TCS Daily


Denying the Undeniable Design

By Douglas Kern - November 30, 2005 12:00 AM

"Divine messages etched in cells -- what bosh!" The professor rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on the table. "It means nothing, nothing at all."

"Professor," said the journalist, "with all due respect, I find that difficult to believe. As you know, earlier this week, researchers applied a powerful new sub-electron microscope to human tissue samples for the first time. They found hitherto-undetected sub-atomic particles on each and every examined human cell, from hundreds of donors. And on each cell, the particles seem to spell out a message in English: I, God, am the designer of this cell. Scientists across the globe have independently verified this discovery."

The scientist shrugged. "I suppose the physics community will find the discovery of the new particles mildly diverting. But I fail to see why those of us in the biological sciences should care."

"But, professor...this discovery appears to be a message from, well, God!"

"'Appears!' 'Appears!' The appearance of design is nothing more than a trick of the mind -- a mote in the eye of the beholder. Abraham Lincoln 'appeared' in my cereal this morning. Was I visited by a ghost -- or an overactive imagination that found patterns amidst random assortments of Corn Flakes? A lump of coal, held under pressure for a million years, will rearrange its molecular structure into the precise pattern of a diamond. Order, yes, but is it design? Only for those who feel compelled to find it. Rivers rush to the sea; the planet spins on its axis; the cycle of life carries on across the globe. Intricately ordered, all of it! But not designed. I assure you, young man, it would not take very many chimpanzees in front of very many typewriters to produce something like I, God, am the designer of this cell. And the chimpanzees in question have been at the typewriters a very long time. Life on this planet is tremendously old, and the mundane laws of physics coupled with mere chance could have produced any number of extraordinary phenomena."

"But what natural event could possibly explain a message in human cells?"

"You have fallen prey to an old fallacy, young man. Do you really want to place your trust in the God of the Gaps?" The professor's voice went into a falsetto. "Oh, we can't solve the mysterious riddle of the words in the cell! It must be the work of Thor, the Thunder God! Oh, Mighty Thor, we bow before your unfathomable mysteries!" The professor's voice dropped. "Then, of course, the next day, the riddle of the message in the cell will be solved through a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation, and yet the world will still be calling upon Thor to make the crops grow. Your kind never learns. Science always bridges the gaps. Science forever pushes mysteries aside. In years to come, when we understand the purpose of those particles and their arrangement, this conversation will seem extraordinarily foolish."

"Furthermore," continued the scientist, "what kind of halfwit God would compose such an inane message? A really capable God would have etched the whole Bible onto human cells. After all, if He can insert a tiny message into cells, why not a great big one? Your God is omnipotent, isn't He? And why would God care to tell anyone what he designed? Why not admonish the scientific world to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel? And why not put the message in Chinese, rather than English? I feel sorry for the idiot who bends in awe before the rather pathetic God of the particle cloud."

"Professor, doesn't it strike you as just the slightest bit odd that something so strongly resembling a message should be found in human cells? Isn't the pattern of the particles a coincidence so improbable that the presence of a message is the more likely explanation?"

"God -- the more likely explanation? My dear sir, you don't understand the meaning of the word 'likely.' I think it is more likely that there are a hundred billion universes in the whole spectrum of existence, and we just happen to live in one wherein a random concatenation of particles in human cells resembles a funny message. I think it is more likely that the human mind evolved to find meaning in random patterns and shapes -- the better to keep the tribe allied against foreign intruders. God is the most unlikely event imaginable. Any theory is more likely than the divine theory."

"Moreover," continued the scientist, "science tells us that we are all the products of exceptionally unlikely events. How is the divine origin of your precious 'message' any more likely than what we already know to be true? Over countless millennia, a handful of star-stuff and carbon atoms evolved into human beings, all by accident. Is that likely? Human cells are tiny universes of activity and function, wherein proteins weave tools of astonishing complexity to accomplish delicate tasks vital to life -- all by accident. Is that likely?"

"Your absurd conclusions are a disgrace," growled the professor, jabbing a finger at the journalist, "and indicative of the shabby state of science education in this country. The scientific method demands that a theory must be falsifiable before it can be accepted as fact. This is schoolboy stuff -- how can you not know it? Your inane belief in some holy 'message' cannot be falsified. Tell me, young man -- what experiment do you propose to test the validity of this message? How do you plan to prove that your message doesn't really mean 'I, God, didn't design this cell?' Or, for that matter, 'Eat at Joe's?' Will you convince God to recreate his message in a laboratory? Will you be dusting those particles for God's fingerprints? No, your theory of a 'message' might count as theology, or philosophy, or as a charming folk legend, but whatever it is, realize: It. Is. Not. Science."

The journalist shook his head. "It's amazing. God has signed every cell on the human body, and you're unpersuaded. Even when intelligent design wins, it loses. Will anything convince you?"

"No. You could bring me God's own scaffolding and the Book of Life and all the angels and archangels and the Ghost of Darwin himself, and I would not be convinced. The appearance of design has no objective content -- no reality outside my own perception. There is no coincidence so extraordinary, no message so clear, no miracle so fantastic, but that I cannot devise some explanation for it that is consistent with an accidental, scientific, un-designed universe. No matter how intricate the watch, the watchmaker is always blind."

The professor got up to leave. "Professor," asked the journalist, "if you can't be convinced that anything in the universe bears the hallmark of a designer, how is your belief in an un-designed universe falsifiable?"

The professor paused, then smiled. "Tell me this, young man: let's say I'm wrong. Let's say that I'm irrationally opposed to intelligent design. If I'm wrong -- does that necessarily mean that you're right? Or could it be that your opposition to an un-designed universe is just as irrational as my belief in it?"

And both men fell silent.

For a different perspective on the Intelligent Design controversy, read Robert McHenry's "Ciao California, Howdy Kansas!"

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