Saturday, December 23, 2006

Intelligent Design a black box?

Does Intelligent Design kill curiosity and inquiry? I found a really nice recording of a debate between skeptic Michael Shermer and Intelligent Design advocate Jonathan Wells (can be downloaded in MP3 format here) on evolution.

I have much to say about the actual debate, but a comment made by a member of the audience (time: 49:39) during the question and answer session got me thinking about the explanatatory power of Intelligent Design. The audience member recounted a personal story of a nanny she had hired to look after her son. The nanny believed in Intelligent Design, and every time the audience member’s son would ask a question like “Why does it rain?” or “Why is the flower red?”, the nanny would answer: “because God made it so”. It was the same answer for all his questions, and soon he stopped asking altogether. Was the answer of “God made it so” killing his curiosity?

Jonathan Wells responded to this comment by saying that evolutionists are just as guilty by answering “Evolution made it so” to questions that kids might have regarding the complexity of life on earth. He might be right, but there is a crucial difference between the explanation of evolution and that of Intelligent Design. The difference is this: evolutionists can, in most cases, easily elaborate by providing an answer to the possible follow up question of “How does evolution make it so?” Intelligent Design advocates don’t seem to have an answer this question.

In fact, in seems to me that Intelligent Design advocates are not even attempting to provide answers for specific questions we have regarding nature. How did the designer create the clear fossil progression that we see in the fossil record? Did the designer create all these organisms separately, or was a form of natural selection used? Why do we observe whales with vestigial feet, human embryos with trails, and flightless penguins with hollow bones? Evolution at least attempts to answer these questions.

As Shermer correctly pointed out in the debate, Intelligent Design advocates are fond of attacking evolution without providing a testable theory of their own. When pressed by an audience member to provide a testable theory for Intelligent Design (time: 40:15), Jonathan Wells responded by saying that he isn’t obligated to propose an alternate theory. Isn’t this comment from Jonathan Wells the clearest indication of why Intelligent Design isn’t science?

So my question today to all who might read this: does Intelligent Design provide a suitable answer to why life is complex? Or is it simply a black box that provides a mysterious and unusable explanation, an explanation that stifles further inquiry into the natural world?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Our daily bread

It’s a habit that most of us were taught as children: to say a short prayer of thanks before partaking in a meal. I have obviously given up saying grace altogether since loosing my faith, but something happened last week that got me thinking again about this simple gesture.

Often I find myself eating with groups of people – let it be family, friends or colleagues – and saying grace is often a natural activity before eating with a crowd. I’m not one to cause a public fuss over belief or tradition, so when I find myself in such a situation I politely sit by, with my eyes open, as others bow in prayer.

Such was the case a week ago, when Cori and I went out with a few friends to the local Spur Restaurant to enjoy an evening meal together. Once we had received our orders, the group bowed in prayer to offer thanks. As I sat there, with my eyes open, I suddenly found myself looking at the plate of food that had been placed in front of me. I always order a Double Hunger Buster Burger (two hamburger patties with chips) when I go to Spur, and as I sat there looking at it, waiting for the group to finish their prayer, I suddenly found myself thinking about the rationale behind saying grace.

Saying grace implies that it is God, not us, who has given us our food. But this is clearly not the case. It is only through our own effort and toil that we obtain our nourishment. The food that I was about to eat had gone through a long process to get to my table: there would have been a cattle rancher who produced the meat; a farmer who harvested the potatoes for the chips; truck drivers who transported the frozen food; a cook sweating over the grill; a waiter to bring the order to my table. If I have anyone to thank for my food, it would be these individuals who worked hard to produce it. But I also have myself to thank: it is through my effort, of working eight hours a day, that has enabled me to eat at all.

I don’t see where God fits into all of this; if he exists, what role does he play in supplying my daily bread?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Can ID one day threaten Christianity?

I believe that if Intelligent Design one day becomes a workable science, it has the potential of causing incredible harm to Christianity.

Think of the following scenario. I know it is somewhat far-fetched, but please bear with me:

It is the year 2020. Intelligent Design advocates have finally managed – after many years of work – to create a workable, scientific theory of Intelligent Design. Instead of trying to weasel Intelligent Design into schools, they have spent years collecting data, creating hypotheses, and testing predictions through various experiments. They have finally solved the initial problems with their theory and have managed to convince a large portion of the scientific community that there is some merit to the idea that the universe was created by a designer.

Will this be good for Christianity? Well, at first it might seem to be. Ardent critics of Intelligent Design, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, will appear on television talk shows, admitting that they were wrong. Pastors and evangelists will ecstatically preach from the pulpit that science has finally proven that God exists. Millions of Christians around the world will experience a renewal of faith; churches will be filled to overflowing with new converts. Apologists, the likes of William Lane Craig and Josh McDowell, will wink at the television cameras, and say something along the lines of: “I told you so.” All will be honky-dory in Christendom.

Then, something happens. Electrified by the newfound euphoria of proving the world wrong, Intelligent Design theorists work double-time to extend their theory. They have provided sufficient scientific evidence that a designer exists, but they have also found a way to obtain information on who the designer actually is. They spend weeks collating data that will provide them with an answer. After much analysis and modelling, the Intelligent Design theorists reach a conclusion. But when they see the answer, a slow, icy horror creeps through each one of them. . .

The intelligent designer of the cosmos is not the Christian God!

Think about this story: if Intelligent Design is simply debunked by the scientific community – if it follows Young Earth Creationism into the wastepaper basket of “outrageous ideas that didn’t make it into science” – Christianity will survive intact. After all, the simple debunking of Intelligent Design will not disprove the existence of the Christian God. However, if Intelligent Design one day reaches the level of being considered science, will it not hold the potential of destroying Christian belief if it reaches unexpected conclusions?

These are thoughts that I had while reading the discussion of Intelligent Design between Lui and R10B in one of my earlier posts.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The day it rained fire

On a fateful day, 200 000 years ago, it rained fire. A lone stony asteroid, about 30-50 metres in diameter and weighing 300 000 tonnes, streaked through the earth’s atmosphere at 16 kilometres a second. When it smashed into the ground a massive explosion, a hundred times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, caused winds of over 1000km/hr to rip across the surrounding landscape, killing everything that happened to be in the area. Anything alive within 24 kilometres of the blast was vaporised, killed or maimed.

200 000 years later, a crater is all that remains of that explosion. The intelligent hominids that populate the earth call it the Tswaing meteor crater, and it is located 40 kilometres north of the city of Pretoria in South Africa. The crater is about 1 kilometre across, 100 metres deep, and is filled with a lake of salty water. The picture on the left is a Landsat image of the site.

On a hot and sunny Saturday three weeks ago, Cori and I, together with Rutger (Cori’s brother visiting from Pietermaritzburg) and Jacomien (a friend of Cori’s) went for an afternoon hike around the crater. The hiking trail is about 7 kilometres long, and runs along the eastern lip of the crater, down into the basin, along the lake and out again towards a museum and picnic area that lies outside.

We started out strong, making our way through the bush and past various ruins that formed part of an old salt mine. We spent time at various viewpoints on the crater lip, admiring the view of the basin, drinking from our water bottles and snacking on apples and packets of Nick Naks (thank you Jacomien for the crisps!). The picture on the right is of me, standing at one of the viewpoints.

It took about three hours for us to complete the circuit. It was easy going until we reached the shore of the saline lake within the basin of the crater. The African summer sun on that particular day was particularly harsh, and within the basin the heat was relentless. Rutger’s face was soon beet red, Jacomien was looking a bit dazed, and even I was starting to straggle behind the group. The only person who didn’t seem to mind was Cori, who chatted away like an auctioneer high on caffeine :-) Despite our travel worn bodies, we finally made our way slowly out of the crater and towards the picnic area.

For me, the crater serves as an ominous reminder of how vulnerable humankind actually is. We run around everyday in the rat-race: we wake up, brush our teeth, rush off to work, fight with the boss and return home with thoughts of supper on our minds. We get so involved with our own lives that we often forget that the cosmos possesses the potential of instantly ending life on earth, or at least changing civilisation as we know it. One can only imagine what damage such an impact would cause if it occurred today in the same spot, or even in a major city like New York or London.

Despite the heat, all four of us enjoyed the hike at Tswaing crater. Not only is it an interesting attraction for those who enjoy astronomy or geology, but it also serves as a warning that we should keep our eyes on the skies.

(Google satellite image of the Tswaing crater)