Intelligent design is a counter claim against Darwin evolution of unsupervised random variation selected through natural survival at the species level. The intelligent design claim results from matching currently observed design processes (primarily from human designers) with the observed intricate machines found in biology. After the introduction of this proposal, most of the scientific endeavors have been to improve the arguments between design and randomness. I have suggested before that the design claim itself opens up a new question of identifying the designer. Random-variation advocates reasonably dismiss this question because the premise is wrong. Design advocates largely dismiss this question as either being already solved by a God hypothesis, or at best uninteresting because the primary battle is to argue against random variation. If science can identify a designer or an intelligent mechanism, then the design hypothesis will convince more people.
The design advocates often treat as a form of praise any claim that God is the designer of the apparently designed biological features. The designs seen in nature often appear to be very well designed at least in terms of performing an intended function. Such designs exist in broad body plans that distinguish different orders, classes, or phyla. Also design exists in intricate molecular machinery within cells. The designer earns praise when the design is near perfect. When the design falls short of perfection, the designer deserves helpful criticism of pointing out the flaws and perhaps suggesting improvements. Implicit in this line of thinking is that the designer has good intentions and wants recognition as the designer.
I propose a different approach that goes back to finding present day processes at work that produce designs. Those processes primarily come from humans, but no single human created all of the designs of human artifacts. Most single modern designs are not the work of a single individual, but instead a team. In most cases, the designs come out of competition with the intention to replace the position of a market leader in some area.
I think more specifically of the design processes seen in information technologies. Here, disruption is the rule. We experience rapid changes in technologies because newcomers innovate in a way that disrupts entire industries, making obsolete what existed before. In some cases, the innovators seek recognition and praise that comes in the form of wealth derived from profits or from patent royalties. However, in many other cases, the intentions are more malicious, acquiring wealth in ways that justifying merit prosecution for wrong-doing.
My point is that based on currently observed design processes, many designers do not appreciate being assigned responsibilities for their designs. They would prefer to never be individually identified.
As a result, when finding evidence of design, the assignment of responsibility to a particular designer easily may be the same as an accusation rather than an welcome recognition. When we say God is responsible for a design, we are raising an accusation where the accused has the justified presumption of innocence. When we see design in nature, we could treat it as a crime scene where the goal is to identify the perpetrator.
In biology, an especially at the intra-cellular and molecular level, there are marvelously designed machines. Similarly, in the information technology field, there exists the malware that are impressively designed and these innovations surprise us on a near daily basis. In the case of malware, we have no doubt that the intelligent designer is some human but our response is to seek the identification of the perpetrator, or a least find a way to prevent further propagation of the design.
In biology, when we find a design, the identification of the designer is either dismissed as non-existent (the design being an accident of random variation), or assumed to be God or some other mysterious being. Biology does have designs that are detrimental to humans. Viruses, bacteria, or parasites cause disease to humans or their domesticated animals or plants. Pests harm our agriculture or foul our infrastructure. In these cases, we devote all of our scientific energy to eradicating or at least to managing these detrimental biological entities. Throughout history, there have been attempts to identify the designer so that we may find a way to negotiate with that designer or a way to attack that designer directly in the historical case of blaming demons. However, these efforts have not been successful, and certainly not as successful as directly addressing the products of the designer (either anonymous or non-existent).
The question of a designer in biology is not a practical question. We have to live with what biology gives us within our bodies and within the organisms around us. Knowing the designer is not important in day-to-day life, though religion proposes that acknowledging and praising a particular designer might make our lives better through divine provenance.
The motivation for seeking a designer is an academic question as well as a religious one. If a designer does (or did) exist, then it is inherently interesting to identify the designer. A religious motivation is to find evidence that the designer is the One they need it to be. In either case the question is about the origin of the designs that we have to live with through instinctual or deliberate learning. If the very first instance of the design came from a designer, who was that designer.
One of the proposals for introduction of innovative designs to Earth is that they came from other living words. Either some space-faring extra-terrestrials deliberately seeded the earth with copies of there world, or dormant life (such as desiccated bacterial spores) float freely in space and occasionally drift into atmospheres until they encounter a hospitable planet.
I recently encountered this talk where Dr Robert Zubrin presents a case of using bacteria as a communication method from one civilization. He makes a point about the difficulty of electromagnetic communication due to the required strength of the signal and the rarity of there being a radio-receiving civilization at a location when the radio wave arrives. I especially liked his summary of why a civilization would want to communicate and that is to spread propaganda, particularly with the message “be like us”, or “be something useful to us”. I believe that same intent underlies our attempts to communicate outwards: we are not expecting to reach humanoids but we are expecting something compatible with us, compatible enough to exchange a thought. Given the propaganda motivation and the inevitable long time intervals involved, an alternative mode of communication is to send out bacteria into space, to be accelerated by stellar winds of the local star and then scatted through interstellar currents.
This probably would not work because the bacteria will disperse in a similar inverse squared distance manner encountered by radio waves: by the time the bacteria reaches some habitable world, they would be too sparse to have even a single one land on that world. Also, just a stellar winds would accelerate the bacterial spores away from its home planet, the local stellar winds at the destination would blow those spores away from getting anywhere near a habitable planet. Maybe these complaints are just engineering questions of some kind of nano-machined ark that can navigate specifically to promising locations.
In any case, I like the idea that the alien civilization seeks to propagandize instead of communicate among peers. It’s goals is to influence the remote world with things that they find work well in their world. Also, as mentioned in his talk, the senders may not be particularly interested in being identified. They may not want the messages being traced back to them because that could invite unwelcome countermeasures. They like how things are working on their planet, but they may want to preserve that against innovations that may work better on other planets.
While not stated in his talk, his talk reminds me of malicious hackers of information technology systems. Hackers want to reap beneficial outcomes from IT infrastructure that they do not own. In the same way, the remote civilization is seeking to hack into other words by seeding it with bacteria, that either invade the planet for their own benefit or pass along deliberately designed genetic information to native species, influencing their evolution.
The claim is that what we interpret as evolution may in fact be a result of alien hackers. If that were the case, I would be interested in finding the hackers. There may be multiple such hackers, some benefiting us, while others harming us. At least we should be interested in identifying the harmful genetic hackers. In his talk, Dr Zubrin proposes a test for hacking by seeking out genetic information in lower forms of animals that would only be useful in higher forms. This is like vestigial genetic information except that it is vestige of a future.
I don’t think that would be conclusive because the genetic information may have jumped from the existing higher-order organism through gene transfer during some cross-infecting bacteria. Setting aside the objections, the concept I think is feasible, that the designers of exquisite biological molecular machinery may be hackers from another world. How that world came up with the design is a question we can not possibly answer until we identify that world.
The observation is that the designer is malicious in intent and desires to remain anonymous.
For another perspective, DarkMatter2525 presents in this talk, an argument against religion, a characterization of the Biblical God as a villain by comparison to literary and cinematic villains including a recent example of Marvel’s Thanos whose vigilance killed half of the life in all of the Universe for some private motivation. In the literary or cinematic villains, there is the threat or act of large scale death and suffering of innocent people for no morally justifiable reason.
DarkMatter2525 draws parallels in these stories with Biblical accounts of old-Testament God and even of new-Testament’s Jesus asserting that only a few people can enter the narrow gates of heaven in spite of their best efforts to comply with the demands. In both versions of God, the vast majority of generally good people will be unable to escape pain and death without even the possibility of entering heaven.
It is not my purpose here to argue one way or another on the religious validity of his claims, but instead his presentation of certain attributes of God presented in the Bible do correspond to villainous behavior. In particular, the Biblical God is all wise and all powerful, so that he is always able to choose and execute the most moral choice.
DarkMatter2525 makes a good case using the Trolley problem where a person at a rail switch has a choice to send a speeding trolley in one of two directions. In the first example, the trolley will hit and kill 5 people unless the actor throws a switch that will instead direct the trolley to hit and kill 1 person. When polled to a large number of people, there is considerable debate as to which result is the more moral choice with a default taking no action and thus letting fate play out is at least not immoral. In contrast, when the problem is switched where the default choice of inaction would result in the death of one person and the active choice of switching would result in the death of 5, there is more universal agreement that the choice to kill 5 in order to save 1 is definitely immoral. He goes on to explain that many stories of the bible have God doing precisely that: killing large populations of mostly innocent people to save or benefit a preferred one. We would condemn as immoral any human making an equivalent choice.
DarkMatter2525 goes on to explain his disbelief in a God that if exists would be a villain. He also objects to the demand to believe in something that refuses to provide evidence to a rational mind that demands proof to back up a belief. I see his point, but I think it is certainly possible that God could exist, be as powerful as described, demand belief in exchange for the mere possibility of grace, and yet refuse to provide any explicit proof of his presence. It is possible that such a villain God exists without providing any evidence of his existence. I respect the choice to not believe in a God that presents no concrete evidence in ones current life and a preference to disbelieve due to God’s behavior, but it is a decision with no lasting impact. Future generations will continue to confront the same choice with little to no influence of their ancestor’s reasoning.
For the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus primarily on the concept that God may be a villain comparable to Marvel’s Thanos in Infinity War, only more fearsome. Instead of discussing the villainy of causing death and destruction, I’m thinking about God at the intelligent designer of life. The divine designer may be designing with malicious intent.
My thinking again is that by analogy to modern human processes that result in design, there are actually a multitude of competing designers, each working on separate projects, either refining existing designs to extend their product lives in face of competition, or in developing new designs that will compete with the old. There are a multitude of such designers working in overlapping teams. Out of that multiplicity there emerges a kind of consensus of where the overall ecosystem is heading, and that consensus can be described as a unitary concept. God may be an aggregate of a multitude of independent designers where a larger purpose emerges as a consequence of what collection of old and new designs currently works.
In the human analogy, the designers are at not wholly virtuous. At a minimum, they operate selfishly in terms of gaining benefit through the failures of others. This villainy is more explicit in a capitalistic model where competition specifically seeks gains over other’s losses. It also exists in more socialistic models where the ruling class will choose winners and losers where the losers are often very numerous and undeserving of punishment.
Removing humans from biology, the biological ecosystems of evolving species establishing, defending, or invading various niches have some element of villainy in the direction of evolution. We can marvel at the ingeniousness of new designs, but part of that respect comes from the demonstration that the new design out-competes the old designs. The old designs are pushed out of their previously held niches through no moral fault of their own, and frequently they face extinction.
Although nature is amoral, an intelligence can appreciate the unfairness of this arrangement where a superior design annihilates a population of an inferior design. The intelligent design hypothesis presupposes an intelligence that is at least capable of concept and synthesis of new design. Again, based on currently visible processes, we find a coexistence of morality with design aptitude. An intelligent designer would likely have capacity for morality, and yet within nature we see something immoral in the choices of the designer. It is the capitalist immorality of supplanting a prior niche-holder, or a socialist immorality of picking winners and losers. In either case, the advancement of one design over another is done with conscious awareness of elements of immorality in the choice.
Perhaps designer makes his choice based on some higher good, such as the Trolley problem scenario to deliberately switch the Trolley’s track so that it kills just one person instead of the 5 who would be killed if no action were taken. This is not necessary. More often than not, innovations in nature appear to be similar to the second Trolley scenario of making the choice of more harm instead of leaving things alone.
There is good evidence to argue for intelligent design in biology. This raises the question of who is the designer. Many advocates of intelligent design are comfortable with attributing the design to the God of their religion. In doing so, they are praising the intellect of their God for such ingenious designs without realizing they are also accusing their God of immoral designs that led to suffering or demise of prior populations guilty only of having poorer designs presumably given them by the same God.
The designer may be extraterrestrial life (whose origin is impossible to guess while they remain unidentified), hacking into Earthbound life to be to their choosing instead of letting something else direct the process.
My hypothesis is that intelligence is at the quantum level, operating at small scales but independently at innumerable quantities. Each cell has its own intelligence for how it manages its internal affairs, and each element within the cell has its own intelligence. A philosophical benefit of this hypothesis is that it grants the possibility of moral design choices at the individual designer level. What we consider immoral at the macro scale is an accident that emerges from a lot of smaller good decisions: the path to Hell is paved with good intentions.
All of the causal theories of evolution propose super powers of excellence in designing self-replicating biological forms and machines. Each evolutionary step exhibits some level of immorality of the choices made, if those choices were from an intelligence. If evolution is intelligent then the intelligence may be a villain. We can’t defeat this villain even if we were able to identify it.
The appeal of Darwin’s evolution by random variation and natural selection is non-intelligent and consequently incapable of morality. If evolution were intelligent, then we have to accept that the designer is more intelligent than we are, and we would have to explain the inconsistency in morality of ourselves and of this designer.
Given what we see in nature, we have good moral reasons to hope that evolution is unintelligent and that accidents can result in excellent designs. If a superior intelligence is responsible for these advanced designs, then we would have to ask what we should do if it turns out that this superior designer is actually a villain.