Friday, 15 June 2012

Intelligent design in science: fear not

I remember reading to my little daughter a children’s story based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It was about wars between two lots of people who had different ideas on how an egg’s shell should be cracked: the Small Enders and the Big Enders. There was another war over what kind of shoes to wear, between the High Heelers and the Low Heelers. We both laughed out loud.

Rereading a book by the astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe Cosmic Life-Force (1988) I was reminded of a real, but equally futile  conflict which has been going on in western societies since the nineteenth century, though thankfully without violence.

In the book, which predicts the importance of viruses in DNA and the recent discovery of organic matter in space and around stars, they describe concisely how those who believed that God created the universe came to be regarded first as wrong and later as a threat to biology. Hoyle laments the narrow, doctrinaire and unscientific mindset of evolutionary biologists, not for religious reasons but because they won't accept even the possibility that life may have originated in outer space and been transported here, possibly being propelled across interstellar space by light pressure (panspermia). Instead they cling to absurd ideas of chemicals being juggled about in terrestrial primeval soups to form living systems against all mathematical odds in a blink of evolutionary time.

In the 19th century there was a socioscientific movement which sought to undermine the authority of the church because fundamentalists within it failed to recognise that evolution had occurred, treating Genesis in the Holy Bible as a literal, scientific account of creation, rather than a divine poem . This caused a furious attempt by certain evolutionary biologists to team up with sceptical biblical text scholars to debunk Christianity, tarring the whole Christian world-view with the same brush and seeking, with spectacular failure, to question the Resurrection itself.

The fundamentalist young earth Creationists, i.e. those who believed the universe was made less than 10,000 years ago, are today especially vocal and organised in the southern states of the USA. This is unfortunate not only because, in my view, it tends to devalue the wonder of God’s Creation but because it seems to have forced evolutionary biologists wedded to the idea of everything being a result of chance plus the laws of physics to fall into a trap. They have become paranoid about admitting that because the universe looks and behaves purposefully and as though it is designed, it may actually be designed. Shock horror. It would imply a Creator.

Why do those who think that humans are just animals, the product of a series of evolutionary accidents, fear not only young Earth creationists, but Intelligent Design scientists? The ID scientist accepts the standard Big Bang theory, which assumes the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago and fully support scientific investigation as a way of showing how our Creator is revealed in nature – everything from elementary particles to galactic clusters and living systems. Some even believe in the standard, neo-Darwinist evolutionary paradigm as describing how God brought about life on earth.

 ID is totally compatible with the observations of biology and indeed those scientists who believe in the teleological nature of our world are more likely to come up with powerful concepts on how it works than those who attribute everything to chance plus the laws of physics. In a sense it is  reverse engineering - stripping off layer after layer to see how the system works, but knowing there will always be another layer of mystery. ID was the standard philosophy among scientists throughout the Enlightenment. Einstein and Newton were both believers in ID. There is no God of the gaps. The belief comes from the wonder at the works of the Divine Artist.

When a new scientific observation is made which is not compatible with current models (e.g. a new elementary particle which does not fit into any existing explanatory scheme) there are three possible ways of dealing with it:

1. Revise the scheme


2. Assume God is the only explanation needed


3. Assume chance is the only explanation needed


The ID scientist is in fact more likely to adopt the first approach than one who does not accept that the universe is in any way designed, as a step towards building up a hierarchical model reflecting the true nature of the Creation. In fact outside the field of biology even a young Earth creationist scientist would do so, whereas a conventional evolutionary biologist would adopt the third approach when he encounters a currently inexplicable phenomenon within the life sciences. It is also a sad reflection on modern cosmology that some theorists are so fearful that there may indeed be a Creator that they resort to unscientific metaphysical unprovable models which eliminate the experimentally supported Big Bang, with its obvious implications for a Creation event.

I too fear the Creator but not because of the implications for scientific methodology or progress. My fear is a kind of awe at the majesty, power and mystery of God and the nature of the reality which God holds in being. The same applies for many Christians who work in or follow science.

In which chance is the new God of the gaps and extremely dangerous to science.

The teleological argument for the existence of God


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