Chapter 6


The Science of Common Sense

When I first started studying, I saw the world as composed of particles. Looking more deeply I discovered waves. Now after a lifetime of study, it appears that all existence is the expression of information. -John Wheeler
  • A 1998 survey by the Skeptics’ Society found that among highly educated Americans, the number one reason for believing in God was seeing “good design” and “complexity” in the world. Design was cited by almost a third of respondents–29 percent–while only 10 percent said they believed in God because religion was comforting or consoling. The results were quite surprising, especially for the skeptics who had conducted the study, because it shot down the common stereotype that religion is nothing but an emotional or psychological crutch. On the contrary, for most believers the ground for faith is an essentially rational intuition: They are convinced that there is a God because the universe seems so highly ordered that suggests the hand of a conscious Mind or Creator.
  • If the intuition of design is so common and compelling, can we restate it in rigorous scientific terms? Can we formalize it as a scientific research program? That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the Intelligent Design movement.
  • The heart of design theory is the claim that design can be empirically detected.
  • Today astronomers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have worked out extensive criteria for recognizing when a radio signal is an encoded message and when it is just a natural phenomenon, like a pulsar. In other words, they have developed criteria for distinguishing between products of design and products of natural causes. The same distinction is made in several other fields
    • Detectives are trained to distinguish murder (design) from death by natural causes
    • Archaeologists have criteria for distinguishing when a stone has the distinctive chip marks of a primitive tool (design) and when its shape is simply the result of weathering and erosion.
    • Insurance companies have steps for deciding whether a fire was a case of arson (design) or just an accident.
    • Cytologists have worked out procedures to determine whether a set of symbols is a secret message (design) or merely a random sequence.
  • It should be possible to formalize the thinking process used in all these examples, which is exactly what design theory does. Its central tenet is that the characteristic marks of design can be empirically detected. As the title of one book puts it, in nature we can uncover Signs of Intelligence.
  • Surprisingly, Darwin himself never denied the evidence for design. His goal, however, was to show that the same evidence could be accounted for by purely natural forces.
  • As one historian puts it, Darwin hoped to show “how blind and gradual adaptation could counterfeit the apparently purposeful design” that seemed so obviously “a function of mind.”
  • George Gaylord Simpson admits that living things remind us forcefully of machines:
    • A telescope, a telephone, or a typewriter is a complex mechanism serving a particular function. Obviously, its manufacturer had a purpose in mind, and the machine was designed and built in order to serve that purpose. An eye, an ear, or a hand is also a complex mechanism serving a particular function. It, too, looks as if it had been made for a purpose. This appearance of purposefulness is pervading in nature.
  • Both sides of the evolution debate agree that, taken at face value, living things look for all the world as though they are designed. To salvage the notion of evolution, its proponents have to show that this obvious design is not real but is instead a deceptive illusion produced by natural selection. Design theorists, on the other hand, have the advantage that design is prima facie plausible, and all they have to do is identify reliable empirical markers of intelligent agency.
  • “The cell is thus a minute factory, bustling with rapid, organized chemical activity,” writes Francis Crick of DNA fame. “Nature invented the assembly line some billions of years before Henry Ford.” The outside surface of the cell is studded with sensors, gates, pumps, and identification markers to regulate traffic coming in and out. Today biologists cannot even describe the cell without resorting to the language of machines and engineering.
  • For kids raised on computer games, a good image might be the highest level on Roller Coaster Tycoon. This is a level of complexity Darwin never dreamed of, and his theory utterly fails to account for it. Why? Because a system of coordinated, interlocking parts like this can only operate after all the pieces are in place–which means they must appear simultaneously, not by any gradual, piece-by-piece process. Michael Behe coined the term irreducible complexity to refer to the minimum level of complexity that must be present before such a tightly integrated system can function at all.
  • Darwin himself once admitted that the existence of irreducible complexity (though he didn’t use that term) would stand as a refutation of his theory. He even offered it as a test: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” With the explosion of knowledge from molecular biology, it appears that Darwin’s theory has indeed broken down.
  • An aggregate structure, like a pile of sand, can be built up gradually by simply adding a piece at a time–one grain of sand after another. By contrast, an organized structure, like the inside of a computer, is built up according to a preexisting blueprint, plan, or design. Each interlocking piece is structured to contribute to the functioning of the whole–which in turn becomes possible only after a minimal number of pieces are in place.
  • The logical question is whether living structures are aggregates or organized wholes. And the answer is clear: Not only on the level of body systems, but also within each tiny cell, living structures are incredibly complex organized wholes. The most plausible theory, then, is that the pieces were put together according to a preexisting blueprint.
  • Cosmologists have discovered that the universe’s fundamental forces are intricately balanced, as though on a knife’s edge. Take, for example, the force of gravity: If it were only slightly weaker, all stars would be red dwarfs, too cold to support life. But if it were only slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants, burning too briefly for life to develop. (The margin of error in the universe’s expansion rate is only 1 part in 1060 ). The slightest change would yield a universe inhospitable to life.
  • Critics admit that the fine-tuning of the universe suggest design, but they grope around for an alternative explanation.
    • Astronomer Fred Hoyle proposed that it was an alien mind from another universe.
    • Others have proposed the quasi-pantheistic notion that the universe itself is intelligent, with a mind of its own.
    • The “cosmos does not exist unless observed,” Greenstein writes, and thus “the universe brought forth life in order to exist.”
    • Less mystical astronomers suggest that there are multiple universes besides our own (the “Many Worlds” hypothesis). Most of these universes would be dark, lifeless places, but a few might possibly have the right conditions for life–and ours just happens to be one of them. But the only reason for proposing such a far-fetched idea is that it makes our own universe seem a little less like a freak improbability.
  • Surveying all these bizarre speculations, physicist Heinz Pagels remarks that scientists seem reluctant to draw the most straightforward inference from the evidence–that “the reason the universe seems tailor-made for our existence is that it was tailor-made.”
  • Intelligent Design theory adds point 3 below:
    • 1. Some things are the result of random processes, occurring by chance
    • 2. Others are the result of regular, predictable processes which can be formulated as laws of nature
    • 3. Still others are the result of design–like houses, cars, computers, and books
  • Having created a few simple building blocks, researchers found it is much more difficult to create the larger molecules (macromolecules like proteins and DNA) that are crucial for life. It has become more clear that simply mixing chemicals in a flask and sparking them with an electrical charge does not produce any biologically significant results. But if the core of life is biological information, this is exactly what we should expect. Why? Because chance processes do not produce complex information.
  • “If you came into the kitchen and saw the Alphabet cereal spilled on the table, and it spelled out your name and address, would you think the cat knocked the cereal box over?”
  • Instead of creating information, chance events tend to scramble information. If any short chains of molecules did arise by chance processes in that warm little pond, they would quickly break down again–because the same chance processes would go on to insert “typos” into the chemical “text”.
  • In principle, chance events do not create complex information. As a result, virtually all origin-of-life researchers have abandoned theories on chance.
  • The second possibility is that the origin of life can be accounted for by some law of nature. This is the most popular view among scientists today–that life arose by natural forces within the constituents of matter itself. The idea is that every time the right preconditions exist, life will arise automatically and inevitably.
  • It is futile for scientists to keep looking for some natural law or force within matter to explain the origin of life. It’s not just that experiments to create life in a test tube have failed so far; it’s that in principle, law like processes do not generate high information content.
  • If neither chance nor law accounts for complex biological information, the final option is design. The distinctive feature of design is an irregular sequence that fits a prescribed pattern–the kind of order found in Scrabble games, books, magazines, and radio scripts.
  • We can now explain why all the experiments to create life in a test tube have failed–because they tried to build life from the bottom up, by assembling the right materials to form a DNA molecule. But life is not about matter, it’s about information.
  • “The DNA molecule is the medium, it’s not the message. And information theory tells us that the medium does not write the message.
  • “Trying to make life by mixing chemicals in a test tube is like soldering switches and wires in an attempt to produce Windows 98. It won’t work because it addresses the problem at the wrong conceptual level.”
  • The heart of the design argument: that information does not arise from natural forces within matter but has to be imposed upon matter from outside by an intelligent agent.
  • Faced with any phenomenon, a scientist can run it through the Explanatory Filter: Is it a random event? Then all we need to invoke is chance. Does it occur in a regular, repeated pattern? Then it is an instance of some natural law. Is it a complex, specified pattern? Then it exhibits design, and was produce by intelligence.
  • Darwinism proposes that when random mutations (chance) are run through the sieve of natural selection (law), then over time organisms become better and better adapted until they appear to be designed.
  • Darwin insisted on telling a totally consistent naturalistic story or none at all. Today however, it is clear that the naturalistic story did not succeed. Chance and law do not mimic design. Applying the Explanatory Filter to life’s origin, we find that the sequence in DNA is neither random (chance) nor regular (law). Instead, it exhibits specified complexity, the hallmark of design.
  • If Darwin’s goal was to get rid of design, then clearly his motivation was not strictly scientific but also religious. We should avoid the misleading dichotomy that says evolution is scientific, while design is religious. Darwinism and design theory are not about different subjects–science versus religion. Instead they are competing answers to the same question: How did life arise in the universe? Both theories appeal to scientific data, while at the same time both have broader philosophical and religious implications.
  • Christians will only be able to make this case effectively, however, when we challenge the science/religion dichotomy in our own thinking. We must be confident that the biblical teaching on creation is objectively true and not just a matter of religion–in the modern sense of merely personal, subjective values.
  • Many Christians have come to think of religion as a matter of experience rather than truth.
  • Those who sit in the naturalist’s “chair,” Schaeffer says, view the world filtered through a lens that limits their sight to the natural world. But those who sit in the supernaturalist’s “chair” view the world through a much larger lens that makes them aware of an unseen realm that exists in addition to the seen realm. Christians are called to live out their entire lives, including their scientific work, from the perspective of the supernaturalist’s chair, recognizing the full range of reality. This is what it means to “walk by faith, not by sight”, with a day-by-day awareness of the unseen dimension of reality.
This post contains quoted and paraphrased passages of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey.

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