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.


  1. I favor teaching all religions to our children, not just one.

    To me, this is problematic.

    There are too many things people have believed and do believe. To teach literally all of them in any serious way would take up too much time. You would be teaching patently invented things such as [examples redacted in order to avoid potential offense].

    But, when you try to decide on some criteria which includes the big ones but excludes weird current ideas and Greek mythology, you basically just end up with a list of things a lot of people happen to believe right now. Which seems like a great way to start an anthropology class, but not much good for anything else.

  2. .

    "God" might just add another layer of mystery to the universe without actually explaining the universe. If we say that God is the cause of intelligence, we may rightfully ask, "What intelligence caused God?" If another more intelligent God caused God, then we have a right to ask what intelligence caused that God. And so on in an infinite regress of causation (and an infinity of Gods!). We're no closer to an answer when we introduce the word God.

    As to teaching about religion in American public schools: the Supreme Court has approved such a thing as long as the study is not coercively devotional. Teachers can teach ABOUT religion but they cannot teach religion, per se. No curriculum could teach ALL religions because there may be something like 10,000 religions out there. But a survey of some of the largest religions would certainly explode the provincialism of most American kids. Better yet: let's wait until everyone is 20 years old and only THEN introduce them to religions. No catechism, no religious indoctrination in the early years. But at twenty you begin to hear hundreds of lectures from the experts of each religion. It would be interesting to see what religion a young adult might choose--perhaps not a one.


  3. The plural of leaf is leaves. A warm morning rises root water and hormones to cold leaves; by night the hormones return via water to the root growth system (e.g. grapes are picked at night for better flavour). This cycle is broken when a seedling's soil temperature remains as that of the air about its leaves, which confuses the downward growth of roots etc. PS.God's infinite truth stood without test until the result of his champion, and again the dichotomy of intelligence is read of when Eve ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge.