Preposterous Universe

Friday, June 10, 2005
Crackpots today... brain cells tomorrow?

We all know that Fafblog! is one of the funniest sites you can find on the internets, and in a somewhat darker vein Girls Are Pretty is extremely amusing. But if you're looking for sure-fire guaranteed entertainment, it's hard to beat Intelligent Design the Future, the new creationist website. It's always good for a laugh, especially when they start talking about physics.

A recent post finds contributor Paul Nelson rubbing his hands together in undisguised glee -- the physicists are talking about design!
Teapots today...cells tomorrow?
Paul Nelson

That sound you hear is Jerry Coyne's head exploding. A few weeks after he organized an all-star team of evolutionary biologists and Nobel laureates to slap down design in Nature, that journal goes and publishes an essay by the cosmologist George Ellis, arguing the following:
I have to admit that I was a little worried upon reading this. George Ellis is a respected cosmologist, and co-author with Stephen Hawking of one of the best books on general relativity you can find, but he has been known to skate along the ragged edges of, shall we say, overly enthusiastic speculation. (Well, so have I.) And he is himself religious, indeed a Templeton Prize winner. (Well, so is Freeman Dyson -- nobody's perfect.)

Here is the quote from Ellis's essay:
Our environment is dominated by objects that embody the outcomes of intentional design (buildings, books, computers, teaspoons). Today's physics has nothing to say about the intentionality that has resulted in the existence of such objects, even though this intentionality is clearly causally effective.

A simple statement of fact: there is no physics theory that explains the nature of, or even the existence of, football matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft. The human mind is physically based, but there is no hope whatever of predicting the behavior it controls from the underlying physical laws. Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics 'theory of everything', this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the outcomes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us.
Well, okay. Ellis is talking about design, but in the context of things that we know perfectly well are designed -- football matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft. The fact that teapots are indeed designed is not worthy of media attention. Ellis's point in the essay is simply the old chestnut that reductionistic laws of physics are of little help if we want to understand many of the complex phenomena that we see in the macroscopic world -- even if every particle in your car is happily obeying the rules of the Standard Model, being a well-trained particle physicist won't help you when you muffler dies (as mine did yesterday). Read the essay for yourself; there's nothing in there about cells or higher purpose.

So how does Nelson take anything hopeful from Ellis? Let's see what he says.
Irreducible higher-level causation? From there it's a day's walk down an English country lane to current hypotheses of intelligent design. More resources here for the hard work of assembling a robust theory of design.
Aha. Nelson turns Ellis's essay to his advantage via the venerable technique of "making shit up." The notion of "irreducible" complexity is much beloved by creationists; it's an advanced version of the standard argumentative fallacy of "if I can't see how it would happen, it must be impossible." Michael Behe uses the example of a mousetrap to illustrate a mechanism that would be useless if you removed any one of its component parts, and is therefore irreducibly complex. One problem with this notion is that nobody knows what it means, since no sensible definition of "irreducible" has ever been given. And of course, you can patiently explain to the creationists how mousetraps are not irreducibly complex, but they are strangely unmoved.

So it would be strange to find a real scientist talk about "irreducible higher-level causation." But then you look at Ellis's essay and -- he doesn't! The word "irreducible" doesn't appear anywhere in the article. Nelson kind of insinuated it into the text. And then it's "a day's walk down an English country lane to current hypotheses of intelligent design." The day's walk appears to take you from "teapots are clearly designed" to "cells are clearly designed." That's quite a long walk! I encourage Mr. Nelson and his colleagues to start walking, and report back to us when they reach their destination.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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