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The Universal Design Intuition: Case in Point

Sarah Chaffee

design intuition

Recognizing design is widespread. And contrary to what popular media would have you believe, it does not hinder your appreciation for science.

A recent survey as part of the research project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum found that many people reject naturalistic explanations for the universe. The website says, “The researchers involved in the project are based at Newman University, York University, the University of Kent, and the British Library.” So it’s legit.

According to one of the survey’s “key messages”:

Rejection of, or uncertainty about, aspects of evolutionary science DOES NOT mean rejection of all science. Individuals who find it difficult to accept aspects of evolutionary science overwhelmingly see other sciences as reliable, showing similar trends in attitudes as other groups.

I think most people knew that already. Unfortunately, the media tend to link criticism of evolution with illiteracy in science. So this is refreshing.

In the section “Attitudes towards Evolutionary Science,” their tables show that in the U.K., 9 percent of respondents believe “humans and other living things were created by God and have always existed in their current form,” while 22 percent believe “humans and other living things evolved over time, in a process guided by God.” In Canada, 15 percent chose the former option and 24 percent the latter. Although the study’s authors think that “evolved over time, in a process guided by God” indicates theistic evolution, this position sounds quite compatible with intelligent design.

Interestingly, they found something else:

Although the majority of respondents across all groups (UK: 84%, Canada: 75%) agree that “evolution is a natural process that explains how all organisms, including humans, have developed and continue to develop”, we found that (across all groups) in the UK 28% of respondents, and in Canada 38% of respondents, agreed with the statement “Animals evolve over time but evolutionary science cannot explain the origin of human beings”, while in the UK 44% of respondents, and in Canada 46% of respondents, agreed with the statement “Evolutionary processes cannot explain the existence of human consciousness”

We found similar trends across all groups (religious/spiritual and non-religious /non-spiritual) when analysing them separately. Surprisingly, when we look at atheists as a subset of the non-religious or non-spiritual group we find that over 1 in 3 of Canadian atheists, and nearly 1 in 5 UK atheists somewhat agree, agree or strongly agree with the statement: “Evolutionary process cannot explain the existence of human consciousness”.

We also found that nearly 1 in 3 of Canadian atheists, and over 1 in 10 of UK atheists somewhat agree, agree or strongly agree with the statement: “Animals evolve over time but evolutionary science cannot explain the origins of human beings”.

These results strongly suggest that whilst religious or spiritual identity may have an amplifying effect in regards to individuals’ doubts about evolutionary science based explanations of human origins and the evolution of human consciousness, these doubts were also an underlying trend in non-religious and non-spiritual groups. [All emphasis in original.]

Of course people find it difficult to believe that a scientific theory, arguably produced by the normal scientific methods of human observation and reason, can explain humanity and our ability to reflect.

Dr. Fern Elsdon-Baker, the principal investigator of the research project, commented on the findings in The Guardian:

Even as a lifelong atheist I can see it is entirely disingenuous and unempirical to deny that we are in some ways different from the other species with which we share our planet. And perhaps, fundamentally, it is this continual quest and ability to question our place in the world and the universe that truly makes us human.

At least in some ways, this reflects what protein chemist Douglas Axe writes in his book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed:

We tend to overlook two key facts. One is that everyone validates their design intuition through firsthand experience. The other is that this is scientific in nature. It really is. Basic science is an integral part of how we live. We are all careful observers of our world. We all make mental notes of what we observe. We all use those notes to build conceptual models of how things work. And we all continually refine these models as needed. Without doubt, this is science. I have called it common science to emphasize the connection to common sense….

For the most part, professional scientists respect this broadly inclusive view of science. Planetary scientists speak of the sun rising and setting just as the rest of us do. Why? Because those terms represent our common experience more simply and directly than a physically correct description based on the earth’s rotation. Likewise, teachers introduce the technical understanding of sunrise and sunset by connecting it in a clear way to their students’ more intuitive understanding. Children are not treated as fools for thinking the sun rises in the east and sets in the west because teachers know prior understanding is crucial to the development of refined understanding. The simple model isn’t wrong in the sense of giving false predictions but merely incomplete in that it offers no causal insight. Children readily grasp the more complete model when they see how their simpler model fits within it….

Everyone seems to recognize that the project of refining understanding presupposes both a general respect for understanding and a humble recognition that it is never perfect or complete.

Oddly, these basic courtesies are withheld when it comes to the universal design intuition. [Emphasis added.]

Rejection of materialism, on one hand, and understanding and appreciating science on the other — these are not in contradiction, but in harmony!

Photo: California sea lion, by Rhododendrites (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.