God and the absence of design

If God created the universe we would expect to find design in it, but there would be more than this. Design is some sort of adaptation of what a thing is to a good, but intelligent beings dispose things in more ways than this.

If God were to create a world anything like ours, we would find design there, and so we’d see, for example, hearts and eyes given in advance on the evolutionary menu as preferred structures for oxygenating cells and transducing photons. If this were true, we could speak of hearts and eyes as teleological structures with respect to these functions. But these sorts of structures can also be used intentionally for other purposes, e.g.:

1.) As purely physical quantities. One could use an elephant to push down a seesaw, or a multi-ton weight. Achilles could clog the river just as well with hay bales as with corpses. All this remains true even if we posit real purposes for elephants, hay, etc.

2.) As chemically- constructed beings. One can burn a lamp as well with petroleum as with whale fat, fertilize a field just as well with leaf-mulch as with factory chemicals.

3.) As food. What is the function of a chicken entirely bred for flavor? Taste somehow becomes intrinsic to its constitution. But even absent this, things clearly intend to eat, and so to dispose things in a way other than their nature.

4.) As signs. Consider the antikythara mechanism or the wreck of Uluburun. In their own time, it was an interesting trinket or a load of consumer goods or finite value which might be easily exchanged for some consumer good, but for us they are priceless finds and insights that we would never think to treat in the same way. Still, for all this the mechanism and the goods on the ship had clear functions other than this one that they are now playing.

Notice that all these notions are tied up with the idea of destruction or loss (though the last need not be) they all count as certain frustrations of design in the sense of an intrinsic relation between a nature and its good. But all can be intended by some designer. More problematically, all can be intended within a species with respect to different individuals.

Brentano, who goes over most of this, takes this as evidence that we cannot know the purposes of things beyond a very general level.

Even if we limit function to proper function, within this domain there is still a diversity and structure of possible expressionsof some on nature. Things may, we suppose, have dispositions or talents that might be developped in one way to the exclusion of other modes of action. There might be, for all we know, just as much diversity among hydrogen atoms as among men of all times and places.


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