Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

What kind of universe can’t God make? A response to Dr. James F. McGrath

arroba Email

Dr. James F. McGrath is an Associate Professor of Religion and Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis. In a post titled, Responding to Intelligent Design, Dr. McGrath poses the following dilemma to Intelligent Design proponents:

Either God can create a universe that can organize itself, in which case the claim of ID fails; or God cannot create such a universe, in which case the proponent of ID ought to be asked to explain why they view God as limited in this way.

Or, as he puts it in an alternative formulation,

Can God make a universe capable of self-organization? If so, then there is no way to make the case that complexity requires direct design by a tinkering God, as opposed to natural processes in a universe made by an extremely clever God. And if not, then why do you posit a god that is so limited?

In a brief post dated January 27, 2014, Dr. McGrath cited a passage from Charles Kingsley (pictured above):

We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than even that, that He can make all things make themselves.
The Natural Theology of the Future, a lecture given at Sion College, January 10th, 1871.)

In his 1871 lecture, Kingsley elaborated upon his theme, arguing that God not only makes things make themselves, but He also makes these things via the simplest means possible:

If it be said that natural selection is too simple a cause to produce such fantastic variety: that, again, is a question to be settled exclusively by physical students. All we have to say on the matter is, that we always knew that God works by very simple, or seemingly simple, means; that the whole universe, as far as we could discern it, was one concatenation of the most simple means; that it was wonderful, yea, miraculous in our eyes, that a child should resemble its parents, that the raindrops should make the grass grow, that the grass should become flesh, and the flesh sustenance for the thinking brain of man. Ought God to seem less or more august in our eyes, when we are told that His means are even more simple than we supposed?

My answer to Dr. McGrath

I would now like to answer Dr. McGrath’s original question by asking him a question of my own:

Do you believe God is capable of making a machine that is capable of writing a novel (such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies) via a simple process, without massive amounts of information being input either at the start or subsequently? And if not, then why do you think God should be able to produce living things, with their genetic code and developmental programs, via the operation of a few simple laws? More specifically: where did the highly specific information that enables living things to make themselves originally come from?

Living things really do contain digital codes and software programs

If Dr. McGrath demurs at the comparison between living things and novels, then I would refer him to the work of Dr. Don Johnson, who has both a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences. Dr. Johnson spent 20 years teaching in universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Europe. On April 8, 2010, Dr. Johnson gave a presentation entitled Bioinformatics: The Information in Life for the University of North Carolina Wilmington chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery. Dr. Johnson’s presentation is now on-line here. Both the talk and accompanying handout notes can be accessed from Dr. Johnson’s Web page. Here’s an excerpt from his presentation blurb:

Each cell of an organism has millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information using algorithmic digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information.

On a presentation slide titled “Information Systems In Life,” Dr. Johnson points out that:

  • the genetic system is a pre-existing operating system;
  • the specific genetic program (genome) is an application;
  • the native language has a codon-based encryption system;
  • the codes are read by enzyme computers with their own operating system;
  • each enzyme’s output is to another operating system in a ribosome;
  • codes are decrypted and output to tRNA computers;
  • each codon-specified amino acid is transported to a protein construction site; and

  • in each cell, there are multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, encoding/decoding hardware and software, specialized communications systems, error detection/correction systems, specialized input/output for organelle control and feedback, and a variety of specialized “devices” to accomplish the tasks of life.

To sum up: the use of the word “program” to describe the workings of the cell is scientifically respectable. It is not just a figure of speech. It is literally true. Additionally, the various programs running within the cell constitute a paradigm of excellent programming: no human engineer is currently capable of designing programs for building and maintaining an organism that work with anything like the same degree of efficiency as the programs running an E. coli cell, let alone a cell in the body of a human being. In the words of software pioneer Bill Gates:

Biological information is the most important information we can discover, because over the next several decades it will revolutionize medicine. Human DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.
(The Road Ahead, Penguin: London, Revised, 1996 p. 228)

A Darwinist professor talks about the software of life

And if that is not enough for Dr. McGrath, then I would invite him to listen to a talk posted on Youtube, entitled, Life as Evolving Software, given by Professor Gregory Chaitin, a world-famous mathematician and computer scientist, at PPGC UFRGS (Portal do Programa de Pos-Graduacao em Computacao da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul Mestrado), in Brazil, on 2 May 2011. As a mathematician who is strongly committed to Darwinism, Chaitin is trying to create a new mathematical version of Darwin’s theory which proves that evolution can really work. In his talk, Professor Chaitin insisted that DNA really is a kind of programming language: indeed, he believes it’s a universal programming language. As he put it:

[P]eople often talk about DNA as a kind of programming language, and they mean it sort of loosely, as some kind of metaphor, and we all know about that metaphor…

So the point is that now there is a well-known analogy between the software in the natural world and the software that we create in technology. But what I’m saying is, it’s not just an analogy. You can actually take advantage of that, to develop a mathematical theory of biology, at some fundamental level.

Here’s basically the idea. We all know about computer programming languages, and they’re relatively recent, right? Fifty or sixty years, maybe, I don’t know. So … this is artificial digital software – artificial because it’s man-made: we came up with it. Now there is natural digital software, meanwhile, … by which I mean DNA, and this is much, much older – three or four billion years. And the interesting thing about this software is that it’s been there all along, in every cell, in every living being on this planet, except that we didn’t realize that … there was software there until we invented software on our own, and after that, we could see that we were surrounded by software.

So this is the main idea, I think: I’m sort of postulating that DNA is a universal programming language. I see no reason to suppose that it’s less powerful than that. So it’s sort of a shocking thing that we have this very very old software around…

So here’s the way I’m looking at biology now, in this viewpoint. Life is evolving software.

What the author of The Water Babies didn’t know about the developing embryo

In a recent post, Dr. McGrath quotes from Professor Charles Kingsley, an Anglican priest, historian and novelist who was a good friend of Charles Darwin’s. But Kingsley, who died in 1875, knew nothing of the programming of life, which is why he could write, unblushingly, in his 1871 address:

We all agree, for the fact is patent, that our own bodies, and indeed the body of every living creature, are evolved from a seemingly simple germ by natural laws, without visible action of any designing will or mind, into the full organisation of a human or other creature.

So the human zygote is “a seemingly simple germ”? Sheer and utter nonsense! In the words of James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix:

“We know that the instructions for how the egg develops into an adult are written in the linear sequence of bases along the DNA of the germ cells.”
(James Watson et al., Molecular Biology of the Gene, 4th Edition, 1987, p. 747.)

Or as Eric H. Davidson, Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology, puts it:

“The body plan of an animal, and hence its exact mode of development, is a property of its species and is thus encoded in the genome. Embryonic development is an enormous informational transaction, in which DNA sequence data generate and guide the system-wide spatial deployment of specific cellular functions.”
(Emerging properties of animal gene regulatory networks, Nature 468, issue 7326 [16 December 2010]: 911-920. doi:10.1038/nature09645.)

We now know that the human embryo is highly rich in information from the get-go, and that it is this information which enables it to direct and control its development over the next 18 years, into a rational adult. The embryo gets this information from its parents; but what of the first living thing? And even if we suppose that its emergence was somehow biochemically predestined in the scheme of things, we are still left with the question: where did the information required to make this event happen come from originally?

Perhaps Dr. McGrath will say that Nature, under the guidance of God, manufactured all this information. Dr. McGrath would be well-advised to read Life’s Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information by Professor William A. Dembski and Dr. Robert J. Marks II. And in case Dr. McGrath finds the mathematics daunting, let me return to the question I posed earlier: does he think God could build a machine that could write novels just by following a few simple rules, without any need for information to be input at the start or subsequently? If he answers “No,” then why does he think God could have made life that way, given that it contains codes and programs?

Intelligent Design is not committed to a tinkering God

Low-resolution image of the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture, provided by the sculptor, Jim Sanborn, in 1991. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his post, Responding to Intelligent Design, Dr. McGrath slightingly alludes to the notion that “complexity reflects direct design by a tinkering god, as opposed to the result of natural processes in a universe made by an extremely clever God.” Dr. McGrath would also do well to peruse Dr. William Dembski’s highly readable online essay, Conservation of Information made simple (written for non-mathematical readers), in which Professor Dembski makes it clear that the case for Intelligent Design does not rest in any way on the notion that the Designer periodically tinkers with Nature. Even if there have been no “acts of intervention” since the Big Bang, we still need to ask the question: where did the highly specific information that enables living things to make themselves come from?

For his willingness to face this truth, I respect Stuart Kauffman infinitely more than either Miller or Dawkins. Miller and Dawkins are avid Darwinists committed to keeping the world safe for their patron saint. Kauffman is a free spirit, willing to admit problems where they arise. Kauffman at least sees that there is a problem in claiming that the Darwinian mechanism can generate biological information, even if his own self-organizational approach is far from resolving it. As Kauffman writes in Investigations:

If mutation, recombination, and selection only work well on certain kinds of fitness landscapes, yet most organisms are sexual, and hence use recombination, and all organisms use mutation as a search mechanism, where did these well-wrought fitness landscapes come from, such that evolution manages to produce the fancy stuff around us?

According to Kauffman, “No one knows.”

Kauffman’s observation here is entirely in keeping with conservation of information. Indeed, he offers this observation in the context of discussing the No Free Lunch theorems, of which conservation of information is a logical extension. The fitness landscape supplies the evolutionary process with information. Only finely tuned fitness landscapes that are sufficiently smooth, don’t isolate local optima, and, above all, reward ever-increasing complexity in biological structure and function are suitable for driving a full-fledged evolutionary process. So where do such fitness landscapes come from? Absent an extrinsic intelligence, the only answer would seem to be the environment.

But where did the environment get that information? From itself? The problem with such an answer is this: conservation of information entails that, without added information, biology’s information problem remains constant (breaks even) or intensifies (gets worse) the further back in time we trace it.

The whole magic of evolution is that it’s supposed to explain subsequent complexity in terms of prior simplicity, but conservation of information says that there never was a prior state of primordial simplicity — the information, absent external input, had to be there from the start…

Given conservation of information and the absence of intelligent input, biological information with the complexity we see now must have always been present in the universe in some form or fashion, going back even as far as the Big Bang. But where in the Big Bang, with a heat and density that rule out any life form in the early history of the universe, is the information for life’s subsequent emergence and development on planet Earth? Conservation of information says this information has to be there, in embryonic form, at the Big Bang and at every moment thereafter…

If evolution is so tightly constrained and the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection is just that, a mechanism, albeit one that “navigates immense hyperspaces of biological alternatives” by confining itself to “thin roads of evolution defining a deeper biological structure,” then, in the language of conservation of information, the conditions that allow evolution to act effectively in producing the complexity and diversity of life is but a tiny subset, and therefore a small-probability target, among all the conditions under which evolution might act. And how did nature find just those conditions? Nature has, in that case, embedded in it not just a generic evolutionary process employing selection, replication, and mutation, but one that is precisely tuned to produce the exquisite adaptations, or, dare I say, designs, that pervade biology.

The real reason why some Christians don’t like Intelligent Design: they have a stunted conception of beauty

Diagram of an animal cell. Image courtesy of LadyofHats (Mariana Ruiz) and Wikipedia.

I would like to conclude by suggesting that the real reason why some people (including many Christians) dislike Intelligent Design is an aesthetic one. Their notion of beauty is overly influenced by mathematics: they define beauty as a delicate and interesting balance between variety (or plenitude) and simplicity (or economy). (A recent post by the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser exemplifies this kind of thinking; as he correctly points out, it goes back to Leibniz and beyond.) Both qualities are needed: a very simple world containing just one object would be simple but intolerably boring, while a world lacking simple laws would appear messy and mathematically inelegant. Thus a beautiful world should contain many different kinds of things, governed by just a few underlying laws or principles. The variety of elements in the periodic table is a good example: it is aesthetically pleasing, because they can all be explained in terms of just a few underlying principles: the laws of physics and chemistry, whose underlying mathematical simplicity is evident in their regularity, symmetry and order. Many people would like to think that living things possess the same kind of beauty: an ideal balance between variety and underlying simplicity. Because the underlying laws are mathematically simple in this model of beauty, these people reason that the act of generating things that possess the attribute of beauty should be a simple one. Neo-Darwinism appeals to them as a scientific theory, because it purports to account for the variety of living things we see today, on the basis of a few simple underlying principles (natural selection acting on variation arising stochastically, without any foresight of long-term goals).

But living things aren’t like the periodic table. The phenomenon that characterizes them is not order but complexity – and complexity of a particular kind, at that. The beauty you see in a living cell is more like the beauty of a story than the beauty of crystals, which are highly ordered but still not very interesting, even when you contemplate them in all their variety. Stories have a much richer kind of beauty: they have parts (e.g. a beginning, a middle and an end; or the chapters in a novel), and these parts have to be ordered in a sequence specified by the intelligent author.

Stories are not like mathematical formulas; and yet, undoubtedly they are still beautiful. They require a lot of work to produce. They are not simple, regular or symmetrical; they have to be specified in considerable detail. Who are we to deny God the privilege of producing life in this way, if He so wishes? The universe is governed by His conception of beauty, not ours, and if it contained nothing but mathematically elegant forms, it would be a boring, sterile place indeed. Crystals are pretty; but life is much richer and more interesting than any crystal. Life cannot be generated with the aid of a few simple rules.

The beauty found in living things, then, cannot be defined as a balance between plenitude and economy, as Leibniz thought. It is a different kind of beauty, like that of a story. That is why life needs to be intelligently designed, according to a complex program, rather than just a few simple laws.

Kingsley’s God

And what kind of God would Dr. Charles Kingsley have us worship? One Who is present everywhere in Nature, as the Ultimate Reason for everything, but One Whose existence would only be discerned with the eye of faith, which discerns a Mind underlying the organization of Nature by a process of analogy. From a strictly scientific standpoint, however, Kingsley thinks that the design analogy is unwarranted and methodologically redundant. Its sole justification consists in the common theological consensus of mankind, which has (Kingsley argues) a built-in tendency to see God in the works of Nature:

…[W]e see design everywhere, and … the vast majority of the human race in every age and clime has seen it. Analogy from experience, sound induction (as we hold) from the works not only of men but of animals, has made it an all but self-evident truth to us, that wherever there is arrangement, there must be an arranger; wherever there is adaptation of means to an end, there must be an adapter; wherever an organisation, there must be an organiser. The existence of a designing God is no more demonstrable from Nature than the existence of other human beings independent of ourselves, or, indeed, the existence of our own bodies. But, like the belief in them, the belief in Him has become an article of our common sense

We will tell the modern scientific man–You are nervously afraid of the mention of final causes. You quote against them Bacon’s saying, that they are barren virgins; that no physical fact was ever discovered or explained by them. You are right as far as regards yourselves; you have no business with final causes, because final causes are moral causes, and you are physical students only. We, the natural theologians, have business with them. Your duty is to find out the How of things; ours, to find out the Why. If you rejoin that we shall never find out the Why, unless we first learn something of the How, we shall not deny that… But our having learnt the How, will not make it needless, much less impossible, for us to study the Why. It will merely make more clear to us the things of which we have to study the Why; and enable us to keep the How and the Why more religiously apart from each other.

…[T]he Creator bears the same relation to the whole universe as that Creator undeniably bears to every individual human body…

If, then, that should be true which Mr. Darwin writes: “It may be metaphorically said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good, silently and incessantly working whenever and wherever opportunity offers at the improvement of every organic being”–if that, I say, were proven to be true, ought God’s care and God’s providence to seem less or more magnificent in our eyes? Of old it was said by Him without whom nothing is made: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.”…

…[B]eneath all these [scientific] theories–true or false–still lies the unknown x. Scientific men are becoming more and more aware of it; I had almost said ready to worship it. More and more the noblest-minded of them are engrossed by the mystery of that unknown and truly miraculous element in Nature, which is always escaping them, though they cannot escape it. How should they escape it? Was it not written of old: “Whither shall I go from Thy presence, or whither shall I flee from Thy spirit?”

To give Kingsley his due, he was willing to see the hand of God everywhere in Nature, as a Final Cause of all things, adding that “if there be a Supreme Reason, He must have a reason, and that a good reason, for every physical phenomenon.” Kingsley’s God is “for ever at work on all phenomena, on the whole and on every part of the whole, down to the colouring of every leaf and the curdling of every cell of protoplasm.”

But for all His stern beauty, God, on Kingsley’s conception of Him, is there to be seen in Nature, only by those who wish to see Him. St. Paul, on the other hand, wrote that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, NIV, emphases mine).

May I leave readers with a final thought? A God Who paints a picture in which His Authorship cannot be clearly discerned is not “an extremely clever God,” as Dr. McGrath would have us suppose. Such an inept God would have only Himself to blame if people did not believe in Him.