Search This Site


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Creationism By Any Other Name: Decrying Intelligent Design, McIntosh Sells It Anyway

Un-inspirational Poster
Image from Understanding Creationism, another unscientifically aspirational site

Steve McIntosh, in an essay promoting his book, Evolution's Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins:
...the stark facts of the ubiquitous evolution of everything point nonetheless to a universe with a purpose.
That is a hell of an assertion, and it reveals more of the structure and inclination of human thought than of the objective reality thought struggles to observe.

First, let me say that, as a spiritually-inclined philosopher, I am not here going to say that there is no purpose. I like to - "believe" is the wrong word, let's just say "act as if true" - that life has a purpose, but I am not going to fall for the "scientification" of this notion. Anyone who has thought deeply on these matters knows that science will never touch this question, for reasons that are perhaps not immediately obvious to the casual thinker, but are actually, in the end, quite simple and obvious. I'll not go into these reasons here, but I will instead endeavor to dismantle McIntosh's particular intellectual trap.

The author presents "purpose" as an a priori upon which all of his subsequent argument is pinned. What then proceeds is the obverse of "infinite regression," as all of his subsequent discussion cascades effortlessly forward from this intellectual singularity. Unfortunately, "purposefulness" has not ever been risen above mere assertion and McIntosh does nothing for its canonization in his otherwise aspiring and hopeful musings. the facts of evolution have increasingly come to light, these very facts are beginning to create problems for a purely materialist account of the evolutionary process. These problems are not caused by unscientific theories such as "intelligent design"...
The philosopher doth protest too much, methinks. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design relies on the primacy of purpose in its argument as well. Of course, the theorists of the ID "discipline" will deny this and claim that it is only the evidence that points them irrevocably towards a perception of purposefulness, but they really are ignoring the inherent myopia of the thought process itself.

The way that thought imprints its own structure upon what it observes is not a novel or radical assertion: It is something that has been known and observed for centuries. It remains somewhat marginalized, however, for very good reasons. Thought itself - and hence, the human being - does not well abide uncertainty, and there are few revelations that are more shattering than the realization that what we see is merely what we see, and not necessarily what is. I can guarantee that there are some of you who will abandon this essay right now simply on the basis of the "crazy idea" I've just articulated in the previous sentence. Others will continue and entertain the notion because they are "liberal" and enjoy its mind-teasing implications. Fewer still will sit and inhabit this truth and silently observe it constantly unfolding within themselves.

But - on to our philosopher's inadvertent and reflexive embrace of this myopia.

In defense of "purpose," the author posits that an apparent defiance of entropy is evidential. He begins:
As I carefully argue in my new book, Evolution's Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, the evolution of human consciousness and culture is real evolution. Although it cannot be conflated with biological evolution, it is nevertheless the latest phase of the unfolding epic of evolution that can be traced all the way back to the original emergence of time and space 13.7 billion years ago in the big bang.
May I pause and admire that McIntosh can admit that biological evolution is not relatable in any meaningful sense with cosmological "evolution" (and it's not), but can continue with great rhetorical ease - in the same sentence - that "it is nevertheless the latest phase of the unfolding epic of evolution." Calling them "phases" in an "unfolding epic," in the context of the assertion of purposefulness is, unfortunately, indeed conflating the two.

In the same way that the unyielding force of entropy somehow has resisted in the establishment of a vast and undifferentiated universe of vapor, and has instead rather inexplicably organized itself into planetary systems and galaxies, so too does the emergence of complex evolutionary organisms from the mire of this hot ball of mud demonstrate that:
...evolution exhibits a rising flow of creativity that consistently overcomes entropy, ingeniously solves difficult problems by navigating through immense hyperspaces of possibility, produces astonishing diversity and originality, and continually transcends itself through the emergence of radically novel forms and new levels of organization.
The man is no Hemingway (but then, neither am I.) This charmingly baroque sentence is really only merely an expression of somewhat naive wonder at how open systems (or really, really big closed systems like "the universe"*) behave radically different than simple closed ones.

Footnoted caveat aside, the Earth's situation is different from that of the cosmos - the former, while mostly appearing to be closed, is in fact being irradiated by a powerful energy source from the outside, not to mention the lessor impacts of space debris and radiation. Open systems regularly appear to "defy" the laws of entropy, but that is only because energy inputs tend to upset the probabilistic tendency to undifferentiate. The universe may or may not be a closed system - the speculation is fascinating - but in any case, it's organizational tendencies are yet to be completely understood, again, in contrast with relatively simple observations of the planetary ecosphere's counterintuitive, but not at all defiant, manifestation of the laws of entropy.

After such a glib dismissal of the difference between these two types of "evolution," why not toss in the "evolution of consciousness" into the mix as well?
...through cultural evolution, in at least some places, the scope of those worthy of moral consideration has expanded from the family or tribe to those of the same religion, then to those with the same nationality, and now to all sentient beings. And just as our sense of goodness has evolved by stages into increasingly worldcentric conceptions, our sense of truth has likewise evolved from magical to mythical to scientific, and now to increasingly holistic levels of understanding.
It is demonstrative of the limitations of what our thought can understand that we ascribe a linearity to "stages." In reality, all of these notions have existed in uncomfortable contemporaneous tandem, with one or the other rising to historical ascendance for various reasons. I myself am aware of moving amongst these "stages," compelled as all of us are by modalities imposed upon us by the vagaries of natural selection's march - like preferring a rabbit to the no doubt adequately succulent flesh of our own newborn child when hunger strikes, even as the latter is clearly more accessible.

But one should expect - and be on guard - that thought, as its first impulse, will impose linear cause-and-effect upon everything that it observes, even when it is observing itself. Perhaps especially so.
If we want to find direct evidence of purpose in evolution, we must look to the presence of life and its inherent agency. And if we want to discover the comprehensive purpose of evolution as a universal process, our investigation must be broadened beyond matter and life so as to include the psychosocial evolution of humanity. That is, at its best, humanity's quest to evolve is ultimately the quest for ever-deeper realizations of beauty, truth, and goodness. These intrinsic values are actually the directions of evolution, properly understood.
This looks suspiciously like a scientific "hypothesis" (and good luck testing it) but, nonetheless, the rest of the essay pretty much departs from any pretense of scientific rigor, and instead evokes the virtues that so universally appeal to a life of the mind.
A philosophy that recognizes the influence of beauty, truth, and goodness...
OK, it's a philosophy again. We're all good...
...The source and destiny of the universe’s motion toward the beautiful, the true, and the good can be explained differently by the various forms of spirituality that will find a welcome home within an authentic evolutionary worldview. And even though humanity's very conception of beauty, truth, and goodness has evolved through the dialectical process of cultural evolution, these basic value categories continue to recur within every stage of development. In other words, although exactly what is beautiful, true, or good can be defined differently, and even conflictingly, by each successive stage of cultural evolution, some version of these values can always be found. Regardless of a person’s worldview, we can find something that is true, something that is good, and something that is beautiful for them.
Sigh. So beautiful. So good. So tautological.

I react strongly to this subject because I myself had a brief romance with Intelligent Design (I believe it lasted all of a week, at most**), and as such am acutely aware of how well-meaning folk who do not have a penchant for monkish introspection will adopt an elegant argument that appeals to their basic inclination for order and meaning,

One does not have to demonstrate that the conclusions brought about by myopia are incorrect, only merely to point out that myopia is in operation. And it is an 800-pound neon gorilla of thing to point out. There's nothing wrong with an aspirational thesis as long as one remains rooted in philosophy (hell, even my "act as if true" stance towards life's purposefulness is a living thesis in itself). Stephen McIntosh, while admitting to "philosophy", still clearly attempts to distance himself from the "unscientific" Intelligent Design, and to nudge his aspirational thesis in the direction of science, and that is an unforgivable breach.

*OK - to be fair, this is not a "closed" question. "The universe" (the totality thereof), might consist of a bunch of "universes" of which ours is only one, with some sort of bleed-through making them all, effectively, open systems. I don't know - to me this is just begging the question, and does nothing to resolve the infinite regression problem that nags at all of us who attempt to understand the grandeur of reality through the myopic filter of thought.

**Briefly - the most compelling aspect of ID's argument, to me, was the "mysterious" placement of our planet in such a spot within our galaxy as to be able to observe the grandeur of the universe's structure. Apparently, this is a statistically improbable spot, in the materialist view, for life (us) to have emerged to make our observations. But, myopia rules again, unfortunately. I am convinced that if we were placed in one of the "obstructed" byways that probability would dictate, we would nonetheless be equally convinced that it was the Best. Place. Ever. to see the universe in the way that we, well, would see it. And that we would think that anyone who might be where the Earth is now to be very unlucky indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.