Saturday, January 14, 2017

Episode #17- Steve Fuller on Transhumanism and the Proactionary Imperative


In this episode I talk to Professor Steve Fuller about his sometimes controversial views on transhumanism, religion, science and technology, enhancement and evolution. Steve is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of a trilogy relating to the idea of a ‘post-’ or ‘trans-‘ human future, all published with Palgrave Macmillan: Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future (2011), Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 (2012) and (with Veronika Lipinska) The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism (2014). Our conversation focuses primarily on the arguments and ideas found in the last book of the trilogy.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe via Stitcher or iTunes (via RSS).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - introduction 
  • 04:00 - untangling posthumanism and transhumanism via Bostrom, Hayles, Haraway 
  • 21:45 - the relationship between theology, science and technology
  • 39:50 - theological and libertarian rationales of transhumanism 
  • 52:00 - freedom from suffering or a freedom to suffer? – questions of risk, consent and compensation 
  • 1:03:40 - the rehabilitation of Eugenics – could it / should it be done? 
  • 1:13:50 - Darwinism and the intelligent design debate 
  • 1:22:00 - are there limits to transhumanism and enhancement? Homo Sapiens, humanity and morphological freedom 
  • 1:28:00 - conclusion

Relevant Links



Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Algocracy as Hypernudging: A New Way to Understand the Threat of Algocracy

It is a noticeable feature of intellectual life that many people research the same topics, but do so using different conceptual and disciplinary baggage, and consequently fail to appreciate how the conclusions they reach echo or complement the conclusions reached by others.

I see this repeatedly in my work on algorithms in governance. It’s pretty obvious to me now that this is a major topic of scholarly interest, being pursued by hundreds (probably thousands) of academics and researchers, across multiple fields. They are all interested in much the same things. They care about the increasing pervasiveness of algorithmic governance; they want to know how this affects political power, human freedom, and human rights; and they want to mitigate the negative effects and accentuate the positive (if any). And yet, I get a tremendous sense that many of these scholarly groups are talking past each other: packaging their ideas in the conceptual garb that is familiar to their own discipline or that follows from their past scholarly work, and failing to appreciate how what they are saying fits in with what others have said. Perhaps this is just the inevitable result of the academic echo chambers created by institutional and professional networks.

But note that this isn’t just a problem of interdisciplinarity. Many scholars within the same disciplines fail to see the similarities between what they are doing, partly because of the different theories and ideas they use, partly because there is too much work out there for any one scholar to keep up with, and partly because everyone longs to be ‘original’ — to make some unique contribution to the body of knowledge — and avoid accusations of plagiarism. I think this is a shame. Pure plagiarism is a problem, for sure, but reaching the same conclusions from slightly different angles is not. I think that if we were more honest about the similarities between the work we do and the work of others we could advance research and inquiry.

Admittedly this is little more than a hunch, but in keeping with its spirit, I’m trying to find the similarities between the work I have done on the topic of algorithmic governance and the work being done by others. As a first step in that direction, I want to analyse a recent paper by Karen Yeung on hypernudging and algorithmic governance. As I hope to demonstrate, Yeung reaches similar conclusions in this paper to the ones I reached in a paper entitled ‘The Threat of Algocracy’ but by using a different theoretical framework she provides important additional insight on the phenomenon I described in that paper.

Allow me to explain.

1. From the Threat of Algocracy to Hypernudging
In the ‘Threat of Algocracy’ I used ideas and arguments drawn from political philosophy to assess the social and political impact of algorithmic governance. I defined algorithmic governance — or as I prefer ‘algocracy’ — as the use of data-mining, predictive and descriptive analytics to constrain and control human behaviour. I then argued that the increased prevalence of algocratic systems posed a threat to the legitimacy of governance. This was because of their likely opacity and incomprehensibility. These twin features meant that people would be less able to participate in and challenge governance-related decisions, which is contrary to some key normative principles of liberal democratic governance. Individuals would be subjects of algorithmic governance but not meaningful creators or controllers of it.

To put it more succinctly, I argued that the increased prevalence of algorithmic governance posed a threat to the liberal democratic order because it potentially reduced human beings to moral patients and denied their moral agency. In making this argument, I drew explicitly on a similar argument from the work of David Estlund about the ‘Threat of Epistocracy’. I also reviewed various resistance and accommodation strategies for dealing with the threat and concluded that they were unlikely to succeed. You can read the full paper here.

What’s interesting to me is that Karen Yeung’s paper deals with the same basic phenomenon — viz. the increased prevalence of algorithmic governance systems — but assesses it using tools drawn from regulatory theory and behavioural economics. The end result is not massively dissimilar from what I said. She also thinks that algorithmic governance can pose a threat to human agency (or, more correctly in her case, ‘freedom’), but by using the concept of nudging — drawn from behavioural economics — to understand that threat, she provides an alternative perspective on it and an alternative conceptual toolkit for addressing it.

I’ll explain the main elements of her argument over the remainder of this post.

2. Design-based Regulation and Algocracy
The first thing Yeung tries to do is locate the phenomenon of algorithmic governance within the landscape of regulatory theory. She follows Julia Black (a well-known regulatory theorist) in defining regulation as:

the organised attempt to manage risks or behaviour in order to achieve a publicly stated objective or set of objectives. 
(Black quoted in Yeung 2016, at 120)

She then identifies two main forms of regulation:

Command and Control Regulation: This is the use of laws or rules to dictate behaviour. These laws or rules usually come with some carrot or stick incentive: follow them and you will be rewarded; disobey them and you will be punished.

Design-based Regulation: This is the attempt to build regulatory standards into the design of the system being regulated, i.e. to create an architecture for human behaviour that ‘hardwires’ in the preferred behavioural patterns.

Suppose we wanted to prevent people from driving while drunk. We could do this via the command and control route by setting down legal limits for the amount of alcohol one can have in one’s bloodstream while driving, by periodically checking people’s compliance with those limits, and by punishing them if they breach those limits. Alternatively, we could take the design-based route. We could redesign cars so that people simply cannot drive if they are drunk. Alcohol interlocks could be installed in every car. This would force people to take a breathalyser test before starting the car. If they fail this test, the car will not start.

With this conceptual framework in place, Yeung tries to argue that many forms of algorithmic governance — particularly algorithmic decision support systems — constitute a type of design-based regulation. But she makes this argument in a circuitous way by first arguing that nudging is a type of design-based regulation and that algorithmic decision support systems are a type of nudging. Let’s look at both of these claims.

3. Algocracy as Hypernudging
Nudging is a regulatory philosophy developed by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. It has its origins in behavioural economics. I’ll explain how it works by way of an example.

One of the key insights of cognitive psychology is that people are not, in fact, as rational as economists would like to believe. People display all sorts of biases and psychological quirks that cause them to deviate from the expectations of rational choice theory. Sometimes these biases are detrimental to their long-term well-being.

A classic example of this is the tendency to overprioritise the short-term future. It is rational to discount the value of future events to some extent. What happens tomorrow should matter more than what happens next year, particularly given that tomorrow is the gateway to next year: if I don’t get through tomorrow unscathed I won’t be around to appreciate whatever happens next year. But humans seem to discount the value of future events too much. Instead of discounting according to an exponential curve, they discount according to a hyperbolic curve. This leads them to favour smaller sooner rewards over larger later rewards, even when the expected value of the latter is higher than the former. Thus I might prefer to receive 10 dollars tomorrow rather than 100 dollars in a year's time, even though the value of the latter greatly exceeds the value of the former.

This creates particular problems when it comes to retirement savings. The bias towards the short-term means that people often under-save for their retirements. One famous example of nudging — perhaps the progenitor of the theory — were the attempts made by Richard Thaler (and others) to address this problem of undersaving. He did so by taking advantage of another psychological bias: the bias toward the status quo. People are lazy. They like to avoid cognitive effort, particularly when it comes to mundane tasks like saving for retirement. Thaler suggested that you could use this bias to encourage people to save more for retirement by simply changing the default policy setting on retirement savings plans. Instead of making them opt-in policies, you should make them opt-out. Thus, the default setting should be that money is saved and that people have to exert effort to not save. Making this simple change had dramatic effects on how much people saved for retirement.

We have here the essence of nudging. The savings policy was altered so as to nudge people into a preferred course of action. According to Thaler and Sunstein, the same basic philosophy can apply to many regulatory domains. Policy wonks and regulators can construct ‘choice architectures’ (roughly: decision-making situations) that take advantage of the quirks of human psychology and nudge them into preferred behavioural patterns. This is a philosophy that has really taken off over the past fifteen years, with governments around the world setting up behavioural analysis units to implement nudge-based thinking in many policy settings (energy, tax collection, healthcare, education, finance etc.).

Yeung argues that nudging is a type of design-based regulation. Why? Because it is not about creating rules and regulations and enforcing them but about hardwiring policy preferences into behavioural architectures. Changing the default setting on retirement savings policy is, according to this argument, more akin to putting speed bumps on the road than it is to changing the speed limit.

She also argues that algorithmic governance systems operate like nudges. This is particularly true of decision-support systems. These are forms of algorithmic governance with which we are all familiar. They use data-mining techniques to present choice options to humans. Think about the PageRank algorithm on Google search; the Amazon recommended choices algorithm; Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm; the route planner algorithm on Google maps; and so on. All of these algorithms sort through options on our behalf (websites to browse, books to buy, stories to read, routes to take) and present us with one or more preferred options. They consequently shape the choice architecture in which we operate and nudge us toward certain actions. We typically don’t question the defaults provided by our algorithmic overlords. Who, after all, is inclined to question the wisdom of the route-planner on Google maps? This is noteworthy given that algorithmic decision support systems are used in many policy domains, including policing, sentencing, and healthcare.

There is, however, one crucial distinction between algorithmic governance and traditional nudging. Traditional nudges are reasonably static, generalised, policy interventions. A decision is made to alter the choice architecture for all affected agents at one moment in time. The decision is then implemented and reviewed. The architecture may be changed again in response to incoming data, but it all operates on a reasonably slow, general and human timescale.

Algorithmic nudging is different. It is dynamic and personalised. The algorithms learn stuff about you from your decisions. They also learn from diverse others. And so they update and alter their nudges in response to this information. This allows them to engage in a kind of ‘hypernudging’. We can define hypernudging as follows (the wording, with some modifications, is taken from Yeung 2016, 122):

Algorithmic Hypernudging: Algorithmically driven nudging which highlights and takes advantage of patterns in data that would not be observable through human cognition alone and which allows for an individual’s choice architecture to be continuously reconfigured and personalised in real time.

This is certainly an interesting way of understanding what algorithmic governance can do. But what consequences does it have and how does it tie back into the themes I discussed in my work on the threat of algocracy?

4. The Threat of Hypernudging
The answer to that question lies in the criticisms that have already been thrown at the philosophy of nudging. When they originally presented it, Sunstein and Thaler were conscious of the fact that they were advocating a form of paternalistic manipulation. Taking advantage of quirks in human psychology, changing default options, and otherwise tweaking the choice architecture, seems on the face of it to disrespect the autonomy and freedom of the individuals affected. The choice architects presume that they know best: the substitute their judgment for the judgment of the affected individuals. This runs contrary to the spirit of liberal democratic governance, which demands respect for the autonomy and freedom of all.

Sunstein and Thaler defended their regulatory philosophy in two ways. First, they made the reasonable point (in my view anyway) that there is no ‘neutral’ starting point for any choice architecture. Every choice architecture embodies value preferences and biases: making a retirement savings policy opt-in rather than opt-out is just as value-laden as the opposite. So why not make the starting-point one that embodies and encourages values we share (e.g. long-term health and well-being)? Second, they argued their’s was a libertarian form of paternalism. That is to say, they felt that altering the choice architecture to facilitate nudging did not eliminate choice. You could always refuse or resist the nudge, if you so desired.

Critics found this somewhat disingenuous. Look again at the retirement savings example. While this does technically preserve choice — you can opt-out if you like — it is clearly designed in the hope that you won’t do any choosing. The choice architects don’t really want you to exercise your freedom or autonomy because that would more than likely thwart their policy aims. There is some residual respect for freedom and autonomy, but not much. Contrast that with an opt-in policy which, when coupled with a desire to encourage people to opt-in, does try to get you to exercise your autonomy in making a decision that is in your long-term interests.

It’s important not to get too bogged down in this one example. Not all nudges take advantage of cognitive laziness in this way. Others, for instance, take advantage of preferences for certain kinds of information, or desires to fit in with a social group. Nevertheless, further criticisms of nudging have emerged over the years. Yeung mentions two in her discussion:

Illegitimate Motive Critique: The people designing the choice architecture may work from illegitimate motives, e.g. they may not have your best interests at heart.

The Deception Critique: Nudges are usually designed to work best when they are covert, i.e. when people are unaware of them. This is tied to the way in which they exploit cognitive weaknesses.*

Both of these critiques, once again, run contrary to the requirements of liberal democratic governance which is grounded in respect for the individual. Consequently, it follows that if algorithmic governance systems are nudges, they too can run contrary to the requirements of liberal democratic governance. Indeed, the problem may be even more acute in the case of algorithmic nudges since they are hypernudges: designed to operate on non-human timescales, to take advantage of patterns in data that cannot be easily observed by human beings, and to be tailored to your unique set of psychological foibles.

This is very similar to the critique I mounted in 'The Threat of Algocracy'. I also focused on the legitimacy of algocratic governance and worried about the way in which algocratic systems treat us passively and paternalistically. I argued that this could be due to the intrinsic complexity and incomprehensibility of those systems: people just wouldn’t be able to second guess or challenge algorithmic recommendations (or decisions) because their minds couldn’t function at the same cognitive level.

As I see it, Yeung adds at least two important perspectives to that argument. First, she highlights how the ‘threat’ I discussed may not arise from factors inherent to algocratic systems themselves but also from the regulatory philosophy underlying them. And second, by tying her argument to the debate around nudging and regulatory policy, she probably makes the ‘threat’ more meaningful to those involved in practical policy-making. My somewhat esoteric discussion of liberal political theory and philosophy would really only appeal to those versed in those topics. But the concept of nudging has become common currency in many policy settings and brings with it a rich set of associations. Using the term to explain algocratic modes of governance might help those people to better appreciate the advantages and risks they entail.

Which ties into the last argument Yeung makes in her paper. Having identified algorithms as potential hypernudges, and having argued that they may be illegitimate governance tools, Yeung then challenges liberal political theory itself, arguing that it is incapable of fully appreciating the threat that algorithms pose to our freedom and autonomy. She suggests that alternative, Foucauldian, understandings of freedom and governance (or governmentality) might be needed. I’m not sure I agree with this — I think mainstream liberal theory is pretty capacious — but I’m going to be really annoying and postpone discussion of that topic to a future post about a different paper.

* Very briefly, nudges tend to work best covertly because they take advantage of quirks in what Daniel Kahneman (and others) call System 1 — the subconscious, fast-acting, part of the mind — not quirks in System 2 — the slower, conscious and deliberative part of the mind.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Moral Arguments for God (2): Non-Evidential Forms

(Previous Entry)

God and morality are often yoked together. Many religious believers think that morality is not possible without God. And some religious believers use this alleged dependency between God and morality as the basis for an argument in favour of his existence. As I noted in part one, there are two main forms that these arguments take:

Evidential Arguments: These are arguments that highlight the existence of some moral fact (E) and argue that God is the best explanation of E. This provides some support for the existence of God.

Non-Evidential Arguments: These are arguments that highlight some moral goal or end and argue that God’s existence is necessary if that goal or end is to be achieved.

We looked at evidential arguments and their problems in part one. Today we’ll look at non-evidential arguments. Once again, I’ll be taking my lead from Peter Byrne’s article ‘Kant and the Moral Argument’, which is to be found in Jeffrey Jordan’s book Key Thinkers in Philosophy of Religion. Since Kant is himself a proponent of a non-evidential argument, and since Byrne’s essay is ostensibly about Kant, it is not surprising that the analysis of Kant’s argument takes up more space in Byrne’s article than did the analysis of the evidential arguments. I tend to find non-evidential arguments less interesting, for reasons that will become apparent, but I am trying to be sympathetic in my summary/commentary.

1. Kant’s Non-Evidential Argument
I mentioned in part one that non-evidential arguments are less common than evidential ones, but that if you read a lot of religious philosophy you’ve probably come across one or two of them. William Lane Craig, for instance, often appeals to non-evidential arguments in his writings. He thinks that moral values make no sense under atheism because, in order to have a coherent moral life, we need to have ‘ultimate accountability’. That is to say, we need to know that:

…Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Despite the inequities of life, in the end of the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. 
(Craig, Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?)

Here, Craig is identifying a moral goal that needs to be satisfied if moral life is to be possible. He is then suggesting that it is not possible without God. The problem with atheism is that life ends at the grave. I could be a total moral jerk my whole life and not be punished for it; I could be a total moral saint and suffer needlessly. The morality or immorality of my behaviour need have no bearing on my ultimate fate. That seems wrong to Craig. Morality should count for something in the end.

I’ve discussed this argument on a previous occasion and explained what I think is wrong with it. Kant’s non-evidential argument turns out to be quite similar in its form. The only difference is that where Craig emphasises ultimate accountability, Kant emphasises ultimate goodness (which requires a combination of happiness and complete virtue). Byrne reconstructs Kant’s argument like this (I have modified this slightly):

  • (1) It is rationally and morally necessary to attain the highest good (perfect happiness arising out of complete virtue)
  • (2) What we are obliged to attain, it must be possible for us to attain (i.e. ought implies can).
  • (3) Attaining the highest good is only possible if natural order and causality are part of an overarching moral order and moral causality.
  • (4) Natural order and causality can only be part of an overarching moral order and moral causality if God exists.
  • (5) Therefore, it is rationally and morally necessary for God to exist.

Byrne doesn’t actually provide a conclusion in his version of the argument. I have done so because I think the argument needs to reach some sort of conclusion, even if it turns out to be a misleading or unimpressive one.

Let’s now consider some objections to this Kantian argument.

2. Five Objections to the Kantian Non-Evidential Argument
Byrne isn’t terribly explicit about this but by my reading of him he presents five different objections to the Kantian argument. They all have different targets (see diagram above). The first targets the conclusion of the argument:

  • (6) Even if successful, the argument does not prove that God exists or that morality is impossible without him; it only proves that his existence is necessary for us to live moral lives.

There are unsubtle and subtle aspects to this. The subtle point is that this argument does not rule out the cognitivity of moral propositions in an atheistic universe. For all this argument says, it could be true that propositions like ‘torturing cats is wrong’ and ‘friendship is good’ are true and God not existent. In other words, it is possible to accept this argument and still be an atheistic moral realist (i.e. someone who believes that moral facts do not depend on God for their existence).

The unsubtle point is that the argument clearly does not provide evidence for God’s existence. It could be, for all this argument says, that we live in a completely amoral, indifferent universe. The argument is premised on a hope or aspiration; not a concrete fact about the morality of the world in which we live. As such, the argument does not count among the epistemic proofs of God’s existence. It might count, instead, as a rational proof of God, i.e. a proof that God’s existence is subjectively necessary: that we cannot live without believing in him. The problem with this ‘rational proof’ interpretation is that it casts the argument in a very different light. It suggests that belief in God is what matters; not his actual existence. This means that the conclusion that I offered above should be altered to the following:

  • (5*) Therefore, it is rationally and morally necessary to believe in God’s existence.

And this throws open the possibility of believing in God as a useful moral fiction. The theist would resist this, no doubt. They would point back to the first premise and argue that mere belief is not enough: we have to have the possibility of attaining the highest good and this means we need God to actually exist, not just exist in our minds. This runs into the promotion vs attainment objection that I discuss below.

The second objection to the argument is this:

  • (7) It is not clear that the attainment of happiness is rationally/morally necessary, partly because it is not clear what happiness consists in.

This is an attack on premise (1). Byrne explains the objection by pointing out that the nature of happiness is contested and, depending on which definition you adopt, people often give up the pursuit of happiness for the attainment of other goods. So, for example, if happiness is understood as hedonistic pleasure, it seems true to say that people will subject themselves to displeasurable states of affairs in order to attain other goods. I might hate studying for exams, for example, but I accept the displeasure in return for an education. A better example, and one given by Byrne, is that of someone giving up their career to care for a sick relative. The former made them happy whereas the latter does not, but they find the latter more rationally and morally compelling.

Byrne detects three distinct accounts of happiness in Kant’s work: a pleasure-based theory; a contentment-based theory; and a desire-satisfaction based theory. The problem is that these three theories pull in different directions. It is possible that the pleasure-filled life is not the life in which the most desires are satisfied. I often pursue momentary pleasures at the expense of long-term desire satisfaction. Does this make me more or less happy? Likewise, contentment is a very different notion from pleasure or desire-satisfaction. I can be content with my lot in life and not experience much pleasure.

The point here is that happiness is a deeply contested concept and given its deep contestation its not at all clear that it’s attainment is rationally and morally compelling. For what it is worth, I’m not sure that this is a good objection. The mere fact that there is uncertainty as to what a goal consists in does not mean that it is not morally or rationally necessary. We may simply need a wide and capacious understanding of what it is. On top of it, it feels intuitively correct to suggest that the pursuit of happiness (understood broadly) is the ultimate goal of human life.

But this is to speak only to happiness and not virtue. For Kant, it was essential for virtue and happiness to align, i.e. for true happiness to be only attainable by living the morally virtuous life. For this, God was deemed essential. I previously mentioned that in an atheistic universe it seems eminently possible for someone to live an immoral and vicious life and yet to be happy (in some sense of the term). This is the great fear of theists like Kant and Lane Craig. They think God is necessary to ensure some alignment between virtue and happiness.

This insistence, however, gives rise to a third objection. This one is somewhat specific to Kant’s understanding of how God ensures that virtue and happiness align. I’ll state it bluntly first and then explain:

  • (8) Kant implies that virtue requires endless progress and hence implies that true happiness is unattainable. This is contrary to premises (1) and (2) of his argument.

In his Metaphysics of Morals, Kant states that:

Virtue is always in progress and yet always starts again from the beginning. The first point holds because, considered objectively, it is an ideal and unattainable, even though it is a duty to approximate constantly to it. 
(Quoted in Byrne 2011, 90)

And in the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant suggests that virtue (or what he there calls ‘holiness’) requires immortality because it involves the constant asymptotic approach to a perfect ideal. This seriously undercuts the non-evidential argument because it suggests that even with God it is impossible to attain true happiness. Immortality seems to be doing all the work; not God.
On some occasions, Kant modifies his talk about endless pursuit by suggesting that God can decree that the pursuit itself is sufficient, but this then opens up another objection:

  • (9) Why is it not enough to simply promote the ultimate good? Why do we need to actually attain it?

One should always be wary of objections phrased as rhetorical questions, but in this instance the question seems like a good one. Surely we can respect the need for some moral ideals, perhaps we can even accept that having those moral ideals in mind is necessary if we are to live moral lives, but why is it morally and rationally necessary to actually attain them, particularly if this is ultimately impossible? The second premise of Kant’s argument puts down his famous ‘ought implies can’ principle. It states that we are only morally obliged to do that which it is possible to do. Well, it is possible to promote moral good; but it may not be possible to achieve moral perfection. This suggests that the former is what is rationally and morally necessary; not the latter. This, therefore, undercuts the first premise of the argument.

Which brings us to the last objection. This one targets premise (4):

  • (10) There could be some impersonal moral force that binds the naturalistic order to the moral order.

In other words, we don’t need the Western, personal, monotheistic God in order to ensure that moral goals are attainable. All we need is some impersonal moral force. Some Eastern religions believe in such forces, e.g. karma. Of course, the tenability of this objection depends very much on the plausibility of this metaphysical view. Somewhat ironically, whether you believe in the possibility of impersonal moral forces is likely to depend on how you feel about evidential moral arguments (the kind of arguments discussed in part one).

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hume's Objections to the Design Argument (Part Two)

(Part one)

This is the second in a two-part series on David Hume’s objections to the design argument. If you haven’t read part one, I would recommend doing so before going any further. To briefly recap, in part one I mentioned that Hume’s treatment of the design argument — primarily in his Dialogues but also in his Enquiry — is lauded by many. JCA Gaskin is particularly impressed by it and dedicates a good portion of his book Hume’s Philosophy of Religion to its analysis.

In Gaskin’s reading of Hume, there are two versions of the design argument with which to contend:

The Nomological Design Argument: which focuses on the order/regularity that is found in nature and argues that some designer must be responsible for it.

The Teleological Design Argument: which focuses on the purpose/adaptation that is found in nature and argues that some designer must be responsible for it.

Both versions of the argument are defended by the character of Cleanthes in the Dialogues. They are then challenged by the character of Philo (often thought to represent Hume’s own views). Gaskin identifies ten different objections to both design arguments in Hume’s writings. These ten objections are organised into four main groups, illustrated in the diagram below. We dealt with the first two groups in part one. Let’s now look at the other two.

1. Analogical Weaknesses
The nomological and teleological arguments rest on an analogy. In Cleanthes presentation, we are entitled to infer that there is some designer of the order/purpose that we see in the natural world because our experience with the artificial world tells us that whenever there is order/purpose there is some human designer behind it all. In other words, the arguments are explicitly constructed in such a way that the natural and artificial worlds are deemed to be similar enough to ground an analogical inference. Hume has several objections to this attempted analogy.

The first of his objections is (numbering continues from part one):

(5) The ‘Weak and Remote’ Problem: ‘The analogy between those objects known to proceed from design and any natural object is too weak and too remote to suggest similar causes.’ (Gaskin 1988, 27 - citing an argument found in several locations in the Dialogues)

To understand this objection we need to understand how analogical arguments work. They all have the following structure:

  • P1. Y is true in Case A.
  • P2. Case B is like Case A in all important respects (i.e. with respect to features X1…Xn).
  • P3. Therefore Y* (similar to Y in important respects) is likely to be true in Case B.

In my more detailed presentation of the design arguments in part one, I showed how this abstract structure could be applied to both the teleological and nomological arguments. This application is not important right now. The critical detail for now is how all analogical arguments depend upon a similarity claim. It is because Case B is similar to Case A with respect to features X1…Xn that the inference can be made. The more similar the two cases are, the stronger that inference is; the more different they are, the weaker it is.

Hume’s challenge to both versions of the design argument is to suggest that the two cases (natural order/purpose and artificial order/purpose) are not very similar at all. They do not share as many features as proponents of the argument like to suggest and those that they do share are, upon closer inspection, more dissimilar than we might first think. There are many examples of this in practice. The purpose we see in the design of non-human animals and plants can often be opaque and bizarre. Think about the instances of ‘bad’ design that we see in nature — examples like the laryngeal nerve of the Giraffe, the vestigial thumb of the Panda, and all manner of cruel and painful livelihoods that are eked out by predators and prey. These examples are all better explained by Darwinian evolution, of course, but if we set that to the side and seriously entertain the design hypothesis we have to acknowledge that we are dealing with a designer with very different purposes or intentions to any human designer — ones that are ‘beyond our ken’.

On top of this, there is a scale and immensity to the order we see in the universe that makes its construction something quite beyond the abilities of any human designer. This might seem to warrant the inference to a supreme being with the powers traditionally attributed to God, but for Hume the dissimilarities of scale serve to undercut the analogy used to ground the design argument:

All the new discoveries in astronomy, which prove the immense grandeur and magnificence of the works of nature…become so many objections, by removing the effect still farther from all resemblance to the effects of human art and contrivance. 
(Hume’s Dialogues — quoted in Gaskin 1988, 30)

This brings us to the next objection:

(6) The Non-Agential Order Problem: ‘Order, arrangement, or the adjustment of final causes is not, of itself, any proof of design; but only so far as it has been experienced to proceed from that principle.’ (Hume’s Dialogues - quoted in Gaskin 1988, 31)

This is a little bit tricky to understand. Hume makes two points in relation to this objection. The first is that when you look at the totality of human experience, the evidence we have for thinking that order/purpose proceeds from agency is pretty flimsy. The second is that we have some reason for the thinking that order can be brought into existence without agency. Both points require some elaboration.

The first point is probably the more subtle one and its significance may be underappreciated. Look around the world. Look at all the instances of order/purpose that you find in it. How many of those instances of order/purposes are known — independently of the design argument — to proceed from agency? The answer is very few (proportionately speaking). Humans have had a remarkable impact on the world around them, but it is still true to say that the natural world (including the universe as whole) is much larger than the human created world and contains in it many instances of order/purpose that are not known — independently of the design argument — to proceed from agency. This is a problem because the strength of the analogy underlying the design argument is dependent on the totality of the available evidence regarding design in the universe. It’s only if we are more certain, based on our experience, that design is brought about by an agent that we can infer that all instances of design must have an agential origin.

Another way of putting it might be like this: we frequently reason from samples of the whole to explanations of the whole. We are entitled to reason from small samples if there are good grounds for thinking that they are representative of the whole (think about the way in which polling data is collected from samples). But in the case of the design argument, there is no good reason for thinking that the small sample of human-created design is representative of the whole. On the contrary, the total background evidence we have suggests that most instances of design do not have an agential creator. So we cannot reason by analogy from the few cases of human-created design to the assumption that there is a designer for the whole.

The second point Hume makes is more straightforward. It is simply that there are known cases in which order is brought about by non-agential forces. Certain geological processes, for example, are non-agential and yet can result in orderly patterns. Similarly, most people would agree that plants are not agents and yet when they grow and develop, plants create order in the world around them. So here we have some direct counter-analogies: cases in which design is not the product of a designer.
Some theists might object to this on the grounds that these examples all involve new forms of order/design being created from previous forms of order/design. Thus, the non-agential forces to which Hume appeals do not explain the origins of order/design in the first place. That’s as may be, but in making this move, the theist is shifting to a different kind of argument — something more akin to the cosmological argument — which tries to suggest that there must be a first link in a chain of causation. The regress problem — discussed below — challenges this style of argument.

The last of Hume’s three analogical objections is this:

(7) The Tightrope Problem: The design arguments try to walk a very fine line between excessive anthropomorphism and incomprehensible remoteness when it comes to the nature of the designer. It is very difficult to walk this line and maintain the credibility of the design argument.

This objection functions like a dilemma. Suppose the theist is right and the analogy between artificial order/purpose and natural order/purpose is strong. In that case, the strength of the analogy means we should infer a very human-like designer. We would then end up with something that falls a long way short of the supreme being beloved by theists. Contrariwise, suppose the theist is wrong and the analogy is not strong — the scale and magnitude of the universe points to a being with properties very distinct from a human creator. In that case, they might be able to get to the supreme being they desire, but at the cost of undercutting the analogy they were originally using to support their case.
So theists have to walk a very fine line — a tightrope if you will — one that insists that the two cases are just similar enough to warrant the inference to a designer and also different enough to enable them to insist that the designer is a supreme, non-human like being.

In fact, for Hume, it gets worse than that because not only do theists have to walk that line when it comes to the design argument, they also have to walk that line with their very conception of God. The God they want has to be human-like in some ways (with a human like mind/personality and moral interests in humanity’s affairs) but also practically incomprehensible and ineffable in others (omnipotent, omniscience, perfectly simple etc.).

2. Problems in Explaining Order/Purpose
This brings us to the final branch of Hume’s taxonomy of objections. There are three specific objections lying along this branch. Each of them takes issue with the motivation behind the design arguments, i.e. the desire to explain order/purpose in terms of divine agency. They each take a slightly different perspective on the issue though.

The first objection points to a general problem with all attempts to explain order/purpose:

(8) The Regress Problem: “If an intelligent agent is required to explain the order in nature then the intelligent agent will in turn need to be explained…But if we stop at the agent explanation, and go no farther; why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progress?” (Hume’s Dialogues - quoted in Gaskin 1988, 41)

The point that Hume (via Philo) is making in this quote is a familiar one. Anybody who has spent anytime sniffing around the philosophy of religion will have encountered some variant on it before. Hume is saying that explanations must bottom out somewhere, i.e. with some fundamental origin or source for the order/purpose we see. Theists want the explanation to bottom out in God: they want him to be the ground of all being. But do they have good grounds for doing so?

Hume thinks that they face two problems. First, in trying to get to God they appeal to principles that do not justify stopping with God. Thus, as noted above when discussing their objection to Hume’s plant example, they will suggest that there must be some fundamental origin to the order/purpose we see in the universe: an explanation that doesn’t just explain one type of order in terms of another type of order. They think God satisfies this role, but Hume argues that he doesn’t. What is God if not an ordered, purposeful being? Appealing to Him means that we explain one type of order in terms of another type of order. But if order itself needs to be explained then we will need to find some explanation for God. Hence, the infinite regress. Some theists might think they have a response to this by arguing that God is a perfectly simple, unitary being and hence doesn’t display the kind of ordered complexity that they think is needs to be explained. But Hume has a reply to this:

A mind whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive, one that is wholly simple and totally immutable, is a mind which has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or, in a word, is no mind at all.
(Hume's Dialogues, Part IV) 

The other problem that theists face is that if they accept that there cannot be an infinite regress of explanations, they will need to justify going beyond the laws of nature in explaining the order/purpose we find in the universe. As Hume puts it: If we have to stop somewhere, ’why not stop at the material world?’ We might be justified in seeking a further explanation for the laws of nature if the explanation we posit can provide us with greater insight/understanding of those laws. But Hume argues that God does not provide this additional insight. On the contrary, God is usually a deeply mysterious explanation, with little or no explanatory power or predictive potential. Of course, theists disagree, but I tend to think Hume is right on this score: appeals to the explanatory power of God are usually little more than an attempt to explain one mystery in terms of something even more mysterious.

The next objection takes a different tack and suggests that there are, in any case, alternative naturalistic explanations for the order/purpose we see in the universe:

9. The Alternative Explanations Problem: There is a ‘system, an order, an economy of things, by which matter can preserve the perpetual agitation, which seems essential to it, and yet maintains a constancy in the forms’ (Hume’s Dialogues - quoted in Gaskin 1988, 43)

This is obscurely expressed but it is the shortest summary of one of Philo’s more complex arguments in the Dialogues. In one sense, what Philo argues is more appealing to us nowadays than it was in Hume’s time. Remember, when Hume wrote the Dialogues Darwin was yet to expound his theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory — and subsequent developments of it — provided a compelling (to most, at any rate) naturalistic explanation for the purpose and adaptation we see in the living world. Hume had to defend an alternative naturalistic explanation without the benefits of Darwinism. But Gaskin argues that Hume anticipated Darwin’s ideas in the following passage:

It is vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals and vegetables, and in their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know how an animal could subsist, unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find, that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases, and that its matter corrupting tried some new form? 
(Hume’s Dialogues — quoted in Gaskin 1988, 44)

Did you spot the anticipation of Darwin? It’s a little hard to see, but in this short quote Hume does mention two things that are redolent of Darwinism. First, he points to something akin to a Darwinian selection pressure when he says that he would ‘fain know how an animal could subsist [i.e. survive], unless its parts were so adjusted?’. Second, he seems to suggest that something akin to mutation (‘matter corrupting’) could be responsible the animal forms that survive and subsist. This is, of course, a generous interpretation, conducted with all the benefit of hindsight.

In any event, offering a naturalistic explanation for the purpose and adaptation we see in living nature is only half the battle. There is still the question of where all the order and regularity in the universe as a whole came from. Here, it seems that Hume paid homage to the classic Epicurean view. According to this view, the universe is an infinite soup of matter in motion. Much of that motion is chaotic and disordered. But if the universe is truly infinite, there will, of necessity, be localised pockets of order and we, as ordered beings, will necessarily find ourselves in those localised pockets. Thus, in an infinite universe in which all possibilities are eventually tried out, there is nothing explanatorily surprising about our existence:

Thus the universe goes on for many ages in a continued succession of chaos and disorder. But is it not possible that it may settle at last, so as not to lose its motion and active force…yet so as to preserve a uniformity of appearance amidst the continual motion and fluctuation of its parts? This we find to be the case with the universe at present…May we not hope for such a position, or rather be assured of it, from the eternal revolutions of unguided matter, and may not this account for all the appearing wisdom and contrivance which is in the universe? 
(Hume’s Dialogues — quoted in Gaskin 1988, 46)

The challenge for this Epicurean view lies in contemporary cosmology. We know much more about the universe in which we live now than we did in Hume’s day. The scientific evidence we currently have suggests that our universe started at a finite point in the past and that the matter within it obeys fairly uniform laws. This seems to rule out the possibility of the infinite, churning chaos that Hume requires. But this isn’t quite right either. Our current scientific model of the universe is incomplete in certain important respects and the finite duration of the portion of the universe in which we live and do our science doesn’t rule out the possibility that we are part of some larger, infinite chain of universes or multiverses. Indeed, some scientific theories point in that direction already. So the Humean alternative may still be viable, and I find it appealing on philosophical grounds (viz. positing an infinite chaos in which everything that is possible happens seems like the neatest and most satisfactory explanation of everything).

Hume has one last objection to theistic attempts to explain order/purpose:

10. The Cognitive Limitation Problem: Human reason is a poor instrument for working out universal truths. We should be sceptical of all our attempts to explain the ultimate origins of reality.

This is theme that runs throughout Hume’s philosophical works. He is the arch-sceptic. He thinks that human reasoning is weak and highly fallible. It doesn’t deliver the results we would like. We cannot even justify simply practices like scientific induction on the basis of reason alone. Consequently, we should be very sceptical of any attempt to use these weak and fallible capacities to explain the origins of order/purpose.

I’m not sure if I completely follow Hume on this front. I think we should be sceptical of the powers of human reason but I tend to sympathise more with the view Hume attributes to Cleanthes in the Dialogues, namely: complete scepticism is unwarranted and human reason can provide us with some insights. It’s really all about the domain of inquiry: whether human reason is up to the task in that domain. I might agree with Hume that religious matters are one area where human reason is not up to the task. JL Schellenberg is probably the contemporary philosopher who has done the most to take up Hume’s cudgels on this front. His book The Wisdom of Doubt presents the best argument I know of for religious scepticism of the Humean type (though note: Schellenberg is more optimistic about the long-term prospects for human reason). I recommend it to anyone who would like to pursue this tenth line of objection in more depth.

3. Conclusion

That brings us to the end of this analysis of Hume’s objections to the design argument. To sum up, Hume focuses on two versions of the design argument: the nomological and the teleological. The former is concerned with the order/regularity we observe in the natural world; the latter is concerned with the purpose/adaptation we observe in the natural world. Hume levels ten objections against these two arguments. These objections have been discussed in detail over the two posts in this series. I won’t repeat the details here.

As you no doubt noticed, there are parts of Hume’s critique that are quite antiquated. He concerned himself with the religious debates and views of his day and he wrote at a time when our scientific understanding of biology and cosmology was in its infancy. Nevertheless, much of what he says continues to have relevance, and it always amazes me to see how closely Hume’s reasoning resembles or anticipates what we find in contemporary philosophy of religion.

Let me close, however, on a more critical note. Hume deals with an explicitly analogical version of the design argument in his writings. One problem with this is that most modern defenders of the design argument abjure the analogical form. They favour arguments that are couched in Bayesian terms or in terms of inference to best explanation. It sometimes turns out that these formulations of the argument rely, implicitly, on some analogy between human design and divine design, but to reveal that implicit reliance you have to engage with some complex debates in probability theory and theories of explanation. I still think that parts of what Hume says are relevant to those debates, but it requires more work to demonstrate this.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Hume's Objections to the Design Argument (Part One)

Le Bon David (as he was to his French fans and friends), David Hume (to the rest of us) was one of the most loved philosophers of his time (although Rousseau may disagree). And many is the contemporary philosopher that professes attachment to his work. There is something exhilarating and remarkably fresh about his muscular empiricism and naturalism, his commitment to common sense, and his scepticism of all things metaphysical. His outlook and temperament is almost quintessentially that of the modern, naturalist philosopher. And when it comes to contemporary naturalism most of what is said has its origins in Hume.

I first encountered Hume through his work on religion. The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was a formative book for me. As the title suggests, it is a philosophical dialogue very much in the Platonic mould. It recounts the after-dinner conversation and debate among three protagonists: Cleanthes, Philo and Demea. Cleanthes is a proud defender of natural theology (the belief that argument and evidence points to God); Philo is a religious sceptic (often thought to be a mouthpiece for Hume’s own views); and Demea is something of fideist, believing that God’s existence is already known to all and that philosophy can, at best, tell us something about His nature. Demea says relatively little throughout the dialogue; Cleanthes and Philo dominate the discussion. At the centre of their debate rests the design argument.

In this post (and the next) I want to share their analysis of that argument. Many philosophers have been impressed by the way in which Hume — through Philo — dismantles the logic of the design argument. Some go so far as to suggest he dealt the argument a killer blow — though this must surely be contested. JCA Gaskin is one of those who is impressed by Hume’s treatment of the design argument. His book Hume’s Philosophy of Religion provides a comprehensive exposition of Hume’s reasoning. Gaskin claims that Hume deals with two distinct versions of the design argument in the Dialogues and that he levels ten objections to these two versions of the argument. I want to go through all ten of these objections in what follows.

1. Two Design Arguments and a Taxonomy of Objections
I need to start by distinguishing the two versions of the design argument that are found in Hume’s work. There is no better place to go for these than the inital presentation of the design argument in the Dialogues. In part two, Cleanthes says the following:

Look around the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions, to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men, who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work, which he has executed. By this argument…we prove at once the existence of a Deity. 
(Dialogues, Part II)

At first glance, this looks like one argument, based on an analogy. In abstract form, the analogy works like this:

  • P1. Case A: Some observed effect (X) in the world around us.
  • P2. Case A is like Case B (which involves some observed effect Y) in all important respects.
  • P3. In Case B, P is the cause of Y.
  • C1. Therefore, in Case A, P* (similar to but slightly different from P) is likely to be the cause of X.

In Hume’s discussion the variables in this argument are filled in with observations about the natural and artificial (man-made) worlds. But in Gaskin’s reading there are two different observed effects that get the argument going. The first is the observation of order in nature (the ‘nature is like a machine’ observation); the second is the observation of purpose (i.e. the ‘adapting of means to ends’ observation). This gives rise to two distinct versions of the argument from design. The first can be called the argument from regularity (or the nomological argument):

The Nomological Argument
(1) We observe order/regularity in the natural world. 
(2) The natural world and the artificial man-made world are similar in all important respects. 
(3) In the artificial world, wherever there is order and regularity it is because there is some designer/architect that is responsible for that order/regularity. 
(4) Therefore, there is likely to be some designer/architect of the order/regularity in nature.

The second can be called the argument from adaptation (or the teleological argument)

The Teleological Argument
(1*) We observe purpose/adaptation of means to ends in the natural world. 
(2*) The natural world and the artificial man-made world are similar in all important respects. 
(3*) In the artificial world, wherever there is purpose/adaptation it is because some designer/architect is responsible for that purpose/adaptation. 
(4*) Therefore, there is likely to be some designer/architect of the purpose/adaptation in nature.

Many discussions of Hume have tended to fixate on the teleological version of the argument. One reason for this is that Darwinian evolutionary theory got going in the century after Hume and provided a good naturalistic explanation for the adaptation of means to ends that impresses Cleanthes in the Dialogues. Thus we tend to find that argument much less persuasive nowadays. But Gaskin argues that the nomological argument is the version of the argument with the deeper pedigree. Furthermore, one could argue that the nomological argument has undergone a renaissance in the past half century in the guise of the argument from fine-tuning (though there are definitely discrepancies between the two argument and nothing said in this series of posts should be taken to have much bearing on that more recent version of the argument from design). So the distinction is of some historical philosophical significance.

It is also of more practical philosophical interest. Some of the criticisms Hume levels against the design argument really only find their mark if we have one version in mind. That said, it is still worth treating them as a pair and that is what we shall do for the remainder of this series. Whenever a criticism is raised that is limited in its reach to one version of the argument rather than the other, this will be made clear to the reader.

Now that we know something about the structure of the design argument(s), we can turn to their critical evaluation. As mentioned, Gaskin argues that Hume (through Philo) levels ten objections against the argument. These ten objections can be organised into a taxonomy. There are four major branches to this taxonomy. Each branch features a different general style of objection, which in turn breaks down into a number of more specific objections. As follows:

A. Restrictions on the Conclusion: These are objections that highlight the weakness of the conclusion of the argument. 
B. Problem of Unique Causes: This is an objection (there is only one of these) that is based on Hume’s famous theory of causation, roughly the idea is that it is difficult to make inferences about the causes of unique effects; the universe is a unique effect; hence it is difficult to make inferences about its cause. 
C. Analogical Weaknesses: These are objections that highlight weaknesses in the analogy underlying both forms of the argument.

D. Problems in Explaining Order/Purpose: These are objections that block the argument by either offering alternative explanations of the order/purpose we see in the universe or by highlighting problems with the explanation of order.

The full taxonomy of objections, with the ten specific forms, is illustrated below. This may not mean too much to you right now, but we will go through each branch in what follows. I’ll do the first two branches in the remainder of this post and the other two in the next post.

2. Restrictions on the Conclusion
The centrepiece of the design argument, in both the teleological and nomological forms, is the analogy between the natural and artificial worlds. The claim is that because we know that the order/purpose we see in the artificial world is the result of human agency and design we can infer, by analogy, that the order/purpose we see in the natural world is the result of divine agency and design. The first set of objections leveled by Philo in the dialogues takes issue with this inference to divine agency. In essence, he argues that the analogical argument cannot get the theist all the way to God.

There are three specific forms of this objection. I will give each of the objections a name and number. I do so both to facilitate recall. When Gaskin introduces these objections he also tends to include some original quotation from Hume’s writings to back it up. I will follow suit here whenever possible, but note that not all of the text comes from the Dialogues. Although the Dialogues contains pretty much all the objections, it does not always express these objections in the most efficient philosophical form. This is a result of the dialogic form of writing, which lends itself to aesthetic flourishes that occasionally distract from the main line of reasoning.

Anyway, here’s the first specific objection:

(1) What-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) problem: “If the gods are the cause of order in the universe, then they possess that degree of power, intelligence and benevolence which appears in their known effect (the world) and nothing more.” (Hume’s Enquiry)

In other words, when you are inferring from an effect to a cause, you are only entitled to infer a cause with the properties that are necessary to explain what you see in the effect, nothing more. When I find a letter in my postbox, I am entitled to infer that someone delivered it. I am not entitled to infer that the person who delivered it had red hair, was in a bad mood, and suffered from gout — at least, not unless additional evidence, that would entitle me to make those inferences, can be found. I can only make those inferences that are supported by what I see. The same goes for inferences from the order and purpose we see in the world around us. From those effects we might be entitled to infer some sort of designer, but we are not entitled to infer what theists typically infer, which is a supreme being with maximal virtues, who cares profoundly about human well-being, has a plan for our salvation, and will reward us with everlasting life if we are lucky/do the right things. Inferring those additional properties brings us outside the realm of the analogy.

Richard Swinburne has lodged a complaint against this line of reasoning. He argues that if we accepted Hume’s WYSIWYG principle, then scientific inquiry and explanation could never get off the ground. Scientific explanation always involves explaining one thing in terms of something else (something more fundamental and with different properties). For example, the scientific explanation of what it means to be alive doesn’t appeal to some cause with ‘life-giving’ properties. Instead, it appeals to metabolic chemical processes within cells and DNA replication and transmission. These biochemical entities and activities seem to have properties that, taken individually, are very different those we associate with being alive and yet, when organised in the right way, they manage to exemplify the property of being alive.

In essence, Swinburne critiques Hume for adopting an explanatory principle for which medieval scholastics were ridiculed. Gaskin defends Hume by suggesting that Hume would agree with Swinburne on the preferred form of scientific explanation. But Hume would counter that we are only entitled to explain one thing in terms of something very different when we have independent epistemic access to that other thing. Thus, we are entitled to explain what it means to be alive in terms of biochemical processes because we are able to probe, interrogate and experiment with those processes independently of observing their effects in living beings. It’s not like we observe a chicken scratching its way around a farmyard and then magically infer the underlying biochemical processes from these behavioural effects. Instead, we slice and dice the living tissues of the chicken, view them under a microscope, manipulate their component parts through experimentation, and slowly build up an understanding of the underlying biochemistry.

The situation with respect to God and the design argument is very different. We cannot experiment with God. We only have epistemic access to God through his effects in the world and so we are only entitled to make those inferences about his nature that are justified by those effects. Hume puts it like this in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

The Deity is known to us only by his productions and is a single being in the universe, not comprehended under any species or genus, from whose experienced attributes or qualities we can, by analogy, infer any attribute or quality in him. 
(Quoted in Gaskin 1988, 18)

In essence, the problem for the theist is that they are presuming to know more about God than the design argument can actually establish. By the logic of the design argument alone, you cannot infer a designer with all of the properties typically ascribed to God.

The WYSIWYG principle has further consequences for the theist. This comes in the guise of the second objection, one which Philo makes much of in the Dialogues:

(2) The Evil Effects Problem: “The true conclusion [of the design argument] is, that the original source of all things is entirely indifferent…and has no more regard to good above ill than to heat above cold.” (Hume’s Dialogues).

The idea here is that the effects we observe in the world contain both good and evil. Because they contain this mix of properties, we are not entitled to infer from them a designer that is all good. At most, we are entitled to infer a designer that is morally indifferent. This objection is closely allied to the problem of evil, but is not quite the same thing. It is not presented here as a general reason for disbelieving in God but rather as a reason to doubt that the design argument gets us to God. In this manner, the argument Philo is defending in the Dialogues is very similar to the so-called ‘Evil God’ argument that has been defended by Stephen Law (among others). The essence of Law’s argument is that all the observable evidence in the universe points just as much in favour of an Evil God as it does of a Good God.

The second objection is really just a specific instance of the first objection. The third objection is a little different. It claims that the principle of analogy underlying the argument supports alternative design hypotheses. Philo mentions three in particular in the Dialogues and Gaskin treats them as a group in his analysis:

(3) Multiple Design Hypotheses Problem: If valid, the design argument could establish a number of design hypotheses, such as: (a) the universe is the product of a committee of designers; (b) the universe is a discarded experiment of an old or second rate deity; or (c) the universe has been designed to run on its own devices and the creator plays no further part in its unfolding.

The theist wants the argument to point to a traditional monotheistic God: a single, all-powerful creator of the universe, who is still interested in his creation and has a salvific plan for it. Hume, however, says that the design argument cannot give you that God. The principle of analogy underlying it provides just as much support for multiple Gods, discarded experiments and deistic gods. In human experience, we know that designed objects, particularly when they are complex, are often the products of teams of designers, not single individuals. We also know from human experience that some designed objects are just experiments, occasionally discarded and often bug-ridden. Finally, we know from human experience that it is possible for machines to be created and left to operate until their eventual destruction without further interference from their original creators. So analogies between the artificial and the natural do not point straightforwardly to one God.

Swinburne and others have challenged this by suggesting that other explanatory desiderata point to a monotheistic God. Ockham’s razor, for example, tells us that when you are trying to explain some phenomenon you should posit the simplest explanation possible. To Swinburne, Hume’s claims about the possibility of a committee of Gods involves positing a more complex explanation where a simpler one will do. Furthermore, Swinburne submits that the unity of nature (the fact that everything in the universe seems to fit under a shared set of scientific laws) points to a unity of creation (that it is all the product of one supreme mind).

Gaskin defends Hume from this counterargument by highlighting the fact that Hume was well aware of the need to posit simple explanations. But this desideratum is not supreme and its application can be limited by other factors. Hume’s point was that human experience suggests that complex designed phenomena are usually the product of committees and teams, not individual effort. The weight of experiential evidence — the very evidence we use to support the original analogy — thus favours the committee hypothesis.

And, what’s more, the evidence for unity in nature might be overstated. It might be true that all parts of nature are consistent with some underlying set of physical laws, but this does not mean that all parts of nature can be explained in terms of those laws. Try as we might, we cannot explain all of biology in terms of physics, or all of psychology in terms of biochemistry, or all of economics in terms of psychology. There appear to be distinct explanatory principles ruling across multiple emergent domains of human interest. This is what we might expect from a committee of designers, each of whom takes responsibility for a different part of the total creation.

3. The Problem of Unique Causes

We are moving on now to the second branch of the taxonomy of objections. Fortunately, there is only one specific objection on this branch so it’s a nice place to end the discussion for today. The objection itself is almost uniquely Humean and has its origins in his views about causation. This view of causation is found primarily in Hume’s Enquiry, but Philo echoes it in the Dialogues. Gaskin introduces it like this:

(4) Problem of Unique Causes: “It is only when two species of objects are found to be constantly conjoined, that we can infer the one from the other; and were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species; I do not see that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause.” (Hume’s Enquiry - quoted in Gaskin 1988, 24)

Hume’s view of causation is roughly this: you can only say that events of type A cause events of type B if you repeatedly observe events of type A being conjoined to events of type B. Cold weather can be said to cause frost and ice only because we repeatedly observe the conjunction of the cold with frost and ice in space and time. If we observe an event of type A being conjoined to an event of type B on just one occasion, then we are not entitled to infer any causal relationship. Hume does not believe that causality is something that can be readily and easily inferred. He was sceptical of philosophers who thought you could observe necessary causal relationships between events.

This creates a problem for the theist because they are trying to make an inference about the cause of a singular event or state of affairs, namely: the existence of the universe. By definition, there is just one universe and hence only one observation we can make about its occurrence. This is not enough to make a causal inference about its origins.

The challenge to the Humean view is that there are examples of seemingly unique events for which we readily (and convincingly) make causal inferences. Swinburne argues that much of modern cosmology is like this, as are certain aspects of anthropology and archaeology. We find a single object in a dig site and infer a human designer; we observe a cosmological event (e.g. the cosmic microwave background radiation) and infer a single cause (the Big Bang). Why can’t we do the same for the universe as a whole?

The problem with this response is that the examples used are not that convincing. We do not simply infer unique causes from unique events in cosmological or archaeological settings. In the archaeological case, we use our understanding of how humans work, the objects they like to make, the design principles they use, and use all of this background knowledge to make a causal inference. In the cosmological case, we use our understanding of how matter works in the present era to make inferences about how it was likely to behave in the past. Also, we do, in fact, now have experiments running that try to recreate the conditions in the early universe, allowing us to check our scientific theories against repeated observations of reality.

In all these cases, we are making causal inferences about events that are internal to the universe and we can use our background knowledge of how the universe works to guide our causal inferences. The situation is very different when we make inferences about the universe as a whole and posit some external cause. In that case, our background knowledge of the universe is of no assistance.

Or is it? Gaskin’s discussion of this objection is odd because it ends with a concession. Gaskin notes that the whole point of the argument from analogy is to suggest that the universe as a whole belongs to a class of objects (machines) about which we do have considerable background knowledge, and which background knowledge can be used to guide causal inferences about the creation of the universe. Thus, the analogical argument seems to sidestep this whole Humean line of reasoning. Of course, Hume has a response to this. He thinks it only manages to sidestep the objection if the analogy underlying the argument is sufficiently strong. That’s something that his next batch of objections calls into question. We’ll cover those objections in part two.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top Ten Posts of 2016

2016 -- Twenty sixteen -- generally regarded as a pretty bad year all around: Celebrities getting killed by old age, illness and substance abuse; long-cherished liberal democracies turning into reality shows etc etc... Rejoice! It is now over!

It wasn't a bad year on this blog though. Nothing spectacular, probably not as a good as 2015, but not awful. Here are the top ten posts going by page views from the past year (ignoring posts from previous years that continue to receive a lot of hits for unknown reasons):

  • Are we Heading Towards a Singularity of Crime? (March 2016) - My review and analysis of Marc Goodman's book Future Crimes, which introduces a fascinating argument that we are heading for a singularity of crime, but never defends it explicitly. I try to make up for that in this post.

  • Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life: Should we retreat from reality? (November 2016) - The text of a talk I gave in Germany in early November (the night that Donald Trump got elected to be precise). In it, I argue that we need to take the case for technological unemployment seriously and, more importantly, look for ways to address the deficit in meaning that might be caused by a lack of work. I explore, in particular, the possibility that virtual worlds will provide the necessary meaning.

  • The Value of Deep Work and How to Prioritise It (January 2016) - One of my self-helpy blog posts, looking at the ideas in Cal Newport's book Deep Work. I am a fan of the book. It's one of the few self-help books with an underlying philosophy of work that I agree with (though not entirely).

  • The Philosophy of Social Constructionism (December 2016) - Lots of people claim that gender and race are socially constructed, but what do they mean by this? This post looked at some philosophical attempts to clarify the answer. Based on the work of Esa Diaz-Leon.

  • Competitive Cognitive Artifacts and the Demise of Humanity (September 2016) - This was one of the more fun posts to write. It was my attempt to formalise and critique an argument by David Krakauer. He argued that artificial intelligences posed a threat to humanity because they compete with human intelligence rather than complement it.

  • Is Resistance Futile? Are we already Borg? (January 2016) - My analysis and critique of David Gunkel's argument about human cyborgification. Although I agree with Gunkel that humans are becoming cyborgs, I think his definition and understanding of cyborgification is too limited. I also interviewed David for my podcast. You can listen to that interview here.

  • Effective Altruism: A Taxonomy of Objections (January 2016) - The first in a long-ish series of posts about potential objections to effective altruism. The series riffed off Iason Gabriel's excellent article on the topic and ended with a contribution from Iason himself. You can read the full series here.

Podcasts and other Media Appearances 2016

As my penultimate end-of-year-review post, I thought I would provide links to some of the media appearances and mentions I had in the past year. I'm not going to list everything. For instance, my paper on sex work and technological unemployment was featured on several news websites but without anyone interviewing or talking to me first and often with its main thesis ignored -- I discussed this in my first newsletter back in September. So I'm really only including media appearances and mentions here that occurred with some contact between myself and the relevant outlets, or, exceptionally, where I felt they did a good job representing what I have written (Ronald Bailey's article, below, is the only real example of this).

Podcast Appearances

  • ’Algocracy’ - Interview about my research project and podcast on the Robot Overlordz Podcast, Episode 284