Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What is "intelligent"? What is "design"?

If you read my posts on a regular basis (I really have to wonder how many of you there are) you may have noticed that I keep coming back to two seemingly abstract subjects: epistemology, and the philosophy of mind. These seem to creep up on me as an unavoidable subtext to just about every debate I care about: between Christianity and atheism, concerning the origins of life and the material world, and even on bioethics. Nowhere has this been more true than in the debate concerning evolution that seems to go on relentlessly. I've been part of a reading group on Francis Collins' book, The Language of God, in which he lays out a case for Christianity with a special emphasis on harmony between faith and science. The reading group involves Christians and atheists/agnostics of various backgrounds, and I've appreciated the chance to clarify some of the key issues. The key issues are, in my opinion, all matters of epistemology.

Of course issues concerning what we know and how we know it would arise in a discussion of faith and science. In fact, that seems to be the issue. Atheists trying to build a scientific worldview are really arguing for a particular methodology of learning. Christians react to this with their own methodology. The statement, "Science can't teach us everything," is inherently epistemological, as is the statement, "The burden of proof is on the theist." Yet the philosophy of mind is equally important in this discussion. Naturally, the two are partners: what you think about the mind affects your epistemology and vice versa, since the mind is what we use to gain knowledge. The mind, however, is also used to create or invent, and this is exactly how it comes up in origins debates. It comes down to this seemingly simple question: can we look at the universe and surmise whether a mind created it?

But the question is not so simple at all. Using my last post as a precursor to this one, let me point out that if the mind is really a created thing, and God is not properly called a mind, then it becomes totally unclear what we're asking by looking for design in the universe. To clarify this point, let me just point to the two questions in the title of this post. What do we mean by "intelligence," and what do we mean by "design"? If by "intelligence" we mean something simple and in fact irreducible, we are no longer talking about intelligence in the sense that humans are intelligent. The mind is a complex system, and it derives its power from its complexity. If in fact intelligence arises in nature due to selection, that would make it somewhat strange to say that the very existence of nature depends on some intelligence. We may find it useful, then, to draw a rather thick line between "God" and "intelligence," since we should think of the latter as radically subordinate to the former.

Let me be more direct (if a bit smug) in discussing the word "design." Saying something appears designed is nothing more than a personal reflection on the one saying so. If I look at a Jackson Pollock painting, I see no evidence of design. My family and friends who attempt to read the first two articles I have successfully published as an academic will struggle to find any evidence of order in the midst of symbols they don't understand. I will even make a political comment: there is often a great deal of distrust of the market order precisely because people find no evidence of design in it. All of these are examples of subjective judgment. What makes us think "design" can ever be formally defined to suit a rigorous scientific investigation?

It seems inherently impossible to rigorously define the word "design" in any objective way. Design is a human endeavor to shape the world in which we live. Shaping and creating are fundamentally different things. The one who speaks things into existence isn't really a "designer" at all.

It is not my intention here to deal with the empirical claims of intelligent design proponents. That is, I don't want to get into the theory of evolution. That order can come about spontaneously, without being directly guided by an overarching force, is one of the cornerstones not only of modern biology but perhaps of all modern science. Clearly, I think intelligent design proponents have a steep hill to climb.

Let me conclude by pointing out that asking whether the universe appears to be designed can bring up some difficult nuances in all beliefs. On the Christian side of things, I find a number of different answers to how ordered the universe really is. There is a tension between claims to be able to see God's glory manifested in the universe and claims about the evil distortion we see as a result of sin. The atheist, on the other hand, faces a similar tension from a naturalistic point of view. On the one hand, the order of the universe seems to be undirected and therefore meaningless, but on the other hand, it is astonishingly beautiful, evoking sincere reverence. Neither side really succeeds at resolving the tension, and I don't suppose I will, either. If an argument for or against belief in God depends on our ability to make sense of the simultaneous good and evil nature of the universe, I daresay it is a pretty frail argument.

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