Monday, 19 July 2010

Intelligent design and the unexplained analogy

Bit of new book for comments. I did something similar to the following in the Humanism book.

Another version of semantic goalpost shifting is the unexplained analogy.

In the introduction I outlined an objection to a certain sort of argument for theism – the argument that the universe appears, for example, to be fine-tuned, and that a designer god provides the best available explanation for its fine-tuned character. The objection is based on the thought that if God is a non-temporal agent, a sort a cosmic super-intelligence that creates time and space, then we run up against the objection that talk of a non-temporal agent appears to make scarcely more sense than, say, talk of a non-spatial mountain.

To recap: for something to be a mountain is for it to have parts spatially arranged in a particular way. It must have a summit and sides, for example, which requires that one part must be higher than another. If we strip away the spatial context, talk of a mountain no longer makes sense.

Similarly, to talk of an agent is to talk about a being that has beliefs and desires on the basis of which it more or less rationally acts. However, the concepts of belief and desire are concepts of psychological states having temporal duration. If desires are states with temporal duration, how could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did this agent perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed?

In order to deal with this sort of difficulty, we might, as some theists do, insist that theistic talk of an intelligent designer should not be understood literally. We are positing, not literally an intelligent agent, but something merely analogous to such an agent.

But does this appeal to analogy, as its stands, succeed in salvaging the explanation of fine-tuning in terms of an intelligent designer? No.

Compare s similar case. Suppose I try to explain some natural phenomenon by appealing to the existence of a non-spatial mountain. Critics point out that talk of non-spatial mountains is nonsensical. I roll my eyes and insist they have misunderstood. I am not talking about a literal mountain, but something merely analogous to a mountain. Does this save my explanation?

It depends. Suppose my analogy is this: that the guilt of a nation concerning some terrible deed weighs like a huge mountain on the collective psyche of its citizens. This is an interesting analogy. Moreover, it does actually avoid the conceptual problem that plagues the claim as literally understood. Guilt, it would appear, isn’t the kind of thing that occupies space in the way a literal mountain does. So there’s no conceptual problem with talk of a non-spatial mountain of guilt.

But remember – I am supposed to be explaining some natural phenomenon by means of this analogy. Suppose the phenomenon is a major earthquake. People wonder why the earthquake occurred. I maintain that the earthquake is a result of the vast weight of this something-analogous-to-a-mountain pressing down and causing a seismic shift.

Now that my analogy is clear, it is also clear that my explanation is hopeless. Collective guilt doesn’t cause earthquakes. Something merely analogous to a mountain doesn’t possess the same causal and explanatory powers that a real mountain would possess.

You can now see why those who try to explain features of the universe by appealing to something merely analogous to an intelligent agent have a great deal of explaining to do. The onus is on them to explain:

(i) exactly what the intended analogy is,
(ii) how the analogy avoids the charge of nonsense levelled at the literally-understood version of the claim, and
(iii) how this something-merely-analogous-to-a-so-and-so is supposed to retain the relevant explanatory powers that a literal so-and-so would possess.

My explanation of the earthquake by appealing to a non-spatial mountain did answer (i) and (ii). However, I failed to explain how my something-analogous-to-a-mountain could cause or explain an earthquake.

Often, theists don’t even bother to explain (i) and (ii). When asked how we are supposed to make sense of such a non-temporal intelligent designer, they simply say, “Oh dear – you’ve misunderstood, my talk of an intelligent designer is not meant to be understood literally. It’s merely an analogy.” As if this remark, by itself, were sufficient to deal with the objection. It is not.

Unless the theist can provide satisfactory answers to all three questions, their “explanation” is hopeless. They haven’t explained anything. Such appeals to unexplained analogy bring the debate about intelligent design, not up to a level of sophistication and profundity, but down to the level of evasion and obfuscation.

None of this is to say that the use of analogy might not provide us with a useful tool in thinking about God. The objection is not to the use of analogy per se, but to the use of the unexplained analogy to deal with objections: “Ah, it’s merely analogy. So, problem solved!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Alan Bennet's "The sermon" (Beyond the fringe)

One of the funniest things I have ever heard was Bennett in a dog collar doing his "sermon" in Beyond The Fringe. I am using a bit as an example of pseudo-profundity in latest book (more to come shortly).

First verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Second Book of Kings: ‘And he said, “But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.”’ Perhaps I might say the same thing in a different way by quoting you those words of that grand old English poet, W.E. Henley, who said:

“When that One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
It matters not who won or lost,
But how you played the game.”

‘But how you played the game.’ Words very meaningful and significant for us here, together, tonight. Words we might do very much worse than to consider. And I use this word ‘consider’ advisedly. Because I am using it, you see, in its original Greek sense of ‘con—sid-er’, of putting one’s self in the way of thinking about something.

I want us here, together, tonight to put ourselves in the way of thinking about … to put ourselves in the way of thinking about, umm … what we ought to be putting ourselves in the way of thinking about.

As I was on my way here tonight, I arrived at the station and by an oversight I happened to go out by the way one is supposed to come in. As I was going out, an employee of the railway company hailed me. ‘Hey Jack!’ he shouted, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’. That, at any rate, was the gist of what he said. But you know, I was grateful to him because, you see, he put me in mind of the kind of question I felt I ought to be asking you here tonight: ‘Where do you think you’re going?’

Very many years ago, when I was about as old as some of you are now, I went mountain climbing in Scotland with a friend of mine. And there was this mountain, you see, and we decided to climb it. So, very early one morning, we arose and began to climb. All day we climbed. Up and up and up — higher and higher and higher — until the valley lay very small below us, and the mists of the evening began to come down, and the sun to set. And when we reached the summit, we sat down to watch this magnificent sight of the sun going down behind the mountains. And as we watched, my friend, very suddenly, and violently, vomited.

Some of us think life’s a bit like that, don’t we? But it isn’t. Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!

And so now I draw to a close. I want you, when you go out into the world, in times of trouble and sorrow and hopelessness and despair, amid the hurley-burley of modern life. If ever you’re tempted to say: ‘Stuff this for a lark!’, I want you, at such times, to cast your minds back to the words of my first text to you tonight: ‘But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.’

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Via Ferrata - black and white film

Tomeselli via ferrata, DolomitesHoward on my recent trip to Italian Dolomites. More of the book coming soon....