Questions To Ask An Intelligent Design Theorist

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

Also see 'Questions to Ask a Creationist'.


Intelligent Design (ID) “theory” is simply creationism on steroids–it’s got more muscle, more appeal, the appearance of less dogma, and the appearance of more compatibility with modern science–in short an Arnold Schwarzenegger of “theories”. The reason for the quotation marks here is that ID doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t predict anything, and like creationism, its main methods consist of confrontational challenge and the demand that evolutionists provide detailed accounts of enormously complicated clusters of phenomena. In fact, Michael Behe among others takes the concept of “irreducible complexity” as the centerpiece of ID “theory”.

A lot of gobbledegook has been written about this notion, but the basic idea is relatively simple and the basic tactic behind it is a bit of logic-juggling which amounts to little more than sophistry. To see how this concept functions for the ID supporters, we need to do some investigation into the history of the concepts of design, order, teleology, and teleonomy.

The fascination with design, order, and pattern is, of course, nothing new. In Western history, we find these ideas coming together with enormous impact in the philosophy of Aristotle and his notion of teleology. The ancient Greeks had a wonderful concept which they called thauma– wonder, astonishment, amazement and this important notion survives into the much more recent reflections of Albert Einstein when he said:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." Einstein and many other reputable scientists have spoken of God, but often to express and emphasize that scientific inquiry must continue to expand the limits of our knowledge–not to succumb to some convenient notion that it’s all just too complex for us to understand. Einstein also made the following comment: The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge." However, even if it were true that some things are too complex for us to understand, that would in no way justify claims regarding the existence of some superbeing as a designing intelligence.

Over 2 centuries ago, the Scottish philosopher David Hume thoroughly worked over the arguments from design and found them deeply flawed. Poor William Paley had apparently not read Hume and so Paley and his watchmaker example stood refuted before they began. For a full and rich discussion of Paley’s arguments read Richard Dawkin’s book The Blind Watchmaker.

ID proponents are partial to argument from analogy and are frequently guilty of the fallacy of selective exemplification, which simply means that they choose examples which fit their “theory” and either ignore those which don’t fit or appeal to the “principle” of irreducible complexity. Paley’s contention is, in a highly reduced form, that seeing a rock in nature doesn’t prompt us to think about design or a designer, but if amongst the rocks, we found a watch, the intricacy of the inner workings and, indeed, the character of the entire object would inevitably suggest to us a watchmaker–a designer, a producer, a creator, an architect of the watch. To explore this concept a bit further, I wish to introduce two other kinds of examples. First, let us consider a house. When we think of a house, we can imagine looking at the blueprints and seeing how the architect and his client have planned the arrangement of the rooms. Aesthetically, and even in utilitarian terms, we might not like the way it is laid out, but certainly we would have no problem admitting that there is some kind of design, some sort of order, some type of intentional arrangement. There are, of course, instances which may make us doubt any sense of order or design in some of the more eccentric estates in Europe and elsewhere and in the notorious Winchester house in San Jose, California. Sara Winchester, after the death of her husband, believed what a spiritualist told her, namely that construction must never stop. So, for 38 years, every day of the year, 24 hours a day, construction went on. There are doors and staircases that don’t lead anywhere in this bizarre 160 room mansion.

However, ordinarily, we assume an architect and client who are rational–we certainly don’t want an irrational universe (unless, perhaps, we have a guarantee of beneficent irrationality.) So, we have a rationally ordered house; therefore, there was a rational architect or designer. This seems very sensible. We would expect that even if we had an ultra super version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who could throw great quantities of bricks and lumber and nails and concrete slabs into the air over and over again, that they wouldn’t ever all come down in such a way that we would have a house with a rational floor plan. Nonetheless, as certain rather strange thinkers would assert, it is logically possible that such an event could occur. At this point, that claim seems quite outrageous, but remember it, because later on, this notion of logical possibility will play an important role. So, given an enormous amount of time and extraordinary persistence on the part of the superhero doing the tossing of the components, we couldget a house that gave every indication of being designed. Highly improbable, you might say. Well, that depends and what it depends upon is the context. Given a certain scientific, technological, and historical context, we can quite properly assert that certain things were deemed “impossible” at a particular time, but that since then we have gained a different understanding. In the 12th Century, the idea of being able to split ultramicroscopic particles and release enough energy to destroy a large city would be regarded as “impossible”, absurd, and the very idea of such a thing would be considered as “the Work of the Devil”. As late as the 19th Century, the notion that a micro-organism could cause disease was regarded, by the vast majority of those acquainted with the concept, as utterly preposterous. Thus, when we are dealing with issues of what is empirically impossible, we need to proceed cautiously and consider how radically our base of knowledge can and has changed as we observe more carefully and come to increasingly better understandings of sets of complex phenomena.

Let’s go to the second example. Imagine a verdant valley with steep rock cliffs on both sides. Let us further imagine that a severe earthquake shakes loose many great boulders which crash down the sides of the cliffs producing many smaller and smaller rocks until, in the end, the floor of the valley is strewn with large numbers of pebbles. Some years after this event, seredipitously, on the same day, a mathematician and a poet enter this valley, but at opposites ends. The mathematician, reflecting deeply on the Goldbach conjecture regarding prime numbers, is strolling slowly and staring at the ground. Suddenly, he comes to an abrupt stop, shakes his head, looks at the ground around him and takes a small notebook out of his vest pocket. He has noticed the pebbles. As he looks more closely his casual interest transforms into fascination and astonishment. He makes quick drawings in his notebook while mumbling to himself. “If you take this group of pebbles on the left, they outline a circle and those over there, just to the right, are groups that outline 12 triangles and further up there’s a rectangle, and so it went. The mathematician was profoundly impressed by the lovely, strict, mathematical order of the stones. Ah, the geometry of the thing! At the other end of the valley, the poet was wandering around contemplating clouds and daffodils as poets are wont to do, when he suddenly tripped and landed on a moderate-sized, but rather sharp stone, which made him arise with considerable alacrity. While he was dusting himself off, he, like the mathematician was struck by the arrangements of the pebbles. He extracted his notebook and, while humming to himself, rapidly sketched the astonishing outlines of animals which the pebbles defined. Directly in front of him was a starfish, to his left a giraffe, further on a clear image of an elephant, a beaver, a crow, and on and on. He sketched furiously in his notebook in a state of poetic transport. Both he and the mathematician were in such deep states of excitement and concentration that they nearly collided in the center of the valley. Instantly they both began talking and gesticulating about their marvelous discoveries. When they finally began to listen to each other, they agreed that the pebbles in this valley were laid out in a miraculous kind of order. Eagerly they exchanged notebooks, but within minutes, they were screaming epithets at each other, such as, “heretic”, “irrationalist”, “Euclidean”, and others not nearly so polite. Finally a fight broke out, and this being the age of science and technology, the mathematician picked up a rock and killed the poet. “Animals!” he muttered as he walked away. The point of this little story is, of course, quite evident–human beings are notoriously clever at projecting order onto nature. One of my favorite examples is the butterfly alphabet–in English of course. I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a Cyrillic butterfly alphabet, not that it’s beyond possibility. I have heard that to be literate enough to read a newspaper in Chinese, one needs to know about 5,000 characters. Now, there’s a butterfly alphabet I’d like to see!

What is needed is a distinction between “natural” or intrinsic order and human “projected” order. The arrangements that we give to the stars in constellations are clearly projected order and the arrangements have varied historically in different cultures. Furthermore, if our perspective was from some place elsewhere in the galaxy, the positions would appear quite different to us and our arrangements would also be different. In other words, such arrangements are perspective-relative.

Most ID proponents do, at least, allow Earth and the universe a life span longer that 6,000 years. Recent developments in astrophysics have estimated that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. The liberals among the ID set go so far as to accept geologic and fossil evidence and even a “guided” or “directed” evolution. What they persistently reject is the notion that this admittedly complex process could have occurred randomly. From their point of view, there must have been an intelligence behind all of this giving it a meaning and purpose, in other words, a teleos.

In order to make their case, they need examples of intrinsic order, order that is inherent in nature itself and not merely the product of human projection. The cycle of the seasons might tempt the poet, but such a cycle is geographically and temporally relative. Los Angeles, for example only has 2 seasons, the smog season and February 26thwhen there is a clear day.

Until the 20th Century, we could have turned to physics for psychological, aesthetic, metaphysical, and theological comfort–the marvelously rational and lovely consolation of the Absolute Laws of Newtonian physics. It was as beautiful and as elegant as Euclidean geometry. However, at the end of the 19th Century, a bunch of spoilsports and troublemakers appeared. Renegade non-Euclidean mathematicians–Riemann, Minkowski, Lobachevski– and perhaps even worse Georg Cantor with his heretical demonstrations that some infinities are bigger than other infinities–these rabble-rousers were questioning the basic tools and models used by physicists. The foundations of Newtonian physics were trembling. Then an unlikely Samson, a patent clerk named Einstein, threw everything into disarray with his general and special theories of relativity. Darwin had produced a massive earthquake with multiple aftershocks with his theory of evolution and biology and geology were in the process of undergoing radical transformations.

Not since Copernicus had the position, significance, and meaning of human beings been so dramatically threatened. A sense of foreboding intensified the quest for intrinsic order in nature and, in England in particular, created a passionate interest in nature on the part of all social classes. Even the poor could take walks in the wood and collect leaves and flowers, press them, and be amazed by their beauty and structural order. Many clerics devoted their spare time to the study of nature and a substantial number made significant contributions to both natural history and microscopy. The interesting, beautiful, or strange plants and animals which they studied were all seen as expressions of the glory and mysteries of God. Relatively few of these persons, whether laymen or clerics, had read Hume and so were predominately unaware of a powerful threat to their religious consolation which was lurking in the wings.

When I used to ask my students for examples of intrinsic natural order, they inevitably came up with cases involving biological process. For example, if you plant an acorn, you expect to get an oak tree, not an acacia, not a date palm not a maple. These wonderful seeds when given the right conditions produce mighty oaks. This has happened over and over in the past, still happens, and we expect it to happen in the future–in other words, we have an empirical basis for predicting this sequence of events.

If your daughter comes home and declares that she’s pregnant, you do not ask: What’s it to be this time? A giraffe, an alligator or a yak? Fortunately, on this planet at least, there are some possibilities which we don’t have to worry about. The really good part about this is that we learned that if we plant rice, we get rice which we can use as food, rather than thistles or chrysanthemums and eventually we also learned that we could cross breed strains and get stronger, more disease-resistant plants and animals. So we learned that there were some patterns which we could usually rely on, that allowed us to, in small but important ways, manipulate nature, to have a sense of control. All of this reinforced our sense that there was a comforting sort of order in nature of which we were a part, but even better which we could participate in by directing it toward constructive goals (teloi), setting aside cataclysmic events. “Aye, there’s the rub,” for we didn’t and still don’t have the means to control plagues of locusts, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornados, hurricanes, nor avalanches. We have learned how to take certain precautions, to develop strategies for dealing with such large scale phenomena, but we can in no way claim that we have control over them. We are at the mercy of such phenomena as less than 10 years in this new century have dramatically illustrated.

Surely, most of us don’t want to think that some ultra-intelligence is singling out individuals or groups for special doses of misery and abysmal suffering. Sadly, I fear that there are some extremely righteous, radical, right-wing evangelicals who would say that this superintelligence is simply punishing the most egregious sinners. Certainly Dr. Behe and other ID theorists would not commit to such a view. It is here that we begin to encounter the problem of selective exemplification. ID proponents, rather like their Victorian “Natural Religion” predecessors, find stunning examples of design in nature, such as, Euplectella aspergillus , a glass sponge popularly know as Venus’ Flower Basket;

the marvelous crystalline structure of sea urchin spines;

the intricate “angelic” mouth parts of sand dollars ;

the stunning geometry of both micro and macro crystals;

and the fascinating mimicry of insect-imitating orchids, and the list goes on and on, the flagella of bacteria, the development of the eye, the clotting of blood, etc. Admittedly, these are all fascinating and extraordinarily complex phenomena, but that does not entail that they are “irreducibly” complex, nor does it account for all of the seemingly chaotic, cataclysmic phenomena such as those mentioned above. Furthermore, to say that since we also can’t yet explain these types of phenomena, they too are “irreducibly” complex and therefore necessitate the existence of an Intelligent Designer. This is only marginally more sophisticated than the explanation which the ancient Greeks provided for fierce storms-namely, Zeus hurling thunderbolts. If you don’t understand it, attribute it to or blame it on a god or goddess. But, in our enlightened age, we know that that’s all nonsensical pagan mythology and that there’s only one Supreme Designer–but the difficulty is how does one describe this being–God? the God particle? X?, Jehovah? The Trinity? The Ultimate Unknown? On reflection, it’s no surprise that some ancient cultures forbade speaking the name of God and believed that ultimately nothing sensible could be said regarding this mysterium tremendum. Plotinus opted for calling this Ultimate Something–“The One” and asserted that nothing could be said about “The One” while he proceeded to write the six books of the Enneads. Karl Barth spoke of God as “ganz anders” (Wholly Other); in other words, we are incapable of articulating anything intelligible about God. These theological conundrums have a deep fascination, partly because they are based on paradoxes and are, as the profound and radically challenging Kierkegaard pointed out, “absurd”, “repugnant to reason”. However, none of these theologians pretended that they were presenting a scientific theory.

However, Michael Behe and others don’t want to commit themselves to any specific conception of God, at least not explicitly, rather they assert that there are “objects”, processes, phenomena in nature which are so complex, in fact, irreducibly so, that the human mind can never grasp how they came into being nor fully understand how they function. There are at least two major difficulties here.

1) How can one demonstrate that the human mind can never understand any particular object or phenomenon? In the late 17th Century, there was this wonderful thing called the Phlogiston Theory. Alchemists and early chemists had noted that when metals were heated, gases were driven off and yet, strangely, the metal increased in weight. A genuine mystery. But then a clever chap name Becher had a brainstorm, namely, that metals contained a substance called phlogiston which was sensitive to heat and thus, when heated was driven out of the metal–and here’s the clever part–phlogiston had a negative weight and so the metal got heavier. Lavoisier comes along and discovers and describes the principle of oxidation and, as a consequence, the Phlogiston Theory does indeed disappear into the atmosphere as a vapor. Instead of saying that phlogiston was the cause, the scientists of the day might have said that the cause is some inexplicable and irreducibly complex “X” fact. No use in looking any further. And, of course, this would have been quite acceptable to the Church as well–inexplicable = God.

Give an ancient mathematician the task of calculating the value of pito 100 million decimal places and he would have told you that it’s impossible. Today with computers, we can do it–I don’t know quite why we should, but we can. As I suggested earlier, the concept of empirical possibility is, in many instances, relative to historical context and also can be seen as a scientific challenge and the human mind loves challenges.

Logical impossibility is a formal concept and in its simplest form is easily stated and understood. If X is a proposition, then it is logically impossible for X and not X, in the same sense and at the same time, to be true. I think it confuses the issue when logicians try to give empirical examples of logical possibility and the reason for that is quite simple. If you were to begin to make a list of things that are logically possible, that is, not formally self-contradictory, then the list would be virtually endless.

1) There are polka-dotted hippopotami on a planetary system around Alpha Centauri.

2) The moon is made of Swiss cheese.

3) There are green earthworms 900 feet long in Armenia.

4) There are giant crabs that live in volcanos and cause eruptions based on their erratic mating cycles.

5) There is a giant spider that knitted the universe and adds to it every day and it produces extraordinarily complex patterns and designs.

These are just a few examples of the nearly infinite number of examples, but they may help us understand the problem. The only one of these propositions that has been put to real empirical test is #2. Men have walked on the surface of the moon and didn’t find anything edible. However, there are those who believe that the whole event was a government hoax which was filmed in a giant warehouse or hangar and even in the 1960s, it was quite amazing what could be done with special effects. Some of these believers argue that God does not want us to leave earth except through divine “rapture”. And the moon rocks? Well, the “astronauts” just picked those up in some remote desert where the filming was done. Like the Creationists, these people argue that there are too many gaps in the explanation that some human actually went to the moon, too many wild improbabilities. After all, even the distinguished philosopher, Wittgenstein, said in his book On Certainty that it was impossible that man would ever go to the moon. I suspect that even Behe accepts that humans actually did reach the moon. As for Wittgenstein–it just goes to show that occasionally even eccentric geniuses can be wrong, but the unthinking, superstitious masses are much more likely to be wrong.

Let’s go back to our list. Propositions #3 and #4 seem like they should be empirically testable. All we need for #3 is a research grant to buy 5,000,000 backhoes and bulldozers and start digging up Armenia. We’ll also need some very sensitive sensor that we can plant in the ground to detect their movement. Preposterous? Of course! The problem is that when we’re dealing with biological systems, we confront special problems. Our knowledge, as yet, allows us only a very limited kind of predictability. If 50 years ago, a scientist had proposed that 12 foot long tube worms with blood-red tentacles existed in the depths of the ocean near hydrothermal vents and had radically different forms of metabolism not based on a photosynthetic process, the scientific community would have scoffed. Now due to Alvin and other high-tech submersibles, we not only know that such creatures exist, we have obtained samples of them to study. What is most astonishing about these organisms is that they are living examples of metabolic systems independent of photosynthesis. These discoveries are almost like finding alien life forms on our own planet and, as a consequence of their strange character, we have had to expand our conception of biological systems.

Science is not static and fixed; we no longer live in a Newtonian cosmos of absolute laws, rather we have returned to the constant flux of a Heraclitean universe. We are constantly pushing at the limits of our understanding. Science is a peculiar undertaking, because it rests on an outrageous assumption; it assumes that everything in the cosmos is intelligible to the human mind. An extraordinary bit of hubris and yet necessary ifone wishes to attempt to understand and unravel the mysteries of the natural world. However, if you don’t wish to try to understand because these things are too complex and difficult, then you can simply say that it’s beyond our grasp and that God works in mysterious ways and go on about your life of panem et circenses.

The passion, optimism and profound curiosity of some scientists can sometimes lead them to take positions which are, at best, overly enthusiastic and, at worst, dogmatic. To say that evolution is not a theory, but a fact is an overstatement; it is a theory supported by an immense collection of facts. To say that intelligent design is a theory is a misstatement; there are no facts to support it, only lack–lacks of information, lacks of experiments, lacks of empirical foundations. In a significant sense, Hume was right when he said that if we were inclined to posit a theology on the basis of what we know about nature, the most consistent position would be polytheism. When we add in our own creations–the products of science and technology–then the issue gets even stranger. An old-fashioned watch with gears and cogs and escapements, I can understand, at least in terms of the basic conception of how it functions. However, in my study, I have a digital clock with a nice, large, red display. The other day, I watched it change from 4:59 to 5:00 and that seemed quite remarkable to me. I’m sure that if I took this apart I wouldn’t find any comforting gears. The entire process is a profound and complex mystery to me and so I have deduced that its marvelous behavior, since it is wonderfully accurate, is due to the god Digichronos. If I started to do this, I would have an enormous pantheon, because there are a staggering number of things I don’t understand. This proclivity for positing special beings to explain what isn’t understood at a given time has manifested itself in virtually every culture throughout recorded history. However, this itself gets remarkably complex very quickly, so some cultures decided that having one single superintelligence was the solution. With hundreds of gods and goddesses, it was too difficult to remember which one you had to make sacrifices to in order to stop the plagues of locusts and which one dealt with crops and which one handled fertility. One all-purpose deity–simple, efficient, and direct. This is the point at which the problem of evil rears its ugly head. In polytheistic systems, it was easy enough to have good deities, mischievous deities, bipolar deities, and downright wicked ones. But how does a monotheistic system account for evil? There are tens of thousands of books which throughout the last 2,000 years have tried to address this problem and there is a wide range of differing opinions. However, that’s theological speculation and not science. Even though I’m an old cynic and skeptic, I have to admit that I find some of it fascinating and none of it convincing, because finally one cannot “resolve” this problem without generating contradictions and/or invoking miracles.

Let’s return to the issues of natural order and design for a bit. There are two aspects that are closely intertwined: 1) the limits of our knowledge and 2) the extent of the claim that we can make based on that knowledge. There is an attitude which might be described as epistemological optimism which, during periods of great discoveries, leads some to proclaim that all of the basic issues regarding the universe have been grasped (in principle) and now it’s just a matter of filling in the details. However, eventually new information leads to new ideas and new theories or revisions of old ones until finally new paradigms arise and we are confronted with new sets of problems and questions. In a sense we are engaged in an agon, a contest, with nature.

As an amateur microscopist, I am drawn to the realm of the small. Prior to Leeuwenhoek, no one had any idea of all the strange and wondrous organisms that had remained hidden from us until this Dutch draper’s curiosity led him to fashion tiny, polished beads of glass through which he could peer into another whole set of worlds. His discoveries led to all sorts of improvements of the microscope until at the end of the 19thand the beginning of the 20th Centuries, there were many who thought that the microscope had reached its ultimate state of refinement. At the end of the 19th Century, remarkable photomicrographs of diatoms and other challenging objects were published.

This micrograph was printed in the 1891 Seventh Edition of Carptenter’s The Microscope and Its Revelations. It is remarkable for its detail and the total magnification is listed as 4900 diameters of the diatom Pleurosigma angulatumand it was taken by Dr. R. Zeiss. The very best equipment was used and great skill and precision were brought to bear. Human ingenuity is a persistent and quirky phenomenon. Just when some thought that microscopes had achieved the pinnacle of their development, new contrast and illumination methods were being devised. In the 20th Century, there were those who didn’t like the limits that optical microscopy imposed and so they went on to devise entirely new approaches to investigating the very small. The electron microscope was born, followed by the scanning electron microscope, the infra-red microscope, the X-ray diffraction microscope, the field ion microscope, the atomic force microscope, the laser confocal microscope, and on it goes. We can now observe cellular processes in real time and we can even do what Democritus said was impossible–we can look at the arrangements of atoms in tiny specks of metal. True, he had a different conception of atoms than we do, but the basic notion is remarkably similar for a “naive” intuition presented over 2,000 years ago. Most of what our modern science and technology have produced would have been dismissed as “impossible,” not only by the ancients, but by most people in the 19th Century as well. The concepts of what is knowable and what is possible are themselves evolving as we obtain more and more information and understanding.

The amount of information we have acquired is staggering and researchers now have quite narrow areas of specialization within subspecialties. For example, today we don’t have biologists in the early 20th Century sense; we have protozoologists who are specialists on the organelles of ciliates and then, most likely, on only a few species. At the same time, our knowledge is paltry and pathetically small. Just think of how little we know of the deep-sea life of our own planet and the further we move away from planet Earth, the sparser and more tentative our knowledge becomes. In some respects, we are cosmic idiot-savants. We are exceptionally clever about grasping some things that pertain to our own planet and our survival, but we understand almost nothing of the larger universe. This is where teleonomy, as opposed to teleology comes in. We have discovered and elucidated striking examples of natural order on our own planet, although we also have to remind ourselves that we also find a great deal of disorder and chaos. Nonetheless, we do find sets of patterns which allow us to explain and predict a significant variety of phenomena, but only within given contexts, mostly limited to the region of our own planet. In other words, teleonomy is a perfectly rational and applicable explanation for what we encounter; teleology, however, is not, because it depends on absolute causal laws which, in principle, we could never demonstrate. As a consequence of these epistemological limits, one could never have a consistent teleological explanation of the universe, because the gaps in such a “theory” would inevitably necessitate invoking intelligent superbeings and miracles, i.e., non-natural events. Remember that even Aristotle, who rejected the popular mythological pantheon, ended up positing an ultimate causal superbeing, the Prime Mover.

The estimated size of the observable universe is at present somewhere around 78 billion light years and it’s expanding which means that all kinds of areas are being pulled and stretched in ways and with consequences that we have no notion of. One thing we have learned since the time of Newton is that the universe is emphatically notlike a well-regulated clock; a better analogy is that it is like a turbulent and largely unpredictable collection of gases. We have, especially over the last century, proved highly ingenious in developing technologies which allow us tiny windows to peer out into the vastness of space. Perhaps the most important consequence of these investigations is that they have led us to repeatedly modify our conception of what the universe is like. In fact, the more we discover, the more we learn just how eerie, bizarre, and astounding the cosmos is. How can one look at the images from the Hubble telescope and not be amazed, overwhelmed, and awed; but this is not a license, a justification for concocting deities and astronomical jabberwocks.

The concept of teleonomy tells us that there is limited order and patterning which allows us to explain certain contextual sets of phenomena within a given time frame–that is, as we understand them now. However, whatever “rules” or “laws” of nature we uncover on this tiny speck of dust which we call Earth, do not and cannot provide us with an entitlement to assert that these “laws” extend throughout the vast reaches of the entire cosmos and apply to and regulate galactic systems radically different from anything we have experienced or have real knowledge of. The same applies to our concepts of design and intelligence (and even the concept of intelligibility). Science must proceed according to the principles of observation, experimentation, proposing explanations, and then critically examining these explanations. Science is a process of exploration; it involves sorting and filtering data, rigorous re-examination, and discarding conjectures which are demonstrably false or are unsupported by empirical data. It is a tentative enterprise guided by reason and careful critical reflection; furthermore it is a collective human enterprise. There is no such thing as Albanian biology which is different from Canadian or Korean biology, nor are there such things as Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian chemistries. The physics of totalitarian countries can produce thermonuclear weapons just as well as those of democratic nations, because in all of these cases the scientific methods and principles are the same. We also don’t have sensible people going around claiming to have their own personal mathematics or systems of logic. Certainly there are different mathematical and logical conceptual frameworks, but if you want to participate significantly in the areas of topology, number theory or temporal logics, then you must either 1) follow the rules, 2) state modifications of the rules and justifications, or 3) present a new set of rules with justifications. If we don’t follow certain precepts, then we undermine the possibility of meaningful communication. Suppose I were to tell you that I have never lost a game of chess. (In actuality, it’s closer to being the other way round.) Now, if I go on to tell you that the reason I never lose is that I have my own private, revealed and inspired conception of the game, the chances are excellent that you would refuse to play a game with me and I would count that as a forfeit and another win for me. We’ve all known people who like to make up the rules as they go along and not just in terms of games either. The ID proponents often proceed in this fashion by asserting that some problems are so extraordinarily complex that they are intrinsically not accessible to humans and therefore must be the product of a greater intelligence. So, the ID proponents, unlike the more conventional scientists, take the somewhat schizophrenic view that lots of things are intelligible to us, but those that aren’t are the result of a superintelligence. Ultimately, the problem with all of this is that it has nothing to do with science. The ostensible arguments go something like this. 1) We find certain striking examples of design in nature here on Earth and some evidence of design in other parts of the universe based on our observations. 2) There are phenomena both here on Earth and in the larger cosmos which are so complex that they seem to us to be chaotic and examples of disorder rather than design. 3) The chaos is illusory and is a result of extreme complexity, but there is order (design); it is simply that we are not capable of grasping it.

4) The examples of design we can grasp and the overall complexity of nature are demonstrations that the universe could notbe the consequence of a countless number of extremely complex events which are random.

5) Thus, the cosmos must be the product of intelligence and not any ordinary intelligence, but a superintelligence beyond our wildest imaginings–one that could structure and produce everything from quarks to glass sponges to squirrels to giant galaxies to black holes to dark matter and anti-matter. (You may have noticed that this list didn’t make any mention of human being, because I’m not so sure a superintelligence would be particularly proud of having produced us.) This is, of course, all sophistry. There is not a shred of evidence that chaos is the consequence of dense complexity. Indeed, the theory of entropy suggests that the universe is moving toward homogeneity rather than complexity and that an area of order and design is actually an “island” of negative entropy. This is indeed a theoretical stance, but from what we observe of our own planet and the glimpses we have of other parts of this vast universe, the information we have thus far suggests far more disorder than order. The idea of intelligence as ID proponents conceive it almost inevitably includes personification; after all, we certainly don’t want this complex cosmic circus designed, managed, and run by a superintelligent flea, arachnid, or squid. Furthermore, as we have discovered from our many wars there is no necessary link between intelligence and moral character. Just think of Mengele. One could create an enormous encyclopedia of horrors that intelligent humans have inflicted upon their fellow humans and often with no remorse. It is quite possible that this superintelligence is not benign, but utterly indifferent or even malevolent. All of this is completely unverifiable and does not fall within the realm of scientific investigation. The heart of this particular issue is the positing of a superintelligence which, at least implicitly, is regarded as benign. Yet the evidence doesn’t even support this conjecture, for in nature we find earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, droughts, floods, plagues of insects, pandemics of influenza, malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS, wildfires, sand storms, and ice storms–all of which throughout history have taken an incredible toll in human lives. If God, is, as medieval tradition claimed, omniscient, omnipotent, infinite, eternal, and omnibenevolent, then how do we account fo all of this misery? To say that the ways of God are mysterious and beyond our understanding (Irreducibly complex) is simply not convincing. All of these catastrophes lend much more support to the notion of a malevolent superintelligence. We know that human beings have propounded religions, mythologies, and metaphysical systems since at least the beginnings of recorded history. It almost seems that there are needs that are programmed into the human psyche as is, for many people, a profound curiosity about nature. The conflicts between these various modalities of exploring the cosmos and ourselves are largely a consequence of two factors: 1) The desire to create a hierarchy amongst disciplines and 2) The attempt by one discipline to dismiss or subsume the others under its own aegis. Let me try to make these two points clearer. Religions often claim to have the only true views and claim that they are absolute. Historically, this has created many conflicts with those involved in scientific inquiry. Only in the last decade has the Catholic Church admitted to a mistake regarding its treatment of Galileo. It’s position regarding evolution is still in flux and periodically undergoes modifications and reformulations. Apparently there are some areas into which the doctrine of papal infallibility doesn’t extend. It is also worth noting here that that doctrine is rather recent, dating only back to the First Vatican Council of 1870. On the other hand, the attempt of science to claim that it has the only truth can again only lead to conflict. Over the years, I have spent many rewarding hours reading and teaching the works of the Danish religious thinker, Kierkegaard. I always found Kierkegaard provocative, challenging, and at times, exasperating, but never dull. He is insightful on many levels, but I was never convinced by his religious views–nonetheless my own personal intellectual life was richer for reading him. There are courses in philosophy, religion, psychology, cultural and intellectual history in which it is perfectly appropriate to deal with religious, metaphysical, and mythological systems Those ideas associated with ID certainly have a role as a socio-political phenomenon, but they are certainly not scientific ideas and not even very interesting theological conceptions. The claim that the ID “theory” should be given “equal time” with evolution in the classroom is preposterous. The proponents of ID would certainly be outraged if I were to claim equal time for my “theory” of Malevolent Intelligent Design.

I can appreciate the biological sciences and still enjoy reading religious thinkers such as, Kierkegaard, Tillich, or Buber, just as I can enjoy philosophy and music, but that does not lead me into the temptation to set Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to music and thus produce the dullest and longest oratorio in the history of mankind. Some disciplines can blend successfully, whereas others cannot. Science should not try to pass itself off as religion nor should religion try to pass itself off as science. We are wasting the time and the minds of students when we allow pseudo-theories to pose as science. Monstrous things have been done in the name of religion–the Inquisition and the Crusades just to mention two–and monstrous things have been done in the name of science–ghastly experimentation on human subjects and the creation of fiendishly deadly weapons to mention just two.

The prime directive of the Hippocratic Oath is: DO NO HARM. If that could also become the prime directive for science, religion, politics, business, education, technology, industry, and our relationship to the environment, then we might truly take a giant step toward becoming civilized. Such an enterprise would, however, also demand much less quibbling, much more cooperation, and a basic generosity of spirit.              

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to shares aspects of his wide interests.


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