Granville Sewell has a new post up at Uncommon Descent. It’s short, but if you don’t want to read it, then rest assured it’s just the same post he always writes. Could the four fundamental forces of physics assemble iPhones or nuclear power plants? Absurd! The post is framed in the context of an imaginary discussion between him and an imaginary friend who defends evolution. He plays the role of the bemused clear thinker, while his friend is, of course, dogmatic and unreasonable.
I wouldn’t bother to address it, except that the title caught my eye. The post is called, “Mathematicians are Trained to Value Simplicity.” Indeed! I like simplicity. So let me attempt a serious response to Sewell’s musings.
Personally, I find it incredible that the four fundamental forces of physics, operating from the moment after the Big Bang, could rearrange matter into everything that we see today. That unintelligent causes can ultimately lead to the creation of intelligent creatures, who can then rearrange matter and energy in clever ways, is, I entirely agree, hard to believe. And Darwinian evolution strains credulity as well. I am very sympathetic to the view that natural forces do not construct delicate, biomolecular machines.
As I see it, the idea that naturalism is correct in general, and that Darwinian evolution is correct in particular, has just two things going for it. As it happens, though, they are two big things. The first is that every scrap of evidence discovered by scientists points strongly in that direction. If evolution is false, for example, then it should have been trivially easy to disprove. And yet every scrap of data we have is consistent with what evolution tells us to expect. It certainly did not have to be that way. Science might have discovered that the earth was just ten thousand years old and that there were fundamental discontinuities between organisms that correspond to some plausible notion of “created kind.” Science might have discovered all manner of things that were just fundamentally beyond what natural forces can do. Might have, but didn’t.
Creationists, in their various incarnations, deny this. But their arguments are very poor. If your argument is that “irreducibly complex” systems cannot evolve gradually, or that some back of the envelope probability calculation can prove the intervention of a supernatural designer in natural history, then obviously knowledgeable people are going to laugh at you. If you run around telling people that evolutionary biologists have simply overlooked a conflict between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics, then don’t act surprised if scientists politely suggest you do a little homework.
And if you really spend some time looking at what biologists have discovered–the real thing, not the delusional creationist caricature–then evolution start seeming very plausible after all. For example, those biomolecular systems we were talking about never look quite so impressive after you study them in detail. They are invariably incomprehensible viewed as the products of an engineer’s design, but make perfect sense when viewed as the end result of a long process of evolution. They always show what Stephen Jay Gould referred to as “the senseless signs of history.”
Which brings us to the other thing evolution, and naturalism more generally, have going for them. However superficially implausible they seem, the only alternative on offer is much harder to believe.
Sewell urges us to look for the simple explanation. But there is nothing simple in the idea of an omnipotent magic man who lives in the clouds. Whatever mysteries you think you have found in the naturalistic view of life pale in comparison to what happens when you try to comprehend an entity with the attributes God is said to have.
God is said to be mind without brain. For all the experience we have with actual minds and actual brains, that just looks like a contradiction in terms. God has no physical existence, yet acts of His will can cause whole universes with finely-tuned fundamental constants to appear where there was nothing before. How does He do that? What’s the connection between His will and the creation of matter? God knows what everyone is thinking at every moment of every day. How is that possible? How can he process and store all of that information? He exists “necessarily,” whatever that means, in contrast to the more mundane sort of existence we see all around us each day.
I could go on multiplying the implausibilities, but I think you get the idea. Is this really what Sewell is putting forth as the simple explanation for existence? Is his argument really that iPhones and nuclear power plants become easy to understand if you just help yourself to the existence of an omnipotent being who can poof such things into existence with acts of will? We have very different standards of simplicity, I think.
And that, in the end, is the real difference between evolution and intelligent design. Evolution seems implausible when you first hear it, but comes to seem more and more reasonable the more you study the actual evidence. Intelligent design seems plausible when you first hear it, but comes to seem more and more unreasonable the more you consider the details.
Young hildren are content with magical, supernatural explanations for things. But as we grow up most of us come to realize that invocations of God never really explain much of anything. They just create big mysteries where only small ones existed before.