A Matter of Design
Post of the Month: June 1997
by John Wilkins
hile reading a book on the philosophy of science by physicist/engineer turned philosopher Frederick Suppe - The Semantic Conception of Theories and Scientific Realism, Uni Illinois Press, 1989 - I was struck by this passage:
"Whereas in pure science, modifying the world is not the point of the enterprise but is instead an incidental by-product of basic research, in engineering, modifying the world is the point of the enterprise. To the extent possible, engineering draws upon the results of pure science to design its products; but scientific theories concern how things will behave in nice isolated circumstances, whereas the engineer's job is to build systems that reliably function in routine nonisolated circumstances. The variability and complexity of possible circumstances of nonisolation in which the systems may actually have to operate are such that engineering almost never possesses well-established auxilliary hypotheses which can be used in conjunction with the more basic theories to predict accurately how an engineering device as designed will behave in the range of possible real-world circumstances it will encounter." 282
What I find so intriguing about this is that on reflection it is an excellent argument for God as a designer, and indeed as an engineer in the broad sense of that term. Why?
Well, consider this: The notion of God as a designer is argued by analogy from the activities of human design. According to Suppe (and many others - this was just a well written passage to quote), design operates through a process of trial and error, for the reasons Suppe gives: no simple scientific model (equals: no knowledge of principles) can be used to predict what a designed piece will do. You must build it, try it out, make changes, try them out, and so forth, in as many environments as you expect it will be used.
As we look around at the world, especially that bit of it that shows function and is a candidate for consideration as being designed systems (ie, the living bit), we see much in the way of error, failure, waste and archaic solutions that no longer apply, in amongst the adaptation and fit to the environment. We see evidence of old and no longer useful solutions that haven't been removed yet. We see solutions that are less than optimal, even when clear alternatives that are more optimal are apparent.
If it looks at all designed, life looks like the design of a human engineer: based on more or less good knowledge of principles, but constructed using the available materials and a great amount of trial and error. God is a tinkerer, if he is anything.
Now I'm not sure that those who want to argue in favour of a Paleyan Designer would be happy with this argument, but it should at least raise the question of the limitations of what is to be counted as evidence of design. Darwin's argument did not remove the possibility of a God being responsible for the form and structure of living things, but it did remove the necessity to see that design as perfect, for it isn't, and as taking the most direct route to the goal, for it doesn't.
I think that those in favour of the Design Hypothesis (let's be charitable, and call it a hypothesis) owe an account of what they will count as design, before jumping in and saying that the world shows evidence of it. Sure it does, but is that the sort of engineer you want to believe in?
Article originally posted June 19, 1997
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