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Kant on Intelligent Design (3): Mechanism versus God

BlindWatchmaker Near the end of Kant's Critique of Judgement, he wrestles with the question of whether or not “all production of material things is possible according to merely mechanical laws.” This explores whether it is necessary to invoke something more than mechanism (not necessarily God, but something more) in the explanation of how everything in the world came to be the way that it is.

He draws upon his distinction between reflective judgement (i.e. aesthetic taste) and determinant judgement (i.e. empirical knowledge) to show that this question comes out differently according to one's focus. From the point of view of aesthetics, he acknowledges that it is “a quite correct fundamental proposition” that “there must be thought a causality distinct from that of mechanism”, namely “an (intelligent) cause of the world acting in accordance with purposes”. But this is solely from the perspective of the reflective judgement, and therefore from the viewpoint of the arts.

From the perspective of the empirical knowledge, however, Kant states that “this would be a hasty and unprovable proposition.” Whatever our aesthetic sensibilities suggest, “we by no means undertake to concede reality” to something that is at root “a mere Idea”. Whatever our instincts in this regard, the interpretation of the origins of the world is “always open to all mechanical grounds of explanation”, and to follow where our sense of aesthetics leads would be to withdraw “beyond the realm of Sense into the transcendent” and possibly to be “led into error”.

Kant explores all the major perspectives on this issue that are available at his time, and rejects them all. He grants to theism (the last interpretation he considers) one small concession, namely that “ it certainly is superior to all other grounds of explanation” in so much as “rescues in the best way the purposiveness of nature” from intellectual irrelevance by introducing “a causality acting with design for its production.” His thrust, here, is to grant that at least the theists offer some possible explanation for the appearance of purpose in nature, which no-one else at his time was really able to address.

But this, he insists, isn't enough for the theistic interpretation to win out. In order for it to do so, it would be necessarily to “prove satisfactorily... the impossibility of the unity of purpose in matter resulting from its mere mechanism”. The idea of God as the origin of purpose in nature – the theistic instantiation of the claim of intelligent design – is not empirically valid in and of itself, and “can justify absolutely no objective assertion.” Once again, Kant says our aesthetic sense may accord with the idea of an intelligent designer, but we cannot validate this impression objectively. Nonetheless, he admits once again that we are “indispensably obliged to ascribe the concept of design to nature if we wish to investigate it.” As observed last week, we simply cannot think about organisms viably without recourse to the concept of design, even if we reject the idea of a designer as the explanation behind this.

Yet despite Kant's denial of intelligent design as empirically valid (i.e. as relevant for science), he falls considerably short of shooting down intelligent design as a belief. In fact, he suggests that the presence of natural purposes (i.e. organisms) represents “the only valid ground of proof for [the] dependence on and origin from a Being existing outside the world”, a being who once inferred must also be intelligent, else such a being does not contribute to an explanation of the apparent presence of purpose in nature. He ultimately concludes that “Teleology then finds the consummation of its investigations only in Theology.” Which is to say that Kant does not want to allow any role for the provision of ultimate purposes in science at all, and considers this a more suitable subject for theologians than in empirical research.

Kant reiterates this point by comparing the premature claim one might wish to make with all that one can reasonably assert in this regard:

If we expressed this proposition dogmatically as objectively valid, it would be: “There is a God.” But for us men there is only permissible the limited formula: “We cannot otherwise think and make comprehensible the purposiveness which must lie at the bottom of our cognition of the internal possibility of many natural things, than by representing it and the world in general as a product of an intelligent cause, [a God].”

So Kant says in effect that we must think in terms of a designer (because we can think of organisms in no other way), but this doesn't mean that there must be one objectively. This tallies nicely with our modern perspective on evolution, which continues to think of organisms as being designed, often subconsciously, but does not permit any de facto claim for the objective existence of a designer i.e. a necessary Creator god. Evolutionary thinking posits the designer in question as natural selection and related mechanisms – but interestingly, following Kant's reasoning, we should still question this deployment of an abstract idea – “Evolution” – in the role of designer. We can easily be mislead by the lure of teleology into unwarranted conclusions.

He states:

For since we do not, properly speaking, observe the purposes in nature as designed, but only in our reflection upon its products think this concept as a guiding thread for our Judgement, they are not given to us through the object.

And this criticism applies to evolutionary beliefs as much as it applies to intelligent design! The sum of our empirical knowledge of natural selection does not in and of itself validate claims of the form that such-and-such a feature evolved for such-and-such a purpose. Evolutionary perspectives deny the intelligence aspect of the origin of organisms, but they do not successfully evade the design part – they couch the appearance of designed features in terms of selection effects and so forth, but there is still in all such thinking a teleology, an appeal to an ultimate cause that is then used to evince explanations. As I have observed previously, teleological games play the same regardless of one's justifying principle, and this should make us suspicious of such claims.

If, as Kant's reasoning suggests, intelligent design must be excluded from science classes since it is not founded in empirical observations, then certain beliefs concerning the metaphysical implications of evolutionary theories are equally barred. If a teleology that culminates in God is not allowable for science, neither is a teleology that ends in something else – even natural selection. The jump to the conclusion that “natural selection is the ultimate cause of everything in existence” (which certain people do advocate) is not empirical grounded, and to advance such a viewpoint is, Kant affirms, to take a theological position – albeit one taking the “anti” rather than the “pro” God position. Neither viewpoint is strictly appropriate for a science curriculum – and this suggests an equitable boundary on what science teachers may teach their students, irrespective of their own teleological beliefs.

Next week, the final part: Kant on Darwin

Cities, Rewards & Multiplayer (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, some musings about why the current big sellers in the gamer hobbyist space have succeeded, and what opportunities might exist for games outside of the usual suspects. Entitled Cities, Rewards and Multiplayer, I identify these three features as major forces in the success of titles selling in decent numbers on the power consoles, and speculate on ways to combine them with play beyond the typical firearm battles.


Contains discussion of religious traditions.

Lights descent_0Few aspects of religious practice are as frequently misunderstood as prayer. Perhaps the most common misconception is that prayer is equivalent to making a wish when one blows out the candles on a birthday cake – but this is, at best, a child's conception of prayer, equivalent to the child's conception of God as “an old man in the clouds”. In this piece, I look at prayer in both the Dharmic and Abrahamic traditions, and ask the question: is the goal of prayer to entreat the divine to act in specific ways, or to commune with the divine in order that we should live a certain way?

The child's conception of prayer has a long history, and indeed the practice of sacrificial offerings to appease the Gods in ancient Greece and elsewhere has more in common with this perspective than the practice of prayer in most modern religions. Similar rituals can be found in tribal religious practices – ceremonies intended to entreat certain outcomes. This form of prayer borders on magic – the attempt to influence reality with thought – and indeed Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism popular among non-Jewish celebrities) retains this aspect. All such practices can reasonably be considered forms of prayer, and modern religious observers of various traditions do indulge in prayers of petition, but to consider the totality of prayer to be encapsulated in this idea is both narrow-minded and naïve.

To fully appreciate prayer in all its forms, it is important to recognise the relationship between prayer and meditation. While there are certainly secular forms of meditation, it was originally a religious practice and remains so for many people today. Buddhists of various sects do indeed pray, and for them prayer is considered a form of meditation, but more generally Buddhist meditations are concerned with awakening one's inner capabilities and compassion, although this too overlaps with many forms of prayer. Rita Gross and Terry Muck wrote a quite remarkable book entitled “Christians Talk About Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk About Christian Prayer”, in which Buddhists express admiration of the Christian practice of prayer (viewed as a form of meditation), and Christians express similar views of Buddhist practices. The book recognises the risk of a loss of religious identity if one combines Christian and Buddhist views, but shows one of many parallels between Abrahamic and Dharmic traditions in the world today.

Among the other Dharmic traditions, a similar blurring of the lines between meditation and prayer can be found. Hinduism is so diverse that considering it to be a single religion can be a mistake; the myriad practices it contains include invocation rituals, meditations, prayer rituals and mantras – transformative sounds or words, intended to bring about an attunement with the divine (or some similar transformation of the self). The distinction here between mantra and prayer can be slight, for there are many Hindu prayer rituals which have precisely the same goals as a typical mantra, and bhakti (devotional worship) thoroughly blurs the lines between mantra, prayer and meditation. Similarly, Jain prayer salutes souls that have reached a connection with the divine, with the goal that the praying individual might do the same. As with Buddhism, the distinctions between meditations and prayers among the Dharmic traditions blur and overlap.

Among the Abrahamic traditions, prayer of petition is perhaps most explicit in Judaism, but even here it is recognised as just one of three kinds of prayer. The other forms, prayers of gratitude and prayers of praise, are arguably more fundamental to Jewish practice. Jewish tradition expects its adherents to pray three times a day, and much as with Dharmic prayer there is a hope that the prayer will transform. The intention is to pray with one's heart, not one's mind, and to connect one's soul with the divine – thus taking the praying individual into a state of being beyond everyday existence. However, Judaism is perhaps the most explicit of the Abrahamic faiths in allowing for prayer of petition, and there is certainly a common belief in what I have called the child's conception of prayer. There is still a key difference: Jews should never pray for selfish goals, thus “praying as wishing” is not a genuine aspect of Jewish faith.

The youngest of the three main Abrahamic faiths, Islam, holds prayer in high esteem (and has much in common with bhakti in Dharmic faiths). Salah is a highly formalised ritual prayer that Muslims are expected to conduct five times a day (with dispensations when this is difficult to attain). Salah means “supplication”, and this prayer is expressly centred upon submission to God (the meaning of the word “Islam”). The chief purpose of prayer for a Muslim is to be in communion with God, to exist before Allah in thanks and praise, to ask for guidance, and to submit to the will of God. Unlike many other religions, there is an aspect of fear involved – but this is not dread or anxiety, but rather something closer to awe, the recognition of the divine as something infinitely powerful and beyond comprehension. So feeling, the Muslim is expected to attain a degree of restraint in their actions in life, submitting to the will of God, as epitomised in the Arabic term “Insha'Allah”, meaning “if it is God's will”, or “God willing”.

In the case of the Baha'i Faith, it's not clear if this religion should count as an Abrahamic faith or a Dharmic tradition, since (in common with several other religions, such as Sufi Islam) the Baha'i Faith treats all religions as part of a greater whole. According to its writings, the core of faith “is that mystic feeling which unites man with God”, and prayer for those who follow this tradition has precisely this role. Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, said: “In the highest prayer, men pray only for the love of God, not because they fear Him or hell, or hope for bounty or heaven... The spiritual man finds no delight in anything save in commemoration of God.” To people of this faith, prayer is the language of love; not the love of the flesh, but of the spirit.

Finally, Christianity is perhaps the locus of most confusion in respect of prayer, and certainly among rural congregations in the United States and elsewhere the child's conception of prayer can often be the dominant understanding. Such an attitude among adults is arguably a gross misrepresentation of what prayer should mean to a follower of Jesus, for the gospels are quite explicit as to how a Christian should pray – and prayer of petition does not form an explicit part of this guideline, except in the general sense of asking for protection from harm, and continuity of sustenance. The Lord's Prayer, part of the Sermon of the Mount, is Jesus' advice on how one should pray, and can be summarised as follows: recognise the divine as sacred; submit to the will of God; ask God to help us subsist, to protect us from harm, to forgive our wrongdoings, to help us forgive those who do us wrong; recognise the divine as eternal and infinite. This prayer encapsulates diverse attitudes that lie scattered among the devotional practices of the great religious traditions of the world.

Prayer, when understood in context, is not a magical telephone hotline but a way for the individual to attempt to move out of the mundane world and into the presence of the divine or transcendent. This may come through an emptying – as in meditation, which requires no concept of God – or through the fullness of the numinous experience of the divine; either way, the individual and their selfish needs are extinguished. This does not mean it is wrong for one to pray, for instance, for a loved one to be well, or for peace – in so doing, one is praying with one's heart, an honest attempt at connection with the spiritual. Still, the purpose of communion with the divine through prayer is not that our will be done, but that one might achieve a unity with the numinous mystery of God. And in this, the change that one is praying for is, inevitably, a transformation of the self.

The opening image is Lights Descent from, and is copyright Shoshanna Bauer (All Rights Reserved).

Kant on Intelligent Design (2): Organisms as Natural Purposes

180px-Paramecium Kant uses the term natural purpose to refer anything that could be construed to be both cause and effect of itself. He notes: In such a product of nature every part not only exists by means of the other parts, but is thought as existing for the sake of the others and the whole, that is as an (organic) instrument.” He further states: Only a product of such a kind can be called a natural purpose, and this because it is an organised and self-organising being.

This concept behind a self-organised being has a history that pre-dates Kant to a great extent, but only in terms of the related themes. It was Kant who singled out self-organisation as a factor, and this appears to have been an influence on Ross Ashby, who introduced it into modern cybernetics (which now uses the concept extensively). The comparison with design (i.e. teleology) breaks down in respect of such self-organised beings; Kant notes that watches are not like this: “a watch wheel does not produce other wheels, still less does one watch produce other watches”. He writes:

An organised being is then not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but it possess in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organises them, in fact, and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion.

In this concept was the beginnings of the modern concept of an organism, and Kant has surprisingly nuanced views on the subject. On the one hand, he asserts that they are natural purposes (or natural ends) because we can conceive of the possibility of the existence of such things only in accordance with the idea that they were produced by design, but he denies that they should be thought of as being the products of conscious design at all, insisting they must be seen as products of nature.

A person who had naively swallowed a blanket belief in evolutionary theory might object to the idea that we must conceive of organisms in respect of design, but the evidence abounds in the language used to talk about the relationship between organisms and evolution. When we talk of a tail having the purpose of a counterbalance in mammals, or of incisors being used to cut food, or of camouflage as serving to conceal we are talking in terms of design. It may be the case that most modern folk attribute the origin of these features to natural selection et al, but this does not change the fact that discussion of the features of organisms is universally couched in design terms. The teleology may have changed, being now attributed more commonly to evolution than to God (or at least to God directly, since there are many people who subscribe to theistic evolution), but we still talk about the features of organisms by thinking in terms of design.

Note Kant's reluctance to proceed from the observation that we must talk about organisms in terms of design to the conclusion that organisms must have been consciously designed. He astutely recognised that the question of whether they were designed or otherwise was an untestable issue, observing “that would be to meddle in an extraneous business, in Metaphysic” (metaphysics being the philosophical domain of the untestable). Instead he states that it is enough to recognise that there are some objects which are “alone explicable according to natural laws which we can only think by means of the [design]”.

He goes on to conclude:

Hence we speak quite correctly in [philosophy], so far as it is referred to [science], of the wisdom, the economy, the forethought, the beneficence of Nature, without either making an intelligent being of it, for that would be preposterous; or even without presuming to place another intelligent Being above it as its Architect, for that would be presumptuous.

Thus in his consideration of organisms, Kant considers it “preposterous” to make Nature an intelligent being, and “presumptuous” to derive from the observation of nature an intelligent architect. Intelligent design, therefore, is to Kant “presumptuous” – it postulates something more than is necessarily indicated. He is, in fact, extremely keen to keep teleological concerns out of science:

But now why is it that Teleology usually forms no proper part of theoretical natural science, but is regarded as [an introduction] to Theology? This is done in order to restrict the study of nature, mechanically considered, to that which we can so subject to observation or experiment that we are able to produce it ourselves as nature does, or at least by similar laws. For we see into a thing completely only so far as we can make it in accordance with our concepts and bring it to completion.

Kant therefore asserts that the kind of arguments advanced by proponents of intelligent design have no business being in science at all, since “theoretical natural science” is concerned with “observation or experiment” i.e. empirical research. Opponents of intelligent design advance by varying degrees precisely this argument, at least when they themselves do not fall into “fanaticism” of a rather different kind.

Yet Kant is by no means finished on this subject, and theists need not think that Kant has abandoned them completely. He would have dismissed as ridiculous the idea that intelligent design was a subject to be taught in science classes, but on the relationship between God and life on Earth he has yet more to say.

Next week: Mechanism versus God

Philosophy versus Politics

Arendt Hannah Arendt (pictured) blamed Plato for setting politics and philosophy in opposition. For although Plato advocated a "Philosopher King", this meant solely that the person in charge would have sufficient respect for philosophy to ensure that the philosophers could be left undisturbed in their deliberations. Plato did not, Arendt claims, envision philosophy as an active force in the common world of people and it was her belief that this was a deadly "blow dealt by philosophy to politics, the conviction that political activity is a necessary evil..."

She was troubled by the "inherent degradation" of the political realm, but even more so by "the radical separation" of the political realm, where people live and act together, from the concerns of people living in "singularity and solitude". This probably played into her decision to reject the title of philosopher for herself (despite it now being de rigeur to call her a philosopher), on the grounds that philosophy was concerned with "man in the singular".

She writes, in The Promise of Politics, a book edited by Jerome Kohn from her notes:

What matters is the unbridgeable abyss that opened and has never been closed, not between the so-called individual and the so-called community (which is a late and phony way of stating an authentic and ancient problem), but between being in solitude and living together... Neither the radical separation between politics and contemplation, between living together and living in solitude as two distinct modes of life, nor their hierarchical structure, was ever doubted after Plato had established both.

I find it particularly interesting that Arendt rejects the modern view of individual versus community as "phony" - since this is often how the liberal versus conservative political divide is couched. But Arendt saw this as a gloss over the division between solitude and living together. By focussing solely upon the self, the liberal mantra of individualism perhaps supports the right to live in solitude too fervently, and in so doing effectively deprecates working together politically. But the conservative focus on the  family and duty towards community may equally undermine our capacity to work together by restricting in rigid ways just who constitutes a part of any acknowledged community.

Too many of us have managed to inherit this disdain for politics that Arendt claims was handed down from Plato. The failure of modern philosophy to connect successfully with politics and reanimate political discussion (by which I do not mean the debates of politicians) may lie precisely with its liberal bias - it's commitment to the rights of the self and thus of solitude, and the denial of duties to those around us. Frankly, too many people - both liberal and conservative - are preoccupied by attempts to dictate how people in other communities must live. Against such a background, it is small wonder that local communities have become so gravely stunted in so many places - we would rather force our beliefs upon the world at large than have to talk to our neighbours.

Kant on Intelligent Design (1): Introduction

Time.Aug06 The furore over Intelligent Design was a critical biting point in the conflict between a number of competing ideologies. It was not in any meaningful sense a battle between “religion” and “science”, but rather a clash between a small but vocal religious group (Biblical authoritists in the United States i.e. Young Earth Creationists) and a small but vocal nonreligious group who opposed them unequivocally. The debate eventually widened to the point where it was difficult for anyone involved in science or Christianity not to take some kind of position, although non-Abrahamic religious traditions were in no way involved at any point.

If the focus of the movement had been to increase awareness of those people who believed that life was best explained by appeal to an intelligent designer, this might not have been problematic – such people clearly do exist, have a right to their beliefs, and indeed a right to teach this belief to their children. It was the desire to teach intelligent design in public school science classes as a perspective to be contrasted with conventional evolution interpretations of the origins of life which caused the matter to become so explosively partisan. In so doing, the considerable disagreements over the specifics of evolutionary theories became largely brushed to one side as opponents of intelligent design united in opposition.

Ironically, the issues at the core of this debate had been examined quite extensively by Immanuel Kant more than two hundred years ago, and the second part of his Critique of Judgement has much to say on the topic that is still relevant today. That ideologues on either side of the intelligent design debate were not cognisant of this philosophical work speaks ill of both camps claim to a background of informed learning, or perhaps of the failure of modern society to recognise that philosophy has an embarrassment of riches that can be brought to bear on all manner of topical issues.

Kant does not speak of “intelligent design”, but rather of teleological judgement. The thematic content behind this term is, however, very closely related to what lies at the core of intelligent design. The philosophical term “teleological” refers to the study of design or purpose, and especially the relationship between “final causes” (God is an example, but not the only possible one) and the appearance of design or purpose in nature. The intersection with intelligent design is hopefully apparent.

Kant wrestles with serious philosophical issues long before they became subjects of intense public debate: in his time, discussion of teleology was principally an ivory tower concern. But this is not to suggest that there are not parallels between the modern discussion and its 18th century forerunner, and this at many levels. The matters at the heart of the claims have not changed significantly; Kant notes that if we do not attribute the cause of something natural being a certain way to a “teleological ground” then “its causality would have to be represented as blind mechanism.” This observation foreshadows the conflicting camps in the modern intelligent design debate.

Beyond this, however, Kant has concerns which mirror modern concerns in this respect. He notes that the basis of “our great admiration of nature” lies in part in the way we look at nature and easily conclude that it is “constituted just as if it were designedly intended for our use”. But he notes that this can go too far: “It is surely excusable that this admiration should through misunderstanding gradually rise to the height of fanaticism.” The term 'fanaticism' here means something very specific in the religious context Kant was writing from.

As Charles Taylor notes, the theology of the late eighteenth century identified three kinds of “dangerous religion”: superstition (practices based upon faith in magic), enthusiasm (the certainty that one had heard the voice of God) and fanaticism (the kind of religious certainty that licensed going beyond the common moral order). In connecting the association of purpose in nature with fanaticism, Kant is expressly disavowing the theological justifications which lie at the heart of intelligent design as going too far. Yet Kant was a devout Christian, he certainly believed in God – he was simply not willing to endorse anything that goes beyond whatever reason can lay reasonable claim. To do so was, in Kant's mind, quite unwarranted.

Why does Kant not feel the need to draw on the purposiveness of nature as proof of God? He recognises that this sense of purpose is there, after all, and he believes in God. What he does not accord with is the method by which such an assumption could be reached. In examining nature, he notes that much of what appears as purposive in nature could simply be the relationship between one element of nature to another. He notes that contemplation of nature can't allow one to conclude with certainty that there is a final cause behind nature's actions, even if it “hypothetically gives indications of natural purposes”. Considerably more would be needed to justify such a conclusion.

In the second division of this serial examining Kant's Critique of Judgement, we look at the Prussian philosopher's thoughts on what we now refer to as intelligent design, and consider what his work suggests in respect of a possible resolution to this ideological battleground.

Next week: Organisms as Natural Purposes