Intelligent Design, The Science of it All

One last bit of reflection

One last bit of reflection

I was astonished when one of the biochemistry professors I was working with on a project to modify a human anatomy/physical therapy program donated by NASA, discussed the elegance of the automatic decision-makers working on the molecular scale to keep the various chemicals of life at the right levels in each cell!  It was a little off topic at the time but was certainly one of my interests.  I mentioned that they certainly seemed designed and he was quick to change his attitude and attributed these ingenious molecular decision-makers to unguided evolutionary processes.  His message was clear: however remarkable these molecular control systems may be, they are nothing more than natural accidents— just like everything else in biology.

I let it slide and nothing more said during the rest of the design project.  I knew— intuitively, anyway— that no string of biological accidents could possibly be so clever as to manufacture themselves or other biological parts.  At that time, I sensed the weight of “scientific authority” standing with his interpretation and against mine.  Notice, I used the word authority here instead of evidence.  He was the degreed individual; I was the understudy, hired to improve the software.  However, by this time, I had completed three semesters of college microbiology and sports biomechanics.  For all the claims that I had heard in lectures and read in textbooks about the inventive power of Darwin’s evolutionary process, I had not seen any convincing scientific basis for these claims.  No one had shown how the amazing cellular machines of life could be accidental inventions instead of deliberately designed ones.

The troubling contradiction between what the voice of scientific consensus was telling me and what the voice of my own intuition was telling me had to be resolved.  That is what I have set out to do, to resolve this apparent conflict within my understanding.  I am certain that this conflict exists in all of us to some degree.  To the extent we share the intuition that life cannot be an accident; understanding is what eliminates the contradiction.  Technical understanding can be overwhelming; I know I had to read some of the data more than once to understand it.  I will offer simplified details of the important technical information.  I will not turn this into a science lecture.  Instead, common science will be the thread that holds everything together.

The most peculiar aspect of Darwinism is not that it takes credit for things that seem too extraordinary to be explained but rather that the explanation offered seems too ordinary for the job.  As a software developer, I recognize the other concepts that continue on here.  Intuitions are interpreted differently (Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired)

Whether the method I describe is the one that I actually use is less important than whether it justifies my conclusions. Specifically, I want to know whether the intuition that makes us all doubt Darwin’s theory is sound.  If the answer to this is yes, as I think I can confirm, then Darwin’s theory is in trouble whether or not we ever have a fully satisfactory account of how intuitions work.

I think the intuition by which we immediately perceive certain things to be the products of purposeful intent is close to the idea that some things are too good to be true.  This expression does not mean that good things cannot happen; it means certain good things cannot just happen.  They never come out of thin air.  They only happen if someone makes them happen.  Only someone who has that knowledge can accomplish tasks that we would need the knowledge to accomplish.

Whenever we think we would be unable to achieve a particularly useful result without first learning how we judge that result unattainable by accident.  The important point is that we all reach these judgments, often unanimously, and this rule fits these judgments reasonably well.  I use the term universal design intuition— or simply design intuition— to refer to the common human faculty by which we intuit design or the necessity for learning.

If no one makes breakfast, then breakfast goes unmade.  Likewise, for cleaning up after breakfast, for making the bed, and so on.  Everyday experience consistently shows us that even simple tasks like these never accomplish themselves.  Whether we taught ourselves these skills or taught by others, the point is that knowledge had to be acquired in the form of practical know how.

According to the design intuition, neither bricks nor shoes are made unless someone makes them.  As familiar as this intuition is, it turns out to have huge implications for biological origins, because the claimed exceptions are so concentrated there. And what dramatic exceptions they are!  Bricks are not made until someone makes them (or today, until someone makes the machine that makes them), but somehow much more complex things, like dragonflies and horses, were made without anyone making them, we are told.

Sensibly, we know and understand that nothing impressive ever happens by accident.  Far beyond such simple things are the pinnacles of human technology, like robots, communications satellites, and smart phones, which we know cannot appear by accident.  At the highest reaches of the complexity scale is the true masterpieces— things like hummingbirds and dolphins— all of them alive, all of them eluding our best efforts to understand them.  Some technophiles like to think that human ingenuity will one day produce their equal, and good things will surely come from rising to that challenge-obtainable or not.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson described this utopian view as follows in the first episode of the “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” television series:

“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules: test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test; reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything. Accept these terms, and the cosmos is yours.”

Somehow, with the conferring of rare honors, with the establishment of scholarship funds and the dedication of buildings that bear a person’s name, with oil portraits and marble busts and postage stamps bearing a person’s likeness, somehow the fallible aspects of humanness we most easily relate to evaporate.  This leaves us with an image of an individual that hovers midway between heaven and earth, neither divine enough to be worshiped nor human enough to be hugged.  Perhaps this tendency to idolize the legends of science is connected to a skewed view of the entire scientific enterprise.  Many of us, including myself, have bought into the idea that science, though practiced by humans, has managed to rid itself of the human flaws that leave their mark on every other human undertaking.  The purity of science is guaranteed by the rigor of “the scientific method,” we think.

if ideas could be tested with a meter, the way batteries and fuses can, then Tyson’s simple rules would work.  But if we intend to question everything, perhaps we should begin by questioning whether the human testing of human ideas can really be so simple, considering how complicated humans are.  Nowhere are these complications more evident than in the discussion of big ideas that touch the way we live, because here we find that everyone— scientists included— have a strongly held view.  Moreover, the very biggest ideas are those that offer answers to the all-important question of how we got here.

Oddly enough, I now see how the pursuit of prestige goes a long way toward explaining how science is stuck on certain wrong ideas.  In the professional world of science, prestige is bestowed in the form of praise, and not just any praise but the rare praise of those who are themselves most highly praised.  Why would anyone assume that praiseworthy science always gets the praise it deserves?

The answer, I think, is that when we fall for the utopian view of science, truth and prestige do appear to be weighted equally.  If we assume scientists are single-mindedly driven by the quest for truth and nothing else, then we expect those scientists with the keenest perception of the truth to rise to the top.  These top-notch scientists form an elite body of experts whose consensus opinion is the surest indicator of the truth there is.  Or so we believe.  Prestige and truth then seem inseparable, as though they are just two different names for the same thing.  Moreover, we need only see that it can easily become an authoritarian science.  With the truth perceived to be so reliably in the hands of the elites, we ordinary folks need not concern ourselves with the details when the elites (the knowledgeable) are challenged.  Instead, we wait patiently for them to deliver their official response, which we assume is surely correct.

My intent in showing the less flattering side of science is not to make me look good or others look bad (many of them are highly qualified individuals), and certainly not to make science look bad.  My purpose is instead to promote a realistic view of humanity and of science as a human undertaking.  We will not really love science until we learn to love real science— not a hypothetical pursuit in a utopian world but an intrinsically human pursuit in this world, however imperfect.

If you are wondering whether it is legitimate for scientists to hope for a particular result when they set their goals, it certainly is.  It is done all the time.  The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a well-known example.  SETI involves the work of many scientists who hope their search will one day prove successful.  They have no proof, but science never starts with proof.  Like every other worthwhile undertaking, science starts with ambition.

Many scientists devote themselves to finding cures for various diseases for which there is no proof that these long-sought cures will be found, but the goal and the ambition are there.  That is no small thing.  Scientific proof never comes without those key ingredients.  Harm comes to science, not by people hoping to find a particular result, but by people trying to suppress results that go against their hopes. When we consider who has the power to suppress unwelcome results, we see right away that the view most likely to create that suppression is the majority view of the scientific community.

If science is the application of reason and observation to discover objective truths about the physical world, then doing science requires accepting just a few things— none of them controversial.  First, we must accept that objective truths exist, as we all naturally do (I have a five part series on Objective Truth starting here: ). Then we must accept that some of these truths pertain to the physical world and that some of those that do can be discovered through human observation and reasoning.  Since we all engage in this discovery process from an early age, we all naturally accept these propositions.

There is nothing more.

Adding anything to this essential set of propositions causes two serious problems.  One: the resulting embellished definition of science excludes what should not be excluded, namely any work that adheres to the essential set without adhering to the embellishment.  For example, if a group of people were to insist that science can’t be done properly without accepting that life exists on other planets, then that group will refuse to consider any work done from a contrary perspective, even though this work may be perfectly legitimate science.  Second, the embellishments run the risk of pressuring scientists into accepting wrong answers by ruling the right answers “unscientific.”

The reason adherents to this version hold science to be the only legitimate source of truth are that they also hold to materialism.  This preconceived set of beliefs commits them to the idea that there is not anything that exists that is not physical stuff.  Because science is the only way to know the truth about physical stuff, this leads them to conclude that science is the only source of truth.  The materialist commitment itself is completely unnecessary to science and therefore a harmful embellishment.

According to this now-familiar view, people of faith who challenge Darwinism are really pushing religion, even if their challenge has a scientific look to it.  The real problem for science, however, is not people having agendas (as they always do) but rather the institutionalization of agendas.  This is the embellishment problem we discussed above.  Once an embellished view of science becomes established, active suppression of dissent becomes inevitable, with predictable consequences.  Everything that opposes the institutionalized agenda is labeled “anti-science” by those working to protect the agenda.

Therefore, with this background, we will begin to study rocks (not the ones in my head).  Instead, the ones that make up the world around us and which have been misdated and misanalyzed for many, many years now.


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