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We easily, and usually accurately, make inferences as to when purposeful design by an intelligent agent is at work. In New Hampshire, there was for centuries a rock formation called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” that resembled a human face. (It was obliterated by a rockslide in 2003.) Most of us would recognize this formation as simply a chance occurrence rather than design. There are lots of rocks in the world, and humans tend to see patterns that resemble faces. But if we plucked a villager from a remote valley in Nepal, who had not the slightest knowledge of American history, and whisked him to South Dakota, he would instantly and correctly recognize Mount Rushmore as an instance of design by an intelligence.
CAN COMPLEX SPECIFIED information be produced by unintelligent natural causes? Dembski argues forcefully that it cannot. In every case in which we know the “causal story” underlying complex specified information (writing a sonnet, creating a computer program, or sculpting Mount Rushmore) we know that it has been produced by an intelligence. Citing the “Law of Conservation of Information,” Dembski also shows that, apart from intelligence, the amount of information in a closed system can only stay the same or decrease. Natural causes can “shuffle around” information, but the total amount cannot increase without the activity of an intelligent agent.
As a matter of both theory and experience, therefore, specified complexity does not come into existence unless it is designed by an intelligence. And, where it exists, specified complexity can be identified either in a rough and ready way (Mount Rushmore) or by more rigorous, probabilistic means. In employing improbability to detect design, Dembski has formulated what he calls the “universal probability bound.” This is a number beyond which, under any circumstances, the probability of an event occurring is so small that we can say it was not the result of chance, but of design. He calculates this number by multiplying the number of elementary particles in the known universe (10^80) by the maximum number of alterations in the quantum states of matter per second (10^45) by the number of seconds between creation and when the universe undergoes heat death or collapses back on itself (10^25). The universal probability bound thus equals 10^150, and represents all of the possible events that can ever occur in the history of the universe. If an event is less likely than 1 in 10^150, therefore, we are quite justified in saying it did not result from chance but from design. Invoking billions of years of evolution to explain improbable occurrences does not help Darwinism if the odds exceed the universal probability bound. Why should we care how specified complexity comes about, or how it can be detected? Because all life contains an enormous amount of complex specified information. The DNA in genes and chromosomes that makes up the blueprint for life is basically computer code. The information is contained in long sequences of nucleotide bases. There are four potential bases for any “slot” in the sequence, often abbreviated by the letters A, C, G, and T to represent their chemical names. The sequence of those bases specifies what proteins will be produced, and how a plant or animal will be produced.
Like computer code or language, the sequencing of those four bases is contingent — the nucleotides don’t bond with the nucleotides next to them in a necessary, repeating sequence. DNA sequences are also complex. In the human genome (that is, in the DNA present in each of our cells) there are about three billion such slots. The amount of information in the DNA of every human cell is greater than the information in all of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Most importantly, DNA sequences in living things are specified in relation to a function: building a human, animal, or plant that can, at minimum, survive and reproduce.
HOW COULD THIS VAST AMOUNT of complex specified information come about without intelligence? The problem for Darwinian theory is particularly acute with respect to the origins of life. But even after life gets underway, random variation and natural selection can’t conceivably generate the magnitude of information necessary, the ID theorists argue.
To take just one example, a well-known (and unsolved) problem for Darwinism is the Cambrian Explosion. As noted by Stephen Meyer in the book Debating Design, this event might be better called the Cambrian Information Explosion. For the first three billion years of life on Earth, only single-celled organisms such as bacteria and bluegreen algae existed. Then, approximately 570 million years ago, the first multi-cellular organisms, such as sponges, began to appear in the fossil record. About 40 million years later, an astonishing explosion of life took place. Within a narrow window of about 5 million years, “at least nineteen and perhaps as many as 35 phyla (of 40 total phyla) made their first appearance on Earth….” Meyer reminds us that “phyla constitute the highest categories in the animal kingdom, with each phylum exhibiting unique architecture, blueprint, or structural body plan.” These high order, basic body plans include “mollusks (squids and shellfish), arthropods (crustaceans, insects, and trilobites), and chordates, the phylum to which all vertebrates belong.”
These new, fundamental body plans appeared all at once, and without the expected Darwinian intermediate forms. The amount of new biological information necessary to create these abruptly emerging body plans is staggering. Meyer states that sponges such as those that existed right before the Cambrian explosion probably required about five basic cell types. More complex animals like the arthropods would have required 50 basic cell types. These in turn are dependent on new and different proteins. Citing recent research, he notes that the more complex kinds of single cell organisms might require about a million DNA base pairs to manufacture the necessary proteins. But a complex, multicellular organism such as an arthropod would require “orders of magnitude” more coding instructions. The modern fruit fly is an arthropod, and it has about 120 million base pairs. The odds that this quantity of information could be generated by random variation filtered through natural selection quickly surpass the “universal probability bound.” It’s not going to happen. Not even once, in the entire universe, in its whole history.
But it did happen. The preceding paragraph of this article also happened, even though the odds of it being produced by chance also far exceed the universal probability bound. That’s because it’s not difficult for an intelligence to produce complex specified information that would otherwise be vanishingly improbable. That’s also why the ID theorists contend that only an intelligence could possibly produce the vast and detailed information base that is required for life in all its amazing complexity and variety.
This is not an “argument from ignorance” or for a “God of the gaps.” The ID theorists are not saying “We don’t know how something occurred, therefore God must have done it.” Rather, it is an “inference to the best explanation.” Naturalistic explanations have turned out to be wholly insufficient, in principle and in practice, to explain the specified complexity that characterizes life at the cellular and molecular level. We know that intelligent agents can generate complex specified information. As a matter of both experience and theory, it appears that complex specified information can only be generated by intelligence. So when we find living organisms that exhibit specified complexity, the best explanation is that the information was produced by an intelligent agent, and that the organism was, in fact, designed.
HOW HAS THE SCIENTIFIC ESTABLISHMENT reacted to the ID challenge? Variously. Some scientists have reconsidered their views, and become sympathetic to intelligent design. Others have engaged the ID theorists in debate, ranging in character from cordial to caustic.
Richard Dawkins refuses to debate Dembski, and a couple of years ago published an unfinished letter to the late Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned evolutionist from Harvard. In that letter, Dawkins proposed that they not debate “latter day creationists” who only want to share a platform with a “real scientist” (such as, presumably, himself). Dawkins is a true believer in the Darwinian faith, who characterizes his role as “Advocate for Disinterested Truth.” He refers to religion as a “virus of the mind,” and explicitly affirms that he is both “contemptuous” and “hostile” towards it. According to Dawkins, “It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”
It is plain to see that there is more than a disagreement over scientific techniques or reasoning here. Dawkins’ commitment to materialism and atheism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Those who challenge materialism’s creation story must be anathematized. Unfortunately, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has taken a similar position. In a board resolution adopted in 2002, that organization charges the “so-called” ID movement with, among other things, claiming “that contemporary evolutionary theory is incapable of explaining the origin of the diversity of living organisms.” In other words, ID proponents are charged not merely with being wrong, but with committing heresy against contemporary evolutionary theory.”
Richard M. von Sternberg holds two Ph.D.s in the area of evolutionary biology, and is not himself an advocate of intelligent design. When serving as the managing editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, he allowed a scholarly paper by the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer to be published in that journal. Although he had followed standard peer review procedures, the full brunt of the Darwinian establishment’s wrath was brought down on him. You can read his account at www.rsternberg.net. Dembski summarizes the strident reaction to ID by parts of the scientific community (and presents strategies for handling it) in “Dealing with the Backlash against Intelligent Design,” available at www.designinference.com.
The controversy has for several years been spilling into the public schools. The ID proponents do not contend that their theory ought to be taught in the public schools. All they claim is that students should be made aware that there is a controversy here. But the supporters of Darwinism are adamant. Only the Darwinian orthodoxy can be taught, and no theory critical of it can even be mentioned.
All of this suggests that what is at stake here are two competing philosophical visions: one that automatically rules out the possibility of God (and therefore a designer) as a matter of principle, and one that affirms God, or is at least willing to entertain the possibility of a designer. That division, to a great extent, underlies the “culture wars” and much else in our public life.
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