Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Intelligent Design and the cosmos

There's a little debate about Intelligent Design going on at the Corner, National Review Online's blog. Simply stated, Intelligent Design is the view that the order and complexity of the universe imply a conscious plan. There are many aspects to this debate, but perhaps the most straightforward involves the habitability of our universe. Dozens of things at the moment of the Big Bang had to go "just right" in order for our cosmos to generate long-lived, slow-burning stars; and within those stars, still more things had to work out "just right" so that the fission and fusion reactions would produce the elements of the Periodic Table. Under most scenarios, the Big Bang would have collapsed back on itself, or produced a universe that consists solely of hydrogen, or produced a universe in chaos, or a hundred other dead ends. Yet we got "lucky." Somehow everything fell into place, and carbon-based life became possible. To many people, the degree of apparent "fine-tuning" necessary to bring about this result suggests an intention, a master plan behind it all.

Although this argument seems simple enough, there are some highly intelligent folks who just don't seem to understand it. I don't mean they disagree; I mean they don't see the force of the argument in the first place. Consider this quote from the Corner's John Derbyshire:

"The odds against the universe being the way it is are trillions trillions trillions to one!" [say Intelligent Design proponents.] So they are. The odds of ANY particular event are exceedingly small. SOMETHING has to happen, though. I met my wife in a remote town in northeast China. What, from the point of view of my working-class English mother contemplating me as a newborn, were the odds of THAT? I was bound to marry somebody, though. The odds of it being any particular person -- let alone a person on the other side of the world -- were infinitesimal... but SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN.

Now, Derbyshire is a smart man, but this rebuttal misses the point altogether. The point is not that our universe, as it stands, is merely unlikely. Any given thing that happens is unlikely, in the sense that it depends on a series of contingencies. The point of the Intelligent Design argument is that our universe is extraordinarily unlikely in a very special, very particular way: it is well suited for life. Yes, given that "something has to happen," some kind of universe could be expected. But why this kind, which is so perfectly set up for life, as opposed to the myriad other possible universes in which life would be impossible?

A critic might object: "If life weren't possible in the universe, then we wouldn't be around to wonder about it!" This is true, but irrelevant. Suppose a person, Smith, suffers a terrible car crash. His car is totaled, mangled, yet he walks away without a scratch. Smith might well say, "How did I ever escape from that accident alive?" Jones, a bystander, responds, "That's a meaningless question. If you hadn't lived through the crash, you wouldn't be around to ask about it."

But clearly Jones is wrong. Smith's question is not meaningless. Because the fact is, he did survive the crash, against all odds, and he is perfectly entitled to wonder how things turned out that way.

Nor is his question just idle speculation. Smith can investigate further. He can examine how the car was built, how the airbags deployed, how the brakes worked, etc. He can figure out why the driver's compartment did not collapse even though the rest of the car was crushed. In fact, engineers who run crash tests do exactly this sort of thing, and they learn a lot by doing it.

Coming back to the cosmos, we are perfectly entitled to ask, "How is it possible that the universe worked out in such a way that living, conscious beings like ourselves are here to wonder about it?"

Personally, I see much evidence of intention and purpose in our world, and precious little reason to accept the materialists' claim that randomness underlies everything. Intelligent Design is debatable, and it should be debated - but not by knocking down straw-man arguments. That approach is just, well, unintelligent.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey MP, there's an article in today's Arizona Daily Star (Feb 11)you might want to read, regarding intelligent design. It's by Andrew Greeley. And I always thought that intelligent design was Feng Shui!

J. Carson Black

February 11, 2005 7:50 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

Thanks for the info on the Greeley opinion piece. (I would link to it, but it will be moved to the archives, and a different URL, very soon. The newspaper's homepage can be found at www.azstarnet.com .)

Greeley's essay is typical of the confusion surrounding this issue. He draws no distinction between creationism (Biblical literalism) and Intelligent Design. The two are different. Creationists believe that the universe was created in six days, that Adam and Eve were real people, that all animal species were created simultaneously by divine fiat, etc. Intelligent Design includes none of this. It is simply the view that the order and complexity and habitability of the universe (among other things) imply a conscious purpose or intention - a master plan. One need not be a Biblical literalist (I am not) or even a religious person in order to see the force of the Intelligent Design hypothesis. The acclaimed astrophysicist (and atheist) Fred Hoyle, after studying the nuclear reactions inside stars and discovering that they were remarkably fine-tuned to assist in the later development of carbon-based life, wrote: "A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question." (Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections”, Annual Reviews of Astonomy and Astrophysics, 20 [1982], 16.)

Father Greeley should ask himself if Hoyle, Paul Davies, and the many other astrophysicists, astronomers, and cosmologists who accept some variant of the "anthropic principle" are all beyond the pale of science.

February 11, 2005 2:07 PM  
Blogger Brins said...

I have to say it's nice to see someone making a distinction between Intelligent Design and Creationism; there are a few too many scientists and cosmologists that fail to consider the ID concept without making connections between the two viewpoints. Of course, all sides of the argument should be treated with respect.

Some scientists postulate that there is an infinite number of universes, where the characteristics of each are different. They would suggest that our universe just happens to be 'a good one', for lack of a better term. How would you say ID fits in there?

On a side note, I can't say I've read any of your novels, Michael Prescott, but I certainly admire your website. Some thought provoking (and very intellectual if you ask me) essays. I wouldn't suggest giving up the essay writing completely.

At any rate, keep up the good work!

February 22, 2005 1:36 PM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...


Thanks very much for your comments.

You wrote,
"Some scientists postulate that there is an infinite number of universes, where the characteristics of each are different. They would suggest that our universe just happens to be 'a good one', for lack of a better term. How would you say ID fits in there?"

Well, it really wouldn't. If indeed there is an infinite or near-infinite number of universes, then I suppose there is no need for Intelligent Design. Trouble is, these parallel universes are by definition inaccessible to us; they are outside our frame of reference altogether. So we would have to take their existence on faith. The question comes down to which leap of faith is more palatable - believing in one universe with one Designer, or believing in an infinitude of universes. There is no way to settle this question definitively; it comes down to personal choice. (There are, however, other, more philosophical arguments for the existence of God which may be relevant. St. Thomas Aquinas' arguments, though much maligned, are actually pretty good.)

Thanks again for commenting!

February 22, 2005 8:24 PM  

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