Intelligent Design versus Intelligent Theology

The American heresy of Intelligent Design is being mentioned on the Today programme on Hiroshima Day. On the one hand, we need the human race to grow up and reach a consensus that can eliminate the threat of atomic warfare; on the other hand, anti-scientific religious dogma has an all-too-prominent role in governments of nuclear powers.

Atomic Theology

When I was little I was once handed a leaflet in the street. In it they said that the nucleus of an atom contains positively charged protons that should repel each other and cause all atoms to fall apart and therefore God must exist. My parents explained to me that this was wrong on several counts. First, faith in God (or gods) does not come from science, it comes from faith, and plenty of scientists have no problem exploring the wonder and intricacy of God's creation and reconciling it with their religious views. Second, the structure of the atomic nucleus (insofar as we understand it at all) is based on scientific experiments and they show that atoms don't fall apart, which means we can deduce something is holding them together and that we need to do more experiments to find out what.

The force that binds protons together is released when atomic nuclei are split apart: this is what powers nuclear power stations, and provided the energy of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty years ago today. Hundreds of thousands of people killed were simply forgotten by people writing anti-science propaganda only a few decades later.

There is no essential conflict between religion and science, any more than there is between volleyball and knitting. It is not inherently contradictory to believe that the world was created in 4004 BCE, and that it was created with a consistent and rational structure that can be explored through the repeated application of logical inference backed by carefully designed experiments. Carbon-dating may indicate that dinosaur fossils are millions of years old but that's just a convenient shorthand for saying that God was really very careful with the placement of every single atom of carbon-14 so as to create that consistency (think Capability Brown, except omnipotent and omniscient). All scientific theories are partial; there's no reason to suppose dinosaur fossils are really, truly millions of years old any more than atoms are really made from tiny billiard balls, even though that model is convenient for making certain calculations. I can't prove the universe wasn't made five minutes ago, with my memories of listening to the Today programme being merely a convenient fiction.

But we cannot expect scientists to start every paper with a disclaimer summarizing their personal relationship with religion and the philosophy of science. There is a time and a place for everything, and that isn't it. Imagine if whenever I was stopped to ask for directions I had to start by pointing out that I have no iron-clad proof that a place called Carfax exists, or even that the streets I think I am standing in have any objective reality beyond the sensations I believe I am experiencing; and neither can I guarantee that God has not moved the Bodeleian since last I walked down the Broad Street, and will not choose to thwart or facilitate their journey there for reasons that we humans can explain no more than we can explain the existence of hippopotamuses. See Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy Fit the Twelfth for details.

Just a Theory

So anyway, people in the USA have managed to get stickers stuck on science textbooks saying that evolution through natural selection is 'just a theory'. Which is true, of course---evolution is just a theory in much the same way electricity is just a theory, and Maxwell's equations are just a theory (and one using imaginary numbers to boot). Perhaps they just mean that it is not obvious how evolution can be productized. Geology also seemingly contradicts the Bible---oil is one of those clever diversions created by God to make the Earth look more than 6009 years old---but that does not stop Christians from using geological theories to prospect for oil so they can carry on driving cars to church.

The discussion on the Today programme on 1 August is available as a video clip which I cannot work out how to provide a link to, and they do not do transcripts of interviews. Oh, well. The arguments proposed for Intelligent Design are not dissimilar to the nonsense on that flier I read as a child:

  • Bill Gates says that DNA is similar to computer software, therefore (1) it is computer software, (2) all software needs a programmer, and (3) an Intellisense Designer must exist.

  • The molecular structures in cells are fairly intricate, therefore they are 'nanotechnology', and being a 'technology' could not not have come about by chance.

Of course, the GATTACA in DNA is also full of random sequences, junk, errors and leftovers consistent with having been copied badly out of our evolutionary ancestors. It is not well-designed; it barely functions, and only exists because all the other random variations tried out over the last 4·9×109 years failed. I don't think anti-evolutionists really comprehend how long a time a million years is, and how many random attempts can be made in that time. It is possible for a random process with selection to appear intelligent: try making a matchbox-powered tictactoe machine to see a human-scale example.

Labelling the structures in cells nanotechnology is cute but changes nothing. Similar structures appear in the cells of more primitive organisms (in fact some structures in cells suggest that smaller creatures were assimilated in to the make-up of our cells). Sir David Attenborough replies that this is like the 19th-century argument that the human eye could not have evolved through natural selection, whereas with more research we have a pretty plausible series of increasingly intricate eye designs that show how the eye may have evolved. If there are still gaps, scientists view these are avenues for new research, not reasons to throw their hands up and give up on science.

On the other hand, a school science textbook is not the place to discuss the whole philosophy of science, nor is a sticker big enough to contain the argument. Maybe scientists and religionists should be campaigning together for a Philosophy course to be added to the high-school syllabus. It could be argued that all citizens need a way of coping with the apparent contradicitions between how their preachers instruct them and the nature of the world around them, so that they do not have to give up on their religion in order to lead productive lives.

My Nonsensical Solution

On the other hand, if the religionists insist on defacing textbooks, maybe science enthusiasts and athiests should demand equal time---and add stickers to Sunday School Bibles pointing out that creationism is only one theory explaining the existence of the earth. While we're at it, how about mentioning the (lack of) historical evidence for the census that explains away the inconsistency between Jesus' home town and the prophecy that he would be born in a different one, and textual evidence of the book of Genesis being derived from Babylonian, polytheistic creation myths, and so on and so forth? If Christian theologians can wrap their minds around the complexities of the Bible, then explaining away theory of evolution by natural selection should look simple by comparision!

Disclaimer: I am not a philosopher, and this article does not constitute philosophical advice.