Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Idea of Design in Nature: Science or Phenomenology? By Jakob Wolf

Another great article being presented at the Metanexus Conference, and published in the current issue of The Global Spiral.

The Idea of Design in Nature: Science or Phenomenology?


When it comes to debating the idea of design in nature I think it is important to note that the situation is very different in the USA and Europe. In the USA the idea has been compromised by creationism. The idea is being identified with creationism and as such it is seen as a religious undermining of sound science; consequently it is almost impossible to be sympathetic to the idea of design in nature in the USA. This is not the situation in Europe where creationism is insignificant. To say that creationism is a threat to science would be quite out of proportion. Natural science enjoys an overwhelming authority. Creationism is not the least a danger to this authority. The danger is rather that science is being converted into a worldview or ontology.

I think it would be a disaster if we abandon the idea of design in nature, leaving it to creationism, just because creationism has corrupted it by turning it into pseudoscience and confusing it with religious, cultural and political agendas. The idea has originally nothing to do with creationism; it is in essence a philosophical idea that we in no way can afford to lose.

It is a big problem that today there seems only to be two categories; science and religion. The idea of design in nature fits into neither of these categories, and therefore we tend to loose it as a valid concept for expressing our experience of nature. That is a huge problem because we cannot be content with the reductive view of nature that natural science offers us. A view of nature based on natural science tells us that nature is nothing but meaningless mechanisms and chance events. Nobody can be satisfied with this view of nature. Were we to take it really seriously our lives would quickly disintegrate. Nobody can live from day to day without experiencing some kind of meaning and purpose in life. And furthermore, how could we ever argue that we have ethical obligations to the creatures of nature? We have no ethical obligations to products of meaningless processes and random events. The experience of meaning and intrinsic value in nature is expressed by the idea of design in nature; therefore we cannot do without it. The idea of design in nature is a classical idea. The philosophical task from time to time is how we categorize it. In the time of Newton—who certainly favoured the idea of design in nature—when there was no difference between science and natural philosophy it was categorized as science. Today when science has become a more well defined project the idea cannot be categorized as science.

The efforts of the so-called intelligent design community in USA over the last 10 to 15 years to rehabilitate the idea of intelligent design in nature have rightly been rejected by the academic world at large, because it is introduced as a scientific theory, which it is not. But the idea is not religion either, because it does not presuppose any specific religious belief. It is an expression of our observations of nature. It is the religious concept of creation that is based on the experience of design in nature, rather than this kind of experience is based on a religious belief in a Creator. The importance of the phenomenological apprehension of design in nature to religion is that it is a “point of contact” (Emil Brunner) for the religious belief in creation.

The apprehension of design in nature represents a third kind of cognitive apprehension that is neither scientific nor religious but phenomenological. You could say it is situated between science and religion. In that respect phenomenology is the modern heir of what was former called natural philosophy.

The apprehension of design in nature is phenomenological

The apprehension of design in nature is essentially phenomenological in character because it stems from our immediate experience of the organism. Or put in another way—on the descriptive level we all agree that we experience design in nature. We describe an organism as a whole, whose parts are organized in such a way as to enable the joint performance of a function no single component could accomplish in isolation, and that description corresponds exactly to the description of artefacts designed by human beings. We see the complex systems of the organisms, and we get a clear impression of design and purpose.
Biochemist Michael Behe illustrates this as follows:

…think of “The Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson in which an exploring team is going through a jungle. The lead explorer is pulled up and left dangling from a tree by a vine wrapped around his foot, and has been skewered by wooden spikes aimed precisely at the position in the air where the vines pulled him. A companion turns to another and confides, “That´s why I never walk in front.” Now every person who sees the cartoon knows immediately that the trap was designed. But how does one know that? How does the audience apprehend that the trap was designed? (Is it a religious conclusion? Probably not.) One can tell that the trap was designed because of the way the parts interact with great specificity to perform a function … Our apprehension of the design of the cilium or intracellular transport rests on the same principles as our apprehension of the jungle trap: the ordering of separate components to achieve an identifiable function that depends sharply on the components. (Behe 2001: 99).

Accordingly nobody who teaches biology can do without references and analogies to artefacts. Proteins are called nano-machines, the muscle-cell is compared to a combustion engine, the amino acid sequences in DNA are compared with human codes and language, the brain is compared with a computer and so on. Any textbook of biology will show numerous analogies to artefacts. Kant (1724-1804) pointed out in The Critique of Judgment that we are only able to get a grip on what organisms are by means of analogies to artefacts. Even Richard Dawkins agrees that subjects of biological research appear to be designed, when he writes in The Blind Watchmaker: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” (Dawkins 1986:6).

The idea of design in nature has it that the presence of intelligence in nature can explain the emergence of such biological phenomena. This claim is in itself phenomenological in character inasmuch as it results from intuitive and spontaneous observation. It appears as though the parts that constitute the organism have been purposively arranged in a way that enables it to perform a given function. The term “purposively” suggests intelligent conscious directedness. From a phenomenological perspective, implicit in the description of something exhibiting design, is the claim that there is an underlying intelligence. The explanation is contained in the description. In one sense, this is merely a further refinement of what is being described and so the explanation itself is also arrived at in a spontaneous way. Logically speaking, it might be said that the move from design to intelligence is an analytical inference. The phenomenological experience of design in nature is not neutral to the question whether design is caused by unintelligent causes like natural laws and chance or by intelligence. The split between description and explanation is a consequence of the natural science perspective.

A phenomenological insight never floats free of conditions. It is a so-called hermeneutic insight and every new such insight is supported by our past observational experience. There are aspects of what we are now presented with, that look immediately familiar. Given some novel X, we acquire a handle on X on the basis of its resemblance to something already known. We identify analogies between the structure informing the novel phenomenon and the structure already conceptualized by us. This analogy enables us to identify it as belonging to such and such a kind, something hitherto inexperienced by us. When we identify a pattern in the organism, it is because the pattern is one we recognize. When the pattern reveals to us that the parts of the organism are arranged in a manner that enables it to fulfil a special function, we are led to describe it as exhibiting “design”. This is because we are already familiar with this pattern from other objects, and already have a word in our vocabulary that picks out such instances in our experience. We are familiar with the pattern from a range of human artefacts: tools, furniture, machines, books, works of art, etc. The parts of a tool are so interrelated as to enable it to perform the function for which it was designed. The same is true of chairs, machines or books, in which the printer’s ink and the symbols are so arranged as to yield a determinate meaning. In all these instances, it is intrinsic to the description of an observable pattern that it is predicated on intelligence. The apprehension of intelligent design in nature is consequently a phenomenological, hermeneutical mode of cognition.

It certainly looks like we find intelligent design in nature. Actually everybody agrees on that point even the most hard core Darwinists, and that is of course the explanation why the idea that we can recognize intelligent design in nature is so old and persisting. Kant thought that it was as old as the reason of man. It is found in Western as well as in non-Western religion and philosophy and science. It is universal. It is very important that we contemplate how spontaneous, involuntary and universal this thought is. It is not a matter of choice.

Is the phenomenological apprehension of design in nature an illusion?

But now the question is of course: Is this apprehension an illusion, a projection? Do we find design in nature, because we have ourselves placed it there, like Oscar Wilde accused the romantic poet William Wordsworth that the sermons he found under the stones had been placed there by himself? Since Darwin´s theory of natural selection a lot of people think it is an illusion, because the Darwinian mechanism explains the evolution of biological systems which appear to be intelligent designed by unintelligent causes such as natural selection and random mutations.

But is it an illusion? Should we not be sceptical about denouncing an apprehension which is so universal and persisting to be an illusion? Maybe modern natural science does not discover intelligent design in nature, because it is not looking for it?

In the course of our traditional western history science has been defined by a restriction. This restriction ensures that only unintelligent causations such as mechanical laws of nature and chance occurrences are valid scientific explanations. The evolution of science has consisted of a slow but steady eradication of any explanations referring to intelligent causation. Science has thus established itself as a project concerned with establishing how far we can apprehend phenomena in nature with the proviso that we only can refer to unintelligent causes.

Science was originally established as a critical response to the mythical-religious understanding of nature. The Danish science historian Olaf Pedersen says that science was established when the Greeks in antiquity developed “a radical new idea that the phenomena in nature do not occur as a result of the free decisions made by the gods, but rather because they are forced to occur by an internal necessity inherent in nature itself, forcing a phenomena to occur when the correct conditions are present.” (Pedersen 1996:16). It is not the free will of the gods that cause phenomena in nature to occur but mechanical necessity.

An unshackling from the mixing of intelligent design theory and science has to a large degree created the science we know today. There are many examples in scientific history of untenable analogies and examples where design theory is supposed to fill the gap in the scientific explanation. One example comes from the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler‘s (1571-1630) answer to the question about which force guides the planets in their ellipse-shaped trajectories around the sun? Smooth circular motions were easy to understand, but would an ellipse-shaped trajectory not require a constant correction in order to be maintained? Who maintained or delivered this force? Kepler answered that angels flew behind the planets and brushed them into place with their wings. Kepler was one of the founding fathers of modern astronomy and physics. Through the course of history the scientific project has been cleansed of elements of religion and intelligent design theory and the project now presents itself in a very pure form.

The one area where science has struggled the most to eliminate intelligent design theories is in biology. In biology intelligent design theory has prevailed the longest. It is not until Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which came as late as 1859, that science finally manage to adopt a theory, which negates any reference to intelligent design. Not surprisingly, Darwin’s theories were met with jubilation throughout the scientific world. With this theory it looks like the scientific project can manage to explain not just physics and inorganic matter, but also biology and organic matter.

The defining breakthrough for the scientific project happens in the 17th and 18th centuries with the foundation of the new physics and astronomy by scientists like Kepler, Kopernikus, Galilei and Newton. Physics are from then on defined as experimental mathematical physics, ruling out any reference to purpose as a cause. This new physics displaces the physics of Aristotle, where purpose as a cause played a major role. The next breakthrough occurs with Darwin who displaces purpose as a cause from the science of biology. This breakthrough is relatively recent and does not have the strength of the breakthrough of the new physics. The theory has even in the 20th century had to be supplemented with random mutations as a cause of development, which makes it very vulnerable.

These factors can be seen as the reason for the substantial sensitivity towards any attack on the Darwinian or neo-Darwinian theories. When intelligent design theorists like Michael Behe and William Dembski want to introduce intelligent causation into science again it creates an outcry. It is perceived as high treason against the scientific project. It is not just the theories that are at stake, but the entire scientific project. This is one of the reasons why debate of the neo-Darwinian theory often becomes so intense and emotive. As late as 1970, Jaques Monod (1910-76) aggressively proclaims, that not until now has man been freed by neodarwinism for millennia of captivity by the animistic illusion. (Monod 1970).

The scientific project is defined as the progress towards the explanation of the phenomena in nature, given the restriction that the explanation may only refer to unintelligent causation. Given this starting point, a theory of intelligent design can only be seen as a hindrance to progress and effectively returning science to the level it had in the middle ages.

As the scientific project is defined in this manner it is hardly surprising that science overlooks the presence of design in nature. Irrespective of the presence or not of design in nature it is beforehand excluded that scientific research will see it. When we are looking for something our search is not unconditional. When looking for some specific item, we fail to see or purposefully overlook other items. If I am looking for gold amongst the stones in the riverbed, my vision is focused on gold and I overlook other rocks, or more correctly I may see other rocks but choose not to notice them. I overlook them on purpose. The scientific project is a research method looking for something specific in nature. In this case the gold is mechanical laws of nature and chance occurrences capable of describing why nature behaves in a given way. In searching for explanations in this manner, many other things are overlooked by necessity. One may come across design in nature but it is purposefully overlooked, as it is not the gold one is searching for.

This description of the scientific project and the scientific methodology is not meant as a criticism. The methodology has incredible strength and as a consequence many extraordinary results have been produced. We have gained insight into nature at level that would have been impossible without the scientific methodology. We have a high degree of insight into the mechanics of nature, which has also proven to be very useful. The findings have been translated into a technology that has changed the world around us. Just as it would be unlikely to find gold unless we were looking for it, it is unlikely we would have discovered the laws of nature unless we looked for them.

Therefore it is very problematic if we conclude from the perspective of natural science that there is no design in nature. If we do so we subscribe to scientism, which claims that the only genuine (in contrast to apparent) knowledge we have is natural science. In scientism the Darwinian theory is elevated from being a provisional scientific theory, a perspective, to be a worldview or an ontology.

But scientism is highly problematic. For one thing scientism is self-refuting, because it is not knowledge from natural science that the only genuine knowledge we have is natural science. And certainly we have other kinds of genuine knowledge than natural science. (Stenmark 2001). We have linguistic knowledge, intentional knowledge, social knowledge, knowledge from the humanities, perceptual knowledge etc. And such knowledge may be very certain knowledge. I think my perceptual, oberservational knowledge that there is a tree outside the window, because I can see it, is very certain; it may even be more certain than some natural science theories. It does not make sense to call this kind of knowledge scientific, because that would mean that we are all scientists, and further that science has existed long before the development of science, its methods and experimental techniques. It is pre-scientific knowledge that everybody just takes for granted. Also Mary Midgley maintains that science cannot stand alone. It presupposes a world far wider that that of science.

Science cannot stand alone. We cannot believe its propositions without first believing in a great
many other startling things, such as the existence of the external world, the reliability of our
senses, memory and informants, and the validity of logic. If we do believe in these things, we
already have a world far wider than that of science. (Midgley 1992:108).

Do the senses deceive us?

But this of course raises the old question; do the senses not deceive us? Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenological philosophers would say no. Merleau-Ponty illustrates his argument with the Müller-Lyer´s figures that in many psychology books are used to exemplify sense illusions.

Merleau-Ponty figures

Some say this proves that the senses deceive us. It looks like the lower line is longer than the upper line, but the lines have the same length if we measure them. This conclusion presupposes however that we look at the figures in a certain perspective. We look at them in a way where we isolate the middle parts of the figures and compare them and measure them. We look at the lines from a certain perspective, namely a quantitative perspective. If we look at the figures as wholes, as the figures present themselves to our senses, we see a figure that seems to stretch out and another figure that looks compressed, and that is not at all an illusion. (Merleau-Ponty 1945).

It is a claim of scientism that the senses deceive us. There is an interesting parallel between the debate around intelligent design in nature and the debate about whether qualia like colors and tones are subjective. Natural science describes colors as electromagnetic waves with specific measurable lengths, and describes the physical and chemical processes in the retina and the brain that enable us to sense colors. This scientific explanation led Galilee (1564-1642) and Descartes (1596-1650) and many others to claim that colors are subjective illusions. It is an illusion that the rose is red. This claim is however not a scientific claim, but a philosophical. You subscribe to scientism and Cartesian dualism, which for decades have been refuted by philosophy.

Does it make any sense to label a universal and involuntary phenomenon as color perception an illusion? It is a somewhat warped thought that all spontaneous realizations by man could be illusionary. It sounds very inexpedient. Why would man have developed such a persistent illusion? How come he has managed so well in this world when all his spontaneous realizations are entirely wrong and illusionary? How could we have been able to compete if our senses were wrong? A Darwinist will obviously see the illusion as having a purpose for survival. From there the discussion can not move on. Nobody can in the final analysis determine whether all knowledge is actually an illusion.

Phenomenological philosophy would say we are dealing with two kinds of perspectives. In the natural science perspective we are looking for the quantifiable aspects of the color, while we in sense perception see the quality. The quality is not more subjective or illusionary than the quantity. The relationship between the two perspectives is that the perceptual knowledge has ontological precedence. The natural science perspective is reductive in the sense that we overlook the quality of the object, when we only look for the quantifiable aspects of it.

The parallel between this and the debate about design in nature is that the perceptual phenomenological knowledge that there is design in nature, and the natural science hypothesis that there is no design in nature are different perspectives, and the natural science perspective is reductive in the sense that it overlooks our primary phenomenological knowledge of design in nature.

A similar parallel can also be drawn between the realization of design in nature and the phenomenon of meaning. We assign value and importance to our own life, the life of others as well as of nature. We cannot live without the world around us having some meaning. If we were to consider the world around us a meaningless coincidence our lives would fall apart, our emotions wither away. We would loose the purpose of doing anything. Language would disintegrate, because using language is a way of assigning meaning and value to the world around us.

John Avis and William Provine have said, “The consequence of our modern understanding of evolution is the non-existence of an ultimate meaning of life”. Steven Weinberg joins them by accepting that, “the more we understand about the universe, the more it appears meaningless and without purpose.” (Smith 2000: 51).

It is impossible to seriously accept the scientific perception of the world that the universe and nature is not the expression of anything, it is just the result of unconscious random mechanical events. Scientists who postulate this could not possibly take these conclusions seriously as they assign meaning, value and purpose to their own search into which they put so much passion and energy.

The consequence of science becoming ontology is described in art from the 20th century. Existence is perceived as absurd. Albert Camus has given an intense description of the emotions of absurdism in the novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) (Camus 1942). The main character’s life disintegrates into absurd random events culminating when he in a random distraction becomes involved in a murder and is sentenced to death. The literary production of Camus is a convincing expression of the consequences, should scientific theories determine the way we perceive life and become our spiritual universe. The consequence is absurdism.

When it is us who assign values to the world could it then not be that meaning is nothing but a projection and nothing more than a necessary deceit? It is true, that we are the ones that assign value to the world around us, but that does not justify a conclusion that the world has no value and our assignment of such is no more than an illusionary projection. It is quite possible that our assignment of value might correspond to something quite objective. An argument for this is the involuntary nature of assigning value to the world. We can not ourselves choose. Life may loose its meaning for us, we may choose to commit suicide, but we can only experience this as something sad and meaningless and in doing so we reveal that we do assume there are values in everything. If there were not, it would not be a sad or bitter experience when people’s lives fall apart.

It is impossible that natural science can come across the phenomenon of meaning. This does not imply that it does not exist in nature like a “tertiary” quality. This cannot be determined by science. The universe is seen by natural science as fortuitous matter, as a “disqualified” universe.

The phenomena of colors, design and meaning are examples of fundamental phenomena we cannot get behind or bypass. They constitute our existence. We do not produce them; we are embedded in them. In the clashes between these phenomena and scientific explanation, we cannot choose freely what to consider primary or secondary. Our very existence has already chosen for us and dictated that these phenomena are primary and the scientific description is the expression of a secondary reduction.

Can phenomenological apprehension be falsified by natural science?

But still, is it not possible that natural science can falsify our phenomenological apprehension of design in nature? Yes it is. If we can prove that the Darwinian theory is true, we must conclude, there is no intelligent design in nature. But can we prove that? The fact that an evolution from one-celled organisms to human beings has taken place is very well founded. Evolution is a fact. Micro-evolution is also proven, but there are still huge difficulties in explaining macroevolution by the natural selection working on random mutations alone. The Darwinian explanation of evolution is not a fact. It is a working hypothesis, and it is far form being proved. When judging if the Darwinian explanation is satisfactory from a scientific point of view, one has to keep in mind that it is a spectacularly ambitious theory. It claims to provide the explanation for the entire development from amoebae to man including everything that belongs to man like emotions, consciousness, ability to think etc. If the Darwinian theory cannot explain the emergence of the human brain and mental life it has not been proven. There are many uncertainties, assumptions and speculations in the Darwinian explanation. And it meets criticism not only from creationists, but also from well established scientists. One of the great physicists of the 20th century, Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), thought it was impossible that consciousness could evolve from unconscious matter and unconscious mechanisms. The evolution of consciousness indicates that a conscious intelligence is involved in the evolution (Schrödinger 1957). In the light of the second thermodynamic law which states that any voluntary process in nature runs from a more orderly state to a less orderly state, another great physicist of the 20th century, Niels Bohr (1885-1962), found it unlikely that the Darwinian mechanism could explain the development from a very low degree of order to dizzy height of complexity found in biological systems. Bohr was of the opinion that the mechanical explanation had to be supplemented by a “vitalistic” explanation (Bohr 1962).

Is it really possible for the simple Darwinian mechanism to explain the difference between the cold, lifeless barren surface of Mars and the multitude of life forms on earth? We have to imagine that the surface of the Earth 4 billion years ago looked like the surface of Mars as it appears today. Is it really possible that the Darwinian mechanism can explain the transformation from a universe rather lacking information, to the unbelievably complex molecular language of DNA with its richness of information?

It is not difficult to get the spontaneous thought that it is naïve to have the opinion that a simple mechanism like natural selection working on a random variation can explain the gigantic mystery associated with the development of life. It almost surpasses the mystery that there is anything at all and not just nothingness.

All in all it is not unfair to say that the Darwinian theory has not been proven. Biochemist Franklin Harold concludes in his analysis of Behe’s assertion: “We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of Intelligent Design for the dialogue of chance and necessity (Behe 1996), but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculation.” (Harold 2001: 205). It is an exaggeration to say that the Darwinian theory is not a theory but a fact. You may say that the Darwinian theory is presently the best scientific explanation we have, but still the Darwinian theory is some facts and a lot of wishful speculation.

No doubt many will agree that many phenomena of nature have not yet been explained by the Darwinian theory, but they will add: they will be some day in the future. This cannot be denied, but again, such an argument about the future is not a scientific argument, it is an expression of scientism. Nobody knows the future. As Richard Dawkins himself writes: “We must acknowledge the possibility that new facts may come to light which will force our successors of the twenty-first century to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition.” (Dawkins 2003: 81). It is a belief, even an eschatological belief, that natural science someday will explain everything. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” as Paul expresses the eschatological belief in his first letter to the Corinthinans.(1.Cor.13).

Digression to Kant and Goethe

Kant deals with the problem of design in nature in The Critique of Judgment. Here Kant agrees with modern design criticism of Darwinism that organisms cannot be explained by non-intentional causes alone.

It is absurd for men…to hope that another Newton may some day arise, to make intelligible to us even the genesis of but a blade of grass from natural laws that no design has ordered. Such insight we must absolutely deny to mankind. (Kant 1790: 54).

Kant’s main argument is that the kind of causality, which you find in an organism, where the parts and the whole are reciprocally the cause of each other—causality operating in both directions at one and the same time—is of a different kind from non-intentional causality, where the causality only has one direction with cause and effect following each other progressively. Kant calls the organism self-organizing, which corresponds to the description of organisms as being designed.

The physical-mechanical link of causality is unidirectional. The effect of a cause can not at the same time be the cause of that cause of which it is an effect. An usual analogy is that of two billiard balls hitting each other. One ball is the cause that makes the other ball move. Cause and effect follow each other, but it is possible to imagine that an effect can become a cause for an event that caused it. This happens in a cause-effect chain in the shape of a ring. It is possible to imagine 7 billiard balls hitting each other in such a refined manner that the last billiard ball will in the end hit the first. Even in this case though, the effect follows the cause. What gives the physical-mechanical link of causality its unidirectional quality is the succession of time. Time is linear, it is unidirectional and irreversible. The shape of this type of causality is cause –> effect –> cause –> effect. The mechanical causality is unintelligent; we are dealing with a release of mechanical forces that do not require any type of intelligent guidance.

This type of explanation is unable to account for a phenomenon where cause and effect moves in both directions simultaneously. The cause is in the very same instant the effect of the very effect it is the cause of. This type of causal connection is at play in a self-organizing organism. Here the parts are the cause both of each other and the total entity and the total entity is the cause of the parts. The form of this causality is cause <—> effect.

Kant has in this seen an argument that negates a physical-mechanical causal explanation of the organisms in nature. It is valid in physics, but not adequate in the explanation of biological phenomena. The organism is a boundary for the scientific explanation. We get a clear sensation of this boundary, when we try to imagine a causality that moves in both directions at the very same time. Try that out and you will sense the collapse of the very thought.

Kant thought we are limited in our understanding to the concept of linear succession. He believed that human cognition was restricted to “discursive judgment” (logical, serial thought). We understand a whole by the effects of the parts. But when it comes to an organism, the whole precedes the parts in the way that the parts are an effect of the whole. If we recognize something by proceeding from the whole to the parts, we have to do this by means of another faculty than the discursive judgment; we have to recognize by intuitive intellect. Kant called this ”intellectus archetypus”, and thought only a divine being possessed such a faculty. The whole is not a thing, a super-thing, but an intelligence which works in the organism. Only an intuitive intelligence can perceive this intelligence. It is invisible and out of reach to the discursive judgment, which is used in natural science.

If you try to explain with discursive judgment what cannot be explained by this faculty, your explanations will be unreliable speculative. Ernst Haeckel´s claim, that Darwin was the “Newton of the organic world” was an arrogant exaggeration. (Haeckel 1900: 260).

The kind of causality we find in the organism is familiar to us from ordinary life. Kant mentions the example of a house being built for the sake of the revenue the landlord will be able to get in rent, the rent is the cause of the house, but at the same time the house is the cause of the rent. Therefore the self-organizing system can be understood by an analogy with human artefacts.

Kant’s analysis strikes the problem that human reason does not have concepts at its disposal, which are adequate to the task of explaining the self-organizing organism. Our minds command two kinds of concepts. One kind is able to explain unintelligent objects and processes while the other is able to explain the actions and products of human beings. Confronted with organisms that are self-organizing systems, we are dealing with objects and processes, which cannot be explained by reference to unintelligent or to human causes. We are bereft of the concepts we need for the job. What do we do? We do not just abandon the enterprise. The organism presents itself as in intelligent item. We have to recourse to concepts, which are not intended to provide the delivery of an understanding of the organism, but are intended for other purposes. We have to recource to the concept of teleology, primarily applied to human actions and products. This concept is not adequate for the purpose and we use it by way of analogy.

Does that mean that an analogical understanding is nothing more than a form of projection in which we put a human element into nature that does not belong there? I think Kant is unclear on this point and no consensus can be found amongst Kant researchers. Kant refers to the understanding of the organism as reflective. By this term he means that the relationship between the concept and what it explains is indirect. There is a gap between the concept and that which it is intended to capture. This gap invites reflection. Consequently, Kant says, when we apply the notion of teleology to the organism, it is merely a mode of reflection on the organism. Nature in itself—Ding an sich, as Kant calls it—is non-cognizable. He does not say that only an intelligent cause is able to explain the organism. He says that when we reflect on the organism, we can only conceive of it as something created by an intelligent agent. It sounds as if in this reflection we are only able to cognize what we ourselves read into nature. It is a problem in Kant’s philosophy that he dichotomizes thinking and reality.

There is reason to mention that it is obvious to compare the reflective understanding with artistic expression. The artistic understanding consists also of an attempt to realize and express the unfathomable with pictures, symbols and metaphors. Pictures and metaphors function as analogies, this word used in it´s widest meaning. This is the reason why Kant deals with the subjects of biology and aesthetics in the same book, Critique of Judgment, something that has been puzzling to many.

One could say that Kant struggles to define the teleological or analogical mode of cognition. It is neither scientific, nor artistic but in between. It does not belong in Critique of Pure Reason which deals with the scientific cognition neither does it belong in Critique of Practical Reason that deals with ethics. It is an independent method of cognition, ”Critique of the Teleological Judgment”, which is placed together with “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment”. Kant has an understanding that the analogue recognition stands alone as a unique recognition in its own right, but does not reach complete clarity when it comes to the status of the analogical recognition in the wider theory of epistemology.

This clarity does not eventuate until the emergence of the phenomenological philosophy of the 20th century. It was a problem for Kant, that no commonly recognized term was available for this type of cognition and it remains a problem even today in spite of the contribution made by the phenomenological philosophy.

The accurate analysis by Kant is mainly to be seen as a defense of the analogical understanding as he claims, that the analogical understanding is not arbitrary. We cannot choose if we want to perceive the complex organism as intelligently designed or not. The recognition is involuntary and inevitable and we cannot avoid this type of recognition. This is a fundamental part of his analysis. One can doubt his analysis of our ability to recognize certain things. How can he be so sure, that we do not have the ability to conceive the totality of an organic entity? One does not however have to agree with the detail in Kant’s analysis in order to agree with him that there is something inadequate in our recognition of the complex organism. We must have reservations about this mode of cognition; it is only analogical and thus interpretive.

J.W. Goethe (1749-1832) dissented from Kant’s view, finding his scepticism exaggerated. Goethe does not claim that we have completely adequate concepts at our disposal with which to cognize living nature, but he does claim that when we use analogical reasoning in a precise and disciplined way, we experience an encounter with nature itself. Goethe developed an epistemology of nature that is based on analogical reasoning. (Seamon and Zajonc 1998). There is no reason to be sceptical about our unavoidable recognition of a manifestation of a creative power, when we recognize self-organizing organisms as such. “We make ourselves worthy of intellectual participation in the works of nature through the perception (Anschauung) of ever-creative nature.” (Goethe 1815). Goethe called this reflective understanding ”anschauende Urteilskraft” (perceptive judgment), a human intellectus archetypus. The expression indicates, that Goethe did not limit the status of cognition by analogy to that of a mere reflection. The gap between the human cognitive powers and nature is bridged by analogy, when analogy is justly applied. This type of perceptive understanding, ”anschauende Urteilskraft”, is the human cognitive power that is the correlate of self-organizing organisms. It is open to the creative intelligence in nature, ”Gott-Natur”. Goethe did not naively believe that we have direct epistemic access to the creative intelligence, only that we are capable of recognizing a manifestation of it in nature. Underlying this disagreement between Kant and Goethe is a disagreement about the epistemological status of sense perception. Kant saw sense perception as projective while Goethe saw it as openness.

What is the relationship between phenomenology and natural science?

As long as it is not falsified, there is no reason why we should accept that our perceptual, phenomenological knowledge is an illusion. Why should we betray our senses and immediate experience of nature? The reason why we so readily betray our senses is that scientism has become such a strong ideology; and ideologies make blind.

The burden of proof is on the side of natural science. As the phenomenological recognition is spontaneous and universal, proof is not required to prove it is true, but proof is required to show it is false. The burden of proof rests with the person claiming it is an illusion. Dembski is right on this point.

If a creature looks like a dog, smells like a dog, barks like a dog, feels like a dog and pants like a dog, the burden of evidence lies with the person who insists the creature isn’t a dog. The same goes for incredibly intricate machines like the bacterial flagellum: the burden of evidence is on those who want to deny its design. (Dembski 2004: 222).

If the Darwinian explanation of for example the bacterial flagellum is unpersuasive, there is no reason to believe that the phenomenological description and analogical inference are unreliable epistemic guides. The phenomenological insight has, as it were, the right of primogeniture. Of course, spontaneous, intuitive, analogical insights can turn out to be false. If we claim a bat is a bird, because it looks like a bird, or a whale is a fish, because it looks like a fish, it is a false intuitive analogy. But since it is true of any kind of cognitive claim, including natural science, that it can be false, it does not amount to a decisive argument for maintaining that whatever is grasped through phenomenological analogical cognition is false. Any argument to that effect would be metaphysical, not scientific, in character. If scientific findings show a particular phenomenological apprehension to be spurious, its claims to validity will have been undermined, but if this is not the case, there is no reason not to have confidence in it. Natural science thus affords a test to a certain degree of the validity of phenomenological insights.

This defence of the phenomenological cognition has nothing to do with the argument from ignorance. Phenomenological cognition does not build on scientific ignorance or gaps. It is cognition that builds on another kind of cognition than natural science. Also, a stereotypical argument from ignorance like: “Ghosts and Goblins exist because you have not shown me that they do not exist”, is not relevant in this case. Ghosts and goblins are the fictions of subjective imaginings, while the phenomenological apprehension of the structure of the organism is an objective description.

But does this mean that phenomenological recognition falsifies natural science? No, the phenomenological knowledge should not be a science-stopper. We do not know how far the natural science hypothesis, that there is no design in nature, will take us. Therefore we should not say it is false. Rather we should say it is a working hypothesis, but a hypothesis that has been very fruitful. We should not give it up but keep on examining nature from that perspective. It has taken us far, and nobody knows how far it will take us. In this sense both perspectives are right, but the phenomenological perspective has ontological precedence.

The reason why one cannot in the same manner state that the phenomenological apprehension depends on a reduction is the fact that it is possible to state, that the phenomenological apprehension is the truth about nature and the scientific cognition depends on a methodological reduction, but it is not possible to state that the scientific cognition is the truth about nature and the phenomenological apprehension depends on a reduction. It is possible to reduce a something to something less, but is makes no sense to try to reduce something to a higher entity. It is possible to choose to overlook something that is present, but if one chooses to see something that is not there it is an illusion. I can choose to overlook the other rocks and only see the gold, but if only gold is present I cannot choose to overlook it and see other rocks. If I see rocks where no rocks are, I am hallucinating.

Could it not be that the phenomenological apprehension also is the result of a reduction? That depends on what is understood by the term “reduction”. It is necessary to distinguish between “condition” and “reduction”. The phenomenological apprehension is not unconditional understanding of nature just the way it is. It is reduced in the sense that it is contingent upon conditions. When we state that the scientific cognition is reduced we really say that it is reduced both in regard to the conditions but also reduced in its relationship to the phenomenological apprehension. The relationship between science and phenomenology is that the knowledge claims are not at the same level. The phenomenological apprehension is primary and the scientific cognition is secondary.

As an alternative one could of course choose a truly post-modernistic position and claim that there is no “truth” to be expressed about nature, only different perspectives.

I consider however perspectivism a type of short-circuit of the theory of epistemology. What is true regarding perspectivism is that no human knowledge is absolute but contingent upon certain premises. Accordingly, we have no absolute knowledge of the truth relating to nature, but this does not preclude its existence. I am convinced that any search for knowledge is carried by the conviction that a truth does exist, and our search is to approach this truth as best we are capable. Not all knowledge is equally valid. An acknowledgement does not become relative because it is conditional. Human knowledge is not relative but incomplete. If one really believes that all cognition is relative, then all effort to realize and understand and search for the truth would cease. The fact that different individuals have different claims of the truth does not show that truth is relative, but that one is serious about ones understanding and believe it is the truth until someone can convince you otherwise. It is possible to be convinced that one has found the truth and yet maintain an open mind towards the possibility, that it is possible that ones opponent has found the truth. True debate can only occur when both parties believe they have realized what the truth is. If one does not believe to have realized what the truth is, it is not possible to be convinced of a different understanding. If one does not believe that both parties may have realized what the truth is, there is nothing to debate and all search for the truth ceases.

What is the relationship between the phenomenological knowledge claims and religious claims?

As already mentioned, there is no objective relationship between the phenomenological recognition and creationism, but there can be a relationship between the phenomenological recognition and a general religious perception of the universe and nature as being created and maintained by a transcendent power. The religious perception comes from an interpretation of what or whom the intelligence we observe in nature is an expression of. The idea of design in nature is an economic theory. All it is saying is that we can observe intelligence in nature that resembles human intelligence. From a phenomenological point of view we can say no more. The religious interpretation is a further interpretation. It goes beyond the phenomenological interpretation and consists of a specification of what or who the intelligence is. While one can claim the predicate “intelligent” by necessity belongs to the concept “design”, it is not possible to state that the predicate “transcendent creator” is part of the concept “intelligent design”. From a logical point of view the religious interpretation consists of a synthetic and not an analytical inference.

The phenomenological apprehension of design in nature does not prove creation; it is only a “point of contact” for the religious belief in creation. The design and teleology phenomena have traditionally, and to a large degree, been used for construction of proof of the existence of God. Such proofs are described as physico-teleological or teleological. Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, Paley and others promulgate these types of proofs. A proof like a mathematical deduction is cogent, but an interpretation is not. An interpretation does not reach a cogent conclusion by necessity but is “just” an interpretation. It is possible to omit such interpretation and just remain at the point that we recognize intelligence in nature, but it is not possible to omit the conclusion of 2+2=4. Interpretations contain a personal existential element without rendering them arbitrary.

The question of the source of the embodied intelligence is open to interpretation. Pantheism, panentheism, stoicism, neo-Platonism, deism and theism are all examples of such interpretations. The Nobel price winner Francis H.C. Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, even promoted the view that aliens were the source of the intelligence. That does not however imply that interpretations are subjectively arbitrary. Just because there is a subjective element, does not automatically render the interpretation arbitrary. The interpretation can be the subject of debate and not all interpretations carry the same weight.

A common objection against the religious interpretation is that if a divine designer stood behind the creation of nature, it would not contain such obvious flaws. Usually critics refer to diseases, suffering and inexpedient events in nature. The existence of dysteleology and evil is however not an argument against the creation of the world by a transcendent intelligent designer. It is an argument against the assumption that the designer always must create optimal design and has to be unambiguously good. The problem relating to the question about divinity being unambiguously good is traditionally called the theodicy problem, and it raises the question about the relationship between the general religious assumption that the world has been created by a transcendent power and the specific religions.

I believe this question can be answered with the help of Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) distinction between the hidden and the revealed God (“Deus absconditus” and “Deus revelatus”). The general religious interpretation is the expression of the realization of a hidden God. The deity is hidden, in as far as we do not know anything else about it, other than it exists and creates design. We know nothing about its nature or intentions. Were we to know more about this deity, it would have to reveal itself in a different manner, than just being manifest in design in nature. The deity would have to reveal itself. The hidden God is the creator known by everyone through the interpretation of phenomenological observations. The fact God is hidden does not mean God cannot be known. We can recognize the existence of God, but not who he, she or it is, or the will of the deity. The revealed God is however only known by the believers. God does only reveal his presence and intent to those who believe. Christianity, e.g., claims that God reveals himself in a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Through his words and deeds God and his intentions have been revealed and they show his nature as being one of love, kindness and compassion. This revelation presupposes belief in a specific sense. There is no phenomenological observation that can confirm that a human can be God and speak on behalf of God. The revealed God presupposes a specific belief, whereas the hidden God does not. The hidden God is a pre-Christian God. We have no way of knowing if the hidden God is Allah or the Father of Jesus Christ or something entirely different. The hidden God is neither a Christian God nor a non-Christian God. Different religions make different claims about the nature of the hidden God.

My opinion is that the concept of the hidden God is very precise in this context. Amongst other things, it contains the answer to the objections against intelligent causation, based on the observation that nature contains not just intelligence and teleology, but also dysteleology and pointlessness, waste of lives, disease, disability and random destruction. This is empirical fact, as well as the presence of design. Against these objections, one has to say that the intent of the intelligent cause has been hidden for us. We cannot from phenomenological recognition find out whether the creating God is good or evil, destructive or affirming of life. We cannot by looking at nature and history conclude that God is good. That God should be good, compassionate and affirming of life is a decision based on a specific faith alone.

How does design in nature link up with ethics?

One could ask the question does it really matter whether plants and animals are the expression of deliberate intelligence or not? Is this not an unimportant discussion that could only interest people absorbed in theoretical considerations? This is not so. The debate about whether there is an expression of conscious intelligence in the evolution of nature or whether it is an expression of unconscious laws of nature and random events is not just a theoretical discussion. It is a theoretical discussion with practical ethical consequences. Our theories about nature are critically important for the way in which we look at nature. The fundamental meaning of the Greek word ‘theoria’ actually has to do with seeing. Different theories greatly influence the way in which we look at the creatures in nature to which man also belongs. If we see the creatures of nature as an expression of conscious intelligence it is possible they have an intrinsic value. If we see them as a result of unconscious processes and random events it is impossible they have an intrinsic value.

This can be illustrated with an analogy to a work of art. A painting by, e.g., the Russian painter Kandinsky is considered valuable. It has an effectual market value of millions of dollars, but it has also got an artistic value, which renders it irreplaceable. If the picture was lost, we would consider it the loss of something irreplaceable. One takes good care of an artwork like that. It is kept in a museum with carefully controlled humidity and temperature. If we one day felt cold, took the picture and burned it in the fireplace, it would be considered a horrendous act. If we were however told, that the picture was not made by Kandinsky, but by a three year old child who randomly had made some lines on the canvas and thrown some paint at it, then the picture would instantly loose its value and no one, except perhaps the child’s parents, would be offended if it was used as firewood.

The analogy between the work of art and nature’s creatures is, that just like we experience the work of art as a wonderful unified whole where lines shapes and colors have been put together, we will experience plants and animals and human beings as representing something unified and whole. Parts have been united in a fascinating intelligent way in the organism. Note that I do not say nature is a work of art, I only say that it is possible to see as an analogy to art. This analogy is not built on a projection, but on similar structures of a work of art and an object of nature.

I believe that this analogy is the reason why nature is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists. I think for instance of William Blake's poem about the Tiger:

Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright
in the forests of the night
what immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry.

It is part of our phenomenological experience of nature, that we have the ability to experience it as an analogy to works of art, thereby acknowledging that creatures of nature have a value in their own right. We believe it is outrageous to damage nature unless there is a valid reason. To use a commonplace example, nobody would agree that it would be all right to eradicate all whales in order to turn them into margarine.

When Shakespeare writes: "as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport" (King Lear IV I, 38-39) then it is meant as an indictment against the gods. Neither boys nor gods should kill just for fun. We find it appalling when boys just for fun torture frogs or rip the wings or legs off flies or butterflies. If we kill a living being we need to have good justification. We kill plants and animals to use them as food or for our own protection. We also kill humans to protect ourselves against violations in war or for self-protection. This does not indicate our permission to kill or treat living beings anyway we like; the critical issue is our need to give good justifications as to why we have to kill.

The Darwinian theory will claim that all these experiences are nothing but illusions. Nature—its plants, animals, and human beings—is not an expression of anything at all. It is just an expression of chance and unconscious processes. When we experience nature as an analogy to a work of art and as something with an intrinsic value it is nothing but an illusion. Nature is a phony work of art. There is no reason why we should not treat nature and the living organisms as we treat phony works of art.

The fundamental connection between theory and ethics is that the different ways in which we experience things, determine the way we treat them. If we think of old people as having no value, a common perception in the western part of the world, then we treat them poorly with lack of respect and we shove them into appalling nursing homes. They are treated like human garbage. If however we experience the aging population as something important, as they did in pre-communist China, then we treat them well and with exquisite respect. They are treated like revered citizens. As we see things, we treat them. Theories are never ethically indifferent. They have practical consequences. At times they can be outrageous like in Nazi Germany where Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and retarded individuals were treated as having no value at all as the Nazi ideology saw their lives as to be unworthy of life. If we experience things in nature as the result of chance and unconscious processes, then we treat them as having no intrinsic value. Why should we not? It would be ridiculous to store random paintings by three-year-old children in high tech art museums, and in the same vein it would be ridiculous to take care of plants and animals created by random events lacking of any conscious involvement. If we however see nature as an expression of consciousness, we will treat it as having intrinsic value. The demand for respect will then come from the creatures in nature themselves.

The consequence of the Darwinist theory is that it becomes impossible to justify an ethical view in relation to nature. It is possible to argue against destruction of our nature because it may hurt our ability to survive. This argument for protection of nature is however far from adequate. There are lots of species that can be destroyed without affecting our ability to survive. We do not need whales and elephants to survive. If the scientific perspective is elevated to ontology then it is illusory that we could have ethical views relating to the creatures of nature. If the recognition of intelligent design in nature is an illusion then similarly ethics become an illusion. Ethics will be an illusion just like meaning and the qualities color, sound and smell.

The only thing that can justify that we should have an ethical view of nature is our experience of it as an expression of consciousness. It is only by accepting that plants, animals, and human beings in nature have an intrinsic value, that we can give genuine reasons for treating them ethically. To consider something in an ethical sense is to treat it as having intrinsic purpose and not just being a means to our ends. As has been shown this can be justified with the phenomenological recognition of intelligent design in nature.

When I state it is impossible on the basis of the Darwinist theory to justify an ethical relationship to the plants, animals, and human beings in nature, it does of course not mean that everyone who subscribes to the Darwinist theory is treating nature in an unethical way. On the contrary, many Darwinist biologists are engaged in the protection of nature. The only thing I am saying is that they cannot justify their ethics by referring to the Darwinian theory. If they have to explain the origin of their ethical stand they have to do so by other means than the Darwinian theory.

A critique of the concept of “theistic evolution”

A lot of effort has gone into the modern science-religion debate trying to unite science and religion by letting religion supplement science. Attempts are made to unite the Darwinian theory with the religious assertion that the world has been created by a transcendent creative force by claiming that God delivers the ultimate underpinning for the truth of Darwinian theory. Religion goes “deeper than Darwin.” (Haught 2003). This position is referred to as "theistic evolution".

If the religious interpretation is seen only as such a supplement to natural science, trapped in the natural science perspective, we get a much reduced concept of God and of nature. According to theistic evolution God started the world, but then left it to the Darwinian mechanism. This leaves us with a deistic God and an unconscious, brain-dead nature. Religion is reduced to a speculative appendix to science, legitimizing the elevation of natural science to ontology. Without the phenomenological recognition the religious interpretation that God did not only start the world he also maintains it, creation is a creatio continua, has no basis in our experience of the world. The phenomenological recognition is a “point of contact” for the belief in creation.

Some try to avoid the deistic consequence by letting chance events in the Darwinian theory and uncertainties in quantum mechanics be channels through which God can act in the world. (e.g. Arthur Peacocke, Ian Barbour, Jürgen Moltmann). I think this solution is impossible; it is a contradiction in terms. You cannot at one and the same say that something is a chance event, which is an impersonal concept, and that it is the will of God, which is a personal concept. One excludes the other. Science describes the universe in nature as a result of unconscious, impersonal processes. Religion describes the universe and nature as a result of a consciousness, a divine mind. Science and religion are therefore opposites and cannot be united just by supplementing the scientific description with a religious one. What is needed is a “third” between the two; and that is the phenomenological mode of cognition.


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