Thursday, September 27, 2007

If You Can Read This, You Have Intentionality (But Your DNA Doesn't), Part II: The Principle of Charity

Sorry it took so long to get this post up. I think you'll understand when you read it; it wasn't easy to argue for Marshall's position, and distilling the very scattered talk he gives into a (more or less) succinct summary took some thought and planning. Also, they've been making me work at my job. What's up with that?

Sufficiently recovered from that last one? Good--let's move on.

In philosophy, one of the first things they teach you when you take a basic methodology course is "the principle of charity." This principle states, basically, that one ought to read other philosophers one engages with with as much charity as possible--in other words, try not to deliberately misread those you're arguing against in such a way that their argument becomes weaker than it actually is. Instead, focus on what it seems the author was trying to say, and read his argument in such a way that his point is best made. This, in my opinion, is an important principle, and is one of the cornerstones of good philosophical work; however, the fact that it is important (and a basic tenet of the discipline) doesn't mean that it is always easy to practice. This post is a prime example: I'm going to do my best to outline and motivate Marshall's point. This, I think, will be useful in two primary ways: first, it will let me clarify his points for myself, which is important if I plan on dismantling them later (which I do). Second, it will let all of you see the point he's trying to make without having to sift through all his rhetoric and dogmatism. Remember that here I'm doing my best to motivate his argument, so I'm going to pass over problems in his reasoning that may or may not be obvious to you. Let's begin.

Marshall starts off by making a distinction between patterns and designs. It is upon this distinction that he will ultimately base his proof, so we would do well to spend a moment considering the distinction. A pattern, says Marshall, is something that can occur naturally (i.e. without a mind creating it), and he gives a few examples from nature: the spinning of a hurricane, snowflakes, and stalagmites are just a few of the natural patterns he points out. Marshall also makes the (somewhat dubious) connection between patterns and chaos theory, claiming that many patterns are chaos driven--that is, that we cannot predict the form a given pattern will take based on knowledge about the system it is emerging from; the weather, says Marshall, is a perfect example of this: we know that there are "weather patterns," but predicting what those patterns will be with more than fair accuracy is nearly impossible.

On the other hand, says Marshall, there are designs. These might look like patterns (indeed, he notes that all designs have patterns, though not all patterns are designed), but there is one crucial difference: designs are created purposefully by creatures with minds. In Marshall's account, the notion of a design is linked inextricably with the notion of representation--a design, he claims, has one defining characteristic: it always includes both some object in itself and some representation of that object. Music, Marshall claims, is a perfect example of a design: there are notes on the page that a musician looks at (the symbolic representation), and the actual sound of the music itself (the object represented). Again, the defining characteristic of designs is that they include representation (and representation, as we all know, requires a mind).

Patterns, then, are simply expressions of matter and energy as it has been influenced by a complex (and/or chaotic) system; there is nothing "meta-physical" (in the Aristotelian sense) about patterns--they simply are what they are. Designs, on the other hand, are inherently meta-physical, and are (by definition) more than the sum of their physical parts. This is demonstrated, Marshall claims, by the fact that designs are medium-independent; I can take this block of text that I'm typing and read it aloud, print it out, post it to the internet, convert it into Chinese, or put it through a thousand other transformations and, though the physical (i.e. representation) nature of the text will change, the meaning of the text will not. This, Marshall deduces, implies that designs are more than physical, and that anything with representational capacity must be the result of mental (i.e. non-physical) action. In short, designs come from minds.

The question becomes, then, 'can patterns turn into designs?' Marshall, of course, answers this question with a resounding negative; because patterns are definitively physical and designs are definitively meta-physical, patterns can never "spontaneously" become designs. Here, then, we arrive at the crux of Marshall's argument, and the question he is really seeking to address: is DNA a pattern, or is it a design? I'm sure you can see the implications of this question right away in light of the discussion we've been having thus far: if we admit that DNA is a design, then we are also forced to admit that it has a designer--that is, that DNA represents something, and thus was created by a being with a mind. That, to most people, means God. QED, or something like it. So how does Marshall get there?

For such a bold claim, the last leap is astonishingly simple: Marshall asserts that we know DNA is a design simply because it is a code for us! That is, he argues that because every single cell in your body has a complete genome, and because that complete genome "carries all the necessary information" to "build" your body, DNA must be a design. It meets all the criteria, Marshall argues: it is medium independent (I can change the DNA molecule into a string of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs and it will still retain its information-carrying capacity), and it stands for something more than itself (i.e. your body). DNA, put simply, is a language--a code for you--and that means that it is a design. DNA has semantic content in the same way that the English language does: all those chemicals have a meaning, and that meaning is you. Any design implies a designer, and thus DNA had a designer. Humans didn't design themselves, so something else must have done the job. God, Marshall thinks, is the most likely culprit.

That, in a nutshell, is Marshall's linguistic argument for the existence of God. He sums it up with what he calls the "Atheist's Riddle" (tagline 'So simple any child can understand it, so complex no atheist can solve it'): show me a language that does not come from a mind. In part three of this series, I hope to show that this riddle is in fact not a riddle at all, but a non-issue that arises from a confusion about the nature of DNA, the nature of language, and the nature of representation. Stay tuned.

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