Unintelligent Design, Part II
Mike Keesey  

Fact and Fabrication

November 22nd, 2005 by Mike Keesey :: 5 Comments

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

—William Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (act I, scene V, verses 166–167 [in partim])

Humans are remarkable for this fact alone: we are capable of pondering questions that no other animal ponders (as far as we can tell, anyway). From ancient times, people looked at themselves and the world around them and asked:

  • What makes thunder and lightning?
  • What are the lights I see in the skies, the Sun, the Moon, the stars?
  • Where did the world come from?
  • What are these animals, which are like us, and yet, not like us?
  • Why can I understand my own family but not the people from far away?
  • Why do I do the things that I do?
And quite frankly, people had no idea.

But we don’t like to admit uncertainty. And so various stories were created.

  • Thunder and lightning come from a powerful man who rides the clouds.
  • Celestial bodies are lords of the sky, or creatures or people that have been thrown up there by powerful ones.
  • The world was made by powerful men, or a powerful couple, or one powerful man. These powerful ones may be called gods.
  • Animals are people who have come back in another life, or some are gods to be revered, or they are our subjects that the gods have given us.
  • People tried to become gods, and so gods confused their language and split them into camps.
  • We act because gods tell us to do various things, or our own breath decides our course, or our heart decides it.
Nobody had any reason to suppose these were true. But they needed something.

Fortunately, humans had also developed the faculty of reason, a useful tool for figuring out how things work. And in time this tool came to provide more empirically satisfying (and generally less anthropomorphic) answers.

  • Thunder and lightning are caused by the transfer of static electricity between clouds, which are nonsolid masses of dust and water vapor that no man could ride on.
  • Celestial bodies are concretions of matter that fire out energy (the Sun, stars) or reflect such energy (the Moon, planets).
  • The Earth itself is such a concretion of matter, and from other worlds, the Earth itself is a celestial body.
  • Animals, including ourselves, are descended in a great branching pattern from single-celled organisms. Some are more like us than others because we share more ancestry with them. Their complexity has been formed by the principle that the world is inherited by those replicators which are best at replicating themselves.
  • Languages, like organisms, developed in branching patterns, and some are more like others because of greater spans of shared ancestry. (Although, as with primitive organisms like bacteria, lateral transfer can play a significant role, too.)
  • Our heart and breath do not determine our actions, but rather our brain, influenced by hormones. This complex of neurons was built according to the recipes stored in genetic material, material passed on to us from our parents, to them from their parents, and so on all the way back to the first organisms with senses.
No educated people today would say that lightning is caused by a powerful man riding on clouds, or that our actions are determined, literally, by the blood pump in our chest (although the metaphor remains popular). Science has dispelled these myths. It has done something wonderful: it has explained how the world works so that we don’t have to fabricate just-so stories.

Enter “Intelligent Design”.

Boil ID down to its essential tenet, and it is this: “I can’t imagine such-and-such coming about via natural processes, therefore supernatural processes must be invoked.” But, thousands of years ago, nobody could imagine electromagnetic forces, or the laws of gravity, or the tilt of the Earth. These earlier people, in essence, used the exact same faulty reasoning that IDists use when creating myths about thunder gods and star people. And today, IDists spin myths of Intelligent Designers because they find themselves befuddled by the complexity around them.

Of course reality is befuddling. It’s a vast universe and we are but tiny Earthlings. Philosophy is the art of understanding the universe using a three-pound primate brain.

This brain has some rather useful tools at its disposal: logic, communication, and multiple methods of observation. But some would rather throw up their hands at the sight of anything more complicated than a rock and invoke supernatural, superstitious phenomena. This approach has utterly failed in the fields of meteorology, astronomy, physics, linguistics, geology, chemistry, and, as will be discussed next week, biology.

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