The Perimeter of Ignorance

Scientists face a choice: invoke a deity or continue the quest for knowledge

Think how easy it would be to navigate an unfamiliar city if we, like birds, could always tell which way was north because of the magnetite in our heads. Think how much better off we'd be if we had gills as well as lungs, how much more productive if we had six arms instead of two. And if we had eight, we could safely drive a car while simultaneously talking on a cell phone, changing the radio station, applying makeup, sipping a drink, and scratching our left ear.

Stupid design could fuel a movement unto itself. It may not be nature's default, but it's ubiquitous. Yet people seem to enjoy thinking that our bodies, our minds, and even our universe represent pinnacles of form and reason. Maybe it's a good antidepressant to think so. But it's not science—not now, not in the past, not ever.

Another practice that isn't science is embracing ignorance. Yet it's fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don't know what this is. I don't know how it works. It's too complicated for me to figure out. It's too complicated for any human being to figure out. So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

What do you do with that line of reasoning? Do you just cede the solving of problems to someone smarter than you, someone who's not even human? Do you tell students to pursue only questions with easy answers?

There may be a limit to what the human mind can figure out about out universe. But how presumptuous it would be for me to claim that if I can't solve a problem, neither can any other person who has ever lived or who will ever be born. Suppose Galileo and Laplace had felt that way? Better yet, what if Newton had not? He might then have solved Laplace's problem a century earlier, making it Possible for Laplace to cross the next frontier of ignorance.

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. You cannot build a program of discovery on the assumption that nobody is smart enough to figure out the answer to a problem. Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes. We know when and where they start. We know what drives them. We know what mitigates their destructive power. And anyone who has studied global warming can tell you what makes them worse. The only people Who still call hurricanes "acts of God" are the people Who write insurance forms.

To deny or erase the rich, colorful history of scientists and other thinkers who have invoked divinity in their work would be intellectually dishonest. Surely there's an appropriate place for intelligent design to live in the academic landscape. How about the history of religion? How about philosophy or psychology? The one place it doesn't belong is the science classroom.

If you're not swayed by academic arguments, consider the financial consequences. Allow intelligent design into science textbooks, lecture halls, and laboratories, and the cost to the frontier of scientific discovery—the frontier that drives the economies of the future—would be incalculable. I don't want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don't understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity. The day that happens, Americans will just sit in awe of what we don't understand, while we watch the rest of the world boldly go where no mortal has gone before.

Newton's law of gravity enables you to calculate the force of attraction between any two objects. If you introduce a third object, then each one attracts the other two, and the orbits they trace become much harder to compute. Add another object, and another, and another, and soon you have the planets in our solar system. Earth and the Sun pull on each other, but Jupiter also pulls on Earth, Saturn pulls on Earth, Mars pulls on Earth, Jupiter pulls on Saturn, Saturn pulls on Mars, and on and on.

Newton feared that all this pulling would render the orbits in the solar system unstable. His equations indicated that the planets should long ago have either fallen into the Sun or flown the coop--leaving the Sun, in either case, devoid of planets. Yet the solar system, as well as the larger cosmos, appeared to be the very model of order and durability. So Newton, in his greatest work, the Principia, concludes that God must occasionally step in and make things right:

The six primary Planets are revolv'd about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane.… But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions.… This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.

view counter
view counter

Recent Stories

Peaks protected fifty years ago by the Wilderness Act no longer keep mountain goats safe from human impact.

By the 1920s, California had lost all of its grizzly bears—once considered a distinct species and an emblem of the state.

Preconceptions skew our view of the biggest killer in the developed world, atherosclerosis.