Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Del Ratzsch - an alternative to Dawkins

I've been reading "Nature, Design and Science", by Del Ratzsch. It's not an easy read. Ratzsch is a professor of philosophy, so this book is formal and careful, where "The God Delusion" is conversational but correspondingly casual. However, almost every paragraph has weight.
There is a widely held, vague supposition that the discovery that a phenomenon is purely natural removes any prospect of its being designed. That something is a product of unaided nature [Ratzsch terms this "pronautral"] does entail that its history does not involve any intervention into the historical course of the cosmos (i.e., that it is neither artifact nor natrifact [a term he uses for phenomena that are part of nature but which show signs of supernatural intervention]). But sinceboth the pronatural and the natrifactual can be intended results of agent activity deliberately aimed at producing the manifested patterns, the distinction between them is not one of presence or absence of designedness. Discovering a wholly natural process for producing some phenomenon in nature entails only that if it is designed, the relevant agent activity is primordial.

This distinction between design resulting from intervention and design produced by the unaided outworking of initiating structures has an extremely long history. Bacon, for instance:

God ... doth accomplish and fulfil his divine will [by ways] not immediate and direct, but by compass; not violating Nature, which is his own law upon the creation.

And in Whewell one finds explicit recognition of some of the implications - for example, that discovering purely natural processes for producing phenomena does not entail absence of design, but would involve a shift in the location of agent activity:

We have shown, we trust, that the notion of design and end is transferred by the researches of science, not from the domain of our knowledge to that of our ignorance, but merely from the region of facts to that of laws.

It is worth noting that both of the above quotes predate 1859. Contrary to common myth, this move was not simply and ad hoc attempt at salvaging some bit of design, while in forced retreat from Darwin.

In the absence of primary marks, there are relatively few means by which designedness could be identified. One of the possibilities is agent-initiated communication ....
Nature, Design and Science p.55
So much, in such a short extract. A couple of quick thoughts - I still have much reading to go, and I don't know where he is taking all this yet. This relates more to a deistic designer, rather than a theistic one. However, he is making the philosophical point already that whether or not there is empirical evidence for a designer does not necessarily have a bearing on whether such a designer exists, or is necessary. This is an answer from a philosopher to those people who say, "Show me the evidence".

This understanding of the nature of the universe doesn't logically rule out agent intervention in the universe - it just suggests that there may be no direct evidence of agent intervention in observable and measurable phenomena.

The last sentence is a bit of a teaser. Schaeffer covers similar ground in an essay called "Is propositional revelation nonsense?" - and the Bible makes a similar point, of course. Why would such a designer make himself invisible? Perhaps the nature of the universe is such that people will naturally look for a designer - it looks artifactual - something acknowledged by Dawkins (the word he uses is "designoid"). And if we are looking for a designer, but the evidence from the universe is ambiguous (why should there be so much evil and suffering, for example?) then perhaps we need a clearer self-revelation. Okay then, so let's look for one ....