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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Intelligent Design vs. Goal-Directed Trial and Error

A wonderful paper has been published, and I myself am thrilled because it takes a whole group of things I had thought were well defined and articulated, and then shows then up for the mess of pottage they actually were. I call it "Wasserman-Blumberg" for the paper in American Scientist:,y.2010,no.3,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx

Designing Minds
How should we explain the origins of novel behaviors?
Edward A. Wasserman, Mark S. Blumberg

In its essence:
The basic argument of intelligent design was famously set forth in the watchmaker analogy of William Paley in 1802: The complexity and functionality of a watch imply a watchmaker; analogously, the complexity and functionality of living things also imply a designer, albeit one vastly more potent than a mere watchmaker. This argument rests on a simple analogy between the design of human artifacts and the design of natural forms...

 Discussions of design are prominent in the writings of evolutionists from Darwin to Dawkins...
 A century later, Richard Dawkins pursued the issue of design and divided the world... into [things] " that really are designed (submarines and tin openers)" {and those which are not]...

What did Dawkins mean when he wrote of things that “really are designed”? In The Blind Watchmaker, he provided a clear answer: “All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics….A true watchmaker has foresight: He designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye” [emphasis added]
Such uncritical acceptance of purpose and foresight in human design may well be unwise. After all, do we really know how door hinges and can openers were created?
There follows a brief yet insightful discussion of new behaviors and how they came about, including Dick Fosbury's invention of the "Fosbury Flop" method of high jump in the 1968 Olympics.

It is a lovely article in that it does what all good, critical thinking does: it shows that both sides of a dispute have not grasped the true complexity of the item under dispute; both sides have simplified the situation to fit into agreement with their already existing attitudes. Since all of us do this, we should greet this type of clarification with loud sighs of relief, and chants of "They're jolly good fellows, and so say all of us!"

(As a spoiler, I would add that the article ends with the observation that novelty does not necessarily occur with purposeful design, but it re-inforces the importance of teleology, or goal-directed behavior and the ability to formulate a goal or telos.)


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