The Economist, 5 September 2009

economist 5 september 2009I can’t resist quoting some lines of verse that appear in this week’s obituary for Stanley Robertson, a Scotsman who made his living filleting fish in a cheap eatery in Aberdeen and who made his name as a storyteller, a bard who had learned a vast number of traditional tales and songs of the Scottish Travellers and who held audiences spellbound on both sides of the Atlantic.   Here’s a playground rhyme Robertson liked:

Eenie meenie mackaracka,

Rair roe dominacka,

Soominacka noominacka,

Rum tum scum scoosh!

A short article describes “Quest to Learn,” a new school in New York City that does away with the division of the day into class periods themed around particular subjects and replaces it with “domains” in which students work collaboratively using various methods that have been studied by educational psychologists and developed by video gamers.  The video game theme is incorporated so deeply that tests aren’t called tests, but “Boss Levels.” 

Also in this issue, a review of Richard Dawkins‘  The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, takes a rather mystified tone in discussing the existence of so many people in the USA who disbelieve in evolution.  Facing the idea of “Intelligent Design,” the reviewer asks why an intelligent designer would not have created an ecosystem in which all life-forms lived out full life-spans with a minimum of fuss and bother.  “All trees would benefit from sticking to a pact to stay small, but natural selection drives them ever upward in search of the light that their competitors also seek. Surely an intelligent designer would have put the rainforest canopy somewhat lower, and saved on tree trunks?” 

As far as I can tell, “Intelligent Design” is another name for “The Argument from Design,” the claim that the orderliness of the observed world shows that world to be the product of supernatural creation.  In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (first published in 1777,) David Hume tackled the Argument from Design.  After pointing out several flaws in the logical structure of the argument, Hume demonstrates that even if it did not show those flaws, even if the argument did in fact prove the existence of a Creator, it would tell us nothing about that Creator. It certainly would not prove that the Creator had any particular relationship to us, nor even that S/He deserved our worship.  Moreover, the argument itself presupposes knowledge which humans do not in fact have, a presupposition which verges on blasphemy.  From Part Five of Hume’s work:

You have no reason, on your theory, for ascribing perfection to the Deity, even in his finite capacity, or for supposing him free from every error, mistake, or incoherence, in his undertakings. There are many inexplicable difficulties in the works of Nature, which, if we allow a perfect author to be proved a priori, are easily solved, and become only seeming difficulties, from the narrow capacity of man, who cannot trace infinite relations. But according to your method of reasoning, these difficulties become all real; and perhaps will be insisted on, as new instances of likeness to human art and contrivance. At least, you must acknowledge, that it is impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether this system contains any great faults, or deserves any considerable praise, if compared to other possible, and even real systems. Could a peasant, if the Aeneid were read to him, pronounce that poem to be absolutely faultless, or even assign to it its proper rank among the productions of human wit, he, who had never seen any other production?

 But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprize must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making. In such subjects, who can determine, where the truth; nay, who can conjecture where the probability lies, amidst a great number of hypotheses which may be proposed, and a still greater which may be imagined?

And what shadow of an argument, continued Philo, can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove the unity of the Deity? A great number of men join in building a house or ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth; why may not several deities combine in contriving and framing a world? This is only so much greater similarity to human affairs. By sharing the work among several, we may so much further limit the attributes of each, and get rid of that extensive power and knowledge, which must be supposed in one deity, and which, according to you, can only serve to weaken the proof of his existence. And if such foolish, such vicious creatures as man, can yet often unite in framing and executing one plan, how much more those deities or demons, whom we may suppose several degrees more perfect!

In the spirit of Hume’s argument, we might answer The Economist‘s reviewer by pointing out that we haven’t the foggiest idea what an intelligent designer of the physical universe might have done about tree trunks in the Amazon, or about anything else.  Perhaps the designer is cruel, and delights in the suffering of trees.  Or perhaps S/He values the abstract simplicity of evolutionary theory over the concrete simplicity of a world in which life is predictable, and so chose evolution as the means by which to create life.  Or perhaps S/He wanted extra tree trunks around, because His/ Her supreme goal in creating the universe was to fatten up termites. 

Whatever the “Intelligent Design” movement may be in relation to biology, in relation to philosophical theology it is some centuries out of date.  Indeed, the Argument from design was by no means new when Hume took it on.  Although it was fashionable in his day, largely due to William Paley’s application of it to Newtonian physics, it had been in and out of fashion among theologians since the eleventh century.  Thomas Aquinas, for example, was very skeptical about the versions of the argument that were current in his time, and none of his “Five Ways” of demonstrating the existence of God can fairly be classified as a form of it.

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