The Right Coast

January 09, 2006
More on intelligent design
By Tom Smith

At first I thought I was going to agree with this philosopher from Arizona, but then I think he goes wrong at the very end, or at least does not give some (perhaps hypothetical) version of ID the benefit of the doubt. Suppose there are two versions of ID, dumb ID and smart ID. Dumb ID says that the universe and its critters were all designed by God, and since this must be true, comes up with some story or other about how design is behind whatever fact you throw at it. This is dumb, because it is just a collection of non-falsifiable hypotheses. (I do not agree with Popper that scientific truths are just not yet falsified claims, but I do agree with him that scientific propositions have to be falsifiable.)

But you can have smart ID as well. Some ID scientist claims that if we look at the Cosmic Background Radiation, we will find God's signature in some specified way. This may not be plausible, but plausibility is not (contrary to what you may hear in some social science settings) a necessary criterion of a valid or even true scientific hypothesis. Most of relativity theory is utterly implausible, yet strangely enough, true. Smart ID qualifies as science. If you look at CBR and find no signature, it is one more failed hypothesis. But that is what most of science is anyway. Smart ID might be just a collection of false hypotheses, but there is a lot of science like that.

A type of intelligent design that has some physicists and cosmologists worried is the idea that the cosmological constant appears to be very finely tuned so that the universe can have life in it. This is the cosmological constant that Einstein dreamnt up as a fudge, was dismissed for a long time, but with recent evidence has now made a comeback as the negative vacuum energy that seems to be making the universe expand faster than one would otherwise have thought. Sorry, but that's the best I can do. If this constant were ever so slightly different, then, sorry, no galaxies, stars, planets, toddlers or babies. Or blogs.

But this is awkward if you really hate the idea of a universe that looks like it was built for us. So what to do? Here is where Susskind thinks string theory may ride to the rescue. It looks like string theory may have a very, very large number of solutions, on the order of ten to the 500th power large, and so there would be that many universes. Each of these universes would have different physical laws. This would allow you to say, our universe has not been designed, it just so happens we live in one of the universes, perhaps the only one, where beings like us, 3D carbon based beings, could live. So life is an accident after all! We are just very lucky, that's all.

There is a lot going on here, not all of it terribly kosher, IMHO. First, note how atheism is just as much a motivation for scientific theorizing as theism can be. I think this is absolutely fine. Everybody needs a reason to get up in the morning. But it is no more legitimate than being motivated by the desire to prove that God made the universe. Yet, oddly, atheism seems such an ingrained part of scientific culture now, that it seems quite acceptible to announce that your theory is better because the altertnative is that God is out there somewhere. But this is just completely off base. It is irrelevant, or should be, whether your theory is consistent or not, with atheism or its opposite. All that matters, or should matter, is whether your theory is verified by facts, generated by experiments in the lab or ones Nature cooks up for us. If some particle physicist sees Jesus in dream, and He tells him to look for the dipsy doodle particle, all that matters is whether the physicist finds that particle, not who told him to look. This much should be obvious. Inconsistency with some version of theism is not a scientific credential. Unfortunately, in some of the more esoteric regions of cosmology and physics, this seems not to be the case.

It will be extremely dumb and disappointing if any string theorists or cosmologists tell us, well, some version of our theory must be true, because the alternative is to believe our universe was designed by God. That is, as opposed to our being fantastically lucky in being born in the unimaginably tiny part of it where life is possible. This is so confused, as the saying goes, it is not even wrong. It is not evidence that there exist a practically infinite number of universes, that the universe we can observe appears to be very special, or at least hospitable to us. If the only color you can see is red, and you come across a red car, this is not evidence that there must exist cars in a nearly infinite variety of colors, for otherwise it would be highly unlikely you would come across just the sort of car you can see. That is a very strange way of looking at things. It seems just as sensible to think that cars are red or that you just got lucky. Or perhaps even that someone bought a car just for you, though that hypothesis is hardly proven, it is at least as likely as the many cars hypothesis. These physicists need to get a grip on the concept of evidence. Maybe they should go to law school. But, in their defense, many physicists think string theory or this version of it, is deeply confused. Here is my current favorite, who seems to me to be a very smart human indeed. Strings theorists seem to hate him, however.

On the other side, ID advocates seem to make the mistake of arguing that God Did It is the mother of all default arguments. Can't figure out how DNA evolved from primordial slime? Must be God who did it. This is confusing because part of this procedure is science, that part that shoots down somebody's theory of where DNA came from. 'Your theory of biogenesis is wrong because of fact X', is science, the falsification part. The 'therefore God did it' is just the theistic burp after the scientific meal. Meaningless in scientific terms and understandibly considered rude as well.

One final rant -- you also hear people say, ID is an insult to people of faith. It's a matter of faith, and if you look for evidence of God, then you obviously don't get the faith thing. Well, I think maybe I do not get the faith thing, as least as Luther et al. seem to think of it. In my view, God exists or he doesn't, Jesus rose or he didn't, and so on. There are some factual claims in most religions, and I at least am interested to know whether they are true. I do not find it incoherent at all to suppose that facts may emerge proving or disproving any number of factual claims associated with religion. I also suspect that this line of, I don't like ID because it makes a matter of fact what ought to be a matter of faith, is a way of saying, at least for some people, don't worry about me; I'm religious, but I'm harmless. It's not as if I believe any of this stuff is true. I think most of us are fated to live and die in ignorance of a huge proportion of what is true about the universe and our place in it, but this is no reason to give up on the idea of truth.