Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Evening Note for Tuesday, February 12

Thought for the Evening: Three Structures of Design Argument

I've previously noted that in the usual division for theistic arguments, still popular due to the influence of Kant, 'ontological argument' is not a very coherent family; they are all a priori in some sense of the term, but not always in the same sense, and arguments that get assigned to the category may diverge from each other in practically every particular. This is less true of 'cosmological arguments' and 'teleological or design arguments', but it is nonetheless true that the tripartite division fails as a clear guide even there. When we talk about design arguments, for instance, a number of structurally very different things can be included. I've mentioned Lewis Ezra Hicks's correct recognition of the important differences between what he calls teleological design arguments and eutaxiological design arguments, which is a good example, but not the only one. There are at least three very different kinds of teleological design argument; they are often mixed together, so it's not surprising that people fail to recognize the differences, but they are not the same.

The first, and most obvious, and most widely recognized due to the fact that it tends to be associated with the discussions of design in Hume and Paley, is concerned with signs of design in an effect; from these signs of design, one concludes that there must be a designer. As Cleanthes puts it in Hume's Dialogues:

The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.

If we look at the heyday of the design argument, however, we find that this is far from being the only approach on the table. For about a fifty-year range in the eighteenth century, one of the most popular (perhaps the most popular) philosophical genres was what we might call physico-theology, after the most influential work in the genre, William Derham's Physico-Theology, published in 1713. While there are physico-theology-like works prior to Derham, Derham's book, and its companion book Astrotheology (1714), touched off something like a craze of little books, all of them concerned to show divine design throughout the natural world. It became especially popular in parts of German Europe, where there was already a high interest in books of natural history. The range of topics is a bit breathtaking. There was, to give just obvious examples that are often listed when historians talk about the topic, Seidel's Bombyco-Theologie (on silkworms, 1718), Menz's Rana-Theologie (on frogs, 1724), Rappold's Locusta-Theologie (on grasshoppers, 1730), Fabricius's Hydrotheologie (on water, 1735), Lesser's Lithotheology (on rocks and minerals, 1735) Lesser's Insecto-Theologia (on insects, 1738), Rohr's Phytotheologie (on plants, 1740), Denso's Chortotheologie (on grasses, 1741), Zorn's Petino-Theologie (on birds, 1742), Ahlwardt's Brontotheologie (on lightning, 1746), Richter's Ichthyotheologie (on fish, 1754). The interest in the subject never quite died out, and the genre always remained popular among readers; you can also find notable late bloomers, like Balfour's Phyto-Theology (on plants, 1851). But the first half of the eighteenth century really is the blossoming of the approach. When scholars talk about them, they often do so either disparagingly or with an amused wink-wink toward the audience at the crazy people who thought grass was an argument for the existence of God. This is entirely unfair, despite weaknesses in the approach. For one thing, even if one considered the arguments absurd, you have only to open them to see on every page more enthusiasm for the scientific study of the world than you can usually ever find in their more cynical disparagers and scoffers. But more than that, the people who wrote in the genre were often active researchers in the fields they were discussing, and physico-theological works were often a context in which their scientific discoveries were made more widely known. Derham, most famous for his excellent work on measuring the speed of sound, wrote his Astrotheology on the basis of his own astronomical observations, and the work contains several new astronomical discoveries. The books also in a real sense constituted the most effective and successful scientific popularization movement in history.

One reason why people might be inclined to depreciate them is over-assimilation to Paley. They are not, however, usually arguing that (say) frogs exhibit signs of design and therefore a divine designer exists. You do occasionally run across an argument of that structure, but it is not very common. The actual arguments are based on (to use one of Derham's favorite terms) manifestation, and the argument runs in the reverse of what people tend to assume. They generally start with God's existence as a hypothesis and ask the question, "Do we find features in the phenomena that can be seen as showing the divine existence hypothesized?" And their idea is that if you find lots of such cases across lots of phenomena, this strengthens the hypothesis, even though it doesn't give a proof of it. (They also see it as showing that scientific study of even little things, like grasshoppers or grasses, touches on matters of great import.)

The third kind is eliminative. It posits that there are can only be three kinds of explanation for phenomena: design by a designer, chance, laws of nature. It then proceeds to argue that chance and laws of nature are inadequate in some particular case, leaving design by a designer as the conclusion to be drawn. This differs from the manifestative argument in that it is not hypothetical, and it differs from the first kind of argument in that it is not a direct causal inference.

If you accept one, nothing really prevents you from accepting the other two, and you do find people who accept one using another occasionally. And there is mutual influence -- for instance, Paley's watch is almost certainly derived from Derham, who wrote an entire treatise on clocks and uses the watch as an example at least once. But they are different arguments. Not only are they structurally different, the possible objections to each are very different. Contrary to popular belief, objections from 'bad design' are practically useless against causal and eliminative arguments; deployed against those arguments they provably commit elementary logical fallacies. Against manifestative design arguments, however, they have some bite, because of the different structural direction of the argument. Arguments that our sense of design is anthropomorphic have potential force against causal design arguments, but are weaker against manifestative arguments and arguably useless against eliminative ones. You could extend the list; there are objection cocktails you could make to deal with all three, just as you could make an argument cocktail using all three, but no specific objection will address all three equally well -- they do not share their primary inferential structures and they introduce design in three different ways.

Various Links of Interest

* Richard Marshall interviews James Orr on Edith Stein, phenomenology, and analytic theology (this interview first started me thinking about the above)

* Daniel Lakens, Does your philosophy of science matter in practice? at "The 20% Statistician".

* Karen Bennett, There is no special problem with metaphysics (PDF)

* Chris Knight discusses laughter from an anthropological perspective.

* David Robson has a nice article on ideophones, one of the most important elements of language.

Currently Reading

Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion
Plotinus, The Enneads
Xiong Shili, New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior
Michael Flynn, The January Dancer

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