According to Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, the widespread use of machine-information metaphors is unfortunate and misleading. They complain about textbooks that develop metaphors to a considerable level of detail. As an example, they cite Alberts, who is often quoted for his analogy between a cell and a “miniature factory, complete with assembly lines, messengers, transport vehicles, etc.” Another machine metaphor they dislike is that of the genome as a “blueprint”, notably in the hype surrounding the Human Genome Project. Whilst these analogies are widely held within the scientific community and by educators, the main target of Pigliucci and Boudry’s paper appears to be intelligent design:
“The analogy between living organisms and man-made machines has proven a persuasive rhetorical tool of the ID movement. In fact, for all the technical lingo and mathematical ‘demonstrations’, in much of their public presentations it is clear that ID theorists actually expect the analogies to do the argumentative work for them. In Darwin’s Black Box, Behe takes Alberts’ machine analogy to its extreme, describing the living cell as a complicated factory containing cargo-delivery systems, scanner machines, transportation systems and a library full of blueprints.”
Pigliucci and Boudry rightly trace the emergence of machine metaphors back to, at least, the Middle Ages, and a rise to prominence with the rise of science in the 17th Century. The well-known analogy made by William Harvey is mentioned: the human heart is a pump. The authors also rightly point out that the scientists of the time gave these metaphors some additional substance, because they considered human designs to be imaging designs of the Creator.
“For Newton and many of his contemporaries, the importance of the mechanical conception of nature was greater than the mere term ‘metaphor’ would suggest, as the development of mechanistic philosophy was itself largely inspired by religious motivations. As Shanks wrote in his account of the history of the design argument, “the very employment of machine metaphors invited theological speculation”.”
The authors turn to David Hume to find arguments foreshadowing the demise of design inferences made by the science community. Hume’s (1779) Dialogues concerning natural religion is said to expose “several problems with the central analogy”. The key thought is that our experience of design is limited to human artifacts, and it is presumptuous to extrapolate from this and make statements about design in general and God’s design in particular.
“Hume realized that, at least in some cases, appearances of intelligent design can be deceptive. [. . .] Although Hume does not deny that we can discern similarities between nature and human artifacts, he warns us that the analogy is also defective in several respects. And if the effects are not sufficiently similar, conclusions about similar causes are premature. [. . .] Aware of the fallibility and imperfections of human reasoning, Hume remains highly skeptical about the design inference and the machine analogy, even though he was not able to provide a satisfactory explanation for the appearance of design in nature.”
It hs always surprised me that David Hume’s arguments are considered weighty. The preceding generations of scholars did have a rationale for thinking that there is a relationship between the Creator’s design and human design. This was based on the concept of image-bearing, drawn from the Judeo-Christian worldview of the time. If man is made in the image of God, they reasoned, then we design because God designs, and analogies can be drawn between human design and design in nature. Science became, for Johannes Kepler as for them all, “thinking God’s thoughts after him”.
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