Monday, 11 November 2019

God: a New Argument from Design

The game of our universe does not reveal sameness

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

The venerable ‘argument from design’ proposes that the creation reveals a Creator. More than this, that the creation reveals the power and glory of God. Isaac Newton was one among many who believed it—stating in an appendix to his 1637 Principia or Principles of Mathematics:
‘This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.’
The trouble is, there are alternative explanations for design—in fact complete, coherent explanations. To put it in a nutshell, there are other ways that order and design can come about. So, today, the argument is often said to be inconclusive. The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, writes that it is ‘unanswerable'—which is not to say, however, that it is disproven.

Yet suppose that we push the whole argument back—back beyond all talk of power and glory—back beyond the simplest conceptions of design, to a core, a point of ‘ground zero'. Here we find the first and most basic characteristic of design: it is more than chaos or, alternatively, it is more than featurelessness.

On the surface of it, our universe ought to be only one or the other. Our universe is governed by laws which ought not to produce any more than chaos on the one hand, or featurelessness on the other. We might use the analogy of a chess game, although the analogy only goes so far.* A careful observer of a chess match reports that the entire game is governed by rules, and there is no departure from such rules.

Yet there is clearly, at the same time, something happening in the game at a different level. Games get won, and games get lost, and games play out in different ways each time. There is something beyond the laws. We may even infer that there is intelligence behind each game – but let us not rush to go that far.

However, without seeing the players, one could assume that they must exist—or something which resembles them. To put it as basically as we can: the game lacks sameness from game to game—whether this be the sameness of chaos or the sameness of featurelessness. Something else is happening there. Now apply this to our universe. We ought to see complete chaos, or we ought to see complete featurelessness. We ought not to see asymmetry or diversity, or anything of that sort—let alone anything which could resemble design.

The problem is familiar to science. The physicist, Stephen Hawking, wrote:
‘Why is it (the universe) not in a state of complete disorder at all times? After all, this might seem more probable.’
That is, there is no good explanation for it. Given the laws of nature, we cannot derive from them a universe which is as complex as the one we see. On the other hand, biologist Stuart Kauffman writes,
‘We have no adequate theory for why our universe is complex.’
This is the opposite view. We ought not to see any complexity emerging. No matter what degree of complexity we find today, whether it be Newton's system of the universe, or the basic fact that complexity exists, it should not happen. It is as if there is more than the rules—because the game of our universe does not reveal sameness.

This idea of ‘more’—of different levels of reality—has been seriously entertained by various scientists. The  science writer Natalie Wolchover says, ‘Space-time may be a translation of some other description of reality,’ and while she does not propose the existence of the supernatural, the idea of some other description of reality could open the door to this.

Call this the ‘ground zero’, the epicentre of the argument from design. There is something going on, at a level we do not see, which we may never discover by examining the rules. In the analogy of the chess game, where we observe something beyond the rules, we may not be able to tell what that something is—yet it is clear that it is.

This argument differs from the familiar version of the theological argument from design, which generally assumes that God created the rules which the design displays. On the contrary, this argument proposes that God may exist beyond the rules, through the very fact that we see order.

* A problem with the analogy is that a chess game manifests complexity to begin with. The important point is, however, that the game reveals more than it should.


Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for this take on the teleological argument for God. The essay raises many thoughtful issues, prompting a few queries — intended largely rhetorically — briefly posed below.

Putting teleology aside for a moment, might the question of a god reduce to one of epistemology: What can we know, how can we know it, and with what certainty can we know it?

To which at least one answer may be that the existence of a god is not only unknown, but unknowable. That being the heart of agnosticism, of course. Faith in what amounts to just an eternally irreconcilable ‘maybe’ is, I propose, a tall order for many people.

I’m also interested in the essay’s concept of ‘ground zero’. But I admit I’m struggling to visualise it. A concrete anchor might help me to better understand what ground zero actually is. (Let’s put aside, for convenience and to limit sidetracks, any ‘something-from-nothing’ wrinkles.)

So, is ‘ground zero’ the Big Bang? Or some moment immediately before that event? Or some point somehow springing from infinity prior to the universe? Or something else? In short, is it in any fashion time-correlated? And is it reality-correlated, as the essay seems to suggest? By the way, I assume there are junctions between ‘ground zero’ and the science of the cosmology of the universe, right?

I agree that the universe does ‘not have perfect uniformity’. Arguably, evidence points to less and less and less order over the course of time. Might entropy, and increasing disorder — the increasing ‘chaos’ mentioned in the essay — find a suitable fit in this particular notion of imperfect uniformity?

‘This argument proposes that God may exist beyond the rules … through the very fact we see order’. In light of entropy, might our ‘seeing order’ be an illusion? Is there, perhaps, a paradox here: Entropy leading to overall net disorder, where entropy is baked into the very rules (natural order) of the universe?

I struggled a bit with the analogy here to chess. Here’s why: We know that people invented chess, rules ‘n’ all. We know that people remain essential parts of the system, animating chess. And we know that people strategise, make decisions (freely?), move the chess pieces according to the rules, and recalibrate the strategy as necessary — with a binary (win-lose) outcome.

So, in the case of chess, we know what intelligence lies behind the game’s origins. And we know what intelligence lies behind how the game unfolds. There are no mysteries as to matters of creation. I don’t think we can say that about the universe.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith, you have raised some relevant questions. I’ll address a selection.

The argument I put forward cannot prove God’s existence, and it cannot ground religious faith. You are correct in suggesting that religious faith needs more than this. My argument may, however, open the door to God’s existence, assuming that the argument is accepted.

Ground zero refers to the most extreme conceptual reduction of the argument from design. It reduces it to complexity vs. chaos or featurelessness, without introducing any degree of complexity (some would refer to the genius, beauty, power etc. of this complexity).

As to whether order (rather, complexity) is illusory, this is a good question, but lies outside of my argument. My argument is based on two major observations of science, here represented by Hawking and Kauffman, and accepts them as given. I understand that some may not accept them as given.

docmartincohen said...

Regrding complexity, I don't think we should rush to embrace your experts' words as holy writ, Thomas! I was very impressed by the work on the emergence of complexity by a British mathematician, John Conway. All you need are very simple rules, and then complexity emerges. You can see this in his model, presented in a fun way here:

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

What I see in Conway's experiment is complexity imposed on a featureless background. Which raises the question as to how I define complexity. "Complexity emerges" is true or false, depending how one defines complexity.

My 'argument from design' can only go as far as the science will carry it. However it is fairly conspicuous science. Many try to solve the problem by proposing that there is homogeneity at scale. Just zoom out far enough, and the problem disappears. Others puzzle over perturbations, blemishes, and so on.

Andrew Porter said...

Thank you, Thomas, for your stimulating thoughts. My take on it is that we do not read anything into nature to say it is designed, in its complexity, simplicity, consistency, and character. Local and universal reality as contemplation and consciousness has abundant evidence.

I pose this thought: Why does life takes the time it does to develop, ramify, and let species emerge. Billions of years have been involved. How could a top-down schema gybe with an evolution of such duration? Perhaps the Divine gives nature free will, too. This would mean that gods or God has bestowed a self-generating character upon reality and allowed nature to create its own paths and purposes. This is free will because nature independently develops its own history, its own specific and global identity as life on Earth. This supposition sees design mixing with self-determination, creating a complex interdependence, which is rather evident as we look around. Divine design and self-generation may both be true. This dynamism may account for the wildness and vividness that is common and ubiquitous.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Andrew. It would seem to me that my argument would not exclude your thought. Two questions for interest:

Would God be necessary or accidental to a mixing of design and self-determination?

Would self-determination include social Darwinism, or only natural selection?

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