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evolution, Religion, science

Intelligent Design is Worse than Ignorance

Christians will often say, “The universe cannot possibly have been created in exactly this way without intelligent design.” The most common way to refute this is to trot out the anthropic principle, which essentially points out that our existence only proves that our existence is possible. For whatever reason, this refutation, though perfectly sound, seems to come up short on emotional impact.

I want to look at this in a little bit more detail to give you a little bit more ammunition. To begin with, let’s look at the theist’s claim a little more closely: Without God, this particular incarnation of the universe is impossible.
This can be rewritten slightly to express the same idea with words that will be easier for us to work with:
Besides God, there are no other possible explanations for this particular incarnation of the universe.

Theists are not going to like it when you reword it this way — at least not if they’re smart. In fact, maybe even you, gentle atheist reader, are bristling a little bit. A brief stroll through science aisle at Borders will tell you that there are lots of other possible explanations for the universe besides God. Is it really that simple to completely discard the argument?

In a word, yes. It really is that astoundingly wrong. However, let’s keep looking at it to make sure we’re not missing something really important.

Notice that the theist argument relies completely on possibility, not accuracy. The assertion is that there is no other possibility at all that could explain the universe existing as it does. This is so astoundingly easy to refute that one has to wonder why anyone would bother, but for the sake of being thorough, here goes:

Assertion: It is possible that there is a multiverse, and that black holes are singularities, each spawning their own unique universe, each with random or at least highly variable universal constants. If this is the case, we should expect that universes such as ours where black holes naturally form would be more common than universes in which black holes do not naturally form. It is possible that time, whatever it might be, is infinite. If that is the case, then we should be surprised if a universe such as ours did not come to exist, as it is within the set of possible universal constants. (This is an amateurish recounting of a real theory, by the way.)

I have no idea whether or not this is the way reality is. I have no idea whether this is probable or staggeringly improbable. This is not the point. Unless there’s somebody out there with some startling empirical observations of the nature of reality, this theory is at least possible, even if the possibility is only one in trillions of trillions.
That’s how incredibly weak the theist argument is! It is disproven by just imagining anything at all that might have “created” the universe.

Of course, savvy theists will balk at this line of thinking. They can’t really argue the logic, but they can certainly argue the spirit of the argument. “Possible” doesn’t really mean possible in the absolute sense, they will say. What they mean is that nothing else makes any good sense. Sure, you can imagine that multidimensional ferrets shit singularities, and it’s pretty much impossible to disprove, but how much stock should we put into that hypothesis? No, the theist will aver, God is the only one with any reasonable possibility of being true.

At this point, a clever debater will insist that theists give up the charade of asserting that God is the only possible cause for the universe, and refuse to discuss the matter further. Having to give up the notion of God being the only possibility, a theist has now conceded that virtually anything could be the cause of the universe. And unless the theist happens to be an astrophysicist, he probably doesn’t have a scientific leg to stand on to propose anything at all.

Most ID proponents will be offended when you tell them that they don’t know nearly enough to go around making guesses about the beginning of the universe, but it’s true. There are very, very few people in the world qualified to do it. And here’s the thing — Not one of them has come up with an actual theory involving a god. Philosophically, god doesn’t answer any questions, since we just have to ask what created god. Scientifically, god is worse than no answer at all, since it doesn’t offer any mechanisms, equations, math, or observations about the “pre-universe,” but insists on its own correctness. That’s anti-science.

Remember, the way science works is this: See evidence, hypothesize, test. There has been absolutely zero evidence — ever — suggesting that the universe was created by a god. None. There is precious little evidence of anything at all about “before the universe” and there may well never be. But until and unless there is something observable by scientists that points squarely to consciousness before the Big Bang, god is not even a hypothesis. It’s worse than a hypothesis. It’s making shit up.

For whatever reason, the question of the universe’s origin is deeply important to a lot of people. (Personally, I can’t see how it makes any difference to my life at all.) They really, really want to know the answer. But the hard reality is that they only have two choices: Either learn to live without the answer, or become a cosmologist and try to answer the question scientifically.

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One thought on “Intelligent Design is Worse than Ignorance

  1. Good account. I might add that appeals to the improbability of this particular set of universal constants founder on the simple rock of their implicit statement of certain knowledge that probability versus design-decision is a valid dichotomy. There could be multiple universes, or differing regions of our own – there are conceivable way to conceive that this set of constants is just one position in a large phase space of possible sets, and we happen to be looking with a silly, anthropic look on our faces at the location where we can exist. To argue from the improbability of the Universe’s “tuning” is to make an implicit assertion that one KNOWS this not to be the case.

    A trained philosopher would presumably start with a statement something like “either there are multiple sets of physical constants or there are not.”

    Posted by Elliott Bignell | February 28, 2010, 6:36 am

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