The two black holes in Intelligent Design

The two black holes in Intelligent Design
The Statesman (Austin TX), James H. Dee, Local contributor, 2/1/06
Anyone reading this page must know that ID (Intelligent Design) is a much-disputed and assiduously marketed competitor to evolution.

Scientists in every field (and now a federal judge in the Dover, Pa., school board case) have firmly rejected the concept, as has the science adviser to President Bush. But its advocates who seem to have among their number U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the president and Gov. Rick Perry carry on undeterred.

One of the chief problems with ID is its arbitrary application of the non-scientific, purely subjective word "intelligent" to natural phenomena. However, if we consider, among many counter-examples, life's ruthlessly predatory and destructive aspects ("nature red in tooth and claw") or just the oddity of nipples on men this "intelligence" seems much less evident.

Since proponents focus on ostensibly inexplicable facts and unhesitantly invoke divine intervention, why not call it "MD" ("Miraculous Design") instead of using the misleading and blatantly anthropomorphic word "intelligent"?

Even more serious objections can be raised against ID. There are two black holes at its core the issues of purpose and causality, which do not generally turn up in discussions on either side of the controversy.

Starting with William Paley in the early 19th century, ID proponents have argued that a watch carries unmistakable evidence of design, and they would surely agree that watches are designed to carry out a particular purpose telling time.

But what is the purpose of a specific structural feature in bacteria, or any of the innumerable non-human life-forms on the planet? What was the purpose of the bizarre and now extinct Burgess Shale creatures, enthusiastically described by Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life?

ID will be trapped in a morass of implausible and unscientific rationalizations, trying to explain why a designer did this or that, whereas evolution does not ascribe purpose to the process called "natural selection." As Gould emphasized in his final public appearance here (in February 2002), it is unscientific and self-centered to think that our species perhaps 160,000 years old, after 3.8 billion years of mostly microscopic unicellular life represents the goal of evolution.

The other black hole might be even worse, for it challenges the assumption, simply taken for granted in most ID theory, that the hypothetical designer is able to go from a mental concept to actual effects in the material world i.e., that divine intervention is possible.

For centuries, theologians have insisted that God must be, among other things, non-physical and, like the soul, not observable by the empirical methods of science. How, then, does a divinity that by definition has no physical existence carry out its designs? It must be through Walt-Disney-style magical powers, as there is no other way to get from an incorporeal entity to some kind of concentrated and controllable force.

Science, however, rejects claims of magic, and modern physics has made the application of divine power to real-world objects far more difficult to imagine. In the Newtonian world, solid billiard balls simply bounce off each other. But at the atomic level (say, one-trillionth of a centimeter), the surfaces never touch each other. Rather, their gazillions of negatively-charged "electron shells" repel each other, like two strong magnets of identical polarity.

Even worse, those electron shells are abuzz with Heisenbergian uncertainty. In the aggregate, the uncertainties average out, making the feats of pool-sharks possible. But the task for a non-physical deity becomes immensely more complicated, since to intervene in the real world whether moving mountains or triggering neurons to create inspiration it must apply its still-unexplained force simultaneously to each one of those gazillion atoms on a time-scale of billion-billionths of a second.

This is a serious problem not just for ID but for all forms of theism. The principal scientific challenge to religion comes not from the high-order concept of evolution, but from causality, which pervades the deepest nuts-and-bolts level of atomic reality.

Pro-theists have argued, following Aristotle, that the only escape from an infinite recess of causes going backward in time is a First Cause (aka God). But anti-theists have countered that there is nothing logically impossible about such an infinity and that if everything must have a cause, then God also must have one. And it seems desperate to invoke the idea of a "Quantum God," explaining the obscure by the even-more-obscure.

So, by an engaging paradox, the medieval theological principle called Occam's Razor which is commonly translated to mean that the simplest answer is usually the correct answer may be turned against the philosophy from which it arose. For if physical causality is both universal and sufficient, then God himself becomes superfluous and literally impotent and ID theory loses its designer.

Dee is a retired classics professor living in Austin.