Nature

Beyond Human Sense: The Design in Nature

Though it has become commonplace and a cliché of an example, the design of the iPhone still amazes me since I bought my first 3GS in 2010. I wrote a couple of blog posts a while back [1,2] exploring the creative possibilities of using the iPhone camera with a macro lens, and for a while I’ve been interested in the slow-motion video capabilities which can reveal imperceptible and at times beautiful features of behaviour and motion.

This kind of technology would have cost thousands just a few years back, but is now in half the world’s pocket. I used it to shoot some footage of bees harvesting nectar from foxgloves and the film below is the edited result.

To paraphrase the philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion [3] what the film shows is that the relationship between the bee and the foxglove is so precise that it gives you the feeling that it must have been somehow designed. This so-called ‘argument from design’ for the existence of God is one that is, even now, used regularly though Hume, with characteristic subtlety, successfully undermines it.

Humes’s dialogue features three characters: Cleanthes, Demea, and Philo. Each character takes a different role as they discuss first, the existence of God and second, the nature of God. Demea is ‘rigid, inflexible and orthodox’ in considering religion to be so important that it should only be taught after mastering the sciences, Philo displays ‘careless scepticism’ in describing the world as so full of contradictions that it can hardly be understood at all, so it is Cleanthes, with an ‘accurate philosophical turn’, who lays out his reasoning about the nature of God-as-the-designer-of-the-universe:

“Look around the world”, he says, “contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain”

The world is so ordered, he maintains, so machine-like, that it must have come from an intelligence like our own:

“The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence.”

By analogy, Cleanthes maintains, the mind of God must be something like the mind of a human designer and, he reasons, may be subject to the same frailties. The designer might not be a single designer at all, but a team of designers, and the designer might have long since passed away, no longer omniscient or omnipotent – the fact that a design continues to exist, doesn’t mean the designer does.

The bees might not know how they are adapting means to ends but they look fantastic in slow motion going about their mysterious process in a world ‘beyond what human senses and faculties can trace’, where even the foxgloves look like they have a purpose.

 

 

References

[1] Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

[2] Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

[3] Hume, David (1779) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Penguin Books

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