Dodging intelligent design

There is just no evidence for the existence of God. … So the relevance of evolutionary biology to atheism is that evolutionary biology gives us the only known mechanism whereby the illusion of design, or apparent design, could ever come into the universe anywhere. —Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Salon, April 30, 2005

It has been found that many features of the laws of physics seem to coincide exactly with what is required for the emergence of life to be possible. —Physicist Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

potsherdOn a sweaty summer afternoon in South Dakota, I wandered aimlessly up a dry riverbed looking for rocks. I spotted something that didn’t fit. Triangular, thin, slightly curved, and painted with a red zigzag—it was a pottery fragment. Its clay composition, uniform thickness and unusual markings led me to conclude that it had been formed by human hands guided by a human mind.

This potsherd had been carried to that particular spot by chance, moved by the random eddies of rushing water after a rain. I had stumbled upon it by chance, by looking in the right place at the right time. Surrounded by randomness, I stumbled on intelligent design.

Intelligent design (ID) claims that biological life could not have occurred by the natural selection of random genetic mutations, alone. It does not deny that Darwin was onto something. It’s just that there’s more to it than Darwin ever imagined.

Evolution was once explained by the simple aphorism, “if you give enough monkeys enough typewriters and enough time, one of them will produce a Shakespearian sonnet.” But as mathematicians have subjected Darwinian claims to probability theory, some, like William Dembski, have come away unconvinced.

Dembski has written several books on the subject, including The Design Inference and Intelligent Design. The probability that a chance, unguided process created life as we know it is vanishingly small, according to Dembsky.

Moreover, in Darwin’s day, cells were assumed to be unremarkable bits of jelly. Modern biochemistry has learned that cells are actually complex chemical systems containing many interdependent parts. Like the movement of a Swiss watch, these cellular machines don’t function unless every part is doing its job. Darwin’s linear, step-by-step process of mutation and selection is too feeble a mechanism to have produced such systems.

Dembski concludes, “Darwinism is… an oversold and overextended scientific theory.”

Francis Crick, the Nobel prize-winning DNA researcher once said, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”

Such comments remind me of a scene from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow are cowering before the terrible image of Oz when Toto discovers a little man pulling levers behind a curtain. “Pay no attention to that man!” thunders Oz.

Phrases like “the illusion of design, or apparent design” give the impression that some biologists would like to dazzle us with smoke and mirrors while concealing the machinery behind a curtain.

Yes, design may be only an illusion. But there is a another possibility: design may be design.

Biology is not the only field disturbed by the ID debate.

The Big Bang has become the leading explanation for the origin of the universe. Big Bang proponents once thought of the universe as a wheezing accordion, forever expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting. With each collapse, the universe would destroy itself, only to explode and create itself anew.

Astronomer Edwin Hubble upset the apple cart. Hubble discovered that the most distant celestial objects were not slowing down in preparation for collapse—they were accelerating. Instead of a squeeze box, the universe is actually more like a fastball batted out of the park. With a mighty crack of the bat, the ball rises, rises, rises, and it’s gone. The Big Bang seems to have been a one-time event.

It seems lucky, to say the least, that the Big Bang created a life-friendly universe on its very first try.

What came before the Big Bang? If it makes sense to say that the universe was born in that explosion, how did it gestate? How was it conceived? Did matter and energy materialize from nothing?

Physicist Stephen Barr has written about many of these issues in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. The universe seems pregnant with so-called anthropic coincidences, phenomena that appear to have been carefully tweaked to support life. Like a gambler on a hot streak, life rolled seven after seven after seven after seven, to the point of nearly breaking the house.

Barr cites the strong nuclear force as an example. The strong nuclear force binds neutrons and protons together in the nucleus of an atom. According to Barr, if the strong nuclear force had been about 10% weaker, the 100-odd elements of the periodic table could not have formed. If the strong nuclear force had been about 4% stronger, stars would burn so rapidly that our sun might have already gone dark.

Another example is the 3-alpha process, a finely-tuned phenomenon that accounts for the abundance of carbon 12 throughout the universe. Carbon 12 is essential to biological life. If the energy level of carbon 12 had been slightly more or less than it is, the 3-alpha process would have produced too little carbon to support life.

Scientists protest that they cannot simply say “God did it” whenever they run up against a mystery. And they’re right. Mysteries should always propel us to dig deeper and think more creatively. The investigation of mysteries always leads to more knowledge and better understanding of our world.

My quarrel with Richard Dawkins (and others like him) is the flippant dismissiveness shown towards the possibility that God has had his hands in the creation of the universe. When Dawkins the man claims there is no God, he states an opinion. When Dawkins the scientist says the same thing, he closes off a legitimate avenue of scientific inquiry.

Good science is open-minded science. Good science goes wherever the evidence leads. Good science values objectivity.

Searching for rocks in a dry river bed, I found evidence of design. It wasn’t what I went looking for, but it’s what I found.

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  2. I for one wouldn’t want to live in a universe that was designed any other way but with intelligence. But then, if it was designed the other way, as a product of its ‘maker,’ how would I know the difference? (Is that a conundrum?) Thanks, Charles, good to see you back.

  3. “Biology is not the only field disturbed by the ID debate.”

    I hear this statement all the time from people who are inclined to belive in Intelligent Design, a euphemism for religion/faith. In fact there is no “debate” within the scientific community. As someone holding a PhD in Biochemistry, let me assure you of that. You can find a few scientists who believe in evolution AND god. I know a Mormon biochemist who believes in evolution for all living organisms except humans. Fancy that. It doesn’t bother him that his gene for, say, methionine synthase, is >95% identical to the mouse gene.

    Rather than answering your points dierctly, I’ll just make a few statements of my own. I have wasted far to much time on the ARN board trying to make ID proponents understand some of the finer points of current research in genetics and biochemistry.

    Let me start by stating that “it’s too complicated for me to understand it, therefore it’s wrong” is no argument against something. But that IS the main argument of ID: life is too complex to have come about by chance/randomness. My mom doesn’t understand quantum physics, but her poor understanding of math and QED does nothing to dent the theory, which is so robust it accurately predicts properties of atoms to > 15 decimal places. That brings me to my next point: although science has never PROVEN anything (proving something is impossible), some theories are so good that they can be considered a done deal for all practical purposes. As an example, electricity is a theory (yes, unproven). But our understanding of it, in practical terms, is so good that we can use our theories to predict behavior and make some truly astounding devices that depend on the “truthfulness” of the theory (like the computer you’re using to read this post). In the same way, evolution is more than a theory. Every new piece of research fits into it so cleanly that it never surprises the researcher. “Darwin is oversold” is literally lke saying “the theory of electricity is pushed on us, why can’t we learn about alternatives.”

    My second main frustration with ID is that since they never actually perform any experiments of their own, the only thing they can do is try to attack apparent problems in current scientific theories or gaps in scientific understanding. If you haven’t noticed, science moves pretty fast. Just over a hundered years ago, basically no one believed in the existence of atoms (the atomic nature of matter). Now we can “see” atoms using many different techniques. Science advances to fill in the gaps and expand current theories, and it does so very quickly. The belief that “god did it”, or we can call it The Wizard(tm) if you wish, is a stagnant belief that never changes, never brings with it any new understanding, and enlightens no one as to how things actually work. There is no practical application of “a wizard did it” and it hardly suffices as an answer to anything. Please keep science and religion separate, they always were and always will be. Didn’t they exile Galileo for blaspheming that the earth was not the center of the universe? And hasn’t the pope apologized for it now that it is abundantly clear that Galileo was right? Belief has no bearing on reality. You can believe in Santa Claus if you want, but please don’t let your belief stop me from finding a cure for SARS or HIV. That’s where Kansas comes into this. Start teaching religious beliefs as somehow the equals of scientific theories and we quickly spiral back into the dark ages. Not convinced? Something like 90% of the PhDs awarded in Saudi Arabia are in Islamic studies. That’s why they “import” western-trained doctors, engineers, chemists, dentists…etc.

    Lastly, the question of what existed before the big bang is a good one. One thoery I’ve heard of is supersymmetry, based on a the superstring theory that underlies the quantum nature of matter. A lot of math and experiment remain to be done to find out if this is a plausible model, but it’s a start. One of many. Science marches on. What does religion have to say? Oh right, “a wizard did it.” How very enlightening.

  4. A Chrsitian says

    I just read ” Traffic in Truth ” : exchanges betwen science and theology …by John Polkinghorne

    Summary :

    Science and Theology (foundation of Chrsitian Faith ) are two seperate realms . Only Faith can provide purpose and meaning our our existence .

    Science and Faith can learn from each other .

    ” Science rules out a merely evolutionary optimism – the idea that process will lead to ultimate fulfillment – but theology responds by poiting to the faithfullness of God as the only true ground of an everlasting hope …

    Christian hope believes that the foretaste and guarantee of that divine faithfullness has already given to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ …

    ( page 40 )

  5. It should be pointed out to the arrogant and rude Cap’n that ID proponents HAVE and ARE doing experiments. I guess he’ll claim that Michael Behe sits in he lab and stares at the wall all day. Wells is doing work in ID as we speak.

    He surely hasn’t read any of Dembski’s books, since he claims that ID merely says ‘we don’t know’ and that it’s only a negative. That’s not true at all. Dembski has formulas that make a positive in inferring design, not simply showing the impossibility of natural selection to do A and B.

    He says there’s no controversey in the scientific community, tho umm there are tens of thousands of scientists who are creationists- surely they’re part of the scientific community, no? The man who invented the laser is a creationist. On top of that, there have to be the same number of ID proponents or those friendly to ID. They’re also part of the scientific community.

    Your analogy of evolution and electricity is beyond laughable. You can see electricity, you can use it, you can test it, you can manipulate it, and repeat repeat repeat TODAY. Mud to man evolution is a different matter altogether. Life arising from a chemical lifeless soup is in the same category. We can’t view it, we can’t test it at all, and we surely cannot repeat it. I’m surprised you didn’t use the common absurd example of gravity and that we don’t know EVERYTHING about it, but golly gee- it’s there and there’s no debate.

    Finally- your clear arrogance and rudeness regarding religion will never help your cause. You sound like Dawkins, and I think you pretty much proved the point of the author here- science marches on, but religion’s answer is a joke. Ha ha! Take that! Belief in God is like belief in Santa Claus! Ha ha ha! It’s childish and arrogant.

  6. Agreed with Cap’n. Isn’t just saying that, since the chance that something happens just right is so incredibly small, it must have happened the other way, outright rubbish for any statistician? The chance that one winns a lotery is also quite small, and people do win it. From their perception, that chance is very real. We are viewing the chance that we came into existance by a accident from the point of a person who just won the lottery… so isn’t it much more normal to, just like person who winns the lottery, accepts that we have beaten the odds and go do something useful instead of believe in wizardry?

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