Intelligible Design and Darwin’s Black Box


The one thing that modern science should be able to do is to explain to us how things happen. The one thing it cannot do is tell us that things happen by chance. Things may well happen by chance, but then there is no chance of a scientific explanation. “Chance” is the methodology of Darwinian account of evolution, which can only mean that it doesn’t actually account for anything. A convinced Darwinist might respond, “It is not just chance, but chance mutations measured against their survival value; it is the struggle for survival which makes chance mutations work.” But this merely introduces a factor which Darwinists make no attempt to explain, namely, the will of the organism to live. That organisms have such a will is self-evident, but can such a will really be the result of chance mutations? After all, we never speak of the rock’s struggle for survival, but if rocks and plants are just different configurations of matter, where does such a will come from? Here we see the biological form of Heidegger’s great question, “Why should things want to be rather than not be?”

This self-evident “will to live” introduces an insurmountable problem for the Darwinist, for such a will must be present at the very beginning of life for the theory to work at all. Without it, no species has any reason to adapt, or any individual any reason to survive. But this “will” must precede evolution, and hence cannot be explained by it. It might have been plausible, in the naïve days of the 19th century, to speak of the ascent of higher forms of life from lower forms, of a movement from the simple to the complex. But that is no longer possible for the simple reason that we cannot find a “simple” form of life. The smallest one-celled animal is irreducibly and unimaginably complex. The single-cell already contains an information storage and retrieval system which cannot, as yet, be duplicated by human means. And it also contains a construction system of astounding complexity, able to translate information into acids and complex structures, and the cell itself is a collection of complex and cooperating structures. The scale of information is astounding; an amoeba dubia has 670 billion base-pairs (bits) in its genetic material; the human, by comparison, has 2.9 billion.

But this is just the beginning of the complexity, since not only is each cell complex in itself, but lives in a complex set of relationships with other cells and other species. There are simply no “simple” life forms with which we may locate a simple “beginning.” Indeed, the distance between “nothing” and amoeba is far greater than the distance between amoeba and man. This is to say, evolution is mostly complete by the time it starts. The heroic efforts to explain all this within the “black-box” of chance mutations seems more like an act of faith than a conclusion of science.

If the Darwinists cannot provide us with a scientific answer, should we turn to the theory of “Intelligent Design”? For the one thing that everybody can agree on is that the design is very intelligent indeed. But does it really do us any good, for our understanding of God’s universe, to replace the black box of chance with one marked “miracles”? The whole point of having a rational God—a god who is also logos—is that His universe is not only intelligent but intelligible; man, made in the image and likeness of this logos-God, is always able to understand more and more of God’s work. Indeed, coming to an understanding of this is man’s work; our task is not merely to put the right label on the black box, but to open the box and see what’s inside. What is needed is a theory not of intelligent design, but intelligible design. We already know that, as final cause, God did it; the trick is to see how he does it.

But if we cannot turn to Darwin to open the black box, and if Intelligent Design merely re-labels the box, where are we to turn for a scientific explanation? This is the question that Thomas Nagel explores in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. It is important to realize that Prof. Nagel is a philosopher with impeccably atheist credentials. But while he has no belief in God, he has a belief in fairness:

Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.(p. 10)

The essential difficulty that Nagel poses to the Darwinist is the problem of mind: consciousness, cognition, and values. If the Darwinist account of nature is correct, these things must be reducible to physical matter. The problem with such reductionism is that the more we know of mind, the less material it seems. And if mind is more than matter, then biology must be more than materialism. But we can go further. If the universe is intelligible, than matter itself must be more than material. But what substance can we give to this “more than”?

Modern science, if it is to be scientific, must insist that the universe is intelligible. But this intelligibility is hard to explain, and indeed it isn’t explained; it is accepted as a matter of faith. For Nagel, theism refers intelligibility to something external, namely the will of God, but this prevents any understanding of the world on its own terms. He judges the “interventionist” accounts of evolutionary order to be a denial that there is a comprehensive natural order.

The Darwinist account, on the other hand, can give us an explanation of the intelligibility of the universe, but only at the cost of undermining our confidence in that explanation. For example,

[A]n evolutionary self-understanding would almost certainly require us to give up moral realism— the natural conviction that our moral judgments are true or false independent of our beliefs. Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.(p. 28)

This is to say, if our thoughts are merely the result of a particular electro-chemical state of the brain, what assurance do we have that these contingent states actually reflect the actual world? No answer, from within a purely material science, can satisfy the radical skeptic. Nagel takes us, in great detail, through the problems of trying to explain consciousness, cognition, and values in materialistic, evolutionary terms. At each level, the problems for materialist explanations grow exponentially.

All explanations of the mental have to be either reductive or emergent. A reductive account will explain the mental character of complex organisms entirely in terms of the properties of their elementary constituents. An emergent account will explain the mental in terms of the higher-level physical functioning of the central nervous system, or structure like it. Both have problems. The reductive account must posit some as yet unknown “proto-mental” characteristics in the particles that make up the universe. But the emergent account, aside from undermining our confidence in any mental constructs, places an unbearable burden on evolutionary theory itself. At no stage in the emergence of the purely mental can Darwinism give us an account that is in any way probable; it can only assert the brute fact that consciousness does exist and then by brute force exclude any but a materialist explanation.

As an alternative to either the materialist or the interventionist theories, Nagel proposes ateleological property to the universe.

A teleological account will hold that in addition to the laws governing the behavior of the elements in every circumstance, there are also principles of self-organization or of the development of complexity over time that are not explained by those elemental laws.(p. 59)

Nagel realizes that such an account will meet the same opposition as does Intelligent Design.

I realize that such doubts will strike many people as outrageous, but that is because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the reductive research program as sacrosanct, on the ground that anything else would not be science.(p. 7)

For this teleological principle to work, the universe must contain, in addition to the familiar physical laws, laws that are “biased towards the marvelous,(p. 92)” since the very appearance of any kind of life is marvelous. While Darwinian evolution depends on a long series of accidents, Nagel’s theory posits that each successive stage of evolution must have a higher probability toward certain outcomes, namely the production of beings that are capable of understanding themselves and the universe.(p 93) Man is thus the product of the universe’s drive to self-understanding.

The Darwinists, I suspect, will have as much respect for Nagel’s teleology as they do for Intelligent Design’s interventionism. I doubt if they will make a serious attempt to respond to his critiques; their efforts will be the same as with the Intelligent Design theory: to simply exclude it from the debate. But leaving aside the Darwinists, there are two critiques of this theory that occur to me. The first arises from the difficulty of positing an “atheistic” teleology. Teleology is an Aristotelian idea that things have a natural purpose and direction; an idea bound up with intentionality, and intentionality is a quality of rational beings. To propose that things have a purpose without intention, that is, without a being who intends this purpose, is rather a stretch, and Nagel himself recognizes the problem.

The second problem is that Nagel seems to believe that there is some unified set of beliefs called “theism.” In fact nothing of the kind exists. The various “theisms” are as different from each other as they are from atheism. Hence, there is no “theism” that may be opposed to scientific rationality. On the contrary, the very notion of an intelligible universe, the foundation of science, is an artifact of science’s Christian roots in the Middle Ages; a rational God creates a rational universe, one that rational creatures may understand.

Note that while this is the stance of Christianity, it is not the stance of religions in general. For most religions, the world depends entirely on the will of Heaven; it rains because God, or some god, wills it to rain; no further explanation is required, and perhaps not possible. The Christian retains the idea of God as the final cause of the rain, but insists that there are intelligible formal, instrumental, and material causes as well, and that these causes can, in principle, be known. This goes a long way towards explaining why science developed in the West, even though the East had great engineers, astronomers, and mathematicians while Europe was still a collection of mud huts. For the medieval scientist, knowledge of the world was knowledge of the world’s God. But after the “Enlightenment” (so-called), knowledge of the natural world would make god unnecessary. He would be confined to the gaps in our knowledge, and as our knowledge expanded, God would be squeezed out.

This implies that science is, eventually, a theory of everything. Science is constantly on the verge of this theory, but never quite gets there. Indeed, just as they are about to grasp it all, it all slips away. For example, in the 1890’s Lord Kelvin, the most prominent physicist of his day, predicted that physics was about to become a complete theory, with only a few minor problems to be solved, those associated with heat and radiation. Of course, these “minor problems” became quantum mechanics. We are on the verge of another “Theory of Everything,” which I suspect will lead, as it always does, to a new starting point for new realms of science.

The Christian is not surprised by this, since science is an exploration of the infinite work of an infinite God. There is no final point, no complete theory. Rather, the world will always reveal new wonders for those who gaze at it in wonder. We have no method, at present, of detecting Nagel’s teleological principles in matter. But then, we had no way of detecting the quanta before we looked for it. It is the right question that brings the right answer. If—as I suspect—Nagel is proposing the right questions, we will find this teleological bias in the laws of nature. And if the proponents of Intelligent Design are at all intelligent, they will adopt this proposal as their own, and not be content with a black box labeled “miracles,” any more than they are content with Darwin’s black box.


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  • In college I was introduced to the theory of “Occam’s Razor”, which holds that, all else being equal, the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one. Occam’s Razor was invoked by my evolutionist professors to tell us that since evolutionary theory does not require a God, the simplest thing is to believe there is no God.

    My question is, why don’t Christians reclaim Occam’s Razor? With all the problems evolutionists are having with their theory, shouldn’t we say that the simplest explanation is that God made everything?

    BTW, I didn’t always but today I believe that man and woman were created much as the account of Genesis tells us – as modern human beings just like us. I believe further that interesting questions such as, “Where did Cain find his wife?” have answers that are simply not clear at the present. That may not satisfy a scientist, but for me and my faith it’s just fine.