Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Luddites and The Evolution Machine

When Newton’s “clockwork” universe was “discovered” shortly before the 18th century, European culture had been familiar with mechanical clocks and automata of increasing sophistication for over 400 years. Once primed with their burden of potential energy and released, the ordered yet complex motions of clocks and automata continued without further human intervention - its maker could then walk away and let it run. These clever pieces of engineering provided the prototypes of a new paradigm and they have been used as an instructive model by philosophers ever since. Moreover, early anatomical studies helped the paradigm along.  It was natural enough, then, for the interpreters of Newton to use the automaton as an analogy to draw conclusions about the relation of God to His creation. In particular, the notion of a Deistical God who built the universe in the manner of a human engineer and then left it to its devices is a notion still very much with us today. The advent of Quantum randomness didn’t change the picture very much either: Probability, like the tossing of a coin, is also subject to mathematical laws; moreover everyday observations suggest that the disorder of randomness is often a sign of the absence of intelligent management. Consequently mathematical randomness is inclined to subsume under the heading of mechanism. Nowadays those physical mechanisms are portrayed as being so good at creating variety and form that many doubt that a Divine creator and sustainer is needed at all; the successes of mechanism in generating patterns may prompt the idea that somehow mechanism can even “self create”; such a notion may in the final analysis be unintelligible, but it is probably at the back of some people’s minds. The upshot is that the concept of the cosmos as a grand logically self sufficient mechanism is now so embedded in our consciousness that many effectively say of God “I do not need that hypothesis”

The underlying ideas driving this kind of thinking are a very anthropomorphic; gone is the idea that God is so totalizing an entity that He is an environment, but instead God is imagined to be in an environment - almost to an extent reminiscent of the Grecian view of gods, gods who have very human attributes and live in a very human environment. The picture is of a God who, much like a human artisan, one day creates a cosmic sized mechanism that once running needs little sustenance, and which he can then walk out on and leave to manage itself.

Ironically the fundamentalists and anti-evolutionists share in this mindset; they have a sneaky suspicion that the atheists are right and that somehow mechanism, like the machines of the industrial revolution, is likely to put people out of work - even a cosmic designer. Anxious therefore to have a God who doesn’t put himself out of a job they downplay the abilities of mechanism to generate form and variety. It is no surprise then that for fundamentalists and anti-evolutionists using mechanism to explain life is bad, bad, bad, whereas using Divine fait is good, good, good.

There is a strong common gut feeling that the “Law and Disorder” mechanisms of modern physics betoken a regime that can function apart from the presence of God. The underlying anthropomorphism inherent in this form of deism is not only at the root of atheist thinking but also, ironically, not far away in anti-evolutionist thinking. For example in this blog entry on Uncommon Descent we are presented with an apt metaphor for this sentiment; we hear of “Darwin’s unemployed God” as if, as I have already said, God is a frustrated divine artisan in some Greek myth. It is this sort of anthropomorphic outlook which, I submit, means that Richard Johns paper on self organization appeals to anti-evolutionists. (See my blog post here). Johns’ thesis tries to show how a law and disorder package cannot effectively be the creator of complex variety and form. This (false) conclusion will find a very receptive audience amongst the anti-evolutionists, because so many of them have a subliminal deistical view that although law and disorder needs little or no divine management, it nevertheless has no right to compete with God as the creator of form and variety. They are therefore anxious to downplay the role of physical mechanism and re-employ God as the miraculous intervener by positing a world that requires large dollops of arbitrary divine fiat.

At the start of his paper Johns uses a polemical method that helps assist the anti-evolutionist view of minimizing the role of mechanism. Johns hamstrings any chance that self organization might have been the cause of evolution by explicitly excising any intelligence that could be used to select a dynamical system which could favour evolution. He effectively posits a know-nothing agent who is completely blind to an overview of the situation and thus has no chance of selecting the dynamics that gives self organization a chance. He is not only tying the boxer’s hands behind his back but he has blindfolded him as well. Ironically Johns is kicking God out of His own creation

In the anti-evilutionist and fundamentalist mind evolution is defined by the absent of contrivance, so it is no surprise that their version of evolution fails to work and that they regard themselves as the only purveyors of authentic intelligent design. They don’t believe that theistic evolutionists can be serious about intelligent design, and as I have already indicated, their subliminal deism will lead them to accuse Theistic Evolutionists of giving God his redundancy notice. That’s in spite of the fact that an evolutionist like Sir John Polkinghorne claims to be an intelligent design creationist. It’s little wonder then that people like John Polkinghorne are not sympathetic to the anti-evolutionists. Neither am I. I wouldn’t say that I’m a 100% convinced by standard evolutionary theory (Caveat: that may be down to my ignorance of the details of evolutionary theory) but I stand by it partly because of some of the crass philosophy one finds amongst the anti-evolutionists. As Nietzsche said:

Sometimes we remain true to a cause simply because its opponents are unfailingly tasteless. (or stupid – ed)

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