The argument for intelligent non-design: a horse designed by a committee - is a horse.

I heard a stand-up comedy routine recently.  A guy was saying that he lives in New York, so he doesn’t live with any real people. He meets people who are saying “I’m a pirate” or “I’m a nymphomaniac” or “I’m a psycho-killer,” while all the time he’s thinking “No you’re not, you’re all graphic designers, OK?”

I think that’s a funny joke, and it makes a point – that designers tend to over-dramatize themselves.  And I think, maybe they, or we, over-dramatize what it is they do.  Maybe that sounds too pejorative.   I’m not saying that what they do isn’t important and valuable, I’m just saying that it might not be what they say they do – like the “pirate” and the “nymphomaniac” and actually, most "scientists".  OK, I’m struggling to get my point across – let’s go back to basics, and the Reverend Paley.

Richard Dawkins wrote a book called “The Blind Watchmaker” because of an argument for the existence of God which is based on what happens if you found a watch.  The argument is put forward by the Reverend William Paley (an 18th, just 19th century) clergyman.  He argues that if you were walking along and you found a watch, you would naturally imagine that it had been designed by someone – it has distinguishable parts that work together – that fit in the case, and also have a clear purpose.  Actually – this is how he puts it:

    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 anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: 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 I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

    — William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

To paraphrase: if you find a watch- you expect it had a designer (or designers) so why, when you look at a man, or a grasshopper, or a sunflower, and see the intricate ways that all the different parts, the organs, the genes, the hormones, the enzymes, the biochemistry all work together – how could we possible assume that there isn’t a designer (or designers).  If there’s a designer for the watch, there’s surely a designer (or designers) for us – and that designer (or designers) is/are God.

This kind of argument is known as an analogical argument.  Also known technically by philosophers as “the dodgiest kind of argument there is about.”  The normal way to attack it, and the way that Dawkins attempts to attack it, is to claim that the analogy doesn’t hold, that the complex artefacts like human beings aren’t created but have evolved. Another standard way of attacking this argument is just to call the people who don’t agree with you rude names – Dawkins has also done his (un)fair share of this.

But there’s another way of attacking this argument (I feel slightly artificial using this word "attack" but philosophers, most of whom could be blown away by a light breeze really like to use martial terms). What if the watch isn’t designed? What if the watch evolved?  Do you see what I’m getting at? That’s why I kept putting  the word “designers” in brackets in the discussion above.  The guy who “designed” this watch – even if it was just one person - did he come up with the concept of time?  Did he “design” the 24 hour division of the day, or the breakdown of the hour into minutes and seconds?  Did he design the system of representing this on a circular face with two hands? Did he come up with numerals or the concept of integers? What about coiled springs? Notched cogs? What about the metallurgy of brass, and steel involved in making those cogs and attaching them to each other? Or the completely separate branch of chemistry required to produce the glass. Did the designer come up with the concept of a watch? The truth of the matter of course is that whoever “designed” Paley’s watch relied on the work of thousands and thousands of “designers”.

Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” but for “giants” he might have said “A very large number of people of variable height.”

So this is one way to deal with the design argument.  Not only does life as we know it not have an “intelligent” designer - neither does the watch.  Why am I bothering to upset so many “designers”, so many people in bold prints with fashionable haircuts?  Well I was lying awake at 4:30am in the morning suffering from a bad case of jet lag and listening to “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts, admittedly, in the hope that it would send me to sleep.  And he was talking about Taoism and the concepts of “Wei” and “Wu Wei”. I really don’t know that much about this stuff, but I think the normal way of translating these two concepts is as “Doing” and “Not Doing” but Watts suggested another possible way of understanding these concepts as “effortful” and “effortless” doing or possibly the difference between “creation” and “growth”.

And this applies to software.  Software evolves.  You might say to yourself as a software developer, or even as an software architect that you’re “designing” and “creating”, but, like the last watchmaker in a long, long, long, long, line, most of what you’re doing is modulating and modifying.  I'm sure you're very clever, but you're not as clever as the bloke who invented the sub-routine - I've met him in the tea room at Cambridge University, and he was bloody clever, be even he relied on the work of a bunch of other people who figured out the electronics and a bunch of mathematicians and logician. And this isn’t a bad thing. This is a truly awesome, priceless thing.  If it’s good enough for a genius like Isaac Newton, surely it’s good enough for most people.

My point is - and I know I've taken a long time to get there. If this is really what we're doing, not creating, but modulating and modifying.  Wouldn't it be better if we understood that and acted accordingly?

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