Home » Intelligent Design » Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony

Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony

In the past, Intelligent Design has been accused of being tied to a “watchmaker” model of the cosmos. In today’s post, I’m going to look at four different metaphors for the cosmos, all of which are highly relevant for Intelligent Design, and discuss their strengths and limitations.

1. Why Professor Dembski considers Paley’s watch to be a bad metaphor for the world, and why he thinks the lute is a better one

Left: A Renaissance-era lute. Unlike a watch, a lute does not do anything unless a human being is playing it. For this reason, Professor William Dembski, a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, thinks that the lute is a much better metaphor for the world than a watch.
Right: Painter David Hoyer playing a lute by Jan Kupecky (1667-1740). Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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It is an open secret that many Intelligent Design proponents don’t particularly like the watch metaphor for the cosmos. For instance, as far back as 2004, Professor William Dembski, a leading Intelligent Design proponent, wrote an article entitled, Intelligent Design: Yesterday’s Orthodoxy, Today’s Heresy, in which he made the following comments about the watch metaphor:

I am a much bigger fan of the Church Fathers than I am of William Paley. I like Paley and think he has a lot of good insights. But I think the watch metaphor was in many ways unfortunate. It is faulty, because the world is not like a watch.

The Church Fathers did not use the watch. Instead, they spoke about a musical instrument. Gregory of Nazianzus, I think in his second theological oration, makes a design argument which is virtually parallel to William Paley’s, except in place of a watch he has a lute. The lute maker makes the lute, but that is not all. The lute maker is then also interested in playing the lute.

This has huge implications, because it is entirely appropriate to play, or interact with, a lute after it has been created. That is why I think this is a much better metaphor than that of the watch. As Christians, we believe that God is not an absentee landlord. God creates the world but then he also interacts with it.

The watch metaphor is the type of metaphor that we get from a mechanical philosophy, where things work automatically, one thing bumping into another as chain reactions, with things working themselves out. If you have a perfect watch that keeps perfect time and never needs winding, it will go on for ever. But with a lute, or with any musical instrument, you need a lute player; otherwise it is just sitting there. In fact, it is incomplete without the lute player.

(For the record, I would like to point out that Paley himself did not use the watch as a metaphor for the cosmos as a whole, but only for the parts of living things – a point discussed at further length in my recent post, Was Paley a mechanist?)

Catholic philosopher Jay Richards, who is also a well-known proponent of Intelligent Design, approvingly quotes the above passage from Dembski in his book God and Evolution (Discover Institute Press, Seattle, 2010), in an essay entitled, “Understanding Intelligent Design.” The passage provides convincing proof, if any were needed, that Intelligent Design is not tied to a mechanistic view of life. In my last post, Intelligent Design and mechanism: laying a myth to rest, I cited numerous sources from the writings of Professor Dembski and other Intelligent Design proponents, refuting this oft-heard charge.

Problems with the lute metaphor?

In my post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design, I examined the arguments put forward against a mechanistic view of life by the Thomist philosopher, Professor Edward Feser. If I read Feser aright, however, he would object to the use of even the lute metaphor in a philosophical argument for the existence of God, on the grounds that a lute, like a watch, lacks immanent finality. As Feser put it in a recent post:

What is true of hammocks is from an A-T [Aristotelian-Thomistic] point of view true also of watches, cars, computers, houses, airplanes, telephones, cups, coats, beds, doorstops, and countless other things. Like the hammock, they are artifacts rather than true substances because their specifically watch-like, car-like, computer-like, etc. tendencies are extrinsic rather than immanent, the result of externally imposed accidental forms rather than substantial forms…

[S]ince natural objects are (for the A-T philosopher) simply not artifacts in the relevant sense, it is a waste of time to argue for a divine designer on the basis of the assumption that they are…
(Nature vs. art, 30 April 2011)

The above quote suggests that Professor Feser would reject the use of any material artifact serving as a metaphor for the natural world, in a rigorous philosophical argument for the existence of God.

In a 2003 article entitled, Infinite Universe or Intelligent Design?, Professor Dembski stated that “In the theory of intelligent design, specified complexity is a reliable empirical marker for design,” and he also declared that “the specified complexity in artifacts is identical with the specified complexity in natural systems (be they cosmological or biological).” This is the only respect in which living things are the same as artifacts, from the perspective of Intelligent Design theory: both exhibit specified complexity. It is this trait which makes it possible to invoke artifacts (by way of illustration) in arguments for the existence of God.

Nevertheless, Feser has a valid point when he writes that artifacts can never be an adequate metaphor for living things, and I would actually agree with Feser that it is impossible to construct an adequate metaphor for a natural object, for the simple reason that the only kinds of objects remaining are either artifacts (which can never explain the immanent finality of natural objects) or abstract objects (which can never explain the concreteness of material things).

Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to construct metaphors for the way in which natural objects depend on their Creator. Thus I would consider any abstract object which is continually dependent on intelligent agents for its existence, to be a good metaphor for the way in which the world depends on God – even though such an object lacks the concrete particularity of a material object.

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2. A formal metaphor which avoids the pitfalls of artifactual analogies: life as a recipe

A hamburger recipe. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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What is needed, then, is a formal metaphor which is altogether free from the material limitations of an artifact (which lacks immanent finality), and which can therefore be legitimately applied to natural objects (in addition to artifacts), but which at the same time points clearly to an Intelligent Designer of natural objects – including (but not confined to) those objects which contain structures exhibiting specified complexity.

That formal metaphor, I would suggest, is that of a recipe, or sequence of instructions. Intelligent Design advocate Jay Richards invokes this metaphor in his book God and Evolution (Discover Institute Press, Seattle, 2010), in an essay entitled, “Understanding Intelligent design”:

Imagine an expedition of future astronauts is exploring a distant planet. They find something that looks like a stack of thin tablets, which look like they contain written text. The language is unique; no one has seen it before; and the “book” is quite exotic. So it’s given to a crack team of exoplanet cryptographers, who eventually determine that it is in fact a book – a cookbook. Now they know that the text was written by intelligent beings. (2010, p. 259)

Richards emphasizes that in this case, the design inference was made by setting aside the material features of the book – the tablets, binding and cover – and focusing on the text itself, which embodies the book’s formal and final features. The metaphor, then, is that of a recipe itself.

Obviously, the natural world is not just a recipe. A recipe is an abstract object. It is purely formal, and contains no matter. The natural world, on the other hand, consists of concrete objects, each containing (prime) matter, which is realized under some (substantial) form.

Thus the recipe metaphor is not, and cannot be, a metaphor for any natural object. It can, however, serve as a metaphor for the way in which natural objects depend on their Maker, God.

The key point I wish to make here is that the recipe metaphor is one which Thomist critics of Intelligent Design, such as Professor Feser, cannot reasonably take exception to, as it in no way reduces natural objects to the status of artifacts.

The next point to be addressed is whether the recipe metaphor is indeed an apt one. I would argue that it is, in two ways.

First, the entire natural world (i.e. the cosmos as a whole) can be legitimately said to embody a recipe. That is the whole point of the fine-tuning argument.

Second, each and every living thing can be said to embody a recipe. That’s the point conveyed by Dr. Don Johnson’s excellent book, Programming of Life.

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2.1 Is the recipe metaphor for the cosmos and for a living organism a scientifically legitimate one? Is it indispensable?

In order for a metaphor to be legitimately used to establish the existence of a Designer or Creator, at least three conditions need to be satisfied:

(i) the metaphor has to be a scientifically appropriate way of describing whatever it applies to;

(ii) the metaphor has to be a scientifically indispensable way of describing that which it applies to;

(iii) the metaphor has to contain descriptive terms which explicitly refer to mental acts (e.g. plans, promises); and

(iv) for the object to which the metaphor applies, there must be no feasible alternative pathway whereby the object could have come to instantiate the feature described by the metaphor.

I would propose that we can legitimately speak of recipes as occurring on two levels of the natural world: the cosmological and the biological.

In this post, I will not be arguing that metaphors, such as that of the recipe, can be used to establish the existence of God, or even of a Cosmic and/or Biological Designer. I shall address the arguments for God’s existence in my next post.

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2.2 Recipes in the fabric of the cosmos

A timeline of the Big Bang. Image courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia.

A physicist can look at the finely-tuned laws and fundamental constants of Nature, and grasp the fact that these laws, when combined with the initial conditions of the universe, can be regarded as a recipe for producing a cosmos which is capable of supporting life – including intelligent life. The recipe metaphor is particularly apt here, because even a slight variation in either the laws or the initial conditions would have disastrous consequences for the production of the desired result.

CERN, features an article on one of its science Web pages, entitled, Recipe for a Universe, from which I shall quote a brief excerpt:

Recipe for a Universe

Take a massive explosion to create plenty of stardust and a raging heat. Simmer for an eternity in a background of cosmic microwaves. Let the ingredients congeal and leave to cool and serve cold with cultures of tiny organisms 13.7 billion years later.

To understand the basic ingredients and the ‘cooking conditions’ of the cosmos, from the beginning of time to the present day, particle physicists have to try and reverse-engineer the ‘dish’ of the Universe. Within the complex concoction, cryptic clues hide the instructions for the cosmic recipe.

Slowly simmer

Space, time, matter… everything originated in the Big Bang, an incommensurably huge explosion that happened 13.7 billion years ago. The Universe was then incredibly hot and dense but only a few moments after, as it started to cool down, the conditions were just right to give rise to the building blocks of matter – in particular, the quarks and electrons of which we are all made….

The mystery ingredient

So far so good but there is one small detail left out: cosmological and astrophysical observations have now shown that all of the above accounts for only a tiny 4% of the entire Universe. In a way, it is not so much the visible things, such as planets and galaxies, that define the Universe, but rather the void around them!

Most of the Universe is made up of invisible substances known as ‘dark matter’ (26%) and ‘dark energy’ (70%). These do not emit electromagnetic radiation, and we detect them only through their gravitational effects. What they are and what role they played in the evolution of the Universe are a mystery, but within this darkness lie intriguing possibilities of hitherto undiscovered physics beyond the established Standard Model.

Note the terminology in the above article: a recipe, cooking instructions, basic ingredients and the ‘cooking conditions’ of the cosmos. The aptitude of the metaphor is certainly striking.

Cosmology can be defined as the study of the universe,considered as if it were a single object. (That’s a definition given to me by a Japanese cosmologist whom I had the good fortune of meeting, a few years ago.) As we have seen, this object can be said to have been made according to a recipe.

It is also true, however, that the universe itself contains many different kinds of objects, falling under various natural kinds. Perhaps the most familiar of these natural kinds are the elements. The CERN article cited above goes on to describe the formation of these natural kinds, shortly after the Big Bang:

The Universe was then incredibly hot and dense but only a few moments after, as it started to cool down, the conditions were just right to give rise to the building blocks of matter – in particular, the quarks and electrons of which we are all made. A few millionths of a second later, quarks aggregated to produce protons and neutrons, which in turn were bundled into nuclei three minutes later.

Then, as the Universe continued to expand and cool, things began to happen more slowly. It took 380,000 years for the electrons to be trapped in orbits around nuclei, forming the first atoms. These were mainly helium and hydrogen, which are still by far the most abundant elements in the Universe.

Thus the elements we find in Nature are the product of the cosmic recipe that was used to create the universe – a recipe which took billions of years to produce its final results. What’s more, the existence of most of these elements is critically dependent on the constants of Nature having certain critical values. Thus we can legitimately speak of these natural kinds as having been designed.

Wikipedia, in its article on Fred Hoyle, describes the process of reasoning whereby he came to conclude that the laws of physics permitting the element carbon to exist had been designed by a “superintellect”:

An early paper of Hoyle’s made an interesting use of the anthropic principle. In trying to work out the routes of stellar nucleosynthesis, he observed that one particular nuclear reaction, the triple-alpha process, which generates carbon, would require the carbon nucleus to have a very specific resonance energy for it to work. The large amount of carbon in the universe, which makes it possible for carbon-based life-forms of any kind to exist, demonstrated that this nuclear reaction must work. Based on this notion, he made a prediction of the energy levels in the carbon nucleus that was later borne out by experiment.

These energy levels, while needed to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:

Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
—Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November 1981, pp. 8–12.

Natural objects in the inorganic world do not contain the recipe which produced them, but since we now know (thanks to the “fine-tuning” argument – the best version of which can be found in Dr. Robin Collins’ 2009 essay, The Teleological Argument, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, 2009, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.) that there was a cosmic recipe, and since we also know that most (if not all) of the various natural kinds that occur in the world around us are essential to life, which (according to the fine-tuning argument) is what the cosmos was designed for, then we can be quite certain that most of the natural kinds that we find in the world were also designed.

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2.3 Recipes in the biological world

Left: RNA is transcribed in the nucleus; once completely processed, it is transported to the cytoplasm and translated by the ribosome (not shown). Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health, Sverdrup and Wikipedia.
Right: The elongation and membrane targeting stages of eukaryotic translation. The ribosome is green and yellow, the tRNAs are dark blue, and the other proteins involved are light blue. Image courtesy of Bensaccount and Wikipedia.

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When it comes to living organisms, things are much more interesting. While the cosmic recipe established the conditions which were necessary for life to flourish, it does not follow that those natural conditions were sufficient to generate life. And indeed there is good reason to think that these conditions could not have done so.

Living things actually contain a kind of code, like that found in recipes. They are written in language, which contains instructions. What’s special about a living thing, unlike a recipe book, is that the instructions it contains are decoded within the living thing itself. (This is an example of what Feser would call immanent causation.)

While a recipe can be used to make a product (e.g. a cake), it cannot be used to create another recipe. Living things are embodiments of recipes. Thus the recipes we find in living things can be said to reflect a second level of design, on top of the design we find in the cosmos at large.

It may help the reader if he/she tries to imagine a very “futuristic” book containing a list of recipes that (amazingly) are read and decoded within the book itself, that assembled the book together in the first place, that help keep the parts of the book together even when it is placed in a hostile environment (e.g. rainy weather), and that enable the book to make another copy of itself, embodying the same set of instructions. If a book could do all that, with all the parts (from the bottom level up) working systematically to preserve the integrity of the whole, then it would indeed be alive. However, I don’t think that even Kindle will ever make a book like that!

If some of the terminology I used above to describe a living thing strikes some readers as rather extravagant, I can assure them that it is indeed scientifically legitimate. I have attached a list of reputable scientific sources at the end of this post, endorsing the use of the terms “code,” “instructions,” “recipe” and “program,” to describe the workings of living organisms. But a picture is worth a thousand words, so in order to convey my point as clearly as possible, I would like to invite Professor Feser to watch a video produced by the Intelligent Design movement, just as I watched one of his videos. I’m referring to Dr. Don Johnson’s “Programming of Life” video, which can be viewed here. The video is very professionally made, and watching it will indeed be a pleasure, for anyone who has not yet done so. The video should dispel any doubts as to the legitimacy of using informational terms to describe the workings of living organisms.

Scientific references supporting the attribution of digital codes and programs to living things

Top: A plant cell. Bottom: DNA transcription (simple transcription elongation). Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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The testimony of Dr. Don Johnson, Ph.D., Ph.D.

On April 8, 2010, Dr. Don Johnson, who has both a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences, gave a presentation entitled Bioinformatics: The Information in Life for the University of North Carolina Wilmington chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery. Dr. Johnson’s presentation is now on-line here. Both the talk and accompanying handout notes can be accessed from Dr. Johnson’s Web page. Dr. Johnson spent 20 years teaching in universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Europe. Here’s an excerpt from his presentation blurb:

Each cell of an organism has millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information using algorithmic digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information.

I’d like to quote a brief excerpt from Dr. Johnson’s presentation:

“Somehow we have a genetic operating system that is ubiquitous. All known life-forms have the same genetic code. They all have the same protein manufacturing facilities in the ribosomes. They all use the same types of techniques. So something is pre-existing, and the particular genome is the set of programs in the DNA for any particular organism. So the genome is not the DNA, and the DNA is not the program. The DNA is simply a storage device. The genome is the program that’s stored in the storage device, and that depends on the particular organism we’re talking about.”

It is worth repeating Dr. Johnson’s point that DNA itself is not a program. To describe it as one is an inaccurate oversimplification, which ignores the advances in cell biology that have taken place in the last few decades. Neither would it be accurate to say that the suite of programs running within the cell are simply written on its DNA. Instead, DNA could be better described as a data storage device, used by the programs running the cell.

What is important, however, is that we can legitimately speak of a network of regulatory programs existing within the cell, which DNA enables and of which DNA forms a vital part.

On a slide entitled “Information Systems In Life,” Dr. Johnson points out that:

  • the genetic system is a pre-existing operating system;
  • the specific genetic program (genome) is an application;
  • the native language has a codon-based encryption system;
  • the codes are read by enzyme computers with their own operating system;
  • each enzyme’s output is to another operating system in a ribosome;
  • codes are decrypted and output to tRNA computers;
  • each codon-specified amino acid is transported to a protein construction site; and
  • in each cell, there are multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, encoding/decoding hardware and software, specialized communications systems, error detection/correction systems, specialized input/output for organelle control and feedback, and a variety of specialized “devices” to accomplish the tasks of life.

To sum up: the use of the word “program” to describe the workings of the cell is scientifically respectable. It is not just a figure of speech. It is literal.

Darwinian scientists acknowledge the reality of the code in living things, too

But there’s more. The following quotes, which are taken from impeccable scientific sources, establish the scientific legitimacy of using terms like “instructions,” “code,” “information” and “developmental program” when speaking of embryonic development (emphases are mine):

“We know that the instructions for how the egg develops into an adult are written in the linear sequence of bases along the DNA of the germ cells.” James Watson et al., Molecular Biology of the Gene (4th Edition, 1987), p. 747.

And from a more recent source:

“The body plan of an animal, and hence its exact mode of development, is a property of its species and is thus encoded in the genome. Embryonic development is an enormous informational transaction, in which DNA sequence data generate and guide the system-wide spatial deployment of specific cellular functions.” (Emerging properties of animal gene regulatory networks by Eric H. Davidson. Nature 468, issue 7326 [16 December 2010]: 911-920. doi:10.1038/nature09645. Davidson is a Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology.)

Here’s another recent quote, from an article by Schnorrer et al., on the development of muscle function in the fruitfly Drosophila:

“It is fascinating how the genetic programme of an organism is able to produce such different cell types out of identical precursor cells.” (Schnorrer F., C. Schonbauer, C. Langer, G. Dietzl, M. Novatchkova, K. Schernhuber, M. Fellner, A. Azaryan, M. Radolf, A. Stark, K. Keleman, & B. Dickson, Systematic Genetic Analysis of Muscle Morphogenesis and Function in Drosophila. Nature, 464, 287-291 (11 March 2010). doi:10.1038/nature08799.)

And here is a quote from Professor Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, p. 217):

“…[T]here is a mystery, verging on the miraculous (but never quite getting there) in the very fact that a single cell gives rise to a body in all its complexity. And the mystery is only somewhat mitigated by the feat’s being achieved with the aid of DNA instructions. The reason the mystery remains is that we find it hard to imagine, even in principle, how we might set about writing the instructions for building a body in the way the body is in fact built, namely by what I have just called ‘self-assembly’, which is related to what computer programmers call a ‘bottom-up’, as opposed to a ‘top-down’, procedure.

Dawkins goes on to say that in his view, “local rules” make it plausible that this process was accomplished naturally, over a period of one billion years. But what I find interesting is that he nevertheless feels the need to employ terms like “instructions” and “rules,” in order to describe the process whereby an embryo is put together.

Having established the legitimacy of the “recipe” metaphor for life, the next question we need to consider is whether the recipe metaphor is indispensable to biology, or whether it is just a useful way of picturing how living things work. I would argue that the sheer ubiquity of the informational terminology used by scientists to describe life, and the total absence of any attempts to explain life without resorting to such terminology, argues strongly for its indispensability to biology.

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2.4 A short note regarding virtual computers as a metaphor for living things

Left: A segment of a program, written in the Python programming language.
Right: A diagram illustrating the genetic code, according to the “central dogma”, where DNA ic copied to RNA, which is used to make proteins. Shown here are the first few amino acids for the alpha subunit of hemoglobin. The sixth amino acid (glutamic acid, depicted by the symbol “E”) is mutated in sickle cell anemia versions of the hemoglobin molecule.

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Some critics of Intelligent Design might object to the computer metaphor for the cell, which also features in the video. At first sight, it seems to smack of mechanism. However, the definition of “computer” in the video is a very broad one, which focuses on its formal features rather than the relation between its material parts. In particular, the definition does not assume that the parts of a computer have been assembled together. It might help if one thinks of a virtual machine as a metaphor for the cell, rather than a physical computer. Thus on this broad definition, even a living thing could qualify as a computer, as long as it can generate meaningful output. As the “Programming of Life” video puts it:

The necessary and sufficient components of any functional computer are: memory for data storage; an executable program containing instructions for processing data; the processor which executes the instructions; and the capability to produce meaningful output…

DNA and RNA can hold prescriptive information, or programs, and proteins can be used to hold, transfer or process data. Proteins are the output generated by the translation process of a ribosome’s computer system.

I’d now like to return to the recipe metaphor, and explain how it can help us to understand both living things and the cosmos as a whole.

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2.5 A question from Professor Feser: What do I mean by my talk of codes and programs?

In a post entitled, Scotism and ID (UPDATED) (April 27, 2010), Professor Feser made the following astute comments on my use of the recipe metaphor for life:

…Torley’s talk of a living thing’s “program” or “code” is problematic. There seem to me to be three possible interpretations of such language. First, it could be meant as merely a metaphorical way of talking about what are nothing more than certain complex patterns of efficient causation. But in that case it is not clear that it can do the job Torley wants it to do, viz. to differentiate living things from non-living ones, since he evidently (and rightly) takes “finality” or teleology to be essential to understanding life. Second, it could instead be intended to describe irreducibly teleological features of living things that derive from an external source, i.e. a designer. But in that case any ID argument that proceeds from such a description of living things would be circular… Third, it could be taken as a way of describing certain immanently teleological features of organisms. But in that case Torley would be committed to an essentially Aristotelian non-mechanistic conception of life, and he has said that ID makes, for methodological purposes, no such commitment. (As I have argued elsewhere – e.g. here – “program” talk when used by scientists is best interpreted in this third, Aristotelian way.)

In response:

1. Living things are the only natural objects which embody a digital code. This code is not merely a complex pattern of efficient causation; it is irreducibly teleological. It contains instructions that will enable a growing living organism to build itself into a fully developed adult. In short, I am endorsing the third reason proposed by Feser. There is a difference, however, between saying that programs and codes describe “certain immanently teleological features of organisms” (as Feser does, and as I would) on the one hand, and simply saying that programs and codes describe “certain features of organisms” (which happen to be teleological), on the other. An ID researcher could carry out a legitimate scientific research program, working under the latter assumption, preserving ID’s metaphysical neutrality.

2. It would indeed be circular to assume at the outset that life embodies features which by definition require a Designer, and then to argue that such a Designer exists. But that’s not what I’m doing. In my next post, I shall argue at length that rules make up the warp and woof of the natural world: they are found everywhere in things. Rules, however, are inherently linguistic, which means that the world can only be understood in explicitly mentalistic terms. On top of that, some natural objects (i.e. living things) embody a digital code, and contain a program directing their development into a mature adult. That doesn’t prove they were designed. But unless there’s a natural process that can generate programs without any foresight, then a Designer is the only logical explanation. I then argue that the data of science strongly point to the absence of such a magical process that can generate programs without any foresight. Ergo, there is a Designer.

3. I would agree with Feser’s suggestion that talk of codes and programs should be taken as a way of describing certain immanently teleological features of organisms. However, there have been some defenders of Design arguments (e.g. Boyle) who eschewed immanent teleology, viewing it (wrongly, as I believe) as imputing too much to nature and not enough to God. People with this theological viewpoint, upon seeing the programs within the cell, would jump to the conclusion that God put them there, since they effectively view things as nothing more than artifacts. For my part, I think that the conclusion that these programs had an Intelligent Designer requires some argumentation, as well as empirical evidence, as I’ll explain in my next post.

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2.6 How the recipe metaphor enhances the Intelligent Design argument

We can now see the beauty of the Intelligent Design argument, when it is formulated using the metaphor of a recipe: it successfully accounts for both the immanent finality of living things and their need for an Intelligent Cause. Because a living thing is able to read and decode its own instructions, its finality can only be described as immanent, and since the process of reading and decoding is unquestionably an internal one, it also exemplifies immanent causation. (When I say “read and decode,” I do not mean to impute intelligence to living things; rather, what I mean to say is that living things follow certain set procedures which enable it to take the digital code in which their biological recipes are written, decipher this code, and then use that code to accomplish a specific task, which serves the built-in ends of the organism.) But the key point is that recipes have to be written in some sort of language – and language, by definition, is the kind of thing that only an intelligent being can produce. Books, after all, need authors. That is why life itself requires an Author.

The defects of Paley’s watchmaker analogy for living things are now readily apparent. Watches, unlike recipe books, don’t contain a code, are not written in any kind of language and therefore contain no instructions. Thus their need for a Designer is not an inherent one: it is simply based on the fact that, it is extremely hard, in practice, for unguided processes to assemble a watch. And while the finality of a watch is extrinsic, insofar as the watch’s time-telling function is imposed on the parts of the watch for the good of its future owner, this is certainly not true of the recipe book in my hypothetical example.

While we’re on the subject of immanent finality, the recipe metaphor also illustrates why the argument for an Intelligent Cause is so much clearer for living things than for other natural objects in the world around us. Living things contain their own recipes, and recipes, by definition, require a recipe-writer. By contrast, most kinds of natural objects do not contain the recipes that were used to make them, as the cosmos unfolded over billions of years. Hence it is much easier to see why living things require an Author.

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3. An even better metaphor? The cosmos as a musical composition

The opening bars of Mozart’s Paris Symphony (No. 31). Because a symphony is not an artifact, and is continutally dependent on intelligent agents for its existence, I consider it to be a good metaphor for the way in which the world depends on God. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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However, there are two problems with the recipe metaphor for life. First, if the cosmos is pre-programmed to develop according to the recipe that defines it, and if life has evolved from the first living cell, which was produced according to a recipe, then how do we know that the Author of these recipes is still alive? Second, how do we know that there’s just one Author of life and the cosmos? Why couldn’t there be several?

To answer these questions, I’d like to go back to the lute metaphor employed by Professor William Dembski. One of the appealing features of this metaphor is that it emphasized the continual dependence of the cosmos on God. Can we, then, construct a formal metaphor which abstracts from the physical features of Dembski’s lute, but preserves the ongoing relationship of dependence between the lute and the music-maker?

The obvious solution – and I realize that it is a very old one – would be to liken the universe not to the lute itself, but to the melody played on the lute. A melody requires a musician who is making it – and unlike the recipe, the dependence is an ongoing one. But since the world contains a variety of natural objects, that all make different melodies, it would perhaps be more appropriate to liken it to a musical composition – say, a symphony – rather than a single melody. If the cosmos is like a musical composition which is continuously being played, then its Author must be alive and still making the “music of the spheres.”

What is more, the musical metaphor helps us to see why there can only be one Author of Nature. A discordant musical composition might be the work of several musicians who are clashing with one another, but a harmonious composition points to unity. Likewise, the deep underlying unity of the laws of Nature points very clearly to the universe’s having a single Author.

Another striking fact is that the laws of Nature are the same throughout the cosmos. Paley, writing in the nineteenth century, was also struck by the fact that “the laws of nature every where prevail; that they are uniform and universal” (1809, p. 446) – a fact which he adduced as evidence for the omnipresence of the Creator, before going on to argue for the unity of God:

Of the “Unity of the Deity,” the proof is, the uniformity of plan observable in the universe. The universe itself is a system; each part either depending upon other parts, or being connected with other parts by some common law of motion, or by the presence of some common substance. (Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, p. 449)

Interestingly, St. Thomas Aquinas’ argument from the order and harmony of the cosmos, in his Summa Contra Gentiles Book I chapter 13, paragraph 35, reflects the same kind of reasoning:

Damascene proposes another argument for the same conclusion taken from the government of the world [De fide orthodoxa I, 3]. Averroes likewise hints at it [In II Physicorum]. The argument runs thus. Contrary and discordant things cannot, always or for the most part, be parts of one order except under someone’s government, which enables all and each to tend to a definite end. But in the world we find that things of diverse natures come together under one order, and this not rarely or by chance, but always or for the most part. There must therefore be some being by whose providence the world is governed. This we call God.

It is nice to see that on this point, Aquinas and Paley completely agree.

Insofar as the different kinds of natural objects in the natural world tend to work together to make a harmonious whole, we can legitimately speak of Nature as a symphony. The metaphor is apt.

When we examine a living thing, however, the harmonious interplay of parts is still more evident, and our sense of wonder increases. If the universe can be aptly described as a symphony, which requires an Intelligent Player, how much more so a biological organism.

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4. How would a hard-nosed Intelligent Design skeptic respond to the recipe and symphony metaphors?

A winnowing machine. A hard-nosed skeptic would probably prefer to use this mechanical device as a metaphor to explain the cosmos and also the world of living things, rather than the recipe and symphony metaphors. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

So far, I have argued that the recipe and symphony metaphors are valid descriptions of the natural world as a whole, and also the biological world of the cell.But at this point, a hard-nosed skeptic might object as follows:

“I will concede that the universe – and to a much greater degree, the cell – gives the appearance of being designed – and if you wished to be poetic, you might even use the terms ‘recipe’ and ‘symphony’ to describe the order and harmony that we see in the cosmos, and also in the world of the cell. But appearances can be deceptive. You haven’t addressed the question of whether the metaphors you invoke are the only way of understanding the cosmos, or life itself. What if I could show you a non-intentional metaphor that could explain the universe and also the world of living things? Here’s one: a winnowing machine. I maintain that the universe we live in is just one of infinitely many. Most of these universes are “rejects” which are incapable of supporting life. Only a small proportion of universes are hospitable to life. Of course, our universe has to be a life-friendly one, because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here! Similarly, our universe has to be one with regular, unfailing laws, because if it wasn’t, we would have all died out long ago. The same goes for the origin and evolution of life. Even in life-friendly universes, life has failed to evolve on countless occasions, and on countless planets. We just happen to be living on a planet where the attempt succeeded – and after that, life took off. Once again, there’s nothing mysterious about this: if it hadn’t succeeded, we wouldn’t be here. Time and space have done the winnowing. Given a big enough cosmos with a sufficiently large number of universes, the beauty and harmony we find in this one is an inevitability.”

In my next post, I will be replying to the skeptic’s objection. I shall argue that the very notion of a law of Nature points to a Creator, because it is a rule that needs to be expressed in language – and rules can only come from a Mind.

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5. How might a Thomist critic of Intelligent Design respond to the recipe and symphony metaphors?

I’m going to anticipate a possible objection that a Thomist critic of Intelligent Design, such as Professor Feser, might make at this point. He might argue as follows: “I’m willing to grant that your recipe and symphony metaphors are free from the defects of the watch metaphor for the cosmos. At least they don’t turn the cosmos into a machine. But these new metaphors still fail to do justice to the cosmos, because they focus exclusively on the abstract formal (and final) features of the cosmos. Recipes and symphonies are essentially formal. They aren’t physical things as such, although they may of course be written down on paper. The cosmos, however, contains matter as well as form, and without matter, you don’t have a concrete natural object. What you have is, at best, a Platonic abstraction, rather than a real thing. For that reason, I would still regard your recipe and symphony and as an inadequate description of the real world. At best, they might establish the existence of a God Who could turn out to be a Maker of real things. The version of the Fifth Way which I defend in my book, Aquinas, does not require the use of such emaciated metaphors for the cosmos. Instead, it starts from a very simple and obvious fact: the fact that things have built-in tendencies, or dispositions, such as the tendency of ice to cool water. And it conclusively establishes that these things are directed to their ends by an Intelligence Who keeps them in being, and Whose nature is identical with His own Being – which entails that He must be an Infinite Being.”

In response to the possible criticism that recipes and symphonies are purely formal, and hence an inadequate metaphor for physical objects, I should like to point out that I have absolutely no intention of using them as metaphors for objects. Rather, the point I wish to make, along with Professor Marie George, is simply that they are intrinsically dependent upon their Maker.

Professor Feser has said and written a lot about Aquinas’ Fifth Way, and how it renders Intelligent Design arguments superfluous. In my next post, I’ll argue that the Fifth Way is actually strengthened by Intelligent Design arguments.

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4 Responses to Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony

  1. VJ,

    Have you let Feser know about your recent voluminous posts concerning Thomism and ID?

  2. VJT:

    Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to construct metaphors for the way in which natural objects depend on their Creator. Thus I would consider any abstract object which is continually dependent on intelligent agents for its existence, to be a good metaphor for the way in which the world depends on God.

    Is there some reason why the lute is any less mechanical than the watch?

    A lute is no more dependent on it’s creator for it’s continued existence than is a watch’s continued existence dependent on it’s maker. What is the purpose of a watch if there is no one there to observe the time? What is the purpose of a lute if there is no one to play it?

    Apparently the watch metaphor is too deistic for Dembski’s taste, but so what? He’s not being accused of deism. ID can’t even get you to deism, right?

    If ID can’t even get you to transcendence, how does it propose to free itself from the mechanical philosophy?

  3. Hi Mung,

    You ask some very good questions.

    1. You write:

    ID can’t even get you to deism, right?

    If ID can’t even get you to transcendence, how does it propose to free itself from the mechanical philosophy?

    I would dispute your contention that ID can’t get you to transcendence, but even supposing you were correct, it doesn’t follow that a philosophy dealing only with natural causes has to be mechanical. You can combine belief in naturalism with belief in immanent finality: you could simply maintain that it’s a basic feature of the world – a “brute fact,” if you like.

    2. There’s a difference between not being able to demonstrate that the Intelligent Designer is a supernatural Agent, and positively affirming that the Intelligent Designer is only a natural agent. ID theory is currently in the former position: the case for biological design is rigorously quantifiable, but the argument for a Cosmic Designer is less rigorous and not (at the present time) demonstrative. Methodological naturalists would insist on the latter view: they only allow natural causes. ID theory rejects such shrill dogmatism.

    3. Arguably, Intelligent Design can get you to transcendence, because the specified complexity of the cosmos itself suggests (even if it does not conclusively demonstrate) that the cosmos itself was designed by an external Agent. In a 2003 article entitled, Infinite Universe or Intelligent Design?, Professor Dembski stated that “In the theory of intelligent design, specified complexity is a reliable empirical marker for design,” and he also declared that “the specified complexity in artifacts is identical with the specified complexity in natural systems (be they cosmological or biological).” What’s more, in his prepared text for his debate with Christopher Hitchens at Prestonwood Church, Plano, Texas, on 18 November 2010, entitled, Does a Good God Exist?, Professor Dembski referred to the Intelligent Design argument for a Cosmic Designer, and said that it wasn’t a big step from belief in such a Being to belief in God:

    Just as getting from Darwinian evolution to atheism is not a big stretch, so getting from design in biology to theism is not a big stretch… By itself, my argument establishes a designer behind the universe (a Kantian architect, if you will). For the purposes of this debate, however, I think we’re ready to close escrow.

    Finally, Robin Collins makes a powerful argument that not only the universe, but the multiverse itself, had a Designer, in his article, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe. Dembski also rejects the view that an infinite multiverse can explain everything in his paper, The Chance of the Gaps and also in a 2003 article entitled, Infinite Universe or Intelligent design?

    If there’s something outside the natural order which designed that order, then that “something” is by definition extra-natural, i.e. supernatural, i.e. transcendent. You might equate that with “deism.”

    Of course, we still need to show that this “Something” is also (i) the Creator of the being of the natural order, and not just the designer of specified complex patterns in Nature; and (ii) a Being Who satisfies the criteria for the God of classical theism, including metaphysical simplicity. But at least, Intelligent Design can take us beyond the natural order.

    4. You also ask:

    Is there some reason why the lute is any less mechanical than the watch?

    A lute is no more dependent on its creator for its continued existence than is a watch’s continued existence dependent on its maker.

    True, but as Professor Dembski remarked, the melody of the lute is continually dependent on its creator:

    If you have a perfect watch that keeps perfect time and never needs winding, it will go on for ever. But with a lute, or with any musical instrument, you need a lute player; otherwise it is just sitting there. In fact, it is incomplete without the lute player.

    That’s why my last metaphor for the cosmos is not the lute itself but a musical composition (which can be played on a lute). It’s a formal entity, to be sure, but at least it has the virtue of being essentially (and continually) dependent on its creator.

    I hope that helps.

  4. Hi Bilbo I,

    I haven’t let Professor Feser know about my articles yet. I’ll probably contact him in the next 24-48 hours, as I still have one more important post to put up, on his version of Aquinas’ Fifth Way. I’ll be arguing that Intelligent Design, far from being a hindrance to the argumentation of the Fifth Way, actually buttresses it.

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