Evaluating Arguments, Part 6: Analogies and Kicking the Can


(1) An analogy is utilized, however there are clearly and relevantly disanalogous aspects between the analogy and the thing that the analogy is being used to support.

Or, the analogy is not sufficiently justified as to why it also applies in the new instance. Analogies are only cogent insofar as they can be applied to another situation where the same, or similar, objections or supporting evidence apply to the different (albeit similar in relevant respects) situation. When using analogies, one must justify how very specific relationships within two different concepts or situations are related and/or function similarly to one another, as well as justify that those relationships actually exist within each concept or situation.

Another aspect of assessing arguments from analogy are relevant dissimilarities between the two analogues that render the desired inference faulty.

Things can be relevantly analogous (in which case the analogy does, in fact, support the point being made), relevantly disanalogous (in which case the analogy does not, in fact, support the point being made). Things can also be irrelevantly analogous and irrelevantly disanalogous.

If someone attempts to pinpoint a disanalogous aspect within an analogy, but yet that disanalogous aspect is irrelevant to the point being made, the force of the original argument from analogy remains. In this case, the objector points to an irrelevantly disanalogous aspect of the situation.

Likewise, the similarity between the two things in question may be irrelevant to the desired conclusion and hence does not actually support the point being made. In this case, the respect in which it is analogous irrelevant. Usually, something is both irrelevantly analogous and relevantly disanalogous at the same time, since both of these describe poor arguments by analogy.

The aforementioned considerations relate to yet another logical fallacy: false equivalence.

False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two completely opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. One shared trait between two subjects might, for instance, be assumed to show (moral, intellectual, justificatory, etc.) equivalence between the two — even when equivalence is not necessarily the logical result. The pattern of the fallacy tends to be as follows:

If A is the set of c and d, and B is the set of d and e, then since both A and B contain d, A and B are equal in respect R.

Now, of course this reasoning sometimes preserves truth. The point to recognize is that it does not necessarily track truth — which is why it is an informal fallacy. False equivalence arguments are often used in journalism and in politics, where the minor flaws of one candidate may be compared to major flaws of another.

Example: An analogy can be offered attempting to show the impossibility of an infinite temporal regression of efficient causality. Take, as an analogy, a beach ball. We can zoom into the molecules, zoom into the atoms, zoom into the protons, zoom into the quarks, etc., but this cannot go on infinitely. Therefore, reasons this hypothetical individual, an infinite regression is impossible, and it follows that there can be no infinite temporal regression of efficient causes.

However, there are clear and relevant dissimilarities between the analogy and the thing the analogy attempts to demonstrate. Zooming into particles has no temporal (time-related) aspect, and thus it is clearly disanalogous to a temporal infinite regression. Second, zooming into something is clearly different than being an efficient cause.

Example: One problem for epiphenomenalism is that if mental states do nothing, there is no reason why they should have evolved.

Frank Jackson (1982) replies to this objection by saying that it is the brain state associated with pain that evolves for this reason: the sensation is a by-product. Evolution is full of useless or even harmful by-products. For example, polar bears have evolved thick coats to keep them warm, even though this has the damaging side effect that they are heavy to carry.

Jackson’s analogy is true in general, but does not seem to apply very happily to the case of mind. The heaviness of the polar bear’s coat follows directly from those properties and laws which make it warm: one could not, in any simple way, have one without the other. But with mental states, dualistically conceived, the situation is quite the opposite. The laws of physical nature which (the mechanist says) make brain states cause behavior in no way explain why brain states should give rise to conscious ones. The laws linking mind and brain are what Feigl (1958) calls nomological danglers, that is, brute facts added onto the body of integrated physical law. Why there should have been by-products of that kind seems to have no evolutionary explanation.

This example is an analogy; Jackson argues analogously from the polar bear to mental states. However, there are clear disanalogies present that undercut the analogy’s argumentative force.

Example: The complexity/beauty of a house/car/watch requires a designer. So, by analogy, the complexity/beauty of the universe/biological organisms requires a designer

Relevant dissimilarities between the above analogues, one may argue, abound. One again, I am not presently agreeing with any of the following critical appraisals (nor am I disagreeing with them). Their purpose, rather, is to illustrate ways in which one can ague for relevant dissimilarities. Relevant dissimilarities could be as follows:

(1) In the first case, the designer is a physical entity (an organism) using other physical entities (tools, wood) to construct a physical entity (a house). In that case, the physical interaction is entirely explicable, intelligible, and coherent. But with the inference to a cosmic designer, this is a relevant dissimilarity. The proposed designer is an immaterial entity, which raises the problem of interaction: how can something intrinsically non-physical and immaterial causally interact with and act upon something physical?

(2) The designer of the house can make the house and subsequently die or cease to exist. Carrying the analogy to a cosmic designer, there is no guarantee that the cosmic designer still exists or that it is eternal. The present existence of the house designer is not necessary for the present existence of the house. The carpenter was an originating, not a sustaining, cause of the house. However, the theist arguably maintains that God is both an originating and sustaining cause of the cosmos.

(3) One might allege that in order to infer that a house is beautifully designed, we have to have instances of poorly designed houses by which to compare the house in question. But do we have instances inside the universe of poorly designed natural objects? Do we have instances of poorly designed universes for comparison? Under theism, one might argue, every natural object in the universe (as well as the universe itself) were designed. Given this, we wouldn’t know what non-designed natural objects look like or if it’s possible for a non-designed natural object to exist. But to use (the appearance of) design to infer an intelligent designer, we would have to determine what indicates that some natural object is designed. To do this, however, one might argue that we must know what indicates that some natural object is not designed. But under theism, one might allege, every natural object is designed, in which case the argument undercuts its own justification: if the conclusion is true, then we cannot meet a necessary condition for inferring that natural objects are designed.

(4) The carpenter can only make a house from pre-existing material. The carpenter cannot cause a house from nothingness, from no prior material. In the case of a cosmic designer (God), the analogy seems to demonstrate that God can only create from pre-existing material.

(5) The universe is manifestly imperfect. Suffering, predation, languishing, death, torture, natural disaster, parasitism, and more abound. Some creatures, even as part of their design plan, involve expressly inflicting suffering onto their hosts, such as parasites. It’s as though the carpenter who makes a house fills it with death traps and disaster events. Are we to suppose this carpenter is all-loving in such a case? It seems not. But then the analogy seems to indicate that we should infer that the cosmic designer is not all-loving.

(6) There arguably exist manifest instances of poor design within nature such as the recurrent laryngeal nerve or poor energy economy. But in the case of human designers, poor design within their creations almost always indicates some sort of ignorance, (negative) limitation, or incompetence on the part of the human designer. The argument by analogy therefore seems to imply that God must likewise be negatively limited in some manner.

(7) We know how various complex entities in nature can arise via seemingly purely naturalistic processes not in need of some designer, such as the formation of snowflakes which happens in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry.

(8) In the case of houses, there is never a single designer: architects, diggers, construction workers, carpenters, and countless specialists work together to design the house. Carrying this part of the analogy to some cosmic designer, we seem unwarranted in concluding there is only one, single designer.

For those who have read Hume’s Dialogues, this argument is highly similar to Cleanthes’ analogical design argument. It is also similar to Paley’s watchmaker analogy argument. For the purpose of critical thinking in greater depth, let’s explore Cleanthes’ analogical design argument. Once again, I do not claim that any of the following discussion is true (or false). It is, instead, for the purpose of instruction.

Cleanthes’ argument is a version of the teleological (end, purpose, or goal-directed) argument. The general structure of a teleological argument is that the universe or some proper subset of it appears designed and therefore it probably has an intelligent designe.

The first part of Cleanthes’ argument is the observation of order in nature (the “nature is like a machine” observation); the second is the observation of purpose (i.e. the “adapting of means to ends” observation). We can run the argument syllogistically as follows:

P1: The universe is like a humanly constructed machine with order and purpose.

P2: The cause of a humanly constructed machine with order and purpose is an intelligent being.

P3: Like effects have like causes.

P4: If P1, P2, and P3 are true, then probably the cause of the universe is an intelligent being (i.e. God).

C: Therefore, probably God exists.

Cleanthes writes:

“The curious adapting of means to ends throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble”

The claim is that because we know that the order/purpose we see in the artificial world is the result of human agency and design, we can infer (by analogy) that the order/purpose we see in the natural world is the result of divine agency and design.

Let’s turn now to Philo’s criticisms.

(1) Weak analogy

  • Weak and remote problem

Hume writes: “The analogy between those objects known to proceed from design and any natural object is too weak and too remote to suggest similar causes.”

The resemblance claim is based on a very small portion of the universe and a very small portion of the time-scale of the universe.

Arguably, we are entitled to generalize from small samples only if there are good grounds for thinking that they are representative of the whole (think about the way in which polling data is collected from samples). But in the case of the design argument, there is no good reason for thinking that the small sample of human-created design is representative of the whole. On the contrary, the total background evidence we have suggests that most instances of design do not have an agential creator. So, we cannot reason by analogy from the few cases of human-created design to the assumption that there is a designer for the whole.

  • The problem of non-agential order

There are known cases in which order is brought about by non-agential forces. Certain geological processes, for example, are non-agential and yet can result in orderly patterns. So, there seem to exist direct counter-examples to the analogy — cases in which apparent design is not the product of a designer.

  • The problem of pre-existing material

The analogy, if taken seriously, suggests that the designer of the physical universe could only have re-fashioned pre-existing material in designing the universe, since that is precisely how every single case of human design occurs. But this would arguably falsify classical theism.

(2) Small sample // The problem of unique causes

Hume, if his epistemology of causation is correct, undermines the inference to design.

Hume writes: “It is only when two species of objects are found to be constantly conjoined, that we can infer the one from the other; and were an effect presented, which was entirely singular, and could not be comprehended under any known species; I do not see that we could form any conjecture or inference at all concerning its cause.”

Hume’s epistemological view of causation is roughly this: you can only justifiably say that events of type A cause events of type B if you repeatedly observe events of type A being conjoined to events of type B. If we observe an event of type A being conjoined to an event of type B on just one occasion, then we are not entitled to infer any causal relationship.

This creates a problem for the theist because they are trying to make an inference about the cause of a singular event or state of affairs, namely the existence of the universe. By definition, there is just one universe and hence only one observation we can make about its occurrence. This is, Hume argues, insufficient to infer its causal origins.

(3) Restricted conclusion

  • Multiple Design Hypothesis problem

If valid, the design argument could establish a number of design hypotheses, such as: (a) the universe is the product of a committee of designers; (b) the universe is a discarded experiment of a second rate deity; or (c) the universe has been designed to run on its own devices and the creator plays no further part in its unfolding.

In fact, it only allows us to conclude that a designer used to exist, not that it still does! In fact, this is precisely what happens in the case of human artifacts and machines — the machines and artifacts often operate independently of the human designer’s causal activity, and they also tend to persist in existence despite their human designers’ ceasing to exist (in the case of the designer’s death).

In human experience, we know that designed objects, particularly when they are complex, are often the products of teams of designers, not single individuals. We also know from human experience that some designed objects are just experiments, occasionally discarded and often bug-ridden. Finally, we know from human experience that it is possible for machines to be created and left to operate until their eventual destruction without further interference from their original creators. So analogies between the artificial and the natural do not point straightforwardly to one God.

On behalf of Cleanthes, perhaps we might argue that the unity of the effects point to a unified cause. But note, first, that committees very often have unified, coherent, integrated effects — oftentimes even better than individuals! This is because different team members’ ideas, beliefs, methods, and background can complement one another and create synergistic effects.

And, what’s more, the evidence for unity in nature might be overstated. It might be true that all parts of nature are consistent with some underlying set of physical laws, but this does not mean that all parts of nature can be explained in terms of those laws. Try as we might, most philosophers of science and metaphysicians tend to lean towards non-reductionist camps according to which we cannot explain all of biology in terms of physics, or all of psychology in terms of biochemistry, or all of economics in terms of psychology. There appear to be distinct explanatory principles ruling across multiple domains of human interest. This is what we might expect from a committee of designers, each of whom takes responsibility for a different part of the total creation.

Hume also criticizes the argument as follows:

  • Renounce all claims to infinity

Hume alleges that the argument won’t rationally justify ascribing to the designer perfection, moral qualities, unity, immortality, immateriality, omniscience, and omnipotence.

  • Evil effects problem

Hume writes: “The true conclusion [of the design argument] is that the original source of all things is entirely indifferent…and has no more regard to good above ill than to heat above cold.” (Hume’s Dialogues).

The idea here is that the effects we observe in the world contain both good and evil. Because they contain this mix of properties, we are not entitled to infer from them a designer that is all good. At most, we are entitled to infer a designer that is morally indifferent.

  • What you see is what you get problem

Hume writes: “If the gods are the cause of order in the universe, then they possess that degree of power, intelligence and benevolence which appears in their known effect (the world) and nothing more.” (Hume’s Enquiry)

The idea here is as follows:

When you are inferring from an effect to a cause, you are only entitled to infer a cause with the properties that are necessary to explain what you see in the effect — nothing more. When I find a letter in my postbox, I am entitled to infer that someone delivered it. I am not entitled to infer that the person who delivered it had red hair, was in a bad mood, and suffered from scoliosis — at least, not unless additional evidence that would entitle me to make those inferences can be found. I can only make those inferences that are supported by what I see.

The same goes for inferences from the order and purpose we see in the world around us. From those effects we might be entitled to infer some sort of designer, but we are not entitled to infer what Cleanthes aims to infer, which is a supreme being with maximal virtues, who cares profoundly about human well-being, and so on. Inferring those additional properties extends far beyond the scope of the analogical argument.

Further criticisms

(1) It is questionable that like effects have like causes. Consider the blue of the sky compared to the blue of my T-shirt. One is caused by the perfectly natural process of light scattering off nitrogen and oxygen molecules, whereas the other is caused by a T-shirt designer and blue pigmentation. The physical bases of blue pigment and oxygen/nitrogen light scattering are quite different, yet they have like effects.

(2) The argument presupposes that the universe is the effect of something in the first place — a questionable assumption.

Here is a final example of assessing an argument by analogy:

A brain is like a computer (the hardware) and the mind is like the computer program being implemented by the hardware (the software).

There is a clear disanalogy between the brain and mind on the one hand, and a computer and a computer program on the other.

  1. Minds have semantics; they have meaning and intentionality. They possess understanding and can grasp the meaning assigned to concepts. Arguably, though, computers are purely syntactic. They solely consist in the manipulation of symbols following formal rules, entirely absent of assigning any meaning (semantics) to those formal rules (syntax). Syntax, too, seems insufficient for semantics (John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument seeks to establish this).
  2. There is something it is like to be conscious, to have a mental state. Mental states have a subjective, private, inner qualitative experience to them, a phenomenal character, a what-it-is-like-ness to them (qualia). This is relevantly dissimilar in the analogy, since computers utterly lack this phenomenal consciousness.

Some analogies also fail in that they mistake a difference in magnitude with a difference in kind.

Let’s turn, finally, to the second way to assess arguments that we will explore in this post — kicking the can.

(2) A person attempts to rebut an argument by appealing to some other, further fact X, but in reality, that just kicks the can back a step and the argument still applies to X, meaning the argument is still entirely forceful.

Example: Libertarian Free Will (LFW) and the soul

The Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) argument against LFW draws upon metaphysical principles with which Aristotelian and Thomists arguably wholly endorse. The argument is as follows:

P1: Nothing can move (change) itself.

P2: If nothing can move (change) itself, then everything in a process of motion (change) is put into motion (changed) by something else (something external).

C1 (from P1, P2): Therefore, everything in a process of motion (change) is put into motion (changed) by something else (something external).

P3: Human decisions/actions are processes of motion (change).

C2 (from C1, P3): Therefore, human decisions/actions are put into motion (changed) by something else (something external).

P4: If LFW is true, then at least some human decisions/actions are not put into motion (changed) by something else (something external).

C3 (from C2, P4) Therefore, LFW is false.

Someone may argue that the soul is what puts our actions into motion, and thus we can still have free will. But this merely kicks the can back a step: The action of the soul itself seems to consist in change, and thus that very action also requires an external changer/mover/actualizer. Thus, the problem seems to remain.

Example: Animal pain and evolution

Someone may claim that “All animals except for primates lack higher consciousness and awareness of their own pain. Therefore, the problem of animal pain is not a problem.”

Notwithstanding that this is a highly contestable claim (and ignoring its objections), there have still been primates for millions of years. It follows, still, that God actively utilized such suffering in his creative act, and thus the problem of animal pain arguably still manifests itself. Postulating this primate hypothesis merely kicks the can back in an attempt to sidestep the argument, but the argument nevertheless resurfaces.

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com

Source: https://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2017/01/humes-objections-to-design-argument.html


  1. *An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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