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!

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