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Snails for Dr. Baggini


[Image courtesy of Jurgen Schoner and Wikipedia.]
Here’s an old joke: how do snails move? Philosopher Julian Baggini, writing in The Guardian (“Religion’s truce with science can’t hold”, October 14, 2011) seems to have forgotten that there are two answers to this question. Here’s the scientific answer: “By gliding along on their muscular foot, which is lubricated with mucus.” And here’s the other answer: “Very slowly.” As we’ll see, this humorous example perfectly illustrates what’s wrong with secular humanists’ complaints about religion encroaching on the domain of science.

As readers of this blog are well aware, Intelligent Design theory makes no claims about the identity of the Designer. However, since Dr. Baggini criticizes the claims of religion in his article, I shall assume in this post that the Designer is God – and not some Demiurge, angel, demon, pixie or alien.

Why NOMA doesn’t work

The target of Dr. Baggini’s latest polemic in The Guardian is Stephen Jay Gould’s hallowed NOMA principle, which tells us that the claims of science and religion can never come into conflict, because science tells us how, whereas religion tells us why. In refuting this simplistic characterization of the relationship between science and religion, Baggini points out that many “why” questions collapse into how questions. “Why does water boil at 100 degrees Celsius” really means: “What are the processes that explain it has this boiling point?” – which is a question of how. So far, so good. But then he continues:

Critically, however, scientific “why” questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, “why” is usually what I call “agency-why”: it’s an explanation involving causation with intention.

So not only do the hows and whys get mixed up, religion can end up smuggling in a non-scientific agency-why where it doesn’t belong.

This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific “how” and religious “why” questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.

Dr. Baggini’s unexamined assumptions

While I would agree with Dr. Baggini that the rigid dichotomy between scientific “how” and religious “why” questions does not withstand critical examination, I have to say that his reasoning in support of this conclusion is faulty. The brief excerpt from his article above contains two highly contentious assumptions, as well as two controversial claims.

1. Baggini assumes that what he calls scientific “why” questions are all questions about processes. (However, no justification is given for this assumption.)
2. He assumes that what he calls “agency-why” questions can never be scientific. (Psychologists, detectives and archaeologists might disagree with him on this point.)
3. Additionally, Baggini claims that non-scientific “agency-why” questions have no legitimate place in any intellectual endeavor to discover why things are as they are. Evidently these questions don’t “belong” in such an endeavor. (Why not?)
4. He claims that if someone invokes God as an answer to the question, “Why are things the way they are?”, then they will have to make some statement about how He did so.

How does God act? And what kind of “how” are we talking about?

Let’s have a look at Dr. Baggini’s last claim. What is wrong here is that Baggini has confused two senses of “how”, which I distinguished in the joke about how snails move. I’ll call them “how of process” and “how of manner”. Religion is not interested in the processes by which God acts, because it holds that there aren’t any. Rather, religion is interested in the manner in which God acts.

God, if we are to believe the claims of classical theism (which most Jews, Christians and Muslims accept, as well as a good many people of no formal religious affiliation), is a simple Being who doesn’t have any parts. Consequently, there can be no processes by which He acts, if and when He acts. Now, I realize that the notion of a being “just acting” without any underlying “how” might strike some people as strange. But there have to be some actions which are properly basic, and which are not performed by doing anything else – otherwise we’d get an infinite regress.

Consider virtual particles. These occupy a central place in modern quantum field theory: the forces of Nature are said to be mediated by the exchange of these particles. Suppose I were to tell you that “real” particles continuously emit virtual particles, and you asked me: “Yes, but how do they do that?” I would simply have to answer: “There is no ‘how’. They just do, that’s all. If you’re looking for some underlying mechanism, then I’m afraid there isn’t one.” And if a secular humanist were to ask me: “How does God create?”, then I would have to answer: “There is no ‘how’. He just does, that’s all. If you’re looking for some underlying mechanism, there isn’t one.”

Can the activities of an intelligent agent be properly basic?

“But that’s not fair!” I hear the secular humanist object. “You can’t just take the activity of an intelligent agent – let alone an omniscient one – as an unexplained given! Intelligent beings are complex, and as such their actions require a mechanism! Intelligent acts cannot be properly basic.” To which I reply: is the proposition, “Intelligent beings are complex” an a priori truth or an a posteriori truth? If it is an a posteriori truth, then I will object that the secular humanist is arguing from a sample of one: the only intelligent being in the cosmos which we know of is Homo sapiens, who happens to be complex. Other intelligent beings might not be. It is true that human reasoning depends on the occurrence of lower-level events in the brain, but in this case, the dependence is extrinsic rather than intrinsic, as Professor David Oderberg points out in his insightful essay, Hylemorphic Dualism. And in any case, we don’t know whether other intelligent beings in the cosmos would even possess brains.

If, on the other hand, the secular humanist is making the stronger claim that the statement that intelligent beings are complex is truea priori, then I would challenge him/her to explain why this should be so. For there seems to be no inherent reason why a being capable of adapting means to ends must be complex. And even if we add the requirement that the being in question must be capable of explaining why it acted in the way it did, in some sort of language, there still seems to be no inherent reason why this being needs to be internally complex. Finally, should the secular humanist argue that a being capable of producing complex structures must have a mind which is complex enough to grasp them, I would reply by pointing out that the objection presupposes a representationalist account of mind, which many philosophers would reject. Concepts, I would suggest, don’t have to be “in” the mind of the knower – whatever “in” might mean. If, for instance, concepts existed in some realm of forms, beyond space and time, which was created by the knower but which was external to Him, then He could still have immediate epistemic access to these concepts without having to “contain” them within his simple Mind.

The “how of manner” which characterizes the intentional acts of intelligent agents

There is, however, one important difference between a real particle’s emission of virtual particles and God’s generation of things. Generative acts of God can be described in terms of an intentional “how of manner”, whereas the emission of virtual particles by real particles cannot, because particles don’t have intentions. If someone were to ask me, “How does God create?”, I might answer: “Intelligently”, “Freely”, or “Lovingly”. These are all “how of manner” answers which can be used to describe the intentional behavior of agents, and the answer given by Scripture is in the same vein: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6). The “word” here is not a process by which God creates; it is a description of the manner in which He does so: communicatively. (Who is He communicating with? That, as they say, is another story.) And if someone were to ask me, “How does God produce things exhibiting the property of specified complexity?” I would answer along the same lines: He does these things in the manner befitting an intelligent agent.

Other questions about God’s activity in the world which are scientifically tractable

Having answered that question, one can then go on to ask other questions like: “What is God’s purpose in creating or producing these things?” and “At what point in the universe’s history did God act, with the aim of generating the various kinds of life-forms and complex biological structures that we find on Earth today?” (This is not the same as asking when these creatures and structures first appeared, if you happen to believe in front-loading, as many Intelligent Design proponents do. For instance, it may be that God acted just once, producing the first living cell four billion years ago and encoding it with specific information that would enable it to evolve into the various life-forms we find on Earth today. Or it may be that God acted even earlier on, when He was setting up the initial conditions of the cosmos, at the Big Bang.) Unlikely as it may seem, questions about God’s purpose and the timing of His interventions are scientifically tractable, even if we don’t know the answers currently. For instance, if scientists were to discover that very slightly different values of the fundamental constants of Nature would still be compatible with the emergence of complex life-forms over the course of time, it would be reasonable to conclude that the production of complex life-forms was not a sufficient explanation for why the constants have the precise values that they do. One might then look for a more specific purpose which required those precise values: for example, the creation of intelligent beings who are capable of making scientific discoveries about the origin and fundamental laws of the universe, and who are located on a planet in the cosmos where they have sufficient opportunity to do so. (A perpetually overcast planet would be a very bad location for the task of investigating the origin of the universe, as the stars would not be visible.) One can also ask how much information would need to be packed into the initial conditions of the cosmos at the Big Bang, in order to guarantee the emergence of Homo sapiens 13.73 billion years subsequently, and if this number exceeds the total capacity of the universe, one might reasonably conclude that God must have intervened at some subsequent stage during the history of the cosmos, in order to bring about humans and other life-forms.

Why the search for a mechanism underlying every intelligent activity is doomed to failure

In any case, one does not need to be a classical theist in order to understand that searching for the mechanism by which God acts is a fool’s errand. To see why, let’s assume for argument’s sake that the Copernican principle, which states that the Earth is not in a favored position in the cosmos, is true. Scientists who oppose religion are very fond of appealing to this principle. Strangely, however, they seldom invoke it when considering the question of other intelligences in the cosmos. In its more generalized form, the Copernican principle states that human beings are not privileged observers of the cosmos. In that case, there is no reason to suppose that human beings are exceptionally intelligent, when compared to other sapient life-forms in the cosmos. What this means is that if there are other intelligent beings apart from Homo sapiens, they are likely to be much more complex than ourselves. Thus it is highly likely that the physical mechanisms by which they act, when behaving purposively, will elude our mediocre minds: the workings of their brains (if they have brains) may be too complex for us to understand. And since some of these intelligent life-forms have an evolutionary head-start of many millions of years on us, we can safely assume that their internal workings will always be too complex for us to understand. Thus even scientists of a secular humanist bent must acknowledge that some of our “how” questions will be forever unanswerable. Why, then, do they object so vociferously when religious believers refuse to specify a mechanism by which God acts?

Why the identification of intelligently designed patterns in Nature does not require a mechanism

If we can never hope to understand the internal workings of sufficiently advanced alien intelligences, should we conclude that the quest to identify the phenomena in the cosmos that were produced by these aliens is a scientifically misguided one? By no means! The quest for patterns in the cosmos that can be confidently identified as intelligently produced is not concerned with the “how of process” underlying their production, if there was any. Rather, it is concerned with the “how of manner”: which patterns in the cosmos can we be certain beyond reasonable doubt are intelligently designed? The central claim of Intelligent Design theory is that in order to confidently identify a pattern we’ve discovered as having been produced intelligently, all we need to know is: (a) that if we confine ourselves to natural processes occurring in the cosmos which require no foresight of a future goal, then the production of the pattern in question by any or all of these processes is astronomically improbable, and (b) that the pattern in question is also capable of being described very concisely. (Other patterns in the natural world may also be the work of an intelligence; but here, we are talking about patterns that can be confidently identified as such.)

A third kind of “how”: “how of method”, or modus operandi

For the sake of completeness, I should mention that here is a third kind of “how” in addition to the “how of manner” and the “how of process”, and that is what I might call the “how of method” – by which I mean the modus operandi of an intelligent agent. There are some thinkers who would argue that we cannot identify a pattern as the work of an intelligent agent unless we already know something about the agent’s habits or method of acting. While knowledge of an individual’s modus operandi can certainly help scientists (e.g. criminal investigators) to identify a particular agent, there is no reason why we need to know any individual’s modus operandi if we are merely trying to ascertain whether a pattern found in Nature is the work of some intelligent agent. To use a common example, if I found a single black monolith on the moon, whose sides were in the precise ratio of 1:4:9, I would not need to know anything about its maker’s modus operandi in order to deduce that it was the work of an intelligent agent. All I would need to know is that the monolith’s dimensions are capable of being described very concisely (i.e. the squares of the first three natural integers), and that the production of a monolith having such highly specified dimensions as a result of natural processes that do not require foresight is astronomically improbable.

If God is at work in the cosmos, then He may well have His own characteristic modus operandi. Perhaps, as the biologist J. B. S. Haldane is said to have remarked, He has an inordinate fondness for beetles. Or perhaps, as physicist Dr. Robert Sheldon, a proponent of Intelligent Design, has suggested, Fibonacci sequences in Nature are “the fingerprint of God”. Or maybe God has no characteristic “fingerprints” after all. At any rate, what I would maintain is that we do not need a “how of method” in order to identify God at work in the world. The very fact that the cosmos, even at the level of the multiverse, displays a highly specific and totally objective kind of beauty, known as mathematical beauty, points to its having been produced intelligently, by an extra-cosmic, incorporeal Designer, as I argued in my posts, Beauty and the Multiverse and Why the mathematical beauty we find in the cosmos is an objective “fact” which points to a Designer.

What kind of “how” claims does religion make?

In his article, Dr. Baggini goes on to argue that “any religious belief that involves an activist, really-existing God and claims that religion has something to say about why things happen, must also be encroaching on questions of how they happen, too.” If he is talking about “how of manner” then he is entirely correct. However, if he means to refer to the “how of process”, then he is radically mistaken, and I would argue that he is also wrong if he is talking about the “how of method”. The same goes for his comment on religion in the last paragraph of his essay:

If it [religion] is a kind that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, or ends up doing so by stealth, then it is competing with science. In such contests science always wins, hands down, and the only way out is to claim a priority for faith over evidence, or the Bible over the lab.

A quick response: the only way in which science is guaranteed to always win is if it keeps its metaphysical options open. Naturalism closes off one of those options in advance. That makes it unscientific.

Back to religion. If religion were trying to explain the mechanism by which the Creator made the cosmos, then it would indeed be asking a scientific question – and a very improper one at that. I would like to add, though, that science has no advantage here, for it is incapable in principle of revealing the mechanism underlying everything. At most, it can only answer the mechanism underlying our universe, by situating it within the framework of an even bigger multiverse, with a more general set of laws. But in the end, science must stop at some set of laws and conditions that it deems inexplicable – some fundamental mechanism, if you will. In that case, then, we have to ask whether the scientist’s stopping point is any better than the religious believer’s. If Dr. Baggini thinks it is, then he owes his readers an explanation why.

Nor does religion concern itself with the mechanism by which God produced the various kinds of living creatures in the cosmos. All that matters is that He produced at least some of these creatures intentionally. The biological theory of Intelligent Design offers us a way of identifying molecular machines inside the cell (see here for a list of 40 such machines). At the present time, though, the question of exactly which kinds of organisms were intelligently designed remains unanswered, as it requires a knowledge of where the “edge of evolution” lies – a topic addressed by Professor Michael Behe in his ground-breaking eponymous book on the subject. Nor are we capable at the present time of identifying all designed organisms as the products of a single Designer.

Science is mainly about “What”, rather than “How” or “Why”

Lastly, Baggini overlooks the fact that most scientific questions are neither “How” nor “Why” questions, but “What” questions: “What’s out there in the world? What kinds of creatures are there, and what distinguishing properties do they have?” Only when a scientist’s domain of inquiry is reasonably well catalogued can he/she turn to secondary questions like: “How are these phenomena produced?”, “When and where are they produced?” and “By what kinds of entities are they produced?”

Intelligent Design theory is a very young scientific endeavor. Right now, its researchers are still in the process of identifying and cataloguing the various kinds of specified complexity that occur in our world. Questions like: “When did the Designer input the information required to make these patterns into Nature?” and “How many times did He act in this manner?” certainly make for interesting philosophical discussions, but at the present time, there are no definitive scientific answers. What scientists need most of all, when investigating the question of design in Nature, are open minds, which are not tethered to any blinkered ideology, such as naturalism – whether of the metaphysical or methodological variety..

Postscript: Why people believe in Intelligent Design

Dr. Baggini and other atheistic critics of Intelligent Design tend to assume that ID advocates suffer from two cognitive flaws: sloppy thinking (in particular, a poor understanding of the logic of evolutionary explanations) and a failure of imagination (“I can’t imagine how this complex pattern came about, so Goddidit”). What I would suggest instead is that ID advocates, unlike Neo-Darwinian evolutionists, do not see themselves as tied to any metaphysical account of mind. Thus they are open to the possibility of an immaterial mind, as well as a Mind outside Nature. For a materialist, on the other hand, Intelligent Design poses a real threat to his/her world-view – for if it turned out that the cosmos itself (i.e. the multiverse) was designed, the materialist will be forced to acknowledge an incorporeal Designer. Hence people with a dogmatic commitment to materialism tend to resist the claims of Intelligent Design.

So far I have explained why some people are open to Intelligent Design, but what makes them believe it? I think the answer consists in what I will call the S.T.O.M.P.S. principle (short for “Smarter Than Our Most Promising Scientists”). Sometimes when people see the solution to a problem, they remark, “I would never have thought of that in a million years.” (Often they’re right, too.) Most people’s reaction, when they watch a science video showing the elegant design of the inner workings of the cell, is along these lines: “Look at that! Not even our best scientists could design a cell as elegantly and efficiently as that. This must be the work of a super-human intelligence.” What they recognize at once is that building a cell is very, very hard – and that no human being could come close to designing one as well as the cells we find in Nature. Next, they reason that if even human intelligence cannot come up with a design as elegant as that, non-foresighted processes (commonly known as random mutation plus natural selection) are even less likely to do so. Hand-waving appeals to “deep time” and “billions of years” leave them cold – and rightly so. What these people correctly intuit is that elegance of design isn’t the kind of thing that time alone can generate, even when assisted by variation and periodic culling. Could natural selection generate a workable design? Perhaps, in the right kind of environment. But an elegant design? Definitely not.

Nor are most people likely to be terribly impressed when scientists point out flaws in our DNA. Such criticisms strike them as ankle-biting carpings – as indeed they are. It’s the “big picture” of the cell as a whole that really matters, and the sheer elegance of the big picture is screamingly obvious. Minor genetic flaws, which may not have even been present in the first living cell, are mere trifles.

Finally, there is one response which Joe and Jane Doe can make to proponents of undirected evolution who gleefully point out what they imagine to be the flaws in the design of the cell, or of the DNA of living things. “You don’t like the way the cell is designed? Build a better one. Let’s see you do it.”

Before I finish, I’d like to leave my readers with a few videos (courtesy of bornagain77) that will allow them to judge for themselves whether the cell is intelligently designed or not.

Powering the Cell: Mitochondria (2:09 – no voiceover)

Molecular Biology Animations – Demo Reel (1:43, no voiceover)

The ATP Synthase Enzyme – exquisite motor necessary for first life (86 seconds, voiceover)

Programming of Life – Protein Synthesis (2:51 – voiceover)

DNA Molecular Biology Visualizations – Wrapping And DNA Replication (3:07 – voiceover)

Astonishing Molecular Machines – Drew Berry (6:04, TED talk)

Bacterial Flagellum (7:36, voiceover)

Vjtorley. In my humble opinion, your pieces are always a joy to read. I truly hope a collection of essays in works. . .hint hint. ;) MedsRex
Hi Thoughtspark, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. If you'd like to share the story of your intellectual conversion some time, I'm sure many people at Uncommon Descent would be interested to hear it. Thanks again. vjtorley
What an excellent, excellent post. After reading it, I am amazed that the bread-and-butter argument of the majority of non-theists continues to be, "You religious/spiritual/theistic guys are stooooopid!" Thank goodness we have a couple of Thomas Nagels, Elizabeth Liddles, and Bradley Montons! They are increasingly rare though. To to borrow from Richard Dawkins (how ironic!), "If only such subtle, nuanced atheism predominated, the world would surely be a better place." I'm gonna pull a Gil Dodgen here, but having been an atheist (the closet kind), I find that I cannot go back for intellectual reasons. ThoughtSpark

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