intelligent design and the limits of analogy

When we argue that the universe is like a Rolex or an iTouch, in that all its many parts seem to fit together so well, and, further, that its sub-parts like the eye or the hawk or a banyan tree is each so well and carefully made to perform its function, we are making what is called an analogy.

An argument by analogy goes like this: I see an A, and if I pick up that A and throw it, it flies through the air and then lands with a thud. I see another thing that looks mighty like my first A; I reason by analogy that since the first A behaved in manner B, that this second A will do likewise.

Say that A is a stone I find on the ground while hiking along the 10 Freeway in West Covina. And A1 is another stone I find ten yards further on, a stone that looks about the same size and composition as the first. In this case I am justified in believing that if I pick A1 up and throw it, it will fly through the air about like A and land on the ground with a thud. But there are limits to analogical thinking.

First, have you ever strolled through Ikea or an office furniture store and picked up one of the computer monitors you see on the desks? These are mock monitors, lightweight fabrications of plastic with hollow cores. They look veyr much like actual monitors, at least on cursory inspection, but you could throw one of these things easily, whereas monitors, even the flat ones, weigh a few pounds at least. So  in this case superficial physical resemblance is not a good enough test.

The stone A1 could be a sham rock (pun intended) left behind by a film production company shooting a Beano commercial; it looks like a real stone but is a light plastic replica.

Things get even more strained if we go further. Are we secure in assuming that a stone of different chemical makeup, but of the same size and shape, will throw like my original? A pumice stone, or some lava, will be much lighter, and some stones will be much heavier despite a similar appearance.

Also, other kinds of objects that seem about the same size and shape as the stone -- play-do, dried animal feces, small rolls, etc., will also behave very differently when thrown.

The point is that we have to be very careful in assuming that some resemblance between two things means that they bear deeper similarities in cause or outcome.

Applying this to the Rolex/iTouch - world analogy - first, does the universe really resemble an iTouch so much that we can argue that if one requires an intelligent designer, the other must as well?

We note that the universe is a mix of organic and inorganic entities, and the iTouch certainly isn't. We note the sheer size difference, and the difference in longevity. We note that in the universe things come into beiong and pass away, in a way that the iTouch cannot match no matter how often we sync it.

We also note that the iTouch has to be plugged into a power source, whereas the universe seems to have its power source built in. And does it make any sense to say that the universe can 'break' or need a reset? There are deaths and star explosions and implosions and collisions and sunbursts and all manner of huge changes in the universe and as far we can tell it is, or might be, constantly expanding and contracting - properties that the iTouch does not exhibit.

There are sufficient dissimilarities of structure and behavior that we cannot make a clear decision about the likeness of the beings that planned the two. To make sure we would really have to witness an iTouch being planned and put together and then watch a typical universe being planned and put together. If we knew the right people we might get permissions to witness the first series of events but I have no idea whom we would contact to witness the second, and, besides, it all happened a long, long time ago. And, even if we could travel back to that beginning (if there even was one), where would we sit to watch, and how would we know what agency was making all this happen?


But let's put all that aside for the moment. Let's say we can somehow make the iTouch -universe analogy plausible, as we can more easily with the eye and the iTouch.

Now, even if assume that the two are comparable, and we see how the iTouch was created, and apply that to the universe, what we can come up with is this: there is one very focused governing intelligence that has a concept and wants a certain level of execution. What guides him are several interacting factors: availability of materials like screens and micro chips and solid state drives; availability of software programs sufficiently developed to perform the functions he envisions for the device; ability to marry software and hardware in a usable UI; stability and durability in the finished product; ability to bring this product to market at a certain price point; ability to offer support for the product after it ships and sells. There is more but I will leave the description at this simple level.

This guiding intelligence (Steven "God" Jobs) then assembles a huge staff of skilled people who have deep experience in making screens and writing code and developing UIs and doing quality control and so forth. Each set of people do a different task, and managers integrate their efforts.

Let's apply this to the universe. Under this description God is not all-powerful but all-planful. He depends on many other demigods who have a lot of previous experience making universes. So, the universe is not designed by one mind but by thousands, and the ultimate God is remote and depends on the powers of his subordinates.

Furthermore, we are talking about an ideal scenario -- the iTouch is wildly successful and has a simple single purpose that it fulfills brilliantly. But on one hand there have been many technological clunkers (Apple TV, the Newton, copying machines, etc.), and on the other we must under this description assume that this is only the latest in a string of universes.

Under the first condition, when we examine the waste and needless suffering, the deformities of body and spirit, the inherent instability of so many parts of the universe, we might want to suggest that if there is an intelligent designer for this universe than he or they are not very experienced, or they are not terribly bright, or they are tired and phoning it in, or they just don't care. This universe might not be an iTouch at all but a poorly designed Netbook with a way too small keyboard.

Second, if we take the experience and multiple designer ideas seriously we have to say that God has made many other universes and we really have to ask why? Universes are, we hope, not like iTouches - they are not made to be sold to any bozo with $200 to burn? If so, might we, our universe, have been sold to a real jerk who will break it or lose it or otherwise mistreat it?

And what is the point of monotheism? The Trinity comes closer to what we need and Greek or Hindu polytheism are even more adept models. If we want to talk about intelligent design why not talk about a whole raft of intelligent designers? And why not worship all of them?

I could go on - the point is simple. Making analogies between things that appear to maybe have a few features in common might, if we want the analogy to survive, require us to commit ourselves to all sorts of things we would otherwise reject as absurd - polytheism, inept gods, the selling of universes, and so forth.

I will leave you with a final unsettling thought: what if the universe is more like a cauliflower, or a trout, than it is like an iTouch?

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