Monday, March 11, 2013

Immanent teleology and holism

I've been thinking a bit about thinkers who recognize teleology in nature but don't want to attribute this to a superpowerful and intelligent being. Here I have Thomas Nagel in mind, but it may be that Stephen L. Talbott also fits the description. Talbott is particularly interested in organismal holism, and this thought came to me:

If it appears that the parts of an organism do not work without the whole organism and that the whole organism does not work without its parts, or even that "parts" is an overly crude word for the dynamic relationship between, say, enzymes, proteins, or cells and an organism as a whole, this apparent holism argues not for some kind of immanent teleology which (in some unspecified manner) makes gradualist Darwinian explanations more plausible by making Darwinism itself (in some unspecified sense) teleological. Rather, it is evidence for a more radical degree of intervention (that bogey of the theistic evolutionists) even than some Intelligent Design theorists want to hold out for--namely, that an intelligent being made the whole organism at once.

In other words, recognition of the importance of organs as wholes and of the nearly insoluble chicken-and-the-egg problem of an issue like body plan development in the newly conceived embryo constitutes, whether people realize it or not, an argument for special creation of species.

Notice that by itself this says nothing about the age of the earth. Progressive creationism could also involve special creation at widely spaced intervals.


William Luse said...

I wish you had posted this at W4 so I could watch the ID'ers, the Thomists and the Darwinians go at it for 200+ comments.

By the way, if I can think of something actually interesting to say, I will say it.

Lydia McGrew said...

That's why I didn't do it. And since when do we ever have any IDers other than me commenting at W4? Never that I can remember. But it's okay, I can tell you how each group would react:

IDers: "This is great! You are so welcome in our group. Well said!" (They _actually_ have a fruitful big tent.)

Thomists: "Oh, yawn, this is all so boring. We know all that we need to know about this stuff by pure metaphysical reasoning. Beyond that we're uninterested in the empirical evidence."

Darwinians1 (non-theistic): "Hahaha, what fools you people are! Just keep talking. This along with saying that you want to outlaw IVF plays into our hands so well. See, there really _is_ a war of science with religion! Evidence? Pshaw. Of _course_ Darwinian mechanisms can account for _all_ the evidence. Nothing is ever a problem for it."

Darwinians2(theistic): "You need to get over being afraid of science. Science and religion really work together. I have no problem with Darwinism as a mechanism in natural theology, and you shouldn't have such a hang-up either. It manifests God's glory because it shows that the whole world 'wants' to produce life. Oh, you said there's evidence that it _won't_ work as a mechanism for bringing about all these organisms by natural causes? I didn't notice that. I'll have to move along now. But meanwhile, remember--You, as a Christian, don't have to be _afraid_ to embrace Darwinism. (Plus, it makes us Christians look bad.)"

Lydia McGrew said...

I saw a blogger posting on this topic the other day and simply *asserting* that all the incredible, apparently teleological complexity that we find in life on earth was packed into the Big Bang and that the mistake made by both anti-ID and ID writers is in thinking that the Big Bang represents just a chaotic explosion of particles.

This is completely false. Those making empirical teleological arguments typically make them in a layered fashion. In fact, scientists evidently have quite a few (I'm assuming for the sake of the argument) well-supported conjectures about the conditions at the Big Bang. It appears that they do have some interesting anti-entropic properties relevant to things like the probable development of certain types of stars, all of which are *necessary* conditions for the existence of life. These constitute one type of argument for super-powerful design of the universe. However, it simply is not true that we have scientific evidence of *sufficient* conditions for the existence of life alone, much less the variety of species, "packed into" the conditions of the Big Bang. Far, far from it. the only argument for such a conclusion is a question-begging one that sufficient conditions must be there because, after all, here it all is. That, of course, assumes that there could never be any intelligent intervention after the point of the Big Bang. I note that most people who are not die-hard materialists do *not* believe that sufficient conditions for the later "arising" of Chartes Cathedral are packed into the explosion of the Big Bang! They acknowledge that that was deliberately created, and *had* to be deliberately created, by the further intervention of intelligent beings--namely, human beings exercising creativity and free will.

So I want to know how this blogger knows that sufficient conditions for the evolution of the life forms on earth were simply built into the orderliness of the Big Bang. Because I have news for him: Scientifically speaking, we do not have evidence to that effect.

But it makes people feel better to be able to push Divine activity back as far as possible and not to have to postulate any *more* argument for Divine design than just some extremely general, high-level "orderliness in the universe"--namely, the orderliness of physical law. Trying to tell them that, yes, physical law is a wonderful thing, but it isn't *enough* to produce what we have, is like talking to a brick wall.

Kristor said...

Well, the potential that Chartres would "emerge" was certainly packed into the singularity. But so were googol to the googolth worldlines in which there would be no Earth at all, or anything anywhere that was like a cathedral. So saying that the potential for Chartres was there in the singularity is uninformative. It's a totally safe assertion, because it isn't actually saying anything. It's like saying, "stuff happens!" How could it be otherwise?

So saying doesn't help the theist, or the atheist. It's just happy talk, or zen, or something.

The appearance of any integrated whole consisting of interacting parts pleas for special creation. This includes such things as planets - which are really slow vortices - and crystals. Over an apporpriate time frame, the appearance of any such system, no matter how many discrete events you might be able to parse it into, is going to look virtually instant. I.e., no matter how many seconds or millions of years it took for coordinated whole x to be cobbled together, its coordination qua whole cannot be accounted for by any of the steps, or by all of them. The whole has to somehow be there as a formal destination in order for any of the steps to have actual effect as constitutive steps.

This, even though we can see what role each part plays in the completed whole system, and even though we can specify each of the steps that led up to its complete assembly. Even with all that, the parts and their interactions don't account for the whole - because if the whole were not a whole, were not complete, *none of the steps of its assembly would count as steps of its assembly,* and *none of its parts would count as parts.* Steps and parts are discernible as such only once the whole itself is discernible.

In the final analysis, the same goes for any motion. You can't tell what a motion is until it is complete; so there is no way to tell what its causes are until they are causes of it. The causes assume their character as causes of x only by virtue of the actuality of x.

So, every actual motion x is amenable to treatment as a special creation. It is in virtue of the special creation of x that the causes, factors, parts, steps of x take up their character as causes, factors, parts, and steps.

Lydia McGrew said...

Sorry, to clarify: When I spoke of Chartres or something else being "packed into" the singularity, I meant in some determinative (if not deterministic) way: That is, that the conditions at the Big Bang made it *probable* that Chartres, as opposed to non-Chartres, would emerge. That, I think we can safely say, was not the case. That's why people had to make Chartres deliberately, or it wouldn't have happened.

I'm not sure that I agree about a crystal pleading for special creation. Even though snowflakes are beautiful, they really do appear to be well-accounted for by secondary causes. If we know that (and a particular person might not know it), we know that they don't appear to be a miracle. God _could_ specially create a particular snowflake, but we have no particular reason to think that he does, because we have good reason to think secondary causes are sufficient for it.

I think probably what this statement of mine reflects is that I am more a modern than an Aristotelian. If a pendulum is swinging in a breeze (say), I don't think that we have to say that the "shape" of pendulum swings that we could draw underneath (it would look like something made by a spirograph, one of those wonderful old kids' toys with which I spent much happy time as a child) must exist ahead of time as the "teleological end" of the pendulum and that the pendulum swings occur "so that" that pattern of swings will be achieved. Certainly I don't say that that is true in anything like the sense that the functioning of Microsoft Word must exist ahead of time as a teleological end and that the actual physical aspects of the software must have been designed "so that" it will work. Yet, I think that living systems are much more like Microsoft Word (or vast libraries of books that all refer to each other, or vast computer networks) than they are like something as _relatively_ simple as a pendulum swinging in the breeze.