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Posts Tagged ‘teleology

Not thumping but pumping

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One of the frustrating things about Reinventing the Sacred is that it keeps flip-flopping between condensed accounts of areas of science and mathematics I don’t understand well enough and logical leaps which don’t seem justified. So I keep flip-flopping in turn between wondering if it’s my ignorance that’s the problem and wondering if the logical leaps really don’t make sense.

[Follows Reductio ad Professor Plum as fifth in a series on Stuart A Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred which began with Reinventing the sand dune.]

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Michael Sandel on Justice #5

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So I don’t see the gap Michael Sandel sees in John Rawls’s liberal egalitarianism. So I don’t see the need to bring Aristotle into it. And I don’t think Aristotle makes the ground any firmer anyway.



This is the fifth part of a series on Michael J Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? which started with Michael Sandel on Justice #1.

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Intelligent design

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I participate in a discussion forum called the Online Philosophy Club. In the context of one of the conversations I came across a link to The Evolutionary Informatics Lab, run by proponents of Intelligent Design. What follows is a response to one of the papers on the site.

The paper is called LIFE’S CONSERVATION LAW: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information, by William A. Dembski and Robert J. Marks II. It promised to be a robust opposition to the view that natural selection is the principal driver of evolution.

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Serious about delusion #4

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Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

Keith Ward: Why there almost certainly is a God

I have to keep reminding myself that Keith Ward’s book is not called Why there just might be a God.

Fourth in a series responding to Keith Ward’s Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins1

See also Serious about delusion #1; #2; and #3

The God Hypothesis

Ward asks us to be ‘fair’ to the God Hypothesis:

[T]he reality of God is usually said to be infinitely greater than that of any human-like mind that we can imagine. God is not just a projection of a human mind onto the sky. What theistic philosophers usually say is that God is not less than a mind, with consciousness, knowledge and will. The divine reality may be infinitely greater than that, but if we are going to think of it at all, we will not be seriously misled if we think of it as a mind – recognising that we are using a model suitable for us, but one that does not literally apply to God.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is just talking about the concept of God, not shedding light on whether or not God exists. To say ‘God is not just a projection of a human mind’ will convince no one who isn’t already convinced, because that is exactly what the concept of God appears to be to someone not already convinced. As Ward says, God

is something that has thoughts, feelings and perceptions, but no physical body or brain. Such thoughts and perceptions will be very different from human thoughts.

Why would anyone think God has thoughts, feelings and perceptions, if not because we do? This concept of God is a mixture of attributes both human (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) and non-human (has always existed and always will; no physical body or brain). It is intriguing to wonder why Ward feels qualified to say ‘if we are going to think of [the divine reality] at all, we will not be seriously misled if we think of it as a mind’. Perhaps we will be completely misled?

Ward asks:

Could there be an unembodied mind, a pure Spirit, that has knowledge and awareness? I can see no reason why not.

OK, but to repeat a truism from the previous post, the possibility that something might exist does not mean it does. He goes on:

The God Hypothesis has at least as much plausibility as the materialist hypothesis. Both are hard to imagine, but neither seems to be incoherent or self-contradictory. Either might be true.

This kind of talk baffles me. My instinct is to think: I can’t let him get away with this. But it is hard to think of a fully adequate rejoinder, without saying the same thing over and over again. I’ve tried to tackle Ward’s attacks on matter and materialism in Serious about delusion #2.

Ward asks:

What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is?

I would reply: in order to be materialists, must we know exactly what matter is? Must a theist know exactly what God is? If so, then a lot of people who think they are theists are not as theistic as they thought they were.

I feel quite happy being materialist – in the sense of thinking that, on balance,

mind is reducible to electrochemical activity in the brain, or is a surprising and unexpected product of purely material processes,

without knowing precisely – or indeed extremely imprecisely – what matter is.

Matter could be very mysterious indeed, but you can’t solve a mystery by just adding another mystery to the mix. As I tried to explain in Serious about delusion #2, if we don’t need to bring in God to explain how rainfall happens or how stomata work, then I cannot see why you need God to explain how consciousness happens.

Consciousness (17th Century)

Consciousness (17th Century)

The explanations of rainfall and stomata are fundamentally in terms of matter – which, let us agree, we cannot explain. There was a time when we had no explanation of rainfall or of stomata, and now we do – even though we do not know what matter is. So there could come a time when we will have just as adequate an explanation of consciousness, but still no better understanding of what matter is.

And even if we take the view that we may never understand how consciousness happens, this is likely to be because we are ourselves conscious, and are trying to understand consciousness using our own consciousness. This may well be impossible. But even if it is impossible, I cannot see how its impossibility moves us any closer to thinking a God must exist or that mind must be an irreducible component of reality.

Observant readers will have noticed how much I have repeated myself in the last few blogs. At the risk of flogging this poor point to death, I shall try to sketch three scenarios. They are intended to be mutually exclusive, but I am not claiming they exhaust the possibilities.

Crucially, the scenarios are about what is the case, not about what we know now; or about what do not know yet but may know in the future; or about what we may never know.

Scenario 1: Materialism

Matter (whatever it is), or something like Gribben and Davies’ ‘mysterious and unknown substratum’ (see Serious about delusion #2), gave rise to mind – both consciousness and self-consciousness. This happened by the same process of gradual, non-teleological, evolution (see Scenario 3: Teleology below) as gave rise to – for example – seed dispersal, protective mimicry, and the beaks of finches. If we are ever to understand what mind is and how it arose, the knowledge we will need is scientific knowledge: physics, chemistry, biology, neurophysiology, psychology, cybernetics, informatics and so on.

On this assumption, then certainly as far as the ‘living world’ is concerned – the flora and fauna of planet Earth – there was a time when there was no mind, no self-consciousness. There was a time when there was ‘awareness’ or ‘sensitivity’, in the sense of specialised sense organs, and this was before there was full self-consciousness. Similarly there was a time before there was any awareness or sensitivity because the appropriate sense organs hadn’t yet evolved – just as there was a time before there were any living things, in the sense of self-replicating entities.

In this scenario we have reached a point where self-consciousness has evolved. But this evolved self-consciousness has a particular feature: that it presents itself to itself as an irreducible component of the reality it is conscious of. This is because its consciousness of that reality is inextricably bound up with its consciousness of itself. It may be a necessary feature of self-consciousness. How it was achieved we do not know – yet. Or we may never know.

Scenario 2: Anti-materialism

In this scenario mind (incorporating for the sake of argument both consciousness and self-consciousness) is an irreducible component of reality. Features of human neurophysiology etc which support mind may have arrived by a process of evolution, but mind itself has an irreducible aspect which cannot be explained as a product of evolution.

Because mind is an irreducible component of reality, there was never a time in the history of the universe when there was no mind.

Scenario 3: Teleology

This is a distinct scenario, although it includes features of both the other two.

As in Scenario 2: Anti-materialism above, mind is an irreducible component of reality, but mind and self-consciousness may not be quite the same thing.

Evolution is also involved but, unlike in Scenario 1: Materialism above, the evolution – and in particular the evolution of self-consciousness – has purpose behind it, and is therefore directed towards a specific goal.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

This scenario has a number of variants, associated with eg Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin. Both shared a vision that cosmic, geological, biological, technological, political and cultural history was (and is) in some way the gradual and directed realisation of mind’s (or spirit’s) purpose to become conscious of itself. If ‘mind’ is seen more as a principle of rationality the scenario has some affinity with Herbert Spencer’s universal natural law of progress (see Great god progress).

Having sketched these scenarios, my point is this. From the perspective of an individual self-consciousness (a living person) the phenomenological data itself which is available to that person gives no reason for rejecting any of the three scenarios. Crucially, the appearance, to that person, that that person’s mind is an irreducible component of that person’s experienced reality is just as evident in Scenario 1: Materialism as in Scenario 2: Anti-materialism. Therefore it cannot be a justification for Anti-materialism over Materialism.

This does not ‘prove’ Materialism. But phenomenological data aside, it is the scenario with the fewest unjustified assumptions. It treats mind as a phenomenon in the world, and is in line with the best available scientific knowledge. That knowledge cannot yet give a fully satisfactory account of how mind emerges from matter. But nor can Scenario 2 explain how mind is an irreducible component of reality or why it has to be. Scenario 2 includes the additional unjustified assumption that somehow mind was around at a time in the history of the universe when no living creatures had evolved to be conscious, and therefore is committed to speculating as to how this might be possible.

Similarly Scenario 3: Teleology includes an unjustified assumption that there is a purpose and a direction, and is committed to speculation as to where these may have come from, or how they are inextricably bound up in reality.

Scenario 1 acknowledges purpose, but only in the context of the evolved self-consciousness. Purposeful action is an undeniable feature of that evolved self-consciousness. Again Scenario 1 cannot give a fully satisfactory account yet of what purposeful action is and how it evolved. But nor can Scenario 3 explain where its purpose comes from, whose purpose it is, how it operates, and what its relationship is with the only mode of purposeful action we do have experience of, which is our own.

Bottom line: the three scenarios are all possible, and as far as I know there is no piece of currently available information which disproves any of them. If one is true, the other two are false. (Or all three are false, and the truth is something else.) But the fact that all three are possible does not make them equally sound. Scenario 2: Anti-materialism and Scenario 3: Teleology both rest on assumptions which have no independent justification. Scenario 1: Materialism does not.

The fact that we do not yet know how mind evolved does not undermine Scenario 1, any more than the fact that we do not yet know what mind was doing in the universe before conscious animals evolved undermines Scenario 2; or the fact that we do not yet know how purpose operates in the universe undermines Scenario 3. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What undermines Scenario 2 is the unwarranted assumption of the real unique irreducibility of mind. What undermines Scenario 3 is the unwarranted assumption of real purpose in the universe outside ourselves.

La lucha continúa…


1 Keith Ward, Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion Hudson, London, 2008.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #10

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What have typewriters, amino acids, kites and mountain streams got to do with the industrial production of ammonia…?

Tenth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #8

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #9

Coded chemistry

Flew now introduces a ‘third philosophical dimension’ to the origin of life.



He quotes mathematician David Berlinski, who is impressed by the transmission of coded information in the living cell from DNA to RNA and then to strings of amino acids:

By itself a code is familiar enough, an arbitrary mapping or a system of linkages between two discrete combinatorial objects. The Morse code, to take a familiar example, coordinates dashes and dots with letters of the alphabet. To note that codes are arbitrary is to note the distinction between a code and a purely physical connection between two objects. To note that codes embody mappings is to embed the concept of a code in mathematical language. To note that codes reflect a linkage of some sort is to return the concept of a code to its human uses.

…Can the origins of a system of coded chemistry be explained in a way that makes no appeal whatever to the kinds of facts that we otherwise invoke to explain codes and languages, systems of communication, the impress of ordinary words on the world of matter?2

I have duplicated the quote exactly as Flew presents it. Other quotations from other writers follow. But it is worth stopping a moment to consider just what is being said about the concept of a ‘code’.

To help the conversation along I would like to add another short quote into the mix – this time from Matt Ridley – about Alan Turing‘s

extraordinary mathematical proof that reasoning could take a mechanical form – that it was a form of computation…3

I am trying to fathom to what extent describing the DNA/RNA/amino acid mechanism as a genetic ‘code’ is metaphorical, and to what extent it is a real description. To what extent must we describe the mechanism as a code, because if not we miss something essential? (This is effectively repeating the question in David Berlinski’s second paragraph.)

Think of an old-fashioned typewriter keyboard. When the key with the letter ‘A’ printed on it is pressed, two overall things happen. Just as with most of the other keys, the ribbon is raised into the appropriate position, by some sort of generic hinge mechanism. And by another more specific hinge mechanism a metal shape (‘a’ in reverse) strikes an inked ribbon which has been raised into position against a sheet of paper pressed against a roller. This leaves an ‘a’-shaped mark on the paper. If the shift key was pressed at the same time as the ‘A’ key, something similar would happen but a different metal shape would be pressed against the ribbon, leaving an ‘A’-shaped mark on the paper.

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

A fairly large subset of humans will recognise the shapes on the keys and the paper as letters which can be used to make up words. But that semantic dimension is to do with the function the machine performs, and therefore the reason it was designed the way it was. There is nothing intrinsically semantic about the mechanism itself. It has no more semantic content than two kites flying in the air would have. If you tug on one string, one kite moves; if you pull on the other string the other kite moves. The strings and kites may or may not have symbols or shapes on them, which may or may not correspond.

A single typewriter key mechanism could conceivably be used not to make an ‘a’ appear on a sheet of paper but to detonate a bullet. But in the context of a typewriter (and in the context of the normal human use of the typewriter), because of its implementation of matching shapes and rules (‘A’ key without shift creates ‘a’ on paper; ‘A’ key plus shift creates ‘A’ on paper; etc) the mechanism can be used to generate and/or transmit meaning.

The point is this. If you want to describe the mechanism in detail to show how it works, or to enable someone else to build a mechanism from the specification, you do not have to include anything about codes or languages or alphabetic characters. But if you want to explain what it is used for and how it is used, you will have to include something about codes and letters.

We can now relate this to the DNA/RNA/amino acid example. To give a full description of how the mechanism works, do we need to talk about codes or languages? I do not think we do, despite possible appearances to the contrary. I can understand the temptation to assume it is necessary, but I think that presupposes we are looking at the DNA/RNA/amino acid mechanism as something consciously designed for a particular purpose, by a mind which knows what codes and languages are. But we do not have to see it as this, and therefore we do not have to describe it in terms of codes and languages.

In a nutshell Flew’s argument seems to be this: DNA is a code; codes are semantic; minds employ semantics; therefore DNA was designed by a mind. But we must guard against metaphors. We only see it as a language-like code because we see it as something designed, as something we might have designed. So if we argue from its code-like features to the existence of a designer we are arguing in a circle.

I am not understating the size of the explanation challenge. It is huge. But I do not think the DNA mechanism has to be seen in a special semantic dimension which is not shared by other biochemical processes.

We can see it as semantic, but we do not have to. To see it as semantic we start at the protein end, at the requirement for a particular protein. Proteins are made of strings of amino acids, in a specific sequence. So if we want a specific protein we must specify the sequence. We could write it down, giving the chemical names in English. Or we could give every known amino acid a number and specify it that way: 24, 578, 3, 9003, 24, …etc. Or we could correlate each amino acid with a unique sequence of three out of four possible nucleotides (abbreviated to A, C, G and T), eg: ACT, GCA, TCC, GAT, ACT, …etc. This is seeing the nucleotide sequence primarily as a set of instructions for making proteins – because we are seeing the mechanism as something designed. It is also seeing the nucleotide sequence as implementing a code which is essentially arbitrary (Berlinski’s word): the sequence could have been specified as numbers, words, Morse code, or semaphore flags – it just happens to be specified in nucleotide trios.

But we could start at the other end, with the nucleic acid. In this picture a nucleic acid just is a sequence of nucleotides, and individual sets of three nucleotides are shaped in such a way that amino acids fit onto them. Because the amino acids are therefore brought close to each other they join up to each other to form protein molecules which then detach from the nucleic acid.

I am not speculating how this happened, or expecting anyone to take anything on trust as an explanation of how it happened. What I am trying to do is describe it as something which could have happened, and which, together with the rudimentary self-replicating properties of the nucleic acids, could have provided a basis for natural selection to operate on so as to add further ‘sophistication’. Perhaps a particular sequence of amino acids created a polypeptide or protein which somehow helped the original stretch of nucleic acid to replicate.

In a picture like this, the nucleotide sequence replicates and therefore survives because amino acids fit onto it in a particular sequence. If a copy is made which is imperfect then either no amino acid fits where the error happened or a different amino acid might fit. If another amino acid fits that might lead to a polypeptide or protein which either hindered replication or enhanced it. If it enhanced it then the new nucleotide sequence would make more copies of itself than the original sequence.

To call a nucleotide sequence an ‘instruction’ for making a protein is therefore only a metaphor. Chemically it is operating as a catalyst. We do not familiarly call the iron used in the Haber process an ‘instruction’ to make ammonia from gaseous hydrogen and nitrogen. But we could, metaphorically. Without the catalyst, at a particular temperature and pressure, very little of the hydrogen/nitrogen mixture would convert to ammonia. Add the catalyst, and much more would be. The iron is not used up in the process – nor is the nucleic acid during protein synthesis. The nitrogen and hydrogen molecules attach themselves to the surface of the iron, as do the amino acid molecules to the nucleotide sequences. The only difference is one of complexity.

Also the nucleotide sequence is not an arbitrary code, any more than the iron in the Haber process. Amino acids are unlikely to attach to names or numbers on their own.

Of course the amino acid sequence matters, and therefore the nucleotide sequence matters. But it does not matter to anyone.

Take another, completely natural, example. Rain falls on the top of a mountain. The mountain is rocky and irregular, so because of the arrangement of ravines, cracks and gullies the water flows down the mountain in a series of streams – say four of them. 50% of the water ends up in stream 1; 30% in stream 2; 15% in stream 3; and 5% in stream 4. These proportions stay fairly constant: erosion would change the proportions by changing the structure of the mountain, but this happens very slowly. The 50%/30%/15%/5% allocation is an ordered result, like the sequence of amino acids in a protein. It is caused by the configuration of ravines and gullies, as the sequence of amino acids is caused by the nucleotide sequence. Is the structure of ravines and gullies therefore a ‘coded instruction’ to split the water 50%/30%/15%/5%? Yes – metaphorically.

Of course the nucleotide sequence looks more sophisticated, more semantic, more like a language. But the evolutionary theorist would argue that replication plus variation plus natural selection could account for such a result. And there is no a priori reason to rule out such an explanation. (Which is why I included the quote about Turing’s proof that reasoning could take a mechanical form.)

I can imagine supporters of the rival god hypothesis shaking their heads over how far-fetched this might appear. Yet again we are back to the two kinds of minds (see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7), which now seem close to exhibiting a fundamental difference of polarity. The theist sees mind as the originating cause while the evolutionary theorist sees no a priori reason why mind itself is not a result of replication plus variation plus natural selection. But I find it encouraging that those who are in a position to know most about the sheer complexity of the challenge seem least tempted to let incredulity defeat them.

Flew adds quotes from Carl Woese4 and Paul Davies5, both of which correctly stress the enormity of the challenge. But according to Flew, Davies

…emphasizes the fact that a gene is nothing but a set of coded instructions with a precise recipe for manufacturing proteins. [My emphasis.]

The ‘nothing but’ is surely unjustified. A gene is a set of coded instructions but it is also part of the physical mechanism itself. If the nucleic acids did not have the chemical properties they have, the mechanism would not work. You could say, metaphorically, that the iron in the Haber process is an ‘instruction’ for creating ammonia, but would you say it is nothing but an instruction?

A bit more on this chapter next time.


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 David Berlinski, ‘On the origin of life’, Commentary, February 2006.

3 Matt Ridley, Nature via nurture, HarperCollins, 2004.

4 Carl Woese, ‘Translation: in retrospect and prospect’, RNA, 2001.

5 Paul Davies, ‘The origin of life II: How did it begin?’

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #9

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Chapter 7 (HOW DID LIFE GO LIVE?)1 is where Flew (or ‘Flew’?) seems to start getting into serious trouble.

Ninth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #8

Origin of life is ‘not biology’

DNA replication

DNA replication


biologists’ investigation of DNA has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved.

The problem is in

explaining the first emergence of living from nonliving matter – especially where this first living matter already possessed the capacity to reproduce itself genetically… [There is] no satisfactory naturalistic explanation for such a phenomenon.

Flew is unconvinced by protobiologists’ theories to explain the evolution of life because

the latest work I have seen [my emphasis] shows that the present physicists’ view of the age of the universe gives too little time for these theories of abiogenesis to get the work done.

Unfortunately he does not identify what this ‘latest work’ is. It is intriguing though why physicists’ estimates of the age of the universe should matter more than, say, geologists’ or palaeontologists’ estimates of the age of the earth.

But this is by the by, as Flew’s real target is the ‘philosophical challenge’:

How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.

It is not immediately obvious where the boundary is between ‘biology’ and ‘philosophy’, or indeed why there needs to be one. But it’s these ‘intrinsic ends’ which start the alarm bells ringing.

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Living matter, says Flew,

possesses an inherent goal or end-centred organization that is nowhere present in the matter which preceded it.

But surely this is asserting too much, too soon? Would it not be safer to say ‘living matter appears to possess an inherent goal…’?

Flew insists on staying categorical, paraphrasing Richard Cameron (of DePauw University) as maintaining that

Something that is alive… will also be teleological – that it is, it will possess intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes.

Cameron himself:

Contemporary biologists, philosophers of biology, and workers in the field of ‘artificial life’ have yet to produce a satisfying account of what it is to be alive, and I defend the view that Aristotle can help fill this gap… Aristotle did not hold life and teleology to be coextensive by chance, but defined life in teleological terms, holding that teleology is essential to the life of living things.3

Again this could be presumptuous. If a satisfying account of what it is to be alive has not yet been produced, that does not imply it will never be found. And until that time we need not be forced into a completely different kind of explanation – unless of course we have an independent positive reason for wanting it.

Besides, on a simple-minded level we do have a satisfying characterisation of what it is to be alive: perhaps to be alive is to have the capacity for self-replication? This is not an explanation though. Interesting that Flew almost seems to regard self-replication as a special rather than necessary feature of living matter (see …especially where this first living matter already possessed the capacity to reproduce itself genetically… in the second quotation – almost as if to be living is one thing but to be self-replicating is an optional extra).

Aristotle, according to Cameron, defined life in teleological terms. This is a significant move, because a definition (by definition) is not new information but a specification of how an expression is to be used. To define life in teleological terms is therefore not to discover that life is teleological in nature. If we keep that definition but subsequently discover that a particular organism, say a slime mould, turns out not to demonstrate teleological features, then we are committed to saying the slime mould is not alive.

Alternatively, the definition controls or qualifies what ‘teleological’ means in this context, and therefore what it is to ‘possess intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’. We are therefore, in this context, free to talk about ‘intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’ as long as it is understood that we only mean ‘intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’ in the ways that all living things have them – from viruses to seaweed and dolphins. We need to be very careful not to import any unwarranted meaning or implications into these uses of ‘teleological’ and ‘intrinsic ends, goals, or purposes’ – for example anything about intention or deliberation.

So we have two key problems for origin-of-life theories to resolve: the origin of teleology (in the way that living things display teleology) and the origin of self-replication ‘by natural means from a material base’.4

Flew quotes David Conway‘s two challenges for origin-of-life theories:

[First is to explain] the very first emergence of living matter from non-living matter. In being alive, living matter possesses a teleological organization that is wholly absent from everything that preceded it….

[Second is to explain] the emergence, from the very earliest life-forms which were incapable of reproducing themselves, of life-forms with a capacity for reproducing themselves. Without the existence of such a capacity, it would not have been possible for different species to emerge through random mutation and natural selection. Accordingly, such mechanism cannot be invoked in any explanation of how life-forms with this capacity first ‘evolved’ from those that lacked it…

[Both biological phenomena] provide us with reason for doubting that it is possible to account for existent life-forms in purely materialistic terms and without recourse to design.5

Yet again we seem to be up against the same brick wall between two kinds of minds. (See Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7.) If for whatever reason you already believe in or acknowledge a god, then you have bought into the idea of an entity for which little if anything is impossible. Then when faced with a very difficult explanatory challenge, the temptation must be enormous to meet that challenge by attributing it as the work of the god. Creating life would be a doddle for a god who can do anything. The issue though is what sort of explanation is best if you have no prior reason for assuming a god is in any way involved.

Yes of course divine design is a possible explanation, but is it the best or the only possible explanation? The materialist accepts the burden of proof to come up with credible mechanisms for how life began, and that proof is not yet available. But equally the theist or deist must accept the burden of proof to explain the prior existence of the designer god. If the only explanation is by definition (there is no explanation of the origin of the designer god and there does not need to be because by definition the designer god has existed for all time or exists outside space and time… etc) then the burden of proof has been side-stepped rather than shouldered, and the explanation becomes therefore one of last resort – something to explain the inexplicable.

We can however make some sort of progress by examining the two challenges.

The way they are worded is significant, as is also the way they are split into two. The second challenge assumes the possible and prior existence of life-forms incapable of self-replication. But it is hard to imagine what a life-form incapable of self-replication would be like. What would it do? How would it display teleological features (challenge 1)? The overall challenge is set as follows: first explain how life as a teleologically-organised phenomenon originated; and then explain how teleologically-organised living organisms developed the capacity to replicate themselves.

But there seems no justification for imposing this sequence – other than adding an unnecessary extra explanatory burden. The challenge could be reformulated as follows: explain how a self-replicating structure could have originated; and also explain how a structure exhibiting apparently teleological features could have originated; such explanation leading eventually to an explanation of how a self-replicating structure exhibiting apparently teleological features could have originated.

It is acknowledged that there is no satisfactory account yet of how self-replicating structures could have originated spontaneously. But nor is it self-evident that such an account will be unavailable for all time. If that replication was not 100% perfect each time, then we have variation and the possibility of natural selection. We do not need to assume these self-replicating structures exhibited apparently teleological features right from the start, only that they eventually evolved into structures exhibiting apparently teleological features.

This is not an explanation. But it does reword Conway’s challenge to make it less rigged in favour of the alternative ‘explanation’ of divine creation.

How we describe things is important: more on this next time…


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard Cameron, ‘Aristotle on the animate: problems and prospects’, Bios: Epistemological and philosophical foundation of life sciences, Rome, February 23-24, 2006.

4 John Haldane, ‘Preface to the Second Edition’, in: Atheism and theism (Great debates in philosophy), JJC Smart and John Haldane, Blackwell, Oxford, 2003.

5 David Conway, The rediscovery of wisdom, Macmillan, London, 2000.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #8

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Chapter 6 (DID THE UNIVERSE KNOW WE WERE COMING?)1 starts with another parable. Flew (or ‘Flew’?) asks you to imagine arriving at your hotel room at the start of a holiday, and finding everything about the room matching your own idiosyncratic tastes. Your favourite music is playing; your favourite author’s latest book is on the desk; the mini-bar and the bathroom are stocked with products you would have bought yourself. It could not be a coincidence. The hotel must have known everything about you – but how?

Eighth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7

What the universe knew

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

The story is presented as a ‘clumsy, limited parallel’ to the ‘fine-tuning argument’, addressing in particular the two remaining questions of the three raised in the previous post:

2 Why are the laws of nature the ones they are?

3 Why is it that the laws of nature which do exist are ones that support life and consciousness?

Flew quotes physicist Freeman Dyson:

The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming.3

Flew gives some examples:

It has been calculated that if the value of even one of the fundamental constants – the speed of light or the mass of an electron, for instance – had been to the slightest degree different, then no planet capable of permitting the evolution of human life could have formed.

I wish I understood more about cosmology, because I do not see what warrants the speculation that ‘the universe… knew we were coming’. Why the values and settings are as they are is mind-boggling and mysterious. But I am not convinced this suggests foresight. If an improbable event x allows another improbable event y to happen, that does not necessarily mean event x happened in order that event y could happen.

It smacks of those completely understandable but ultimately illogical ‘God was protecting me’ responses after improbable (and therefore seemingly miraculous) life-saving events – illogical I mean when you consider the countless tragic deaths where the victims were every bit as ‘deserving’ but just not so lucky.

Do we, for example, know for a fact that the following did not happen: in the first few moments of, or ‘after’ the Big Bang, a series of events took place in which laws and constants were originally fluid but finally set in such a way that the universe was created (or continued to be created) in the way it now is? That is, the laws and values were fixed as constants because they led to a universe being created (ie the subsequent creation of the universe was what ‘fixed’ them), not the other way round (it was an enormous stroke of luck that the constants were as they are, because otherwise a coherent universe would not have resulted)?

This is perhaps a ‘sequential’ variant of the ‘multiple parallel universe’ or ‘multiverse’ theory which Flew mentions as being proposed by eg Martin Rees. (It is difficult to know what if anything words like ‘parallel’ and ‘sequential’ mean in this kind of context.)

Paul Davies rejects the multiverse theory:

Davies… writes that “it is trivially true that, in an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen.” But this is not an explanation at all. If we are trying to understand why the universe is bio-friendly, we are not helped by being told that all possible universes exist. “Like a blunderbuss, it explains everything and nothing.”

There is undoubtedly a whole lot more to it than this, but as an explanation it seems no less vacuous than an alternative god hypothesis. If the universe is infinite and, in an infinite universe anything possible will happen, then one of those possible things is the setting of constants and laws in such a way that life and consciousness can be supported. Since we are an example of that life and that consciousness we come at the end of a causal chain that started with that setting of constants and laws. All other causal chains which started from different settings are irrelevant. The logic seems sound – the problem surely is in the premise that the universe is infinite?

Richard Swinburne is also against the multiverse:

It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.4

I think I can see why Swinburne thinks it is crazy, but that does not mean I agree it is crazy. To prefer the god hypothesis to the multiverse hypothesis is to prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. To someone not familiar with the god hypothesis, both explanations are weird.

Once again we seem to be up against a brick wall separating two kinds of minds: see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7. There is the kind which seems comfortable with positing an entity so defined that it explains the puzzle in front of you, does not need its own explanation, and in fact resists its own explanation. And there is the kind of mind which sees a move like this as a self-serving cop-out.

Flew again:

[T]he fact that it is logically possible that there are multiple universes with their own laws of nature does not show that such universes do exist. There is currently no evidence in support of a multiverse. It remains a speculative idea.

I could not agree more. Ditto god.

Flew then argues that the multiverse theory still does not explain the origin of the laws of nature. But nor does the god hypothesis. In respect of the laws of nature, a god is an invention designed to play the role of explanation. That is where the design originates: we design an entity to play the role of designer.

As well as different universes with their own laws there could be laws governing the entire multiverse. Flew quotes Martin Rees:

The underlying laws governing the entire multiverse may allow variety among the universes… Some of what we call ‘laws of nature’ may in this grander perspective be local bylaws, consistent with some overarching theory governing the ensemble, but not uniquely fixed by that theory.5

But, argues Paul Davies (quoted by Flew),

If there is a “law of laws” describing how parameter values are assigned as one slips from one universe to the next, then we have only shifted the problem of cosmic biophilicity up one level… [Because] we need to explain where the law of laws comes from.6

Flew concludes:

[M]ultiverse or not, we still have to come to terms with the origin of the laws of nature. And the only viable explanation here is the Divine Mind.

Well, for a start there is no law that says the laws of nature must have an explanation. And maybe we assume the originator is a mind because we have minds and think we know what having a mind is like? But there is no reason why, if there was a thing which originated the laws of nature, that thing had to be a mind. Maybe it was something like us but much more powerful; and then maybe it was not.

Ultimately though, the problem seems to be this. Even if we are uncomfortable with leaving the laws of nature unexplained, and we therefore posit an explanation; and because of the fortuitous features of those laws of nature we speculate that the originator must have been a mind which deliberately originated those laws of nature; even given this, it is hard to characterise that originator as benevolent – considering what happened subsequently. I am referring again to the pain and suffering and waste and destruction which the development of biological diversity has entailed and still entails. A ‘cosmological’ god which originated the laws of nature offers only partial and very problematic support for (eg) the kind of god the major monotheistic religions espouse. So problematic that they would surely be better advised to steer clear of cosmological speculation?

One last point. This series of posts is about Antony Flew’s book, not about cosmology in general – on which I am supremely unqualified to comment. However I found and read the Paul Davies paper7 Flew quotes from, and was surprised to discover that Davies rejects both the multiverse theory and the alternative

crude idea of a Cosmic Designer who contemplates a “shopping list” of possible universes, figures out one that will contain life and observers, and then sets to work creating it, discarding the alternatives. The central objection to the hypothesis is its ad hoc nature. Unless one already has some other reason to believe in the existence of the Designer, then merely declaring “God did it!” tells us nothing at all.

Davies’s objective was actually to

challenge the false dichotomy that fine-tuning requires the existence of either a multiverse or some sort of traditional cosmic architect… [and] …explore the possibility of a “third way”, involving a radical reappraisal of the notion of physical law.

In the next post we get on to the origin of life…


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Freeman J Dyson, Disturbing the universe, Harper & Row, 1979.

4 Richard Swinburne, ‘Design defended’, in: Think, Spring 2004.

5 Martin Rees, ‘Numerical coincidences and “tuning” in cosmology’, in: Astrophysics and Space Science 285, 2003.

6 Paul Davies, Universes galore: where will it end?, retrieved 20 February 2009 from

7 Paul Davies, 2009: 6 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

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