Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Limits of Science

Intelligent Design - the idea that at least some features of living beings must have arisen from deliberate design - pushes at the limits of science, if it doesn't fall outside those limits.

Suppose geologists were studying the rock formations on some uninhabited island, and came across a pile of rocks that they suspected could not arisen naturally (the reader is encouraged to think of reasons why they might suspect so.) The analysis of the rocks presumably would be conducted by methods developed by science - a variety of physical and chemical measurements would be taken. Once the geologists are convinced the pile of rocks is not naturally formed, the study of this pile of rocks passes out of the realm of geology, and into the realm of archaeology. The attempt will be to understand who the people were, when they lived, what their capabilities were, what purpose they might have had in building something that left the rock pile.

Let us say instead of a pile of rocks, our explorers find some artifact of what appears to be advanced technology. For example, suppose some silicon wafers with Pentium circuitry somehow fell into the hands of scientists of 1870 (year chosen at random). They would look at it under their microscopes and likely come to the conclusion that the wafers were created by an advanced technical civilization. Then the study might have two parts, one like the previous example, would be an attempt to deduce qualities of the civilization that made the wafers, and the second, mostly absent in the previous example, would be an attempt to understand the function of the strange patterns on the wafers.

Adherents of Intelligent Design claim that we have a very similar situation with respect to living organisms. They say, life shows a complexity that could not have arisen from Darwinian evolution and also could not have arisen from any other purposeless combination of natural forces, but requires an intelligent designer. So, for example, Lynn Margulis's mechanism of organisms in symbiosis eventually combining to form a qualitatively different new organism, or any other such idea would be insufficient to explain the origin of at least some features of life. Only an intelligent designer could have created this.

Clearly, such design of life is an extremely advanced technology, and one part of the investigation would be to understand this technology. When you think about it, this effort would basically be biology as it is today. Also, presumably, in between episodes of intervention by the Intelligent Designer, random variation and natural selection would still operate, and these mechanisms would still have to be studied; the only difference would be that we would not expect the origin of all species to be explained by these forces. An original created species of finch might by Darwinian means, evolve to several species of finch, there is no irreducible complexity argument that prohibits this, if all the irreducible complexity can be traced back to the original species of finch.

What Intelligent Designers are silent about is the necessary investigation into the nature of the Intelligent Designer(s?). They don't want to say anything about that. Why not? Not being a mind-reader I can only speculate, but there seems to be only one logical explanation.

The evidence that we have is that the Intelligent Designer(s) would have had to be active many times during the billion-plus year history of life on earth. If the Intelligent Designer(s) are a biological species with a extremely long-lived civilization, then the presence of the Intelligent Designer(s) may suffice to explain the features of life of earth, but to explain life itself, the existence of the Intelligent Designers, we fall into an infinite regress of requiring previous Intelligent Designers. The Intelligent Designers must have no beginnings and if there was a Big Bang, they must be seen to co-exist with the universe - they must have existed at every instant of time. If in the aftermath of the Big Bang, Intelligent Designer(s) can spontaneously arise, then why invoke Intelligent Designers as an explanation of life? So, whatever it means, in imprecise language, the Intelligent Designers must transcend even the Big Bang; if no Big Bang, then at least the extremely hot matter/radiation of the first few seconds of the seeming Big Bang - to which today's physics reliably extrapolates.

It is clear that the Intelligent Designers must be beings with the features of the Biblical God. So, unless the ID folks can give us some other model of what the Intelligent Designers are, what they want to say is "God created life on earth". This is Creationism. One does not have to impute motives to the ID folks - after all, motives are not directly observable, only the words they speak and the actions they make are observable. Their silence on the nature of the Intelligent Designer speaks loudly enough.

In my opinion, scientists would do best to simply ask ID folks to describe the Intelligent Designer. There is no need to examine the political, religious or social implications of ID. If one does so, one might fall into the trap of talking down to the audience. Scientists should also recognize that it is legitimate to have doubts about the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution to explain all of life; there could be other ways in which natural, purposeless forces work (e.g., Lynn Margulis's ideas).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you see the interview with the intelligent designer? At - it's very funny.