I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, June 05, 2014

A devil's advocate argument for Intelligent Design

At ConCarolina's last weekend, I was on a panel to discuss Creationism/Intelligent Design vs Evolution. I had a hunch the panel would be dominated by the evolution side. I dislike lopsided debates, so I wanted to come in with the strongest argument for Intelligent Design I could muster.

This wasn't easy, since most of Intelligent Design arguments boil down to three unconvincing ideas:

  1. We know things are designed because they look designed.
  2.  Many biological systems are irreducibly complex. There's no point in developing half a wing, the argument goes, and random gradual mutation couldn't get you from wingless to winged in a single generation.
  3. The universe is fine tuned. Change the physical variants even slightly and none of existence is possible. The odds of such a finely tuned universe randomly coming into existence are very close to infinity to one against it.

You can Google the various refutations of these arguments. They've been pretty thoroughly shredded by more powerful thinkers than me.

So, I wanted to go into the panel with an argument that didn't have premade counterarguments. This is it:

It seems irrefutable that the intelligent design of organisms goes on around us every day. Broccoli, poodles, and corn wouldn't exist in their present configurations without the intervention of human intelligence. On a more advanced level, we're now manipulating living things genetically, creating disease resistant fruits and vegetables, and cows that have certain valuable proteins in their milk. And, for some reason, glow in the dark mice. Because, why not?

We also are fluent in generating artificial worlds within computers, complete with simulated ecosystems. There are games where creatures designed by users evolve over time in a process mimicking natural selection. But creatures with computers for brains aren't just found on our laptops and smartphones. We'll soon own self driving cars. Robots will likely build those cars. They already vacuum floors, make coffee, serve as bank tellers and fly long distances autonomously. Fifty years from now, the idea that human hands once performed surgery will seem like barbarism.

Many, many very smart people believe that we are only a decade or two from designing artificial intelligences capable of self awareness. It's also commonly believed that, once these digital intelligences come into existence, they'll be capable of designing a next generation that's even smarter, and after that, a generation even smarter, in a runaway process that creates beings we aren't even capable of imagining.

But, let's say that there's some physical law we're unaware of that prevents etched silicone from ever gaining self awareness, and only biological entities prove capable of intelligence. I would argue that, as we understand the human genetic code in finer and finer detail, we will be unable to resist the temptation to design better, smarter, stronger humans, humans who are immortal perhaps, or humans blended with machines that make them capable of surviving in environments that would kill us today. Our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren may flit around on Mars on wings of flesh, drawing power from sunlight through photosynthesis. Or, if we don't want to alter ourselves that radically, nothing in the laws of physics prevents us from changing Mars to our liking. We could capture comets to bring Mars water, use enormous nuclear generators to provide a particle shield to protect the atmosphere from the solar wind, and seed the barren soil with microbes designed to turn Mars into an Eden over the course of a few million years. Such time scales seem absurd and impractical to us now, but what if we're capable of bioengineering immortality? We'll need extravagant hobbies to fill up the eons, and lots and lots of room to sprawl.

Natural selection is a pretty good method of making organisms. But, even its biggest proponents admit the raw material for the process consist of a lot of random variables. Turning a blue green algae into a multi-celled ape-like organism capable of understanding its past involves a lot of long odds and good luck. But, assuming we don't destroy ourselves in the near future, we are almost on the verge of a self-sustaining process where every future generation of intelligent beings comes about through careful, deliberate design. Our world is the only one in our solar system showing evidence of life, but check back in a million years, and probably every solid surface from here to Pluto will contain some sort of biosphere designed by our descendants to exploit and tame now hostile environments.

Assuming this vision of the future is accurate, then intelligent design will be the dominating force crafting organisms and worlds moving forward, from tomorrow until the last star winks out of the sky. If this is true (and, yes, that's a big if), then there will only one intelligent life form that comes about as a result of natural selection, and a near infinity of offspring designed to fit their environments. Thus, by simple math, we can see that intelligent design will be the primary cause of intelligent life in the total universe, while randomly evolved intelligence is such a rarity that, statistically, we may as well say it's impossible.

As far as I'm aware, my argument violates no laws of physics, biology, or cosmology. Intelligent design is how the inhabited universe will eventually be put together.

If there's a hole in my argument, I'm eager to hear it.

Now, let me add this: Even if my argument proves accurate a billion years from today, would I want it taught in classrooms today? No. What I'm engaged in here is speculation. Speculation is not science. Just because something is plausible doesn't mean it's proven. What I'm presenting here isn't a scientific theory, it's mere daydreaming, simple what ifs built on a foundation of what we know, but, at its heart, just a lot of guesswork held together with a lot of hand-waving. Do I believe it? Kind of. I don't think we're the products of intelligent design, but far, far in the future, a child may ask, "Where did we come from?" and his parent will say, "From the designer." And the kid will ask, "and who designed the designer?" The answer will be, "an earlier designer." "And who designed him?" The parent will shrug. "Kid, it's designers all the way down."

Even if they aren't scientific, daydreams and guesses have their own value. I'd even say that these are important foundations of human intelligence, and probably the biggest barrier to developing artificial intelligences. A machine that believed things that have no factual basis would be frightening driving your car or operating on your heart. But a human who believed in unproven things would hold the potential for creating new worlds.


Mr. Cavin said...

Well, and if we are capable of someday firing homemade ice balls full of proteins and protozoa at random desert exoplanets, who's to say that's not exactly how we got seeded here in the first place? Evolution has created exactly us, sure, but the ingredients could have been put into play by whoever terraformed the universe to begin with.

James Maxey said...

Mr. C, such a scenario is certainly imaginable. It's difficult to imagine how it could be tested, however, so it must remain for now in the realm of cool speculation.