Intelligent Design

God and the Cosmos: Finding the Right Metaphor

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In this short essay, I’d like to address a profound philosophical question: what is the most appropriate metaphor for expressing the relationship between the cosmos and its Designer (whom I shall assume, for the purposes of this essay, to be God the Creator)? From an Intelligent Design standpoint, a suitable metaphor would have to encompass the following facts, at the very least:

(a) the objects within our cosmos are not parts of God, but are really distinct from their Creator;
(b) the objects within our cosmos are not abstract forms but concrete entities, with their own characteristic causal powers;
(c) any object existing within Nature – especially a living thing – possesses immanent finality: that is, its parts have an inherent tendency to function together;
(d) the cosmos could not exist, even for an instant, without its Creator;
(e) the cosmos, and the various kinds of things with it, are the result of an intelligent plan by its Creator; and finally,
(f) it can be demonstrated scientifically that the cosmos and the specified complex structures that it contains are the product of Intelligent Design.

In a recent essay, titled, Causality, pantheism, and deism, philosopher Ed Feser makes some telling criticisms of the machine metaphor. As this is a non-polemical essay, I don’t intend to rebut Feser’s criticisms: indeed, I will happily grant that many of them are well-founded. Feser is right, for instance, when he observes that the machine metaphor, taken by itself, fails to explain why the cosmos could not exist, even for an instant, without its Creator. After all, machines can continue to function automatically, even if their maker dies. Additionally, the machine metaphor fails to explain why the occurrence of specified complex patterns in Nature, in the absence of a Creator, is not only astronomically improbable, but also impossible, even in principle.

But as I’ve pointed out previously, Intelligent Design proponents themselves readily grant that the machine metaphor is not a good one. In a January 2013 post titled, Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony, I quoted Dr. William Dembski’s criticisms of the machine metaphor, and I examined three alternatives: Dembski’s preferred metaphor of the lute, as well as the formal metaphors of the recipe and the symphony.

As Dr. Dembski points out, one major advantage of the lute metaphor over the watch metaphor is that whereas a watch can still work in the absence of its maker, a lute needs the continuous action of a lute player, in order to generate a melody. But there is a problem with the lute metaphor: it is still an artifact. Its tendencies to generate music are not intrinsic to it, but are the result of its man-made form, which is externally imposed on the matter composing the lute. Thus even the metaphor of a lute fails to capture the manner in which the parts of a living thing work towards the good of the whole, by virtue of their built-in (or immanent) finality. And in his recent essay, Professor Feser argues that any metaphor which appeals to an artifact in order to describe the relation between God and the cosmos is fundamentally flawed, because it denies intrinsic, goal-directed causal powers to material objects, and thus leads us towards occasionalism: the bizarre view that things, properly speaking, don’t really cause their characteristic effects – instead, it is God (and God alone) Who brings about these effects, on those occasions when these things are brought into contact with one another. Such a view would imply (absurdly) that fire doesn’t really burn you: rather, it is God burns you, whenever you happen to be close to a flame.

However, an Intelligent Design proponent could make a simple response to this criticism, by advancing an a fortiori argument. If it takes an intelligent designer to construct a complex artifact (such as a watch or a lute) whose parts are carefully coordinated in order to carry out some function, how much more intelligence is required to generate a complex entity whose parts are literally tailor-made for one another, in such a way that the built-in functionality of each part is entirely subordinated to the goal of the proper functioning of the whole? It should be obvious to my readers that an entity of the latter kind would require much more intelligence to make than an entity of the former kind.

I discuss the immanent finality of natural objects at further length in my post, Building a bridge between Scholastic philosophy and Intelligent Design.

Nevertheless, Feser has a valid point. In my essay, Four Metaphors for the Cosmos: A Story about a Watch, a Lute, a Recipe and a Symphony, I acknowledged that artifacts can never be an adequate metaphor for living things, and I declared myself in agreement with Feser’s assertion that it is impossible to construct an adequate metaphor for a natural object, for the simple reason that the only kinds of objects remaining are either artifacts (which can never explain the immanent finality of natural objects) or abstract objects (which can never explain the concreteness of material things).

The problem with the other two metaphors in my essay (the recipe and the symphony), as I freely acknowledged, is that they are essentially formal. Recipes and symphonies are abstract entities, like triangles. They aren’t physical things as such, although they may of course be written down on paper. The cosmos, however, contains matter as well as form, and without matter, you don’t have a concrete natural object. The same considerations apply to the program metaphor which many Intelligent Design advocates (including myself) have appealed to in the past: a program, properly speaking, is an abstract entity. Nevertheless, the program metaphor can be viewed as a way of describing certain immanently teleological features of organisms – a point made by Feser himself, in a 2010 post.

So where do we go from here? I’d like to put forward two points: first, that the arrow metaphor used in Aquinas’ Fifth Way is itself metaphysically flawed, in its depiction of how objects depend on their Intelligent Author to direct them towards their built-in goals; and second, that the metaphor of the cosmos as an interactive game may be a fruitful one for explaining the relationship of the cosmos to God.

In his Fifth Way, Aquinas writes:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

As I see it, the problem with the arrow metaphor is that if natural objects need to be intelligently guided towards their characteristic effects – “led along by the nose” towards their built-in goals, as it were – then this would seem to render them purely passive in their attainment of those goals. And yet it is an empirical fact that natural objects do possess active powers – think of a lodestone’s tendency to pick up magnetic objects, for instance. This defect in the argument could be remedied by redefining immanent finality as the inherent tendency of a natural object to conform to certain rules, in its behavior – rules which define the very nature of that object. On this account, the rules to which objects conform are not conceived as extrinsic to natural objects, but as intrinsic to their very being, which means that objects have a built-in active tendency to behave in accordance with these rules. This active tendency of natural objects to conform to built-in rules (or prescriptions) still leaves room for a Mind governing Nature, since only an intelligent being can define a rule, or prescribe anything in the first place. Additionally, since rules define the very “warp and woof” of natural objects, making them concrete instantiations of these rules, it follows that if objects continually conform to the rules that define their natures, then the Author of these objects must be continually sustaining them in being.

Until now, I have spoken of natural objects’ causal powers, in relation to other objects. However, I would go even further, and postulate that each natural object is endowed by its Creator with the built-in power to interact with its Creator, which would certainly make its causal powers active. I argued for this position at further length in an August 2013 post of mine, in which I explained how I would revamp Aquinas’ Fifth Way, and more recently, in a post titled, Do Christians worship many gods?, in which I defended the view that God has designed His creatures with the built-in capacity to (timelessly) inform Him of whatever they do.

I wrote above of the difficulty in finding a suitable metaphor for the relationship between God and the natural objects in the cosmos. Artifactual metaphors fail to do justice to the immanent finality of natural objects, while abstract metaphors ignore their causal powers, as concrete entities. However, there may be a way out. Fortunately, there is a class of metaphors which I would describe as metaphysically open: unlike artifactual metaphors or abstract metaphors, whose metaphysical structure is built into their descriptions, these metaphors contain no metaphysical structure and are therefore capable of being enriched as the need arises.

The concept of a game is one such metaphor. A game may be either abstract or concrete. It may also contain characters, with certain specific powers of their own. These characters may be wholly controlled by the player, or they may be capable of interacting with the game designer. Thus if we view the world as an interactive game, populated by various kinds of objects with their own causal powers, by living things which have a good of their own, and by personal agents whoa re capable of interacting with the Game-maker (God), then it seems to me that we have a metaphor that does justice to the rich metaphysical structure of the cosmos.

I’m sure that there are many readers out there who have ample experience of playing interactive games, who may wish to weigh in with thoughts of their own on the game metaphor, so I’d like to throw the floor open and invite reader to contribute their own comments.

24 Replies to “God and the Cosmos: Finding the Right Metaphor

  1. 1
    Andre says:

    Dr Torley

    I recently watched this video (link below), also using games as such a metaphor to bring across the notion that the universe is a simulation.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2n1i7s9xsQM

  2. 2
    fifthmonarchyman says:

    I like the game metaphor.

    I would suggest that in the ultimate sense the players are the persons of the Trinity and creatures are players in a derivative sense. Creaturely actions are real however and contribute to the outcome of the game.

    In another sense the universe is an improvisational play in which the actors are free in the strict confines of the overall general script.

    I think that either metaphor can be subsumed under one that sees the universe a grand program/algorithm designed to illustrate the wisdom of it’s creator.

    Quote:

    ….God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
    (Eph 3:9b-10)

    End quote:

    peace

  3. 3
    Jon Garvey says:

    I find the “inadequate metaphor” case put by Ed Feser (or anyone else) to be futile, in the end. We are forced to think metaphorically with respect to God, since we cannot express (or know) divine things directly. Yet because God is unique, any metaphor must be inadequate. So surely the way to use metaphors (even biblically authorised one) is to do so noting their limitations.

    “Inasmuch as God creates like an artisan, the world is an artifact, but not like an artifact in that…” And so on. I don’t see why that is an invalid exercise.

    Indeed, even more generally, metaphors fail by definition, because if something is identical to what is used to describe it, it’s a literal description, not a metaphorical.

    Suppose someone is unaware what a lute, above, is. A good metaphor would be a guitar … only the number of strings, the shape, the construction, the tuning, the tone are all different. I’ve described a guitar, not a lute. A better metaphor would be … a lute.

    “God is what he is, and the Universe is what it is.” You can’t argue with that, but you can’t discuss it much either.

  4. 4
    Axel says:

    The Hindus, I believe, call God, the One without a Second. God is also described as ‘the ground of being’, I believe, though I don’t know in which religion it originated.

  5. 5
    Axel says:

    I’ve got a good one… How about, The Word ?

  6. 6
    CuriousCat says:

    I really do not understand why occasionalism is the bizarre view that things, properly speaking, don’t really cause their characteristic effects. If you hold the view that the “existence of the things” is contingent on God, then why would not the “causality of the things” depend on God? After all, both existence and causality are metaphysical views, which are accepted by the majority of people and scientists.

  7. 7
    awstar says:

    Axel #5

    I’ve got a good one… How about, The Word ?

    Too old fashioned. You don’t need a PHD degree to comprehend it. Even a child can believe it. Besides, they’re looking for a metaphor for reality, not reality itself.

  8. 8
    mike1962 says:

    vjtorley: (a) the objects within our cosmos are not parts of God, but are really distinct from their Creator;

    What does “really distinct” mean with respect to the Ground of All Being and It’s creations? If the Creator of the universe and It’s creations are in relation, then either the creation is epiphenomenal of the Creator’s ontology, or they are both part of a more fundamental ontology that includes the Creator and It’s creation.

    Either way, nothing can be “really distinct” ultimately.

    At the most basic level, It’s All One…

    …if Reason is reliable in these matters.

    Either Reason is reliable in these matters or it isn’t. If it is, then the whole of Reality ultimately and necessarily must be One ontology. Otherwise, Reason fails and there’s no point in discussing anything along these lines, except, perhaps, to show that Reason fails.

    Take your pick.

  9. 9
    jw777 says:

    A Train

    The only falter is on point d.), only because it could function for a second on its own. However, it is close to ceasing in a second because without switch operators, engineers, operators, stockyard changeovers, fueling (whether by electricity or fuel), etc., calamity, derailing, impact, deterioration, breakdown and the like are imminent.

  10. 10
    Axel says:

    awstar #7

    Awesome, awstar !

  11. 11

    In my honest opinion the ID movement has to focus on scientifically testable operational definitions, not more metaphors.

    Believing that a overseeing God/Designer has to be “intelligent” scientifically obliges the ID movement to coherently explain how and where God grew-up and went to school or however they learned everything there is to know about everything, to in time become “all knowing”.

    Since intelligence learns over time: If God did not have to “learn” all that knowledge then they are not “intelligent” they are something else.

    This is a very serious paradox that was at least well covered by the Greek and Roman religions where many Gods lived together and learned from each other. But I doubt that the general public wants a return to that religious perspective just because its many Gods easily qualify as “intelligent” and humans were part of the games they played. The now common mainstream religions complicate matters by suggesting that “intelligent” is a bad metaphor to use for something that is instead supposed to be more than that and somehow has been all knowing since the beginning of time.

  12. 12
    awstar says:

    GSG #11

    Believing that a overseeing God/Designer has to be “intelligent” scientifically obliges the ID movement to coherently explain how and where God grew-up and went to school or however they learned everything there is to know about everything, to in time become “all knowing”.

    Since intelligence learns over time: If God did not have to “learn” all that knowledge then they are not “intelligent” they are something else.

    intelligence learned over time happens within the space-time domain. Science cannot tell us what exists outside of the space-time domain. If we are to know anything about what exists outside of space-time, information needs to be communicated from there in a language that we can decipher. And even then, we can only understand however much as we are able (by design) to know.

    But in the meantime, ID scientists can add a lot to our knowledge here inside of space-time as to how things work and how to fixed that which is broke if they build on the axiom that everything was initially intelligently designed, instead of the evolutionists axiom that everything exists as it appears because of Shear Dumb Luck.

  13. 13
    jw777 says:

    #11 and 12

    I was unaware anyone thought intelligence was an accrual of facts over time. It is a capacity of understanding. In every theory of the hierarchy of cognitive development, acquisition (I.e. – accrual of facts over time) is considered the lowest level of cognitive development with zero impact on intelligence. Analysis and synthesis are usually placed at the top. People with high intuition (instinctual analysis) test statistically significantly higher than people who know a lot. And all of us have examples of a person we know who knows A LOT, can rattle off facts and figures left and right, but can’t put a coherent argument together.

    Given that intelligence is a capacity for understanding, the verifiability of Intelligent Design lies in finding systems which require foresight (understanding), intent (understanding), complex symbiotic interactions (synthesis), and the like.

    The difficulty, of course, is that historical science devolves very rapidly into whatever somebody wants. Steve Meyer has utterly quashed macroevolutionary interpretation, however, because he uses the identical criterion invoked by Charles Darwin, namely that we must appeal to a mechanism now in use. For large creations of and changes in information as we see in genetics, and which would have been needed to bring about the initial cell and the initial body plans, we know of only one mechanism now in action which can do this: intelligence. In theory, in an infinite of time, randomness COULD arguably create specified information. But in actuality we know of no such thing. Only intelligence does it.

  14. 14

    VJT,
    In the circles I travel in, the favorite metaphor is “drama”–e.g. VanHoozer “The Drama of Doctrine”. Like a game, a drama has an open metaphysical structure. Unlike a game, a drama has a richer palette of objectives, and may indeed, be nested so that dramas exist within dramas. (Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream” for example.) Even better, the border between drama and reality is porous, which gives it an ability to be about itself. In the end, free-will and self-consciousness are all about recursive things, and a drama has the potential to be recursive, just as Jesus took the form of a story-with-a-moral and recursively turned it into a parable.

  15. 15
    Heartlander says:

    And with this big difference between Pantheism and the Christian idea of God, there usually goes another. Pantheists usually believe that God, so to speak, animates the universe as you animate your body: that the universe almost is God, so that if it did not exist He would not exist either, and anything you find in the universe is a part of God. The Christian idea is quite different. They think God invented and made the universe-like a man making a picture or composing a tune. A painter is not a picture, and he does not die if his picture is destroyed. You may say, “He’s put a lot of himself into it,” but you only mean that all its beauty and interest has come out of his head. His skill is not in the picture in the same way that it is in his head, or even in his hands expect you see how this difference between Pantheists and Christians hangs together with the other one. If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But, of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will. Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, “If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realise that this also is God.” The Christian replies, “Don’t talk damned nonsense.”

    (snip)… A world of automata-of creatures that worked like machines-would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.

    Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on. If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will-that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings-then we may take it it is worth paying.

    When we have understood about free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me: “Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?” The better stuff a creature is made of-the cleverer and stronger and freer it is-then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best-or worst-of all.
    Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

  16. 16

    jw777:

    I was unaware anyone thought intelligence was an accrual of facts over time. It is a capacity of understanding.

    Can you provide an example of an intelligent living thing that is completely unable to “learn” how to walk, swim, fly, forage, eat, communicate and all else needed for their survival?

  17. 17

    jw777:

    the verifiability of Intelligent Design lies in finding systems which require foresight (understanding), intent (understanding), complex symbiotic interactions (synthesis), and the like.

    The premise of the theory is quote:

    The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

    For this premise to be “science” you are obliged to provide a testable model to demonstrate/explain how “intelligent cause” works. What do you have for me to test?

  18. 18
    Graham2 says:

    All these posts about god. Can we just drop the pretence … ID is a religious movement.

  19. 19
    ciphertext says:

    Since intelligence learns over time: If God did not have to “learn” all that knowledge then they are not “intelligent” they are something else. — Gary S. Caulin, #11

    I would argue that an intelligence can learn over time, but that should not be construed as the only way intelligence can obtain knowledge. Depending upon what definition of intelligence you are using, the “intelligence” in question could have come into being with access to a body of knowledge. In which case, there is not period of time over which the intelligence learns that knowledge. This is particularly true in the world of computing.

  20. 20

    Ciphertext, to define and qualify intelligence I use existing models from cognitive science, including machine intelligence. My name above links to where I upload the theory, with models and references. More here:

    http://www.planetsourcecode.co.....8;lngWId=1
    http://intelligencegenerator.blogspot.com/

    Do you have a model to explain how the “intelligence” in question could have come into being with access to a body of knowledge?

  21. 21
    E.Seigner says:

    Jon Garvey

    I find the “inadequate metaphor” case put by Ed Feser (or anyone else) to be futile, in the end.

    The case put by Feser is, I think, a call to consider metaphors in appropriate perspective and to avoid literal parallels between the metaphor and the thing/phenomenon described by the metaphor. It’s a call to avoid overinterpretation of metaphors.

    Feser’s aim is diametrically opposed to Torley’s aim. Torley is looking for The Prize-Winning Metaphor or maybe even The Single True Metaphor.

    Jon Garvey

    We are forced to think metaphorically with respect to God, since we cannot express (or know) divine things directly.

    This is true, but we are supposed to understand metaphors in appropriate perspective. We inevitably use language to describe things, and some desciptions are compelling, accurate, engaging, and whatnot, but they are ever distinct from the thing described.

    The word “dog” is not a dog. It’s a word. The same way, no metaphor can ever capture the thing so that you could safely forget about the thing and live happily ever after with the metaphor. Torley’s quest to do precisely that is futile. As you note:

    Indeed, even more generally, metaphors fail by definition, because if something is identical to what is used to describe it, it’s a literal description, not a metaphorical.

    A slight correction is in order. If A and B are identical, then A is B. However, the word “dog” is never a dog. It’s always a word and therefore it’s never identical with the dog. Descriptions can be more or less adequate, but never identical to that which is being described. This is a basic tenet in philosophy of language, often sadly ignored.

  22. 22
    Querius says:

    First of all, this post has very little to do with ID. To me, ID is simply a paradigm in which things that appear designed are studied as if they actually are. No position is taken on the nature or identity of the designer.

    That said, several people posted good observations about the limitations of metaphors—that by definition, metaphors ultimately break down.

    Others have noted that a discussion about the God’s interaction with nature, the nature of reality, and the purposes of God are difficult or impossible beyond what God has revealed.

    I agree and would like to add that as a Christian, I find support in the Bible for the idea that our physical reality is a simulation and a test.

    For example, in Luke 16:10-11, Dr. Luke reports that Jesus said the following:

    Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

    The reason I don’t like the game or drama metaphors is that both of these activities are employed for entertainment and education, and minimizes the brutality, corruption, and suffering in the world brought on primarily by people’s relentless pursuit of money, power, and pleasure.

    -Q

  23. 23
    E.Seigner says:

    VJT

    As I see it, the problem with the arrow metaphor is that if natural objects need to be intelligently guided towards their characteristic effects – “led along by the nose” towards their built-in goals, as it were – then this would seem to render them purely passive in their attainment of those goals. And yet it is an empirical fact that natural objects do possess active powers – think of a lodestone’s tendency to pick up magnetic objects, for instance.

    The only activity that objects can have in achieving their goals is will, intellect, and ability to move their own body with it. But then they are not called objects really, but live beings with agency.

    Inert objects are indeed passive in the attainment of their built-in goals, namely, they don’t have any idea that those goals exist. They just move along with the rest of creation.

    Even a lodestone’s ability to pick up magnetic objects is passive. Magnetism is like gravity, and would you say gravity is an active power of objects? Whenever you drop something, would you say the object’s tendency to fall down is an active power?

    This is why the arrow metaphor is a very good one. The arrow is not led by the nose, but pushed from behind. Its goal is determined by the archer, but there are other factors that may sway the arrow from its course, such as wind, and a possibly moving target. The arrow metaphor is in agreement with that there’s always a multiplicity of physical causes that determine physical outcomes.

  24. 24
    Peter says:

    Regarding ‘the word,’ I believe that is a metaphor for Jesus, the son of God, and therefore not God Himself.

    Jesus used a couple of metaphors, i.e. father. But in this context I think farmer would be the most appropriate. He cleared the land/created the universe to grow several crops of immortal souls for spiritual sustenance. We can see his work all across the earth now as secular societies that bare no fruit are being replaced by meek, or IOW submissive peoples (Muslims).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2kKnzW4d8w or

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQELHJx8Vf0

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