Thoughts in the atmosphere

Things of the world, and out of it.

Does reductionist science miss the bigger pattern (Part 1)?

Posted by desicontrarian on September 20, 2008

Scientific thought is interesting. As a Science student, I loved Physics and had a good handle on Maths. Nowadays its the philosophy of science that simultaneously enthralls and appalls me. About 2 years ago, an article advocating the truth of Darwinian evolution caught my eye. This is in the context of the raging debate on the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) of living creatures. ID basically states that organisms have something called irreducible complexity(IC). Remove one capacity or quality from the organism and it cannot function anymore.  it seems that the idea was first formally proposed by Michael Behe in his book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution . I quote Behe from Pete Dunkelberg’s Irreducible Complexity Demystified.

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 cease functioning

Basically, if IC is true, then there is a design of the organism. This in turn means there is a designer who is intelligent. This shows that life forms are actually created and do not evolve by blind chance and random mutations over millenia! It is a theist argument. It is however being used to challenge the theory of evolution and teach biblical creationism as the real truth. This has produced a furious backlash among biologists/evolutionists and intense efforts to disprove IC, and in turn ID. The evolutionists for the most part have adopted a near-atheist position. Their stand is that God is not needed for life forms to evolve, and His existence/non-existence is irrelevant to the question at hand!

The history of this idea is even more interesting! It begins with a famous thought experiment, the watchmaker analogy.  In it, an organism is compared to a watch. Typically, the analogy is generally presented as:

  1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer.
  2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe) necessitates a designer.

This analogy has been articulated by many deep thinkers. Among them were philosophers (Cicero, Descartes, Voltaire, Thomas Paine) and scientists (Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke).  Of course there are people who have shrugged, like Laplace. Laplace explained his theory of celestial mechanics to Napoleon. Napoleon, who had not heard God mentioned in the exposition, asked what role God played in Laplace’s system. Laplace famously replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis”.

The most famous exposition of this argument is by theologist William Paley, and it goes as follows.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

This idea has been a persistent challenge to Darwinian evolutionists, and so their modern-day leader, Richard Dawkins has written a rebuttal called The Blind Watchmaker. He argues that highly complex systems can be produced by a series of very small randomly-generated yet naturally selected steps, rather than an intelligent designer.

He further posits that it is a self-refuting argument: that if complex things must have been intelligently designed by something more complex than themselves, then anything posited as this complex designer (i.e. God) must also have been designed by something yet more complex.

As I have not read The Blind Watchmaker, I cannot say anything about the first part of the argument. However, the second part does not seem like a final proof of God’s non-existence. Just because a designer in turn has to be created by a higher being, ad infinitum, it does not mean that it does not stop with a First Cause. Every phenomenon in the world has been caused, by one or more causes. These causes are in turn caused by other causes. This can be logically traced back to a First Cause, which can be considered Uncaused! Our brains do not understand such paradoxes very well.  In physics, The Big Bang is generally considered the First Cause, though physicists are wondering what caused the Big Bang!.

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