Intelligent design vs. the black slab

A humorist once responded to a rebuke of his puns by saying 'I don't know if puns are the 'lowest form of humor', but I'm sure that the disparagement of puns is the lowest form of criticism.'  In the same spirit, I am forced to say that, whether or not the idea of 'intelligent design' (or 'ID') is scientific, the scientists (and their journalist imitators) who are decrying the concept as anti—scientific are showing the public an embarrassing view of scientific rationality and impartiality.

I for one am delighted that the creationists have for the most part abandoned the 'God created the world in 144 hours' position. Even that view is not so much anti—scientific as merely non—scientific. Writers like P. H. Gosse, in his Omphalos (London, 1857), have pointed out that six—day creation could be resolved with science by assuming that God created the world with a plausible virtual past. This is not as trivial as writers like Borges have claimed; but it does lead to some disturbing philosophical paradoxes. But all this has nothing to do with science, which is concerned only with the apparent history of the universe, as evidenced by available data.

In contrast, the idea of ID, as I understand it, is well within the realm of science, since it can be  summarized in the two statements:

(1)  The probability of life on Earth having occurred spontaneously, by random chemical combination, is so infinitesimal as to be excludable. Therefore some other cause, outside the laws of nature as we currently understand them, is much more probable.

(2)  Therefore, excluding the "we were lucky!" explanation, some intelligent force, which we call 'God', must be postulated as the cause.

Statement (2) is considered by some to be within the realm of scientific speculation while others claim it is philosophy or religion. The latter viewpoint has some validity when we consider that purist physicists have criticized string theory as being philosophy rather than science because it cannot be verified experimentally. (In this rigorous light, neither ID nor string theory should be taught in science classes.)

On the other hand, there is no question that statement (1) is in the realm of science. It challenges the mathematical probability of the spontaneous occurrence and development of life on Earth in terms that are amenable to calculation leading to some degree of verification or refutation. It is therefore legitimately scientific, not as a theory in itself but rather as a challenge to the causal self—sufficiency of the theory of evolution.

It is rather the 'ID is anti—science' position that is unscientific. In the main, it seems to boil down to the idea that ID is not accepted as fashionable in current scientific circles. Well, so what! A hundred years ago, relativity and quantum mechanics were not fashionable.  Fifty years ago, the big bang theory and plate tectonics were not fashionable. And a hundred years hence, scientists will talk patronizingly about the quaint superstitions of early 21st century scientists.

And 'superstition' is not an inappropriate word for the more vituperative opponents of ID. The fact is that, separate from the scientific theory of evolution but mixed in with it in many people's minds, there exists a philosophy (or what might even be considered a religion), which I shall call 'evoluticism', which preaches that some mysterious force, either inherent in or external to the laws of nature, is continually pushing things onward and upward toward a higher and more perfect humanity. In short, evoluticists believe in the Black Slab in Kubrick's movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. This philosophical extension of evolutionary concepts is the basis of virtually all 20th century liberal philosophy and social thinking—and therefore, at least subconsciously, a part of the mindset of many contemporary scientists and journalists.

Therefore, as noted physicist H. L. Lipson once put it, when you attack evolution, you attack their religion. They are therefore inclined to be hostile to any other religion. I remember, fifty years go in a Caltech seminar room, hearing a distinguished geochemist dismiss the big bang hypothesis as 'Catholic'.

I must add in all fairness that present—day evolutionary biologists, especially the younger ones, have tended to purge themselves of evoluticism. Years ago, evolution was commonly taught as a directed progression to human beings as the 'most highly evolved'. (You may remember some of the old charts.) Nowadays, few biologists take that view and, in both introductory and advanced biology courses, most professors tend to go out of their way to teach that there is no upward progression of evolution. Or so I've been advised by a prominent evolutionary biologist.

Nonetheless, old habits of thought die hard. Some anti—ID scientists are still partisan and even a bit devious. Writers such as Stephen Jay Gould have tried to shift the arena of discussion from ID's strongest point, the initial creation of life, to its weakest point, the origin of numerous species. The latter, the evolutionary diversification or variation of species as a result of adaptation to environment, is a well established fact, although the mechanisms of change are still not clear. (For example, some concepts such as the 'red queen's race' theory are still hotly debated.)  But this is not the area disputed by either ID proponents or religious thinkers; most Catholic and Protestant theologians conceded this possibility over a century ago.

In contrast, the concept of the spontaneous origin of the first cell is on very shaky ground. You must start by making a quasi—primordial soup, rich in amino acids and other building blocks of life, as Stanley Miller and Harold Urey did in the 1950's. Then you must somehow stir it and shake it until the components spontaneously assemble to form long chains of DNA, RNA, proteins, and numerous other macromolecules—with all of the multi—thousand amino acid sequences exactly right and mutually compatible. Then you must continue stirring until the macromolecules sort themselves out into the proper groups and somehow surround themselves with membranes, with just the right sort of ion transport properties, to form organelles such as a nucleus, lysosomes, ribosomes, mitochondria, and all the other cellular components. Then you must keep stirring until all these organelles pack themselves into a cell membrane, with just the right composition of fluid in it. You have only a few billion years to shake up all these dice and have them all come up right at the same place and time.. Ready, set, go, and good luck—but I don't think you're going to succeed. However, if you think this scenario is scientifically plausible, then sit down and start calculating probabilities.

Alternatively, you might argue that some much simpler subcellular form of life might have preceded cells and that such 'protolife' is not evident now because it would have been too fragile to survive fossilization. (Viruses don't count since they need cellular organisms to reproduce.) I find this idea implausible because of the large number of chemical processes that must occur to maintain any form of self—sustaining life, but yes, you can argue thus. Then, go back to your laboratory and do some Miller—Urey experiments and make some protolife to show us—or at least simulate it on a computer.

In either case, according to the rules by which the game of science is played, it's up to you to prove your assertion. Until you do so, the Intelligent Design hypothesis is a valid alternative.

But such logical and impartial responses to ID are unlikely to happen. Since the dogma of evoluticism is at the root of all liberal thinking, and since it depends on spontaneous evolution, that theory is sacred and any opposing concept is heresy and must be peremptorily silenced.. So we now have the paradox of religionists being scientific and scientists being dogmatic. We can only hope, with Pope John Paul II, that

"science can purify religion from error and superstition [and] religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes,' [italics mine]

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with business ,ideas, and everyday life. His scientific credentials may be viewed here.

A humorist once responded to a rebuke of his puns by saying 'I don't know if puns are the 'lowest form of humor', but I'm sure that the disparagement of puns is the lowest form of criticism.'  In the same spirit, I am forced to say that, whether or not the idea of 'intelligent design' (or 'ID') is scientific, the scientists (and their journalist imitators) who are decrying the concept as anti—scientific are showing the public an embarrassing view of scientific rationality and impartiality.

I for one am delighted that the creationists have for the most part abandoned the 'God created the world in 144 hours' position. Even that view is not so much anti—scientific as merely non—scientific. Writers like P. H. Gosse, in his Omphalos (London, 1857), have pointed out that six—day creation could be resolved with science by assuming that God created the world with a plausible virtual past. This is not as trivial as writers like Borges have claimed; but it does lead to some disturbing philosophical paradoxes. But all this has nothing to do with science, which is concerned only with the apparent history of the universe, as evidenced by available data.

In contrast, the idea of ID, as I understand it, is well within the realm of science, since it can be  summarized in the two statements:

(1)  The probability of life on Earth having occurred spontaneously, by random chemical combination, is so infinitesimal as to be excludable. Therefore some other cause, outside the laws of nature as we currently understand them, is much more probable.

(2)  Therefore, excluding the "we were lucky!" explanation, some intelligent force, which we call 'God', must be postulated as the cause.

Statement (2) is considered by some to be within the realm of scientific speculation while others claim it is philosophy or religion. The latter viewpoint has some validity when we consider that purist physicists have criticized string theory as being philosophy rather than science because it cannot be verified experimentally. (In this rigorous light, neither ID nor string theory should be taught in science classes.)

On the other hand, there is no question that statement (1) is in the realm of science. It challenges the mathematical probability of the spontaneous occurrence and development of life on Earth in terms that are amenable to calculation leading to some degree of verification or refutation. It is therefore legitimately scientific, not as a theory in itself but rather as a challenge to the causal self—sufficiency of the theory of evolution.

It is rather the 'ID is anti—science' position that is unscientific. In the main, it seems to boil down to the idea that ID is not accepted as fashionable in current scientific circles. Well, so what! A hundred years ago, relativity and quantum mechanics were not fashionable.  Fifty years ago, the big bang theory and plate tectonics were not fashionable. And a hundred years hence, scientists will talk patronizingly about the quaint superstitions of early 21st century scientists.

And 'superstition' is not an inappropriate word for the more vituperative opponents of ID. The fact is that, separate from the scientific theory of evolution but mixed in with it in many people's minds, there exists a philosophy (or what might even be considered a religion), which I shall call 'evoluticism', which preaches that some mysterious force, either inherent in or external to the laws of nature, is continually pushing things onward and upward toward a higher and more perfect humanity. In short, evoluticists believe in the Black Slab in Kubrick's movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. This philosophical extension of evolutionary concepts is the basis of virtually all 20th century liberal philosophy and social thinking—and therefore, at least subconsciously, a part of the mindset of many contemporary scientists and journalists.

Therefore, as noted physicist H. L. Lipson once put it, when you attack evolution, you attack their religion. They are therefore inclined to be hostile to any other religion. I remember, fifty years go in a Caltech seminar room, hearing a distinguished geochemist dismiss the big bang hypothesis as 'Catholic'.

I must add in all fairness that present—day evolutionary biologists, especially the younger ones, have tended to purge themselves of evoluticism. Years ago, evolution was commonly taught as a directed progression to human beings as the 'most highly evolved'. (You may remember some of the old charts.) Nowadays, few biologists take that view and, in both introductory and advanced biology courses, most professors tend to go out of their way to teach that there is no upward progression of evolution. Or so I've been advised by a prominent evolutionary biologist.

Nonetheless, old habits of thought die hard. Some anti—ID scientists are still partisan and even a bit devious. Writers such as Stephen Jay Gould have tried to shift the arena of discussion from ID's strongest point, the initial creation of life, to its weakest point, the origin of numerous species. The latter, the evolutionary diversification or variation of species as a result of adaptation to environment, is a well established fact, although the mechanisms of change are still not clear. (For example, some concepts such as the 'red queen's race' theory are still hotly debated.)  But this is not the area disputed by either ID proponents or religious thinkers; most Catholic and Protestant theologians conceded this possibility over a century ago.

In contrast, the concept of the spontaneous origin of the first cell is on very shaky ground. You must start by making a quasi—primordial soup, rich in amino acids and other building blocks of life, as Stanley Miller and Harold Urey did in the 1950's. Then you must somehow stir it and shake it until the components spontaneously assemble to form long chains of DNA, RNA, proteins, and numerous other macromolecules—with all of the multi—thousand amino acid sequences exactly right and mutually compatible. Then you must continue stirring until the macromolecules sort themselves out into the proper groups and somehow surround themselves with membranes, with just the right sort of ion transport properties, to form organelles such as a nucleus, lysosomes, ribosomes, mitochondria, and all the other cellular components. Then you must keep stirring until all these organelles pack themselves into a cell membrane, with just the right composition of fluid in it. You have only a few billion years to shake up all these dice and have them all come up right at the same place and time.. Ready, set, go, and good luck—but I don't think you're going to succeed. However, if you think this scenario is scientifically plausible, then sit down and start calculating probabilities.

Alternatively, you might argue that some much simpler subcellular form of life might have preceded cells and that such 'protolife' is not evident now because it would have been too fragile to survive fossilization. (Viruses don't count since they need cellular organisms to reproduce.) I find this idea implausible because of the large number of chemical processes that must occur to maintain any form of self—sustaining life, but yes, you can argue thus. Then, go back to your laboratory and do some Miller—Urey experiments and make some protolife to show us—or at least simulate it on a computer.

In either case, according to the rules by which the game of science is played, it's up to you to prove your assertion. Until you do so, the Intelligent Design hypothesis is a valid alternative.

But such logical and impartial responses to ID are unlikely to happen. Since the dogma of evoluticism is at the root of all liberal thinking, and since it depends on spontaneous evolution, that theory is sacred and any opposing concept is heresy and must be peremptorily silenced.. So we now have the paradox of religionists being scientific and scientists being dogmatic. We can only hope, with Pope John Paul II, that

"science can purify religion from error and superstition [and] religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes,' [italics mine]

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with business ,ideas, and everyday life. His scientific credentials may be viewed here.