Intelligent Design and Unintelligent People

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.

Unintelligent Theology

If there's no God, who pops up the next Kleenex? This quote has been attributed to the late Art Hoppe of the San Francisco Chronicle, in my opinion the most underrated newspaper humorist ever. Unfortunately it pretty neatly sums up the theological level of the Intelligent Design movement.

Once upon a time, when our understanding of science was pretty rudimentary, it made sense to point to a hummingbird's bill and bell shaped flowers as an example of how things in the universe were designed to go together. Unfortunately, Darwin showed there was a natural mechanism that could produce the same result, and lots of people have never forgiven him.

A couple of hundred years ago, although science was making thrilling progress in understanding the workings of the world, the "laws of nature" were mostly restricted to empirical descriptions of phenomena, and therefore the argument for and against design was waged mostly in the realm of complex natural phenomena. For every case a believer in design can cite of two natural phenomena meshing smoothly together, a skeptic can cite a counter-example where the feedback fails. The human heart may be a marvel of natural engineering, but whose idea were tapeworms? Or as George Burns said of avocados in Oh, God, "I made the pit too big."

In Darwin's day, about the only example of a law of nature explaining another was the way Newton had shown that Kepler's Laws were a consequence of the laws of motion plus gravitation. However, a modern day advocate of design wouldn't point to the way a hummingbird's bill is precisely shaped to fit a certain flower (or vice versa). He would point instead to the symmetries found in physics and the way a relatively small set of fundamental laws give rise to such a vast range of complex phenomena. He would also point to the fact that a very slight change in some fundamental constants would either have prevented complex atoms from forming at all, or would have allowed the stars to exhaust their nuclear fuel before life could evolve.

By way of analogy, consider a chess board well into the game. Is it a product of intelligent design? The pieces might very well look randomly arrayed, although a skilled player could easily spot that some arrangements cannot be achieved in normal play. For example, one side cannot lack a king, or have a pawn in its own back row. There is a checkmate position involving a king and two knights against a lone king, but it cannot be achieved in normal play (the lone king can always evade checkmate). But there would be many positions that are ambiguous. For every masterful position a believer in design cites as clear evidence of intelligence, the skeptic cites one with two passed pawns. The believer in design suggests that some positions are artificially created as problems; the skeptic accuses him of creating ad hoc excuses to avoid acknowledging failures of the design hypothesis. The believer in design argues the pieces are clearly of intelligent manufacture; the skeptic notes that seashells are even more intricate and are wholly natural. The believer in design points to the geometric regularity of the board; the skeptic cites crystals and honeycombs as equally regular but natural structures.

The reason chess has been played as long and seriously as it has is not because people like the pieces and the board. A nice chess board and set has esthetic appeal because of our reverence for the game; who'd get excited about a nicely crafted Chutes and Ladders board? Instead, chess has the appeal it does because a very sparse set of rules leads to a fantastic variety of possible outcomes. And it's in the rules, not in the pieces, the board, or any particular arrangement on the board, that we must look for intelligence. (Chess isn't a perfect analogy. There are ad hoc rules like capturing en passant. The Oriental game Go might be a better analogy for pure intelligent design, but chess is more familiar.)

The skeptic, of course, has not been asleep at the wheel. He would point out that the beauty of chess is rooted in the underlying laws of logic and mathematics in the universe. He would also point to hypotheses that perhaps there are many universes, and we merely occupy one where the laws of physics allow matter to evolve into complex forms.

Although there are lots of scientifically naive people who still point to a hummingbird's bill as evidence of design, the more scientifically literate advocates of Intelligent Design take a more sophisticated approach. One of their more cogent arguments is Irreducible Complexity. Irreducible Complexity is a variation on the "science can't explain..." argument so common in pseudoscience, or the "what good is half a wing?" argument that has long been a staple among anti-evolutionists. Irreducible Complexity is the scientific version of the Down East dictum "cahn't get theah from heah."

Consider the genetic code. Try simplifying the DNA of a human, and long before you get to the level of the constituent molecules, the DNA won't work any more. Even if you succeed in showing that humans evolved from simpler life forms, you can't strip down the DNA of a single cell without rendering it unworkable. Therefore, goes the Intelligent Design argument, the only way to get the DNA code is by a suspension of the normal laws of nature.

If you pull the feathers off a bird one by one, eventually it will reach a point where it can't fly. Therefore, if we follow the logic above, the bird cannot have grown from a featherless embryo. Or if the topmost leaf on a tree falls when you cut a lower branch, therefore the tree can't have grown gradually.

The fundamental fallacy that pervades the Irreducible Complexity approach is the idea that evolution proceeds linearly. In reality:

With these principles in mind, we can take a stab at seeing how a genetic code might have developed non-supernaturally.

It's obvious that we are very far here from having a complete picture of how a genetic code might have developed. It's equally obvious that Intelligent Design advocates don't try very hard before giving up and declaring that the genetic code could not have developed naturally. In order to say for certain that some supernatural event must have been involved, we'd have to know all the chemical steps needed to create a genetic code, then show that some of those steps do not happen naturally. And we're a long way from being able to do that. It is simply a lie to say, in our present state of understanding, that it's impossible to evolve a genetic code or some other biological feature without supernatural intervention.

Vitalism was the idea that some special force had to be involved in life. After science explained the motions of the planets, the cause of lightning, and many other once mysterious phenomena, life seemed to be the last remaining place where there might be some irreducibly supernatural component to the natural world. For a while, vitalists claimed we would never be able to synthesize organic molecules, but that barrier fell in the 19th century. With everybody, even the most fervent advocates of Intelligent Design, agreed that metabolism is basically chemistry, vitalism has withdrawn to the genetic code to make a stand.

The naivet of Intelligent Design cloaks a hidden agenda. First, its backers still hope to find some component of the everyday physical world that is irreducibly supernatural. God is not that clumsy. "God don't make mistakes," said Archie Bunker, "that's how he got to be God." Second, if they can force acceptance of supernatural discontinuities in the history of life, they can rewrite the history of life to correspond to the "days" of Genesis. Finally, why stop there? If supernatural discontinuities occur, why not postulate abrupt changes in radioactive decay and the geologic time scale?

But the ultimate goal of Intelligent Design is to force science to admit that miracles happen, and to allow miracles to be invoked as scientific explanations. And that simply cannot happen.

What is Really Intelligent Design?

I can remember when punch cards were used in computing. I missed clay tablets by just a slim margin, but I caught the punch card era. You had to keep track of where things were stored in memory. If there was a mistake in the program, the computer would not give you an error message. Either the attendant would notice the computer was running endlessly and intervene, or the computer would give you garbage. Then you had to get a printout of what was in the computer's memory, and track all the steps manually, then try again. If you got one character into the wrong space on a card, the program would crash, because the computer could not figure out what was meant to be on the card and interpret it correctly. You had to read and correct the cards by hand.

Much as we can criticize Windows - it has security holes big enough to drive a truck through and it's bloated - my word-processor corrects a lot of my inadvertent typos as I type. If I inadvertently quit without saving my work, it asks me. If I write a program that doesn't work, I will get a message telling me what doesn't work, and why, and sometimes even in a manner that's useful. I don't have to do a memory dump and track program steps by hand to find the problem.

Now which of these is really Intelligent Design? Early computers were clunky because we were still learning how to build them and use them, and they were limited in speed and capacity. What would we think of a computer designer today who still expected people to intervene continually to keep a computer running? Isn't it far more intelligent, in every sense of the word, to design computers that can run on their own without requiring constant intervention? Isn't a universe run by logically interlocked and finely tuned natural laws far more indicative of Intelligent Design than one requiring massive interventions?

Or consider automobiles. Once upon a time you set the parking brake, put it in neutral, adjusted the choke and throttle, cranked it, readjusted the choke and throttle, depressed the clutch, stepped on the gas, changed gears, released the clutch, and - maybe - drove off. Now you turn the key, put it in drive, step on the gas, and go. Which of those is Intelligent Design?

So which is Intelligent Design here? Create Universe - create life - create multi-celled organisms - create fish - create amphibians - create reptiles - create birds- create mammals  - create humans, or Create Universe - Run?

Unintelligent Science

It's a remarkable fact that the universe is very delicately tuned. A little bit more mass density and it would have collapsed gravitationally before intelligent life could have evolved, or at least before we evolved. A bit less density and matter would never have collapsed to form stars and galaxies. Mathematically, the universe could either have positive or negative curvature, but it's looking more and more like space is perfectly Euclidean (an embarrassment, I hope, to all the alternative-reality types who built elaborate philosophies around non-Euclidean geometry, except from my dealings with them, most are beyond embarrassment). To me, the most remarkable example of fine-tuning is the Mass 5-8 Bottleneck, or what I call Nature's Great Fuel Economy Device. To build elements heavier than helium, we could add one particle at a time, except there are no long-lived nuclei of mass 5. Or we could fuse helium nuclei, except there are no long-lived nuclei of mass 8. The escape from the bottleneck is that nuclei of mass 8 can survive long enough for a third helium nucleus to collide with it, creating a carbon nucleus. Change the fundamental constants of nuclear physics one way, and heavy nuclei can't form at all; change them a bit the other way, and the universe would long ago have run out of fuel.

The first question that comes to mind is, so what? Is there a problem at all? We don't know of any pressing reason why the universe has to have the properties it does. As far as we know, the speed of light isn't dictated by the strength of gravity or the charge on the electron. But that doesn't mean there isn't a connection; only that we haven't found one. And even if there is no connection, is that necessarily a problem? If we ever do reach absolutely fundamental physical truths, we will be confronted with things that just are, with no deeper laws behind them. It's perfectly possible that this is the only universe there is, and the charge on the electron is what it is, and that's just the way things are. If this is the only universe there is, ever was, or ever will be, does it mean anything to say it could have been different?

That, admittedly, is a very philosophically unsatisfying idea, but the universe is not obligated to satisfy our philosophical prejudices. Nevertheless, nature does seem to have a deep-seated tendency to be orderly and beautiful, so the idea that it might ultimately be founded on completely arbitrary principles isn't just philosophically unpleasant but seems to fly in the face of all of physics.

So virtually all physicists and cosmologists consider the fine-tuning of the universe to be a real problem. One possibility is Intelligent Design. However, Intelligent Design has two scientific strikes against it. First, it can't really be tested. Second, and far more important, it doesn't really answer the question why the universe is like it is. Instead of Nature presenting us with a universe with marvelous intricacy based on apparently arbitrary physical constants, we have an Intelligent Designer doing the same thing. We still don't know why the designer picked the values he did for gravity or the speed of light, or whether other values were possible, or how the designer knew what would work and what wouldn't. Ultimately Intelligent Design provides us with one new piece of information - there's a Designer - but otherwise doesn't answer any questions at all.

Since we don't know of any real reason why the universe has the properties it does, maybe there's a grander universe out there where other possibilities are explored. But only a limited number of possible laws of nature will lead to stable, long-lived universes. Other universes with either collapse quickly, or will expand but be empty. So perhaps there are an infinite number of universes forming and dying, and only in the few that permit stability can intelligent life appear to appreciate it. The term multiverse has been coined for this hypothetical universe of universes.

Let's point out the very important and fundamental fact that no Alternate Realities, either the metaphysical ones proposed by the pop philosophers or the physical ones proposed by some cosmologists, have ever actually been observed.

The idea that we could appear only if the universe had fairly narrowly defined properties is called the Anthropic Principle. Some cosmologists espouse the Strong Anthropic Principle, which asserts that the universe is the way it is because we are here to observe it. Needless to say, this theory is a huge hit with the perception-determines-reality crowd.

Actually, even the multiverse view leaves some basic questions unanswered. If we vary the speed of light, the charge on the electron, or the gravitational constant a bit, we get different universes that may be quite different from our own. But that's because we plug the revised constants into equations that work in our universe. How do we know that in these alternate universes energy is conserved or electric and magnetic fields obey Maxwell's Laws? If all alternate universes can be described with the same mathematical equations as ours (perhaps with different constants plugged in), then why only that set of equations? If the equations themselves can be different, if, say, gravity is both attractive and repulsive, or follows an inverse cube instead of inverse square law, or entropy can go either direction, then we know next to nothing about how stable those universes might be.

Intelligent Design can't really be tested, but scientifically, it's completely innocuous. It violates no known facts or laws of nature. Meanwhile, we have cosmologists postulating an infinity of other universes, a concept that's just as untestable as Intelligent Design, and we have others inverting causality with the Strong Anthropic Principle, an idea that would embarrass a tribal shaman, and every bit as supernatural as anything to be found in the crudest forms of the Intelligent Design movement. The fine-tuning of the universe justifies postulating alternate universes or inverted causality, but not Intelligent Design. Can we really blame advocates of Intelligent Design for feeling that their hypothesis is being arbitrarily excluded?

When Smart People Act Dumb

Someone once said "when smart people act dumb, you're in the presence of very powerful forces." Why do otherwise intelligent people commit the logical fallacies we find in Intelligent Design? And why do scientists respond with something akin to hysteria over the mere notion that the Universe may have an intelligence behind it?

Because, as is so often the case, the issue isn't the issue. If the Universe has a Designer, we still haven't proven:

So here's a challenge. Find a few believers in Intelligent Design and ask them to list three logical links that have to be established before they can reason from the existence of a Designer to the idea that their particular theology is true. My guess is you'll get deer-in-the headlight looks and that most people won't have the foggiest idea what you mean. They will simply be unable to imagine how an Intelligent Designer could fail to validate their theology.

Most participants on both sides of the debate know perfectly well that many people will leap immediately from "Intelligent Designer" to "the Bible is literally true."


Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 15 April, 2011

Not an official UW Green Bay site