Skip to main content

My talk today on New Teleological Arguments (for A Level)

Here is the text taken from my powerpoint that accompanied my talk today at Heythrop College. If you are a pupil or teacher interested in attending other A Level philosophy and/or RS conferences, go here (I speak at most of them).

n  New Teleological Arguments
n  Stephen Law
n  What are we going to do?
n  Have a short reminder of Paleys design argument - plus problems.
n  Move on to two more recent versions of the argument from design…
n  1. Fine-tuning arguments (plus criticisms)
n  2. ID/irreducible complexity arguments (plus criticisms)
n  PART 1: Paleys argument
n  Paleys watch/eye analogy.
n  Standard criticisms of Paleys argument:
n  Natural selection provides a naturalistic explanation for the purpose and complexity of the eye, that avoids the need to invoke the supernatural.
n  Paleys argument fails to provide any more support for the hypothesis that the designer is the Christian God than it does for the hypothesis that it is some other sort of being, e.g. an evil God.
n  PART 2: The fine-tuning argument
n  If the basic laws and initial conditions of the universe had been only slightly different, galaxies, stars, planets and intelligent life would not have emerged…
n  The fine-tuning argument
n  …The probability of the universe having just these starting conditions by chance is ridiculously slim. It’s much more likely that some intelligence deliberately fine-tuned the universe to have us in it. That intelligence is God.
n  The fine-tuning argument
n  The fine-tuning argument is not so new. F.R. Tennant presented a version of it in the 20s:
n  For the point is that, for the existence of any forms of life that we may conceive, the necessary environment, whatever its nature, must be complex and dependent on a multiplicity of coincident conditions, such as are not reasonably attributable to blind forces or pure mechanism.”
n  Problems with fine-tuning: lottery fallacy?
n  Suppose you buy one of one million lottery tickets. You win. This was incredibly unlikely, of course. But does your win require some sort of purposive explanation? Is it reasonable to suppose some intelligence deliberately rigged the lottery in your favour?
n  Lottery fallacy
n  No. For whoever won would have been just as unlikely to win. A mammoth coincidence was inevitable. Similarly with the universe: whichever way the universe had been set up would have been no less unlikely. So the fact that it happened to be set up this way, to produce us, does not require any sort of explanation.
n  Firing squad reply
n   In reply, it’s sometimes claimed that as there’s only one universe, not countless universes, the chances of the actual universe being one in which the laws and initial conditions are perfectly tuned for life is a coincidence that cannot be explained on the grounds that “a coincidence was inevitable”.
n  Firing squad reply (cont.)
n  Suppose a firing squad fires fifty bullets at you all of which miss. It’s reasonable for you to conclude this was deliberately rigged.
n  In the case of a single execution, it’s more plausible that someone deliberately arranged to save your life.
n  Similarly, as theres only one universe, the coincidence that it should be set up just so, to produce life, is too much to swallow.
n  The multiverse
n  In response to the firing squad reply it’s been suggested by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees that there are countless universes each with its own laws and initial conditions. Every permutation is realized. So the fine-tuning argument does commit the lottery fallacy.
n  But is there a multiverse?
n  The other main problem with intelligent design is that identity of the designer need bear no relation at all to the God of traditional monotheism. The “designing agency” can be a committee of gods, for example. The designer can be a natural being or beings, such as an evolved super-mind or super-civilization existing in a previous universe, or in another section of our universe, which made our universe using super-technology. The designer can also be some sort of superdupercomputer simulating this universe. So invoking a super-intellect is fraught with problems. Paul Davies.
n  PART 3: ID and irreducible complexity
n  Michael Behe “Darwin’s Black Box”
n  What is irreducible complexity?
n  "By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively stop functioning."
n  Behes mousetrap
n  Behe’s favourite example is the mousetrap. Take any part away - the spring, the board, etc. - and the whole thing fails to function.
n  Bacterial Flagellum
n  There are irreducibly complex systems in nature. A commonly cited example of naturally occurring irreducible complexity is the bacterial flagellum – a sort of rotor drive that bacteria use to propel themselves.
n  The problem for Darwin
n  According to Behe, the problem for evolution/natural selection is that an irreducibly complex system cannot evolve gradually via Darwinian natural selection. There is no survival/reproductive advantage in having half or a quarter of a bacterial flagellum. It’s all or nothing.
n  Behes conclusion
n  So if the bacterial flagellum did evolve naturally, it would have to evolve in just one generation.
n  That’s ridiculously unlikely. More likely that some intelligence designed it that way.
n  Problems with Behes argument: Orr
n  The existence of an irreducibly complex system is actually entirely compatible with gradual Darwinian natural selection. A part may be added to a system that improves it, without being essential to it. But then the system itself may change making the inessential part essential.
n  Orr’s example: lungs.
n  Problems with Behes argument: Miller
n  [Behe] writes that in the absence of “almost any” of its parts, the bacterial flagellum “does not work”. But guess what? A small group of proteins from the flagellum does work without the rest of the machine — it’s used by many bacteria as a device for injecting poisons into other cells. Although the function performed by this small part when working alone is different, it nonetheless can be favored by natural selection. Kenneth R. Miller.
n  So there are at least two ways natural selection can evolve irreducibly complex systems.
n  Kenneth R. Miller
n  In the final analysis, the biochemical hypothesis of intelligent design fails not because the scientific community is closed to it but rather for the most basic of reasons — because it is overwhelmingly contradicted by the scientific evidence. Kenneth R. Miller.
n  The dishonesty of [intelligent design] lies in its proponents pointing to a controversy when there really is no controversy. A friend of mine did an informal survey of more than ten million articles in major science journals during the past twelve years…. Searching for “Intelligent Design” yielded eighty-eight articles. All but eleven of those were in engineering journals... Of the eleven articles, eight were critical of the scientific basis for Intelligent Design theory and the remaining three turned out to be articles in conference proceedings, not peer-reviewed research journals. So that’s the extent of the "controversy" in the scientific literature. There is none. Lawrence Krauss.
n  Further problem: does intelligent fine-tuner, ID hypothesis even make sense?
n  Isnt the suggestion that there might be a non-temporal agent/designer as nonsensical as the suggestion that there might be a non-spatial mountain?
n  Further problem
n  There is a further problem for ID args for God. Just like the fine-tuning argument, Behes argument doesnt establish anything about the character of this intelligent designer.
n  In fact, doesnt the empirical evidence strongly suggest the designer is not all-powerful and all-good….
n  If we can rule out an evil God on the basis of observation of the world around us (too much good stuff), why can’t we rule out an evil god?
n  Sherlock Holmes and the unsolved case…
n  Just cos cannot answer question why universe exists and is fine tuned does not mean the Xian answer cannot be pretty conclusively ruled out on empirical grounds.


Paul P. Mealing said…
The best response to Paley's argument, that I've read, came from John D. Barrow (in one of his many books): A watch only serves a purpose when it's finished. An uncompleted watch is useless. Every generation in evolution is its own end-result - there are no uncompleted species. That's the difference.

It's chaos (mathematically) that drives evolution - evolution, like much of nature, is fractal. Chaotic phenomena, though deterministic, are completely unpredictable. This means, as Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, that if you were to re-run evolution, you'd get a completely different result. The same applies to the universe itself.

If you have infinite time and space, then anything that can happen will happen an infinite number of times, so there would be an infinite number of you and me. This also applies to an infinite multiverse, whether in time or space. But you don't need an infinite amount of time and space to produce just one isolated habitat for complex life, just a lot of both, which, as Barrow points out, is why the universe has to be so big and old to produce intelligent life.

I think the universe is purpose-built for life but that doesn't make it teleological. The universe is creative - that's its nature - but its purpose has evolved just like everything else.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
There is an aspect of biology that is teleological and that is the construction of every single organism – they all follow a blueprint that is coded in their DNA. The origin of DNA, effectively a 4 letter software code, is the most difficult element to explain in evolutionary biology.

Another point, that few people raise, is the extraordinary specialness of the Big Bang in regard to entropy. Roger Penrose in The Road to Reality makes the point via a ‘fanciful decription’:

Creation of the universe: a fanciful description! The Creator's pin had to find a tiny box, just 1 part in 10exp10exp123 of the entire phase-space volume, in order to create a universe with as special a Big Bang as that we actually find.

I can’t use exponentials in this format but 10 raised to 10 raised to 123; an extraordinary number. This is to get the entropy small enough to allow the entropy loss predicted for the entire universe, which is a major driver of the entire evolution of the universe in its lifetime.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Sorry, that should be 'entropy gain' not 'entropy loss'.

Regards, Paul.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks. I knew what you meant, Paul.
Jon Wainwright said…
A minor quibble in response to Paul Mealing's interesting points: DNA is a lot of amazing things, but one thing it is absolutely not is a blueprint for anything. The metaphor is misleading, since it implies a one-to-one mapping from the plan to the finished product, which is precisely what doesn't happen in development. Even before epigenetics took off and provided insight into the mechanism of environmental influences, it was clear than a single genotype could give rise to multiple phenotypes.
Galactor said…
One thing about the watch as an example of a designed object is that it, itself, has evolved. From very simple beginnings like water bowls with holes, candles with markings, through mechanical mechanisms up to the vibration of atoms of caesium.

It's a very poor argument and rather self-refutes itself.
Galactor said…
(sorry for bad grammar - self-refutes itself?)
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Jon,

Actually, I think a better metaphor for DNA is software, because it contains the 'instructions' to build an organism in all its functionality.

I think it's teleological to the extent that the organism's development follows a plan that is encoded in its DNA.

To quote Davies from The Cosmic Blueprint (pp. 102-3):

In studying the development of the embryo it is hard to resist the impression that there exists somewhere a blueprint, or plan of assembly, carrying instructions needed to achieve the finished form. In some as yet poorly understood way, the growth of the organism is tightly constrained to conform to this plan. There is a strong element of teleology involved.

Now, I'm not saying there is a 'plan' per se, but the DNA is a code with 'instructions' that works very similarly to a Turing machine.

Interestingly, Erwin Schrodinger predicted such a code in his Dublin lectures on What is Life? (1944), only he made the analogy with Morse code.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Galactor,

The evolution you refer to has occurred in the human mind as we come up with better ways to achieve the same result. Technological evolution is a special case, even a byproduct, of cultural evolution, which is a human specialty.

Regards, Paul.
Steven Carr said…
The fine-tuning argument claims that the Christian God had to choose all kinds of suitable parameters to allow life to exist.

But could God have failed to find suitable parameters?

Could the only possible setting of gravitational strength which worked have clashed with the only possible setting of electric field strength which worked?

Either these parameters could have clashed, or they could not have clashed.

If they could have clashed, so that NO possible combination of fundamental constants would have worked, then God is just as lucky as the rest of us that there happened to be some suitable combination which did, in fact, work.

But if the fundamental constants of nature could not even in theory have clashed, so that no matter what narrow range gravity had to have, there would always be a narrow range of electrical field strength which worked...

Well, how could that be?

Isn't that just as much a mystery as fine-tuning itself?

How could it be impossible even in theory for there to be no clashes between parameters, when fine-tuning proponents insist themselves that there is only an incredibly tiny window of opportunity?

How can there be an a priori guarantee that there will be an open window, when the essence of the fine-tuning argument is that it could so easily have been shut?
Jon Wainwright said…
Hi Paul,

The interesting thing about metaphors is discriminating between their strengths and weaknesses. Software, for example, can be deleted from hardware in a way that DNA cannot be deleted from a human body.

A better metaphor for the mixing of genetic and environmental influences is the recipe for baking a cake: there are ingredients and instructions but the final product cannot be reverse engineered.

The problem with words like "plan" and "instructions" and "design" is that they often imply "planner" and "instructor" and "designer". Always worth remembering that natural selection does not look ahead at all.

Regards, Jon
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Jon,

I’m not an advocate of ID in case I’m being misconstrued, and I’m not arguing about natural selection. Evolution is not teleological but the development of every individual organism is. With the exception of the last paragraph of my first comment, I’m merely stating some scientifically deduced facts, and how people incorporate them into their philosophical world view is up to them.

I’m not the only person who has compared DNA to software. Gregory Chaitin, in Thinking about Godel and Turing, makes the point that, with its 4 bases, human DNA contains 6 trillion bits of information. As Davies points out in The Cosmic Blueprint it’s theoretically possible for software to make physical changes to its hardware (he calls it ‘downward causation’) and, basically, that’s exactly what DNA does very efficiently.

I think 'instruction' in this context is more than a metaphor because genes express instructions in exactly the same way software does. Remember that software has no 'mind', even of the artificial kind.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
To quote Chaitin (who invented the mathematical entity Ω, which gives the probability of a programme halting in the Turing sense):

I regard life as software, biochemical software… In my opinion, DNA is essentially a programming language for building an organism and then running that organism.

Ref: Thinking about Godel and Turing; Essays on Complexity, 1970 - 2007 (p.305).

Regards, Paul.
Jon Wainwright said…
Dear Paul

Thanks for the reference to Gregory Chaitin (pity the paperback is over £50 on Amazon!). Coincidentally, I was just following up a reference to his Conversations with a Mathematician: Math, Art, Science and the Limits of Reason, which follows John Barrow's Impossibility in Stuart Firestein's excellent Ignorance.

I'm not sure about DNA and downward causation. Surely, DNA just codes for proteins?

Of course, at the level of electronic orbits, software must affect physical hardware – information is a physical quantity, after all.

Regards, Jon
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Jon,

Yes, 'downward causation' is probably not appropriate for DNA. I think the mind is a better example, following Hofstadter's notion of a 'strange loop'. But I wouldn't call information a 'physical quantity'.

Davies was specifically talking about software making physical changes to hardware on a macro scale - he even drew a diagram to represent what he meant. He also used the term in conjunction with quantum mechanics, saying that John Wheeler (his mentor, apparently) claimed that 'downward causation' in QM was 'backwards in time', but that's muddying the waters a bit.

I've read a lot of Barrow's books and most of Davies' but only one of Chaitin's, which I've started re-reading prompted by this discussion.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Btw, a good review (well written) of that book. It's now on my wish list.

Regards, Paul.

Popular posts from this blog

What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o