A Scientific Test of Intelligent Design

The dispute over Intelligent Design (ID) was percolating in my mind as I read an article about Paul Davies, physicist, science writer and winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize for progress in religion. Davies is a rarity: a hardheaded physical scientist with a spiritual streak, the author of about 25 popular books, including God and the New Physics, The Cosmic Blueprint, The Mind of God, The Last Three Minutes, and a new one, How to Build a Time Machine.

ID advocates emphasize various “cosmic coincidences” and “fine tuning” of structure constants needed for life-as-we-know-it (LAWKI). Their arguments are compelling and slick. As one example, our universe has four fundamental forces, well maybe five, and the “big two” are way out of balance – gravity about 39 orders of magnitude weaker than electromagnetism, though scientists believe these are splinters of a single, fundamental ur-force. But were the ratio not so lopsided, stars would collapse long before life had time to evolve (stronger gravity) or would never form (weaker gravity). Obviously some Grand Old Designer, GOD for short, has been tinkering – tuning things just so for LAWKI.

To this, naturalists have two big rejoinders. First of all, perhaps life developed to fit our universe, not vice versa; hence the illusion of “tuning.” After all, even on earth, life seems pretty flexible and adaptive, with exotic sulfur-based creatures thriving in ocean-bottom hydrothermal vents, happy as clams in 380º C water kept liquid by hundreds of atmospheres of pressure. Not to mention other “extremophiles,” subterranean microbial communities living kilometers under the earth at pressures of 70 tons per square inch, or even on the control rods of nuclear power plants! (For a review of some of these odd creatures, click here.

So if the structure constants were a bit off, we might not get LAWKI, but maybe some other ongoing/growing/sustaining process, something not remotely like LAWKI. Let’s call it fweedle. And then maybe, maybe, eventually, some unimaginable analogy to a cosmic church hall where fweedle gathers to congratulate itself for being in a universe designed just for it, and no one else. (Or if no such processes, then no church hall, no one to wonder – and the question becomes moot.)

Second rejoinder: The real universe might be big, unimaginably big, even a “multiverse” of many, many universes. And on the cosmic scale, constants and boundary conditions might vary, from place to place, time to time, universe to universe. LAWKI just happened to develop in a suitable region. Given a near-infinity of choices, almost anything will happen somewhere, right? So naturally the universe we’re here to see will be perceptually very similar to a designed-for-us place.

Not entirely happy with these rejoinders, Paul Davies devised a test, some differences we might expect to see between the “multiverse,” “infinite variation” or “adaptive life” hypotheses vis-à-vis that of a cosmic designer.

Obviously, of all conceivable combinations of parameters and conditions, only a tiny, tiny fraction are suitable for LAWKI. And of those, only a tiny, tiny fraction are optimally suitable. The vast majority would be marginally suitable, that is, near the outside limit bio-friendliness. Davies calls it minimal biophilicity. So almost certainly, in an observable local universe within a vaster multiverse or megaverse of variable parameters, we’d expect to see some hostile conditions.

On the other hand, an intelligently designed universe should be optimally biophilic – very user friendly – with all essential needs for life falling right into its lap.

Which is it? In fact, overall, our local universe does not seem very friendly to LAWKI. In this solar system, for example, only one planet thrives with advanced life. Radio telescopes don’t pick up a lot of alien chatter. Life tends to be self-destructive. And most of all, if our local universe were optimally biophilic, bio-generating processes would not be so wasteful of resources. Life would not be the apparent side-effect of billions of years of stellar evolution; habitable systems would not be light years apart; useful bio-ingredients would not be so rare. (In fact, atoms make up less than one tenth of 1% of the universe’s mass, and photons overwhelm atoms by a factor of a billion.)

In short, LAWKI seems to live on the edge of possibility, hanging by a thread, tucked into the tiniest interstice, and facing cosmic blackness on either side.

So based on Davies’s test, the data do indeed seem to lean towards the “megaverse” or “infinite variation” hypotheses. And away from ID.

Davies had other cavils and some alternative ideas, but this, it seems, is enough to trounce ID, at least till it returns to us in a more useful form. Here are likely possibilities:

Unintelligent Design (UD)

Stupid Design (SD)

Clumsy Design (CD)

Malicious Design (MD)

Design for Some Other Purpose, Causing Accidental Life (DeSOP-CAL)

The last is my personal favorite. But any of these would be a lot harder to falsify.

Click here for the original article about Davies, by science writer Vic Stenger (March, 2005).

About Kenneth E. Nahigian

Kenneth E. Nahigian, a freethinker and Bright, now in his 55th year, still slouches toward Bethlehem to be born, unwilling to ask for directions. He serves as treasurer for Atheists and Other Freethinkers of Sacramento. He is part of a philosophical think-tank consisting of himself, four cats and some shrubbery. He has no web page. Why push his luck?


A Scientific Test of Intelligent Design — 1 Comment

  1. And the proper conditions for life aren’t sustainable. In a billion years the universe intends to go right on existing without us, but the sun will be deathly.

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