String Theory and Intelligent Design

Christianity Today has a rather interesting article about the state of the evolution and Intelligent Design debate entitled "Science in Wonderland" by John Wilson which seeks to get "some perspective (250 million years' worth) on the evolution controversy."

He points out (rightly, in my opinion) that the kefuffle about the teaching of Intelligent Design has largely been put to rest for the time being since every time someone suggests that there may be room for the teaching of the perfectly reasonable idea that the universe that we are witnessing may not be the result of purely naturalistic causes, the "purely-materialistic/naturalism-is-the-only-way-to-do-science" crowd comes out of the woodwark decrying the end to legitimate science and a return the Medievil times. These claims are always backed up by local news programs who, when they discuss intelligent design at all, always link it directly to religion. (My own hometown news television station showed a stained-glass window in the background as they talked about ID -- not too subtle of a connection being drawn there.)

Of course, the biggest argument against ID is that it isn't science because it isn't testable. Take, for example, this statement from the website for the National Center for Science Education in an essay entitled "Scott replies to Dembski" by Eugenie Scott:

ID can make empirically or logically or statistically testable claims (that certain structures are irreducibly complex; by using probability arguments like the "design filter" one can detect design) but the foundational claim that a supernatural "intelligence" is behind it all is not a scientifically testable statement. (And please, let's be grownups here: we're not talking about a disembodied, vague "intelligence" that *might* be material, we're talking about God, an intelligent agent that can do things that, according to ID, mortals and natural processes like natural selection cannot. Not for nothing does Dembski say that ID is the bridge between science and theology.)

(I included the parenthetical to show that the argument being advanced by people like the NCSE must, necessarily, argue that the intelligent designer must be God in order to paint it as "religion" when ID does not make that claim. Certainly, it is true that the designer may be God, but ID certainly does not claim that the designer must be God.)

So, the argument against ID is that the foundational claim that a supernatural intelligence is "behind it all" cannot be tested. Well, as John Wilson points out, String Theory is considered "science" but it is equally untestable. Writing in a sometimes tongue-in-cheek fashion, but always with a purpose, Mr. Wilson notes:

The contempt that many scientists have expressed for Intelligent Design knows no bounds, but it can be summarized in a single dismissive sentence: "It's not science." Now string theory—that's another matter. String theory generates articles and grants and symposia. String theory has charismatic spokesmen like Brian Greene. (What is string theory? Ah, the universe is . . . made up of these . . . strings. Best if you read Greene's book, The Elegant Universe, or watch the accompanying DVD. You still won't understand it, but your ignorance, like mine, will be better informed.)

The man who is sometimes referred to as the father of string theory is Leonard Susskind, who is Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University and who recently published a book called The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. You might wonder what a theoretical physicist is doing messing with questions of Intelligent Design. Isn't that a job for biologists?

Well, do you remember talk a few years back about the extreme improbability of all the conditions required for life as we know it evolving just so? The reaction of the science establishment was to huff and puff and hint darkly about stealth creationism. But many cosmologists took the question seriously—so seriously, in fact, that some of them began to argue that our universe is but one of an unimaginable number of universes, say [10 to the 500th power], in which case the features of any one universe (ours, for instance) are unremarkable.

This theory has not met with, shall we say, universal approbation, not least because it can't be empirically tested. You could even say it's not science, and some have said that, but they don't hiss the way they do when they talk about Intelligent Design.

And here is an interesting footnote. At the end of an interview in New Scientist, Leonard Susskind, a very engaging character, is asked—-if his theory is ultimately not borne out—-"Are we stuck with Intelligent Design?" And Susskind gives a candid answer that no doubt provoked wrath among many of his colleagues:

I doubt that physicists will see it that way. … I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now, we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that a hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

Susskind was really very naughty to say that, and you can sense that he knew it. You can almost hear the alarm bells ringing. Get me Damage Control, quick!

I was recently lectured by a scientifically knowledgeable skeptic about my views about the beginning of the universe and how it seems to be uniquely prepared to support life. This skeptic pointed me to many theories about where the universe may have come from including a theory he liked (the name of which I don't recall) where there is some type of cosmic pool that bubbles up universes and we are just one of the million, billion universes in existence. Of course, this type of theory seems tailored to support the view that the universe leaped into existence poised to support life using a purely naturalistic/materialistic explanation. Of course it's possible that he's right, but there is no reason to believe that he is right because he had absolutely no evidence whatsoever that either the pool or any of the other million, billion universes exist.

And he, of course, is considered the rational skeptic. Amazing.


David said…
You guys scare me.

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