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The Universe Is Haunted: Reflections on the “Nature of Nature”

David Klinghoffer

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In the history of modern propaganda with its technique of the Big Lie, it’s hard to think of a brazen untruth more successful in shaping opinion than the one that equates intelligent design with Christian fundamentalist creationism. Almost as influential is the related lie that there is no serious scientific controversy over Darwinism, that main support pillar of contemporary materialist or naturalist doctrine.
Anyone who’s still unclear on either of these points should take a moment and just weigh in his hand The Nature of Nature, a massive and massively learned new 900-page volume of essays. In chapter after chapter, proponents and critics of naturalism and Darwinism, scientists and philosophers, hammer away at each other at the highest levels of debate.
In hanging the creationist label on intelligent design, Darwinists enjoy such success partly because those on the ID side seldom stop to paint a broad, encompassing, and accessible portrait of what exactly is going on in nature. ID theorists painstakingly make their case that a designer has shaped the natural world, but they tend to do so on a small canvas. Each looks at the evidence for design in a particular discipline or at a particular and telling deficit in Darwinian thought. The Nature of Nature stands out for its monumental comprehensiveness.
An impressively diverse group, including three Nobel Prize-winners alongside leading intelligent-design theorists, the contributors debate the ultimate implications of the evidence emerging from biology, physics, cosmology, mathematics, neuroscience, and other fields. The book makes it possible for a reader to try to imagine the big picture.
Naturalism is the idea that material nature is all there is in the cosmos, to the exclusion of spiritual or otherwise non-material beings or realities. As University of Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out here, that is an idea more radical, with deeper and more depressing ramifications, than mere atheism. An atheist could disbelieve in God while affirming the existence of, for example, Hegel’s Absolute or Aristotle’s impersonal Unmoved Mover. A naturalist could affirm neither.
Yet naturalism itself possesses aspects of a faith, performing “the cognitive or worldview function of religion.” This moves Plantinga to grant it “the status of an honorary religion.”
Naturalism is also the standard worldview in academia. That explains the origins of this book in a scandalous act of censorship at Baylor University. In 2000, the Baylor faculty senate panicked and shut down a brand-new intelligent-design research center on campus. That was just days after the center staged a conference on “The Nature of Nature.” The conference allowed believers in Darwinian theory and related forms of naturalism to confront ID advocates and other heretics face to face. The Nature of Nature collects many of those original presentations and a wealth of new material.
The organizers were a pair of Baylor scholars who also edited this book, mathematician William Dembski and philosopher of science Bruce Gordon. They have since moved on to other academic posts, including as senior fellows with the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Their think tank, the Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information and Design, lives on only in memory.
Terrified by the prospect of being thought to harbor so-called creationists, Baylor’s faculty could not countenance a lively debate about naturalism’s scientific credentials, a debate that threatened to embarrass professors by stirring up memories of the university’s Texas Baptist roots.
In fact, the impression you take away from the essays in The Nature of Nature that are critical of naturalism completely defies any sectarian categorization. In their extracurricular lives, many of the contributors would not deny holding religious beliefs, much as conference participants on the other side of the argument, like physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg or historian of science Michael Shermer, aggressively espouse atheism. Yet the picture of nature that rises from these essays isn’t necessarily a religious one at all.
You could put it this way: The universe is haunted.
Haunted not by ghosts but by a source of ancient, unseen, immaterial agency. Whether agents or one Agent, you simply can’t tell from the scientific evidence. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), co-discoverer of evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin and no one’s idea of a Christian, ultimately concluded that the directing activity of what he called cosmic “intelligences” or “angels” was needed to fully explain the origin and development of life. Their role was to give natural selection something to select. The idea that angels perform such a function goes back to Maimonides, who integrated Aristotle with rabbinic tradition on the subject, and to other, later medieval theologians.
Whatever its nature, such an intelligent force must have set in motion the 13.75-billion-year history of the cosmos and guided the unfolding of life from its origin 3.7 billion years ago.
As astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez argues here, the formation of a habitable universe, and a planet fit for scientific exploration, required extraordinarily high degrees of what he calls, respectively, “global” and “local” fine-tuning of physical constants and environmental conditions. Speculative cosmologies have sought to avoid the theological implications of this — that something had us in mind from the beginning — by spinning fables of a “multiverse” where the existence of an infinite number of universes explains away the seeming miracle.
In his essay “Balloons on a String: A Critique of Multiverse Cosmology,” Bruce Gordon shows how “in their theophobic flight, scientific materialists have found it necessary to affirm a universe in which anything can happen…without a sufficient causal antecedent and for no rhyme or reason.” He asks, “So who believes in miracles now?”
Yet naturalists must believe in such things, writes Dr. Gordon, since the alternative is “transcendent intelligent agency as the only sufficient cause, and thus the only reasonable explanation,” of our being in existence. As Leonard Susskind, Stanford physicist and prime retailer of the “string landscape” cosmology, candidly admits, “Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics.”
In Dr. Gonzalez’s terms, the design being enacted in nature can be observed from the most global level — that of the universe as a whole — to the most local, the living cell with its programming coded in DNA, and even down to the very finest level of detail that physical existence has to offer, that of quantum mechanics.
A number of the contributors emphasize that the real problem with evolutionary schemes lies not with the observation that life has a long history, that the forms it takes have been continually changing, that types of creatures descend from one another even including man himself. Nor does the problem lie in the uncontroversial and unenlightening observation that life that is poorly suited for propagation tends not to propagate, or that life better suited to spread its seed has the superior chance of doing so.
The naturalist account of life’s evolution has its crippling flaw in the assumption that random variation, later explained by neo-Darwinism as genetic mutation, provides the adequate raw material from which natural selection can select. In “The Limits of Non-Intelligent Explanations in Molecular Biology,” Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe considers the empirical data gleaned from field and lab studies of human beings, malaria parasites, E. coli bacteria, and the HIV virus. He concludes that random mutation has a strict limit to its power.
Such variation can aid survival when the genetic code suffers a loss of minor functionality that happens also to confer a marginal benefit. But without guidance or direction, building up function from scratch is a very different proposition. It lies almost entirely beyond the competence of random variation. Among other problems, before genuinely new functionality could arise, the accumulating losses of function would degrade the creature’s genome to the point of exhausting any hope that it could survive at all, much less continue evolving.
Darwinists brush away difficulties like this with the assurance that given plenty of time, undirected evolution can accomplish anything. Molecular biologist Douglas Axe does the math and concludes otherwise. DNA codes for the production of proteins from the precisely sequenced folding of amino-acid chains. This process of folding results ultimately in the construction of the astonishingly complex molecular machinery that makes the cell function.
In the sort of concrete, realistic terms that Darwinists resist, Dr. Axe measures the almost inconceivably vast space of possible combinations of amino acids that would have to be sampled by a process of undirected, random mutation. When calculated this way, what emerges is an unconquerable troll beneath the bridge on which Darwinists blithely trample. Axe designates it mildly as the “sampling problem.”
He concludes that “it appears highly implausible for the protein structures we see in biology to have been built up from tiny ancestral structures in a way that: 1) employed only simple mutation events, 2) progressed from one well-formed structure to another, and 3) adequately performed the essential tasks of biology at each step.”
Writing with Baylor University’s Robert Marks, a pioneer in the field of computational intelligence, William Dembski states a fundamental law of nature that explains why, if undirected by an intelligent agent, the inscribing of biological information in the genome should face such impossibly daunting obstacles.
Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin has suggested that information may be “a basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy (and ultimately interconvertible with them).” The Law of Conservation of Information, formulated by Dembski and Marks, says as much in formal terms, holding that information can only be imported into a natural system and shuffled around. Where we find information erupting, as in the genome, much as when we find matter or energy popping into existence at the Big Bang, it must have been seeded there from outside.
From some perspectives the force responsible for this seems immanent in nature, from others totally transcendent. It wouldn’t be surprising if the seat of ultimate intelligence and will transcended not just the natural, physical universe but our strivings to characterize it in human terms.
No contributor to The Nature of Nature ventures to say anything beyond this, from the scientific evidence, about the identity or qualities of the designing agent. However, a few writers seek to clear up related confusions that gum up the debate about ID.
Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer addresses the objection that we cannot say by what mechanism a designer might direct the evolution of the cosmos and of life. Naturalists insist that science deals only with physical mechanisms. If intelligent design theory can’t specify one, it has to be ruled out of consideration. But as Meyer points out, nobody doubts the scientific bona fides of Isaac Newton’s gravitation theory because Newton could specify no mechanism by which gravity functions. In modern science, no one knows by what mechanism, if any, the mind translates consciousness and will into physical action.
The operations of quantum mechanics remain even more opaque. There, no mechanism seems possible even in principle. This leads Bruce Gordon into the most startling essay in the book, “A Quantum-Theoretic Argument against Naturalism.” As he seems to show from an exacting proof that I’m not in a position to evaluate, the mathematical description of quantum phenomena suggests that material substance itself may be the illusory projection of immaterial mind or minds. Gordon notes in passing the similarity of this view to the “immaterialism” of two 18th-century theologians, George Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards.
Biblical religion, unlike materialist doctrines, can possibly be reconciled with a picture of reality and the cosmos like the one drawn in these contributions. That’s especially so if the Bible is understood as pointing, by the medium of a cryptic parable expressed at many levels in the Scriptural text, to an ancient and hidden agent different from many familiar images we may carry in our minds of what God is like.
If anything, the image of nature that emerges here has a mystical aspect. This is notwithstanding that the book is, on the whole, a fairly dry read. Its persuasive power lies in the understated, un-poetic way it suggests what it does. For example, on the surface, what could be more un-poetic and un-mystical than the concept of information, biological or otherwise?
Dembski and Marks define the generation of information as the act of eliminating possibilities. To illustrate, they give the example of formulating a sentence of prose. That task involves sifting the vast space of possible combinations of letters, almost all of them meaningless gibberish, for a combination that yields not only meaning but the meaning you intend. They quote G.K. Chesterton: “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else.”
But this was not Chesterton’s original insight. It has a much older lineage. Jewish mystical tradition speaks of God’s initiating the creation of the world, accomplished through the precise arrangement of letters of speech, by exactly such an act of self-limiting. The Hebrew term is tzimtzum, meaning contraction or reduction. By this means God opened up room for his creativity to act in, carved from the space of limitless possibilities.
What, then, about the libel that stampeded the faculty of Baylor University to squash a daring attempt by colleagues to explore the evidence for design in nature? What about the “ID equals creationism” myth, or the “no controversy about evolution” bugaboo?
Say whatever else about it that you will, the way of thought traced here by the critics of naturalism bears no relation to anything honestly called creationism. And the fact that there is a very serious debate going on is simply undeniable. Such malignant clich�s, popular with professors and polemicists, are crushed under the scholarly weight of this volume.