Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Lead: Chris Rothschild and Joe Collins


Summary by Wilhelmina Roda

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

The discussion on Evolution vs. Intelligent Design was led by Chris Rothschild and Joe Collins. The presentation began with Joe clarifying that the discussion would begin with a background overview followed by questions that summed up the topic. The PowerPoint presentation began with the definition of the Design (or Teleological) Arguments:

         “-Empirical arguments for the existence of God based on perceived evidence of order, purpose, design and/or direction in nature.”

The historical perspective began with the Creation Myths from Ancient Egypt, Enuma Elish (Ancient Babylonia), and the Book of Genesis. These cultures had creation myths that tended to give credit to an external source, such as the Nile and water in Egypt or the great floods in Babylonia and Genesis. The world and life were attributed to an intelligent agency or agent.

In Ancient Greece the earlier ideas were refined with philosophy. Plato believed that a demiurge of supreme wisdom and intelligence created the cosmos by organizing necessity, a proto-matter, based on order and structure. Aristotle believed in a Prime, or Unmoved, Mover. His idea of “an eternal process of pure thought” was based on four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Joe clarified this with an analogy where the subject was a sculpture. In this case, the material cause would be the marble that it was carved from, the formal cause would be the plans, the efficient cause would be the sculptor, and the final cause would be what it is for. The prime mover would be the efficient cause. To this Professor DeVries added that the prime mover would be the efficient as well as the final cause.

The next topic was Christianity. St. Paul revealed the nature of the Creator in the General Revelation. This supported that God was evident in everything, from sunshine to rain, crops, etc. Chris introduced the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, who set out to prove God’s existence by combining Christianity with Aristotle’s philosophy. His Fifth way of proving God’s existence had 3 proclamations:

1. Things lacking intelligence nevertheless act towards ends.
2. Whatever lacks in intelligence can only act toward an end if it is directed by a being possessing intelligence.
3. Therefore, there exists an intelligent being by whom all natural things are directed to their end, i.e., God.

Here the question was raised if “unintelligent” necessarily meant non-human, to which Professor Davis also asked if it included non-living things. For those, Professor DeVries suggested the idea of purpose fulfillment.

Enlightenment was introduced as an intellectual time of reason during which people were “considering things all over again”. David Hume criticized the design argument. He claimed that “order and purpose [were] not necessarily (and often not) the result of design,” such as with a snowflake. Also he claimed the design argument was an incomplete analogy because we only have experience with one cosmos, and that design does not necessarily demand a God. If design is necessary, he asked, who designed God? Finally, he pointed out that what is seen as “goals” in nature are actually the result of a filtering process; this was the precursor of natural selection. At this point, Sam asked if Aquinas and Hume were around at the same time, and it was clarified that they were 500 years apart, in the 13th and 18th centuries, respectively.

The 19th century was introduced with William Paley describing the necessity of a designer, with all things performing a function considered desirable. This is called Functional Complexity because it argues that the function could not be performed if the constitutive parts or mechanisms were arranged differently. This was clarified with the watchmaker analogy, where something as complex as a watch could not have come into existence without the presence of a watchmaker. Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by means of natural selection gave a naturalistic mechanism against Paley’s complexity argument. In this manner, “gradual changes over time within a system of natural selection accounts for variation and complexity in biology.” These ideas were accepted by some and began to take hold.

The Intelligent Design argument had aspects relating to intelligence and irreducible complexity. The intelligence argument views information as an empirically observable characteristic. Specified complexity is a concept supported by William Dembski that natural and complex patterns with a very low probability of occurrence are most likely the result of a designer with intelligence. Dembski gives this probability a limit of less than 1 in 10150. Irreducible Complexity was defined as the idea that “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning” (Behe 1996). This was clarified with the mouse trap analogy, where the separate pieces of a mousetrap can’t catch a mouse unless all pieces are present. Examples of irreducible complexity put forward were the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting. Irreducible complexity is widely criticized, one contention being the precursor parts argument where parts of the complex mechanism may be present in other places and have other uses.

At this point, the first discussion question was introduced. It was:
#1: Is specified/irreducible complexity a valid concept? Or will we be able to account for all of its supposed occurrences via natural selection.

This question has to do with probability, suggesting that random chance cannot account for life on earth. Chris noted that Dembski has a chapter explaining the calculation of the total number of particles multiplied by time passed since the Big Bang. Here Professor Moebius noted that time must be involved, and it was then determined that they may use Planck time. Professor DeVries pointed out that defined circumstances and conditions of formation are required for calculating the absolute probability of having a human being or even a pen arise. Sam proposed that there might be a certain number of chances that are required for the course of human evolution to start. Professor DeVries inserted that the idea of ‘rolling the proverbial dice 10^150 times to get life, and if it does not occur in that time by itself then there must be an intelligent creator’, “sounds bizarre.” Professor Moebius added that getting the combination of atoms to get the correct function would be very complicated.

Joe explained the calculation of specified complexity on the board by calculating:
10^80 - elementary particles
10^45 - interactions per second
+10^25 – seconds (the age of the universe)

Professor Moebius asked about combining of factorials to describe the number of combinations, and to the number applied in evaluating probabilities. Professor Davis questioned what counts as a probable event according to Dembski. Joe referred to the presentation with the odds of life emerging being less than the Universal Probability Bound, or the total number of possible outcomes. At this point, Erica pointed out that the probability would change with an increased complexity of structure, as different combinations of particles would have different probabilities of occurring. Professor Moebius agreed, saying that the idea of the same particles combining differently and preferential binding in a progressively reiterative manner seems to be “pushed under the rug” with this theory. Professor DeVries then questioned Joe about the terminology used, if Dembski uses the word “observable” while Joe clarified that he meant empirically observable, such as aliens, they then agreed that observed would have been a better word choice.

Professor DeVries followed up with the difference between detectable and observable and presented the views of Douglas Hofstadter, who hypothesized that the extended observations of air patterns could be traced backwards, perhaps even to determine what Caesar actually said to Brutus if the projection were good enough. This idea that everything has a resonating effect is a speculative principle at most. Erica returned the discussion to the topic by asking how that proves intelligent design. Joe clarified that certain patterns indicate intelligence, such as radio signals, and Chris mentioned that it goes with irreducible complexity. But the things that were previously considered irreducibly complex are now being better understood. Professor DeVries pointed out that physics, such as cosmology and plate tectonics, had been given up by Intelligent Design supporters as targets and they were now focusing on biological aspects. Professor Moebius pointed out that they were making Him/Her the God of the Gaps.

At this point, Professor Davis tried to clarify that irreducible complexity was a two-part claim. The first claim that something very complex, like bacteria flagella, could not work without a certain piece, is true. The second claim, however, that therefore it could not have evolved, is false. Joe accepted the criticism of the idea, saying that you could get something different when a part was missing, as Adam added that individual pieces may have no use without each other. Professor Davis followed up pointing out the problem with the irreducible complexity and the mousetrap analogy: evolution does not claim to start with many pieces that do not have a function. Whatever is present starts to work when a specific piece is added. There is nothing in biology that does not work. Professor DeVries asked about the appendix, but that used to work and then stopped working. Professor Davis continued with the example of the bacterial flagella, which evolved as a structure that was always doing something—it was never a limp, functionless projection that was missing a piece. This is how Intelligent Design advocates misrepresent the Darwin account of evolution, which is intellectually dishonest. Professor Moebius also thought it was inefficient to argue within the gaps of knowledge. This just set ideas up to be countered in the future. Science asks questions about what is going on. Intelligent Design shuts the door while science closes the gaps. Chris noted it was called an “argument for ignorance.”

Joe referred back to the probability argument, and directed the class to the site giving the odds of life at about one in 10^282 (while the Dembski’s Universal Probability Bound is about 10^150). The site is called “Reasons to Believe” and is run by Hugh Ross
(found at :
Here is a list of parameters Ross considers necessary for life to have arisen without a divine force, as well as the probability that the feature will fall in the required range for physical life. This list includes (but is not limited to): local abundance and distribution of dark matter, relative abundances of different exotic mass particles, gas dispersal rate by companion stars, shock waves, and molecular cloud expansion in the Sun’s birthing star cluster, ratio of 40K, 235,238U, 232Th to iron in star-planetary system, star luminosity change relative to speciation types & rates, supernovae rates & locations, and the mass of Neptune, just to name a few.

At this point the class turned their focus to Discussion Question #2:
Do blind physical processes and random chance (via natural selection) account for all the “complexity” observed in nature?

This question brings up the question of creation myths vs. evolution, and how evolution started. Erica proposed the idea of molecules in the primordial soup being zapped with energy to form amino acids. Professor Davis then reintroduced the fact that intelligent design is mixing up two questions. On the question of how life started, he is skeptical of the primordial soup theory because of the complexity of DNA, genetics, and proteins. Chris offered the RNA world theory, but the problem with proteins being needed to read the complex DNA codes that have the instructions for making proteins leaves a chicken and egg problem. The second question posed by Professor Davis was the idea of the complex arising from the simple. Professor Moebius compared this with the Big Bang Theory, which only explains what happened after the Big Bang (like evolution) but not how it started (the induction of life). It is also analogous to Consciousness and the first “ouch”.