Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Insentient Watchmaker

You say that...
If I...
Stumbled on a watch I'd assume it had a watchmaker,
That a muffin presupposes a baker,
So you must agree sooner or later,
That this proves that there's a creator.
So if I put my foot in a stinker,
You'd assume the existence of a sphincter,
Thus you don't need to be a great thinker
To coclude that God's a bum,
--Exerpt from "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins" by Tim Minchin

William Paley first posed the question of whether, if you found a watch on the ground, you would suppose that it had always been there, or that its complexity and apparent purposefulness implied that someone had made it. Would you assume that the watch had a watchmaker?

Well, I think most watches are made mostly by machines these days, but if you're asking if I would think it was the result of a series of improvements upon the designs of less sophisticated timekeeping devices leading back to something that I would not have recognized as one or if I would assume that it only existed by fiat of some magic man in he sky for whose existence I have no evidence, my answer would have to be the former.

Modern clocks are derived from sundials, which meter time using the motion of a shadow cast by a gnomon onto a dial. Anything that casts a shadow can function as a rudimentary gnomon, and any landmark that the shadow moves across can be used to measure its movement. I can just imagine a cave mother telling her cave children that they can play outside, but they have to come inside the cave when the shadow of the big mountain reaches the tree line. This type of primitive timekeeping system can be augmented with additional landmarks to measure a the shadow's movement with a finer gradation, and the addition of an artificial scale with regular intervals makes the measurement more systematic. Simple mechanisms can be added to continue measuring time when the sunlight is not available, and many types of minor improvements can be made to keep time in a way that is more precise, efficient or convenient. Moderns clocks are the result of a series of many such minute improvements, as well as many dead-end modifications to clocks that were not worth repeating, and may not have ever been built before that fact was determined.

This is a process of evolution. Memes arise as random thoughts and chance occurrences. Some are absurd and dismissed immediately, others are tried unsuccessfully, but only those that work are repeated and become the basis for further improvements. Evolution isn't a process of design that doesn't require intelligence, design is a process of evolution that does.