Dennett and the appearance of design

“Potentilla, in comments,”:http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/archives/2007/10/03/mary_midgley_update.html#comments draws attention to Steve Fuller’s [“defence of his own testimony”:http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=50] at the Dover ID trial. There is a 115 comment thread on the _Philosopher’s Magazine_ blog, in which Fuller attempts to defend himself against all comers. Life is short. I don’t know if the lions won. But I read the beginning of the argument, in which Potentilla is challenging Fuller to produce a single instance of a real biologist talking about “design” in nature in ways that can’t be rephrased in terms of the non-teleological, impersonal mechanisms of evolutionary biology.

The difficulty that occurred to me was that — if you take the extreme, Dennett, view — _everything_ that we call “design” turns out to be an illusion. “Agency” is just a way for mechanisms to predict the behaviour of others and of themselves. Even “predict” may be an anthropomorphism too far. The fact that we don’t have a word for the process of _tracking-behaviour-into-the-future_ which doesn’t imply awareness or intentionality does not mean that it can’t be done. On the contrary, it is done all around us all the time. I look out the window and the trees are all preparing for winter. Is “prediction” anything more than “getting ready for a future state” when what gets ready is something that has the concept of prediction?

The point of these speculations is that it seems to me that you can’t completely eliminate the possibility of design or purpose in the universe once you have become so throughly materialistic that both can be described in ways that don’t require agency. If you take seriously the intentional stance, or mentalistic behaviourism, as it is more helpfully described, the fact that the universe exhibits nothing but behaviour does not in principle exclude from it purpose or design, since these, too can be analysed as nothing but behaviour.

I don’t mean for a moment that this is in fact the argument of ID proponents; merely that it is an interesting twist at the end of their enemies’ arguments.

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3 Responses to Dennett and the appearance of design

  1. potentilla says:

    It is indeed an interesting twist (though, as you say, nothing to do with ID; but maybe it’s the twist SF needs to resecue his book…..)

    *Sigh* I keep trying to tempt new people to get their heads around that thread to see whether they think the lions did win, but so far everyone not involved at the time has had the same reaction as you, so I still don’t have any triangulation on whether SF is actually saying anything that needs to be taken seriously.

  2. Rupert says:

    As with our previous exchange about ‘life’, there’s the possibility that ‘design’ is itself more a religious concept than a fact.

    It’s quite fun to bat around some difficult cases. Let’s say I want to design an antenna for a spaceship. In the normal run of things, I’d sit down with a big book of rules in my head, some mathematics, and goddarn design the thing using lots of numbers and physics. Then I’d probably model it in a simulator, and tweak the result. You can’t get more hardcore designed than that. But let’s say I want to use a genetic algorithm: I tell my computer what I want, go away and have a cup of tea, and let it evolve an answer that matches that requirement. Is that design? Who’s the designer?

    Next stage: I decide that the state of the environment is such that we’re all going to hell. I ask the computer to run multiple climate simulations, making variations each time that lie within our capability. Then, I look at the results, pick the one that I judge to be best, and implement it. Is that climate engineering? Sure is. Is it designed? Not by me – I didn’t even know which outcome I wanted until I saw it.

    Conscious causation is perhaps a better term. A future is predicted that is not likely to happen, and steps taken – themselves with a low cumulative probability, if my will were not involved – that increases the probability of that future. How I predict that future, and how I take the steps – I can behave consciously for either or both stages, but not neither, in order to be a designer.

    The trees are likely to live in the future because of their behaviour, not because they model an unlikely future. They do not look ahead and change their behaviour in advance of that unlikely future, let alone with the intent to make that future come about.

    (Evolution says that unlikely futures are likely to happen anyway, and unlikely mutations are likely to benefit: no surprises if post-hoc, that looks agency driven. When the improbable happens, we are going to suspect consciousness. It’s how consciousness behaves. Unfortunately, it’s also how improbability expresses itself. That’s where Dembski came unstuck all those years ago.)

    It all comes down to modifying probabilities, and how you label causal chains. If there is a point at which ‘design’ becomes a useful idea, it’s in the ability to model those chains. Absent evidence for such modelling, there’s no call for design. Uber-materialists will say that the ability to model causal chains is no more than that, and will have arisen by non-designed processes. I don’t think that denies design, just de-deifies it.

    R

  3. RAZA 2009 says:

    You wrote –

    “But let’s say I want to use a genetic algorithm: I tell my computer what I want, go away and have a cup of tea, and let it evolve an answer that matches that requirement. Is that design? Who’s the designer?

    Next stage: I decide that the state of the environment is such that we’re all going to hell. I ask the computer to run multiple climate simulations, making variations each time that lie within our capability. Then, I look at the results, pick the one that I judge to be best, and implement it. Is that climate engineering? Sure is. Is it designed? Not by me – I didn’t even know which outcome I wanted until I saw it.”

    In both of these cases the computer program is designed. So you still do not escape from “intelligent design”.

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