INTELLIGENT DESIGN: A mechanistic view of
science has now (in 2025) given way to an information-theory view in which information
rather than blind material forces is primary and basic. This change has affected
not only science but worldviews
By William Dembski
AT THE TIME OF THE SCOPES TRIAL, and for the
remainder of the 20th century, science was wedded to a materialistic conception
of nature. The architects of modern science, from Rene Descartes to Isaac Newton,
had proposed a world of unthinking material objects ruled by natural laws. Because
these scientists were theists, the rule of natural law was for them not inviolable-God
could, and from time to time did, invade the natural order, rearrange material
objects, and even produce miracles of religious significance. But such divine
acts were gratuitous insertions into a material world that was capable of carrying
on quite nicely by itself.
In the end, the world bequeathed to us by modern
science became a world of unthinking material objects ruled by unbroken natural
laws. With such a world, God did not, and indeed could not, interact coherently,
much less intervene. Darwinian evolution, with its rejection of design and its
unwavering commitment to purely material forces (such as natural selection),
came to epitomize this materialist conception of science. If God played any
role in the natural world, human inquiry could reveal nothing about it.
This materialist conception of the world came
under pressure in the 1990s. Scientists started asking whether information might
not be the fundamental entity underlying physical reality. For instance, mathematician
Keith Devlin mused whether information could perhaps be regarded as "a
basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy (and being ultimately
interconvertible with them)." Origin-of-life researchers like Manfred Eigen
increasingly saw the problem of the origin of life as the problem of generating
biologically significant information. And physicist Paul Davies speculated about
information replacing matter as the "primary stuff," therewith envisioning
the resolution of age-old problems, such as the mind-body problem. Thus he remarked,
"If matter turns out to be a form of organized information, then consciousness
may not be so mysterious after all."
Such speculations became serious scientific proposals
in the first decade of this century as proponents of intelligent design increasingly
clashed with Darwinian evolutionists. The irony here is that the very sorts
of arguments that Darwinists had been using to try to discredit intelligent
design and relegate it to the sphere of religion rather than science ended up
discrediting Darwinian evolution itself and exposing its unscientific presuppositions.
To see how this happened, recall how exchanges
between Darwinists and the early design theorists used to go. The design theorists
would go to great lengths to analyze a given biological structure, show why
it constituted an obstacle to Darwinian and other materialistic forms of evolution,
and lay out how the structure in question exhibited clear marks of intelligence.
To such carefully drawn lines of scientific argument and evidence, the Darwinist
invariably offered stock responses, such as, "There you go with your religion
again" "You're just substituting supernatural causes for natural causes"
"You just haven't figured out how evolution did it" "You're arguing
from ignorance" "You're lazy; get back in the lab and figure out how
evolution did it."
These responses were effective at cowing critics
of Darwinism so long as the scientific community agreed with the Darwinists
that science was about understanding the natural world solely in terms of unguided
material processes or mechanisms. But in the first decade of this century it
became clear that this definition of science no longer worked. Science is, to
be sure, about understanding the natural world. But science is not about understanding
the natural world solely in terms of material processes.
The problem is that material processes, as understood
by the Darwinists and most of the scientific community at the time, could not
adequately explain the origin of biologically significant information. Darwinist
Michael Ruse saw the problem clearly, though without appreciating its significance.
Describing the state of origin-of-life research at the turn of the century,
he remarked: "At the moment, the hand of human design and intention hangs
heavily over everything, but work is going forward rapidly to create conditions
in which molecules can make the right and needed steps without constant outside
help. When that happens, ... the dreaming stops and the fun begins."
Sadly for the Darwinists, the dreaming never
stopped and the fun never began. Instead, the work of theoretical and applied
intelligent-design theorists went forward and showed why scientific explanations
of biologically significant information could never remove the hand of design
and intentionality. The watchword for science became information requires intelligence.
This came to be known as the No Free Lunch Principle, which states that apart
from intelligent guidance, material processes cannot bring about the information
required for biological complexity.
The No Free Lunch Principle led to a massive
change in scientific perspective. One notable consequence for biology was a
thoroughgoing reevaluation of experimental work on prebiotic and biotic evolution.
Invariably, where evolutionary biologists reported interesting experimental
results, it was because "intelligent investigators" had "intervened"
and performed "experimental manipulations" that nature, left to its
own devices, was utterly incapable of reproducing.
This led to an interesting twist. Whereas Darwinists
had been relentless in disparaging intelligent design as a pseudoscience, Darwinism
itself now came to be viewed as a pseudoscience. Intelligent design had been
viewed as a pseudoscience because it refused to limit nature to the operation
of blind material processes. Once it became clear, however, that material processes
were inherently inadequate for producing biologically significant information,
the Darwinian reliance, and indeed insistence, on such processes came to be
viewed as itself pseudoscientific.
What would you think of a chemist who thought
that all explosives were like TNT in that their explosive properties had to
be explained in terms of electrostatic chemical reactions? How would such a
chemist explain the explosion of a nuclear bomb? Would this chemist be acting
as a scientist in requiring that nuclear explosions be explained in terms of
electrostatic chemical reactions rather than in terms of fission and fusion
of atomic nuclei? Obviously not.
Scientific explanations need to invoke causal
powers that are adequate to account for the effects in question. By refusing
to employ intelligence in understanding biologically significant information,
the Darwinian biologists were essentially like this chemist, limiting themselves
to causal powers that were inherently inadequate for explaining the things they
were trying to explain. No wonder Darwinism is nowadays considered a pseudoscience.
It does not possess, and indeed self-consciously rejects, the conceptual resources
needed to explain the origin of biological information. Some historians of science
are now even going so far as to call Darwinism the greatest swindle in the history
of ideas. But this is perhaps too extreme.
The information-theoretic perspective did not
just come to govern biology but took hold throughout the natural sciences. Physics
from the time of Newton had sought to understand the physical world by positing
certain fundamental entities (particles, fields, strings), specifying the general
form of the equations to characterize those entities, prescribing initial and
boundary conditions for those equations, and then solving them. Often, these
were equations of motion that, on the basis of past states, predicted future
states. Within this classical conception of physics, the holy grail was to formulate
a "theory of everything"-a set of equations that could characterize
the constitution and dynamics of the universe at all levels of analysis.
But with information as the fundamental entity
of science, this conception of physics gave way. No longer was the physical
world to be understood by identifying an underlying structure that has to obey
certain equations no matter what. Instead, the world came to be seen as a nested
hierarchy of systems that convey information, and the job of physical theory
was to extract as much information from these systems as possible. Thus, rather
than see the scientist as Procrustes, forcing nature to conform to preconceived
theories, this informational approach turned the scientist into an inquirer
who asks nature questions, obtains answers, but must always remain open to the
possibility that nature has deeper levels of information to divulge.
Nothing of substance from the previous "mechanistic
science" was lost with this informational approach. As Roy Frieden had
shown, the full range of physics could be recovered within this informational
approach (Physics from Fisher Information: A Unification, Cambridge University
Press, 1998). The one thing that did give way, however, was the idea that physics
is a bottom-up affair in which knowledge of a system's parts determines knowledge
of the system as a whole. Within the informational approach, the whole was always
truly greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole could communicate information
that none of the parts could individually.
The primacy of information throughout the sciences
has had profound consequences for religion and faith. A world in which information
is not primary is a world seriously limited in what it can reveal about God.
This became evident with the rise of modern science-the world it gave us revealed
nothing about God except that God, if God exists at all, is a lawgiver. But
with information as the primary stuff, there are no limits on what the world
can in principle reveal about God. Theists of all stripes have therefore found
this newfound focus of science on information refreshing.