In grappling with persistent questions regarding key aspects of human existence and the natural world — intentionality, free will, morality, and so on — it is very easy to become entangled in terminological difficulties. Here’s a particularly contentious example.
Reading the New York Times the other day, I noticed the following in an Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof about moral types:
“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”
“Professor Haidt” is the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has done extensive research into the orgins and underpinnings of human morality.
Here’s another quote, from Harvard’s Steven Pinker:
The moral design of nature is as bungled as its engineering design.
And here’s Stephen Jay Gould:
In the domain of organisms and their good designs, we have little reason to doubt the strong, probably dominant influence of deterministic forces like natural selection.
Here’s a biology text from the University of Chicago Press: The Evolution of Vertebrate Design.
From the abstract of a lecture given this month by the American Society of Cell Biology:
Familiar features help to elucidate the origins, functions and design parameters for the secretory pathway, endosymbiotic organelles, the cytoskeleton, and cell cycle control.
Here’s the title of a paper from the Journal of Mammalogy:
Allometric scaling of body length : Elastic or geometric similarity in mammalian design.
Here’s another scholarly paper, from the University of Bonn:
The biomechanical design and morphofunctional evolution of presacral vertebrae in Sauropodomorpha deduced from shape analysis and FESS.
What do all these quotations have in common? The word “design”.
When biologists use this word to describe the bodies of living creatures, they obviously have something different in mind than a pre-Darwinian speaker of English would. While both would use it to describe intricate assemblages of working parts that perform some function, the difference is that the modern, technical usage of the term carries no implication of teleology, of having been assembled by an intentional designer for a preordained purpose. In the evolution of life there are no Aristotelian “final causes”, no “skyhooks” lifting the process from above. In short: design sans Designer; design not by purposeful plan, but by natural process. But the use of the word seems apt enough otherwise; it certainly feels appropriate, for example, to look at an albatross’s body as an exquisitely designed flying machine.
To use the word in this way — even though those who do so quite explicitly understand that when they say “design” they have in mind a concept cleanly filleted of all teleology, as what is effectively an instance of technical jargon — remains nevertheless a source of philosophical vexation in some quarters. One of those quarters is the popular website The Maverick Philosopher, where the host, Dr William Vallicella, has devoted more than a few comments and posts lately to this very topic, for example this recent item.
This persistent inconsistency in the way the word “design” is understood is extremely unhelpful, and I see no sign of its being resolved anytime soon. (Another word similiarly fraught with confusion and disagreement is the word “for”; there are many intelligent and philosophically sophisticated people who maintain, for example, that our eyes, since they lack a conscious designer, and were shaped solely by evolution, are not “for” seeing.)
Daniel Dennett, who is himself rather a polarizing figure in these discussions, has made quite clear what “design” ought to mean in light of our radical new (and at 150 years old, very recent indeed, in the timeline of human thought and language) insights into the process by which living things, and indeed intentionality, have arrived on the scene. In a 2005 paper, Atheism and Evolution (which is well worth your time, and available here), Dennett writes:
A designed thing, then, is either a living thing or a part of a living thing, or the artifact of a living thing[.]
This seems almost exactly right to me, with one quibble: it is not quite general enough. This engine of design discovered by Darwin and Wallace will work with not only living things, but with anything that meets the essential qualifications: replication with variation, along with some sort of differential selection amongst the variants. It happens that living things are the only such replicators we know of at the moment, but the process does not strictly require life. (Indeed, at the close of Dennett’s article he talks about Lee Smolin’s provocative idea (see here) that universes themselves may be subject to such a process, replicating themselves by way of black holes.)
But the point is: a definition of the word “design” that does not include the process that created the staggeringly intricate designs of living things is simply inadequate. Such a definition rules out of court, by mere terminological fiat, nearly all of the design in the world, leaving only the tiny remnant, childishly crude by comparison, that we humans have managed. This absurd philosophical convention — and it is nothing more than that — is due, I maintain, to an atavistic, anthropocentric fixation on conscious agency, and in particular an obdurate resistance to the idea of intentionality as an objective feature of the natural world, and an equally dogmatic unwillingness to decouple the ideas of intentionality and consciousness.
Darwin’s “strange inversion of reasoning” was in fact a new and wonderful way of thinking, completely overturning the mind-first way that even David Hume had been unable to cast aside, and replacing it with a bubble-up vision in which intelligence — the concentrated, forward-looking intelligence of an anthropomorphic agent — emerges as just one of the products of mindless, mechanistic processes. These processes are fueled by untold billions of pointless, undesigned collisions, some vanishing small fraction of which fortuitously lead to tiny improvements in the lineages in which they occur. Thanks to Darwin’s principle of “descent with modification,” these ruthlessly tested design innovations accumulate over the eons, yielding breathtakingly brilliant designs that never had a designer — other than the purposeless, distributed process of natural selection itself.
The signatures of these unplanned innovations are everywhere to be found in a close examination of the marvels of nature, in the inside-out retina of the vertebrate eye, the half-discarded leftovers in the genes and organs of every species, the prodigious wastefulness and apparent cruelty of so many of nature’s processes. These departures from wisdom, frozen accidents, in the apt phrase of Francis Crick, confront the theist with a dilemma: if God is responsible for these designs, then His intelligence looks disturbingly like human obtuseness and callousness. Moreover, as our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution grows, we can sketch out ever more detailed accounts of the historical sequence of events by which the design innovations appeared and were incorporated into the branching tree of genomes. A voluminously predictive account of the creative process is now emerging, replete with thousands of mutually supporting details, and no contradictions at all. As the pieces of this mega-jigsaw-puzzle fall into place with increasing rapidity, there can be no reasonable doubt that it is, in all its broad outlines if not yet in all its unsettled details, the true story of how all living things came to have the designs we observe.
Dennett responds also to the pervasive prejudice that sees “mere” matter, and the “mindless” processes of Nature, as somehow too lowly to have produced something as exalted as we:
Between the richly detailed and ever-ramifying evolutionary story, and the featureless mystery of God the creator of all creatures great and small, there is no contest. This is a momentous reversal for the ancient conviction that God’s existence can be read off the wonders of nature. Anyone who has ever been struck by the magnificent intricacy of design and prodigious variety of the living world and wondered what–if not God–could possibly account for its existence must now confront not just a plausible alternative, but an alternative of breathtaking explanatory power supported by literally thousands of confirmed predictions and solved puzzles. Richard Dawkins has put the point crisply: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (1986, p. 6).
Undermining the best argument anybody ever thought of for the existence of God is not, of course, proving the non-existence of God, and many careful thinkers who have accepted evolution by natural selection as the explanation of the wonders of the living world have cast about for other supports for their continuing belief in God. The idea of treating Mind as an effect rather than as a First Cause is too revolutionary for some. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of natural selection, could never accept the full inversion, proclaiming that “the marvelous complexity of forces which appear to control matter, if not actually to constitute it, are and must be mind-products.” (quoted by [Stephen Jay] Gould, [The Flamingo's Smile,] 1985, p.397.) More recently, the physicist Paul Davies, in his book, The Mind of God (1992, p.232), opines that the reflective power of human minds can be “no trivial detail, no minor by-product of mindless purposeless forces.” This is a most revealing way of expressing a familiar denial, for it betrays an ill-examined prejudice. Why, we might ask Davies, would its being a by-product of mindless, purposeless forces make it trivial? Why couldn’t the most important thing of all be something that arose from unimportant things? Why should the importance or excellence of anything have to rain down on it from on high, from something more important, a gift from God? Darwin’s inversion suggests that we abandon that presumption and look for sorts of excellence, of worth and purpose, that can emerge, bubbling up out of “mindless, purposeless forces.”
The community of evolutionary scientists and philosophers are already untroubled by the use of “design” in the broader sense that I am defending here; it might be seen, perhaps, as having been appropriated as technical language, in the way that many ordinary English words have been taken up in other technical fields. (Also, it is common for words to become more inclusive over time: for example, the word “guitar” once meant only what we would now refer to with the retronym “classical guitar” — the present argument over the use of “design” is rather like having a debate with a purist over whether my Stratocaster is really a “guitar” at all.) But so stubborn is the resistance to this broadening of the meaning of the word that I think we simply need a new one.