Wednesday, August 03, 2005

George W. Bush, Philosopher

Kudos to John Cole over at Balloon Juice, for parting company with Bush so decisively over the latter's massively stupid (or massively cynical--take your pick) endorsement of the teaching of so-called "Intelligent Design" alongside Evolution. Says Cole:
Intelligent Design in a religion class--fine. Intelligent design in a philosophy class--fine. Intelligent Design in science classes? Not fine.
That's a pretty sound position. I would like to add, however, that the proper place for "Intelligent Design" in a philosophy class would not exactly be a place of honor, either.

The argument does indeed have a philosophical pedigree, and a pretty long one at that. But it is chiefly remembered, these days, as one of the arguments that Hume blasted to smithereens over two centuries ago, leaving behind a smoldering pile of intellectual rubble. In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume puts the Argument from Design in the mouth of Cleanthes, and gives the most devastating criticisms of that argument to Philo, the skeptic.

Cleanthes tries to maintain that the material world, with its fantastic combination of order and complexity, somehow proves the existence and character of its Creator. Philo correctly identifies this as an anthropomorphic argument from analogy (just as the human mind is the author, or cause, of such artifacts as buildings and watches, so too the Divine Mind must be the Author, or Cause, of the natural order as a whole, of Being). He then proceeds to shatter the analogy with a barrage of counter-arguments, the two most powerful of which are:

1. That the Argument from Design commits the fallacy of composition--of assuming that what is true of a part (of creation) must be true of the whole. It assumes, without warrant, that the human mind is to the material on which it works, as God is to the cosmos. But, as Philo says, "What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?" Why should the part of creation that is the human mind, in its relation to the limited number of things that can be considered that mind's artifacts, be treated as the template for the way causality works in the world at large?

2. That the Argument from Design is arbitrary in stopping where it does (with an ideal/mental world being the cause of a material world), because, if you take its premises seriously, there is no reason that an ideal/mental world should not itself have a cause. And with that, you have an infinite regress (turtles all the way down): "Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no further, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves wihout going on ad infinitum?"

The perception of the world as a glorious design that bespeaks the hand of its Designer is, like the perception that human beings both do and don't fit harmoniously into this design (both are and are not made for it), so commonplace that it seems to be almost a part of human nature. But it is not, for that reason, a proof of, or argument for anything--least of all for the existence of a creator, or the methods of creation. And the minute one tries to make it a proof, one ends up discrediting the very thing one was trying to establish. (Putting an end to that kind of thing is one way to describe the philosophical project Kant undertook after Hume--so the story goes--awoke him from his dogmatic slumber.)


At 1:23 AM, Blogger ChrisWoznitza said...

Nice page!!! Greatings from Germany!!!


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