The Strange Solipsism of Traditional Religion

Recall from the last post how I was once accosted at a bus stop by the apparent reincarnation of eighteenth century clergyman, Christian apologist, and philosopher William Paley hawking his argument for the existence of God via the analogy of a wristwatch? To refresh your memory, the conversation went down like this: 

“Do you have the time?”

“Uh, yeah. It’s half past—”

I know what time it is. I wanted to know if you knew. Have you ever considered your watch there on your wrist? Like how it had to have a maker?”

Recall that Paley is renowned for having formulated one of the most quoted versions of the argument for the existence of God from design, also known as the teleological argument for God? Folks usually refer to Paley’s version as the “watchmaker analogy” because it relies on an analogy between the internal complexity and utility observed in the make-up of a watch and that which Paley claimed could be observed in the natural world. Recall, too, that the good rector didn’t invent either the analogy or the argument itself. Those go back at least to the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic period. Cicero quotes their version of a watchmaker argument in De Natura Deorum (On the nature of the gods) II.34 (87):

“When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers?”

On the first page of his 1802 work entitled Natural Theology, Paley imagines walking through a heath and chancing upon a watch resting atop a rock. He immediately notices that, unlike everything else around him, this artifact has component parts, all working in concert toward an evident end or telos. Paley argues that nature, too, shows “[e]very indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design” and, in fact, to a much a greater extent than a watch does. The success or failure of this argument obviously rests in part on the strength of the analogy he draws. Whether or not one “buys” it depends, in large part, on how plausible you judge the comparison at the idea’s core. 

For his part, Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography that he originally found Paley’s formulation of the argument from design persuasive. Later, however, he discovered a different way of looking at things. He wrote:

“The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.”

In private correspondence with American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin explained that his intimate and thorough knowledge of the natural world—far from confirming a view of the universe as informed by rational, compassionate design—actually compelled him to see things from an entirely different perspective. 

The Ichneumon Wasp often lays its eggs on, near, or even inside the body of a caterpillar using a stinger-like ovipositor. When the offspring hatch, they consume the body of the caterpillar. A wonderful economy of effort underlies this rather unsentimental arrangement: the young wasps’ incubator doubles as their first meal. The female Ichneumon wasp especially prefers for her morbid purpose the caterpillars of a particular species of butterfly—alcon blue—that is itself parasitic on myrmica ant colonies, fooling the ants into rearing the butterfly’s young by masking the larvae with the ants’ scent. The wasps enter the ant colonies for the sole purpose of finding these particular butterfly caterpillars. They even release their own chemical smoke screen to mask their intrusion into the colonies, which causes the worker ants to fight one another rather than turning on the intruding wasps. The diabolical genius of these machinations is absolutely chilling. 

The sheer brutality and total lack of sentimentality of the Ichneumon’s behavior called into question for Darwin not only the supposed rational plan of creation, but another of the theistic conception of God’s famous traits as well: namely His omnibenevolence (that is: unlimited, infinite good will and disposition to do good). Darwin wrote:

“But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd [sic] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.”

A quote attributed to the British utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill—though I confess that I can find no source for it earlier than the online essay linked to here, nor can I locate any attribution for it in an actual work of Mills; the quote reappears (and is often re-quoted from) Christopher Hitchens’ book God in Not Great—seems to indicate that he adopted a similar perspective:

“If a tenth part of the pains taken in finding signs of an all powerful benevolent god had been employed in collecting evidence to blacken the creator’s character, what scope would not have been found in the animal kingdom? It is divided into devourers and devoured, most creatures being lavishly fitted with instruments to torment their prey.” 

If the inner workings of a timepiece mirrored the natural world that Darwin studied so assiduously, then one should rather expect to find the pieces within in stiff competition with one another, some preying upon or parasitic on others, all in effort to survive and propagate their own kind. There should definitely not be just the harmonious cooperation and even precision of…well…clockwork. 

Yet perhaps Darwin was simply conflating two different levels of analysis in his Ichneumonidae musings. The original analogy—as well as the actual biological examples considered by Paley, such as the ear and eye—intend to demonstrate intelligent design (ID) within a single organism. Darwin’s objection to ID stemmed from observations of interactions between different, competing organisms. Perhaps looking outside of biological sciences into systems, like the motions of planets, that had long been celebrated for their clockwork regularity—even inspiring the wonderful mechanical models of the solar system known as orreries—would provide more apt examples. However, in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell a British lawyer and one of the foremost geologists of his day, Darwin noted that the strange tendency to see ID in the natural world apparently didn’t often arise in questions of planetary science. Rather, the seductive quality of the idea proved particularly acute only in the biological sciences:

“No astronomer in showing how movements of Planets are due to gravity, thinks it necessary to say that the law of gravity was designed that the planets shd [sic] pursue the courses which they pursue.—I cannot believe that there is a bit more interference by the Creator in the construction of each species, than in the course of the planets.—It is only owing to Paley & Co, as I believe, that this more special interference is thought necessary with living bodies.”

Intriguingly, though, the more modern and sophisticated versions of the teleological argument that go under the rubric of “fine-tuning” turn precisely on the existence of gravity, recruiting it and other aspects of astrophysics in the battle over evidence of ID in the universe. The contemporary argument for ID from fine-tuning rests on the idea that the physical constants which govern much of how our universe operates and permit the conditions that have allowed life to exist in places like Earth are simply too finely calibrated or “tuned” to be accounted for by chance alone. We’re talking about numbers like the size of the electrical charge of the electron, the cosmological constant that expresses the value of the energy density of the vacuum of space, and the gravitational constant—also known as Newton’s Constant—which consists of the difficult-to-measure empirical value necessary in Sir Isaac Newton’s equation for the law of Gravity to express the weak attraction between large bodies in space. The numerical values of these constants cannot be predicted by current theory; rather, they must be learned by observation. Not only that, but if these constants varied even in the smallest iota from their current observed values, life simply would not be able to exist in the universe. For instance, if the charge of the electron had been just slightly different, stars would not burn or explode in the way that they currently do, and the universe would therefore not contain light-giving suns or the heavier elements born in starry furnaces and flung out into the void in big bangs. If the cosmological constant differed in the number 122 places to the right of the decimal, space would have expanded so rapidly that galaxies could not have formed at all, let alone planets where life might arise and evolve. If the gravitational constant had differed by just one part in 10-to-the-fortieth power, the delicate balance of gravity and electromagnetism inside stars like our sun would have collapsed, causing them to fragment and continuously loose their mass until they dissipate entirely. If any life, let alone intelligent life, could have emerged under such conditions as these—without suns and in a universe expanding so rapidly not even galaxies could form—it would have had to be of a fundamentally different sort than has been imagined in even the wildest of science fictions. Because the universe appears to be so finely tuned for the conditions that permit life to arise, the argument runs, there must have been an intelligent designer who set them in precisely the way that they are. 

On the surface of it, the core analogy behind all versions of the teleological argument is strange and differs strikingly from the original Stoic formulation as quoted by Cicero. In his critique of the argument in Atheism: The Case against God, writer George Hamilton Smith argues that taking the view that the natural world is comprised of artifacts made by an intelligent artificer in the manner of a watch obscures the basis on which we make the actual ontological distinction between the categories of artifact and natural object to begin with. How do we know that something is a manufactured artifact in the first place? Precisely because we immediately note—as in the case of a wristwatch left in a field—that it is not natural. The labels natural and designer cover categories of thought usually believed to be mutually exclusive. Paley’s argument requires that a watch be found in his idyllic English heath precisely because no one would naturally be brought to consideration of the intricacy of intentional, purposive design in nature were there only rocks, sticks, leaves, and flowers around for them to ponder. Quite tellingly, the Stoic version of the argument didn’t open itself up to this problem because it didn’t assert that the universe as a whole is an artifact. The Stoic teleological argument maintains only that, because the universe contains—in addition to natural things—an intelligence capable of designing artifacts (namely, us humans), it must also have been ordered by a rational, purposive intelligence. That is, intentional purposive intelligence capable of design such as is found in humans couldn’t have arisen spontaneously in the natural universe. This is a very different sort of argument, one that makes clearer a point obscured somewhat by Paley’s version, but very much perceived by Darwin nonetheless. 

In a letter in December of 1861 to Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:

“If anything is designed, certainly Man must be; one’s ‘inner consciousness’ (though a false guide) tells one so; yet I cannot admit that man’s rudimentary mammae; bladder drained as if he went on all four legs; & pug-nose were designed. If I was to say that I believed this, I should believe it in same [sic] incredible manner as the Orthodox believe in the Trinity in Unity.”

Darwin’s observation here raises two important points. First, far from the single, purpose-driven linear line of design that most ID advocates would have us believe is evident in the organization of biological systems, un-biased observations of these same systems in fact reveal numerous dead ends and false starts, like the rudimentary mammary glands in males that Darwin brings up and, though he doesn’t mention it, the extremely narrow human birth canal, a consequence of our quick evolution from quadrupeds to bipedalism. Oddly enough, were ID advocates more tutored in clockwork, they would know that antique watches and clocks very much also show signs of such tinkering. Old clocks for which there don’t exist any manuals or user guides usually contain what are known as “witness marks,” that is: signs of a previous repairman or tinkerer’s tinkering, such as small dents, empty screw holes, discolorations, or outlines of pieces that were once in the works but have since been removed. Such witness marks are supposed to offer clues as to the mind of a previous repairman or even the clockmaker him- or herself. The problem for a contemporary restorer trying to read them, though, is that they might not mean what you think they mean. Each change over time might once have held a useful function, or not. After the fact, the present-day restorer doesn’t have much to go on other than what he sees before him, what he knows from whatever other similar timepieces he may have seen, and what he thinks is the “right way” things go together. The natural world of biology that Darwin studied so closely also shows numerous signs of such “witness marks,” evidence not so much of original grand design as of ceaseless, incremental tinkering and refinement, without obvious plans or a clear manual present from the start. 

Second, and more importantly, Darwin’s observation in 1861 makes clear that the thinking of ID advocates of both ancient and modern stripes depends heavily on an intuition that humankind is somehow privileged. As Darwin puts it, our very own “inner consciousness,” though otherwise often a faulty guide, seems to goad us into this prejudice. From the perspective of a species of tinkerers, the whole world looks like the product of a tinkerer. What was it the Greek philosopher Xenophanes wrote sometime in the late-sixth or early-fifth century BCE? 

“If cows and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as humans do, they would depict the shapes and bodies of gods after their own, horses like horses, cows like cattle” (fragment 15). 

Even if we granted Paley’s and others’ conclusion that the universe and all it contains resemble a watch in having been created by an intelligent designer for a single, grand purpose, what would that grand design be? What one clear purpose would all of creation serve to make it similar enough to a watch to merit drawing the analogy in the first place? Paley’s incessant appeals to what “our experience” shows us; his insistence that design requires a designer, contrivance a contriver; his lengthy comparison of the eye to a telescope in chapter 3, along with the assertions that “they are both instruments” (p. 21) and “there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it” (p. 20)—all of these characteristics of his approach point the way to the overwhelming anthropocentric fallacy inherent in his argument. Unless one starts from the premise that humanity and the human capacity for design and contrivance are “all that and a bag of chips” as they say, there is nothing truly remarkable about the fact that not only life, but intelligent life, exists rather than that it doesn’t. Unless one begins with the very conception of a telos, an endpoint or ultimate aim—in this case, comprised of human beings themselves—there is no underpinning to any form of teleological argument or reasoning. In this way, the argument instantiates the so-called anthropic principle and evidences a kind of observational selection effect. Among all the animal species on the planet that use any form of technology—including common chimpanzees, with the wonderfully judgment-laden “scientific” name of pan troglodytes, using sticks to fish for insects in a termite mound or cracking nuts with stone tools—we humans appear to be the ultimate artificers, contrivers to beat the band. Because we exist and use our apparently innate talents for designing and manufacturing to achieve what we presume is a position of preeminence among existent creatures, we assume that the plan of the universe reflects our personal plan as a species, that we must exist because someone or something else planned for our existence and dominance. Paley puts this particular bias on full display when he writes: 

“We may advance from animals which bring forth eggs, to animals which bring forth their young alive; and, of this latter class, from the lowest to the highest; from irrational to rational life, from brutes to the human species” (p. 57).   

Even in the case of ultramodern arguments for design from “fine-tuning,” there is an important distinction to be made between a universe that merely permits the conditions that support life and a universe in which life is absolutely compelled (or designed) to exist from the outset. This is the distinction between so-called minimal and maximal or optimal biophilicity, the latter usually expressed as a kind of biological determinism which holds that, where the conditions that support life on earth prevail anywhere in the universe, life— including intelligent life—must of necessity arise. Evangelical Christian physicist Don Page has pointed out that the gravitational constant has been observed to be a very small number (remember the 122 decimal places thing?), just barely on the positive side of the number line. However, this positive value is problematic for the existence of life because it means there is a slight repulsion in the universe to act against the gravitational attraction required to form galaxies and all that they contain. A slightly negative value for the constant would have been better for insuring that life develop and, thus, would have constituted better evidence for fine-tuning in a maximally biophilic universe. 

The myopia that can be induced by privileging our position as exemplars of intelligent life is nowhere better in evidence than in the arguments of Michael Behe’s 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, in which the author advances the thesis that certain biochemical engines, such as that which drives the movement of the tiny hairs or cilia which propel cells about, cannot be explained by a series of small variations on a theme and thus cannot be accounted for by a theory of gradual evolution à la Darwin. Behe calls this property of being unable to deconstruct a biochemical “machine” into previous evolutionary stages that worked less well than that in evidence in the modern world “irreducible complexity.” He bases his discussion of irreducible complexity on the analogy of a mousetrap, a device with the single purpose of catching mice and just roughly five component parts that work in concert toward that end. Take away any one of those five parts, and you don’t have a trap that works a quarter or even half as well, but you have an apparently useless pile of disjointed parts serving no evident end. And in that last phrase lies the rub: no evident end. 

Among numerous other problems with Behe’s arguments and evidence, famous anti-ID debater and chemist Karen Bartelt has pointed out that his discussion of irreducible complexity rests on a teleological fallacy: mousetraps only appear to be irreducibly complex because we see solely their end stage and have foreknowledge of the current purpose they serve. But a mousetrap without a critical part might function perfectly well in some completely different capacity—say, as a paper clip or earring. Seeing such alternative utility would require stepping outside of our own evolutionary perspective, seeing past our “inner [self-]consciousness.” 

Paley famously pointed to the ridiculous complexity of the human eye as a supreme example of divine design. Behe chimed in on that same score, arguing that the eye shows signs of irreducible complexity and thus serves as an even stronger evidence of intelligent design. However, more modern and careful inquiry has shown that eyes and sight organs across phyla are universally determined by a single primitive master control gene, Pax6, that governs the differentiation and organization of photoreceptor cells, despite the vast differences in eventual “eye” design and formation. No Pax6 means no eye development. The other common, ancient ingredient in eyes is photoreceptors themselves, such as exist in the retina. Other than that, everything else about eye formation is up for grabs, from things like the lens for improving acuity to things like the cornea that protects the retina. The natural world contains quite a large number of variations on the general theme of Pax6+photoreceptors. The point is: there is a great deal of reducibility in the complexity of the higher mammalian eye that careful study and an unbiased—or at least less biased—perspective can uncover. 

What gets me about this whole business is not necessarily the deceptions of missionaries like the apparent reincarnation of William Paley there before me at the bus stop or the deliberate anthropocentrism of theistically minded “scientists” who see a human-shaped creator everywhere they turn. Rather, I’m more consumed now with the troublesome question of how people whose every concern and imputation of value is with an invisible All-Father in the sky who regards humans, planetary motions, the expansion of the universe, and on and on as so much fodder for tinkering can then turn around and make so bold as they apparently do: seeing fit to lie to their fellows in order to obfuscate their true intent as I wrote about last time and modeling every field of study from biology to planetary science on their own, very human proclivities toward teleology with themselves at the evolutionary apex even as they deny the “just a theory” of evolution. In short, what makes people whose ostensive concern is forever with glorifying a being that is fundamentally beyond humanity so darn solipsistic? It just doesn’t square with the purported low opinion so many traditional theists have of human beings in general. Or does it? Do they really have a low opinion of humanity? Perhaps the question I should really ask is: Is their opinion of humanity actually uniform, or do they have one, higher opinion of some subset of humanity and another, much lower one of the rest? More on this to come.                     

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