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Intelligent Design and the "Deep Future"


A hurdle we face in talking about intelligent design lies in most people's being content with far too short a view of the future. That's what I take away from an interesting article in Aeon, "The end is not near," by philosopher J.L. Schellenberg. He observes that most of us are accustomed to the idea of a deep past, with life going back more than three and a half billion years. However, we have a blind spot about the deep future.

Apocalyptic environmentalists may look forward to an imminent conclusion to human history, with civilization returning to wilderness. Jews and Christians contemplate prophesies pointing to the End, but what that means is, I think, ultimately obscured and sealed. On the face of it, there's no obvious reason to expect that our planet won't host human culture, including science, for a billion years more.

Yet consider that the history of our culture goes back only about 50,000 years, to the abrupt and enigmatic blooming that James Le Fanu describes in his wonderful book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves. The history of scientific investigation so far is much briefer than that, but an epic shortsightedness causes us to imagine that the work of science is nearly complete. Schellenberg asks:

What might it mean to shed our temporal myopia? Perhaps we will learn to think of human enquiry -- whether it be philosophical, scientific, or religious in nature -- in a radically diachronic way, as spread out over enormous periods of time, including future times. This would be a nice corrective to the tendency thinkers often have to regard enquiry as identifiable with what's going on at the moment, and as involving tasks they and their contemporaries should be able to wrap up in their own lifetimes. In 1900, Lord Kelvin, nearing the end of one of the most productive lives ever in physics, famously suggested that work in his field was virtually complete: he could detect only a few 'minor clouds' in the otherwise clear sky of physics. How wrong he was! Within a few years, one cloud had rained down Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and the other quantum mechanics. Much of Lord Kelvin's classical world lay in ruins.

Perhaps someone will soon discover how to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity -- one of the great uncompleted scientific tasks of our time. But this so-called 'unification' might leave loose threads of its own. Maybe a new awareness of our place in time will lead us to see science as the laying of foundations, for discoveries that will come long after we've departed the scene. Maybe we will see ourselves as being involved in one of those critical turning points that can only be seen later on in the journey of the mind.

A deeper perspective in time might also bless us with a new attitude toward daring suggestions in the realm of ideas, which today are often greeted with disdain. I'm thinking of an attitude of tolerant and empathetic curiosity, fed by the desire to affect our limited intellectual capacities in ways that permit us to evolve. This empathetic curiosity would motivate us to understand why things strike someone in the different way they do, while at the same time preventing us from ridiculing or discouraging unconventional forms of enquiry that at first appear quixotic.

Greeting new ideas with "tolerant and empathetic curiosity"-- what a concept! Viewed from the perspective of what Schellenberg calls the "deep future," there seems to be every reason to think our journey of scientific discovery is only at the beginning. Yet many in scientific and intellectual life labor under an illusion that insists otherwise. He gives the example of how eminent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel was "crucified" over his recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

[It] was panned by the intellectual elite for daring to suggest that a teleological conception of nature might have a role to play in future science. Teleology was largely set aside when the shift from Aristotle to Isaac Newton was negotiated: the idea that heavy bodies are drawn toward the centre of the universe, seen as the centre of the Earth, was dropped when purely mechanistic systems were devised that accurately predicted and explained a much wider array of astronomical data than Aristotle ever knew. Teleology remained outside science when much of what we learnt from Newton was supplanted by Einstein, and most scientists today suppose it ought to be gone for good. As a result, Nagel was crucified. But was this swift reaction yet another consequence of our shortsightedness?

It's true that science and philosophy have limited budgets (of money and time) and that some filtering of the conversation is necessary to keep disciplines fresh and on the move. Not every intellectual whimsy can be indulged. But given our place in time, and our limited understanding, strange ideas proposed by academics, who to all appearances are full of a love of truth and have no obvious axe to grind, should be met with curiosity not a curse. We should at least let Nagel come down from the cross long enough to explain more fully the teleological view that he thinks might be needed to give consciousness a place in nature. Realising that our enquiry into the fundamental nature of the world is just beginning, we might have to say that, for all we know, some of the new ideas of the future will be old ideas, whose time has finally come.

Exactly! What we understand about nature seems very likely to be in its infancy, if that. Yet to listen to Darwin's stalwarts, you would think that everything about the most profound question science can ask -- How did we get here? -- has been pretty well wrapped up already. It's all figured out. Mutation and natural selection. No problem! Given the infancy of science, how utterly ludicrous that is -- even if you knew nothing about the challenges posed by Darwin skeptics and advocates of intelligent design.

The taunts directed at ID derive from the prejudice that says scientists have got the deepest mysteries of existence in the bag, so why bother asking further questions that could topple what we think we already know? Theorists of ID infer that a source of intelligent direction guided the origin and evolution of life, with complex animal life having undergone a big bang in the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago. See Stephen Meyer's book, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, on that. ID thinkers don't tell you, because they don't know, how this was accomplished, by whom or by what, by what "mechanism" if any.

Daily experience reminds us that an immaterial phenomenon -- the mind -- somehow reaches out and interacts with the physical universe. My mind is doing that as I write, and yours is too as you read. But no one understands how our minds do that. Much less do we understand how the intelligence behind nature does what it does. The argument for intelligent design is minimalist of necessity, out of intellectual honesty.

That honesty is hurled against us, though, as an aspersion, which in turn is spun out into an absurd conspiracy theory. Advocates of ID say we don't know how design was instantiated in nature, our critics claim, but we're lying about that to hide our real agenda: Teaching Young Earth Creationism in the schools, of course! Will intelligent people of good will never tire of such a stupid accusation?

The truth is much more interesting. As Schellenberg might phrase it, we suspect that this particular idea, the inference to design, is among "the new ideas of the future" that are also "old ideas, whose time has finally come." Whether we're right, and if so what that means, will be known in a future that may be frustratingly deep.

I'm now on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

Image: Forty-Fifth Anniversary of 'Earthrise' Image/NASA.