Some Thoughts on the Scientific and Theological Implications of Intelligent Design

[Note:  This was written in February 2009 after visiting a colloquium on Intelligent Design in Tampa, Florida.]

As someone who has long been interested in the Intelligent Design movement, both as an occasional writer [1], a frequent reader of books, and as someone who enjoys attending conferences and seminars and colloquia on the subject, I have deeply mulled over the implications of Intelligent Design to both science (given my training as an engineer) and religion (given my intense interest in theodicy–the justification of God’s ways). Last night I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Dr. Steve Fuller, a philosopher of science who appeared in Ben Stein’s film “Expelled,” who has written a couple of books on the debate between Darwinism and Intelligent Design, and who has appeared as an expert witness in various trials relating to the instruction of Intelligent Design. The conversation involved the topic of constrained optimization, a phenomenon that exists both in divine and in human designs, and a subject that therefore has implications on both the scientific and theological aspects of the Intelligent Design paradigm. This particular essay cannot be exhaustive, so it may be taken as well as an example of constrained optimization also.

Some Scientific Implications of Constrained Optimization or, How Intelligent Design Is Not A Science Stopper

The first aspect in which constrained optimization, a corollary of Intelligent Design, has implications is in the field of science. In viewing biological artifacts (like, say, the outboard motor of the flagellum, or the blood clotting cascade process, and so on) as artifacts of design, we must also grapple with the nature of those designs and the constraints those designs face. Before we criticize a biological artifact as defective, we must examine the physical limitations those artifacts face, in terms of size, energy consumption, efficiency, and the purpose of the organic machines themselves. The first task, therefore, is to determine the initial conditions that must be met by a given structure (such as the eye, or the Panda’s thumb). Once the initial conditions are determined as rigorously as possible, then we may fairly seek after the optimal solution to these constraints. If the given structure meets the test of constrained optimization, then it may be judged as an optimal design. If it is not judged as an optimal design, then one has the responsibility to judge how the given structure falls short of optimality given the stringent initial conditions, and suggestions for improvement can be determined. At this point as well it may be necessary to examine the effects of dysteleology, because it is possible that the present state of the artifact reflects corruption from a more pristine and optimal original state. Instead of criticisms that amount to wishful thinking, this sort of disciplined analysis serves to provide a rational and fair-minded perspective on the sorts of biological designs we see around us. Furthermore, understanding the constraints present in the biological world may aid us in a practical sense in our own attempts at nanotechnology, and may encourage us to take advantage of biological nanotechnology in order to further our own technological designs.

On an even larger scale, we may view the universe itself as a giant example of constrained optimization. Scientists who have sought to explore the cosmological constants of this universe have often been surprised by the extent to which the physical universe appears to be perfectly designed for mankind. This phenomenon, known as anthropic principle, has restored the centrality of mankind to the universe that was lost in previous centuries. Not all of the scientists who have discovered and expounded on these principles have even been designed theorists [2]. Given that the properties of so much in this universe, both materials and constants, is subject to such a narrow range of values in order to allow for the existence of life, much less intelligent life as ourselves, it behooves us to examine the purpose of constraints in this universe. Given that the entire physical world is subject to constraints, and that we find in our own experience the same constraints between candor and politeness, freedom and equality, size and efficiency (and so on), exploring the reason why everything in our existence is constrained, and how to maximize our own well-being given these constraints, is a useful scientific task. Rather than being a science stopper, the principle of constrained optimization allows us an even more profound understanding of the nature of the universe we live in, and thus better able to turn our theoretical knowledge to practical effects in such fields as medicine, engineering, nanotechnology, urban planning, political science, economics, and education, to name but a few fields where the implications of constrained optimization are particularly vital.

So, rightly viewed, Intelligent Design is a science starter, not a science stopper.

Some Theological Implications of Intelligent Design or, Teleology For Dummies

As a rational person, the question why is always quick on my lips. From my earliest existence I have been driven to understand and explain why my life and the world around me was the way it was. This lifelong exercise in theodicy (of which the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes are notable examples), which shows no sign of ending as long as my lungs draw breath, itself relates to Intelligent Design in unusual ways. Intelligent Design theory, in fact, springs from a long and noble history within the field of theodicy. Paul, in Romans chapter 1, considers truths drawn from the physical universe as sufficient in determining the morally fallen nature of mankind and our universal need for salvation. That is, the Bible assumes that as the physical universe was created by the same being who created us in His own image, with the task of developing His righteous character, greater understanding of that universe has moral implications on our lives. A universe designed especially for mankind would indicate that the purpose of the physical universe would be a testing ground for intelligent, rational beings who are to develop mastery over their surroundings while under submission to God’s law, manifest in the physical creation itself as well as in the happenings of our own lives. To put it another way, our purpose is to become children of God, to take on His nature, and we have been placed in a universe that is designed for us to make analogies between the different aspects of Creation, to learn righteousness through the making of choices in which there is always cost, and where we must always weigh priorities and examine whether taking advantage of present opportunities is worth closing off future ones.

It is here where constrained optimization has moral implications. Every decision brings with it a cost. An hour I spend writing or reading is an hour I cannot spend playing a game, practicing singing or my viola, or talking on the phone with friends. An hour I spend driving to see someone is an hour I cannot spend sleeping or eating. Our limitations of 24 hours to each day, seven days to each week (one of which is dedicated to God), and so on forces us to prioritize our time. What is the most important use of our time. Is working overtime to earn more money to be preferred to spending the evening with our loved ones? Is spending hours a week studying for a degree to be preferred to mastering Rock Band 2 or seeing all the movies that come out each weekend? We are constrained by our limits to time. We are also constrained by our limits of money. Do we buy the biggest house we can afford, or buy a smaller house we can furnish well with furniture and books. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, must weigh the choices of the resources they possess. How much do we plan for tomorrow, provide for our old age, and save as an inheritance for our children, and how much do we consume, live for today, and spend in our amusements in the here and now. The choices we make reflect our own “optimal” solutions to the constraints we face, and reflect moral (or immoral) decision-making processes. Furthermore, if our solutions are shown to be suboptimal we will pay for it, and thus we can become trained through the constrained nature of the world we live in to be more responsible, better stewards of the talents given to us by God. Therefore, the constrained nature of our world reflects the purpose of this world in training up wise and chastened children of God.

Concluding Thoughts

One cannot escape implications. What we do reflects ideals and priorities in our minds and hearts that we may not even consciously articulate. Likely, living according to the ideals we articulate have serious consequences that we must face because we live in a world where everything is connected and where choices must be made, and where costs must be paid. In the end, true science and true religion are not enemies, and science properly understood exists as the servant of religion, the tool of dominion for godly people to exercise godly rule over a physical creation that is designed to serve as the laboratory for our moral development. Intelligent Design, in particular, the fact that the entire universe is heavily constrained, has both scientific and moral implications. Properly understanding those implications allows us to improve both our material existence as well as our development of righteous character, and to better imitate our Heavenly Father, who created us in His own image and likeness.


[2] Among the works that have uncovered the anthropic principle have been Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny , Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Richard’s Privileged Planet: How Our Place In The Cosmos Is Designed For Discovery, and Joel Primack and Nancy Abram’s The View From The Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place In The Cosmos (the last coming from an evolutionary perspective) all examine in detail the precise and narrow constraints this universe is subject to as well as man’s place in the ideal location to understand the phenomena of the universe. Needless to say, the fact that the road is narrow to life in the universe has moral implications as well.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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