Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two kinds of intelligent design

Today, there is a strange movement afoot referred to as “Intelligent Design” (ID). I say strange because the motivation behind it is to me not so clear. It appears to be culturally related to the earlier and very dubious “young-earth creationist” movement. But whereas one could perhaps understand (but not condone) the theological motivation behind that (shifting the blame apparently for animal suffering from God to mankind’s “fall”), I wonder what the motivation is for this newer movement?

Well, I know that it focuses on claiming that certain animal cells or parts could not have evolved in the gradual manner that Darwinian evolution postulates. Simply put, a principle of evolution is that for a trait or organ to evolve in stages, it must represent an advantage to organisms at each stage along the line. For example, for an eye to evolve, partial light sensitivity must be useful for organisms in the lineage (and I think it is easy to imagine that it would be useful to have even a very slight degree of light sensitivity). I believe that the flagellum is one example of “irreducible complexity” that ID proponents use, and I do not pretend to know anything about these biological systems, I find it dubious on the surface to argue that some trait can not have evolved gradually just because it isn’t clear how it could have. A great deal of info can be found on the web about this controversy, but most of it seems to claim that there are plausible ways that it could have evolved in the gradual way that Darwinism requires.

From a theological angle, what does this “biological ID” solve? If young earth creationism tried to provide a way around the “problem of pain” in the animal world, this latter form seems to do nothing of the kind. Animals would seem to have still killed each other and suffered long before man appeared on the scene (it is my impression that the ID movement does not dispute the billions of years old earth idea).

For my part, I think it very likely that Darwinian Evolution (in the modern post gene discovery era where it is called Neo-Darwinism) can account for all of the life forms, given that life somehow started. Now whether we will ever fully understand how exactly living forms got started, I do not know, but again my strong suspicion is that life did begin in some natural manner. I do not believe this in a dogmatic sense, but I would be surprised if it were not true. Proving it to be true is another manner, and, short of actually producing life from non-life, it is possible that we never will.

But I want to distinguish what might be considered a different kind of ID from te biological version, one that wonders if the physical universe is somehow designed by (in some sense) an enormously subtle intelligence. It could be something like a “God”, though by no means necessarily the type of God that the world’s theistic religions imagine. Or it could be a collection or panel of supernatural beings, or some kind of entities that we cannot even possibly imagine or grasp. The point is, there might be conscious agency involved in designing the laws of the universe. Suppose that the emergence of life was designed to an inevitable outcome from the initial conditions of the Big Bang, for example. It would not be necessary to imagine that a particular form of life (such as humans) might have been foreseen by the designer---indeed perhaps the chaotic, unpredictable nature of things required something like evolution to eventually produce life forms that are conceptually aware. In this view, there could be countless billions of intelligent life forms scattered through the universe, or there could be just one (us). We have no data on this.

One can imagine hundreds of variations on this idea, some involving the eventual spreading of consciousness throughout the universe. As numerous speculative science writers have pointed out, this could be the reason for the universe having “life built into it from the git-go”.

I do not, of course, know if this any of cosmological ID is actually true, or even close to the truth. I must confess that it does seem highly plausible to me that something like it is true. But I do want to point out that such a position might be called a form of ID—perhaps, “cosmological ID” would be an apt term for it—and that it would be vastly more plausible and respectable than the position represented in the current ID movement.

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