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.