The Speculist: Seeking the Designer


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Seeking the Designer


Jerry Pournelle offers not a defense of Intelligent Design, but a response to some of its harsher critics:

1. while many "Intelligent Design Theorists" are in fact fundamentalist creationists, not all of them are, and some like the late Sir Fred Hoyle are not creationists at all.

2. The panspermia hypothesis, which asserts that life originated on a planet other than Earth and was brought here by either natural or intelligently directed actions, is hardly ludicrous, has at least some unexplained evidence in its favor, and holding it as an hypothesis is hardly evidence of buffoonery. The late Robert Bussard was well known to believe in panspermia. Several of my science fiction novels make use of this hypothesis, and I have yet to see any definitive refutation.

3. Many of those in Dawkins' camp use proof by assertion: they simply say that there are no features that demonstrate "irreducible complexity" and those that seem to are illusions; and while they have not shown the steps that would lead from easily explained conditions to the complex feature, they have great confidence that they will find them, and anyone who doesn't believe that is an idiot.

4. In my judgment, reason and science are not in conflict to those willing to spend the time and effort in genuine study of the apparent irreconcilable differences. I note that I share that view with His Holiness Benedict XVI, who has asserted this all his life, most notably in his Regensburg Speech (Full Text), which is well worth your attention. Do note that the truth or falsity of this point is not definitive regarding my critique of Dawkins. It does, I presume, qualify me as a buffoon in Professor Dawkins' estimation.

I personally think it extremely unlikely that the "irreducible complexity" critique of evolution will pan out, at least in terms of proving that God exists. But it is interesting that (according to Pournelle) current computer models of evolution can't make some of these leaps -- simple light receptor to fully functioning eye -- without a little tinkering in the background. At the very least, the ID critique may prove useful in helping us to improve our computer models of evolution.

However, whether there is any merit to this central tenant of the current ID debate, some of the broader questions related to intelligent design shouldn't just be brushed aside. In their eagerness to quash what they see as religious doctrine sneaking its way into a scientific debate, Dawkins and other critics of ID are unwilling to entertain the idea that "intelligent design" could, in fact, lie behind the presence of life on this planet -- or the existence of the universe -- and that such design might fit into a completely naturalistic understanding of the universe.

Stephen and I were chatting the other day about the idea that the universe is a computer simulation. This, along with the seeded panspermia notion that Pournelle mentions above, is an example of a model for intelligent design that does not rely on any supernatural elements or invoke any religious doctrine. Stephen observed that the computer simulation hypothesis is an intriguing idea, but that we can "never know" if it's true.

If Stephen is correct, that such an origin of the universe is beyond our knowledge, then Dawkins and others are right to reject the idea as being outside the scope of science. Even if it's true, if we can't make testable predictions from the hypothesis, which yield results indicating that the universe may indeed be a computer simulation, then science has nothing to say on the subject.

Of course, there may yet be ways to test that hypothesis. Maybe the designers were kind enough to put a few easter eggs into this universe, hints about their own existence which we will find once we reach a sufficiently advanced scientific understanding. Or we may find that, upon closer examination, most of our universe "isn't really there." If we found evidence that everything past, say, the Oort cloud was some kind of elaborate optical illusion, that would be a pretty good case for the universe being a simulation. (I would be very disappointed in the designers if that were to be the case. Sure, they would have saved countless computing cycles by not actually modeling the entire the universe, but what kludge of a universe they would have stuck us in in the process.)


Or how about this, if you take Nick Bostrom's formulation of the Simulation Hypothesis...

1. Almost no civilization will reach a technological level capable of producing simulated realities.

2. Almost no civilization reaching aforementioned technological status will produce a simulated reality, for any of a number of reasons, such as diversion of computational processing power for other tasks, ethical considerations of holding entities captive in simulated realities, etc.

3. Almost all entities with our general set of experiences are living in a simulation.

...what are we to make of point 3, even if we never have any direct evidence that our universe is simulated, if we begin creating simulated universes ourselves? After we create a few dozen simulated universes, almost all entities within our general set of experiences will be living within a simulation. Does that add any weight to the idea that we are living in a simulation? I don't see how it could. On the other hand, what happens when the beings within one of these simulations we have created start running a simulation of their own? Does that tell us something?

Also, it's important to note that there are some ideas about embedded intelligence in the roll-out of the universe do not involve an intelligent designer per se (unless you count us.) John Smart describes a cosmos in which a deeply embedded capacity for intelligence sets the parameters governing the universe, leading to us, and potentially enabling us to lead to the next step -- whatever that might be.

These ideas warrant closer examination. If there is a way to move them from philosophical speculation to scientific inquiry, we are certain to find it sooner or later. We'll be delving more into some of these ideas on the upcoming FastForward Radio, where our guest will be Jim Elvidge, author of The Universe: Solved.


I was thinking about some of these issues this morning on the way to work.

Ben Stein's documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" raises the whole ID v. Evolution debate once again.

Frankly, I find that debate a bit tiresome. To my friends on the ID side: no, there is no disagreement among scientists about whether evolution is a reality. Evolution is central to both biology and geology. To suggest otherwise is to engage in dishonesty. And isn't that a sin?

I would remind Dawkins that there are important questions beyond science. Religion and philosophy are efforts to get those answers.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post entitled "The Miracle."

The miracle I was talking about is the miracle of existence. It seems to me that we often miss how remarkable existence is. Wouldn't nothing have been easier?

Wonder and awe is appropriate.

The Mr. Magorium movie has a perfect line:

"Your Life Is An Occasion, Rise To It!"

If either Hoyle's panspermia hypothesis or Bostrom's simulation hypothesis turn out to be correct, then you have both design and evolution. And John Smart's idea of a "designerless" cosmos that increases in intelligence through myriad iterations is predicated on evolution. So I guess my problem with the "whole ID vs. evolution" debate is that it's really the evolution vs. creationism debate, when it could be something much more interesting.

If the cosmos just plain exists in some absolute and self-explanatory fashion, then nothing would not have been easier. It wouldn't even have been possible. The trouble with any explanation for existence (including God) is that it demands a context. A self-contextualizing fact is not intellecutally satisfying, as I noted in the update here.

If you say, "Yeah, but God just exists," well, that seems to be exactly what Hawking is saying about the universe. I want more! :-)

I like the Magorium quote, btw.

Incidentally, this is the approach that is most productive for proponents of the intelligent design theory. Find the designer. Poking holes in evolution isn't sufficient.

I read all that. I got vertigo from it.

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