Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hume's Tacit Endorsement of Intelligent Design

One of the interesting paradoxes in the debate over whether living things are the product of intelligent agency or whether they have evolved through purely mechanical means from an organic broth in a primeval pond is that those who take the latter view also take as one of their heroes a man who sounds in some of his writings like an advocate of the former view.

The great skeptical philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), in arguing against the rationality of believing in miracles (in Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding), says that experience should be our guide in what we believe. If there is a uniform experience against the occurrence of miracles then that experience amounts to a proof that any report of an alleged miracle is likely to be bogus.

Well, if a uniform experience is to be our guide in determining what is credible and what isn't how can we believe that life arose from non-living matter apart from the agency of an intellect? We have, after all, absolutely no experience of such a thing happening. Even if living things are someday created in a laboratory we will still have no experience of life coming to exist apart from a purposeful mind.

A little further on in the Inquiry Hume writes:
We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is that the objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments we ought to give preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.
One of the things that needs to be explained in any theory of origins is how biological information could ever have been produced by randomness and blind chemical action. Whenever we find information being produced today, whether in books or computer programs or whatever, it is always, without exception, produced by a mind. Thus, to the extent that one accepts Hume's principle as valid and reasonable one should assume that the information we find in living cells - in their DNA and in their architecture - was also the product of a mind.

Let me repeat Hume's words: Whenever there's a conflict of explanations "we ought to prefer the one based on the greatest number of past observations." Just as this principle rules out believing that information could be produced by anything other than intelligent agents it also rules out belief in any naturalistic theory of biogenesis. In order to believe that life arose from non-life we have to believe something we have never observed or experienced in all of human history. We have a uniform experience of life always and only arising from other living organisms. Thus as good Humeans we must conclude that whatever initially produced life on earth must itself have in some sense been alive.

Elsewhere (see his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion), Hume argues against the argument for God based on the design we find in the world, but his argument fails to discredit the notion that life and the universe are the products of design. To the extent that his argument is effective it is only so in showing that we can't conclude from the design of the world that the designer must be the God of the Bible. His argument does nothing to demonstrate that the world is not intelligently designed.

Though Hume's devotees would recoil in horror at the notion, the fact is that if we follow their champion we have no reason to think life was not intelligently designed and very good reason to believe that it was.