) that makes sense for the characters [us], but things can started, paused, rewound and changed from the point of view of the editor [a "god"], who is living in quite a different time reference.

To get an idea of how two such timelines could interact, watch too much Doctor Who.
Stephen Law said…
yes but God creates not just our time, but all times, if there are several. So he is non-temporal.
Richard Baron said…
I entirely agree that saying "It is just an analogy", without setting out the links between the analogy and features of the real world, links that make the analogy explanatory, is mere hand-waving. But I wonder whether the "mountain of guilt" example will make the case well enough. There are other analogies involving mountains that look as though they could allow the construction of links that would make them explanatory. One example is Richard Dawkins's book title, "Climbing Mount Improbable". Both in mountain-climbing and in evolution, we have slow, difficult ascents, which could come to an abrupt halt or be thrown off course at any stage. There are also pitons hammered into the rock to secure progress made so far (or so I believe - I do not go in for these athletic holidays). Draw a parallel between (local) entropy levels and altitudes, and the analogy looks as though it might have explanatory power. I don't suppose it actually does, but the appearance is there.

I also wonder whether the temporality of beliefs and desires is the best point on which to attack the notion of atemporal agency. If I could conceive of an atemporal but potentially causally effective being at all, I don't think I would have difficulty in conceiving its having one option, rather than another, in mind, and there being reasons for that option being the one. (I nearly said "conceiving its having selected one option", but selection does look like it may necessarily be temporal.)

An alternative point of attack would be that action is temporal. That is, the being would have to cross the atemporal-temporal divide. (This has connections with the point you do make, that it is a puzzle how the act of creation could be performed if there was not already time in which to perform it - although we have the same problem if we try to make intuitive sense of Big Bang cosmology.) There is lots of theological wriggling to be done, and countered, here, of course, but one thing that the theists should not be allowed to use is the analogy of non-temporal things like numbers existing in such a way as to be readily accessible to temporal beings like ourselves.
TaiChi said…
"However, the concepts of belief and desire are concepts of psychological states having temporal duration."

Well, certainly thoughts have temporal duration, and noticing that one has these beliefs and those desires are thoughts which have temporal duration. Actions too are temporal. I'm less sure whether the beliefs and desires themselves, construed as stable dispositions, need be thought of as essentially temporal.

Also, it might be useful to mention that analogies can be more or less strong, and that practically any X is weakly analogous to any Y (e.g. My toe is analogous to sunlight, in that both my toe and sunlight exist). So the bare fact of analogy is uninformative. As you imply, the substance of the analogy claim lies in the similarities that supposedly underwrite the claim.
Trevor said…
@Stephen. Only to the extent that he had to have created himself. If we accept that it makes sense for Him to exist uncreated without beginning or end (if!) then there's no particular issue with the existence coming with its own infinite time parameter built-in.
Paul P. Mealing said…
When you use the mountain analogy you are talking about a metaphor. So when someone says that Intelligent Design is an analogy, they're talking about God as a metaphor. Exactly as Einstein did in some of his more famous quotes, like: "Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not"; and "I don't believe God plays with Dice"; and his description of De Broglie's insight concerning particle waves as "lifting a corner of the veil".

Actually, I would argue that, metaphorically, God is a mathematician and considering the odds of his 'Creation' He is an extraordinary gambler as well.

Regards, Paul.
Martin said…
yes but God creates not just our time, but all times, if there are several. So he is non-temporal.

It's not really a case of "if there are several", there are as many times as there are observation points for any given event.
clamflats said…
*Warning: non-professional thinker here*

It seems to me that the activities of the human brain, the mind, is constrained by concepts of time and space. We can't help but think in those terms so that although we can posit a non-temporal, non-spatial entity, we can only describe it with analogies using temporal-spatial concepts. We should recognize this as a dead end.

My problem with the "a designer god provides the best available explanation for its [the universe] fine-tuned character" argument is that tuning suggests a tuner, circular reasoning. My response to the argument is that 1) our understanding of the complexity of the universe is limited by our current level of scientific knowledge. Given that our understanding is expanding we should resist proposing big conclusions about the universe. The rejection of the long-held belief in the heliocentric model of the universe should give us pause. And 2), if we propose a purposeful creator and an anthropic universe then the whole enterprise seems over-designed. And 3), any insight into God's purpose is only available by claims of divine revelation and therefore unreliable.
Since clamflats opened the floor to non-professionals, I'll add my own thoughts to the fine-tuned argument.
The claim of a fine-tuned universe states that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. The term "life" however is rarely adequately defined. Any of the parameters that would require fine tuning for human, organic, finite life necessarily would not affect the divine, spiritual, infinite life of the designer god, or else He wouldn't be able to exist to adjust them.

The fine-tuned universe therefore becomes, for the theist, just an arbitrary universe, since none of the finely tuned parameters are necessary for Life, just life as is supported by this universe. If presented by any theist who is also a substance dualist and believes in immaterial souls, the question becomes stickier, since these souls are posited to 'survive' the fine-tuned universe as well and are therefore unaffected by it.

When presented with this argument - and this is where it ties up with your post - the theists I've presented this to respond by claiming that 'divine' life is different than human life, but are unable or unwilling to define the difference or what it means to the argument.
Billy said…
Since we don't have experience of the "non temporal", what justification is there to make claims about how it solves "problems"?
Martin said…
Isn't God as a non-temporal agent just as problematic as a big bang? Everything within the universe takes place within time and space. Theologians attempt to take God outside of time and space, giving Him supernatural powers. But don't scientists invest the big bang with such a supernatural power? The fact is the universe exists, and the big bang is a descriptor for the moment when something came out of nothing. A supernatural event. The difference is that theologians invest the event with agency, and the scientists prefer random chance.
Again, Stephen, you are really arguing with mentally deranged opponents. It is obvious that the religious claims are just lies and/or delusions of comfort.

They will NEVER admit they are wrong. No matter what argument or proof you ever come up with, they will say "god hypnotized you to think that evidence exists" or something of that nature.

How can you win that way?
@ Caffene addicted.

Well, life might exist no matter how the universe stabilized. We find life near volcanoes and all sorts of unlikely places now.

Different rules and tuning might not matter.

2. Maybe there is more than one universe, or better still, this universe "cycles" over. Maybe there has been 2 billion big bangs/big crunches and thus the odds for fine-tuning dissapear.
Lewis N. Clark said…
My explanation of the earthquake by appealing to a non-spatial mountain did answer (i) and (ii). However, I failed to explain how my something-analogous-to-a-mountain could cause or explain an earthquake. find climbing frames at
Anonymous said…
That's awesome:) I always thought that analogy as an instrument is flawed because the models which were usually suggested this way differed from others *explaining* the internals and as a result more use cases. Now I'll blame unexplained analogy(I wonder if explained one exists).