Monday, March 3, 2008

Hijacking Intelligent Design

Since 9-11 it is commonly asserted that fundamentalist Muslims have “hijacked” their religion from presumably more reasonable and mainstream believers in their faith.

Anyone who has followed the news in science recently might say exactly the same thing about the concept of Intelligent Design, and once again the culprits are fundamentalists who have co-opted a set of beliefs, in this case scientific findings, to virulently promote their own narrow interpretation.

Particularly in the fields of quantum physics and genetics, there is an increasing awareness on the part of scientists that natural phenomena cannot be explained or predicted without taking into account the presence of an underlying mental component. Heisenberg and even Einstein first introduced these concepts in physics; in genetics the implications are more subtle.

We are increasingly told about the genetic code; the genome (which is the code underlying an individual or species) has been sequenced (interpreted as a series of alphabetic letters) and at the TED conference in Monterey last year, geneticist Juan Enriquez described the apple as “an application.” When it receives enough energy from the sun the apple “executes” its code (just like a computer program) and falls from a tree.

If you’ve ever worked with computers you’ve had an experience that points to what this means (and I acknowledge that scientists are uncomfortable with the notion of meaning). You’re working on a new computer program or application, or even installing a peripheral, and it doesn’t work. You reread the manual or maybe even call a help desk, and the problem gets solved – and here’s what happens: You realize that the computer was right.

What you then realize is the device or the program functioned exactly as it was supposed to, but you misunderstood something in the instructions. The malfunction was not some random event – when you understand it from a higher perspective it makes total sense from the vantage point of your new understanding. When you can align yourself with the system that conceived the program or device, suddenly everything about the incident becomes clear – it is no longer seemingly random – it is the obvious result of comprehensible intelligence.

This is precisely the current predicament of science. As it tries to decipher nature its findings are incomplete, but in every nook and cranny they point to something unmistakable – previously the province of mystics and pantheistic religions – there is an unmistakable order, a plan and symmetry at work in nature.

But when they venture forth with these findings the results are not pretty.

Ben Stein is addressing this issue in an upcoming film, “Expelled the Movie”, in which he asserts that scientists who question some of the theories of Darwin are being expelled from universities and ostracized by their peers for being religious kooks. This is of course a frightening prospect; if findings can be empirically verified they should be allowed into science and if alternatives to Darwin’s theories are rational they should be taught.

But it’s a false conundrum. The problem isn’t Darwinism or even Evolution – it’s the issue of what originally started the ball rolling. Strict scientists believe that random acts like lightening could have triggered evolution and hence life is a random event with no meaning or mental component at work. Mystery solved.

But is it? Some geneticists claim they are years away from creating life in a test tube – but have they? It seems so far they have only created one life form from another.

If their scientific colleagues who are brushing up against the evidence of paradox in the form of a mental or intelligent component at work in nature are being unfairly banished from their positions as scientists, that is an absurdity that results from only one thing – the fact that this concept which is entirely legitimate for scientific exploration has been hijacked by fundamentalists in this country.

They want Intelligent Design taught in schools as a theory of the existence of God – essentially an anthropomorphic construct with obvious problems. We do not know anything about the existence of a God, much less which God is the right one, or what His or Her motives may be.

But we cannot allow earnest scientific investigation into a mental component of nature to be torpedoed by such a fundamentalist interpretation when it may yield immense breakthroughs in the area of medicine, space exploration and fields as yet unforeseen.

The finite human mind seems incapable of accepting an effect without a cause, and yet science is coming up against that paradox inside the atom and at the edge of the known universe. Scientists like Mani Bhaumik, inventor of Lasik and author of “Code Name God” have already begun to compare and even reconcile findings in their fields with ancient religious theories – but totally within the context of accepted scientific discovery. But such scientists do not necessarily contend, and in fact Bhaumik would surely not believe, that locating the presence of intelligence in nature proves that the earth was created in less than a week, or that a puppet master was pulling the strings in the universe or directing the lives of individuals on this planet.

Freeing ourselves from the constraints of this dichotomy, between limiting the scope of scientific inquiry or accepting beliefs based only on faith, is very likely a key to the next great quantum (pardon the pun) leaps in both science and health and we must grant our greatest minds the freedom to explore nature in its fullness, even if it leads to the conclusion that far greater minds exist.

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