The Concept of The Blind Watchmaker

Question from James:
Why does Richard Dawkins use the analogy of a “blind watchmaker” to describe natural selection?

Answer by SmartLX:
Straight from Wikipedia:
“In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology.[1] Paley, writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.”

Essentially, natural selection clearly does not plan. Paley’s argument is that if a watch suggests the existence of a watchmaker, the supposed appearance of design in living things should suggest the existence of a designer, but on closer inspection life is not as it would have been if designed by an entity with all its faculties intact. The reasons given by Dawkins include vestigial organs and features, inefficient physical arrangements of a body’s components (like the recurrent laryngeal nerve), inefficient solutions to simple problems, easily avoidable susceptibilities to malfunction, disease and death (see here for examples in humans), and needlessly expensive competition between individual organisms. Life functions, sometimes barely, but it could be so much better if someone had actually designed it rather than natural selection procedurally applying the simplest short-term solution to everything.

The God Delusion and The Shack

“If you really don’t want to pay for it, but don’t want to steal it either, try your local public library.”

Question from Brian:
I keep arguing with this christian in one of my classes, and as part of an agreement, I’m going to be reading a book called “the shack.” However, I only agreed to this if he would read a piece of atheist literature. Specifically, the God Delusion. However, I don’t own a copy. Is there somewhere I could download it from without signing up for something?

Answer by SmartLX:
The New York Times has (most of) the first chapter, but I’m not sure where you could legally download the whole thing for free even if you did sign up for something. You could of course illegally download it by torrent or whatever, if you can justify doing so to yourself.

TGD is four years old now, and the paperback’s been through several editions, so you should be able to get it quite cheaply if you find the right bookshop. (I saw this for myself when I bought a second copy while my first was circulating among my friends.) If you really don’t want to pay for it, but don’t want to steal it either, try your local public library.

FYI: The Shack is a work of fiction wherein God personally lays out his own theodicy, i.e. explains in general why bad things happen, to a victim of tragedy. As an apologetic tool it’s most useful when a potential convert to Christianity is specifically struggling with the Problem of Evil. I don’t know whether that applies to you. In any case, even among Christians the book has its advocates and its opponents. Just in the link to Amazon above, you can see people separately trying to defend the book (Finding God in The Shack) and attack it (Burning Down The Shack).

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it, and your friend’s thoughts on TGD, if you want to comment when you’re done.

The Anthropic Principle

“…the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.”

Question from Alanis:

In Richard Dawkins’ widely acclaimed book “The God Delusion” he dedicates a few pages to the Anthropic Principle, emphasizing that it is an alternative to the argument for fine tuning/design, rather than a factor of it. Please elaborate on what Richard could possibly mean by that. From my (admittedly weak) understanding of the anthropic principle, all it states is that given the fact that we are here to observe it, it should not be surprising that life originated in the universe. I do not see how that debunks or supports intelligent design in any way.

Answer:
Dawkins’ point relates to probability. The fine-tuning argument as it relates to Earth, for example, is that it’s so staggeringly unlikely that Earth would be just the right size, distance from the sun, elemental composition, etc. that it must have been created specifically so that life could exist here. The anthropic principle is that we would be considering the same thing from whichever planet we had emerged on.

The sheer number of planets in the universe (probably within one order of magnitude of the number of stars, about ten thousand billion billion) goes a long way towards balancing out the low probability that any given planet will produce life, giving the universe as a whole a more reasonable chance of naturally producing life somewhere. Even so, the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.

Of course there’s also the fine-tuning argument which relates to the whole universe, not just the planet. The anthropic principle applies in that case if you consider the possibility of a multiverse. That hasn’t been confirmed or debunked, but there are other replies to that sort of fine-tuning argument which don’t rely on the anthropic principle at all so it’s not a critical point.

Games of chance make a good analogy. Whoever wins the lottery feels special, or even blessed, but they forget that millions of people have also played and the chances that someone won’t win the jackpot decrease rapidly as successive weeks are considered. The chances for an individual are millions to one, but someone’s going to get rich eventually.

– SmartLX