Am I Intelligently Designed?
Brother William Johns SSF (Society of Saint Francis)
This essay was originally published in Franciscan Angles, the Newsletter of the Society of St Francis.
What is intelligence?
It was not until I was almost middle-aged that a psychologist friend tried out a new whizzbang computerised intelligence test on me. It would tell him how much of the stuff I had, measured as a thing called an IQ (intelligence quotient). This software also measured my relative strengths and weaknesses in specific mental activities. It found that I was what my friend called "highly numerate", which meant I was good at mental arithmetic. I had found that out when I was quite a small boy. He also told me my data retention was not all that good and that I was probably therefore not a crash hot speller. I had found that out quite young too. It must have got worse since because I now have difficulty remembering names.
Obviously the designer of this computer program had intelligence defined and analysed pretty precisely. But I think that definition relates to a particular culture rather than to the whole range of what we mean when we use the word. Is genius like that of Newton or Einstein, not to mention Mozart or Rembrandt, simply a higher IQ? Is intelligence just a matter of memory power and capacity for logical analysis or do there exist higher faculties such as creative imagination? And what does it mean to talk of the intelligence of cats, dogs, horses, pigs or porpoises?
Intelligence is related to brain activity, but I am not aware that neurologists have done any work on defining or measuring it in those terms. Intelligence is primarily a subject for psychologists. Psychology is the logos of the psyche. In New Testament Greek logos is translated "word"; psyche is translated "soul". More broadly, logos refers to the rationale or wisdom (of God). Psyche can mean mind or spirit as well as soul. It is a non-physical element. Old-fashioned materialists do not believe it even exists so, for them, psychology can never be classified as science. Let us assume though that there is a phenomenon called intelligence. Maybe it is an energy field with wave-particles like electromagnetism; maybe it is the combination of phenomena in the known fields. We do not know, but let's assume that intelligence does exist even if we are not sure what it is.
Everyone would agree that intelligence has to do with reason and rationality. For scientists that gives it a cosmic significance, not only a human one. The absolute, fundamental, a priori assumption of science is that the universe is rational and that it can be known. If that were not so, if scientists did not hold this faith position, this cosmic optimism, science would be meaningless. Philosophy would be pointless too. Any search for meaning in anything would be absurd. We would be stuck in dread-filled superstition or blind fatalism.
Intelligence then is a cosmic factor. If we see it as a quality or essence – something that exists in its own right, then it is a cosmic quality. But it is not something added to particular organisms – humans or whatever – at some recent time. It is not an extra-cosmic elixir, injected by some extra-cosmic agent. Intelligence has always been in the universe. The universe is immeasurably intelligent. By that I mean that we cannot measure its IQ. All we can say is that it must be at least as great as the most brilliant human beings we know of. So I am the offspring of an incalculably intelligent universe.
What is design?
Have I been intelligently designed? Design refers to order. A design is a plan for creating order out of disorder. Every thing we know, from the subatomic particle to a galaxy cluster, possesses order. Every material object is an ordered formation of energy. A human being is the most intricately ordered thing we know of. Although we know quite a lot about the internal formation of a human being, we do not possess the technology to design and produce one. But we can design and produce simpler things, in theory even self-replicating ones. Biological organisms not only have the capacity to self-replicate, they have the capacity to improve themselves and to adapt to changing environmental conditions, to mutate. We have already designed and built self-repairing machines so one day we may design self-mutating or up-grading machines. The point is that design or order is an intrinsic quality of the universe.
The visible objects in outer space are relatively simple, but they are still formations. The planets, stars and galaxies are formed mainly by gravity, but a galaxy contains some quite complex formations and a great diversity of objects. The known universe as a whole is a formation in which order and design are as evident in outer space as in the tangible world around us and the invisible, sub-microscopic world.
The kind of design I am referring to here is geometrical design, the kind of design that can be described mathematically. At the practical human and at the astronomical level Newton and Einstein have provided the mathematical tools for describing the design of things. At the atomic level we rely on quantum theory and quantum mechanics, of which I shall say more in a moment. But there is another kind of design: that which engages our aesthetic sense. A surgeon understands the structure and design of the human body in one way, but a portrait artist understands it in quite a different way.
Although form and colour can be analysed mathematically, the design or order an artist sees is not geometrical or mathematical. Colour and form have a more abstract quality about them. Order is not so much a matter of complexity as of beauty. Order is beautiful; disorder is ugly. The same is true for a musician. Pitch and rhythm can be analysed mathematically, but the combined emotional effect or the quality of beauty cannot. For many people, the order and design they see in nature is an aesthetic experience as well as a rational or analytical one, and this applies to scientists too.
It is often suggested, wrongly, that science opposes the idea of cosmic design in favour of blind, mindless chance. In recent years physicists have developed what they call "chaos theory". This name is unfortunate because it suggests that nature is fundamentally chaotic, which is not the case, nor is it what chaos theorists are saying. Chaos theory is based on the study of order within apparently chaotic systems such as the weather or a stream flowing over rocks. Chaos theorists have discovered that nature is fundamentally ordered and works by a few simple laws. Beneath mind-boggling complexity there is a deep simplicity. When biologists talk about "natural selection", what they are trying to say is that the process of evolution follows simple natural laws in a logical way.
When atomic physicists first discovered quantum uncertainty, Einstein protested, "God doesn't play dice". Indeed he does not, but he is not fickle either. He does not keep changing his mind. What is called quantum uncertainty is evident in the smallest entities in nature – atoms and the things they are made up of. Under close observation they sometimes appear to be particles and sometimes waves. It depends what you look for. They have to be called "wave-particles". Light is made of wave-particles called photons. We think of electrons as particles but they also behave like waves. When a stream of electrons passes round an object the divided stream rejoins with a rippling formation like water that has passed round a post.
This wavelike nature of small particles means that Newton's laws of motion, which apply to billiard balls, cannot be applied to them. You can bounce waves of water against each other, but Newton's equations do not describe the results. If you kept on shooting many electrons or photons through a small hole you could get an average result as to where they landed. One can calculate the probability of a particular result which, plotted as a graph, makes a bell-shaped curve. Quantum mechanics deals in probabilities, not precise quantities like Newtonian mechanics.
Although quantum mechanics works and has given us the transistor, lasers, the computer chip and nuclear power, philosophers still debate about the implications of this uncertainty in nature. The "proof" of Schrödinger's basic equation for quantum mechanics rests upon the fact that it has been applied countless times and found to give accurate results, not because it is logically necessary.
However, quantum uncertainty does not mean that nature is fundamentally chaotic, random and without order. What it does mean is that we cannot be absolutely certain exactly what will happen until it does. We can only estimate probabilities. The earth will probably continue orbiting the sun for several billion more years, but if it collided with another object of comparable size it could be flung into outer space or demolished. We do not have enough data to calculate such a probability but it is not zero. Nature operates more consistently and logically than most of us do, but as though, like us, it had free will. But we sometimes forget that we are part of nature. We did not invent nature; we are nature's offspring.
The statement that we are the product of pure random chance is equivalent to saying that the probability of our emergence is zero. This is not based on observation or calculation. It is a philosophical conjecture or an ideological dogma. If we tried to calculate the probability of humankind emerging as a result of natural laws, given only the initial natural conditions when earth first formed, we would come up with an infinitesimally small number. One of the world's leading mathematicians, Roger Penrose, has actually done some work on this. He came up with a zero followed by so many noughts that, even in small type, it would fill more books than we could stack on the earth's surface (something like ten to the power of ten to the power of 117). That is a very low probability (!) but it is not zero. Absolute randomness means that there is no probability – probability cannot enter into the calculation.
So all scientists can say is that there is no known reason that could make the emergence of biological life, cerebral intelligence and human beings inevitable or even particularly likely. Obviously there is no reason why it is impossible either, but recent studies have shown that the process is perfectly logical.
The origin of species
In 1859 Charles Darwin published a hypothesis about how the millions of different organisms of our earth's biosphere originated. He had studied finches on the Galapagos Islands and found that, on two of the islands, the birds had different shaped beaks and that these were suited to the different foods available. He suggested that they came from a common finch and had adapted to their environment by genetic mutation. He then reflected on all the plants and animals he could think of and realised that they were physically adapted to a particular environmental niche. So he deduced that what he had observed in the finches reflected a general phenomenon in all biological organisms, both plants and animals.
Darwin then indulged in a mind game and imagined this complexification and diversification process in reverse. He realised that, if you get simpler and simpler organisms and fewer and fewer different kinds of organism, you eventually end up with one extremely simple organism a single cell capable of self-replication. He saw the emergence of our innumerable biological organisms as a logical process in which adaptation combined with self-replification to preserve the species. He was not the only person or even the first to consider such a hypothesis, it was an insight that had been germinating in a number of minds throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, but he was the first to publish it.
In the century and a half since then vast amounts of observational and experimental data have accumulated that support the Darwinian hypothesis. It is now a fully-fledged theory in process of refinement and revision. New branches of science have arisen as a result – genetics and molecular biology for example. Since the discovery in 1927 that the universe is expanding, the same basic insight has been applied to the universe as a whole, giving birth to the new science of cosmology and big bang theory.
Am I intelligently designed?
From what I have said above, my answer is obviously, yes. I find it hard to consider this question however without regard to its obvious philosophical and theological implications. Is my intelligence an isolated phenomenon, peculiar to my own or just a few biological species, quite unrelated to the laws of nature that apply to the universe as a whole? No. I don't think intelligence per se is a material substance, but I believe it really exists and that it is a cosmic quality. I believe it is latent (hidden) within the whole universe. This has implications for the meaning of existence, at least suggesting that existence has rational meaning.
Metaphysically speaking, I suggest that the universe as a whole is immeasurably intelligent and that my own intelligence is an infinitesimal part of that. Speaking religiously, as a Christian, I call that cosmic intelligence the wisdom of God, manifest, materialised, incarnate in the whole physical universe. And, in psychological terms, I would say that God has an IQ of infinity!
Have I been designed? The word design is both a noun and a verb. Anyone with eyes can see design in the world around them. In all the artefacts around us this design is the result of human or animal activity. Can one say that the design we see in nature is purely accidental, or that it is something we endow flowers and butterflies with subjectively, in our minds – an illusion? This would seem to be the implication of Richard Dawkins' book "The Blind Watchmaker".
Dawkins seems to recognise that evolution is a process, but stops short of acknowledging that the process has any motive or direction. The notion that a process can be "purely accidental" is problematical. It assumes there is no prior cause because none has been identified. Wars often begin for reasons too complicated to define clearly; malignant tumours appear in organisms for no known reason, but this does not stop historians and doctors from searching for causes. The belief that there is a prior cause is an act of faith. Until one is discovered we cannot be sure that there is one. I suggest that belief in "pure accidents", events with no prior cause, is equally an act of faith.
I suggest that the design we see in nature has a prior cause, just as the design in a bowerbird's nest or a block of flats has a prior cause. But, as an activity, designing is an ongoing process. Stevenson designed the first steam locomotive. Modern locomotives may not even be steam powered, but they are the outcome of a process begun by Stevenson. A modern jet aircraft may have very little in common with the first flying machine built by the Wright brothers, except that it flies, but it is the outcome of a continuous process that began there. You could argue that it began much earlier, with Leonardo da Vinci or in the mind of authors of the Icarus myth. They in turn were inspired by birds and flying insects.
Birds did not develop wings for no reason. It was to escape predators. It was their way of adapting for survival in a threatening environment. There was an essential, unconscious urge to exist, to live, an urge so universal that it appears to be a cosmic phenomenon. The anatomy of a bird's wing exhibits design. The bird did not consciously design its wings in the way an aircraft designer designs the wings of a jetliner, but it was a driven process. There was a purpose, a cause – to live. Dawkins offers an explanation: "The Selfish Gene". I don't think such a gene has even been discovered. Dawkins is using mythological language to refer to the will to exist and to live.
For a biological organism, staying alive requires instinct, and I suggest that instinct is the father of intelligence. The chemical process from inert to biological matter is perfectly logical, but it is not self-explanatory. It reflects a cosmic "urge" or "force", something even more primitive and basic than instinct. It doesn't have a name but it is akin to what we experience as the creative instinct. The formation of the first neutrons, protons and electrons from a chaotic quark soup was also a creative act. Even that was not the beginning of the cosmic story, but it indicates that the creation of order from chaos goes back as far as we can see.
My answer to the question then is, Yes. I am intelligently designed. Design arises fundamentally from the urge to exist, and it requires intelligence. My personal intelligence is an outcome of my basic urge to exist. I also feel an urge to design and create things, to extend my own existence. This is a subjective reflection of the cosmic urge to exist and to create – to grow, complexify and diversify.
The known, physical universe is the greatest transcendent reality I have concrete knowledge of. But my mind probes further. The known universe is finite. I feel after the infinite, the ultimate transcendent-immanent Reality I name "God". The urge to be, to exist, is how I feel the energy of God. My intelligence is how I feel the wisdom of God. My urge to design and create reflects God's creativity. But I am only a tiny sequin on the dazzling robe of God.