Cognitive Conditioning and the Distortion of Reality
After following the discussion about evolution versus design for the past few decades, I have noticed a common trend. Criticisms of design arguments and literature often seem to ignore many of the most persuasive arguments or they distort them almost beyond recognition. They then present counterarguments that seem less designed to honestly engage the evidence and more to mislead and misdirect the public. The appearance is one of propaganda rather than a genuine desire to understand the truth. Yet I have since realized that my assessment was completely inaccurate.
Many design critics are competent scientists who have every intention of honestly and fairly evaluating scientific claims. Their challenge is often not their knowledge or integrity but the lens through which they have been taught to see the data. Most scientists are educated to view science through a materialist framework where no force has ever acted in the universe except for the blind forces of nature. They are also taught to assume that all appearance of design is an illusion.
More specifically, they are mandated to believe that every feature of life resulted from natural selection, mutations, and other undirected mechanisms. Further, these processes have unlimited creative power to engineer any innovation of any complexity and ingenuity in any amount of available time. Such training conditions the mind to resist any argument for design before it is even considered. In addition, young scholars are often told something along the lines of ,“If you believe that life looks designed, you will be ridiculed by your colleagues, and you would not want that.” This cognitive reinforcement driven by fear of rejection results, at both the emotional and intellectual levels, in one’s being habituated to resist design arguments.
An Engineered Mind
The human mind is engineered to immediately detect the features of design seen throughout life. This ability is even demonstrated by children raised by atheists, as Doug Axe observes in his book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. Unfortunately, much of science education inculcates students with the materialist framework which incapacitates the brain’s design-detection machinery in a type of culturally induced psychosis. In such a state, a person can no more see the evidence for design or grasp design arguments than someone who is colorblind and near-sighted can discern the subtle differences in pastels in an impressionist painting. They have simply lost the capacity.
The effects are limited at first, but they become much more pronounced as the anti-design conditioning is constantly repeated. Most of this process only requires one to passively absorb external cues, but some self-induced reinforcement is at times needed. For instance, biologists have said that they “must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved.”
I have noticed the effects of this training in conversations with materialist laypeople and scientists. For example, I have been struck by how concepts such as specified complexity and information can be readily grasped by anyone from advanced high-school students to seasoned science professors, but they become increasingly opaque and incomprehensible to those who have absorbed the materialist frame of reference. I have even seen people’s minds actively work against them to resist either understanding or internalizing the evidence. If progress starts to be made at the cognitive level, their emotional centers will cause their intellect to shut down, and they will become increasingly agitated. They then begin to recite slogans, as if pre-implanted, such as “God of the gaps,” “multiple lines of evidence,” “type III secretion system,” “all scientists know…,” “Dover trial,” or “religious motivation.”
Equally striking, the properly conditioned mind might not even absorb evidence for design since it would be immediately filtered out. For instance, I have participated in online discussions on the origin of life, and the conversations have at times proven fruitful. However, at least one participant usually states that arguments related to design in the origin of life are always negative since no positive evidence is ever presented. What is particularly significant is that I and many others have consistently presented several pieces of positive evidence in terms of the first cell’s various essential components and abilities. To name but a few:
- Large repositories of information and advanced information processing
- Manufacturing centers that construct all of the building blocks and supporting molecules
- Sophisticated assembly processes with feedback control systems
- Energy production and distribution nanotechnologies
- Automated repair and replacement of parts
- Global communication and coordination
- Self-replication which directs the duplication, distribution, and installation of every cellular component
Anyone in any other context would immediately conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that an artifact containing such signatures of purpose, foresight, and coordination was designed. However, a person who has read such a list through the materialist lens might immediately afterwards present comments suggesting that his subconscious brain had censored out nearly every detail before it reached his conscious mind.
A Subconscious Censor
As another example, I participated in a forum where I mentioned that arguments against the rarity of proteins often focus on libraries of randomized amino acid sequences which stumble upon chains which demonstrate simple functions, such as binding. But any serious critique of claims of protein rarity must address the origin of enzymes such as aconitase which perform vastly more complex multi-stage activities. I then described the extraordinary tasks performed by that enzyme, about which I recently wrote. In response, other participants expressed doubts that my descriptions of the enzyme and other research results were even real.
What is astonishing is that I did not conjure up some fanciful narrative about aconitase. I simply restated the description presented in a video that I referenced practically verbatim. The appearance of design was so clear that my critics’ subconscious minds drove them to reject well accepted facts and then refocus their attention on simple functions generated by random sequences. In addition, most of the participants completely blocked out the reality that protein experts have stated in relation to new protein functions that “nothing evolves unless it already exists” and that they have described the evolution of novel proteins as “something like close to a miracle.”
Another pattern I noticed is that any argument against design is uncritically accepted, even if it cannot stand up to serious scrutiny. The materialist framework does not simply block evidence for design. It suppresses critical thinking in relation to evaluating counterarguments. Numerous arguments are commonly seen floating around the Internet despite the fact that decisive critiques of their main points are readily available. Common examples of dubious claims include the following:
- Irreducible complexity can be easily explained in terms of co-option via some hypothetical pathway.
- Specified complexity/information can be readily explained by complex systems physics or the immunity system.
- Doug Axe’s research on the rarity of proteins has been discredited.
- Origin-of-life research has demonstrated that many steps in the process of forming the first cell are plausible from the perspectives of thermodynamics and chemistry.
- The genetic code can be explained through chemical attractions between amino acids and their respective codons.
- The fossil record clearly demonstrates wide-scale macroevolution.
- The features of animals and their genetic sequences yield a consistent tree of life.
On the bright side, I have found that the cognitive conditioning can be overcome by those who have a very strong desire to know the truth. And people who leave philosophically oppressive academic institutions often find work in environments that are much more congenial to exploration. The conditioning can then wane, and their design-detection capacities and critical thinking can reengage. At that point, many describe a process where “scales seemed to fall from my eyes,” and the evidence for design in nature becomes self-evident, as does the logical incoherence of many materialist rationalizations to deny it.
My purpose in saying this is not to insult those who disagree with the design perspective. I have the deepest respect for many who have embraced the materialist framework, and their critiques of our work have at times proven helpful. The mental processes I have described are common to all of us when our core beliefs are challenged, and the effects can be seen in such diverse arenas as politics, religion, and even sports. I am certainly no exception to this rule.
However, increasing numbers of top scholars have discreetly told members of the intelligent design community that the description of our arguments they heard from their colleagues were completely inaccurate, and they were shocked at the strength of what we were actually saying. Therefore, I can affirm with great confidence that the bias I describe here is real. What, then, do I hope? Only that those studying science should guard their minds against the forces that would ensnare them, and that our critics should recognize that their perceptions of nature and our work might not be as objective as they believe.