The Right Coast

December 21, 2005
More on ID
By Tom Smith

I've received a couple of thoughtful emails objecting to my post on ID, so I thought I would try to clarify it. First, my claim that some version of ID would count as a scientific hypothesis. It strikes me as a perfectly coherent claim that we live in a universe that was designed by some intelligent entity. I don't see anything logically problematic about such a claim at all. Imagine that you had been abducted by aliens as a baby and raised by androids in some giant terrarium which the aliens tried to make as natural as possible, like the San Diego Wild Animal Park for humans. Assuming you grew up to be intelligent, you would look around the world you lived in, and you very well might find evidence that you lived in a world that had been created for you by beings superior to you, in at least some respects. I can at least imagine a version of ID that would say something similar about the universe we live in.

I don't see any good argument for saying that a hypothesis that says that about the universe we live in simply cannot count as science. I grant there is a distinction between this version of ID and what I have read some versions of ID claim, which is that we must believe some ultimately mysterious, i.e., incapable-of-being-explained-by-science force must be the cause of certain observed phenomena. That is not science, I concede.

What would count as evidence that the universe is designed? I think a cool example comes from Carl Sagan's novel Contact (unless I am confusing it with some other trashy SF book I read 15 years ago). The astronomer discovers an extra solar system source broadcasting the digits of pi. The she discovers that the digits of pi itself have encoded in them instructions for the worm hole travel device. Granted, this is a really weird idea, but it is not logically impossible. Suppose someone discovered that the digits of pi after the ten to the twentieth power -th digit had encoded in it all the books of the Bible (but no other books). And everyone checked it and it held up. That would be really weird, but I would sure take it as evidence that someone had designed the universe and that the Bible had some special role in it.

I gather from critics of ID that what it now consists of is pointing out various gaps in evolutionary explanations that are not really gaps at all, and then asserting that therefore God must have created various species of animals. I grant this is not science. I am making another point, which is that there is nothing inherently unscientific about the claim that we live in a created universe. Lots of scientists over the centuries have believed that.

For people interested in the general idea of ID, much more sophisticated discussion of the notion of design and creation can be found in scientific and philosophical discussion around the anthropic principle in cosmology, which I don't want to explain now. One aspect of it, however, is the observation that we live in a universe that appears in a sense to be extremely finely tuned to make intelligent life possible. Two possible positions are possible here. It is just an accident, and, it was tuned up this way on purpose. Both sides of this debate, if that's what it is, include some very serious thinkers, and I don't think either side can be dismissed. Of course, the idea that the universe was tuned up, with certain physical constants and so forth, by the Creator(s) is perfectly consistent with the origins of species by variation and natural selection, as far as we know.

If you want to read more about this, try this, this, this or (sort of) this. Disclosure: all of these books are hard, and I haven't read all of all of them, nor understood all of what I have read, unlike the dumb ox.