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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 74

Is our evolving universe an intelligent design?

By Vasantha Raja

While the whole world is reeling with deeply depressing realities - global warming, civil wars, terrorism, nuclear threats and so on - a mind-boggling phenomenon, perhaps a far more intellectually challenging and incomparably relevant one for mankind, is raging among some eminent scientists today: Put simply, it is this: Is our evolving Universe - that has systematically produced life and intelligence in a seemingly directed manner since the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago - an Intelligent Design or not? That's the question.

Strong prejudices surrounding the Jewish/Christian/Islamic/Hindu 'God', however important that concept may be to the majority of mankind today, seem to needlessly complicate the debate in counterproductive ways. These religions, though shrouded with ancient cultural values and prejudices, seem to essentially reflect the ways in which early man had glimpses of a transcendental reality. Even Buddhism, despite its atheism, talks of a transcendental existence beyond this world in the form of Nirvana. Although the Buddha always declined to describe Nirvana in terms of anything we experience on Earth, he never gave it a nihilist interpretation. The Mahayana tradition in particular (see Saddharma Pundarika sutra or Lotus sutra) interprets Nirvana as a spiritual reality where enlightened ones dwell.

What follows below does not approve or reject the visions of any particular religion. But the point I want to make is that scientists can seriously consider the Intelligent Design model without committing to the existence of a personal God; also through it science can enhance the scientific enterprise's heuristic power and overcome the ongoing creationist/evolutionist dichotomy.

In this sense, 'Intelligent Design' (ID) may be seen as a somewhat neutral expression. It can keep the nature of the Designer, or Designers, as an open question. It can assume for instance 'Mother Nature' to be conscious and intelligent. After all, the evolution of energy/matter has produced consciousness/intelligence on Earth as the most important product yet. So it is entirely plausible to postulate the backdrop to the 'Big Bang' (Mother Nature) as a 'higher' or even the 'highest' form of the same 'energy' possessing all those attributes: consciousness and intelligence - maybe even compassion.

So, call it God call it Nature, that is not the main question. The question is: Is our evolving universe designed to produce a definite result? If the universe is an intelligent design then the scientists' task is to reveal that design - as they have done in revealing the genetic codes packed with incredible amounts of information that seems impossible to be seriously considered as accidental products of unthinking matter's random motion.

Also, there are important implications for science to take on board if that is the case. One implication is to do with the scientific method. Its present mechanical approach to phenomena - as opposed to the teleological approach - seems inadequate to fully comprehend evolutionary processes. The Scientific method may have to find ways of harmonising both and accommodate both the past causes as well as future ones that determine the present. In other words, one particular stage of a directional process can be properly understood only as a part within the directional journey as a whole - from the beginning to the end. Thus, the model of scientific enquiry should combine both mechanical and teleological approaches in order to stimulate insights.

The recent groundbreaking discoveries in biology may be seen as instances where scientists have, probably unwittingly, surpassed the methodological limitations under the sheer impact of objective reality. The direct empirical availability of organisms' full-cycle of growth (the ontogeny) - i.e. organisms' full journey from embryo to adulthood, its past-present & future - must have immensely helped the Biologists to crack the DNA, overcoming the methodological prejudices related to the mechanical approach.

Unfortunately, the evolution of life forms for billions of years is unlikely to exert similar empirical pressure on scientists - unless of course the methodologists abstract the necessary insights from other evolutionary processes.

We now know that the differences between the genetic codes of life-forms right though the evolutionary processes are not so wide. But the immense amounts of complex information needed in systematically creating higher life-forms cannot be conceivably explained as products of gradual mutation. The vast gaps in fossil remains have only added to the problem. Learning the lessons from other fields and overcoming the deficiencies of scientific method may, thus, become vital here.

The present use of the 'chance concept' in scientific contexts also seems to lead scientists astray. Efforts to explain the emergence of life has come up with formidable difficulties due to this. The virtual impossibility of accidentally emerging even the highly complex information packed single-celled life-forms has baffled the evolutionists.

Adopting the ID perspective will have implications to the scientific method in this respect too.

Within an ID framework the scientist's task would be to find the ways in which the first life-forms were determined to occur. 'Mystical acts of creation' that deter scientific research need not be invoked here. Instead, attention should be directed towards deeper realities that gave rise to life on Earth. The role of 'random events' should only be comprehended in the overall determination of the general pattern.

The ID model would see the apparent independence of chance events as the external manifestations of deeper parameters' relative stability. For, the underlying parameters' dominance only begins to show up at times of major transitions that overrule the relative freedom of random processes.

Take, for instance, the 'car accidents in London'. Each London car accident in a particular year may be seen as a random event in relation to car accidents as a whole. Although individual events too have their own causes, accidents as a whole reveal deeper forces. In other words, there are far more fundamental parameters that determine the level of accidents in London that year. London's traffic-light network is one. As long as the deeper realities remain constant the 'random accidents' on the surface may retain certain regularity over the years. Insurance companies may rely on such statistical regularities to base their gambles on. But a major improvement of the traffic-light system may cause a big drop in the car accidents, even though one cannot predict individually which particular accident will or will not happen.

The causal connection between Britain's death-rate and its welfare-state and the NHS etc. is another similar example to identify deeper links between the fundamentals and surface 'chance events'. In other words, big qualitative transitions always happen as a result of fundamental changes in deeper realities. And that cannot be explained by invoking random events.

Appearance of life on Earth is one of the biggest transformations in the evolution of our universe and that surely is not to be explained away by accidental events. The task is to penetrate deeper and reveal the root causes.

But, then where would scientific penetration into deeper and deeper parameters ultimately end? From an ID perspective, I believe, such penetrations may temporarily end in the discovery of something 'along the lines' of the DNA that is packed with incredibly complex information to determine a process of hierarchical evolution for our entire universe.

But what/who caused that?

Surely any effort by the evolutionists to identify 'chance events' from the 'pre-Big Bang realities' as the cause of the Big Bang's 'genetic code' would only multiply the present difficulties they face. On the contrary, a model that assumes a conscious/intelligent form of 'higher reality' - conscious forms of Universal Energy perhaps - may become heuristically far more powerful in providing new lines of research.

Let me explain: Suppose we comprehend the Big Bang as an instance of a conscious form of 'higher energy' conceiving an 'embryo', a seed, a 'fertilized egg' that exploded into 'space/time existence' to produce trillions of galaxies, and more significantly 'life' and 'intelligence' in a deliberate effort to reproduce 'off-springs' in its own image. Also suppose that evolution is fundamentally a refinement of energy towards human mind. Then it could well be that 'deliberate effort' of evolving energy the decisive force that drives evolution. The parts of energy that really getting through towards the main target may be interacting with lower forms of energy to reach that target. Mutation and natural selection may be just external manifestations of this process.

Presenting the question in this form may benefit all sides and make the creationists/evolutionists conflict rather futile - in the same sense parents' role in creating embryos needs not necessarily bother biologists' study of evolving DNA to become fully-grown adults.

Whether Mother Nature/God had a special purpose in mind in creating the Universe, is it some kind of 'a production-line, school or what' are to do with another aspect of the problem which I shall address in a separate paper. For now, let's stick to the central issue: whether the theory of evolution in its present form is doomed before the creationist onslaught.

It is unfortunate that the creationists are trying to exploit the loopholes in the Darwinist theory of evolution to discredit the concept of evolution as a whole. This seems to me to be absurd and counterproductive. Evolution is taking place all over the place, and we are witnessing quantitative and qualitative changes and transitions from one state to another all the time.

Science has developed a reasonably tolerable model to explain evolution of life on Earth, from single-celled life forms to Homo sapiens. Only slight changes in the genetic codes have determined the appearance of widely different varieties of life-forms, and that itself on prima facie indicate their natural linkages.

However, the problems seem to occur at least from two sources: one, the naturalist tendency to resort to chance, random or accidental processes of unthinking matter to explain mystifyingly complex phenomena; two, dogmatic adherence to 'gradual evolution' when the processes in the world have clearly defied it in favour of 'qualitative leaps'.

Mutation and natural selection alone have failed to adequately account for the 'qualitative leaps' from one species to another. The gaps of fossil remains between species have clearly nullified the Darwinian notion of 'gradual evolution'.

This is a problem Darwin himself had anticipated in his day. He realized that the specific life-forms 'not being blended together by innumerable transitional links is a very obvious difficulty' (The origin of species, 1902 edition, part two, p.54). If the evolution was gradual then, Darwin thought, 'The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, [must] be truly enormous' [p.55, Emphasis added]. Thus, he knew that 'if numerous species…have really started into life at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of evolution.' (Ibid. p.83)

In fact, in his day the fossil record did not substantiate 'gradual evolution'. Darwin questioned: 'Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely-graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory' (Ibid. p.55).

Charles Darwin further admitted that 'the abrupt manner in which whole groups of species suddenly appear in certain formations has been urged by several palaeontologists … as a fatal objection to the belief in the transmutation of species' (Ibid., p.83). He added: 'There is another and allied difficulty, which is much more serious. I allude to the manner in which species belonging to several of the main divisions of the animal kingdom suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks…The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the [evolutionary] views here entertained' (Ibid., pp. 88, 91, 92).

Darwin blamed the fossil record for these enormous discrepancies. He thought that 'the geological record as the history of the world is imperfectly kept.' 'Imperfect to an extreme degree', he complained.

Darwin and fellow evolutionists thought that the missing fossil links discarded by nature - which, by the way, must be far more numerous than the well-formed ones - would be eventually found.

After well over a century of extensive digging and research this expectation has not been fulfilled. Palaeontologists all over the planet have by now collected millions of fossils, catalogued and identified them. Now the scientists are in a position to give a reasonably systematic account of 'the historical ladder of life-forms' and a credible verdict on the picture painted by the fossil record.

Thus, it is clear that quantitative changes within the framework of established main divisions of life-forms do take place over time; but, there are no convincing evidence to support gradual transition from one species to another - different biological structures seem to have emerged suddenly, and well-formed. In other words, the genetic codes behind each fully-grown species - that are impregnated with immensely complex biological information - have somehow suddenly undergone change to produce new information, and new species.

Does this definitively prove that different species have been separately created by God? Not quite. On the contrary, it may well be demonstrating that Charles Darwin's 'gradual evolution' model does not correspond with the way changing processes move in the real world. Perhaps the message is to replace the 'gradualist model' with a 'different model' that can accommodate the realities posed by the fossil record.

As Friedrich Hegel showed some 150 years ago, the form of developmental change may be more akin to the dialectical model - according to which quantitative changes give rise to qualitative leaps. If one concedes to dialectical concepts then the fossil record so far will only confirm it.

The model of 'punctuated equilibriums' developed by eminent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge has in effect introduced the concept of 'qualitative leaps' arising through accumulative quantitative changes.

There have been efforts to overcome the mystical aura around the concept of 'leap' too. The biological theorist Stuart Kaufman has, for example, introduced the notion of physical systems' natural capacity to produce 'spontaneous order' through 'stunning self-organization'. 'We appear to have been profoundly wrong' he wrote. 'Order, vast and generative, arises naturally.' From simple physical systems exhibiting spontaneous order - such as an oil droplet in water forming a sphere and snowflakes exhibiting their six-fold symmetry - he points out that this capacity is reflected in 'very complex regulatory networks.'

Interestingly, Hegelian categories of Dialectics seem to have become indispensable in explaining the evolutionary mechanisms related to the growth of life-forms as well - as they did for many others who dealt with developing phenomena in different fields; Karl Marx (evolution of human society), Jean Piaget (growth of knowledge in children), Thomas Kuhn/Imra Lakatos (growth of scientific knowledge) and Vladimir Vernadsky (cosmological transitions from geosphere via biosphere to noosphere) are among many such prominent figures.

Although some evolutionists have - in the face of ferocious 'creationist-attacks' citing their loopholes - modified Darwin's 'gradualist approach' along dialectical lines, still many aspects of how evolution happens remain in the dark.

For instance, explaining 'the leaps' from lower levels of organization to higher levels within hierarchical systems of amazing complexity using Stuart Kaufman's concept of the "physical systems' ability to perform stunning self-organization" (note the psychological connotations of the expression) may not be very satisfactory unless some level of 'deliberate effort' on the part of the transcending systems is brought in. But this is not directly observable and not quantifiable. Therefore, Kaufman has to limit his explanation to phenomena that is observable. Thus, the restriction on our legitimate capacity to abstract from what is externally given to us seems to me to be a major problem in science. This seems to be another limitation of scientific methodology as it stands today.

Take, for instance, the human mind. Each individual is acquainted with the mind's existence subjectively. The subjective side of 'other minds' is not given to each other directly. I derive that knowledge as an abstraction from various external observations given to my senses in the form of language, behaviour etc. The empiricist methodology keeps this subjective side of mind out of bounds for science. By doing this scientists may be missing an indispensable factor necessary for evolutionary theory.

Let me explain: As stated above, human mind probably is the most advanced stage evolutionary energy has reached (on Earth at least) since the Big Bang. Although it is the most relevant product to human happiness, sufferings and creativity its subjective side is only available to each individual in possession of a mind. Only its external manifestations are available for public scrutiny. Thus, in the scientific eyes the mind's subjective side is a non-entity. In fact, the post-renaissance British empiricism had made it a 'meaningless notion'.

In fact the notion of 'energy' too seems to have suffered the same fate. For, only the external manifestations of energy in the form of 'sense-data' are available to science. But, the empirically given sense-data represent merely the form of 'temporarily frozen' energy. Thus, the essence of energy is methodologically cut off from legitimate scientific reflection and abstraction.

An empiricist would say: there's no choice, for we do not have direct access to the essence therefore it is meaningless for scientific enquiry. But the truth is: the essence of energy is the only thing to which we have direct access. For, all individuals possess a highly refined mode of energy in the form of consciousness and we individually have direct access to its subjective side. Energy has a subjective side which can move and create 'things' - remember all things too represent 'temporarily frozen energy'.

From our experiential inside knowledge of energy we may safely infer the possibility of energy having a 'subjective side' (on comparatively diminishing levels) throughout its evolutionary stages since the Big Bang - like Leibniz's 'Monads'. No wonder even the subatomic entities such as Quarks exhibited 'curious counterintuitive behaviour' which physicists called 'asymptotic freedom' when they replicated conditions of the infant universe. 'The First Few Microseconds' by Michael Riordan and William A. Zajc - Scientific American, May 2006]

Unfortunately, the empiricist methodology since Francis Bacon seems to have barred scientific enquiry penetrating the 'sense-data wall'. Thus scientists including Charles Darwin seem to have been 'prevented' from speculating on the subjective role of evolving energy towards progressively higher levels of 'freedom' and 'self-consciousness'.

The key to open up the real drive for evolution, probably, could lie hidden in the 'deliberate effort' of energy itself. Pushing dormant aspects of evolving genetic codes in time to overcome environmental challenges and producing new species that are more fit to survive could well be the bull-work of the evolving energy's deliberate effort.

The ongoing experiments at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chicago (1998-2002), under Susan Lindquist and her team, have shown how an organism under stress from its environment would produce hitherto unseen genetic variations simultaneously. That was Lindquist’s answer to failures of the mainstream scientific theory of the 20th century in making persuasive sense of the major steps in evolution. In other words, these experiments amount to the uncovering of combinations of latent genes that point at ways of explaining ‘qualitative leaps’ in evolution.

However, on a conciliatory note, Nigel Calder, the author of Magic Universe – The Oxford Guide to Modern Science, wrote: ‘To be fair to our Charles, he had nothing to apologise for. Natural selection still sorts the fit from the unfit. What was wrongheaded was the attempt by many of his successors to limit the mechanisms of evolution to one particular interpretation of how it might proceed, plodding along by mutations in single genes.’

Thus, 'appearance of latent genes, mutations and natural selection' could well be the mere externally observable aspect of developing energy-forms' subjective effort to survive.

If this is the case then the empiricist limitations on meaningfulness may have been the main culprit that misleads scientists.

Many scientists have often tried to smuggle in various abstract concepts impressed upon them by the sheer strength of observation. The cosmologist John D. Barrow and Mathematical physicist Frank J. Tipler, for example, formulated the Anthropic Cosmological Principle to influence scientists to approach the universe with a model that accepts all forces in the universe are 'tailored' for humans to exist. Everything, from the energy states of the electron to the exact strength of the weak nuclear force, seems designed with amazing precision for humans to emerge. That carbon-based life in the universe is contingent upon the values of several independent parameters, and were the value of any of those parameters to vary slightly, carbon-based life could not exist.

Critics replied that this is simply tautological reasoning. Some scientists claimed that this principle violates the Copernican principle, that it incorrectly applies the laws of probability, that it is really a theological or metaphysical principle decorated with physics' esoteric language.

It may perhaps be somewhat farfetched to state that the whole universe is designed to produce humans on the Earth. Nevertheless, it certainly looks plausible to infer that human existence on the Earth is at least one effect the universe was designed to produce right from its birth. It seems to me to be a legitimate abstraction science could make on available evidence.

Empiricism's sanctions on mind's ability to abstract seem to compel scientists to cling on to the external manifestations of evolving energy. For them, the notion of 'deliberate effort' to re-organize into progressively refined systems and evolve further may have seemed as treading into forbidden land. But it is their notion of unthinking matter's random motion that has led the evolutionists into trouble facing the creationist assault on the origin of life on Earth.

Now many evolutionists have been compelled to admit the impossibility of explaining the emergence of life through the random movement of 'dead' matter.

'One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible', said the biochemist George Wald.

The man who co-discovered the DNA, Oxford scientist Francis Crick, wrote: 'An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.'

Another eminent biologist, Edwin Conklin wrote: 'The probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of the unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing shop.'

The late Prof. Fred Hoyle and Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe of the University of Cardiff wrote in their book 'Evolution from Space': 'If one is not prejudiced either by social beliefs or by a scientific training into the conviction that life originated [spontaneously] on the Earth, this simple calculation [the mathematical odds against it] wipes the idea entirely out of court' (p24) [Incidentally, Prof. Wickramasinghe recently retired from work at Cardiff University to become the Director of Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology.]

It is important to note that Hoyle/Wickramasinghe duo's ‘passing of the bug’ [or passing the buck] to places away from the Earth, into other places in the universe, does not remove the main problem: the spontaneous/designed controversy. Thus Chandra Wickramasinghe went to the extent of admitting 'creation' as the only acceptable explanation. He confessed: 'From my earliest training as a scientist I was very strongly brainwashed to believe that science cannot be consistent with any kind of deliberate creation. That notion has had to be very painfully shed. I am quite uncomfortable in the situation, the state of mind I now find myself in. But there is no logical way out of it…For life to have been a chemical accident on earth is like looking for a particular grain of sand on all the beaches in all the planets in the universe - and finding it.' Describing the logical impossibility of the task in those terms, Wickramasinghe conceded: 'There is no other way in which we can understand the precise ordering of the chemicals of life except to invoke the creation on a cosmic scale.' (New Scientist, February 4 1982, p.320)

[Based on what Prof. Wickramasinghe has stated elsewhere, one may safely assume he probably had ancient Indian philosophies in mind when he said this.]

The point I am trying to drive home is this: The 'Intelligent Design' hypothesis needs not in any way hamper the scientists' effort to develop a convincing model that explains the evolving universe through itself. But the scientists may well have to get rid of their own prejudices originating primarily from the empiricist world outlook to do so. For, the ID's blueprint for the universe, if there is one, will not appear before us in its full glory in the form of sense-data. Sense-data merely represent the most basic, immediate and momentary connection we have in our practical relationship with the present.

If there is an objective design for the universe which is unfolding progressively in the sense embryological evolution is doing in producing adult beings, and if this evolution is primarily to do with the evolution of energy that has a subjective side inaccessible to our senses, then the scientists must make radical changes to their methodology in order to penetrate the Intelligent Design's blueprint. What Hegel saw in the dialectical structure as the objective logic of the unfolding reality may well be part of the design.

The original 'energy-seed' that exploded fifteen billion years ago might have been the genetic code that epitomised all subsequent developments. And the evolving energy's subjective side - the mind-like side - may be crucial in understanding its long journey to produce and sustain the human mind with the help of many lower-level energy-forms.

Also, as I said earlier, the fact that energy has reached the level of self-consciousness and intelligence enables us to contemplate that Mother Nature herself to have self-consciousness and intelligence on far higher level. And our unfolding universe could well be Mother Nature's way of replicating herself; a kind of a school for us to learn on personal/social planes and 'qualify', perhaps to enter a different (enlightened?) existence beyond.

Let me mention one of Prof. Wickramasinghe’s highly logical reflections on the possible quality of life in the universe as a whole – which, he thinks, must be ‘teeming with intelligent life.’

In his view, humans need not be afraid of encountering technologically advanced civilizations from other parts of the universe. For, no cosmic civilisation would survive tens of thousands of years to reach ‘time-travelling’ levels of technology without first having developed advanced values of cooperation, coexistence and compassion. And that means that any alien civilisation capable of reaching our planet could not be evil.Rather, they would have to be far more compassionate than us.

Perhaps using Prof. Wickramasinghe’s logic we might safely assume that ‘Mother Nature’ - which designed a universe that has a built-in mechanism to eliminate evil civilizations – is herself not only conscious and intelligent but compassionate too.

Prof. Richard Dawkins – an avowed atheist (Read his ‘The God Delusion’) – has shown in his ‘The Selfish Gene’ how the evolution of life has been primarily determined by the opportunistic schemes of the ‘selfish gene’ to preserve itself. But, the ID model may easily accommodate this as a necessary episode to facilitate the emergence of the selfish gene’s opposite: ‘the selfless soul’.

The systematic evolution of life from the self-centred reptiles via milk-suckling mammals to human society may be seen as Mother Nature’s way of preparing the conditions for the next stage of energy’s evolution: ‘the souls of universal compassion’. No wonder many thinkers see the steady polarization of good and evil on our planet at present as a prelude to create a global community of cooperation, coexistence and altruism. Perhaps, a positive metamorphosis of human consciousness may soon be on the cards.

- Asian Tribune -

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