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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Intelligent Design: The New Polytheism

So I have been reading Dawkins book "The God Delusion" and despite all the reaction I've read on various discussion boards etc, I actually am enjoying his viewpoint. Admittedly, I've a long way to go before finishing, but I have not seen anything in it that is offensive. He certainly challenges the theological viewpoints on nature and Dawkins takes religion to task, but since when is strong criticism of any idea a bad thing? Anyway, I was reading the bit on polytheism and monotheism which somehow led me to thinking about the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

ID has been called 'creationism lite' because of its religious underpinnings. ID'ers of course claim there is no need to bring religion into ID while at the same time suggesting that supernatural explanations should be allowed in science. Michael Behe refers to this as "d
esign beyond the laws of nature". Well, if the design is beyond the laws of nature, then one might begin to imagine that supernatural explanations are also valid. All one needs to do is find an irreducibly complex system (biological or otherwise) and assign credit for this system to a supernatural intelligence. Since the intelligent design movement is publicly cautious about identifying this 'supernatural designer' and acknowledge that there may be more than one designer, I thought this might be the religion for me!

There are systems in nature that appear irreducibly complex. According to Behe, an irreducibly complex system is:

a single system which is composed of several well-matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning

Behe applies this definition to several biological functions (the bacterial flagellum) which has been discussed ad-nauseum on the web. The intelligent designer was very busy supernaturally creating this flagellum for bacteria and other organisms while allowing humans to evolve naturally from an ape-like ancestor. Presumably, the supernatural being responsible for the flagellum is (were they able to) worshipped by bacteria. Since bacteria lack the cognitive ability to create a god, we shall call the god of bacteria "KHYT" (the Russian translation for flagellum). The God KHYT is responsible for designing all irreducibly complex structures found in small organisms.
ID is usually applied to biological systems, but there is no a-priori reason for limiting ID to biology. One might apply irreducible complexity to lightning. Lightning is a natural system and although we know much about how lightning happens, the system itself is irreducibly complex and not fully understood. You can read about the various theories of lightning formation here. Here is a description of the physical process involved in 'negative lightning':

An initial bipolar discharge, or path of ionized air, starts from a negatively charged region in the thundercloud. The discharge ionized channels are called leaders. The negative charged leaders, called a "stepped leader", proceed generally downward in a large number of quick jumps, each up to 50 metres long. Along the way, the stepped leader may branch into a number of paths as it continues to descend. The progression of stepped leaders takes a comparatively long time (hundreds of milliseconds) to approach the ground. This initial phase involves a relatively small electric current (tens or hundreds of amperes), and the leader is almost invisible compared to the subsequent lightning channel. When the downward leader is quite close to the ground, one or more smaller discharges (called positive streamers) arise from nearby, usually tall, grounded objects due to the intense electric field created by the approaching leaders.

As one of the rising streamers meets a stepped leader, the circuit is closed, and the main lightning stroke (often referred to as the return stroke) follows with much higher current. The main stroke travels at about 0.1 c (30 million meters/second or 100 million feet/second) and the peak current lasts for tens of microseconds or so. After the peak, the current typically decays over tens or hundreds of microseconds.

In order for a bolt of lightning to occur, the following must be present in the system:

(1) an initial bi-polar discharge must be present in the system (thunderclouds)
(2) negative leaders must form.
(3) the leaders must survive long enough to reach the ground
(4) positive streamers must arise from the ground in the region of the negative leaders.
(5) the circuit must close

If we remove any one of these elements, lightning cannot occur. Note too that the formation of the 'initial bi-polar' discharge is unknown. There are many speculations about how such a bi-polar discharge might arise, but no unified theory of this initial phase is known. Even if the bi-polar discharge occurs, without leaders no lightining will occur. If leaders are present, but bifurcate such that they never approach the ground surface, lightning will not form. Positive streamers must be present and must reach the negative leaders for the circuit to close. Without positive streamers, the circuit cannot close and lightning will not form. In short, if you remove any of the above steps, so-called 'negative lightning' will not occur. The system is irreducibly complex. While some might protest, 'but we observe lightning happening in nature, therefore it does not require intelligent intervention'. However, since science has no consistent explanation for how the initial charges form or why they form, it is equally valid to assume they require intelligent design.

I will call this intelligent designer "Thor" and add "Thor" to our KHYT. One can imagine doing this for any irreducibly complex system. That means that our supernatural designers form a body of 'Gods' each responsible for that particular system. Indeed, such polytheism seems a valid explanation for the intelligent designers and should be promoted as a new religion. While this removes some of the importance from the Flying Spaghetti Monster, he can remain one of many Gods responsible for irreducibly complex systems.


Joe Meert


At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your blog a great deal and have been following it for a while. Good stuff, well said. But I think you are really off the mark here. First off, there already are "polytheistic" spirituality's such as Wicca and the numerous flavors of Neo Paganism. Many of these beliefs accept findings of a scientific nature. Its not so much 'criticism' that certain groups find so offensive, but that people like harris/dawkins are going over the top in their straw man construction. Having said that, some comments and actions of these two have been nasty and petty (such as trying to get your fans to flame a msg board, when some criticism has been given: not the best way to make friends.) I'm glad to see a larger body of scientists are finally getting up in arms, as many religions and spiritual people have been battling the Fundies, Theocons, Authoritarians, Creationists for years. But it hurts and is insulting to be lumped in with such extremists, just because we have spiritual beliefs. So, the ID crowd are really "polytheists"? Hmmm. Up to this point, many people such as myself have considered us to be on the same side. Please explain what the advantage is in dividing us. Don't you think we have bigger battles to wage, than if we should believe in God/dess or not? It would be like me labeling all my atheist agnostic friends as Stalinists. Do you see how fair minded, intelligent and just people would take offense at that?


At 5:25 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments. Perhaps my sarcasm is a bit too subtle here. I was mainly poking fun at the fact that ID'ers are publicly reluctant to identify the designer whereas privately we all know who that designer happens to be. As for Dawkins atheistic militism, I don't condone that, but neither can I apologize for him (he must take responsibility for his action or lack thereof). His book (and I'm not finished yet) is thought-provoking and I'll leave it at that for the time being.


Joe Meert

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanx Joe. I appreciate your comments.
Agreed about your militism statement! Heh, yet sometimes I fear what the are doing is more like evangelizing.

best wishes,

At 2:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although it's definitely a new angle on "Intelligent Design", you're wrong in calling it polytheism. Creationism presupposes the existence of a single designer, not a hierachy of them. So it's still pure monotheism.

Dawkins and other militant atheists on the other hand are also monotheistic in their quest to spread their own "gospel", that no god(s) exist, trying to convert all to their "mission".

As an Asatru polytheist I'm not against evolution, quite the contrary. In my mind, Nature itself is the driving force behind evolution. This could be called "intelligent", but it's neither a single or a multitude of designers.

That's why we Asatruar worship Nature as being divine, calling it sacred and holy. This is a reverance that atheists can never understand nor enjoy. The Gods may have created the world, but it's Nature that maintains it.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment. If we are to take the ID'ers at their word, they insist they cannot determine the nature or the identity(ies) of the designer. They will publicly state that there may be multiple designers and if those multiple designers are truly supernatural, then they may have to acknowledge poytheism. Now, you know, and I know that they are truly monotheists of the Christian variety. However, I'm merely pointing out that by not identifying the designer, they open themselves up to these sorts of criticism.


Joe Meert

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joe,

I agree that ID opens the door to a position which states more then one intelligence had it's hand in the "creation" (ultimately through whatever process) of these entities but does that really pose a relevant criticism of the concept?

I think many an ID follower would respond by saying "So What?" The point for most "IDer's" is first and foremost that reality contains examples of real design or teleology. It may be the design is built into the very fabric of the universe and biology simply reflects a deeper design. This does not mean a "miracle" occured or that some "mechanical process" did not create these entities.

And for those who have a theistic position then this design is probably God but this really has nothing to do with the fact that design is being looked at as a real part of the universe.


At 9:01 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Interesting comment MrDj. I agree that there is evidence of real design around us because we (or monkeys for that matter) have done the designing. I wanted to deconstruct the following sentence in your post

It may be the design is built into the very fabric of the universe and biology simply reflects a deeper design,

How does one go about answering a question that is so obviously loaded with 'intelligent design' terminology? That may not have been your intention, but I think that when most scientists speak on the design of the universe, they are speaking about the physical and chemical properties that make up the universe and the life therein. The notion that the universe had a biophilic goal wherein the biological entities have the ability to consider these questions is simply the anthropic principle and allows for the introduction of God(s) into the equation. The simple truth is that we don't know if this is the only stable configuration for a universe or life. We also may consider that this universe fine-tuned itself with no external causal agent needed.
The criticism of ID regarding polytheism is simply to bite them where it hurts most. They go out of their way to deny the identity of the ID'er, but are closet monotheists of the Christian variety (for the most part). The few who are not Christian have other non-scientific goals in mind by proposing ID.


Joe Meert

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The purpose of my comments were to illistrate that design as a concept can be played with and does not require the "ontological commitment" to "miracles" as many critics put forth! In otherwords people think when you see design in reality that the question is answered and we should all go home. I don't believe it is required that we "go home" once we start to consider design playing a part in a systems origin.

Secondly i wasn't suggesting things are designed, merely that the consideration is there and the evidence for that consideration is in my view very strong. In fact I think there is an extremely strong case to consider design as a real part of reality when taken as part of a complete "view" of reality and that it is merely a philosophical distaste that prevents people from considering it.

I agree that many in the ID movement are driven by motives other then the strict scientific investigation of the universe but the irony is that many on the other-side are just as driven by faiths & philosophies and not "science". (Dawkins springs to mind instantly) The worst thing is that these people pretend it's all about "evidence" and "science"! What I like about creationists (and not IDists) is that at least they're more honest about their philosophical pre-suppositions and they aren't hiding them behind "evidence" and "science"!

Of course there are the genuine people sitting in the middle, with no ulterior motives and a real willingness to consider the arguments and the data. I aim to be one of those. :-)

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I don't think we're that far apart on this and hope that you did not think I was crticizing your post. I was merely trying to expand upon it and understand it. The word 'design' has an uncomfortable connotation in science (at least to me) because of what I perceive to be a misuse of the term by ID'ers. Unfortunately, that makes the use of a perfectly good word lead to the wrong interpretation. If you don't mind me asking, how would you define your use of the term design?


Joe Meert

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Well, from my point of view the problem comes out from the schools, in which science is not studied as deep as it should be. The same happens with history.

People tend to believe the Bible before some Physics book, and usually, in a country where only a few percent of population has the chance to assist university and get a degree, is normal that this kind of situations will appear.

Moreover, US as well as some other protestant countries, usually have a exact interpretation of the Bible, so no Science could be allowed. In a believing that universe, Earth and human kind were created in only six days, denying any kind of prove, as it could be nuclear disintegration of isotopes, will be expected.

It is no strange to find out that if you speak with some creationist, will never talk about isotopes, but rather about the mistakes inside the evolution, always taking into account Darwin’s theory, but obviously not the current days’, which probably they have ever heard about. If you say something about platypus and echidnas, the obvious answer will be that they were put there over the Earth by God, some years ago, but they never accept that has something to deal with evolution.


At 8:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Intelligent Design is something scientist should look out and study under before judging it. This theory has the capacity of answering questions that other scientists can't answer. Take for example black holes. Physics doesn't apply to them so maybe Intelligent design is something that will be beneficial to discover the true origins of life as well as other things. By the way, if Intelligent Design is accepted by a wide community, then would we also be saying that there is an even greater chance of life in other solar systems? Well, for me, Intelligent Design seems like something that's very good to research out, even though I heard and have researched that the Science department does bad things to people who research this topic. I'm willing to take the risk especially since this theory could revolutionize the way we think, just like E=mc^2 revolutionized many things we acount for in matter!



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