Why Intelligent Design is Not Intelligent
[N]othing we currently know from our best sources of knowledge requires anyone to buy into one or more of the many extravagant claims that are made by those who would try to use science to promote their own particular mystical or supernatural worldview. Since these promoters introduce extraneous elements of reality not required by the data, their proposals fail the test of parsimony. It then follows that they have the burden of proving their schemes, not I the burden of disproving them.
--Victor J. Stenger (Timeless Reality)
Mike D. over at The A-Unicornist wrote a good article questioning what it is we mean by design when we talk about something being designed and goes on to criticize, rightly so, those who misuse the term “design” when they talk about “intelligent design.” Feeling inspired by his post, I thought I would add a few of my own thoughts to the subject of design, and why, ultimately, intelligent design is not so intelligent after all.
In this essay I am going to talk about the various reasons why Intelligent Design, as proposed by religious believers, is not just wrong, but largely incoherent. I will attempt to show, that, in reality, the universe has no discernible design. As such, unable to detect any specific features which would denote an intentional design, we cannot infer purpose. If there is no design or underlying purpose, then the universe is uncaused (*supernaturally speaking--it may yet prove to have a natural cause we don't yet know of), and therefore there is no such thing as an “intelligent designer.”
The Problem of Life
We know of many statistics, such as the poor eyesight of the human eyeball, or the poorly assembled anatomy of the male (and his reproductive organ), the shedding of the female’s uterine wall, or the vestigial traits we are all left with, which show, at least biologically, why humans, if designed, were designed by an incompetent “Watchmaker.” In actuality, the accumulation of this shoddy biological “design” only goes to embarrass those who claim we were designed by an all intelligent being with a purpose in mind, since it inevitably becomes the implicit statement that the purpose of our specific creation was to be poorly designed. Darwin’s theory of evolution, on the other hand, not only accounts for these poor biological features, but predicts them!
Most religious people who believe in a Creator, however, despise Darwin’s theory of evolution precisely because it denies any such being. Evolutionary theory shows us how complex life can form, with all its utility, without the need of any designer. If there is no designer, there is no God, and this troubles believers to no end. Which is why in many parts of the world, Darwin’s theory of evolution is still adamantly denied by the religious acolytes of faith.
In light of this denial, we have two factions of believers. There are the theistic evolutionists, who believe God set Natural Selection in motion, and that evolution is God’s engine for getting complex life. Never mind why an intelligent, all powerful, being would go through the trouble of using seemingly random processes as a way to get life—and making it appear as if he didn’t exist—especially since his loving creation is supposed to be proof of his existence. It actually boggles the mind as to why a God who wants us to believe in him would go through the trouble of trying to camouflage his very existence in the creation which is, assumedly, evidence of his existence. But if all religious people were rational, such poor ideas would never need to be defended in the first place.
At least theistic evolution is a theory which is compatible with science, and without any cost to the theological assumptions of the believer, because all they have done is said it makes little difference how God did it, just as long as we acknowledge that this is the way he intended it. In actuality, it explains nothing—about evolution or about God—unless we are to believe God is as deceitful and capricious as the above depiction would have us believe. Which is problematic for theists, since it leaves us with a God which does not fit their theological definition of God, and so cannot be believed in for this reason, or there is no such being at all. But I will leave that up to you to decide.
The other camp of believers are those who, proudly and stubbornly, continue to deny evolution because they believe in something called “Intelligent Design.”
The Argument from Design
Popular though it may be, the design advocacy for creation can be traced back to the inadequate reasoning of William Paley and his over quoted ‘Watchmaker’ anecdote. William Paley was one of the first to articulate the implications of finding the appearance of design all around us in nature in his 1802 work Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature, positing the idea that if you were walking along the beach one day and saw a clock watch lying on the beach, that one would instantly recognize it as being something purposefully designed. Anyone who’s intelligent enough, can, with some inspection, come to the conclusion that the watch is certainly distinguishable from a rock, and knowing how sophisticated things are typically constructed, intuitively leads us to the idea that all complex things, like watches, must always have a creator—a Watchmaker, in other words. This gives us the oft mentioned argument from design.
The universe is complex, it appears to function according to certain observable laws, and it seems awfully counter intuitive to presume it just spontaneously popped out of nothing. On close inspection, we find that many of these physical laws seem to fit within a precise range, so much so, were they any other set of values, then life as we know it could not be. From here creationists often suggest that the outwardly appearance of various facets found in nature ostensibly look designed (because of their complexity and utility), which is in turn evidence enough for believing that there must have been an intelligent mind behind the design, a “fine-tuner” in other words.
“God did it” is Not a valid Explanation
Inserting the pseudoscience of “Intelligent Design,” or ID for short, is no explanation for the apparent design we are detecting (or at least we think we are detecting). Often goes ignored, though, is the fact that design must be proved, and moreover proved not to have arisen from natural causes, before a designer can be inferred. This is why ignoring natural explanations for the same phenomenon, such as the creation of life or the cause of the universe, frequently ends in false assumptions. In order to claim that something is properly designed, one must first consider all the natural materialistic posibilities, and then, rule them out. If they can’t be entirely ruled out, then there is no reason to ever posit, or introduce, any argument from design in the first place.
Snowflakes are a good example of this. They are symmetric, crystalline structures, which take on beautiful shapes and patterns, so intricate, so sophisticated, that under a microscope they appear the work of a designer. But we all know that snowflakes are simply the product of random meteorological variables. It seems strange to me, that although we know things in nature always have naturalistic explanations, that when it comes to the question of the origins of life or the universe, suddenly, we must appeal to the supernatural. It seems that most Intelligent Design advocates simply want to espouse that God created snowflakes instead of taking the time to actually learn and understand how snowflakes form. The same might be true with regard to the life and the universe.
But ID is not really a new theory, as the argument from design also known as the teleological argument, has been around for ages. Traditionally the teleological argument has been used to assert that it was God who did it, and leaves it at that. But such a claim fails to explain anything else, especially that which we do know about, and is clearly not reliant upon genuine science. Just as saying God created snowflakes doesn’t actually explain how temperature and barometric pressure causes liquid H20 to crystallize and become ice. Science does explain all this, however.
As you can see, the “God did it” argument is really silly, even absurd, when you apply it to other things we do have explanations for. The fact that we do not have certain explanations for some things, such as the onset of the universe, doesn’t mean the argument “God did it” isn’t any less absurd than the things we do have explanations for. In other words, missing details do not automatically make the God argument valid. Obviously, such a strategy is a God of the Gaps styled attempt to fill in the gaps, of our missing knowledge, with “God did it.” When you stop to think about it though, it’s completely ridiculous.
In his science heavy book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dan Dennett asserts:
We began with a somewhat childish vision of an anthropomorphic, Handicrafter God, and recognized that this idea, taken literally, was well on the road to extinction. When we looked through Darwin’s eyes at the actual processes of design of which we and all the wonders of nature are the products to date, we found that Paley was right to see these effects as the result of a lot of design work, but we found a non-miraculous account of it: a massively parallel, and hence prodigiously wasteful, process of mindless, algorithmic design-trying, in which, however, the minimal increments of design have been thriftily husbanded, copied and re-used over billions of years. The wonderful particularity of individuality of the creation was due, not to Shakespearean inventive genius, but to the incessant contributions of chance, a growing sequence of what Crick has called “frozen accidents.” [i]
Nature, it would seem, does a fine job of explaining the discernible appearance of design we find in the universe. As such, adding the imposing intellect of a supreme Handicrafter only seems to complicate the ID theory, since science can explain the appearance of design in multiple ways and none of it requires an all powerful mind to get us there. This revelation diminishes the argument for ID, if not flat out steamrolls it into the ground. If the God of Intelligent Design theory was the grand Creator of the universe, then there would have to be better evidence of his “creating capacity” and “tinkering” than the possibility of “design,” which has already been accounted for and explained away by scientific means (e.g., evolution, snowflakes, microwave ovens, etc.).
The Self-Made Tapestry and on Fine-Tuning
The physicist Victor Stenger, and outspoken nonbeliever, suggests we brush up on our scientific prowess before simply arriving at the unfounded conclusion that design necessitates divine agency. In his book God The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, Stenger makes the rejoinder:
In his beautifully illustrated book The Self-Made Tapestry, Philip Ball gives many examples of pattern formation in nature that should provide a strong antidote for those who still labor under the delusion that mindless natural processes are unable to account for the complex world we see around us. The fact that many patterns observed in biological systems are also present in nonliving systems and can be understood in terms of elementary, reductionist physics also should provide an antidote for those who still labor under the delusion that special holistic or nonreductive processes are needed to account for the complexity of life.[ii]
Since all science stems from observation and attempts to make sense of the universe, and by experiment show how the laws of physics apply and hold true—even as the universe seems more and more chaotic and random than initially thought, we are slowly sewing up the gaps, and the patterns which are coming together, show no signs of divine tampering.
As such, it is the popular ploy of the apologist to retreat to the fine tuning argument, as many defenders of supernatural superstition are inclined to do. Creationist/Astrophysicist Hugh Ross has summed up the fine tuning argument quite nicely when he asserts:
Unless the force electromagnetism takes on a particular value, molecules won't happen. Take the nucleus of an atom. There's an electron orbiting that nucleus. If the force electromagnetism is too weak, the electron will not orbit the nucleus. There won't be sufficient electromagnetic pull to keep that electron orbiting the nucleus. If electrons cannot orbit nuclei, then electrons cannot be shared so that nuclei can come together to form molecules. Without molecules, we have no life.
If the force electromagnetism is too strong, the nuclei will hang onto their electrons with such strength that the electrons will not be shared with adjoining nuclei and again, molecules will never form. Unless the force electromagnetism is fine-tuned to a particular value, the universe will have no molecules and no life.
If the nuclear force is too strong, the protons and neutrons in the universe will find themselves stuck to other protons and neutrons, which means we have a universe devoid of Hydrogen. Hydrogen is the element composed of the bachelor proton. Without Hydrogen, there's no life chemistry. It's impossible to conceive of life chemistry without Hydrogen.
On the other hand, if we make the nuclear force slightly weaker, none of the protons and neutrons will stick together. All of the protons and neutrons will be bachelors, in which case the only element that would exist in the universe would be Hydrogen, and it's impossible to make life if all we've got is Hydrogen.
How sensitive must this strong nuclear force be designed for life to exist? It's so sensitive that if we were to make this force 3/10 of 1% stronger or 2% weaker, life would be impossible at any time in the universe.[iii]
Although all this may be true, I think the mistake here is more than obvious. Precisely because it is the mistake which Paley made earlier. The inference that God caused the so-called fine-tuning of the universe cannot be made unless we have first ruled out all the physical and naturalistic explanations. Which we haven’t. Furthermore, observing the parameters which are crucial for life merely means that these parameters are the ones required for the type of life we happen to see. It doesn’t mean that this form of life is the only possible type of life, or that these parameters were preselected as the only parameters for which life can evolve. Both assumptions are false, because, as we shall soon see, the parameters of life fall onto a range. There are other potential value configurations which could support life.
Why the Fine-Tuning Argument is a Poor Assumption
The fine-tuning argument rests on the assumption that any form of life is possible only for a very narrow, highly improbable, range of physical parameters. But such an assumption is not justified. One thing you may find is that, in defense of this assumption, ID Proponents love to spout off statistics and probabilities. Much of them ignoring alternative theories in favor of their own conclusions than showing a willingness to honestly evaluate the evidence we do have—evidence which depicts the universe we observe as a “happy accident” more so than the product of some deliberate design.
As Victor Stenger shows in his book Timeless Reality, there is, in fact, a huge available range to the values and constants we discover when it comes to the question about the type of universe required for supporting life. His point being, there are other possible configurations, other possible scenarios where variant universes fall within the range and could, theoretically, be capable of supporting life.
Stenger also observes that there is no physical law which states that other universes, should they exist, could not easily fall within this same range which can support life. Therefore, there is no reason to assume our universe is special merely because it has the set values required for life which fall on this range. As fate would have it, we just so happen to be living in a universe which happens to fall within one precise spot on that range where life is possible.
Allowing for such a range, which Stenger writes out mathematically in his book (see Chapter 13 of Timeless Reality) where different value configurations can, given the right parameters, support life—this defeats the purpose of “fine-tuned” anything. It would, therefore, be more accurate to say, the observable values we find within the given range are congenial for life, rather than to say it was “finely-tuned” specifically for life to exist.
Phrasing it in accord to the available evidence, instead of our personal convictions, makes our investigation more objective—or to state it more clearly—those who believe in “fine-tuning” do so because they are expecting to find the existence of a “fine-tuner.” A Watchmaker. Therefore, they automatically rule out all other possibilities. However, this is not being objective.
IDers in support of fine-tuning will often try to detract from alternate theories which would make their argument impossible to sustain. Alternative theories such as a many worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics, or the anthropic principle, inflationary multi-universe theory, vacuum universes, or any of the other viable multi-universe theories. IDers will often argue these alternative theories are too fantastic to believe, and worse, cannot be properly observed so are little more than bad assumptions. Although, this is untrue for several reasons, the most obvious being that these theoretical theories and hypothesis are not in conflict with what we know about physics. They arise because of the physics! Also, there is nothing to suggest we could never find evidence of other universes existing outside of our own. In fact, as Brian Greene make abundantly clear in his new book The Hidden Reality:
A striking fact… is that many of the major developments in fundamental theoretical physics—relativistic physics, quantum physics, cosmological physics, unified physics, computational physics—have led us to consider one or another variety of parallel universe…. It’s not that physicists are standing ready, multiverse nets in their hands, seeking to snare any passing theory that might be slotted, however awkwardly, into a parallel-universe paradigm. Rather, all of the parallel-universe proposals that we will take seriously emerge unbidden from the mathematics of theories developed to explain conventional data and observations.
Notably, I might add, the entire notion of a divine entity, which exists outside of space and time, but can cause a universe to exist and “tune” it just right, to support life, does defy our understanding when it comes to how the laws of physics always function. It does not arise from theories developed to explain conventional data and observation, mainly because, there is no conventional data or observations to explain the properties of such a being. As such, Intelligent Design theory is not really a theory. It’s more of a giant, not to mention baseless, “What if?”
We might wonder, however, why IDers habitually ignore, and vehemently deny, valid scientific theories they have never seriously considered? What is going on here, I think, is a bit of subterfuge on top of the failure of a poor rationalization. Theists want to take the focus off their badly comprised idea(s) by highlighting the weak theories rooted squarely within science, all the time hoping (praying) that we forget that their theory is completely unscientific, supernatural, hokum which is just as improbable as the theories they decry, accept for the fact that their pet theory just also happens to be untestable, and doesn’t stem from any valid observation, therefore making it all the more unfeasible. Yet what good theist is going to willingly admit that theirs is the weakest of all possible theories when it comes to explaining the universe? Such an admission would mean that, in actuality, they don’t have evidence for God. All they have is faith—one which is contradicted, more often than not, by the facts.
If you don’t want science correcting for your wrong beliefs, then it’s best not to practice science. The problem with IDers is they are trying to have it both ways. They want to maintain their wrong beliefs while claiming, happily, often ignorantly, that science is in support of these beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. So they bring in an argument like “fine-tuning.” If the science doesn’t contradict it, they will say, then it obviously supports their theory of an intelligent designer. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any other possibility, they’ll likely claim. But lack of imagination is never a valid substitution for the truth. Moreover, forcing the facts to fit theories instead of the theories to fit with the facts is probably the worst way to go about proving one’s theory as reliable.
The Purpose of Design is to Serve Function
Indeed, Victor Stenger has gone on to point out that multiverse theories which posit the existence of multiple universes are actually more economical than theories which posit only one possible universe. Citing Max Tegmark, Stenger argues that a theory in which all possible universes exist is actually more parsimonious than one in which only one exists. “That is,” he states, “a single universe requires more explanation—additional hypotheses.”
Stenger goes on to clarify:
The existence of many universe is in fact consistent with all we know about physics and cosmology. No new hypotheses are needed to introduce them. Indeed, it takes an added hypothesis to rule them out—a super law of nature that says only one universe can exist. That would be an uneconomical hypothesis!
At the same time, others have suggested that even with the values and parameters our universe has, they are not “finely” tuned enough for the purpose of life. Rather, as Quentin Smith and Lee Smolin have suggested, the parameters of our universe appear to be precisely calibrated to maximize black hole production. Life, if their theory has any merit, would then merely be a bi-product of black hole formation. Therefore the claim that the universe is finely-tuned for life would be completely erroneous, since black holes do not qualify as living entities—in fact, they are better known as things which are directly hostile to all forms of life.
All this seems to suggest that, given our understanding, the set values and given parameters of our universe have very little to say on whether or not an “intelligent designer” exists. In fact, in most cases, given our knowledge of the vast nature of our universe and how it is ill-suited to support life in general, it would appear the design is deliberately to eradicate any semblance of life nearly the instant it begins, which would be evidence of an incompetent design, or else, no real design at all.
Another concern we might raise is, the purpose of design is to serve function. If God designed many different universes, then what are their functions? If he designed just this one, then why design it without any seeming function (at least that we can discern)? If all the possible universes in existence lack function, as ours apparently does, then why frivolously create universes? Is it for art’s sake? Could a supposed “intelligent being” prove to be so entirely superficial? What a useless sort of being!
A Final Consideration: No Purpose, No Design. No Design, No Designer.
When we consider design, we usually think of purpose, since design typically denotes an intended function of the design. A watch has the function of telling time, thus when we examine its design, we find all the gears, and springs, levers, and screws all form an elegant mechanism specifically designed to tell the time. This doesn’t mean, however, that the watch cannot serve other functions. One could use it as a paperweight, for example, but what I am trying to stress is the obvious purpose for the watch, the purpose for its design, can be designated as a time piece. Its primary function is for telling time—and this is the conclusion we would make when finding a watch on the beach.
But what if we found a natural sun-dial on the beach? It too seems to be “designed” well enough to tell time. But this appearance of design is just an illusion, because only humans have a need to tell time. Therefore we see the presence of “design” behind things are arbitrary as a rock stacked vertically on another one, as if someone had deliberately, intelligently, made to aid us in telling the time. But such considerations are ethnocentric to begin with—because we are only finding purpose in that which suits our needs. The same could be said of the arguments from fine-tuning and from design.
It may be that we, as pattern seekers, are finding the appearance of design in many things that are distinctly without intended design. But regardless of whether it’s a watch or a sun-dial, the end conclusion is the same—these are things used for telling time because we, as humans, have the need to tell time. Thus we find in them, the exact purpose we require of them. Which is the wrong way to look at it. If the universe is designed, it couldn’t possibly be for the sole purpose of suiting our every needs. That is too narrow-minded of a consideration. After all, bacteria exist all over the galaxy, frozen on meteorites, or swimming freely in the frigid waters of far away moons. This does not mean, however, that the universe was created solely for the bliss of the bacterium.
Yet, when we stop to ask the obvious: Was the universe created for us or for bacteria? It appears the answers will always be: for bacteria. But what kind of answer is this? It suggests that bacteria are more important than any other life, and at the same time, it suggests that we really need not be here—we’re just a happy accident—of a universe designed to allow the bacterium to thrive. What kind of purpose could we find in such a universe? A rather very silly one, I should think. Which is why it sounds no less absurd with ID proponents invoke intelligent design in support of their God-hypothesis. What do they suppose, I wonder, they are trying to prove? If they actually took the time to think about it, they would find the answer downright offensive, God loves the lowly bacterium more than he loves any of his human worshippers. I for one would question the sanity of such a being, and furthermore, I would strongly have to question any so-called “intelligence” attributed to it.
This brings us back to the question: what, then, is the purpose of the design? A car’s purpose is to get one from point A to point B. An airplane’s purpose is to get a person from point A to B a lot quicker. Goggles are for allowing one to see under water. A fan is to help cool you on a hot day. Well, then, what is the universe good for? What purpose do we find here? Think about it? What design, could there possibly be, that the universe could exhibit, which would denote purpose?
None that I can discern.
If there is no detectable design to our universe, then we cannot assign any function to it, thus there can be no purpose to speak of. This explains why ID proponents need the universe to be “designed” so badly, not because it aids their hypothesis about a designer, but it supplies a purpose to their existence, which, in my opinion, is probably more important to the them than whether or not God actually did create the universe or not. They would rather feel like they were living with purpose than find out that their lives are ultimately meaningless. Even so, even if life is ultimately meaningless, this does not mean we cannot find our lives immediately meaningful.
So then, again, we might wonder what is the true purpose of the universe?
When we stop to ponder the universe, given our current cosmological understanding, we cannot say it has the purpose for supporting or even sustaining life. This is just one of its seemingly many functions. It is capable of supporting life, but it is not the primary purpose, at least not when we stop to factor in all the other possibilities.
If we look at the universe, as it is, its primary purpose seems to be to grow at an alarming rate. Beyond that, it has other secondary functions which must be considered as facets of its natural design. For example, the creation of galaxies, nebulae, stellar nurseries, solar systems, stars, and lowly planets all seems more of a precedent than life itself. Only after we find these things do we discover life, but not because of any intent, but rather, as a “happy accident,” a natural byproduct of all the other stuff.
Basically, if we were to sum it up in one quaint description, the purpose of the universe would seem to be to tear itself apart in an infinite expansion, in the midst of this explosive expansion, amid the turmoil, it manages to generate infinitesimally small pieces of matter, mere debris, and these specs often form life, which seemingly spontaneously erupts onto the scene. Given the time-scale of the universe, this life happens in a flash, as that which is created gets snuffed out almost as quickly as it popped into existence, and far before they could ever register as a blip on the radar. Our existence, and the existence of life, cannot, therefore, be considered the primary function of this universe. Therefore, it seems more likely that unable to detect any purpose to the functionality of the universe, we can safely assume, there is no genuine design to the universe. As such, no design means no designer.
[i] Dan Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 184
[ii] Victor Stenger, God the Failed Hypothesis, p. 61
[iii] Hugh Ross, “New Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God,” A seminal Presentation, April 16, 1994. Available online at: http://www.cosmicfingerprints.com/audio/NewScientificEvidence.pdf