Saturday, May 5, 2018

Design Without A Designer?

My previous riff on the possibility of a designed universe considered what that might say about the designer. Would that be a First Cause that created the physical laws that seem to have governed the Big Bang and subsequent evolution of the universe, or perhaps a “programmer” using a preexisting set of tools to design a very elaborate simulation? Thomas Nagel offered instead the concept of a design without a designer, one arising through a somehow ordered process of mutation and natural selection. He opposed this to a teleologic explanation (such as divine intervention or creationism) or a merely material and chance elaboration of physical law. His alternative include “the constitutive possibility, in the character of the elements of which the world is composed, of their combination into living organisms with the properties of consciousness, action, and cognition which we know they have.” (pg 93) This “constitutive possibility” is in the same category as mathematical truths. They are just are, embedded in reality. The same can be said for moral truths – such as the imperative not to harm other sentient creatures – that are facts, he says, that we call values. These are accessible to consciousness. “We exist in a world of values and respond to them through normative judgements that guide our action…. The response to value seems only to make sense as a function of the unified subject of consciousness…. Practical reasoning and its influence on action involve the unified conscious subject who sees what he should do.” (pg 114-15 ) This gives consciousness a hook by which to express free will. We chose right or wrong. Nagel calls the whole process – the evolution of life, rise of consciousness and emergent perception of right and wrong – as one “of the universe gradually waking up.” (pg 117)

The emergent ability to perceive good and evil doesn’t mean an automatic tendency toward the good. “No teleologic principle tending towards the production of a single outcome seems suitable. Rather, it would have to be a tendency toward the proliferation of complex forms and the generation of multiple variations in the range of possible complex systems.” (pg 122) According to Nagel, teleology can be restated as “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value [of what is good for each creature] that is inseparable from them.” (pg 123)

I like all this, it echoes Plato and his notion of the Forms as the basis of reality, perceivable through reason. But it begs the question of how and why there should be any “constitutive possibilities” pre-baked into the creation of the universe. Nagel, a self-declared atheist, wants to avoid the notion of any Devine Designer. But it seems to beg the question of how to posit a design without a designer. It violates Occam’s Razor. So I return to the question of what sort of designer would set this universe spinning. Perhaps Nagel here can point in the right direction. There does seem to be a moral order to the universe as well as a governing set of physical and mathematical laws (which we are still discovering). We can, in fact, know good from evil. (Mere good and bad may vary according to the individual, group or civilization.) We also have the free will to ignore this distinction and clearly human history is full of examples of those who did and do.

A while back, near the start of my ruminations, I suggested that perhaps the designer was a kind of cosmic Shakespeare, setting up the grandest possible stage on which a myriad of actors could perform. Or perhaps, out of loneliness, it formulated an elaborate simulation it could inhabit in the form of individual conscious agents, bound by time and space. I don’t know but it’s been fun, at least for me, ruminating on it. In the end, my own, I may, or may not, find out.

1 comment:

MBishton said...

there are few things more interesting, this pleasurable than ruminating on the endless facets of existence; especially since there are still big gaps in what we know, can reason or postulate, such as dark matter and energy or strings. To wonder is to live. To live is to wonder. Enjoy it and continue to share it.