“When you don’t know what something is, you have to consider everything,” Johns Hopkins physicist Simeon Bird told Nature magazine recently. He was talking about dark matter, the invisible stuff physicists now believe makes up most of the mass of the universe. They haven’t been able to detect the mysterious stuff directly, but they’re convinced it’s out there due to telltale clues in the way, for instance, galaxies behave.
Their challenge now is to figure out what exactly dark matter is. Bird’s point is that since ordinary explanations have failed, physicists need to be free to consider some pretty wild ideas in an all-out pursuit of the truth. Some of those wild ideas:
Big black holes
Baby black holes
Electromagnetically neutral particles so tiny they normally sail right through the empty spaces in atoms like a space ship sailing through our mostly empty solar system
Ultra-tiny particles tucked away in roly-poly dimensions that curve around themselves.
Now, when I saw Bird’s comment about dark matter and how physicists need to feel free “to consider everything,” my first thought was, If only more biologists took that approach in the search for how genetic information arose in the history of life. Instead, they refuse to consider intelligent design.
That was my first reaction. Then it struck me that the analogy gets one thing exactly backwards.
The Ordinary Cause of Information
A crucial thing that needs explaining is the origin of the novel information found in genes and proteins in the history of life. Neo-Darwinists are the ones insisting on an extraordinary and highly speculative explanation for the origin of such information, while design proponents are the ones insisting on the ordinary, demonstrated cause of new information.
I don’t mean to say the intelligence who designed the first organism or the variety of living things around us is an ordinary, run-of-the-mill intelligence. What I mean is that ID theorists are proposing an ordinary type of cause, one we can witness generating new information all the time. That type of cause is intelligent design, the intentional work of a creative intellect. It’s this type of cause that gives us books and bikes, cars, cakes, computer programs, and a million other artifacts of the mind.
Neo-Darwinists, in contrast, cast their votes for a cause that has never been observed to generate any significant amount of new information.
To defend that vote they often point to examples of microevolution, but those instances are just nature tinkering around the margins of existing biological structures. They’re not natural processes creating the new information necessary for generating fundamentally new biological forms.
Or if they pivot to the origin of life, they’ll point to the famous Miller-Urey experiment as evidence that nature could have generated the first single-celled organism. But the Miller-Urey experiment was a meticulously designed experiment. Also, it turns out it didn’t effectively mimic the conditions of the early Earth. And its designers managed only to create a few very primitive building blocks of life, not life itself. So the experiment fails in three crucial ways as an example of blind, material processes generating new biological form and information.
These smokescreen examples notwithstanding, no one has observed purely material causes generating even a tiny fraction of the information needed to create even the simplest self-reproducing single-celled organism. “Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth,” says Harvard chemist George Whitesides. “How? I have no idea.”
And that failure to find a purely material how isn’t for lack of trying. It’s been the Holy Grail of well-funded scientism for more than 150 years.
At the same time, there is exactly one type of cause we have repeatedly observed in the present generating reams of novel information: intelligent agents.
Presently Acting Causes
This matters because the uniformitarian principle in the historical sciences urges investigators to identify a type of cause active in the present with the demonstrated ability to explain a given feature of the natural world. So, for instance, if a geologist encountered a layer of ash several feet below the surface in, say, a big patch of Oregon, he might posit an ancient volcanic eruption as the source of the ash layer, since volcanoes have demonstrated to us the ability to lay down ash layers over a wide area.
This abductive form of reasoning involves reasoning to the best explanation. The cleanest and strongest of such explanations occur when, after a long and careful investigation of the evidence, all competitor causes prove inadequate, while one type of cause remains standing, having been shown to be up to the job.
This is the situation with the origin of information in the history of life. Various materialist explanations have proved utterly inadequate, and intelligent design is the one type of cause still standing, the one cause with the demonstrated ability to generate new information.
Yes, any mind responsible for the origin of biological life accomplished feats of intellect far beyond anything we have witnessed from human designers. But surely that’s no argument for concluding that the real cause for the origin of biological information is something with no intellectual capacity at all.
Allow for a Lion
A little boy who has learned nothing of the animal kingdom beyond the dogs, cats, and mice in his village, upon encountering animal tracks far larger than any he has ever encountered before, would be misguided to insist that these big tracks must be something other than animal tracks. No, the reasonable thing is for the boy to remain open to the evidence of an animal larger than any he has ever seen before.
Nature has written on it the signature of design — the fingerprints of an artificer greater than any human intelligence. What is the reasonable response?
Image: 3D map of dark-matter distribution, by NASA/ESA/Richard Massey (California Institute of Technology) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.