Intelligent Design

More on W.E.Loennig’s 1971 MS Thesis

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At this Evolution News post I discussed the following section from W.E.Loennig’s 1971 MS Thesis. (He would go on to complete a PhD in genetics at the University of Bonn and work for 25 years at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research as a geneticist.)

Although every analogy breaks down when extended beyond the main points, I think his story about the Natives who discovered a helicopter is actually useful in thinking about Intelligent Design, because

  1. This tribe was sure there was nothing more to the universe than their tribe and land.
  2. There actually was more to the universe than they thought.
  3. They couldn’t conceive of beings smart enough to build flying machines.
  4. Therefore they preferred any far-fetched “natural” theory, to the obvious one that some very intelligent, unknown, people had built the machine.
  5. The Natives thought that by explaining where the materials in the helicopter came from, they could make progress, but that was the easy part; the hard part is explaining how those materials were organized into a “goal-oriented…highly integrated system.” Jonathan Wells says “The secret of life is not the physical DNA molecule, but the information it carries.”

To those who say, but Darwin’s explanation for evolution is more plausible than this tribe’s “volcanic theory” I would say: no it really isn’t.

b) When we arrive at a place where we may temporarily be unable to progress and in this place insert God, we hinder the progress of science.

This objection is in principle valid. As church history shows, one has often enough inserted God into places where one did not know how to continue…places, however, that later proved only to be gaps in knowledge. In such situations scientific progress had to fight against the belief in God, at least with those who believed in a direct intervention of the Creator. In order to avoid this forever, one should never assume the direct intervention of God, and even in the case of phenomena we can’t understand [even if their organization points to an intelligent cause] we must never assume such an intervention, as even these phenomena may only be “not yet” understandable.

Although seemingly reasonable, this last conclusion is, as the following example shows, false. Let us suppose an indigenous tribe, who has never come into contact with an advanced civilization, has previously always used “supernatural powers” as an explanation for all events, but upon closer study has now regularly discovered that an “entirely natural” explanation has always been found for such events. Let us further suppose this tribe finally formalizes this discovery and asserts that “everything” must have a natural explanation, that is, an explanation consistent with their newly discovered laws of Nature. For the sake of argument, let’s insert some representatives of our advanced civilization into their region, let’s say landing with two or three helicopters, not in their immediate vicinity and unnoticed by the natives. Suppose the reason for the landing is a technical defect in one of the helicopters, whose crew is for safety transferred to another of the helicopters; the defective machine is left behind.

The story now gets interesting: our native tribe soon discovers this strange craft and now stands before the biggest puzzle of their history. At this point their demand that “everything” must be explained using their known laws of Nature must lead to comical miscalculations. Our entire tribe begins to ponder which natural laws could have caused this strange apparatus to come into existence. At this point, we can imagine to what clever ideas the tribesmen may resort. Some specialists among them have, for example, discovered that some of the metals which they have found in the helicopter are also to be found in some surrounding mountainous regions, and sometimes even in refined form, especially in the vicinity of volcanos. Thus the “volcano creation” theory evolves. To be sure, even after hundreds of years of intensive research they still don’t know how to explain in all detail how the development of the helicopter could have happened through forces of nature, for example, volcano eruptions. But they argue, based on their previous experience, that one must not allow anything other than natural powers to be considered; because “it is methodologically impossible to consider non-mechanistical factors as explanations for the origins of an apparatus.” 

We need not carry this example further. It shows, I hope clearly, that requiring adherence to a fixed method of research can lead to great errors. The justification, that earlier we have misinterpreted a large number of entirely natural phenomena by ascribing them to “non-mechanistical” factors, does not change this. When one confronts things that in our experience always point to consciousness, intelligence, and mind, that require planning and goal-oriented arrangement of material to highly integrated systems — when these things furthermore not only cannot be explained through known laws of nature but even defy known laws (such as the principle of increasing entropy), and when attempts to clarify them “naturally” raise thousands of other difficulties, then there is no longer any justification for ruling out “non-mechanistical” factors in discussions of origins!

With regard to the dangers of interpreting mechanistical phenomena non-mechanistically: this is a two-edged sword. The danger of interpreting non-mechanistical phenomena mechanistically is equally great. We should be on guard in both directions. In both directions we can hinder the progress of knowledge.

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