Sometimes the best way to understand something is to watch videos like these that show us exactly the opposite of what we are looking for. In my eyes she represents the most anti-Goethian way of seeing Nature that there could possibly be. But this nice example of what seeing the wholeness of Nature is NOT, might clarify things. Even though I like her passion and engagement (we need much more people with such passion for science…) she represents the perfect example of the mainstream reductionist physicalism that is (still) all-pervasive in academia. But I must also be grateful because her arguments triggered in me the desire to answer trying to take the opposite view. So, here is my take on how I would counter-argue a la Goethe….
There is this common misconception that, since biological systems are the result of ‘random chance’, as a consequence they are ‘suboptimal’ and ‘non-robust’ having a ‘poor design’, in a word: ‘Imperfect.’ For example, the human genome contains ‘mistakes’ that no one would deliberately engineer. This is the sort of metaphysical argument one hears frequently coming from modern biologists.
But what is supposed to be the criterion of ‘good design’ or ‘perfection’?
In biology a system is considered to be ‘optimal’ when it maximizes or minimizes some functions under given constraints and adapts best to the environment. However, from taking this point of view, biology separates a priori between the organism and the environment failing to recognize how the adaptation of the single organism to the environment is only one of the many internal functions of a totality. This totality is a ‘Kantian Whole’–that is, a system where the parts exist for and by means of the whole and the whole exists for and by means of the parts.
For example, an organ like the heart, with its properties and its function, can’t be separated and abstracted from the organism as a whole. An organ like the heart serves the purpose to pump blood for the best survival of the organism in its entirety, it is not designed to optimally fit in our chest alone and its activity is not aimed only at maintaining its own robustness or fitness, even though, it might have to satisfy certain criteria of adaptation to the chest and tune its activity to avoid functional failure. But no biologist would speak of the ‘optimal adaptation’ of the heart isolated and abstracted from the overall body’s functions.
This fallacious line of reasoning, however, is precisely what we do when we think of the adaptation of the organism in relation to the biosphere or the supposed DNA transcription ‘errors’ without being aware that we have lost sight of the cell’s workings in its totality.
Another example: If 65 million years ago a gigantic asteroid or a comet would have not crossed the Earth’s orbit at that precise time in that precise place, by ‘pure random chance’ (wasn’t it…?), it would not have caused the extinction of dinosaurs, and then humankind would possibly not exist. Was that a ‘mistake’? From the limited perspective of the dinosaurs it was for sure. From our (only a bit more wider) perspective , as humans, it was a decisive event necessary for our existence. Indeed, suddenly, you won’t find anymore an astronomer or a biologist labeling an asteroid impact as an ‘error’.
Since we are unaware of our inability to follow the complex dynamics of the whole we pretend it making ‘errors’ and ‘mistakes’. Concepts such as ‘optimal’, ‘good or bad design’, ‘imperfection’, etc. arise only because of an anthropomorph understanding of how the world is supposed to be according to our human standards and desires. Since some processes didn’t turn out as we expect from our limited sense-mind understanding of the world, and which is unable to consider all relevant constraints and can’t see holistically the whole complexity of Nature, we conclude that it couldn’t be other than a ‘coincidence’ or an ‘error’ without meaning.
The human mind is a far too low-level form of cognition that can’t recognize and capture the complexity of the system as a whole. From a higher perspective there is neither an organism nor an environment, there is only a single whole where the mutual interplay of its parts is the expression of the whole itself. This separation appears only at the level of our separative mind where the Nature appears to us as a clash of competing entities which sum up building a whole made of parts glued together.
To say whether an aspect in biology is ‘poorly designed’ implicitly assumes that we are able to know what the designer aims at and what the designer’s thoughts are. And since the ‘mind of God’ does not to agree with the human mind, we proudly conclude there could be no God in the first place. Even the worst medieval anthropocentric conception didn’t go so far! Now, lets play God… hurrah!!