Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, part 2

There are a couple of places in this book where Dawkins addresses intelligent design. He addresses it on page 141 in the context of the origin of life, then again on page 316-317 in the context of evolution. He says basically the same thing he said in The God Delusion. Essentially, he raises the “Who designed the designer?” argument. Here is what he said:

So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker. They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible.

This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it. (p. 141)
And again:
We cannot disprove beliefs like these, especially if it is assumed that God took care that his interventions always closely mimicked what would be expected from evolution by natural selection. All that we can say about such beliefs is, firstly, that they are superfluous and, secondly, that they assume the existence of the main thing we want to explain, namely organized complexity. The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity.

If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly more complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naïve Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it! In short, divine creation, whether instantaneous or in the form of guided evolution, joins the list of other theories we have considered in this chapter. All give some superficial appearance of being alternatives to Darwinism, whose merits might be tested by an appeal to evidence. All turn out, on closer inspection, not to be rivals of Darwinism at all. The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity. Even if the evidence did not favour it, it would still be the best theory available! In fact the evidence does favour it. But that is another story. (p. 316-317)
I think Dawkins would have a point if what we were trying to explain was the origin of intelligence. To say that intelligence came about because some other intelligence created it is not to explain the origin of intelligence at all because it leaves the intelligent creator unexplained. As long as you’ve got an unexplained intelligence, you haven’t explained the origin of intelligence per se.


That appears to be a perfect parallel to what Dawkins is trying to argue except that instead of intelligence, he says we are trying to explain the origin of organized complexity. If we postulate an organized complex entity, like God, to explain organized complexity, then we haven’t really explained organized complexity at all since we’ve left God unexplained.

Dawkins’ argument commits the fallacy of equivocation. He says that for God to be able to design the DNA/protein replicating machine, God would have to be at least as complex and organized as the machine itself. Maybe one could argue that God would have to be complex and organized in some sense, but surely God would not have to be complex and organized in the same sense that the DNA/protein replicating machine is complex and organized.

Dawkins goes to great lengths on pages 6 through 9 to explain what he means by complexity. He says that a complex entity would have to be heterogeneous, meaning it “has many parts, these parts being of more than one kind.” Then he says the parts must be “arranged in a way that it is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.” But since any arrangement of parts can be equally unlikely with hindsight, the arrangement must be something that can be “specified in advance.” What he appears to mean is that the parts must be arranged in such a way that the entity is “good for something,” or that it can “succeed in making a living of some sort,” such as “flying, swimming, swinging through the trees, and so on.” To summarize, Dawkins says:

This has been a long, drawn-out argument, and it is time to remind ourselves of how we got into it in the first place. We were looking for a precise way to express what we mean when we refer to something as complicated. We were trying to put a finger on what it is that humans and moles and earthworms and airliners and watches have in common with each other, but not with blancmange, or Mont Blanc, or the moon. The answer we have arrived at is that complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone. In the case of living things, the quality that is specified in advance is, in some sense, ‘proficiency’; either proficiency in a particular ability such as flying, as an aero-engineer might admire it; or proficiency in something more general, such as the ability to stave off death, or the ability to propagate genes in reproduction. (p. 9)
The reason I accuse Dawkins of equivocation is because God is obviously not complex in the same sense that biological organisms (or airliners and watches) are complex. God may be complex in the sense that he has various attributes and a creative mind, but he’s not complex in the sense that he has various physical parts that are arranged in an unlikely way that results in some function that allows him to make a living and reproduce. Clearly, when we say a biological organism, or an airplane, is complex, we don’t mean the same thing as we might mean if we said God is complex.


Consider one example of supposed intelligent design—information in DNA. Stephen Meyers argued in Signature in the Cell that information always comes from a mind, and since DNA contains information, that information came from a mind. That same argument could not apply to God since God wouldn’t have anything like DNA. He wouldn’t have anything like a digital code written into his parts that codes for proteins. So this intelligent design argument would be immune to Dawkins’ criticism. The best Dawkins could say in response to this argument is that an intelligent designer is unnecessary since information can arise without a designer, but he couldn’t claim that information in DNA hadn’t been explained since the intelligence behind it hadn’t been explained. That would be like saying that programmers don’t explain computer programs since it leaves programmers unexplained or that authors don’t explain books since it leaves authors unexplained.

Neither natural selection nor intelligent design are meant to explain the absolute origin of complexity in general. Both have a more narrow focus. They are trying to explain biological complexity in physical living organisms. In that case, it’s perfectly reasonable to explain complexity in biological organisms by postulating an entity that is not a biological organism, even if that entity is complex in some sense. If I appeal to one complex entity in order to explain another complex entity, I may not have explained the origin of complexity in general, but I have explained the origin of a particular manifestation of complexity.

The difference between God and biological organisms is particularly revealing in how Dawkins responds to the claim that “God was always there.” He says that if we’re going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating an already existing complex entity like God, you might as well just say, “DNA was always there,” or “Life was always there.” But it is precisely because we already know DNA and biological life were not always there that gives rise to the need to explain them by postulating something that was always there.

As long as anything contingent exists, something necessary must exist. Each contingent thing is explained either by some other contingent thing or by some necessary thing. Necessary things do not require other things to explain them. They exist because they are necessary, and their necessity is a sufficient explanation for their existence. So always-existing things can be invoked to explain contingent things. All parties agree that DNA and protein are contingent things. It is because they are contingent things that we cannot simply postulate them the same way we can postulate an always-existing Designer. Once we trace all contingent things back to some necessary thing or things, our explanation is complete.

And now my review of The Blind Watchmaker is complete. I know I sound mostly negative in this second part, but I was only criticizing a small part of Dawkins’ book. The book as a whole is fantastic, and I recommend it. I would give it four and a half stars.

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