But how do you know it's a machine?

A frequently thought provoking commenter, Carl Sachs, recently wrote:

How “unlike anything you have ever seen before”? The more it is “unlike what you’ve seen before,” the less confident we can be about what it is — including whether it is a machine at all! Of course, if there is a manual that comes along with, that’s one thing. (If there is something that is taken as as a manual.) On the other hand, the more similar it is to the machines that human beings make, then the more confident we can be that is a machine — but then, at the same time, the more confident we can be that it was designed by something very like us.


But the argument from design cannot, it seems to me, satisfy the need for a God who is both transcendent and immanent — the argument only seems to work if one already has that concept of God. If one takes the argument from design independent of that conception, then it seems to either go too far (how we can tell its a machine at all?) or not far enough (maybe its designer isn’t a deity at all?).

On a daily basis, I confront my limitations. Just today, I realized that I had never read the dictionary definition for “machine.” (Or if I did, I don’t recall; more limitations) Although Carl disagrees with me on many issues, he is thought provoking, and has caused me to do some thinking and learning on this issue.

So, let’s get down to business. What is a machine? The ID folks talk a lot about nanomachines. But when you use a word in such an important context, you ought to be as certain as you can about how to define it. That is one thing that science does well (when done right), is force you to operationally define (operational definition) the constructs that you are studying.

So, I think we’ll start out with the dictionary.1

The word “machine” can be used as either a noun (“that’s a machine”) or a verb (“that has clearly been machined”).

any mechanical or electrical device that transmits or modifies energy to perform or assist in the performance of human tasks

a device for overcoming resistance at one point by applying force at some other point

a group that controls the activities of a political party

an intricate organization that accomplishes its goals efficiently

an efficient person

4-wheeled motor vehicle; usually propelled by an internal combustion engine

verb: make by machinery

verb: turn, shape, mold, or otherwise finish by machinery

Sheesh.2 Where to start. I think we have to start with the definition that is the closest to what we are thinking about. If we are thinking about the “machinery of life,” then which one of these definitions comes close? Guess what? I don’t think any of these definitions come close to giving us what we need. I think perhaps this issue goes to the very core of the dispute between ID and evolution, and needs considerable deliberation. So I’ll try to start the process. It seems first of all that it may be necessary to make a distinction between a man-made machine, and a living machine. And I think we have to go beyond even this distinction.

A living machine is a molecular or cellular structure that exhibits an intelligible purpose (e.g., survival, metabolism, replication, movement, and so forth).

That’s my first try, but I’m not satisfied. Can the molecules that perform tasks within a cell be considered to be “living machines?” In other words, they are not themselves alive.

A structure that exhibits an intelligible purpose and function.

That’s as far as my reasoning can get me. It’s slightly unsatisfactory. So, I’ll search for what others have said.

Machines, as defined by French Biochemist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Lucien Monod (1910-1976), are “purposeful aggregates of matter that, utilizing energy, perform specific tasks.”3

I don’t know. Is this measurable? I think that this definition, like mine, involves human intelligence in the process. Specifically, “purposeful aggregates” invokes intelligence in the interpretive process. So, I think in the end, it comes down to our interpretations of purposefulness.4

I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at what might be an operational definition of a machine at this point. I’m going to have to do some more thinking on this issue, which is much more difficult than I had presumed.

1 http://www.onelook.com/?w=machine&ls=a
2 http://www.onelook.com/?w=sheesh&ls=a
3 http://www.allaboutscience.org/intelligent-design.htm
4 http://www.onelook.com/?w=purposefulness&ls=a


2 Responses

  1. heh, reminds me of the first time I started thinking about the nature of complexity. For some funny reason I had assumed it would be simple.

  2. Odd how that works isn’t it? I think this is the repeating pattern that the naturalistic evolutionists keep encountering. They consistently assume that the complexity is less than what it is (abiogenesis, cellular functioning, etc…). Over and over (perhaps utilizing Ocam’s razor?), the reality turns out to be orders of magnitude more complex than they assumed.

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