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ID, Gaps, and Vats

In 1802, William Paley wrote a book titled “Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature” where he argued that design was evident in nature and this design must be the result of a designer’s work. He extended this argument to assert that the designer (or creator) was none other than the Christian God. This argument appealed to most people of his day. Today, the argument still holds great appeal for many non-scientists and is the basis of the Intelligent Design movement, which we will strive to understand more fully in this essay.

British naturalist Charles Darwin put forth a competing theory in 1859 with his “The Origin of Species” which held that the design found in nature was the result of a simple, but powerful process called evolution by natural selection. According to the theory of evolution, the complexity we see in nature came to exist through a natural, unguided process over an enormously long period. Since Darwin’s day, the theory of evolution has become the foundational explanation of biology. According to one of the founders of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Besides being the cornerstone that supports the many fields within biology, it is the basis for myriad practical benefits to humankind in the forms of cures for diseases, improved agriculture, and animal husbandry. The understanding of the foundational principle of biology has greatly increased our life spans and our quality of life. Additionally, Darwin’s theory has been successfully applied to other scientific disciplines, including computer science (genetic programming) and the study of cultural evolution (memetics). The theory of evolution is not the least bit controversial among scientists; a solid body of research and practical results has validated it in countless ways.

In contrast, Paley’s design argument has had almost no impact in scientific circles, despite its being decades older than the theory of evolution and at least as widely disseminated. The design argument has yet to make a scientifically validated prediction. It has not spawned any inventions, cures, or fed anyone, except for those few people who make a living promoting it. Despite its demonstrating a complete lack of value, the design argument has a surprising amount of popular support. Indeed, depending on the poll, around 40-45% of Americans believe in some version of direct creation by a god. Another 18% or so, who are more sympathetic to evolution, think that a creator god steered evolution for his own ends. According to the pollsters, these numbers have been relatively stable over the last few decades. The popularity of the design argument stands in stark contrast with its practical benefit. This “popularity gap” can be easily explained by another kind of gap: “the god of the gaps.”

God of the Gaps

Primitive man did not have a scientific understanding about his environment. For them, the world must have been a very mysterious and scary place. The weather was difficult to predict. Disease struck without warning. Predators were everywhere and natural disasters abounded. Humankind strove to understand and control the world to his own ends. Eventually, after centuries of hard work and cultural development, humankind could predict the seasons, navigate by the stars, build shelters, stay warm and cook with fire, and so on. Despite these important advances, much of the world was still not understood. To bridge this gap, humankind invented explanations for the unseen causes to the mysterious things observed in the world. Over time, these explanations became anthropomorphized and they grew up to be the gods of our religions. If lightning struck with a loud thunderclap, then clearly the gods were angry. If one’s child grew up strong without succumbing to disease, then the gods clearly blessed her. This perception of gods has been with humanity so long that it may be that humans have acquired an innate need to explain the unknown with the unknowable actions of a god. Regardless of the actual cause of a mystery, some god or another could be found to explain it. Atheists will recognize this rationalization as “the god of the gaps” argument, the idea that if there isn’t a readily available scientific explanation, then attributing it to some god is a neat and tidy non-answer that stops the line of questioning (unless you’re one of those pesky atheists).

It is impossible to prove, logically, that gods do not exist, so there is always the possibility that the god of the gaps might be out there somewhere. However, the same thing is true of leprechauns, unicorns, goblins, and the like. Seemingly rational adults eschew belief in fairy tale characters and they still feel certain that there are gods. Perhaps fairy tale characters have not been as successful at associating themselves with our ignorance. Another problem for believers is that science is progressing. Every year new scientific discoveries take some of the mystery out of the world. Intense storms that seemed to strike at random a century ago, for example, we now understand as hurricanes and tropical storms that meteorologists can track and predict with life-saving accuracy. Every year, then, the part of the world that needs explaining by a god gets smaller. The gap is rapidly shrinking, with no end in sight.

Darwin’s theory of evolution has really shrunk the gap. Imagine if all of the complexity, diversity, and design seen in nature no longer require a god as an explanation. What purpose has a god then? What if cosmology and theoretical physics can explain the structure of the universe? What need do we have for an all-powerful god when the gaps in our purely naturalistic explanations of the universe just keep getting smaller and smaller? Some people have consciously decided that the god of the gaps is no longer necessary. They have let go of their invisible friends and now trust reason and science as the best means of reaching the right answers.

Others, however, have taken the strategy of trying to make the gap bigger. Surely, a powerful god needs a suitably big gap. How do you make the gap bigger? Create doubt in people’s minds and sabotage the very science that is closing the gap. This is exactly what the active and well-funded Intelligent Design movement is doing. They do not buy into the theistic idea that one has to have faith in the face of contrary evidence. They are just trying to make reality fit their religious ideas, despite the fact that their god has not obliged them in any way. Ultimately, their plan will fail because the nature of reality is not subject to misinformation campaigns.

Now, the Intelligent Design folks will swear up and down that they are promoting science. Nevertheless, ask yourself, “Who designed this intelligent designer?” If nothing in the universe exists without a cause and the universe’s designer is incredibly complex, then the designer must have a designer, according to their theory. Moreover, his designer has a designer, too. And so on. Just imagine an infinite number of ever more complex designers going back in time with no evidence at all for a single one. It is a classic reductio ad absurdum unless you add the assumption that one of these designers is self-creating or outside the universe. However, either of these assumptions takes you out of the realm of science and plants you firmly in the realm of religion, where fantastic claims are readily promoted and believed without evidence. The infamous Wedge Strategy document leaked out of the Discovery Institute (the main promoters of Intelligent Design) even confirms their religious intent. According to the document, “Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The wedge is just a means of keeping the gap open.

What Fits in the Gap?

The ID proponents have been successful in convincing local school boards that teaching their theory is a good idea. Many people are sympathetic to making the universe safe for God, it seems. Unfortunately, for them, by making the gap big enough for the Christian god, they have also opened the door for lots of other bizarre things. Let us look at a few.

Raelism is the belief that an advanced race of extraterrestrials called the Elohim created humans through cloning. Claude Vorilhon in 1973 received this revelation in a vision. Taking the name of Rael, Vorilhon promotes his ideas of sexual self-determination as a means of heralding a new age of peace and wealth. The movement is also famous for support of human cloning and claimed to have created the first human clone in 2002, through an affiliated biotech company called CloneAid. While their claim was never validated, it made a top-notch publicity stunt that resulted in anti-cloning legislation in the US. Raelism is not only completely compatible with Intelligent Design, but their tactics for promoting their beliefs seem similarly deceptive to those of the ID movement. Raelism seems to borrow many symbols and ideas from Christianity and Judaism, which is probably a mixed blessing to the Intelligent Design promoters. Raelism does not explain where the Elohim came from, in much in the same way that ID does not explain much about the creation of the Christian god.

An even newer and fast-growing movement, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (also called Pastafarianism) is the belief that the Creator is a creature similar in appearance to a plate of spaghetti and that he created the universe with “his noodly appendages.” From the theory of Intelligent Design, we can conclude that the FSM is very intelligent. Even though this movement is new, a startling amount of supporting “evidence” has already been amassed. For example, the Flying Spaghetti Monsterism has explained global warming and various natural disasters have a direct consequence of the decline of pirates and people wearing pirate regalia, an important aspect of the movement. Flying Spaghetti Monsterism has also been confirmed by “evidence” in the recent find of a 4000-year-old bowl of noodles. Various scientists have endorsed Flying Spaghetti Monsterism including Mark Zurbuchen, PhD, who said, “As a scientist, I’d like to say that the currently accepted scientific theory is evolution. But, some competing ideas have been proposed, such as ID and FSMism, and discussion to include one should include the other, as these ideas are equally valid.” While the creator of the FSM movement, Bobby Henderson wanted equal time with Intelligent Design in schools, we think that since Flying Spaghetti Monsterism is completely compatible with ID and should receive the lion’s share of the time in Intelligent Design curricula, owing to the overwhelming “evidence” rolling in to support it. As an added benefit, children will be engrossed in their lessons because of the gay pirate regalia and the fact that kids usually love spaghetti. They will eat it up!

Given that the ID movement is secretly about promoting Christianity, one has to ask whether Christianity is compatible with the ID theory. The answer appears to be “no.” The Creator in the biblical creation story does many stupid things, which calls his intelligence into question. For example, the Creator made light before the sun or any other light source. The creator made day and night (an artifact of the Earth turning on its axis) before he created the Earth. He forbade Adam and Eve from eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (of good and evil). How intelligent is imposed ignorance? He created Eve after this restriction, so she could not have known about it when she fed Adam the fruit. How intelligent is that? (If you have no understanding of good and evil, should you really be punishable for disobedience?) Later, God decides most of his creation is wicked and destroys the Earth in a great flood. Can you imagine a more colossal mistake? Every time you see a rainbow, you should remember that the Christian god is a major screw-up. Later, the Christian god has his own son killed as a scapegoat for his mistakes. No one should think of this designer as “intelligent,” though “devious” might be an apt adjective. It is far more likely that the Christian god stole credit from the Flying Spaghetti Monster for creating the universe instead of doing it himself.

Into the Vat

Few people seem to realize the most important implication of Intelligent Design theory: that you are just a brain in a vat and the rest of the universe does not even exist. This remarkable conclusion is a logical consequence of the nature of intelligent design, and of course, the same kind of fallacious reasoning as has been used to promote ID. (We leave the exercise of finding these problems in the remainder of the essay to the reader.) Here, the arguments focus on the simple idea that efficiency in design is also a mark of intelligence. Therefore, an intelligent designer would necessarily create a universe that manifests a reasonably high degree of efficiency. However, the universe as scientists understand it is full of waste and inefficiency. For ID to work, scientists’ understanding of the universe simply must be wrong.

The first thing to examine is the claim that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old. There is no point in having a universe sit around for that enormous length of time when every creationist knows that recorded human history (according to the Bible) is only a few thousand years. Phillip Henry Gosse went even further with his 1857 omphalos hypothesis. He argued that the universe must have been very recently created and that no evidence that we see concerning the age of the universe can be deemed reliable. For all we know, the intelligent designer zapped the entire universe into existence within the last second, including fossil evidence and false memories of our own past. As with ID, the omphalos hypothesis is not falsifiable, so it is just as valid.

In a similar vein, why would an intelligent designer create a universe as large as the one we apparently see? Based on our best estimates of the observable universe is 10 billion light years in radius and is comprised of some 1020 stars, or equivalently, some 1065 to 1085 subatomic particles. Of course, an intelligent designer would never be so wasteful. The designer need not have bothered with anything outside the solar system since we have not physically been beyond it. Surely, you have heard the conspiracy theory that the trip to the moon was a hoax perpetrated by NASA. Maybe, then the Earth itself is the only planet in existence and the heavens are just something outside our understanding–a simulation perhaps. An Earth-only universe is far more efficient and therefore intelligent than the one we think we see. Why stop there, though? Why create all those humans–especially those that do not believe in the Creator. Maybe they are just part of the simulation, too. Maybe they are just some sort of avatar trying to turn you away from Him and the destiny He wants for you. Why would an intelligent designer create something so counterproductive? Shoot, why bother with any of the other people out there? Creating a simulation for many people is far more difficult than creating a simulation for one and then simulating the other people within it. Such a simulator is far more efficient than creating all that matter that we think we see in the universe. The idea of a simulator also neatly addresses all that evidence that all those simulated scientists think they have for the size and age of the universe.

The designer only needs you in the simulation. You exist of course, but everything else is extraneous and is not important for his Creation. The building you are in, the chair where you sit, and the body that you think is yours are all part of the simulation. You are something like a brain in a vat and nothing else really exists outside the experiment except for the Experimenter, of course. Why is he doing this? You are not sure, but you think that he is looking for you to pass a series of tests. If you pass, you are “saved” to some sort of floppy drive for later “resurrection.” If not, your data will become the refuse of a failed experiment. So now, you know your true purpose in life, according to ID.

Thus, the logical consequence of Intelligent Design is that the reality of the universe as we know it is completely meaningless. Perhaps this explains why ID proponents are not very concerned with curing disease and feeding people. Diseases and hunger do not really exist; they are just a figment of the simulation. You can safely ignore them. Likewise, there is no point in making scientific predictions or publishing papers in a simulated world. Students of ID will love the implication that learning, doing chores, or obeying parents are just simulated obligations with no real meaning. Why not find a gun and shoot up your fellow students? They do not really exist, just like in video games. The designer is not going to save them at the end of the simulation, only you. Philosophers will agree that it is impossible to prove that you are not just a brain in a vat. It must be true.

In conclusion, we think that the Intelligent Design theory has some important implications for our understanding of the universe. The theory along with its full implications should be taught in classrooms everywhere. Remember that anyone who disagrees is a figment of your simulation.

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