Sunday, August 31, 2008


As far as I can see, the basic tenet of the ‘argument for design’ is, roughly speaking, a certain reading of the law of entropy. People will quote the phrase ‘second law of thermodynamics’ without really understanding what it is or entails. To the supporter of ID / creationism, ‘entropy’ is an important concept because it suggests that, in a ‘natural’ situation, things will fall apart, not come together. Things will tend towards disorder, not towards order (this despite the natural phenomenon of crystallisation, for example).

Superficially, some aspects of the ‘argument for design’ do seem tempting. People who ask ‘when you see a car, you know someone designed it, so how can you conceive of humanity developing without some kind of design?’ can seem convincing, especially to someone who hasn’t considered the topic in detail. They may then come up with some arbitrary number (like one in 100 million billion etc.) and claim that these are the odds of human life (as we know it) occurring spontaneously.

For me, however, the big problem with the implication of design from complexity is the way we look at it. We start with the end product – humanity – and move backwards from there. It’s almost as if you take one Jackson Pollack painting, declare it to be the ‘ideal’ painting, and measure all others by merely how far they deviate from this ‘ideal’. It’s arbitrary. The suggestion that the human body is of ‘perfect’ design is actually comical if you think about it. Among the things we can’t do: we can’t fly, we can’t breathe underwater, we can’t see in the dark, we can’t carry 10x our own weight, we can’t use echolocation, etc. etc. etc. And that list is merely confined to things that other, so-called ‘inferior’ species can do. In thinking of ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ design, it’s easy to see how any of those above traits would come in handy, yet we lack them. Our body’s structure, shape and abilities – ‘design’ if you will – are one of billions of way we could have formed. To call our bodies ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ is something like throwing a dart at a blank wall and then describing the place where it hit the wall as the ‘ideal’ place for a dart to be.

Our perceptions of ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ are largely culturally defined, and science rarely bears them out. Think about the following: go to a place that sells lottery tickets and ask for the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The shopkeeper will, at least, shake his/her head. Your friends will all tell you you’ve wasted your money. The fact that 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is equally as likely as any other combination of six numbers is lost on most people – they have put their own sense of ‘order’ into an otherwise random, or disordered, system. Such is our instinct to connect ‘order’ to ‘design’ that if the lottery ever did draw 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, there would be outcries of fraud. We condition ourselves to believe that that sequence of numbers can’t occur randomly whereas, for example, 7, 12, 16, 25, 28, 30 seems ‘random’ and thus acceptable lottery results to us. But we deceive ourselves. Both of those sequences are equally probable.

If you are playing poker and deal yourself a royal flush immediately after shuffling, you will be strongly accused of cheating (and maybe be at risk of mortal danger). Again, however, the odds of getting the ace, king, queen, jack and ten of spades (a royal flush) and the odds of getting, say, the ace, king, queen and jack of spades plus a three of hearts (nothing more than ‘aces high’) are equal. The ‘order’ that we see in one but not the other is based on the rules of poker that our cultures have laid out, not on the randomization process of shuffling a deck.

Anybody who believes that order cannot come from disorder and that order is inevitably the result of conscious design should spend an afternoon watching cloud formations. Cloud formations are actually the predictable results of an insanely complex web of factors such as wind speed, air pressure, humidity, etc., but for all intents and purposes can be considered ‘random’. Surely no one can honestly consider cloud formations to be evidence of ‘design’.

Nonetheless, anybody with an iota of creativity can surely pick out shapes, images and sometimes even letters and words among the clouds: “Look! I see a puppy!” “I see a sailboat!” “I see a smiling old man with a beard!” It’s an enjoyable, but ultimately meaningless, exercise. We can see, of course, that these shapes are not the result of any form of ‘design’ other than the one within our own minds – our own creative ability to find the illusion of ‘order’ in disorder and to attach ‘meaning’ to the meaningless. When we’re looking up, we call it a nice time-waster. When we are looking around us, we call it inarguable proof of ‘design’ and ‘intent’.

ID / creationism supporters will additionally talk about how the earth is at an ideal distance from the sun and has an ideal ecosystem to sustain life. Again, what they mean is life as we know it. Again, however, this makes the mistake of starting at the conclusion and going backwards. Even holy books concede that there must be an earth before there are creatures to populate it, and saying that the earth is designed to be suitable to humans is no different from filling a bowl to the brim with soup and then declaring the bowl to be of a size, shape and volume ideally suited (and even ‘designed’) to hold your soup – of course you merely measured your soup according to the bowl, and similarly humans and other forms of life have merely adapted themselves (through the pressures of natural selection) to best suit the environments in which we find them. The large expanses of the world that we haven’t populated – Antarctica, the depths of the oceans, the parts of the Sahara that don’t have oases – clearly show the true extent to which Earth is optimally ‘designed’ to support us. We crowd ourselves in narrow areas along coastlines and then claim the Earth was ‘designed’ for our benefit.

None of this proves the cosmological and biological theories that are accepted in modern science and that describe an undesigned system. But the fact is that many supporters of ID / creationism do little more than use poorly-understood concepts to attempt to ‘take down’ modern science by suggesting that the processes they describe are ‘impossible’ (or at least ‘virtually impossible’. Their aim, and a subversive one it is, is to try to discredit these theories in the hope that people will then fall ‘by default’ to the concept of a universe created according to God’s will. But not only is this deceptive and underhanded, it is simply not true. The forces that scientists believe to have been responsible for our existence are not only completely plausible but are quite readily visible in our day-to-day lives.

Those who have eyes to see, let them see...

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