Monday, March 27, 2017

Is the Design Inference Really That Simple?

            I was listening to yet another iteration of the argument from design the other day, based on the idea that design is the simplest explanation for the fine tuning of the universe. The fine tuning argument, for those who don’t know, is based on the idea that there are several fundamental constants inherent in the physics of the universe that could not be varied from what they are by anything more than the tiniest fraction without the entire universe as we know it being rendered impossible. For example, if the gravitational constant were much higher than it is the universe would have collapsed on itself within seconds of the Big Bang, and if it were much lower gravity wouldn’t be strong enough to form stars and galaxies. That’s just one example among many, and the argument goes that there are just too many variables that have to exist in too small a range to be mere products of chance. Therefore, concludes the argument, the inference that there was a designer for the universe is the simplest explanation.
            But is that really a simple explanation?
            I had heard this “simplest explanation” argument in a debate I was listening to, and the debater’s opponent didn’t address the topic in the way I might have. I won’t go into his argument, though, since I flatter myself that you’re reading this because you want to get my thoughts rather than just my regurgitation of someone else’s.
            And, in my opinion, there’s no reason to think “design” is a simple explanation at all.
            Have you ever designed something? You probably have, even if it was only something as simple as an arrangement of furniture in your living room. As an engineer I design things for a living, so I’d like to think I have a little bit of insight into the process. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing simple about it.
            You see, when looking at any aspect of a designed thing, the answer to the question “Why is it like that?” is never “because it was designed that way.” There are reasons for every decision that goes into a design. Every aspect of a design is meant to solve a problem or achieve a purpose. Even something as simple as a hammer, you can ask and answer a lot of questions about it. Why does it have a handle? Because it acts as a lever to multiply force for less effort. Why does it have a flat face? To provide a stable striking surface. Why is the head made of hardened steel? So it isn’t damaged by repeated impacts against iron nails. Why is the handle shaped the way it is? To fit in a human hand.
            Of course, you could answer any of those questions with “because it was designed that way,” if you wanted to, but to do so would be a dodge. It doesn’t explain anything. Because even if there is a designer, he/she/it still has reasons for the decisions that were made. Those reasons will be related to the nature of the designer, the task it’s trying to accomplish, the constraints within which it has to work, and the problems it has to overcome in order to get there. All of that stuff is complicated, and trying to stop at “because it was designed that way,” is just an attempt to hide that complexity. Or to hide from it.
            It seems, in these sorts of arguments, that there’s a buried assumption that conscious actors don’t do things for anything as mundane as reasons. As if merely slotting in a conscious entity serves as an explanation in and of itself. Or, at the very least, that the reasons that a conscious entity does something are simply beyond our reach. So designers, being conscious entities, are an explanation, by themselves, full stop. And never mind the fact that this isn’t really borne out by any of our experience with conscious entities.
            There’s another aspect to it, as well. You see, all of our experience tells us that designers, in and of themselves, are complicated. Name something that you have ever seen consciously design anything, and I guarantee you that it is a very complex entity. Hell, even the things we can’t prove are conscious, yet appear to design and build things (e.g. ant colonies) are pretty damn complicated. We’ve never, ever seen a simple designer, and everything we have ever witnessed suggests that such a thing may not even be possible.
            I’ll just add one more thought, here. Given that anything exists, it exists in some state at some point in time. An explanation for how it came to be in that state should, ideally, account for why it’s in that particular state and not a different one. But no matter what state any system is in, “it was designed that way,” is equally applicable to all of them. Which means it still doesn’t actually explain why we have this particular state.
            The universe appears to be a complicated place, and we don’t have any direct evidence for why or how some of those complications came to be the way they are. For that matter, we don’t have any direct evidence for whether they even could have been anything other than what they are. We can’t see (at least, not yet) what determines the gravitational constant, for example. But to infer a designer as the answer doesn’t simplify the problem in any real sense. It just hides the complexity behind a wall of possibly unwarranted assumptions. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Are You Touched by the Babies in the Womb?

            Have you ever seen the following script?

Two twins were talking in the womb:
Tell me, do you believe in life after birth?
Of course. After birth comes life. Perhaps we are here to prepare for what comes after birth.
Forget it! After birth there is nothing! From there, no one has returned! And besides, what would it look like?
I do not know exactly, but I feel that there are lights everywhere … Perhaps we walk on our own feet, and eat with our mouth.
This is utterly stupid! Walking isn’t possible! And how can we eat with that ridiculous mouth? Can’t you see the umbilical cord? And for that matter, think about it for a second: postnatal life isn’t possible because the cord is too short.
Yes, but I think there is definitely something, just in a different way than what we call life.
You’re stupid. Birth is the end of life and that’s it.
Look, I do not know exactly what will happen, but Mother will help us…
The Mother? Do you believe in the Mother? !
Yes.
Do not be ridiculous! Have you seen the Mother anywhere? Has anyone seen her at all?
No, but she is all around us. We live within her. And certainly, it is thanks to her that we exist.
Well, now leave me alone with this stupidity, right? I’ll believe in Mother when I see her.
You cannot see her, but if you’re quiet, you can hear her song, you can feel her love. If you’re quiet, you can feel her caress and you will feel her protective hands.

            This was making its rounds a little while back in social media circles, accompanied by gushing comments about how beautiful it is. And it was kind of aggravating to me, because from my perspective it’s ugly and dishonest. Let me explain why.
            Now, obviously, this is meant as an analogy to belief in a god and the afterlife, with one baby representing the “atheist,” and the other representing the “believer.” Which brings me immediately to the first reason this little vignette is both ugly and dishonest: Atheist Baby is a blatant asshole. His questions aren’t honest inquiries, but simply set-ups for insults that he delivers with strident exclamations. You’re supposed to dislike Atheist Baby because he has a shitty personality. By contrast, Believer Baby is portrayed as calm and reasonable and likable. This is pure emotional manipulation aimed at making the reader like Believer Baby’s position better because they like Believer Baby himself better. It also plays to the stereotype that atheists are just nasty, condescending jerks.
            The other dishonest thing it’s supposed to do is distract you from the fact that both babies are arguing in exactly the same manner. Each one is simply declaring things that they have no way of knowing. One is being a jerk about it, and the other is being nice, but they are both doing the same thing. Of course, here’s where the author cheats: he always has Atheist Baby assert with absolute conviction and contempt things that we know are wrong, and Believer Baby assert in a reasonable-sounding and friendly manner things that we know are true.
            And that’s the trick. The author is trying to make you think that this analogy of birth and life is comparable to real questions about death and the afterlife. There’s never any reason given in the story to think that either baby could possibly know anything about what happens after birth. But the author, and anyone reading this thing, lives in the world that Believer Baby is describing. Believer Baby says correct things only because the author knows they’re correct and puts those words in his mouth. Atheist Baby says incorrect things only because the author knows they’re incorrect and puts those words in his mouth.
            The thing is Believer Baby could have spoken any nonsense at all, and Atheist Baby would have had exactly as much reason to believe it as he has to believe what was actually said in the story. It’s the fact that you already know what happens after birth that the author counts on to get you to skate past the fact that Believer Baby hasn’t actually justified anything he said. The author wants you to believe that, because Believer Baby is right about birth, then you ought to accept that religious believers are right about death. Which is why it’s funny that I’ve found this story on different sites promoting different religions, each of which have different beliefs about what the afterlife is like. The story is, conveniently, vague enough to be useful to promote pretty much any afterlife you want.


             All of that in addition to just the practical questions about the story itself. Such as:

·         How do these babies even know about birth in the first place? They would never have been in the womb to see one.
·         Where did Believer Baby get the idea of walking? It isn’t even a concept that would make sense to someone whose only experience is floating in a cramped uterus.
·         Are we supposed to think all this knowledge was inherent, or mystically imparted? If so, why was only one baby gifted with the knowledge of what the outside world is like, when both were gifted with the knowledge of what birth is?


Further, the analogy of birth with death is just a bad one because they are very different processes. An observer in the womb sees a completely different situation during birth than an observer in the world sees during death. If you were watching a birth from inside the womb, you would see a physical baby moving through an aperture in a physical barrier. You’d probably still hear their voice from the other side, suggesting they continue to exist in some other space. You might know little to nothing about it, but there should be little doubt that the baby has gone someplace else. It’s literally just like someone walking into another room – a change of location rather than a change of state. Whereas in death, the dead person physically remains here, but has lost the quality of being animate and able to interact volitionally with others. You don’t see him pass through anything, you don’t see him going anywhere, he didn’t leave. He has changed state without changing location. This is just a terrible analogy.

            This is not a beautiful story. It’s ugly from its core. It’s a deception, and a manipulation, based entirely on using unpleasant stereotypes to hide bad reasoning. And it is those things, even if you ultimately agree with what it’s selling.