Intelligent Design


God of GapsI’ve noticed that many nonbelievers (and even believers) misunderstand what constitutes a “God of the gaps” argument.  They tend to think one is guilty of a God of the gaps argument if they offer God as an explanation for some X rather than some natural phenomenon.  The problem with this definition is that it presumes the only valid explanation is a naturalistic explanation.  God is ruled out as a valid explanation for anything a priori, so anyone who offers God as an explanation for X is thought to do so merely because they are ignorant of the proper naturalistic explanation.  This begs the question in favor of naturalism and against theism.  One could only conclude that every effect has a naturalistic explanation, and that God is not a valid explanation, if one has first demonstrated that God does not exist.  So long as it is even possible that God exists, then it is possible that God may be the cause of X, and thus explain X.

What makes an argument a God of the gaps type of argument is when God is invoked to explain X simply because we do not know what else can explain X.  In other words, God is used to plug a gap in our knowledge of naturalistic explanations: “I don’t know how to explain X, so God must have done X.”  This is not at all the same as arguing that God is the best explanation of X, based on what we know regarding X and the explanatory options available to us.  Here, God is being invoked to explain what we know, not what we don’t know.

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Not scienceMany believe science has disproven God.  This is not possible, even in principle.[1]  The truth of the matter is that advances in science are providing more reasons to believe in God, not less.  While scientific discoveries cannot prove God’s existence, they can be used to support premises in arguments that have theistic conclusions/implications. For example, science has discovered that the universe began to exist.  Anything that begins to exist requires an external cause.  Since the universe encompasses all physical reality, the cause of the universe must transcend physical reality.  It cannot be a prior physical event or some natural law, because there was nothing physical prior to the first physical event, and natural laws only come into being once the natural world comes into being.  Whatever caused the universe to come into being must be transcendent, powerful, immaterial, spaceless, eternal, and personal, which is an apt description of God.

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There are many illegitimate critiques of Intelligent Design (the hypothesis that some features of the world are best explained in terms of an intelligent cause rather than undirected natural processes).  One example is the charge often leveled against ID that it improperly uses probability statistics to infer design. For example, in a BBC documentary titled The War on Science, Ken Miller accused IDers of making the mistake of calculating probabilities after-the-fact, making the unlikely seem impossible:

One of the mathematical tricks employed by intelligent design involves taking the present day situation and calculating probabilities that the present would have appeared randomly from events in the past. And the best example I can give is to sit down with four friends, shuffle a deck of 52 cards, and deal them out and keep an exact record of the order in which the cards were dealt. We can then look back and say ‘my goodness, how improbable this is. We can play cards for the rest of our lives and we would never ever deal the cards out in this exact same fashion.’ You know what; that’s absolutely correct. Nonetheless, you dealt them out and nonetheless you got the hand that you did.

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The Best Schools interviewed leading Intelligent Design theorist, Bill Dembski.  At one point he was asked, “You have stated that ‘design theorists oppose Darwinian theory on strictly scientific grounds.’ But then why is the ID movement so heavily populated with religious believers? Could we not expect more of the scientific community to support ID if your statement were true? Why do the majority of the world’s leading scientific bodies oppose ID and claim that it does not qualify as science?”

This is a valid question, and I’m sure it is on the minds of many people who are interested in the debate.  I like Dembski’s answer:

As for why religious believers tend to be associated with design, I could turn the question around. If Darwinian evolution is strictly scientific, then why is that field so heavily populated with atheists? In one survey of around 150 prominent evolutionary biologists, only two were religious believers (as I recall, Will Provine was behind this survey). I see a scientific core to both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution. And I see no merit in questioning their scientific status by the company they keep. The character of the proposals that both approaches make is what really ought to count.

 

HT: Uncommon Descent

Scientists working in origin of life research are fairly candid that they do not know how life originated, but they are quick to point out that they are making progress and that science will eventually be able to provide an answer to this question.  I have always found this sort of faith in science a bit intriguing.  It is just assumed that there must be a naturalistic cause/explanation for the origin of life, and that we will eventually be able to discover it.  But why should we think this to be true?  Given what needs to be explained (the origin of biological information), and given our understanding of the causal powers of naturalistic processes, the origin of life does not appear to be the kind of thing for which natural causes are adequate to explain it even in principle (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9).

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Theists argue that the fine-tuning of the physical constants of the universe provide evidence that the universe is designed.  For example, if gravitational force was 1/100,000,000,000,000th (1/100 trillionth) degree stronger the universe would not have expanded to form the terrestrial bodies.  If the force was 1/100,000,000,000,000th degree weaker the universe would expand at rate too fast for matter to coalesce into terrestrial bodies.  The ratio of electrons to protons is fine-tuned to 1 part in 1037, meaning if the ratio was altered by just 1 part in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000 complex life would not be possible.

To give you a sense of the specificity involved, Hugh Ross asks us to imagine covering the entire North American continent with dimes, all the way up to the moon (239,000 miles high).  Do the same thing on 1,000,000,000 other continents of identical size, “[p]aint one dime red and mix it into the billion of piles of dimes.  Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime.  The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037.”[1]

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As someone who supports Intelligent Design theory, I have often been puzzled by the many Catholic thinkers who do not.  The scientific basis for ID is strong, and ID is just as friendly to their theism as it is friendly to mine, so why do so many Catholic scholars reject ID, or at least have such strong reservations against it?  A recent essay by Edward Feser in Philosophia Christi[1] has enlightened me regarding the main source of contention between Catholic theology and ID theory, and it boils down to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and final causation.

Feser explains that Thomists (those who follow the theological system of Thomas Aquinas, who followed the philosophy of Aristotle) believe teleology inheres within all substances (final cause) and is evident to rational minds, whereas ID theorists believe teleology must be imposed on substances from an external source (no final cause), and can only be detected empirically through various probability assessments (not evident).

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The reigning philosophy of science is methodological naturalism, which requires that scientists explain all natural phenomena in terms of naturalistic causes.  If a scientist thinks the evidence for some biological or natural entity points to an intelligent cause, the possibility is dismissed as unscientific by definition, and the scientist is charged with employing a “God of the gaps” argument in which God is invoked to plug up gaps in our knowledge.

I’ve always found this line of thinking interesting.  Can you imagine if this principle was applied to the non-biological world?  What caused Stonehenge?  “People made it,” you say.  Oh no!  You have broken the rules of science.  This is a physical entity, and thus it must be explained in terms of naturalistic causes.  “But,” you say, “it has all the elements of design.  The arrangement of parts is both complex and specified.”  But this is just the appearance of design, not real design.  While we may not know the natural process by which the pyramids were created, scientists are working on that.  We cannot give up on science by appealing to some unknown “designers.”  To do so is to employ a people of the gaps argument.

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Opponents of ID often argue against ID on the basis that it is not science.  Of course, the definition of science itself is disputable, and it is often disputed.  This is largely a red herring, however, because it shifts the focus away from the merits of ID arguments to the classification of those arguments.  As Thomas Nagel has written, “A purely semantic classification of a hypothesis or its denial as belonging or not to science is of limited interest to someone who wants to know whether the hypothesis is true or false.”[1]

While I think ID is a scientific conclusion, I do not wish to debate here whether ID properly qualifies as science, or whether it is better classified as religion/philosophy.  The question I want to raise is how scientists would respond if it could be demonstrated that ID is both properly categorized as religion/philosophy and ID is true.  Would scientists cease discussing certain subjects in science class?  Would they stop discussing the origin of life or origin of species?  In my estimation, this is doubtful.  I think most would continue to offer naturalistic explanations for these objects because their definition of science requires them to.  After all, if by definition alone science must provide naturalistic answers for all natural phenomena, then scientists must continue to offer naturalistic explanations for all phenomena—even phenomena  ID would have proven do not have naturalistic explanations.

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One of the most common objections against Intelligent Design is that if an intelligent agent is causally involved in the natural world, then science is no longer predictable because at any time the agent could intervene and mess with our experiments.  For example, Michael Ruse writes, ““[T]he relationship of the natural and the supernatural are unpredictable … [if] the cause of a natural event is the whim of a deity, the event is neither predictable nor fully understandable.”[1]

I think this objection is misguided.  First, it is based on a faulty understanding of ID.  ID only claims to have discovered evidence of a designer’s activity in the past.  It takes no position on the question of whether the designer is still in existence, whether the designer is presently involved in the cosmos, or whether the designer will be involved in the cosmos in the future.  Those are philosophical and religious questions.

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In a previous post I addressed the “lottery” objection to the probabilistic argument against a naturalistic origin of life: “Just as the odds of winning the lottery are low, and yet people win the lottery all the time, so too the odds of forming life by chance may be low, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.”  I argued that unlike a lottery, the probabilistic resources available to form life are so unfathomably low that there is no reason to expect a winner in chance’s game of life.  To prove my point, I compared the number of possible events in the whole history of the universe (10139)—the probabilistic resources—to the probability of a 250 gene organism forming by chance (1:1041,000).  The odds of life forming by chance came up trillions upon trillions upon trillions of times short, and thus there is no rational basis on which to affirm that life originated by chance.  What I didn’t realize then was that I had severely over-estimated the odds.

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A new Gallup poll reveals Americans’ views on creation:

  • 40% believe humans were specially created by God 10,000 years ago (creationism)
  • 38% believe God used evolutionary processes to create human beings from less advanced life forms over millions of years (theistic evolution)
  • 16% believe humans developed from less advanced life forms over millions of years without any aid from a divine being (naturalism/atheism).

The number of theistic evolutionists has not changed much over the past 30 years, while there has been a slight decrease in the number of creationists (down from 47% in 1993) and a slight increase in the number of naturalists/atheists (up 7% from 1982).

One of the weaknesses of this poll is that it presents these three views as if they were the only options.  Jay Richards wrote a short post elaborating on this point.  Nevertheless, it does illustrate an important point: the vast majority of Americans do not buy into the materialistic paradigm of Darwinism.

In a previous post I argued that chance cannot account for the origin of the first living cell because the odds are too low to have any reasonable chance of being met.  The odds of a single, functional protein forming by chance is 1 in 10164.  That’s 1 chance in 100 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion.  But the simplest life form would need at least 250 different proteins, lowering the odds to 1 in 1041,000!

While the numbers appear staggering, many people will immediately raise the “lottery objection”: Just as the odds of winning the lottery are low, and yet people win the lottery all the time, so too the odds of forming life by chance may be low, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.  While I understand the analogy, are the lottery and the OOL truly analogous?  No, not by a long shot.

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(Note: Read Part 3a of the series before reading this post)

Viruses

The HIV virus mutates at the evolutionary speed limit: 10,000 times faster than most cells such as malaria.[1] And its genome is rather small (nine genes versus thousands in malaria).[2] Its small size combined with a short generation time (1-2 days) and super-rapid mutation rate means every single nucleotide in the HIV genome will mutate 10,000 to 100,000 times in every infected person every day, and thus double point mutations like the one that made malaria immune to Chloroquine occur in every person every day.  In fact, over the past several decades every possible combination of up to six point mutations has occurred in HIV somewhere in the world.  If RM drives macroevolutionary changes in organisms, then we should observe macroevolution in the HIV virus since it experiences more mutations than any other organism.  But we don’t.  HIV has run the gamut of all possible mutations to its genome, and yet with all of these mutations in a population of 100 billion billion viruses, no new cellular machinery has been created, and no new organism has developed! HIV is still HIV.  It still contains the same number of proteins, still performs the same function, and still binds to its host the same way it always has.  There have been no significant biochemical changes.  Even gene duplication has failed to produce any new biological information.

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(Read parts 1 and 2 in the series)

The heart of the neo-Darwinian synthesis is that evolution advances via the process of natural selection working on random mutations (RM+NS).  Natural selection itself lacks any creative power – it only eliminates what doesn’t work.  Eliminating the unfit, however, does nothing to “explain the origin of the fit”![1]  The burden falls entirely on RM to create the biological novelties required by Darwinism to drive evolution forward.  It must be asked, then, whether RM has the creative power required by Darwin’s theory.  Can RM produce the new biological information necessary to drive evolution forward and explain the diversification of all life?  What exactly can RM do? 

When the neo-Darwinian synthesis was set forth some 70 years ago, answers to these questions could not be ascertained.  While the theory was plausible on a conceptual level, there was no real way of testing its biological plausibility.  Over the last 30 years, however, we have been able to observe both the power and limits of RM+NS at the biological level.  What have we discovered?  We discovered that while RM can produce variability within an organism, it is not capable of producing the kind of changes required by Darwin’s theory.  RM is severely limited in what it can accomplish. 

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(For part 1 in the series, click here)

If macroevolution occurs, it must do so at the biochemical level.  Additional genetic information is needed to build the new proteins and biological systems required for large-scale changes.  Where does the new biological information come from?  Mutations?  No.  Point mutations such as inserting, inverting, or substituting nucleotides in existing genes cannot increase the information content of DNA even if they occur in protein-coding regions, and even if the mutations are beneficial to the organism.  At best they can only replace existing information/function with different information/function, so that the overall information content is merely preserved.[1]  For macroevolution to occur a net increase of information is required, not just a change in existing information. 

The origination of new genetic information requires new proteins, which requires hundreds of additional nucleotides arranged in a highly specified order.  How likely is it that chance processes can get the job done?  Next to none.  The chances of producing a functional amino acid sequence of a mere 150 nucleotide bases (which would sequence one of the smallest proteins) is 1:10164.[2]  To put this number in perspective, consider that there have only been 10139 events in the entire universe since the Big Bang.[3]  So even if every event in the history of the universe was devoted to building a single functional protein, the number of sequences produced thus far would be less than 1 out of a trillion trillion of the total number of events needed to give it even a 50% chance of success!  Any reasonable person must conclude, then, that it is beyond the reach of chance to create even the smallest amount of new biological information in an organism.  Add to this the fact that many new proteins are needed to produce new biological systems, and the scenario becomes all the more fantastical.  If chance alone cannot produce the gene for even one protein—yet alone many—macroevolution becomes impossible. 

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Several months ago I blogged my way through Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, summarizing his devastating critique of naturalistic origin-of-life theories and powerful argument for the intelligent design of the first life (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b).  But what about the proliferation of life?  Can a fully naturalistic theory like neo-Darwinian evolution account for the proliferation and variety of life once it began?  To answer this question I am going to summarize Michael Behe’s key argument against a Darwinian account of evolution in The Edge of Evolution (paperback only $6 through Amazon right now, regular $15). 

What Needs to be Explained

To properly evaluate Darwin’s theory of the evolution of life, we must clarify what is meant by “evolution.”  Evolution can refer merely to small biological changes within a species over time.  Called “microevolution,” or the special theory of evolution, this definition of evolution is relatively uncontroversial and has been confirmed empirically (e.g. drug resistance in bacteria, changes in the size of finch beaks, etc.).  Evolution can also refer to large-scale biological changes[1] that, over time, transform one species into another into another ad infinitum.  This kind of evolution is called macroevolution, or the general theory of evolution.  Darwin’s theory entails this latter definition, and thus proof for his theory requires evidence that there are no natural limits to the amount of variation an organism can experience.

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John Hoopes of the University of Kansas claims to be a scientist, but it is clear to me that he’s no scientist!  How do I know?  Because he has concluded that some intelligent designer is responsible for producing 300 of these:

Surely he knows scientists cannot appeal to intelligent agency as an explanation for natural phenomenon.  Besides, there is no need to appeal to any intelligent designer.  Natural processes such as wind and water erosion are fully capable of producing the spherical shape of these rocks over billions of years.  To appeal to some “rock-designer-of-the-gaps” is to give up on science.  Currently, we may not know the exact pathway by which nature produced these spherical rocks, but given the past successes of science, I am sure we will discover it in the near future.  

If these rocks are the products of some intelligent designer as Hoopes claims, then let him tell us who designed the designer.  Guess what, he doesn’t know!  Clearly, then, these rocks can’t be designed.

In the human genome, only 1.5% of our 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA codes for proteins.  For a long time evolutionists though the other 98.5% was “junk” DNA: DNA that was preserved in the genome, but had no function; the byproduct of billions of years of aimless mutations.  Over the past seven years, however, scientists keep discovering more and more function for this “junk.”  For example, it has been discovered that ~90% of our genome codes for RNA products.  Junk DNA also:

  1. Regulates DNA replication
  2. Regulates transcription
  3. Marks sites for programmed rearrangement of genetic material
  4. Influences the proper folding and maintenance of chromosomes
  5. Controls the interactions of chromosomes with the nuclear membrane
  6. Controls RNA processing, editing, and splicing
  7. Modulates translation
  8. Regulates embryological development
  9. Repairs DNA
  10. Aids in fighting disease[1]

And now, biologist Richard Sternberg has brought my attention to a very interesting find related to a specific kind of “junk” DNA called Short Interspersed Nuclear Elements (SINEs).  SINEs are mobile DNA that can insert themselves in various locations within the genome, and are thought to be functionless according to evolutionary biologists.

The rat and mouse are said to have diverged from one another 22 million years ago.  Since that time, each is thought to have experienced hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of SINE insertion events.  Given so many insertion events, we would expect for the location of SINEs to be very different in the mouse genome than in the rate genome (in the same way we would expect a moon that split in two 22 million years ago to evidence a very different asteroid bombardment pattern on its surface).  And yet, when we compare the location of SINEs in the mouse and rate genomes this is what we find:

They are virtually identical!  This is not what we would expect from a degenerative process like mutations and random insertions over millions of years.  We would expect radical divergence, not a nearly-identical pattern.  While the SINE sequences are not the same in the rat and mouse genomes, the placement of the SINEs is nearly identical (and they are concentrated in gene-coding regions of the genome).

How do we account for this pattern?  Can it be the result of a degenerative process?  Surely not.  Patterns are indicative of design, and hence purpose.  Contrary to the expectations of evolutionary biologists, SINEs do have purpose and function, even if we are only beginning to understand them.


[1]Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper One, 2009), 404-7.

I just finished reading The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells (which someone was kind enough to buy me from my Ministry Resource List!).  This book was a joy to read!  I’ve been following the Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism debate for a long time, and I’ve read a good number of books and countless articles and blog entries on the subject.  So to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to glean a lot of additional insight from The Design of Life.  But I couldn’t have been more wrong.  My highlighter got a real workout with this book!

The Design of Life is essentially a textbook on Intelligent Design.  Most of the resources I have read on the topic deal with a specific subject: Darwin’s Black Box looks at irreducible complexity as an indication of intelligence; Edge of Evolution examines the power of random mutation and natural selection to produce novel biological changes; Signature in the Cell examines the origin-of-life, etc.  The Design of Life, however, is a more comprehensive look at ID.  But don’t think “comprehensive” means it only provides a little information about a lot of topics.  Not at all!  I was quite impressed with the balance achieved between comprehensiveness and detail.

The book covers human origins, genetics and macroevolution, the fossil record, the origin of species, homology, irreducible complexity, specified complexity, and the origin of life.  It even has a supplementary CD containing additional details on the topics covered in the book.  If you are looking for a good, well-rounded book to learn more about the claims of and evidence for ID, I would highly recommend this book!

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