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Sara Walker: Intelligent Design without Intelligent Design

Photo: South Atlantic Ocean from space, by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Ocean Color/NOAA-20/NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP.

It is a strange but also exhilarating experience to hear some of the main ideas of the ID view of life and the universe — e.g., the centrality of information, not physics or chemistry, to the origin of life — expressed by a scientist who professes no support for intelligent design. Sara Walker, a physicist and astrobiologist who was mentored by Paul Davies, and is currently associated with Arizona State University and the Santa Fe Institute, is one such scientist.

Listen to this podcast with Lex Fridman, and you’ll see what we mean. Also on YouTube:

One exchange (of many of interest) really caught our attention. Walker describes an argument she had with her collaborator, Lee Cronin, about the key diagnostic feature of living systems. Cronin said it was Darwinian replication: “survival of the fittest,” in familiar language.

Walker said no. Replication simply passes on something that already exists, and must exist, in order to be replicated. What really defines life is the creativity needed to cause the replicating system ab initio (she didn’t use that Latin phrase, but that’s what she meant). Throughout the podcast, Walker returns to this theme: science today is missing any causally adequate theory of the creativity of life, mainly because science focuses on the material substrate, not on the information that gives specificity (she uses that word) to the system.

Call It What You Will

ID without ID, so to speak. We’ll be watching Walker’s publications to see how much farther she can move, in the direction of ID, while still keeping her philosophical distance from its deepest inference — namely, that creative intelligence lies behind the structure of physical reality, at all levels, and cannot be derived from physics.

Let there be no confusion: Walker is not a design proponent, and anyone who cites her as such would be gravely misrepresenting her. We are fascinated with her reasoning not because she advocates design — she doesn’t — but in light of the conceptual convergence of her position with much of classical ID content. Like biological convergence, however (e.g., the streamlined shapes of a shark and a dolphin), there are still plenty of deep differences between Walker’s case and that of any prominent ID theorist.