Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Intelligent Design

Steve Verdon thinks Eugene Volokh has wandered off the reservation in his Volokheyrian musings about "intelligent design," especially his observation that "it tells us nothing about God. After all, the intelligent creators could well be alien beings from outer space." Steve says lots of smart things about William Dembski, complex structures in living organisms, information theory, probability theory and scientific reasoning - but I have what I think is a separate reservation about the Volokheyrian approach.

Simply put, I've always thought that "intelligent design" theory just posited that the operation of all known natural laws could not explain the development of life, especially human life. "Evolution" is just shorthand for that. So I agree with Steve that the Volokheyrian segue into "aliens" theory seems to miss the point pretty badly even at the level of understanding what the "intelligent design" guys are saying. Too many X-Files reruns?

But I agree with Volokh that proving "intelligent design" may not tell us much about God - only the limits of the scientific method in a way similar to the way Godel's incompleteness therem showed some limits to the logical axiomatic method. At one point people (Hilbert, Von Neumann) actually thought that mathematics could be reduced to a set of mathematical laws (axioms) and deterministic logical deductions from that set. Boy were they wrong!

To the extent it helps contain human intellectual arrogance, one of our more virulent forms of stupidity, knowing something about our limits is not a bad thing. As Woody Alen wrote: "God is silent! Now if only we can get man to shut up." So maybe establishing "intelligent design theory" could in that sense bring us closer to God.

A stronger version of "intelligent design" theory (which, to my knowledge, is not being pushed by anyone) would be a demonstration that no consistent extension of the currently known body of natural laws could explain human life. I call that a "relative miracle" in one of my prior posts.

Opponents of "intelligent design" have some things in common with those early opponents of quantum mechanics who were confident that the new, non-deterministic theory must be explainable by deterministic "hidden variables." Albert Einstein, for example, famously expostulated that "I defend the Good God against the idea of a continuous game of dice!" But it now seems that there cannot be deterministic "hidden variables" of which quamtum mechanics is but a probablilistic reflection - God does role dice with the universe - at least if one accepts the strong "Copenhagen" version of quantum mechanics.

Interestingly, Einstein also said "I believe in the God of Spinoza." I'm not sure what Einstein exactly meant by this, but Spinoza is often said to have believed that "God" is the aggregate of all natural laws, which he might have meant to include at least the ones known to him. So one shorthand formulation of a stronger "intelligent design" theory could be: "Spinoza was wrong."

I will leave any First Amendment consequences of this formulation to the reader.

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