Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

William A. Dembski

The Unthinkable

With the passing of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Paul Davies is perhaps the most prolific science writer currently active. Unlike Asimov and Sagan, how ever, Davies is willing to consider evidence of God in nature. Indeed, Davies often cites God in his scientific writings, offering up titles like God and the New Physics and The Mind of God. As the recipient of the 1995 Templeton Prize for progress in religion—a prize worth 750,000 British pounds and thus the most lucrative academic award currently offered—Davies has become a leading light in the dialogue between science and religion.

Given Davies's background and a title like The Fifth Miracle, one therefore expects this book to engage religious questions. Yet when Davies describes himself on the inside dustjacket of this book, he attributes receiving the Templeton Prize not for his work relating religion and science but for "his work on the philosophical meaning of science." This is significant. Davies does not address religious questions except insofar as they are mediated through certain philosophical presuppositions that he uses to make sense of science. For Davies science is a given, philosophy is what he em ploys to interpret science, and religion is an afterthought that emerges once philosophy has done its work of interpreting science. Ironically, this order of priority—science first, philosophy second, and religion last—though designed to keep science safe from religion, ends up undermining science by artificially restricting its range of inquiry.

Davies's title, The Fifth Miracle, is his idiosyncratic way of referring to the origin of life. When Davies counts up the Creation events in the first chapter of Genesis, the fifth of these is the creation of life. Davies claims that we are "a very long way from comprehending" how life originated. "This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna. … My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas." Davies is equally clear, however, where his openness to radical ideas ends: "I am not suggesting that life's origin was a supernatural event, only that we are missing something very fundamental about the whole business." And in case we missed his disclaimer the first time, Davies repeats it a few pages later: "Science takes as its starting point the assumption that life wasn't made by a god or a supernatural being: it happened unaided and spontaneously as a natural process." In particular, Davies is not about to open the door to "religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations."

My own view is that Davies is not being nearly radical enough and that the origin of life can properly be understood only as the product of intelligent design (which can be formulated to avoid Davies's charge of religious fundamentalism or god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations). The Fifth Miracle is fascinating, not for its radical proposals, but for its ingenuity at avoiding radical proposals. Intelligent de sign—the idea that a designing intelligence is responsible for the origin of life—is for Davies scientifically unthinkable. Yet all the options that for him are scientifically thinkable fail miserably to explain the origin of life. The Fifth Miracle thus becomes a balancing act on the boundary between what's thinkable and unthinkable.

What would be so bad about succumbing to the unthinkable and treating intelligent design as a live option in origin-of-life studies? The problem for Davies is that it would render the origin of life "utterly mysterious." According to Davies, "It is the job of science to solve mysteries without re course to divine intervention. Just be cause scientists are still uncertain how life began does not mean life cannot have had a natural origin." Given the premises of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism, such a claim makes perfect sense. What is more difficult to grasp is Davies's persistent use of the G-word despite that claim. On the one hand, Davies portrays God as irrelevant to the origin of life. On the other, by regularly invoking God throughout The Fifth Miracle, he seems still to be leaving some room for God in the origin of life.

The paradox is easily resolved by clarifying Davies's conception of God. Davies nowhere endorses a transcendent personal God who freely creates the world and then acts freely within it. Nor for that matter does Davies endorse a deistic watch maker God who creates the world, winds it up, and then sits back. God's relation to the world for Davies is not causal (i.e., God does not create the world or act in it) but ontological (i.e., God gives the world its being). Davies's God is the God of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, and the ancient Stoics. Consequently, traditional theistic ideas about God as a causal agent in the world all need to be reinterpreted.

Consider, for instance, how Davies makes sense of teleology. Within traditional theism, there's a telos or end to the world because God in wisdom freely created the world to fulfill certain purposes. Davies, on the other hand, finds teleology not in the freely chosen purposes of a personal transcendent God, but in nature having certain built-in ends, which it ineluctably fulfills. Thus, in describing the origin of life, Davies will write: "If life is somehow inevitable, accidents of fate notwithstanding, a particular end is certain to be achieved; it is built into the laws. And 'end' sounds suspiciously like 'goal' or 'purpose'—taboo words in science for the last century, redolent as they are of a bygone religious age." Davies's God, in sum, is not a designing intelligence but rather a system of natural laws by which nature operates.

Given his understanding of God, Davies has but two options for explaining the origin of life: either life results from brute contingency, or life is the determined end of laws built into nature. Davies rejects brute contingency. To suggest that life, and in particular intelligent life, arose simply through the toss of a coin is to trivialize the grandeur of the cosmos. In stead, Davies wants us to see "the laws of the universe" as having "engineered their own comprehension." Davies expatiates:

This is a breathtaking vision of nature, magnificent and uplifting in its majestic sweep. I hope it is correct. It would be wonderful if it were correct. But if it is, it represents a shift in the scientific world-view as profound as that initiated by Copernicus and Darwin put together. It should not be glossed over with glib statements that water plus organics equals life, obviously, for it is far from obvious.

Whether this vision is as breath taking as Davies's purple prose suggests is perhaps decidable on aesthetic grounds. The interesting question here, however, is why this vision should represent a profound shift in the scientific picture of the world. Either life is a brute contingency or it is the determined outcome of universal natural laws. Philosophically this be comes a forced choice as soon as one excludes intelligent design. But what is there here to alter fundamentally the scientific picture of the world? We explain some things as brute contingency (e.g., a meteor slamming into the earth). We explain other things as following deterministic natural laws (e.g., water freezing when its temperature is sufficiently lowered). For the emergence of life to fall into either of these categories is perfectly acceptable to scientific orthodoxy. Why, then, does Davies think he is onto something big?

Davies is convinced that any laws capable of producing life must be radically different from scientific laws known to date. The problem with currently known scientific laws, like the laws of chemistry and physics, is that they are not up to explaining the key feature of life that needs to be explained. That feature is specified complexity. Life is both complex and specified. The basic intuition here is straightforward. A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex (i.e., it conforms to an in dependently given pattern but is simple). A long sequence of random letters is complex without being specified (i.e., it requires a complicated instruction-set to characterize but conforms to no independently given pattern). A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified.

Now, as Davies rightly notes, contingency can explain complexity but not specification. For instance, radio active emissions from a chunk of uranium will be contingent, complex, but not specified. On the other hand, as Davies also rightly notes, laws can explain specification but not complexity. For instance, the formation of a salt crystal follows well-defined laws, produces an independently known repetitive pattern, and is therefore specified; but that pattern will also be simple, not complex. The problem is to explain something like the genetic code, which is both complex and specified. As Davies puts it: "Living organisms are mysterious not for their complexity per se, but for their tightly specified complexity." What Davies is proposing, then, is a new category of natural law, one that generates specified complexity.

Davies has identified the right problem. The best parts of The Fifth Miracle are those in which he strips off the pretensions of origin-of-life research, where the solution to life's origin is presented as always just around the corner—all that's needed is a little tinkering with existing tools and ideas. No, says Davies. Specified complexity will not submit to existing technologies. "Radically new laws," unlike anything we're familiar with, are needed.

But to claim that laws can produce specified complexity is to commit a category mistake. It is to attribute to laws something they are intrinsically incapable of delivering. Davies is not alone in committing this mistake. A few years back, Stuart Kauffman, an origin-of-life researcher, wrote At Home in the Universe. There he too sought to resolve the origin of life through unknown laws. In a similar vein, Roger Penrose hopes to unravel the problem of human consciousness through unknown quantum-theoretical laws. In each case the motivation is to avoid the nihilism that comes from attributing life or consciousness to brute contingency. Davies in particular seems to derive tremendous hope from life being necessary rather than accidental. But Davies's necessitarian world can be as cold and stark as one that is chance-driven. I may be comforted to know that life's origin is necessary, but if life's extinction is also necessary, what advantage does a necessitarian universe hold over an accidental one?

Davies is right that the item of interest that origin-of-life research must explain is specified complexity. But we already know what produces specified complexity, namely, intelligence. What's more, this is the only source known to produce specified complexity. Indeed, in every case where we know the causal history responsible for an instance of specified complexity, an intelligent agent is involved. Most human artifacts, from Shakespearean sonnets to Durer woodcuts to Cray supercomputers, are specified and complex. For a signal from outer space to convince astronomers that extraterrestrial life is real, it too will have to be complex and specified, thus indicating that the extraterrestrial is not only alive but also intelligent (hence the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI).

We've known this intuitively all along. We now also know it on theoretical grounds (see, for instance, Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box or my own The Design Inference). Davies is worried that intelligent design is a science-stopper. It is nothing of the sort. The science-stopper here is Davies's philosophical presuppositions, which prevent him from even considering intelligent design. Committed as he is to a naturalistic resolution of the origin-of-life problem, Davies muddles through one scenario after another hoping to find some insight that will unlock the secret of life's origin. The Fifth Miracle is an object lesson in the contortions scientists must endure to avoid intelligent design.

William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Discovery Institute. He is the author of The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge Univ. Press). His book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, will be published this fall by InterVarsity.

Most ReadMost Shared