Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Emergent Phenomena.

I don't mean to lower all theists to the level of Ray Comfort, but his well-known argument reflects the same basic principle that all creationists and ID advocates use- "Every building has a builder, every painting has a painter."  Comfort says that the appearance of design is indicative of intelligence; that complexity organized in such a way that it operates toward a specific purpose or purposes must have a sentient designer behind it, much like we design buildings or machines for a specific purpose.  Is this argument valid?  All examples we have of design in our everyday life exhibit complexity and operate in a particular manner, towards a particular goal.

The largest objection to this reasoning was best articulated by Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience, so I must give him the credit- "We don't know what an undesigned universe looks like."  This sums it up very well.  We do know that design generally shows complexity and features a discernible function; however, we may not have thought hard enough about what nature will do when left to its own devices.  It is likely that a universe so complex, with such a complex fundamental nature, will give rise not only to complexity but to such phenomena as life.  Indeed, I believe that a universe with no surprises, no oddities and no emergent phenomena would be much more confounding than the universe we see around us.  The elements of both chaos and order, complexity and entropy are all around us.  Our creations are complex, yes- but the entire universe is very complex, so that rather rules out the option of electing complexity as remotely compelling proof for "design".

Now, there is another variation on ID which takes yet another step back from life on Earth and instead turns to the laws of nature themselves.  This is the "fine-tuning argument", which argues that surely the six universal constants must be evidence of a designer, for if any one of them were a fraction of a percent lower or higher, life as we know it would not exist- in fact, such necessities as the forming of stars would be impossible (I'm no scientist, but you get the idea).  Therefore, a supervising being must have "twiddled the knobs", perfecting the conditions for life.  This fails in two ways; one is the misunderstanding of what the "laws of nature" actually are, and one is, we might say, a failure of imagination.

The laws of nature are not tangible laws.  In reality, they do not even exist outside of the conceptual.  They are descriptions of the universe's behavior.  These laws are not discovered; they are invented.  They are our interpretation of the fundamental nature of our universe.  Take the color blue- it's not really "blue" in a deep sense of the word.  The universe neither knows nor cares about the concept of "blue".  It's a description that we use to refer to a perception.  Now, these laws are not conceptual in the sense that they do not affect everyday life- if one jumps off a building, he will fall whether he believes in the law of gravity or not.  But the law of gravity is not a tangible, natural entity that governs the universe.  The law conforms to the universe, not the other way around.

The second flaw I find much more interesting.  Pay close attention to this argument- "If the laws of nature were even slightly different, life/the universe as we know it would not exist!"  Well, this is a rather meaningless statement.  It is doubtless that the conclusion is correct, but why does that matter?  Let's imagine that the universe's laws were slightly different (although in reality they couldn't be- this is the universe's fundamental nature; if that nature was different, it wouldn't be the universe).  As I explained above, when we deal with this much space, this much time, and this much complexity in nature, there will be surprises left and right no matter which numbers we're feeding into it.  Doubtless there would be phenomena just as- if not more- awe-inspiring than life or black holes (a fascination of mine).  Now, you may rightly claim that I have absolutely no empirical evidence for that statement.  However, if we are to trust the power of logic, then due to the frequency of phenomena in this universe alone, under all manner of conditions, and at every level of physical interaction, we can reasonably say that phenomena spring up rather frequently given such an astonishing complexity of nature.  Now, if you still disagreed with that on the grounds that this universe can have no say on the likelihood of emergent phenomena in other conceptual universes, then I have no retort- but you've just admitted that the "fine-tuning" argument is bogus, so there we are.


  1. If there is no God the chances of intelligent life observing a universe that is finely tuned turns out to be 100%, for if the universe were not finely tuned, there would be no intelligent life in existence to observe it.

  2. But why is there something instead of nothing?

  3. That question assumes that "nothing" is a more stable state than "something". How do we know that it is?

    It should be no shock that we "intelligent beings" observe a universe that appears "finely tuned". We wouldn't exist to even contemplate it otherwise, god or no god.

  4. Hey Leo, just saw your interview in The Humanist.

    Just wanted to say that the mere existence of complexity is not and has never been the ID argument. It is always complexity, meaning low probability, plus something else. For your father, it was irreducibility or more recently functional interaction of parts. For William Dembski, it is something called "specification." It is easier to make sense of the fine-tuning argument under specified complexity rather than irreducible complexity. The specification is the existence of biological life. The complexity I think you understand and agree with.

    The idea requires there be a high number of possibilities (Dembski puts this number at 10^150 for events within the universe and calls it the Universal Probability Bound), that only one possibility among them is realized, and that one possibility corresponds to a specification which the other possibilities do not.

  5. "The laws of nature are not tangible laws. In reality, they do not even exist outside of the conceptual."

    I suppose you would say that the "conceptual" does not really exist? Or that it is an emergent phenomenon?

    What is the best explanation of emergent phenomenon that you have read? I have not heard a very good explanation of the argument yet.

  6. Emergent phenomena is all around us. It's quite obvious.

  7. pianodemon88

    'Emergent phenomena is all around us. It's quite obvious.'

    Personally, I've always found the modern term "Emergent" to be nothing more than an secularist update for the ancient term, "Miracle". Neither term or word can be satisfactorily explained or proven using only naturalistic explanations which in reality require(actually demand) a measure of faith on the part of the believers on both sides of this issue.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Perhaps we are talking about different types of "emergence" and thus don't understand each other. I'm talking about this: What are you talking about?

    Emergence not an "argument", it's just an observable fact.

  10. pianodemon88:

    'Emergence not an "argument", it's just an observable fact.'

    Yes of course, it's emergence, though it's related to the other spelling. I misspelled it as I was in a hurry to get somewhere. I ended up 30 minutes late anyway.

    The issue is not whether we observe emergence, but whether the word was used as in the context of an observation of the emergence of a plant seedling from the seed burried in the earth or the philosophical context for which a subject like evolution is being argued. The discussion of course would be whether or not this particular emergence setting phenomena itself a true fact or is it merely something factoidal which is nothing more than repetious faith statement making. Many a religious cults often employ repetious chantings to indoctrinate a religious faith concept in the biased minds of the "I Want To Believe" followers.

  11. Well evolution is observable. I think I got lost in this conversation. lol.

  12. We were talking about different "emergent phenomena" I guess.

  13. pianodemon88
    'Well evolution is observable. I think I got lost in this conversation.'

    Yes of course. Isn't computer animation a God send ?

    'We were talking about different "emergent phenomena" I guess.'


  14. I'd like to respond coherently and succinctly to your post, but it seems to have several layers of problems.

    The first is that you seem attracted to a variant on David Stove's "Worst argument in the world": since we don't directly interact with the universe, we can't know things. You say, for example, laws are only descriptions, "these laws are not discovered; they are invented."

    The word "Bob" is only a *description* of my friend Bob. It is not Bob himself. That doesn't mean, therefore, that I "invented" Bob. Nor does it mean, as you seem to imply, that nothing really corresponds to Bob, because that name (or any longer description) is merely a description.

    The same is true of "blue", which describes light in a particular band of wavelengths. Our sensation of that phenomenon, and the fact that we have named it, doesn't detract from or undermine any of our arguments about it.

    So yes, of course, our "laws" are descriptions of aspects of the universe. But that doesn't mean they don't correspond to something real. Everyone understands that when you say "gravity", or write a description of it, that that description is not gravity. (Indeed, it's a set of marks on the page.) But that doesn't mean we can say that we can't "discover" that description's correspondence with reality, at least compared to other possibilities.

    As David Berlinski so succinctly noted, one of the scariest things about the New Atheists is that they tools they use to go after theism and ID frequently end up precluding science itself. Your argument sounds like one troubling example of this trend.

    The next problem is that your assertion seems to be self-refuting. While saying "these laws do not exist outside the conceptual", you yourself are making a claim to know something which exists outside the conceptual! You are claiming to know and describe ultimate reality, while *simultaneously* denying any possibility of doing so. You are according your "refutation" a higher status than the "mere descriptions" to which you apply it.

    And if so, why believe in ultimate reality at all?

    I like your argument about "We don't know what an undesigned universe looks like." But, again, I'm not sure you're taking it seriously: if so, then you *personally* can't say whether the universe is designed OR undesigned. Indeed, if you truly believed that, you would have to be utterly mute on the subject.

    I have trouble seeing how anyone could arrive at positions like these by reason + evidence. It sounds more like one has chosen a target, and is willing to fall for a set of overly-broad fallacies in order to attack that target -- without really paying equal consideration to the trustworthiness of tempting-sounding fallacies themselves. Be cautious about that.

  15. On fine-tuning, I summarised someone’s very elegant argument here. In brief (though all I can take credit for is, at best, summarising):

    The fine-tuning argument is incomplete without a means to estimate the probabilities of the parameter values; and being incomplete, it is not useful. It’s all very well to say “Wow, G is exactly 6.67384E-11 N(m/kg)²! That’s incredible!”, but what you’re missing is a recognition of the important question, “What are the odds of that?”, let alone an answer to that question. To pull four cards at random from a deck of cards and see four aces looks prima facie remarkable—but is truly so only if you know for a fact that the deck isn’t all aces.

  16. Hi Leo

    I found my way here because someone blogged about your interview in the Humanist I think you might experience an increase in traffic.

    Congratulations on deciding to form your own view of the universe and on expressing your thoughts so clearly.

  17. Hey Leo,

    I read your interview in The Humanist. While I admire your wanting to think for yourself, you don't seem to have engaged William Lane Craig's arguments for Christianity yet. I highly recommend reading Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.) before publicly committing much further.

    Good luck,


  18. 9-15-11
    Hi Leo,
    You say you trust in evidence and the evidence leads you to atheism. The convention in science is to send the best evidence to support a public statement. Please send your best scientific objective, valid, reliable, calibrated evidence in support of atheism. Please send it by 9-22-11. If you need more time, please let me know.
    Best wishes.
    Joseph Mastropaolo
    (714) 843-6387