Friday, May 27, 2005

Isaac Newton and Intelligent Design

For my book, I've been reading up a bit on the secularization of philosophy, which entailed some dabbling with the ideas of Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza. The road to a purely secular view of the world, it turns out, has had some interesting twists and turns. I've been particularly impressed by how much effort was exerted in the 17th century to hold onto the idea of "God"; nothing remotely similar is undertaken today.

All of the philosophers above were revolutionary mathematicians or scientists in addition to being philosophers. When they attempted to create linguistic and conceptual explanations of the world, they were also the first people to have understood certain aspects of the workings of the universe.

The best example of this might be Isaac Newton, who was the first to offer a comprehensive mathematical explanation of the planetary orbits in our solar system. When he looked at the solar system, he was probably the first to understand the true complexity of the physics involved, and it was dazzling.

Here is what he wrote in the Principia, in 1687:

I do not think it explicable by mere natural causes but am forced to ascribe it to ye counsel and contrivance of a voluntary agent.' A month later he wrote to Bentley again: 'Gravity may put ye planets into motion but without ye divine power it could never put them into such a Circulating motion as they have about ye Sun, and therefore, for this as well as other reasons, I am compelled to ascribe ye frame of this Systeme to an intelligent Agent.' If, for example, the earth revolved on its axis at only one hundred miles per hour instead of one thousand miles per hour, night would ten times longer and the world would be too cold to sustain life; during the long day, the heat would shrivel all the vegetation. The Being which had contrived all this so perfectly had to be a supremely intelligent Mechanick.

It's beautiful, it all runs on its own with marvelous symmetry -- it must have been designed by something or someone Intelligent.

It so happened that I was reading this the day after I had read a piece on the pseudo-scientific movement called "Intelligent Design" in the New Yorker, and I was struck by the similarity in the reasoning.

Intelligent Design, as many readers know (especially those who look in on the excellent Pharyngula now and again), is a movement posing itself as an alternative theory (or set of theories) to evolution. According to Allen Orr in the article, its main scientific proponents are the biochemist Michael Behe, who wrote a book called Darwin's Black Box, and William Dembski, a mathematician.

Behe's arguments might relate to Newton the best. He believes the sheer complexity of individual cells, even of the simplest bacteria, is dazzling. In particular, he finds the interaction of different proteins that perform essential tasks in cells -- such as building the flagellum, or tail, or a bacteria, for example -- is "irreducibly complex." That is, each of the components is dependent on others in an extremely complex interlocking framework. It seems difficult to imagine how such a system might have evolved using Darwin's principle of natural selection, and indeed, apparently evolutionary biologists cannot yet fully explain it. And here is where Behe comes in:

In Darwin’s Black Box, Behe maintained that irreducible complexity presents Darwinism with "unbridgeable chasms." How, after all, could a gradual process of incremental improvement build something like a flagellum, which needs all its parts in order to work? Scientists, he argued, must face up to the fact that "many biochemical systems cannot be built by natural selection working on mutations." In the end, Behe concluded that irreducibly complex cells arise the same way as irreducibly complex mousetraps—someone designs them. As he put it in a recent Times Op-Ed piece: "If it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it’s a duck. Design should not be overlooked simply because it’s so obvious." In Darwin’s Black Box, Behe speculated that the designer might have assembled the first cell, essentially solving the problem of irreducible complexity, after which evolution might well have proceeded by more or less conventional means. Under Behe’s brand of creationism, you might still be an ape that evolved on the African savanna; it’s just that your cells harbor micro-machines engineered by an unnamed intelligence some four billion years ago.

There are, of course numerous very serious problems with this line of thought, and almost no professional scientists accept the "irreducible complexity" argument. I won't get into that here (read the article). Rather, what's interesting to me is that Behe's invocation of an "intelligence" is in response to a discovery every bit as dazzling as Newton's. There is an elegance to the workings of the natural world that, for these two men in very different eras and circumstances, seems impossible to accept as a purely unmotivated, random event.

The comparison ends there. Unlike Newton, Behe didn't discover anything in particular. And the complexity of proteins in cells has been known for several decades -- it's even taught in high school -- so it's hardly dazzling in the same way as the physics of the solar system must have been for Newton.

But most importantly, Newton's rationalization was part of a sweeping movement towards secularization that would soon see the idea of God considerably diminished in Philosophy. Within 60 years of Newton's invocation of a kind of Deist God in the Principia (i.e., who sets the machine in motion), there would be Denis Diderot in France, shrugging his shoulders: whether or not God does what Newton says he does doesn't matter to us, since the day-to-day workings of the world operate without divine intervention. Newton's "Intelligent Mechanick" God was not one to inspire fear and trembling, but rather a kind of cerebral -- and voluntary -- appreciation.

In contrast, the Intelligent Design of Behe and Dembski is in support of a belief in God that, for these scientists, resides in an emotional fundament that always trumps the scientific project.

The comparison, in the end, is small, but perhaps it is still worth considering. How do we explain the advent of dazzling complexity in the natural world? Do we depend on our own intelligence to decipher and describe the world, or do we posit the existence of of an Intelligent designer, who made it? I prefer the former, but I can understand how some smart people might not, under the right circumstances.


Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

The final point about it matters not because the world is already in motion is a very important point, as you say. I believe this explains why Hindu scientists have much less of an anguish over religion than Judeo-Christian ones. All western scientists I know (nearly all physicists/astrophysicists), are agnostics or atheists. In fact, I know of only three who are not. One of them, a practising Jew, now longer does astrophysics, and is a Prof. of Philosophy instead. And even in his case, it wasn't clear to me, how much of a believer he was.

Indian scientists that I know, barring the marxists of course, all happily lined up to give pooja with their family with no obvious conflict in their minds. I suspect this is because Hinduism really doesn't require a belief in any deity. In fact (if I understand sanatana dharma right), you are only really required to do your dharma (act according to your natural "properties"), and all will be well.

When practising science, all work is so incremental (and far removed from the big questions of religion), that one's fundamental beliefs should never really be threatened at all. I've never met a astrophysicist who ever stopped to ponder on the "reality" of black-holes. I certainly haven't. I routinely analyse data from simulations of mergers of galaxies with black-holes in them. All that matters is what we see and what we can predict from our mathematical models. Any "reality" outside of that is just not relevant (or interesting, but that's a personal statement).

11:39 AM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for the comment. I've noticed the same thing. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism don't throw you out because you can't say you believe in the literal truth of one or another sacred scripture.

I would actually put Orthodox Judaism roughly in the same category. The Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism are oriented to practices -- study of Torah, recitation, prayer, Kashruyt -- more than they are to the affirmation of belief. It's a bit demanding than attending the occasional Pooja, however.

What you say about incremental knowledge is also interesting. In some sense Newton et al. were in the same boat, in that they were discovering bits of new things. Perhaps it's just that the increments were bigger? Or perhaps the trend towards specialization hadn't developed as much in the 17th Century.

11:53 AM  
Rani said...

A related article:

(No mystery about what I think...)

11:59 AM  
Amardeep said...


I think what you think!

The reason I liked the New Yorker article is the way it gives the Intelligent Design people their best possible argument -- even though it ultimately dismisses ID.

Until I read it, I had only seen sharp anti-ID polemics such as the one at Scientific American you link to.

12:20 PM  
Manish said...

Newton was sampling on the dependent variable. If you had a planet with a day 10x as long, you very well might have vegetation adapted to it via better water retention, lower surface area and so on.

12:32 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

As someone who grew up in a liberal Christian church, I still find it hard to consider myself an atheist even though I'm not a real believer. And, at times this does get in the way of my personal philosophy of the universe. I think for people like me - who are for the most part very secular but grew up with a healthy dose of religion - it's hard to take that leap to atheism because of true bewilderment and fear. Even if you grew up UCC like me. You still read from the same Bible and it still has passages about the only path to heaven is to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. It tends to lead one to Deism.

(This, by the way, is why I mostly think of Christianity as fearful and not hopeful or liberating.)

It's upseting to think that so many Christians don't seem to see a lot of their practices as cultural without regard to religion. I wonder... is it because of the fear factor? is it because Christianity is a relatively young religion?

And, it seems like this is true for both Islam and Christianity. The two younger, major world religions. While Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism -- all older -- seem more cultural and hopeful from my point of view.

1:22 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

By "tend to lead one to Deism" I meant that for those of us who just can't bring ourselves to believe in Jesus.

1:24 PM  
Rani said...


I too read the New Yorker article you refer to and while it "gives the Intelligent Design people their best possible argument", it does it The-New-Yorker-sort-of-way. There is an undercurrent of sarcasm and disdain for the ID people such that the reader is already biased from the first few paragraphs.


4:39 PM  
Anonymous said...

The argument that complexity is difficult to explain without the existence of an agent or agents, is not exactly a strong one. If Newton had access to computers, he would have known how very simple rules can lead to extremely complex patterns.

This is something that is seen repeatedly in the physical sciences. Most physics and chemistry is based on a few extremely simple fundamental principles, but the range of natural phenomena that these rules can explain are of a tremendous variety.

One could argue that these rules need someone to create them or some such deux et machina can be invoked, however such an argument is devoid of any meaningful information since it does not result in a better understanding of the phenomena that these laws can explain, since such devices are not falsifiable and hence unscientific. This is really the problem with the whole ID "theory". It is a thinly veiled attempt to replace solid testable science with pseudo religious gibberish.

As for hindu philosophy and science, hindu philosophy has the principle that the observable world is anyway impermanent (the true word is Maya, which is not easily translated), and consequently there is no neccesity for a coherence between religious belief and scientific thought. This difference is as stark in Buddhism which does not even invoke the existence of a god.

5:05 AM  
realitybytes said...

Or we might call ID divine design. Results of the will or the "I AM," change created by mental will of living creatures (animals too?) could not be scientifically provable but why has it never rained on the Rose Parade?

9:51 AM  
Ed Dellian said...

The conformity of Newton's philosophy of nature with basic ideas of intelligent design goes much further than you know. I refer to my web-site, and
Ed Dellian
Bogenstr. 5
D-14169 Berlin, Germany.

4:38 AM  
Sajid said...

The 'complexity' dilemma is easy to explain dear. The complexity of the cells is due solely to the fact that there are more than 100 elements of the periodic table and this sheer number combined with the random manner in which they reacted over 4 billion years gave rise to a permutation which is humungous in itself...That s imple !
Sajid Rafique.Texas.

9:22 PM  
Sajid said...

But,what interests me is that if we humans are intelligent (and we certainly are),then how can we over rule other extraterrestrial intelligences ...And no one has given a good definition of god anyway...Are we not 'parts' of the one existence which is the creator and the creation at the same time ?

9:26 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home