Bob comments on George Gilder’s promotion of the “intelligent design” idea in an interesting interview with Gilder in the Boston Globe yesterday. (My take on the article was simply that Gilder has made an admirable career out of being wrong in public.) Bob says that bell curves look like they were intelligently designed, too, but as the famous exhibit at the 1964 Worlds Fair shows every time it’s run — I was there and I remember it — when you drop balls down a set of pegs, you get a bell curve every time.
Bob’s right, IMO, but his example isn’t going to cut the mustard with someone like Gilder who comes to the intelligent design conclusion not on the basis of faith. (Those who get there by faith can only be moved from it by another faith.) Gilder et al. point to far more complex examples than balls forming bell curves. In fact, the entire argument rests on finding examples so complex that they seem impossible without an intelligent designer. So, Bob’s tactic of finding something simple to understand that looks intentional but isn’t can’t work on ID believers, for they will always be able to find an example of something complex for which we don’t yet have an explanation.
Here’s my point of view on the intelligent design argument. I’m not claiming that it’s a sophisticated point of view. It’s just what I think.
I don’t know if there’s an intelligent designer. It seems unlikely to me for a few reasons: As SJ Gould pointed out, much of life is rather haphazardly and ad hoc-ly formed (e.g., the panda’s thumb), not as elegant as you’d expect from an ID and not like the elegant examples ID believers point to. Also, if there is an ID, I can’t imagine that the two words we use to describe it — “intelligent” and “design” — actually are anywhere near to describing it; it’s got to so far transcend our understanding that those terms don’t really make sense. Also, a belief that nature was intelligently designed raises the problem of evil — why do bad things happen to good people? — that argues against ID. I mean, if it turns out that it took an ID to design an eyeball, then why the hell didn’t it build in a tsunami warning system so the eyeballs of millions of children wouldn’t be dimmed? ID solves an engineering problem but raises an insoluble moral problem.
So, I don’t know if there’s an ID. As I say, if I had to guess, I’d say no, but if I don’t trust my judgment about whether my subscription to PC Gamer counts as a tax deduction, how can I trust my judgment about the origin of the universe? So, maybe there is an ID. But if there is, we sure can’t look to our ignorance as proof, because historically we know not only that we solve problems that once looked impossible, but our understanding of the domain within the which the problems exist changes radically. For most of recorded history we thought nature only had a few thousand years in which to operate. We were stuck with real-time apparatus for calculating. We were stuck running experiments about physical events by using physical events. We lacked the tools for understanding complexity. Human ignorance evolves, so it is unwise to base any argument on its nature.
Personally, I find absolutely nothing objectionable about people who believe G-d is the architect of nature. (Why pussyfoot around this? ID=G-d.) For the believers I know personally, this is a way of contacting the ineffable beauty, orderliness and complexity of our world. It is a way of acknowledging our dark-inked ignorance, our fallibility, our humanity, just as the best of our knowing always has. But taking ignorance as an excuse for remaining ignorant or, worse, for using it as an argument against science? The believers I know don’t do that. It would feel like a betrayal.
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