16 April 2014

The Watchmaker Argument

Is there a designer? Let us imagine that you are strolling down a beach on a warm summer’s night as a misty breeze is blowing in calmly from the sea. You decide to stop and gaze at the setting sun and marvel at how tranquil it looks as it begins to pierce the horizon. Now you begin to feel something hard and metallic between your toes. You look down to find a gold pocket watch at your feet – chain and all. You pick it up and observe the intricacies of the patterns etched softly into the gold, the smoothness of the watch face, and the small details of the watch’s hands. You turn it over and open up the back to reveal a complicated interplay of gears and cogs that fit perfectly together in such a way as to move the hands precisely. You surmise that it is quite an efficient and elegant design, made with a specific and rather apparent purpose – to accurately tell time – and made by a demonstrably skilled watchmaker. After further careful contemplation, you realize that you have never seen such a watch being made, nor do you know exactly how the designer made it, except that he made it with great skill, care, and patience. Lastly, you surmise that a natural order or process did not create the watch right there in the sand, whole cloth, irrespective of the designer. You know this because the watch is incredibly complex. No, the only order invoked in the watch’s formation was the watchmaker’s intelligence.

Still holding the watch you look back up to the setting sun; it has fallen deeper into the horizon by now. A thought crosses your mind: you know that the incredibly complex machine you hold in your hands, by necessity, was created by an intelligent designer – a watchmaker – with purposeful design. However, the setting sun in front of you, the whole of life, and the entirety of the universe are many orders of magnitude more complex and intricate than anything a watchmaker could ever produce. After a lot of thought on this apparent incongruity you arrive at the conclusion that the sun, life, the universe, and anything complex within nature, like the watch, also necessitates an intelligent designer who made these things with purposeful and orderly design.

This is the Watchmaker Argument. It is solidly rooted in a teleological framework and it was first proposed by the Christian apologist and clergyman William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology. A teleological argument is an argument for the existence of an intelligent designer based upon the premise that there is evidence for this designer in the apparent design and purpose of nature. Teleological arguments have been around long before Paley and his Watchmaker Argument, however his contributions to this philosophical framework are undoubtedly popular today as his argument is cited by many intelligent design proponents. There are a couple problems with it.

Firstly, it is an argument by way of a false analogy. Put simply, it goes: a complex watch, with its display of order, necessitates an intelligent designer; some phenomenon X (life, the universe, etc.) is also complex with a display of order; therefore, phenomenon X necessitates an intelligent designer as well. However, if we think about it, if two entities share a common trait, why then must they share other traits beyond what they already have in common? In other words, if the watch and the universe share the common trait of “complexity”, a trait derived from their perceived “order”, why then must they also share the trait of “being designed”? The answer is that they do not need to share other traits. This intuition is patently obvious if we change the entities in the false analogy argument to something more familiar: green leaves and dollar bills.

We can restate the argument as such: green leaves grow on trees; the US dollar bill is green, therefore the US dollar bill also grows on trees. In this argument the two entities, the leaves and US dollar bill, share a common trait – they are both green – however, even though they share this trait, it does not follow that they must share others – the ability to grow on trees. Bringing it back around to the Watchmaker Argument, just because a watch and the universe share the common trait of “complexity” does not mean that they must share the trait of “being designed”.

Furthermore, the Scottish philosopher David Hume criticized teleological arguments saying that they are based upon our inherent experiences of objects. He says that we can easily make the distinction between human-designed objects – watches, for example – and objects that are not made by humans, based upon a lifetime of experience with both classes of objects; we see and interact with both on a daily basis. Conversely, Hume says we cannot impart a purpose-driven design on the universe, for example, because we do not have experience with a range of other universes to compare ours to.

When making any inference by way of inductive reasoning, it is not rational to make general conclusions from one specific isolated instance. For example, if we observed a single isolated instance of a white swan, it would be impertinent of us to claim then that “all swans are white”. The swan in front of us could be white for any number of reasons, some of which may not be shared by other swans. Based upon this sole example, the evidence that all swans are white is underwhelming at best. However, our conclusion would be more justified, or it could even be falsified, if we compared our observed instance with many other observed instances of swans. In fact, not all swans are white. There is a species of black swan, Cygnus atratus, which is native to the southeast and southwest regions of Australia. After considering the swan example, we start to see that we cannot adequately impart a purpose-driven design on our universe without having any other universes to compare it to; we are limited to a sample size of one.

Lastly, this is all assuming that “order” is a well-defined and objective term in its own right, which it is not. This may get a little dense so I will do my best to explain. It is often said that an orderly universe is “finely tuned”; in other words, a universe in which the universal constants, such as gravitational attraction or the nuclear forces, are “calibrated” in an extremely precise manner. In turn, this calibration of the cosmic dials allows for the nuclei of atoms to remain intact, or the birth of countless stars in the bellies of stellar nurseries, or for the chemical processes needed for life to chug along. Conversely, if some of those constants were askew even by a tiny fraction, the universe would be unable to maintain the structural stability of atoms, or ignite suns, or harbor life. Knowing this, there must have been a designer that turned the cosmic dials in a precise manner to how they are now, right?

Not so fast. As humans, we impose the idea of finely-tuned “order” onto the universe simply because we exist within it, and as a consequence, we are able to impart our conscious observations onto it. In this sense, “order” has to be the case because if it wasn’t, and we lived in a universe where most of the constants were incompatible with the existence of life, we wouldn’t exist to declare the state of the universe one way or the other. Furthermore, if the universe ran on a slightly different set of universal constants, that otherwise did not hinder the ability of humans to exist, we would end up calling that universe “orderly” and “fine-tuned” instead. Ultimately, we are inherently biased to think that whichever universe we exist in, is a universe of “order” simply because we exist within it to judge it as such. We couch “all that which exists” and place it into the word “orderly”, and again, we are limited to a sample size of one. I will end this post with Ayn Rand’s words on the subject, “Our whole concept of order comes from us observing reality, and reality has to be orderly because it’s the standard of what exists.”