Monday, July 2, 2012

Dr. Pigliucci counters Craig's Argument from Design

Next up in my ongoing review of the 1995 Dr. William Lane Craig - Dr. Massimo Pigliucci debate on "Does God Exist?" is the second installment of Dr. Pigliucci's opening statement. Dr. Pigliucci is speaking second, and will address Dr. Craig's "Argument from Design".

I've previously discussed the opening statements starting here through here.

Note that the debate transcript says that Dr. Pigliucci addresses the "Argument from Design", which may be how Dr. P had it outlined. Dr. Craig's argument is specifically "The complex order in the universe", which - I presume - is a personal formulation Dr. Craig cooked up to address the fine-tuning of the initial conditions that the universe appears to have had. The two concepts address essentially the same broad theological argument - that what we observe has the appearance of design, which implies a designer, therefore God exists.

Reading ahead into other sections of Dr. Pigliucci's opening statement, he follows the "Argument from Design" section with a "God and Nature" and an "Argument from Fine Tuning" section. Since I just declared that the Design and Fine-Tuning arguments are essentially the same, I'll be interested in how he integrates the two. I'll say in advance that I believe that either can be refuted without getting mired in details. The most succinct riposte is capsulized by Douglas Adams:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, "This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"

Oh Boy - a puddle!

Dr. Pigliucci:

Argument from Design

Let's start with the argument from intelligent design, which Dr. Craig raised at the beginning of his talk. The argument from intelligent design says that the universe is so complex that it must have had a designer; that is, if you find a watch somewhere, you know that there was a watchmaker. What science is telling you is that, well, no, that may be true for the watch, but seeing a design doesn't mean that there is a conscious, intelligent designer. Notice here that I am acknowledging that the world had been "designed." Natural selection, for example, in the case of biological evolution is definitely a designer. But it is an unconscious designer, a designer that works mechanically. It doesn't work pursuing any higher goals. So we do agree that there is a designer. The question is who is the designer or what is the designer.

Dr. Pigliucci does something I think is peculiar here - he acknowledges design in the universe. I wouldn't have done this for several reasons. First, I really can't conceive of anything that genuinely appears "designed" in the natural world. Certainly the behavior of the galaxies and stars and planets follow a predictable pattern, but pattern does not imply an a priori design. Second, "design" is a human concept. We formally design things when they are so complicated that the details of their implementation cannot be reliably and permanently held in our minds, or conveyed to external implementors unambiguously. We commit design when we have a purpose that we want to realize in the world. Third, the fact that we see patterns (a capability of many life forms, not just humans) and infer design is just a side effect of our propensity to assign purpose to external entities. Following Dennett, the increasing abstraction from the physical stance to the design stance to the intentional stance are progressions in understanding that we attempt to make, but we fail to acknowledge that, without actual evidence, design and intent cannot be assigned to anything.

Daniel Dennett

The fourth reason I wouldn't concede that there is design in the universe - having just acknowledged that there is no objective design - is the "atmospherics" of conceding a point to your opponent. There is no reason, in my opinion, to assent to an opponent's point unless you either 1) need it to build your own affirmative construction; 2)want to dismiss it from further discussion. Dr. P appears to want to discuss it further, so 1) is the only possible reason to concede the issue of design, as far as I can tell.

In fairness to Dr. Pigliucci, a lot of material has been written on why the argument from design is bad - but it shouldn't have been a point to concede, even in 1995.

Dr. P trots out Darwin:

One of Darwin's best arguments against the theistic position was that if you really look closely at the universe--and you don't even have to look that closely--, you'll find out that it is not perfect at all, and therefore you can question to what extent it actually reflects a designer. For example, the so called perfection of human beings has been called into question: you might know that human beings have a bizarre structure in their eye. The eye used to be a favorite example of theists. It's the kind of structure that you really cannot explain except by design. Well, it is pretty badly designed because, for example, we have blood vessels right in front of our retina, which means that under certain light conditions especially some among us see these funny little things flying all over the place across the visual field. Well, that's not a good design. Not only that, but there are organisms that are better designed. Squids, for example, have their blood vessels in the back of their eyes, so they actually see much better than we do, even though otherwise the two kinds of eyes are very similar. So my question to you is: are we better designed because God liked squids more than human beings? That seems to be the message.

Dr. P gets back on track somewhat, but I'd prefer not trotting Darwin by name, only because the audience in Tennessee is, I presume, not receptive to the mention of "Darwin". If the point is to change minds, then secularists are receptive, theists are (often) not, and the omission of Darwin's name doesn't detract from the ability to make the case that the universe and life do not appear designed.

Another source of bad design is the fact that most chemical reactions that occur inside everybody's bodies--humans, animals, and plants--are actually pretty inefficient, and if you ask a physicist or a chemist to do some calculations, it's pretty easy, and they will show you that the metabolism of most plants and animals, including humans, is really badly designed. It doesn't work very well, it's wasteful, it produces a lot of waste products. So if there is a designer, he's not a good designer.

Furthermore, there are other questions that a theist that believes in perfect design really has a hard time explaining. Have you ever wondered why people get hemorrhoids? Well, the reason for that is because we have this tendency to walk upright, but we are not very well designed for it, and we paid for that with several consequences, including hemorrhoids and varicose veins. So this ought to lead to the point that if there is a designer it wasn't a good one.

The general point that some scientists at least make, and I agree with them, is that the more we know about nature, the more we realize that in fact the world is the result of two things: chance, which is sometimes called historical contingency, and necessity, which is usually associated with natural selection. Therefore my position is not that we are the result of chance because chance alone, Dr. Craig is right, has no way to create such a complex structure as an ecosystem. But chance and natural selection is a different matter. Natural selection can work very effectively over longer periods of time.

Dr. P returns completely to solid ground in the prior several paragraphs. I probably am being too critical of what he says ("Darwin") previously, since it occurs in the space of a minute, but I can't stress the idea that changing minds (and thus winning the debate, in the absence of a formally trained debate judge) is the goal here.

I would have been more comfortable with avoiding the word "chance" in the prior passage altogether, though. The "chance" trope is anathema to the folks that think they're designed by god for a higher purpose. The phrase "historical contingency, and necessity" could have been made clearer to serve Dr. Pigliucci's purpose as well. Since probability is at work in everything we do, it would be interesting to see if a treatment of chance, without using that word, could be given in the time allotted to the opening statement.

A final nit - Dr. P does not clearly close this portion of his statement by saying something that indicates that he thought he had invalidated Dr. Lane's argument from design (complexity, whatever). A "closer" such as "thus we can see that Dr. Lane's argument from complexity is clearly unproven and illogical" would have fixed the idea that he had met the challenge and defeated it.

One of the reasons Dr. P may not have offered a "closer" is that his next two sections - as I noted at the start of this post - "God and Nature", and the "Argument from Complexity" may still bolster his counter-argument. There is no doubt some bleed-over between the three sections, so I'll chill out and enjoy it.

A final thing to learn from this is that Dr. P doesn't know in advance precisely what Dr. C will present, in what order, and what specific anecdotes and supporting evidence he will weave into his opener. As Dr. Craig has stated before, he's offered the same five arguments for over twenty years (meaning that they were only "stable" for three years before this debate took place). But since the apologia is ever-changing as the gaps in which God might exist continue to shrink, Dr. P could only have used what Dr. Craig previously argued, and could hardly anticipate how Dr. Craig might tailor those arguments further to fit the gaps. The takeaway may be that one's opening statement (also commonly referred to in debate parlance as a "positive construction") should really stick to the positive points that you want to make for your position, and only deviate into rebuttal of the opponent's positive construction if and when time allows. We'll see how Dr. Pigliucci performs this in the coming several posts.

...and a final-final - no shit really final remark: I really owe it to myself to attempt a 20 minute positive construction to oppose the proposition that God exists, followed by a 12 minute "first rebuttal" of Dr. Craig's positive construction and his first rebuttal, in order to walk a mile in Dr. Pigliucci's shoes. Remember that I'm a complete amateur, and have no standing to give either of the participants scholarly criticism of the their debate performances. My criticisms are at street level - I am reflecting on how their statements affect my understanding of the subject.

Next time: Dr. Pigliucci on "God and Nature", and the "Argument from Complexity".

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