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George Lucas Must Unlearn What He Has Learned About Intelligent Design

In an interview with Boston.com (affiliated with the Boston Globe), George Lucas sounds off on intelligent design:

TB: Here's an oddball question: This exhibit plays off the science of Star Wars and its physical underpinnings, but what's your stand on "intelligent design"? After all, you're the god of this particular universe.

GL: (laughs) It's obviously a very hot-button issue. I find that it's a matter of definition. The way I define "intelligent design" is that when people started out we wanted to make sense of the world we lived in, so we created stories about how things worked. The end result, obviously, was to create spirits or gods of one form or another that functioned beyond our knowledge -- that would explain why the sun went down at night, why babies were born, and that sort of thing. You didn't have to explain it yourself. You just had to say, "Well, there's something there that explains all that, and if you just have faith in that, you'll be fine." That's always the way it's been. But I think that God gave us a brain, and that it's the only thing we have to survive. All life forms have some advantage, some trick, some claw, some camouflage, some poison, some speed, something to help them survive. We've got a brain. Therefore it's our duty to use our brain. Because we have an intellect, part of what we do is try to understand the "intelligent design." Everything we don't know is "intelligent design." Everything we do know is science.

In other words, evolution is a product of "intelligent design." There's absolutely no conflict between Darwinism and God's design for the universe -- if you believe that it's God's design. The problem for me is that I see a very big difference between the Bible and God. And the problem they're getting into now is that they're trying to understand intelligent design through the Bible, not through God. Our job is to find all the "intelligent design," and figure out how He did everything, and I think that's consistent with science.

Oh my. So much confusion. So much imprecision. So much inaccuracy. It's hard to know where to begin in correcting George Lucas's comments. But it's worth doing not simply because he's the hallowed creator of Star Wars, but also because you hear many echoes in what he says of the common pop-misconceptions that we hear all the time from the average ID-critic on the street.

Before going on, I'll say I am a lifelong fan of Star Wars, and I greatly admire Lucas's masterful storytelling and unparalleled imagination. Additionally, I want to congratulate him on his recent engagement. That said, let's take a closer look at Lucas's misunderstandings.

First, intelligent design isn't derived or studied "through the Bible." It's a science, and we study intelligent design by looking at the scientific evidence. This is why you have atheists like Thomas Nagel and Bradley Monton who have praised the arguments made by proponents of intelligent design.

Second, for goodness sake, intelligent design is not what happened, as Lucas says, "when people...wanted to make sense of the world we lived in, so we created stories about how things worked." Any student of Star Wars knows that before George Lucas created the film franchise, he spent time studying the great myths of the world to find out just what makes a good story. He sure did learn how to tell a story. Here, however, he may be projecting his own methods on ID proponents. When ID proponents make their arguments, they don't rely on the Bible and they don't turn to stories or myths. They argue on the basis of their study of nature. ID seeks in nature the type of information and complexity that in our experience comes from intelligence. It's an empirical and experience-based argument, not a faith-based one.

Jonathan M. explained recently why ID isn't a "god-of-the-gaps" argument. Stephen Meyer explains the positive scientific case for design, which uses the standard methods of historical scientists. This means ID starts not by studying myths, but by studying the causal powers of intelligent agents, and the natural world around us:

For historical scientists, "the present is the key to the past" means that present experience-based knowledge of cause and effect relationships typically guides the assessment of the plausibility of proposed causes of past events.

Yet it is precisely for this reason that current advocates of the design hypothesis want to reconsider design as an explanation for the origin of biological form and information. This review, and much of the literature it has surveyed, suggests that four of the most prominent models for explaining the origin of biological form fail to provide adequate causal explanations for the discontinuous increases of CSI that are required to produce novel morphologies. Yet, we have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents--in particular ourselves--generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts.

In the first place, intelligent human agents -- in virtue of their rationality and consciousness -- have demonstrated the power to produce information in the form of linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters. Indeed, experience affirms that information of this type routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind--that of a software engineer or programmer. The information in a book or inscriptions ultimately derives from a writer or scribe -- from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent. As Quastler (1964) put it, the "creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity" (p. 16). Experience teaches this obvious truth.

... What natural selection lacks, intelligent selection--purposive or goal-directed design--provides. Rational agents can arrange both matter and symbols with distant goals in mind. In using language, the human mind routinely "finds" or generates highly improbable linguistic sequences to convey an intended or preconceived idea. ... Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.

(Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Third, like many people, George Lucas's personal understanding of intelligent design appears confused. Thus at first he claims that ID is based upon the Bible and uses myths and stories, but then he goes on and suggests intelligent design isn't so bad after all since "evolution is a product of 'intelligent design.'"

What Lucas seems to be saying is that God intelligently designed the universe to evolve. If this is Lucas's view, then in some ways he may not be so far off from certain valid versions of intelligent design. After all, ID proponents see that the laws of the universe are finely tuned to lead to a universe that is friendly to the existence of life. If many of the cosmic laws and constants were only slightly different, the universe would not have evolved in a way that could support life. What caused the fine-tuning of these natural laws? Behind the extremely unlikely architecture of the cosmos, ID proponents see evidence of intelligent design.

My guess is that this kind of an argument might resonate with George Lucas. But ID proponents are willing to press further and ask hard questions. The scientific evidence shows that the laws of nature are necessary, but not sufficient, to lead to life. Something else is necessary. What is it?

The last five or six decades of scientific research in biology have shown that life is rich in complex and specified information -- such as the language-based DNA code that underlies every living organism. This poses a problem for strictly materialistic accounts of life's history, because in our experience language-based codes do not arise by unguided natural processes. In our experience, the kind of information we see in life comes only from intelligence.

The scientific evidence shows that the universe by itself is incomplete to explain all observed phenomena. Life's information-rich code isn't produced by the laws of nature. Like Gödel's incompleteness theorems, some non-material cause is necessary to intervene in the normal operation of things, and provide the solution -- the information -- necessary for life.

Let's return to Lucas's comment that "evolution is a product of 'intelligent design.'" We can only make sense of this comment if we know exactly what he means by "evolution." If by "evolution" Lucas means "life has changed" or "life shares a common ancestor," then ID is compatible with these views, and his comment makes sense. But if by "evolution" he means "all living organisms are the result of an unguided process of natural selection acting upon random mutation," then here ID proponents would point out that the evidence is not consistent with his view. Do humans exist, as Lucas puts it, solely because we "have some advantage, some trick, some claw, some camouflage, some poison, some speed, something to help them survive," or do we exist, at least in part, because we were planned by some intelligent cause?

Intelligent design, properly defined, holds that some aspects of life and the universe are the result of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected one like natural selection. While natural selection plays some limited role, ID claims that such unguided causes aren't the entire story or anywhere near so. Intelligent design argues that in explaining many aspects of biology, intelligent causation is a superior explanation to natural selection. And as we saw in the passage from Stephen Meyer above, this claim isn't an arbitrary argument based upon telling "stories." It's based upon a careful examination of the evidence.

Here's where I think George Lucas probably doesn't like intelligent design. He wants an entirely materialistic account of life's origins. The only "design" he's probably comfortable with is some form of safely distant deistic design, where "God" or some mystical Force wound up the universe to evolve in an unguided manner, at the beginning, perhaps to result in something like what we see today, but not one where an intelligence played an active role in the origin of life, and purposefully designed humans.

But I guess, when you just define intelligent design however you want (as Lucas does), rather than looking at what ID proponents actually say, you can turn ID into whatever unwanted or illogical position you hope it would be. George Lucas would do better to understand what ID proponents are actually saying, and accept or reject ID on that basis. But that would force him to unlearn a lot of what he thinks he's learned about intelligent design.