There is no spoon

A young boy looks up at Neo, and reveals to him the most critical piece of information about the illusion known as “The Matrix”:

“Do not try to bend the spoon — that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.” (The Matrix, 1999)

The Discovery Institute (DI) promotes their false science, called Intelligent Design. It is a carefully constructed Matrix that approximates science but serves only as a poor digital reality designed to obscure the truth. The truth is that the universe is beautiful because it is governed by elegant laws, and one of those laws is that of descent with modification, or “evolution.”

Last Thursday, the DI visited the SMU campus, invited not by any of the science departments at SMU but rather by a campus religious group. They engaged not in debate, but in a panel discussion of their own movie, “Darwin’s Dilemma.” Like the false reality in “The Matrix,” “Darwin’s Dilemma” is carefully constructed to approximate a science documentary. But just as the Matrix lacks actual free will, “Darwin’s Dilemma” lacks the most important things in science: evidence, hypothesis, and experiment. In short, while “Darwin’s Dilemma” is well-produced, well-spoken, and highlights some very interesting challenges to Darwin’s original formulation of evolution, it fails to note that since Darwin’s original work . . .

  • The discovery of genetics by Mendel, and development of the science of genetics, explains how traits are passed from parent to child and also explains how it takes very little energy and time to develop a new and potentially useful mutation  (e.g. the HOX gene [1]). Evolution predicted the existence of such a mechanism, but Darwin could not learn of it before his own death.
  • the measurement of the age of the earth confirmed that there was plenty of geologic time for evolution to occur. The discovery of punctuated equilibrium showed how rapid periods of explosive change (as due to the introduction of significant fuel or food sources, as at the beginning of the Cambrian Explosion) are a natural part of evolution.
  • the discovery of macroscopic (e.g. Tiktaalik [2]) and microscopic evolution (e.g. disease) demonstrated small and large-scale evolution and transitional forms, as predicted by Darwin’s original formulation.

The event lasted over 3 hours, and since the panel held questions to the very end only about four questions were asked. Reporting on the event by the SMU campus newspaper faithfully regurgitated only what the Discovery Institute members presented in their argument. The Daily Campus presented no background information on the subjects under discussion, even though SMU science faculty are freely available for consultation [3][4]. A diverse group of SMU science, philosophy, and history faculty then printed a letter in the newspaper in response to the  event. They appealed to the wisdom of the SMU student body, something which the DI besmirched by hocking their sham.

As Prof. Ron Wetherington pointed out in a special lecture last Wednesday, prior to the event, the members of the DI were there not to make a scientific appeal (after all, no science organization invited them nor were any departments invited to participate in the event). They were there to pump up their local base – for instance, area churches that find evolution offensive instead of uplifting – ahead of fights about stereotypical conservative versus liberal American views this November. It’s not a good idea, therefore, to view this as a scientific event, or try to make scientific arguments to persuade people.

So instead, here are my opinions about this whole event and the views of the DI. People of faith, who truly believe in the breadth and brilliance of God, should be offended by the cheap vision of God offered by Intelligent Design. Should God be relegated to the role of a hobbyist tinkerer, making a flagellum here or a race of intelligent apes there? Should God be given only the realm of the gaps in our knowledge, stuffed into a tiny crack in the vast expanse of human knowledge? No! Why can’t God be responsible for the development of a set of fundamental laws of nature, elegant and powerful in their simplicity, thus establishing a fundamental plan for the whole of creation? Why can’t God be great and wise? Why can’t He have the wisdom of quantum field theory and the courage of statistics? Why must He only be responsible for the things we don’t know?

Every time I look at Maxwell’s Equations (especially in four dimensions), I catch a glimpse of the mind of God. When I think about space-time, I see the cloth that was woven into our universe. When I think about the big bang, or the asymptotically free dance of the quarks, I see a moment of genius that became the vast and complex fabric of our lives. When I see the genetic code of a chimpanzee and think about how a series of small gene activations and the black swan of the lucky benefits of those mutations became the tool-making, self-contemplating human race, I am gladdened by the majesty and subtlety of evolution (and statistics!).

I embrace the laws of nature, and I am happy to believe that these were writ by God to set the universe in motion. Nothing in my experience says it had to be otherwise, nor does this belief prevent me from looking in dark places where human knowledge has not penetrated. I do not fear filling the gaps, because my God is not forced to live in them. I do not accept the false science of Intelligent Design, because it offers me no means to test its cheap ideas and no satisfying predictions to pit against evolution. It’s hollow theologically and hollow scientifically. So what is it, really?

When presented with the slick polish of the DI’s vision, indulge in your unique ability to reason. Do so by checking their argument for evidence in favor of their idea, rather than against evolution. Ask them for proposed experiments that would help to discriminate between something that’s just unlikely or actually impossible.  Ask them if they believe God can only live in the gaps, trapped like a rat. Ask them if  peer-reviewed, published work preceded their production of “Darwin’s Dilemma” (just as peer-review, published scientific work precedes an episode of NOVA) or if they made the video because they chose not to publish their ideas. Ask them why they bring religion into conflict with science by creating specific cases where you have to choose between God and science. Ask if their published papers were reviewed by independent scientists or other members of the DI.

Most fundamentally, simply remember this when it comes to Intelligent Design: do not try to bend the spoon – that’s impossible . . . instead, try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hox_gene

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiktaalik

[3] http://www.smudailycampus.com/news/speakers-challenge-darwin-s-theory-1.1648409

[4] To the SMU Daily Campus’s credit, they do recommend Prof. John Wise’s biology class as a “must take” before you graduate (http://www.smudailycampus.com/opinion/classes-you-must-take-before-you-graduate-1.1654568).

[5] http://www.smudailycampus.com/opinion/smu-professors-speak-out-against-darwin-presentation-1.1649982

[6] http://smu.edu/anthro/smu_anthro/FacultyPages/Wetherington_Page.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hox_gene

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