Living things, Machines and Intelligent Design (Part Two of a Response to the Smithy)
|April 28, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
First, I would like to thank Michael Sullivan for taking the time and trouble to comment on my post, In Praise of Subtlety, after successfully defending his dissertation. I look forward to reading future articles by Dr. Sullivan on issues relating to teleology and design.
I would also like to thank Sullivan for his courtesy and his honesty. He admits that he has not read any ID books, and because he has no preconceived ideas as to how the first life-forms might have originated, he generously acknowledges that the first living cell might have been assembled, one piece at a time. For my part, I would entirely agree with him when he writes that the answer to the question of how the first cell originated is an empirical one.
I’d just like to make a few numbered comments on various issues raised by Sullivan in his posts, Nature, Artifacts and Machines 1, Nature, Artifacts and Machines 2 and ”Intelligent Design” and Scotism.
1. The perils of Aristotelian science
Michael Sullivan’s post, Nature, Artifacts and Machines 1, is very well thought-out, and makes for interesting reading. However, it contains a couple of scientific errors, which suggest a strong Aristotelian influence.
(1) Sullivan writes: “When a rock falls down, it’s acting naturally. It falls down all by itself. When it flies up, this is contrary to its nature.” I am sorry to say that this is incorrect. It’s based on 2,300-year-old Aristotelian physics (as opposed to metaphysics). A rock falls because the Earth’s gravity attracts it, and it flies up because someone or something throws it up in the air. A rock traveling in zero gravity in the far reaches of outer space is still a rock. A falling rock is not moving towards its “natural resting place,” as Aristotle thought. That’s a rather animistic explanation, which has no place in contemporary science. A rock falls when the force of gravity causes it to fall, and it rises up in the air when another force (e.g. an explosion) hurls it up in the air. A force is a force. Both motions of the rock are equally natural, and they are both explicable in terms of the laws of physics.
(2) Sullivan supposes that a process as simple as passing a spark through goo could generate life. To Aristotle, this would have seemed plausible; but in the light of what we now know, it is scientifically incredible. It’s equivalent to saying that passing an electric current through a bowl of alphabet soup could somehow re-arrange the letters into a recipe for making soup. That’s not science. It’s magic. Even scientists who believe in abiogenesis readily acknowledge that creating life is not that simple. In particular, origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel and physicist Paul Davies have both written of life possessing the property of “specified complexity”:
In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures that are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. (Leslie Orgel (1973). The Origins of Life, p. 189.)
Specified complexity can’t be generated like that. Paul Davies, in his book, The Fifth Miracle, is very honest about the enormous difficulty involved in explaining how the first life originated.
2. Immanent final causality
I was surprised to read the following comment by Sullivan in Nature, Artifacts and Machines 1:
I suspect that Dr Feser would agree with me when I say that being alive and having immanent final causality are not necessarily one and the same thing. For an Aristotelian, every natural substance whatever has an innate tendency to sustain itself in being and perform its natural operation. It’s just that living things are by and large better at overcoming impediments to doing so.
Let me quote from Dr. Feser’s post, ID, Aquinas and the origin of Life: A reply to Torley:
Living things manifest transeunt causation, but unlike non-living things they also manifest immanent causation, insofar as some of the causal processes occurring in them cannot be understood except as terminating within and benefiting the organism considered as a whole.
Hmm. I don’t think Michael Sullivan is in agreement with Dr. Feser on this point.
By the way, I should explain where I am coming from here. In 2007, when I submitted my Ph.D. thesis, which dealt principally with animal minds but also touched on the definition of life, I was influenced by the thinking contained in Richard Cameron’s Ph.D. thesis, “Teleology in Aristotle and Contemporary Philosophy of Biology: An Account of the Nature of Life,” submitted to the University of Colorado in 2000. Cameron’s reading of Aristotle led him to formulate a controversial definition of life: he read Aristotle as claiming that to be alive simply means to possess intrinsic ends. Cameron argued – very persuasively, I might add – against alternative readings of Aristotle, that construe him as suggesting that all things with a nature possess intrinsic ends. Now, having read what Professor Feser has written on the subject of teleology at his blog site, I’m not so sure that Cameron’s exegesis of Aristotle is right on this point. It seems there are two quite different ways of reading Aristotle.
For that reason, I took care, when formulating my definition of life in my last post, not to claim that a living thing is a thing with its own intrinsic ends. Instead, I have defined a living thing more precisely, as follows: A living thing is a thing with a good of its own. That seems to be more precise, and I hope Sullivan would agree with this finalistic definition of life.
Sullivan also contends that for an Aristotelian, “every natural substance whatever has an innate tendency to sustain itself in being and perform its natural operation.” If by “sustain itself in being” he means “hold together, as a unit,” then I think he has a valid point.
3. What is a natural object?
Sullivan is perfectly correct in pointing out that a rock is not an assemblage, like a mousetrap, but an aggregate. After carefully considering his comments in his post, Nature, Artifacts and Machines 1, and the examples he cites, I would agree with his point that “naturalness” cannot usefully be defined in terms of whether a thing is more than the sum of its parts, as I had implied in my post, In Praise of Subtlety. It would be better, I think, to say that behavioral dispositions (as described by the laws of nature) are what characterizes natural objects.
At the same time, though, I do think it is rather odd to speak of raindrops, lakes and mountains as “natural substances”, as Sullivan does. For none of these things exhibits “an innate tendency to sustain itself in being” which Sullivan considers to be the hallmark of a natural substance. If a take a raindrop on a leaf and shake it, it may divide in two. If I want to scoop a cup of water from a lake, all I have to do is lower my cup into the lake and then take it out. And I can cart a whole mountain away, shovelful by shovelful, if I have an army of workers to help me.
A crystal, on the other hand, is another matter; according to chemists, it is really a giant molecule, so I’d be happy to call that a substance. A rock I’m not so sure about.
4. What is an artifact?
Sullivan strongly objects to my earlier claim that water synthesized in a laboratory by bringing the individual atoms together would be an artifact. He writes:
It seems wrong to say that you can show me two cups of water, indistinguishable from each other, and claim that one is natural and the other is artificial just because one cupful was harvested from a mountain stream and the other made in a lab. They’re not two different kinds of things, they’re both water!
But that’s not what I say. Since both are water, both are natural; but one is an artifact as well. In other words, something can be both natural and an artifact.
He also writes that a natural thing is not characterized as “having come to be without an external agent.” I agree. A natural thing is characterized by its dispositions.
But then he continues:
… we’re not asking about things’ origins right now but about their being. Right now we’re interested in what makes something an artificial machine, and whether something is an artificial machine is a fact about its essence, not about its origin.
Here, I would disagree. In my last post, I defined an artifact broadly as:
(i) a thing that was made with skill (even if it could have been reliably produced through a process where no skill was applied),
and more narrowly as:
(ii) a thing whose form is such that it could only have been reliably made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process.
I also attempted to rebut four alternative definitions of “artifact.” If my arguments are correct, then the question of whether something is an artifact does hinge on its origin.
Similar remarks apply to Sullivan’s comment:
If God were to create ex nihilo a tree and a 747 jet, in one and the same act of creation, still the tree would be natural and the 747 jet would be an artificial machine. This is because, no matter how they were created, the tree has its principle of motion intrinsic to itself, but the jet doesn’t. The jet doesn’t build itself, fly itself, or maintain itself, and left to itself it will act as though it is nothing but the sum of its parts, a bunch of metal and other pieces in a complicated heap.
I entirely agree with Sullivan’s comments about the jet, and I also agree that the tree is natural, and the 747 jet is an artifact. But I would say that a tree created ex nihilo is also an artifact, at least in the broad sense of something that was made with skill.
5. Are the parts of a living thing machine-like?
Living things are not machines. Nevertheless, living things embody certain formal features that are found in very sophisticated human artifacts, such as a master program and a nested hierarchy, which I discussed in my last post. In addition, the parts of a living thing (e.g. the bacterial flagellum) often do function in a mechanical fashion. Thomas Cudworth, in a recent post entitled, Professor Feser’s Puzzling Assault on ID, carefully explains how far the analogy between living things and artifacts can be pressed:
ID makes use of the artificer analogy not to establish a historical claim about some past act of physical construction (e.g., “When God created the flagellum, he took an existing bacterium and sewed the base of a wavy new organelle into the cell wall”), but to establish the fact that, like a machine, a living system or organism involves the adjustment of means to ends, and, like a very complex machine with integrated systems interrelated in mutual feedback loops, it does not come into existence without a design, and therefore without a designing intelligence. In other words, ID focuses only on establishing the existence of design; how the design is realized by God is not ID’s concern.
However, Michael Sullivan seems to think that even this analogy is going too far:
[W]hen we’re talking about the ability to create any effect, we have to take into account what sort of thing the effect is, and a created tree, whether created in toto and ex nihilo, or put together out of pre-existing parts, or evolved over millions of years, or whatever, is still as much a natural thing as a star or a rock, and a created jet plane or laptop computer or water-driven mill is an artifact. And since the tree is natural, and since the parts of the tree are formed by the tree as a whole, therefore all its parts are natural, and the existence of all its parts is accounted for by the existence of the whole. It seems to me that any discussion of the origins of the tree must recognize this…. [A]s it seems to me, the notion of a living thing, or a part of a living thing, as machine-like in the relevant sense, is misguided. And if living things are not machine-like, then we cannot infer machine-like origins for them.
For my part, I don’t think we’re dealing with an “either-or” situation here. The nano-parts of living things are natural; but they also work in a way we’d describe as mechanical: often, scientists arrive at an understanding how they work by figuring out how they all fit together, and how they can move. Likening these parts to machines doesn’t seem off-base to me. And as I’ve already made clear, I believe that the same object can be both a natural object and an artifact, in the sense in which I have defined “artifact.”
6. Do living things have a natural tendency to come together from non-living matter?
In response to my comment, “However, as far as we know, there are no laws of nature that tend to produce a bacterial cell, under any circumstances,” in my post, In Praise of Subtlety, Sullivan writes, “It seems to me perfectly clear that there are in fact laws of nature that tend to produce bacteria, in all sorts of circumstances. This process is called ‘generation.'”
I do not dispute Sullivan’s point, but it seems we are talking at cross-purposes here. I was referring to abiogenesis. What I should have written was: “However, as far as we know, there are no laws of nature that tend to produce a bacterial cell from non-living matter, under any circumstances.” (And as I’ve argued in my last post, even if there were such laws, as in Professor Behe’s proposed scenario for the origin of life, they would be powerless on their own; they could only work in tandem with an incredibly finely-tuned set of initial conditions.)
Sullivan also queries my claim that scientists “cannot take advantage of any laws to produce a mousetrap.” He writes, “Surely they take advantage of the laws of physics and mechanics?” A good question. Now that I have defined what an artifact is, I shall answer Sullivan’s question. An artifact, in the strict sense, is something whose form can only be reliably made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process. Laws of nature don’t generate mousetraps from their parts, without the input of human skill. Laws of nature do, however, generate water molecules all the time in the world around us, without the input of any human skill whatsoever. As for God’s skill, I have argued in my last post that no extra input of skill is required to generate new water molecules, once the laws of nature are up and running. (Incidentally, when I speak of laws of nature generating things, I mean “things acting in accordance with the laws of nature.” It’s a convenient short-hand; I am of course aware that laws, as such, don’t act.)
I must say that I am somewhat perplexed by Sullivan’s claim (which echoes a similar claim by Professor Feser) that ID proponents conflate the question of what a thing is with the question of how a thing came to be. This, it seems to me, is precisely the mistake made by ID critics, including some who are of an Aristotelian persuasion. For instance, some Thomistic critics of ID have maintained that because the parts of a living thing have a natural tendency to be together, they must have had a natural tendency to come together, when the first bacterial cell came into existence. This is a complete non sequitur.
In a similar vein, in Nature, Artifacts and Machines 2, Sullivan writes:
I therefore see no reason to assume that “the parts that went into the making of the first living cell on Earth were indeed arranged to serve an end they have no tendency otherwise to serve.” This way of putting it already assumes that the first living cell on Earth was produced by making an arrangement of parts. But all observation tells us that, while artifacts are produced this way, living things are not.
The reason why living things are not produced by an assemblage of parts is that the living things we observe in nature today are all generated from other living things. However, the point at issue here is: how was the first living thing produced? No-one has ever observed a living thing being produced from non-living matter. All observation to date supports the conclusion that this cannot happen. As far as we know, abiogenesis is scientifically impossible.
I will however acknowledge that Sullivan is perfectly correct in pointing out that the first living thing may not have been produced by assembling parts, one at a time. Another way in which the first living thing could have been made is through creation ex nihilo, as I pointed out in my last post. For that matter, God could make a ship that way too, if He wished. But it would still be an artifact, because it would still require skill to make. In that respect, the case for the first living thing being an artifact is much stronger than the case for a ship being an artifact, because it requires more skill to make.
Sullivan also objects to my claim that the parts of a living thing have no inherent tendency to come together. He seems to suggest that the proximate matter that went into the making of the first living thing may have had such a tendency – for example, he mentions proteins. However, Sullivan also thinks it unlikely that the first living cell was manufactured out of parts, because it behaves “completely unlike a manufactured object once produced.”
My answer is that manufactured objects are, when measured by God’s yardstick, comparatively low-grade artifacts, which exhibit merely external finality. Living things are much more skillfully made, which is why they exhibit a vast range of complex and self-directed behaviors which are unlike those found in merely human artifacts. Also, living things contain a master program that governs all its vital activities – including reproduction. Thus a living thing embodies a recipe. Manufactured objects don’t contain a master program with a built-in recipe for making another object like the original one. But one day, they might. It seems rational to believe that at some future date, a manufactured object could meet all the criteria for being a living thing. Surely, then, it would be both alive and an artifact?
7. The definitions of intelligence and design
What gives Michael Sullivan the greatest cause for concern, I think, are the definitions of intelligence and design employed in The Design of Life, by Dembski, W. A. and Wells, J. 2008, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas (see page 3):
Intelligent Design. The study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence.
Intelligence. Any cause, agent, or process that achieves an end or goal by employing suitable means or instruments.
Design. An event, object, or structure that an intelligence brought about by matching means to ends.
First of all, the ID definitions of “intelligence” seem very unscotistic and unscholastic to me… [T]raditionally intelligence is defined in terms of the act of understanding, that is, in the particular way that the forms of intelligible things are objectively apprehended by the intelligent thing, and in terms of intentionality…. In my estimation the best marker for intelligence is still the capacity for abstraction.
Sullivan is quite correct. The definitions used by Professor Dembski are functional definitions: they tell us what an intelligent being can do, not what intelligence per se is. Why does Dembski prefer functional definitions? Because he is looking for effects in the cosmos that are most likely to have been produced by the application of skill, and which thus constitute an especially powerful argument for the existence of God. I defined “skill” as follows:
By “skill” I mean any activity (a) performed by an intelligent agent acting intentionally, and (b) resulting in information which helps generate a specific pattern or form, that can perform one or more functions.
Alternatively, skill could also be defined as any activity that inputs functional complex specified information….
However, Sullivan has his doubts about defining intelligence as the capacity to use a suitable means to achieve an end or goal: “I suspect that one could argue that computers and elephants and Venus flytraps are intelligent by this standard.” To allay Sullivan’s concerns, I shall quote from the lengthier and more complete definitions given in the Glossary of The Design of Life., by Dembski, W. A. and Wells, J. (pages 311-320):
Design (as entity) An event, object or structure that an intelligence brought about by matching means to ends.
Design (as process) A four-part process by which a DESIGNER forms a designed object: (1) A designer conceives a purpose. (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan. (3) To execute the plan, the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions. (4) The designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials. What emerges is a designed object. The designer is successful to the degree that the designed object fulfills the designer’s purpose.
Design inference A form of inference in which design or intelligent agency is attributed to an event, object or structure because it exhibits SPECIFIED COMPLEXITY. Design inferences gauge what is within the reach of chance-based mechanisms and what is beyond their reach.
Intelligence A type of cause, process or principle that is able to find, select, shape and implement the means needed to effectively bring about ends (or achieve goals or realize purposes). Because intelligence is about matching means to ends, it is inherently teleological.
Intelligent Design The study of the patterns in nature that are best explained as the result of intelligence. As a theory of biological origins, intelligent design attempts to show that intelligent causation rather than blind natural forces are required to adequately explain certain patterns of biological complexity and diversity. Intelligent design needs to be distinguished from APPARENT DESIGN and OPTIMAL DESIGN…
A few comments in response to Sullivan’s remarks:
(1) It should be evident from the above definition of intelligence that it is a general or universal capacity. An intelligent being does not merely use a means to bring about a single end; rather, he/she is capable of finding, selecting, shaping and implementing the means needed to effectively bring about an indefinitely large range of ends. This is precisely what a computer cannot do. Nor can an elephant or a chimp. Animals are capable of using means to achieve a small, finite range of ends, by virtue of their instincts, but they certainly do not possess a general capacity to adapt means to ends. Computers are programmed to select the appropriate means to achieve an end, in a particular kind of situation. Only humans have a general capacity to adapt means to ends.
(2) Some Thomists have objected to the reference to “blind natural forces” in the definition of intelligent design, as all natural forces are designed by God. I agree (and I have argued previously on UD) that this wording should be changed: it would be better to speak of “low-specificity natural forces” – i.e. forces that are extremely unlikely to generate large amounts of functional complex specification within a short period of time. That does not alter the ID argument.
(3) The above definition of design (as entity) makes it clear that a design can only be made by an intelligent being. This suffices to refute the counter-examples alleged by Sullivan: an angry monkey throwing feces at me to make me go away; a hungry monkey throwing a rock at a banana clump; and a bird looking for twigs to build a nest. None of these activities are performed by an intelligent being.
(4) Regarding the design process, I argued in my last post that a thing can be an artifact even if it is created ex nihilo. In particular, God, when making an artifact, does not have to go through the last two steps: He does not have to select materials and assemble them. What I would insist, though, is that if God were to create a living thing from pre-existing raw materials, then He would have to follow certain steps in putting them together. This is because the ordering of the components of a living thing is part of its very “warp and woof”: living things embody recipes. Thus they cannot be put together in any old sequence. Order of assembly is all-important.
I have very much appreciated the exchange of views with the Smithy, and no doubt the ID community will hear from Dr. Sullivan at a future date. In the meantime, I would like to thank him for a courteous and civilized discussion.