Sunday, March 18, 2007

Intelligent Design

Here's a letter I sent to Alex Reisner of The Funnelled Web in October 2005:

Greetings Alex,

Everything we have discovered over the last 500 years has taken us further and further from the idea that the Earth is the centre of the Universe. We are nowhere special; why should life have happened to start here? There might be all sorts of chemistries that are not at all like the life we know that started out in environments not at all like the ones we know: you just need to get life started somewhere, sometime, and sooner or later it will come up with iPods and weird new organisms based on different chemistry than itself. Maybe it will even come to planets where life is already humming along nicely and play around with horizontal gene transfer. Given enough time, the probability of an alien mad scientist as in “Lilo and Stitch” might become significant...

Let's say that we keep probing the origins of life, and every possible mechanism for kicking the process off requires some fantastically entropically unfavourable combination of highly complicated molecules that we can easily produce in a test tube, but can't envision surviving long enough to reach the required concentrations in any plausible environment on the primitive earth.

Do we:

(a) Keep on asserting that this highly thermodynamically-disfavoured process must have happened, nevertheless, in some highly implausible and forever unobservable environment?

(b) Apply Ockham's Razor and say that if we can make life in a test tube, then, maybe, life as we know it was made in a test tube?

We know this is not what the Intelligent Design people *really* mean by Intelligent Design, but it is perfectly consistent with what they *say* they mean, so we shouldn't just jump up and down and say that Intelligent Design is pseudo-scientific rubbish. If you discard the supernatural component it is many orders of magnitude more scientific than homeopathy, which several blinkered, insane-with-greed Australian universities prostitute their good name to support.

This version of Intelligent Design is a perfectly valid scientific theory. We can think of things we could do to test it. For instance, we could search for the aliens' fossilised iPods...



Possible Intelligent Designer, Dr Jumba Jootika


Marco said...

I am speaking as a convert here. I believe the probability of life starting on Earth from basic chemistry as almost nil. I believe that the probability that it evolved from basic bacteria and rudimentary multi-celled organisms entirely on Earth as almost certain.

Klaus Rohde said...

Stuart Kauffman 1993.The Origins of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press New York, Oxford, has to say a few things about this. If I remember it correctly: life must arise whenever conditions are right.

Marco said...

That last sentence appears to be a tautology. The interesting question is whether the "right" conditions were present on primitive Earth, and whether evidence supports this. Evidence of alternate theories requiring bacteria to be spread throughout space should be available within our lifetime.

klaus rohde said...

Yes, it is tautological. I should have added: such conditions are probably common in the Universe.