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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Wednesday


Yesterday in Negative Organicism I referred to the weakening of compassion by immersion in a social whole as a “moral mechanism.” I acknowledged there that it probably sounds odd to speak of a “mechanism” in this case. What do I mean by this?

Ever since Western civilization was transformed by the scientifically-driven Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, philosophers have wanted to emulate the practical success and efficacy of science. In the ancient world, societies were built on the basis of philosophical ideas. But in the modern world, societies came to be based on scientific ideas. So philosophers wanted to make philosophy scientific. Husserl said that philosophy should be practiced as rigorous science. But there were problems with this, not least that few today would think of Husserl’s phenomenology as a rigorous science. The two greatest exemplars of scientific philosophy of the twentieth century — Bertrand Russell and John Dewey — disagreed profoundly on their approach and produced very different scientific philosophies.

So I have my own take on what constitutes scientific philosophy, and it is not likely to agree with what any other philosopher has to say on the subject. But, for me, scientific philosophy means searching for an explanatory mechanism. How is this distinct from science sensu stricto? I do not insist that mechanisms be embodied in a physical process. I take it that one can approach philosophy in a scientific spirit that scientists would nevertheless not recognize as science in the way that they practice it. For me, there are ontological mechanisms, epistemological mechanisms, axiological mechanisms, and, yes, moral mechanisms. In so far as we can explain our world — including the world of ontology, of epistemology, of axiology, and of morality — by an impersonal mechanism we are thinking scientifically. Philosophy is, in this way, scientific thought without being science simpliciter. It is scientific thought about objects that cannot be made the object of science sensu stricto.

Given the conception of scientific philosophy outlined above (perhaps idiosyncratic to myself alone), we could say that philosophy is science in an extended sense, not unlike my recent attempts to define history in an extended sense, which I called integral history. Thus philosophy is integral science. In turn, the conceptual resources of integral science turned upon the subject matter of history, both humanistic and natural, begets integral history.

This is an admittedly inadequate formulation of an inchoate conception of scientific philosophy. Perhaps, fate willing, I can clarify this in the coming years. That is the best that I can do for now.

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Monday


For a more theoretical exposition of synchrony and diachrony you can read my more recent post, Axes of Historiography.


When I see a post that I wrote starting to appear as the result of searches, sometimes many months after I first wrote it, I often use that as an excuse to re-write and hopefully improve the content of a post now being accessed. It is also an opportunity for me to re-visit the ideas of the post in question. This was the case with a post of last October, Counter-Cyclical Civilization. I expanded some of its content and added some illustrations.

In Counter-cyclical civilization I argued that while we need not see civilizations as conforming to an organic model and therefore exhibiting a predictable life cycle, if we do interpret civilizations in this way we can still think of the life cycle of a civilization being interrupted and thereafter following an unprecedented path of development. If sufficient counter-cyclical forces emerge within a civilization it might conceivably be spared the completion of its life cycle and therefore predicable extinction.

In reviewing the contrast I made in that post between the organic model of civilization and the mereological model of civilization it became immediately obvious to me that I was essentially contrasting synchronic and a diachronic perspectives on civilization. Diachronic and synchronic are terms from structuralism that indicate, respectively, an historical perspective and a structural perspective. I would prefer to call these the functional perspective and the structural perspective, but whatever you call the distinction there is definitely a difference between thinking of anything primarily in historical terms and being concerned with its development and thinking of anything in primarily structural terms and being concerned with inter-relationships independent of history.

A side by side comparison of organic and mereological models of civilization makes something obvious that should have been obvious to me earlier: the organic model is diachronic while the mereological model is synchronic, to use the language of structuralism.

While separable in theory, structural and functional perspectives are of course integral in practice, and any mature theory will incorporate both perspectives to a certain degree, even if it emphases one or the other. A purely functional or purely structural perspective, whether on civilization or anything else, is an abstract perspective. Abstract perspectives are valuable for bringing out certain features of anything, and thus can help to sharpen our understanding of something usually so submerged in detail that it is not usually seen in stark relief, so we must attempt to keep both abstract and concrete perspectives in the mind at all times if we are to understand things in detail without losing sight of the big picture.

Freshwater limnology is a way of thinking that naturally tends to a structural perspective.

In the contrast between abstract functional and abstract structural perspectives, we see how the two interpenetrate as soon as we attend to the details of whatever it is we are talking about. If we try, for example, to bring a structural perspective to ecology, we might study freshwater limnology with an eye toward understanding the interactions between organisms and between organisms and their immediate environment in a river or a lake without concerning ourselves with the development of that ecosystem, how it evolved, what major changes will come next, and the like. But even a rigorously structuralist perspective will have to take in some span of time. In this case, structuralist freshwater limnology will at least need to consider a period of time that will include the life cycle of its organisms. If these organisms include, for example, the tree roots that often intrude into streams and ponds, this perspective might need to be expanded to a hundred years or more, which would mean a period of time during which many, many generations of shorter-lived organisms would come and go. Thus our structuralist freshwater limnology would involve a decision as to how deeply we would go into history, and this depth could be extrapolated all the way to include evolutionary biology.

Evolutionary biology is a way of thinking that naturally tends to a functional perspective.

Evolutionary biology tends to the functional; it never loses sight of the position of a given organism in history. Ecology, by its very nature, tends to the structural; it may, at times, become oblivious to history. Because of the strongly functional cast of evolutionary thought, it is almost difficult to imagine a structural approach to evolutionary biology, but one certainly could approach it this way, and if one did it would, I think, more and more resemble ecology. Similarly, the more ecological thought is pushed in a functional direction, the more it would approximate evolutionary biology.

What I have written above about the functional perspective of evolutionary biology and the structural perspective of ecology could be applied quite directly, mutatis mutandis, to the organic model of civilization. Moreover, we could say that the mereological model exemplifies (and naturally tends to) a structural perspective while the organic model exemplifies (and naturally tends to) the functional perspective. In other words, and to return to structuralist terminology, organicism is diachronic while mererologicism is synchronic. Or even in biological terms: structuralism is the ecology of civilizations; functionalism is the evolutionary view of civilization.

In their ideal and abstract forms, structural and functional thought — organic and mereological thought — are polar end points of a continuum along which our actual thought is and ought to be located (what philosophers sometimes call polar concepts). Structure must be informed by function and function must be informed by structure.

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Saturday


Grand ceremonial processions were central to the rituals of Byzantine civilization, which overlapped with both the civilization of classical antiquity and with the civilization of medieval Europe.

Grand ceremonial processions were central to the rituals of Byzantine civilization, which overlapped with both the civilization of classical antiquity and with the civilization of medieval Europe.

In several posts– The Phenomenon of Civilization, The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited, and Revisiting Civilization Revisited — I have argued that the increasing integration and viability of the elements of technological civilization demonstrates that civilization is becoming more robust over time, not less. In other words, we are not facing the end of the world by any manner of means. While I continue to believe this to be correct, I will acknowledge without hesitation that a case can still be made for the contrary position, and today I would like to consider some ramifications of the organic model of civilization.

The natural life cycle of civilization according to the organic model.

The natural life cycle of civilization according to the organic model.

In the organic model of civilization, civilizations are like organic entities that experience a natural life cycle from birth through growth to maturity and senescence and finally death. In a strong formulation of the organic model, each civilization would be absolutely unique and incommensurable with other civilizations. It is unlikely that this idealization of organic order is realized in fact. It is easy, however, to conceive any number of less rigorous formulations that admit of degrees of the organic character of civilization. From the organic model several suggestive conclusions can be drawn, such as the impossibility of preserving a civilization beyond its natural life span.

If civilization conforms to the organic model, its life cycle is like the life cycle of organic entities.

If civilization conforms to the organic model, its life cycle is like the life cycle of organic entities.

To a certain extent, the organic model of civilization can be assimilated to the argument that I made in The Phenomenon of Civilization, in so far as we distinguish the fates of individual civilizations from the fate of civilization taken on the whole. The latter view, that we can say meaningful things about civilization on the whole, of which individual, particular civilizations are mere constituent parts, might be termed the mereological model of civilization. (Mereology is the theory of parts and wholes.) There is no reason that civilizations might not exhibit both a mereological and an organic structure or aspects of both such structures (except in the case of the strong formulation of the organic model noted above, which also suggests a strong formulation of the mereological model).

A diagram illustrating the mereological model of civilization. The largest outside ring is the mereological sum of civilization. The smaller circles contained within are individual civilizations that are the constituent parts of the mereological sum of civilization.

A diagram illustrating the mereological model of civilization. The largest outside ring is the mereological sum of civilization. The smaller circles contained within are individual civilizations that are the constituent parts of the mereological sum of civilization.

As I remarked above, a compelling argument can be made for the organic model of civilization with many illustrations drawn from history of a natural cycle of the birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death of civilizations. If this is the case, it would seem likely the our modern Western civilization that displaced the civilization of medieval Europe has at least peaked and may perhaps be well on its way in decline and eventual death. This view is emphatically not novel: it is a favorite and familiar theme of both high-brow and low-brow fiction. But there is a novel suggestion that can be made to add some interest to the organic model, and we can do so by drawing on an extended biological metaphor.

Within the overall phenomenon of civilization we can distinguish parts of civilization and how they overlap and intersect with each other.

Usually we need to grasp an idea first in its simplest form, and among the simplest forms of the biological model is that mentioned above of a cycle of birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death. However, even a passing acquaintance with biology will make one aware that different life forms have different life cycles. A dramatic example of this is the metamorphosis of some insect life cycles. There is nothing quite like thing among “higher” organisms such as mammals. So while we begin a consideration of the organic model of civilization with the simplest idea of organic life, we need to pass on to more varieties of possible life cycles, as well as combinations of features to be found in a fully articulated conception of an organic life cycle, in order to converge upon a more subtle and sophisticated conception of life cycle that might be profitably applied to something as subtle and sophisticated as the concept of civilization.

There will always be questions about the scope of civilizations. Here we assume that the phenomenon of civilization can wholly contain subordinate wholes of civilization, which in turn can wholly contain civilizations, but this descending chain of civilizations cannot be continued indefinitely.

Suppose, as we said above, that our contemporary Western civilization is in terminal decline. As part of a natural life cycle, it could then be expected that natural forces would emerge to facilitate this natural cycle by contributing to the disintegration and fragmentation of civilization. We could put it like this: but for the unprecedented Industrial Revolution, Scientific Revolution, and Technological Revolution, our civilization would have run its course and would, but for an exception to the ordinary course of history, be in its terminal stages of decline. Our world today on this interpretation would be a counter-cyclical civilization. Also under this interpretation, the emergence of nihilistic, iconoclastic fundamentalisms — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu alike — are in accord with the ordinary course of history. Such movements emerge as part of the perennial pattern of history, appearing on the scene to perform the service of clearing the ground of the decayed civilization so that a new civilization can emerge in due course.

A side by side comparison of organic and mereological models of civilization makes something obvious that should have been obvious to me earlier: the organic model is diachronic while the mereological model is synchronic, to use the language of structuralism.

Fundamentalists, then, are the white blood cells of civilization, which usually serve an important function such as the Christians who focused on destroying the legacy of classical antiquity so that a new, Atlantic-facing civilization could emerge in Western Europe — a development that would have been impossible under the shadow of a surviving Roman Empire. But something has changed. In the meantime, we have learned how to perform transplantation in order to preserve the vital functions of our society. If the transplantation is to be effective we must learn how to suppress the immune response of the body politic so that the foreign tissue will not be attacked and the altered body not destroyed by its own white blood cells. This, then, is our extended biological metaphor.

Iconoclasm with Chinese characteristics during the Cultural Revolution: as the early Christians destroyed the images of classical antiquity and the Protestants destroyed the Catholic civilization of images to make way for the modern world, the Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution attempted to destroyed the artifacts of the past to make way for a communist civilization.

The enthusiastic fundamentalists who are the enemies of civilization have emerged at the late stage of our civilization, just as the Christians emerged in the late stages of classical antiquity. As the Christians set about destroying the great monuments of art and architecture that were the pride of classical civilization, so today the fundamentalists set about destroying the great monuments of knowledge that are the pride of our modern civilization. They are performing their historical function, which in other circumstances — the circumstances of established precedent in which no countervailing forces had emerged to reinvigorate a decaying civilization — would result in a catastrophic collapse of civilization increasing in rapidity with the passage of time. Fundamentalists plant the seed of what would ordinarily be a self-fulfilling prophecy: that we are living in the end times. But this time around, the pattern has been interrupted. New forces are at play, and the result must be as unprecedented as the circumstances.

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