My cat, as I’ve stated previously, is an asshole. Case in point, she does not let me sleep in on Sunday mornings. She likes to think of our bed as being hers, and gets annoyed that I’m in her spot. So she wakes me, repeatedly, and eventually I get up – usually far earlier than I’d like – and she curls up and sleeps in my place.
The advantage of being up early on a Sunday, is that I can more or less do what I like (as long as it doesn’t make too much noise – after all, my wife is still sleeping). This is me time. I can listen to music (with headphones), read, or watch the news or something on Netflix. When the weather and road conditions are better, I can ride my motorcycle, and maybe meet friends for breakfast in Whistler or Hope. This morning, I am going to use this time to muse about one of the frequent arguments for the existence of a god, the argument from nature.
Many people, when they confront the beauty and complexity and enormity of the natural world, conclude that something so marvellous, something that works so well in so many unexpected and (in some cases) mysterious ways, can only be the expression of a divine intelligence. This is the gist of the intelligent design argument. Surely, they say, something of this vastness and intricacy, something that all fits together in such unexpected and yet seemingly logical ways, can’t have just happened by accident. If there are complex rules governing the universe, those rules must have had an origin.
I do not deny that the natural world is often awe-inspiring. I have watched the sun rise over the dunes in the Sahara. I have marvelled at the detail in the construction of everything from spider webs to the human body to forests and mountain ranges. I see the images of galaxies and nebulae from the Hubble telescope and I am amazed. But I think it sells nature short to assume there must be a mind behind its construction, and a purpose for everything.
We often make the mistake of thinking of a current state as if it were an end, and that everything that had occurred to bring that end about. You often see this fallacy played out in relation to evolution, when we say a certain physical feature or behaviour came about for a certain purpose. In the case of the spider mentioned earlier, spinning webs becomes the reason that certain physical attributes evolved.
This is an understandable fallacy. After all, when we build something we usually have a purpose for all that something’s components. If the universe is something made, the argument goes, then it stands to reason that all of its parts are processes have a purpose. And since some things, at least, seem to have purposes, then it stands to reason that nature was constructed. For nature to have been constructed, it must have a maker who is somehow outside of nature, but able to manipulate it.
So, what is wrong with this reasoning? What makes me say it is a fallacy?
First, the notion of something (or someone) outside of nature being able to manipulate its elements and forces in a way that would shape it violates one of the basic laws of physics, namely the conservation of energy/matter. This law states that the sum of all energy (of which matter is just one expression) remains constant. Energy and matter can only be acted upon by other energy and matter. This rule has been tested and proven innumerable times.
Second, it mistakes effects for purposes. Imagine you are driving your car and you encounter black ice on the road, which causes you slide off of the road and hit a tree. You would not likely say that the purpose of black ice was to damage cars, or trees, or to injure drivers. You would not likely say that the purpose of the tree was to stop your car, or that the purpose of your car was to knock down a tree. These are all causes and effects, but the effects are not seen as the purposes of their causes.
Third, we tend only to arrive at this feeling that the world must be the product of a divine mind when observing something beautiful – or at least benign. While it’s true that some people believe that diseases and natural disasters are evidence of divine retribution for supposed moral failings, the argument from nature is rarely advanced by arguing that cancer or tornadoes are evidence of the divine nature of creation.
This leaves aside the many other philosophical problems confronting the existence of gods, but I think that’s good for a Sunday morning. If you would like to disagree, I’ll be happy to hear (or read) and consider your counter-arguments.