Finding Paley’s Watch

24 October 2011

Monday


William Paley

The locus classicus for pre-Darwinian natural theology and the design argument appears on the first page of William Paley’s Natural Theology:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that for any thing I knew to the contrary it had lain there for ever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for any thing I knew the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone; why is it not as admissible in the second case as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, namely, that when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive — what we could not discover in the stone — that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e. g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. To reckon up a few of the plainest of these parts and of their offices, all tending to one result: We see a cylindrical box containing a coiled elastic spring, which, by its endeavor to relax itself, turns round the box. We next observe a flexible chain — artificially wrought for the sake of flexure — communicating the action of the spring from the box to the fusee. We then find a series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in and apply to each other, conducting the motion from the fusee to the balance and from the balance to the pointer, and at the same time, by the size and shape of those wheels, so regulating that motion as to terminate in causing an index, by an equable and measured progression, to pass over a given space in a given time. We take notice that the wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the springs of steel, no other metal being so elastic; that over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which, if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not be seen without opening the case. This mechanism being observed — it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood, the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, COLLECTED FROM THE APPEARANCES OF NATURE, William Paley, D.D., Late Archdeacon of Carlisle, The Twelfth Edition, Chapter 1

That was, as Paley put it, the state of the argument in his day. For some among us neither the day nor the argument has changed.

Having the benefit both of hindsight and of subsequent scientific progress, we can reformulate Paley’s attitude to found objects as that between organic forms of order and mechanistic forms of order. Paley, of course, didn’t put it that way, and in fact this distinction wasn’t of interest to him. Paley did distinguish between a stone and an artifact like a watch, implying that the minimal forms of order manifested by the stone failed to rise to the level of implying a designer.

This implicit disinterest in the order represented by the neglected stone, which might have lain there forever, reminds me on one of Plato’s late works, the Parmenides, in which Socrates is asked whether “vile and paltry” things are manifestations of a Platonic Form or Idea:

“And would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about things of which the mention may provoke a smile? — I mean such things as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry; would you suppose that each of these has an idea distinct from the actual objects with which we come into contact, or not?”

“Certainly not, said Socrates; visible things like these are such as they appear to us, and I am afraid that there would be an absurdity in assuming any idea of them, although I sometimes get disturbed, and begin to think that there is nothing without an idea; but then again, when I have taken up this position, I run away, because I am afraid that I may fall into a bottomless pit of nonsense, and perish; and so I return to the ideas of which I was just now speaking, and occupy myself with them.”

The scenarios of Plato and Paley are so closely similar that we can substitute the “vile and paltry” examples from either one for the argument of the other, salva veritate, so that Paley might have referred to hair, mud, and dirt as implying no design, while Socrates in Plato’s dialogue might have denied that a stone has an Idea or a Form.

Plato hesitates to grant ideas to hair, mud, and dirt as Paley hesitates to grant design to a stone. Both positions seem to me to be metaphysically wrong-headed. Both Plato and Paley point to an evaluative metaphysics in which some objects are presumptively denied their metaphysical status, while other objects are non-problematically granted metaphysical status. That is to say, the determination as to that which possesses the dignity of being and that which is denied the dignity of being has been made prior to the formulation of the metaphysical doctrine in question.

For Plato, hair, mud and dirt to not rise to the level of metaphysical interest; for Paley, a stone does not rise to the level of metaphysical interest. In both Plato and Paley the distinction between the two appears pervasively but also implicitly. In the quote from Plato above, Socrates says, “visible things like these are such as they appear to us,” which implies a distinction between things that are as they appear to us and things that are not as they appear to us, and ultimately reality belongs to the latter. In Paley, he is entirely indifferent to the stone he nearly trips over. Paley says of the watch as objet trouvé that, “its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose,” which implies a parallel distinction between objects that are not put together for a purpose and objects that are put together for a purpose, and ultimate reality belongs to the latter.

These evaluative metaphysical doctrines of Plato and Paley invite parallel thought experiments:

1) According to Plato, how much of the world can exist independently of Ideas or Forms?

2) According to Paley, how much of the world can exist independently of design?

A geologist might be shocked to see a stone dismissed from the realms of order so casually, and in fact I once spoke to a geomorphologist who described the discovery of a particular stone as one of the high points of his career. And, similarly, a natural historian might be shocked to see hair, mud, and dirt so casually dismissed. In his Origin of Species, Darwin described one of his experiments with mud:

“I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three tablespoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6 and 3/4 ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to unstocked ponds and streams, situated at very distant points.”

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Chapter XIII, “Geographical Distribution, continued”

Stones, hair, mud, and dirt and materials from which a world entire might be made, though metaphysicians of a certain stripe have thought these things beneath their dignity. The stone has a natural history which may reach back to the original formation of the planet, and the mud may be filled with traces of life that also betray a natural history to be measured in millions if not billions of years.

The humble stone and the humble dirt upon which the stone lies have much to teach us, and yet we cannot even say how they are distinct from works of artificers, like a watch, or from beings that are the paltry reflections of ideal Forms.

For all we have learned in the meantime, since Paley wrote his treatise, I know of no adequate formulation of the distinction between the organic and the mechanistic. There seems to me to be no question but that in most cases we can intuitively distinguish organic forms of order from mechanistic forms of order, but the relative obviousness of the intuitive difference only points all the more insistently at our failure to capture this intuitive distinction in conceptual terms.

In fact, the distinction between the mechanistic and the organic is so intuitively clear that the violation of the boundary between the two can be confusing and even offensive. Here precisely lies the power of the works of H. R. Giger, who has called his creations “biomechanoids.”

A similar aesthetic violation of our categories of the organic and the mechanical is to be found in representations of cyborgs in science fiction, and especially the Borg as they appear in Star Trek television episodes and films.

I sing the Body Electric, or, to be more specific, the Feminine Electric: is this to be feared as dystopia or welcomed as futurism?

To subsist in the ontological gray area of category confusion — partly organic, partly mechanistic — is to embody the abject. Abjection is a common source of moral horror, and I previously cited transhumanism and its apparent embrace of cyborg technology as a source of moral horror in Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror.

Whereas it is moral indifference that led Plato and Paley to neglect the ontological status of stones, hair, mud, and dirt, it is moral horror that leads many to neglect the abject entities that violate our categorical schemes. However, it is once again an implicit and evaluative metaphysical presupposition that leads to an abstract conception of the world that glosses over entire classes of beings as unworthy of theoretical notice.

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Sunday


In A Formulation of Naturalism I suggested that naturalism could be characterized as following materialism as far as materialism can reasonably be extended. Later in Two Thoughts on Naturalism I suggested that one could just as well formulate naturalism in terms of mechanism as in terms of materialism. Just a few days ago in Parsimonious Formulations I noted that these two previous efforts fall within the spirit of parsimony. By following materialism or mechanism as far as they will go, and only departing from either when they no longer serve our purposes, we are pursuing a strategy of conceptual minimalism.

Today it occurred to me that naturalism could also be parsimoniously formulated in reference to the quantitative/qualitative distinction, and it may well be that this is a more satisfying formulation than naturalism interpreted in terms of materialism or mechanism, although quantitative formulations are related, through science, to materialistic and mechanistic formulations. In short, we can characterize naturalism in terms of a quantitative parsimony, following quantitative formulations as far as they will go, and only appealing to qualitative formulations when quantitative formulations break down.

Earlier in this forum (for example, in le regard scientifique and Microcosm/Macrocosm, I implicitly criticized quantitative methods (especially in statistics) and the ways in which quantitative methods can distort data. I do not withdraw this contention, but I understand its limitation as well as I understand the limitations of a purely quantitative approach.

Science pursues the quantitative approach. We have, for example, a fully quantitative account of color in terms of the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation and how our eyes perceive this. This is the science of color. Ordinary perception of color is a paradigm of qualitative experience; we do not experience color as quantitative. Perhaps we are incapable, in any real and genuine sense, of experiencing color quantitatively. Nevertheless, there is a thorough scientific account of color that is quantitative. It is not the case that either science or experience must be wrong. Both the quantitative explanation of color and the qualitative experience of color have their sphere of validity.

When, in the interests of philosophical naturalism, we pursue quantitative explanations of matters experienced qualitatively, we are not denying the legitimacy of our experience, but we are providing a systematic explanation of an aspect of experience that coheres with the known body of scientific knowledge. The quantitative and qualitative accounts of experience are alternative formulations (more on this another time).

Even given the remarkable vividness of our experience, there are few things more intellectually stimulating and rewarding than discovering a quantitative account of some qualitative aspect of the word revealed to us through macroscopic experience. Oftentimes we believe that nothing can possibly explain the qualitative character of some particular experience, only to later find a remarkably clever quantitative account that renders the same experience according to the alternative formulations of science. I find this refreshing and exhilarating. It counts as one of the pleasant surprises of reason. And it is ironic to note that such clever quantitative accounts of experience are the product of an intuitive leap that itself remains, for the time being, beyond the possibility of any quantitative explanation. But I do not say that such intuitive leaps of understanding must always remain beyond the reach of quantitative explanations.

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Naturalism: a Series

1. A Formulation of Naturalism

2. Two Thoughts on Naturalism

3. Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation

4. Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms

5. Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

6. Naturalism and Suffering

7. Transcendental Non-Naturalism

8. Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

9. Some Formulations of Methodological Naturalism

10. Darwin’s Cosmology: A Naturalistic World

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Two Thoughts on Naturalism

26 December 2009

Saturday


Several times in this forum I have identified my own views as a form of philosophical naturalism, and while I haven’t given any kind of systematic exposition to naturalism I have made a few suggestions, such as in A Formulation of Naturalism, in which I suggested that naturalism can be treated as materialism analogously to finitism in transfinite set theory: we follow materialism as far as it can go, and only depart from it when it forces incoherent formulations upon us in the attempt to preserve an unadulterated materialism. (In retrospect, what I said there about materialism I could just as well have formulated as mechanism: in naturalism we follow mechanistic explanations as far as we can.) With that in mind, here are two more passing thoughts about naturalism.

Naturalism: Thought One

Naturalism accepts science at face value. Now, this is simple enough, but any explicit and simple statement usually requires a great deal of qualification in order to make it accurate when applied to the detail and complexity of the actual world. And since naturalism emphatically is concerned that it be in touch with the actual world and not some fantasy world of wish-fulfillment, it is important that we at least try to get naturalism’s relation to science right.

It is a difficult philosophical problem to say exactly what science is. Separating science from other intellectual enterprises (some of which are mistakenly called science when they are not) is called the demarcation problem. We cannot presuppose an answer to the demarcation problem, because there is as yet no adequate formulation of it. Moreover, science changes. We must accept that scientific theories regularly displace earlier theories with more recent theories, with the consequence being that scientific knowledge changes.

One of my favorite quotes from Foucault runs, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” (from “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault”) This is more difficult than it sounds. Moreover, Foucault offers this as a demarcation criterion. This hasn’t gotten the attention of, for example, Popper’s use of falsifiability as a demarcation criterion, but I think it is worth keeping in mind.

For naturalism to accept science at face value means that naturalism accepts that scientific knowledge changes, and it accepts the history of science without feeling attacked by a past that has been abandoned. Anti-naturalistic doctrines (such as those of Plantinga I recently mentioned in A Note on Plantinga) almost without exception view science as a obstacle, as a looming problem on the horizon that the non-naturalistic thinker will resist honestly dealing with until forced to deal with it. When the retrograde thinker is forced to consider the results of science, it is usually only in a series of compromises that seek to evade and avoid the straight-forward conclusions of science.

Naturalism: Thought Two

Just a few days ago in Ideas Again I argued that it is important to distinguish between embodied ideas and abstract ideas. An embodied idea is an idea that is not made explicit and given exposition as an idea, but is made actual through its exemplification in the life of an individual. Mystics embody mysticism and scientists embody science; Plotinus embodies the possibility of mysticism as Darwin embodies the possibility of science.

Today’s thought on naturalism and embodied ideas is that it could be plausibly argued that it is the natural order of things that an idea emerges first in its embodied form, and only later is made abstract and explicit in formal consciousness by an act of de-contextualization. That is to say, the embodied idea must be consciously torn out of its context and exhibited in isolation in order to attain to the status of an abstract idea.

Moreover, one could go further than saying that it is the natural order of things that embodied ideas should (temporally) precede abstract ideas, and one could assert that Naturalism entails that all ideas will first be manifest in embodied form. In other words, there are no abstract ideas that are given to us as abstract ideas; all ideas are ultimately derived from experience. I would call this radical empiricism if William James had not already employed that phrase to his own ends.

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Naturalism: a Series

1. A Formulation of Naturalism

2. Two Thoughts on Naturalism

3. Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation

4. Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms

5. Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

6. Naturalism and Suffering

7. Transcendental Non-Naturalism

8. Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

9. Some Formulations of Methodological Naturalism

10. Darwin’s Cosmology: A Naturalistic World

. . . . .

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Grand Strategy Annex

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