Sunday, September 20, 2009
On Intelligent Design
Consider the following reasoning I witnessed a while back at a parent meeting. Some trees are so tall that there is no scientific explanation for the fact that these trees can pump water from its roots all the way up to its top (I actually seriously doubts that there is no explanation but let's ignore that for now.) Therefore there exists a upward force that pushes things in the opposite direction as gravity...
What is the problem here. I claim there are two fallacies in the logic. Firstly, the fact that we currently don't have an explanation for some phenomenon in terms of ordinary physics, doesn't mean there is none. A scientist should readily admit that many measurable phenomenon remain unexplained today. It doesn't mean that we have to introduce a new mysterious force. Secondly, the "upward force" feels like a valid explanation, however we have just given the unexplained phenomenon a new name. Instead of saying "I don't know the answer to this question" we say "I know the answer, it is X". It turns out this is just another way of saying the same thing. Giving names to things generates the illusion that we understand it. And people really don't like to not understand things. Our survival depends on it, so it to give us peace of mind to simply delude ourselves.
Isn't this is even true in real science? Apparently, when Feynman asked his father about the reason why objects tend to persist in their straight motion, his father said something of the sort. That's because momentum is conserved. But he warned the young Feynman that giving something a distinguished name isn't the same as explaining it.
When does something become an explanation then? Isn't all we are doing just giving names to things? Well no, the distinguishing factor is prediction. When you can genuinely predict a new phenomenon, then you have found useful structure in the world. Whatever your naming conventions, that predictive power is useful and real.
Now to intelligent design (ID). In ID, the most scientific concept seems to be "irreducible complexity (IC)". This idea should be given a chance. If someone can compute the IC of some complex system as the gap in complexity between the system under study the next simplest version of the system that still performs some useful function, than that seems like a genuine advance. Note though that this is extremely difficult because one would have to search over all possible complex systems that can lead to the system under study and one would have to have a notion of what it means to be useful. I believe these problems basically make the concept of irreducible complexity a non-starter, but we want to be extremely open minded here.
Where things go desperately wrong is when we think we found a system that has a high irreducible complexity and then exclaim that therefore it must be designed by an intelligent designer (aka God). This is like the tree example: we have shown that contemporary science cannot explain the phenomenon and therefore we give the problem another name, namely God. However, stating that God designed certain things in the world does not make us understand and thus predict the phenomenon any better. Our attitude should be: 1) maybe Darwin's version of evolution needs to be improved to properly explain structures with high irreducible complexity, or 2) perhaps our estimate of the irreducible complexity was wrong and we need to look harder for simpler functional structures that could evolve into the "problematic" structure.
Personally, I am very tolerant to religion. It brings some good and some bad things to people, but everyone should make up their own mind on these issues. It would be arrogant to claim there is no God. My hope is that we can teach religion in schools on an objective level. I favor teaching all religions to our children, not just one. However, I do not believe science and religion should be mixed. They live on different planes. Trying to prove the existence of God is a lost battle. Trying to prove that someone performed three miracles and then declaring that person saint is simply silly (at the level of Santa Claus). Declaring the existence of God based on the fact that you (supposedly) cannot explain some natural phenomenon using modern science is equally backward.