Monday, December 5, 2011

Paperclips and Design

Quite often intelligent design (ID) gets the accusation of being a "God-of-the-gaps" argument. The charge is that people cannot find a natural explanation for what they see in nature, so they immediately attribute it to God. Since nature may be able to explain a phenomenon, such quick conclusions are obviously intellectually lazy and should be recognized as such. A while back I wrote a post addressing the charge of being too quick to come to that conclusion. But this time, I want to focus on the idea that support for intelligent design comes primarily in the form of a process-of-elimination argument.

Even though such an argument does hold value, the conclusion is more reliable when another, more "positive", argument is presented. This argument takes the form of an analogy. It examines what we already accept as being designed by an intelligent agent (humans), and concludes that something of equal or more specified complexity is also designed by an intelligent agent. Allow me to provide an example.


Take The Simple Office Paperclip
Anytime that we look at something, even as simple as a paper clip, we can recognize that it was designed. How? We recognize that the probability of nature producing the paper clip we are looking at is extremely remote. Examine one with me. First you have the metal that provides a specific malleability (resistance to bending). Second, you have the specific shape- three specific curves and four straight sides that are positioned in such a way. Third, think of the precision of the movements and the precision of the strength required to obtain the specific shape. (If you can't, unbend a paper clip until it is as straight as you can get it, then try to get it back to its same precise shape it was before you straighten it- compare it to a second one from the box if you think you were successful.) The only way that a person, who had never seen a paper clip before, could ascribe random processes to its design, is in complete ignorance of the natural laws and basic engineering. We would say that the person is not learned in the ways of science and cast that conclusion away as not accurately reflecting reality. If we are to believe that complex processes and systems are the product of natural processes and the absence of a mind, why can't we say the same of a paperclip? If we did not already know that the paperclip was designed, then all reason would point us toward its not being designed.

Arguing From Assumption to Conclusion Using The Analogy
In order for an argument from analogy to take place, we must begin with an assumption and work our way toward our conclusion. I want to look at the assumptions of design and non-design starting with both the paperclip and nature.

From an Assumption About Nature to a Conclusion About a Paperclip
Assuming No Design
If we wish to conclude that nature is not designed, then we have no reason to believe that anything less complex is designed (remember, we are starting with the belief that all things have no designer). If we are to hold that a paperclip is actually designed, we need to determine what are the hallmarks of design present in a paperclip that are absent in nature. Without such characteristics, the theory that a paperclip is the product of design is not even plausible.

Assuming Design
If we were to start with the conclusion that nature is designed, then design of a paperclip makes perfect sense. If a more complex object is designed, there is no reason why a less complex object cannot be result of design also (it doesn't guarantee it, but makes it plausible).

From an Assumption About a Paperclip to a Conclusion About Nature
Assuming No Design
Now, let us go the other direction. Let's begin believing that the paperclip is not designed. If the paperclip is not designed, then it is reasonable to believe that anything more complex is not designed either (it doesn't guarantee it, but makes it plausible).

Assuming Design
Now, let's begin with the idea that the paperclip is designed. If the paperclip is designed and is simpler than something in nature, then it would stand to reason that the more complex things in nature are designed also.

The Implications

If we know that something simple has been designed, then it is reasonable to conclude that something complex is also designed. The reverse of the analogy also works. If something complex is not designed, then it is reasonable to conclude that something less complex (or simple) is also not designed. The implications beginning with the assumption of non-design in the nature are far-reaching. Since naturalists want to begin without the belief of a designer, let's look at all things that way and see where reason takes us.

If we look at things that are more complex and more efficient in nature than anything that man has ever created, are we to conclude that man's products are NOT designed? Engineers and architects are not really "designing" anything; they just think that they are. The less complex and less efficient human "designs" are even more the product of randomness and chance than nature itself. Many naturalists recognize that nature "appears" to be designed. Are we to conclude that humans' efforts are cheap imitations of appearances of design?

This is perfectly compatible with the naturalistic view that all is matter and energy acting and reacting- there is no authentic thought that can escape the action/reaction sequence. If everything began with a single domino being knocked down (forget who or what knocked it over for a moment), then "designs" are merely the reactions of actions that are merely the reactions of other actions, all the way back to the Big Bang (really further, but we won't go there right now).

This is not a palatable implication.  Not only because it is emotionally unsavory, but because it goes against common experience of those who engineer designs. The common experience is that the engineer is coming up with designs in their own minds apart from actions and reactions of matter and energy. Some may say that this can be explained by the illusion of the mind, but that does not escape the reality of the absence of the mind, thus it neither escapes the conclusion that there really is no such thing as "design".

Ironically, the "design" of the paperclip is not really a design at all- the paperclip is not designed. Assuming that the paperclip is designed is not an option for the naturalist- if they wish to remain consistent. The only analogy that a naturalist may make is from non-design to non-design, while the ID advocate may start with either (since both are possible in his worldview).

The Analogy In Reality?
At this point I'm tempted to ask the reader, "Which beginning assumption makes sense in light of our experience?". The answer would be that since we know that paperclips are designed, we should start there and end with a designer of nature. However, before that step can be taken, questions must be answered:
  •     Is a paperclip really more complex than processes or objects in nature?
  •     Does complexity (relative to simplicity) require design?
  •     Does simplicity (relative to complexity) require design?
The answer to the first question seems to be obviously "No"; however, there may be those who wish to challenge that. The implications may be escaped if it can be demonstrated that a paperclip is more complex than everything in nature.

A lot of people would answer the second question "No" by appealing to nature. Unfortunately, that cannot be done, because the very debate is whether nature (more complex than a paperclip) is designed. They would need to appeal to something else.

I had to toss in the third because of the fact that even establishing "No" as the answer to the first two does not necessitate the absence of a designer. Many engineers and architects will attest to the idea that simplicity is quite elegant and requires design to accomplish. The same way that the second question cannot be answered by appealing to nature, so this third one cannot either.

Simplicity and Complexity
Since the very presence of all the specific disciplines in the fields of engineering and architecture establish that both simplicity and complexity are the products of designers, it seems the burden of proof is on the naturalists to show that both simplicity and complexity can be the products of non-design. As mentioned above, nature cannot be appealed to, but neither can products that involve a human (since humans are designers). If you notice, though, the naturalist has nothing physical that may be appealed to in their worldview: designed things are removed from the realm of evidence because only humans can authentically design things; and nature has been removed because it is what the debate is about. Since neither designed nor "undesigned" evidence may be presented against the theist's view, it seems that this argument may be on quite solid ground.

However, the naturalist may be able to use a philosophical argument without appealing to actual objects or processes in our world to show that non-design can produce both simplicity and complexity. Other plans would be to attack the very existence of "design" and/or the distinction between "complexity" and "simplicity". Both can be accomplished by way of denying the existence of "minds" and free-will- making the need to provide an argument for either complexity or simplicity requiring design unneeded. But can the denial of minds or free-will be done without assuming, first, what naturalists are attempting to prove via their argument (that a transcendent designer of the universe does not exist)?

Are ID Advocates Really Intellectually Lazy?
Since this argument of intelligent design advocates is not simply an appeal to ignorance, the charge of intellectual laziness does not stand. Both sides of the analogy are based on observations of the natural realm, and the philosophical argumentation is sound. The way to successfully undermine intelligent design is not to address an argument that is not being presented; it is to address the argument that is being presented. My simple request is that critics of ID stop addressing this strawman/red herring and actually begin to show us what they believe is the failure of the analogy. If they do this, ID advocates make their arguments more robust where they may be weak, thus providing the critic with a more powerful and intellectual challenge than they already have- which is what most ID critics keep "demanding".

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