Design Language and Evolution

Design Language and Evolution

Charles Jones has a post a Power of Suggestion in which he notes the following:

But evolution can’t “allow” things, because it’s unguided. And it can’t make any mistakes, because it makes no decisions. Take note: whenever people try to explain how something happens through evolution, they always resort to the language of design.

Now there are quite a lot of problems with the usage of language that is involved here, one of which is referring to evolution–a process–as an “it[-with-consciousness]” that does or does not do particular things. If we think of evolution as a process, however, without trying to make it into an entity, it’s quite proper to refer to a process “allowing” certain things and excluding others.

While evolution may not be guided, there are things that work and things that don’t. Body forms develop in certain ways, both because those ways work and thus the possessors of the form in question survive, but also because the possible alterations in a form are limited. Perhaps if some different body organizations had survived the Cambrian, we would have a different set of alternatives now.

So evolution can “allow” or “disallow” certain options, provided one is thinking not of the conscious decisions of an acting person, but rather the constraints of a process. Think of a simple filter. Let’s consider a box with a mesh covering the bottom. Gravel and sand is poured into the top, and the filter only allows rocks of a particular size to pass through. It doesn’t make mistakes; what happens simply happens because of the constraints–or lack thereof–in the process.

There are two major ways in which language about evolution gets confused. First, we have a failure to see language in its proper context. The word “allow” has a different sense when used to say, “The mother allowed her son to cross the street alone”, as opposed to saying “the filter allowed the smaller rocks to pass but stopped the larger ones.” The mother may have been mistaken in what she allowed; the filter either works or perhaps some of the wires are broken. But it can’t be mistaken!

The second, however, can be more dangerous. We have evolved language to deal with things in our more immediate environment. For most people, a year is a long time. Long term planners may think in decades. Few think in centuries. But evolution occurs over the course of billions of years. Thus we start with a problem. We have to move to observing the present and inferring things about the past. We see this confusion regularly in discussions of whether evolutionary theory is really science.

But even further, we have to look at natural processes that accomplish results. Now at first, as primitive human beings, we would think of events simply as individual happenings. So language to discuss processes would almost always involve an actor. In fact, when we filled our universe with spirits and gods, they very often fulfilled that need of an actor.

But for a process that simply happens because that’s the way it is, we’re a bit short on words, and we’re often uncomfortable with those that we have invented. Note the insecurity produced by the words “random” or “unguided.”

Yet as a theist who accepts evolutionary theory, I believe that even the unguided processes are not, ultimately, absolutely unguided. They’re just unguided in the sense in which we are used to using the terms. If there is a God who created the laws of the universe, then the processes that are constrained by those laws are ultimately fulfilling his will, even if his will was only that those processes work in that way.

Nonetheless, perhaps we need a language to describe action without conscious intervention. Or, on the other hand, we could just realize that the language of design used in describing unguided or remotely guided processes is metaphorical.

Ultimately, you can see, I don’t believe language makes reality. It just simultaneously makes it possible to discuss something, while also making it a bit confusing. It too evolved with constraints.

3 thoughts on “Design Language and Evolution

  1. Henry,

    First, I’m in total agreement about the limits of language, one of the main problems being that no matter how many words we define, or how specific they are, they are still just coded messages used to describe personal perspectives, that in the best of times can only be mostly understood.

    As for the language in the report I cited, in my thinking the use term “allow” was subordinate to the use of the term “mistake”. As you say, a filter can’t make a mistake, it works, or it’s broken. But the researcher used such a term.

    In the context that you speak of, which I understand as the context of Intelligent Design (“If there is a God who created the laws of the universe…”), the terms are quite at home.

  2. A lot of times what I think happens is we get stuck in the idea of material reductionism which is inconsistent with scientific knowledge.

    By material reductionism I mean that we believe that we can explain things by starting at say subatomic particles, which form atoms which form molecules and compounds which form living beings which form societies and that there is a deterministic description of how we go from one level to the next. In reality though we cannot proceed from the microscopic world to the macroscopic road without giving up deterministic knowledge and resorting to averaging. This is the second law of thermodynamics. It cannot be got at by deterministic methods, it only results from averaging, yet it is an accurate description of reality.

    The interesting thing is that there has to be an imposition by humans that creates an averaging of the deterministic information of the microscopic world in order for the macroscopic world to exist according to the present known laws.

    In regards to evolution then, it is highly likely then, that we cannot deterministically describe how evolution came to act as it came to, but this is not a limitation. It is rather consistent with the behavior and description of our immediate physical world around us. In fact, if you want to go a bit out on a limb, one could argue that evolution results in selection for organisms that average deterministic information because it is advantageous for existence as opposed to one that cannot average information and thereby create no concept of a physical reality upon which an organism could begin to survive and improve.

    An organism that only deals in deterministic information and not the averages would not advance any further than random particle motions with no organization.

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