Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Order, Intentionality, and The Universe

In the comments to my post, Irrationality and Religious Belief, my friend Erik has been pushing me to offer a more comprehensive statement of my views on order, intentionality, and the universe.

What I want to do here is fully explain what plans are and how they are different from order in general. I will also explain why order is never, in itself, indicative of a plan, and why DNA and evolution by means of natural selection should not be confused with intentional, planned behavior.

I'll start by responding to these two questions: Is a plan the predetermination of an event or series of events? Does your conceptualization of "plan" differ in any significant way from this?

A plan is an idea which directs behavior towards a specified end. Ideas indicate, to varying degrees, an end result, but they do not predetermine events. Rather, they organize events in a relatively flexible manner, with many undefined variables, and usually in a way that allows for their own modification. Plans can be, and often are, broken.

If I decide to go to the movies, I am not predetermining what will happen. I am, however, forming an idea which will work to regulate my behavior towards a particular end. That "end" need not be very well-defined. I need not plan to go to a particular movie, at a particular time, or at a particular place. So my plan can specify a rather vague set of conditions: some movie, at some time, somewhere. Perhaps a comedy.

A very important part of planning is that a planner can recognize and describe ahead of time what conditions are being specified in the plan, and how they might be met. I know, at the time of planning, that I am planning a particular event. I know I am planning to go to the movies, for example, because I have a model in my brain which tells me what it means to go to the movies. Because of that abstract model, I can observe that I am not, in fact, at the movies; and later, when I am at the movies, I can correctly reflect on the fact. This ability is essential to planning; it is how we recognize intentional behavior in ourselves.

I don't think I am introducing any new or bold ideas with this description of plans. These ideas are common, though they often go unanalyzed.

One thing this description suggests is that order, in itself, is not representative of a plan. Nor is causality, in itself, indicative of intention. Plans are recognized by the tell-tale sign of abstract modelling.

This leads to the next question from Erik: The formation, growth and life-cycle of the organism as predetermined by DNA (all of which may be interfered with and/or thwarted by another "plan," such as that of different organism) are not the "intention" of DNA nor of whatever ultimately caused DNA? Why not?

The implication here is that, because DNA determines how organisms develop and eventually behave, the DNA somehow intends that behavior. Or, if not the DNA, than whatever is responsible for the DNA, is looked upon as the intentional agent.

Yet, there is no evidence for any abstract modelling, and so there is no evidence for any intentions, either on the part of DNA or on that of any other agent. The observation of causal relationships is not enough to suggest a plan, nor is the development of life.

I should also mention that it is misleading to say that DNA "predetermines" anything. DNA partially determines the development of organisms. This does not mean that the organisms were predetermined. In any case, predetermination is not a defining factor here. Plans and intentions are not defined in terms of predetermination.

Ultimately, the issue is evidence. There is no evidence that DNA is aware of what it is doing, or that it is the result of any planning on the part of any conscious being(s). Without any such evidence, there is no legitimate reason to stipulate intentions. There is no justification for talking about DNA in terms of plans. When biologists and geneticists refer to DNA as a "blueprint," they are not speaking literally.

It is theoretically possible that DNA has been developed by conscious beings, and that all life on earth was planned in some way or another. The evidence does not support this view, however, so the theoretical possibility should not be confused with scientific probability. (And, even if there was evidence that life was planned, this would not be evidence that the universe in general, or any laws of nature, were planned.)

There is a long tradition of assuming that order is evidence of a plan. It is the basic premise behind the Teleological Argument (aka the argument from design) for God's existence. However, this "argument" is more wishful thinking than anything else. There is no reason to believe that order implies a designer.

At its best, the argument from design is an argument from ignorance. It says, "we don't know how such-and-such could have come about without a conscious designer. Therefore, there must have been one." This argument blatantly disregards all of the science and mathematics which demonstrate how complexity and order can and do arise without any planning.

At its worst, the argument from design defies logic, attempting to explain order in the universe by postulating a different order, a Divine Order, which is conveniently claimed to be beyond any need for explanation. If the order in the universe is such that it can only be explained by a Divine Designer, then how is the Designer to be explained?

If such magnificent order is not in need of any explanation, then neither is the order we observe in the universe.

This logical failure is enough to discount the argument from design completely. However, what should not be forgotten is that order is never, in itself, evidence of a designer. To have evidence of a designer, you need evidence of abstract modelling.