The Argument from Definiteness

I often find the popular debate between Religion™ and Science™ intensely irritating, because almost everyone on both sides seems to take it for granted that if we have (or might someday have) a scientific explanation for something, then we don’t stand in need of a divine explanation for it; so that the only places where God might possibly play a role in our explanatory scheme is in the bits and pieces of the world that science has not yet explained. And this notion of the “God of the Gaps” presupposes that the merely scientific explanation is exhaustively adequate, at least in principle. But that means that the whole debate is skewed from the get go by an implicit presupposition in favor of naturalism, and is therefore founded upon begging the very question that it proposes to answer.

It’s dunderheaded.

God is not needed first as an explanation of this or that item in the natural order, but rather as an explanation of the fact that there is such a thing as nature in the first place, or that there exists anything at all that might have a nature. If God does not exist, then there can be no explanation of existence per se, or therefore of any of the things that do seem to us actually to exist. If God does not exist, then all we can say of things in the final analysis is that they are what they are, for no particular reason.

Or can we say even that?

If God exists, then his involvement in nature – in every instance of nature – is after all just exactly what we should expect. If God exists, then his effects are bound to be felt pervasively, throughout the whole created order, so that there can be no Gaps of any kind, anywhere. This would be a great thing for the scientific project, because it would mean that, since God is active in forming everything according to his rational Nature, everything is therefore in principle intelligible to our understanding, even though (the world being so vast and intricate) we might never actually get to the bottom of any part of it.

That there is an intelligible scientific account of a phenomenon, then, is not an indication that God plays no role in it, but exactly the opposite. The intelligibility of a thing does not indicate that it arose as a result of factors that are absolutely unintelligible, but the contrary. If a thing is intelligible, then that should indicate to us that God is active in it as a formal influence.

Honestly. It is as if a man opened a book and found that he could read it, that it said all sorts of meaningful and interesting and instructive things, and indeed that the more closely he read it the more he understood the tremendous breadth and depth of its insights into life as he himself had encountered it, and then said, “Well, hm! This thing makes a lot of sense in itself, and apart from the bit on page 73 that I haven’t yet puzzled out, it is obviously ordered to a fantastic degree; clearly there is therefore no reason to think it means anything, or that it might then have had an author, who meant something by it!”

The standard rebuttals of the Argument from Design boil down to, “well, if you have a large enough population of events iteratively exploring configuration space, then sooner or later, by sheer happenstance, they are going to arrange themselves as a watch, or a book.” But aside from the obvious failure of such rebuttals to explain how such populations or their iterations, or for that matter configuration space, might have arisen in the first place, these counterarguments are not even aimed at the right target. For, the point of the Argument from Design is not that this or that complex object cannot possibly have arisen except as a product of conscious intention, but that if there is no Author then the watch is not intended as a watch and is not therefore a watch, and the book is likewise not a book. In that case, the watch cannot tell time, and the book cannot be read –  sure, the watch might seem to tell time, but really it doesn’t; and the book is really nothing but gibberish. But in fact the watch does tell time (and is therefore a watch after all), and the book is readable (and so is indeed a book). So there is an Author.

The Argument from Design, then, is ultimately an argument from the mere fact of order. And this turns out to be an argument from particularity: from the definiteness of things, as being just the things that they are. If a thing is not ordered to some end or purpose, some telos or final cause – if, that is to say, it does not act or exist (these being two terms for the same thing) in a certain characteristic way, so that we are able to identify it as just the sort of thing that it is – then when push comes to shove we cannot say of it that it is ordered at all, or even that it exists as anything in particular that we are able to identify. And this is an important clue to what we must mean by saying of a thing that it is intelligible, qua thing – that, i.e., it is a certain thing at all. Whatever else we may mean in so saying, we must at least mean that we can see how we might possibly understand how it works to do what it does do; which is to say, how it turns out to be the sort of thing that it is. We cannot say that we understand a thing until we understand how it works, how it operates upon itself and upon its world. Order then is inherently teleological; it tends to operate toward some characteristic end. A thing that neither is nor does nor means anything definite is then strictly inconceivable, by the very nature of conception; for it fails to be any definite thing – it fails to be.

Can you think of something? If so, God exists.

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6 thoughts on “The Argument from Definiteness

  1. Dear Kristor,

    How do you separate map from terrain? How do you know when you say a thing is X, then either it is _really_ so or you are just using a convenient model? How can you tell the different between saying X is a real property of a thing, or X is just a convenient way for my model to describe the behavior of a thing?

    Ultimately this where the difference between your rationalist and my skeptical view may lie – I am so so skeptical about maps that I may reject the terrain as well, while you seem to jump so easily into say “this thing is really X, does not just seem so, behave so, or can be modeled so”, that you might mistake certain maps for the terrain.

    So I guess one should try to create a map/terrain methodology. How to separate them.

    I.e. how to tell _useful_ statements from _ultimately true_ ones that are _real_.

    Let’s consider teleology, one of the most important features of either the map or the terrain.

    For me, this is just a map thing. The statement that the purpose, the function of the heart is to pump blood, looks like a model, a map, to me, not the terrain. It’s a useful thing to say, but why does not have to be real? It’s just a viewpoint thing. From the viewpoint of the person or animal it looks some. But the chicken heart in my soup from my viewpoint does not. A worm living in the heart of pigs could think that the purpose of this is to provide a nice home for him.

    Which viewpoint is ultimate? Which viewpoint is real? If things have multiple uses for multiple actors, which one is its real purpose?

    How do we avoid the mistake of confusing the human viewpoint with some ultimately, absolute viewpoint and thus overvaluing humans?

    • Beware, Shenpen; if you reject all maps *and* the terrain, you’ll not be able to say anything at all! But then, I suppose in that case, there being nothing real to talk about, you wouldn’t have anything to say anyway. ;-)

      All kidding aside, the map/terrain distinction is plenty interesting, but it doesn’t affect the argument. If a thing – whether a map, or a bit of territory – wasn’t just the sort of thing that it is (however idiosyncratic) – if it didn’t act or effect or mean (these again being just different ways of saying the same thing (so as to emphasize different aspects of the act of existence)) anything definite, then, well, it just wouldn’t be conceivable. One can’t conceive of a thing that is not just the thing that it is. Nor can one put it to one’s own private purposes. A thing that is nowise a hammer is no use to you when you want to hammer. If the hammer were not just the sort of thing that it is, you could never come to have purposes for it, whether as a hammer or as a paperweight, or as a plumb bob. Things are relevant to our purposes at all only insofar as they actually exist as definite things that are such as to be relevant to our purposes. True, our purposes affect what a thing means to us at a given moment; but if it meant nothing absolutely, regardless of us and our purposes, it could never come to have any meaning to us and for our purposes, for it could not in that case exist even in concept.

      Consider then that a thing can have a fully definite character – this being another way of saying that it can have an absolute meaning, or existence – only in respect to all other things whatsoever. This is just the ontological reflection of the fact that a thing can’t be completely specified except by an exhaustive specification of its relations to all other things; as Whitehead said, each atom is – just is – a system of all things. None of this is to say that we need to complete the specification of a thing in order to deal with it at all. On the contrary, we can refer to things – by indication, synecdoche, analogy, metaphor, typology, models, and so forth – leaving their complete specification implicit in the reference. We can use maps, in other words. Which is fortunate, because as enacted the complete specification of a thing *just is that thing.* A map of Arizona that was just as big as Arizona would be of no use, qua map.

      But, to return to the main point, the map of Arizona could be of no use as a map if Arizona was not just the sort of thing that it is: if, i.e., Arizona did not bear just the relations it does to all things, if it was not *ordered to the rest of reality* in just the way that it is. The definiteness of Arizona (and, downstream, the definiteness of our maps thereof) come as a package deal with the whole order of things. And if that whole order of all things is not really an order, then there can be no definite things. There are definite things, so there is really an order of all things.

      But remember that order is inherently teleological. To be ordered at all, the whole system of things must be ordered in respect to some purpose, some telos or end. Only in respect to the achievement of that end (whether successful, or not) can we understand it as just the system of things that it is, for only at that achievement will it have completed its process of becoming, and thus be completely definite. So things are all ordered, and all cohere, and therefore exist, only in respect to that ultimate end. If there be no Author of the whole system of things, who by it meant its telos, then, there being no such ultimate telos, there can be no definite system of all things, no coherent whole of existence: especially, no cosmos, nor any wholes participant therein, such as Shenpen.

      Is there then a definite thing, of any sort? Then God must exist. In no other way could things be ordered in such a way as to be the definite things they are.

  2. The question is not one of viewpoints, multiple or otherwise, but intelligibility at all. Kristor’s argument does remind me at points of the Fifth Way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which is not an analogical Paleyan watchmaker argument, but precisely an argument from directedness simpliciter. That is, the directedness of even the simplest creature, the way its end follows directly from its nature, leads Thomas to that ultimate end, which is God. I don’t see what multiple viewpoints has to do with Kristor’s argument at all.

  3. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2013/12/11 | Free Northerner

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