The “Science” of Intelligent Design

The Discovery Institute has a definition of intelligent design at their website, which we analyzed a few years ago — see Intelligent Design Redefined. But as we shall see, it’s one thing for them to define their claim as a theory, and another to support it with verifiable evidence.

We have often before pointed out that two of the Discovery Institute’s principal arguments for their “theory” are: (1) the God of the gaps — anything not yet fully understood is “best” explained by a supernatural agency; and (2) William Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy — if something looks designed, then by golly it is designed.

But recently they’ve been promoting the claim that the universe seems to be “fine-tuned” so that we could be here. This is their latest “evidence” that their intelligent designer — blessed be he! — intentionally created the universe and everything in it, including our planet and our wonderful selves. See Discoveroids Embrace Fine Tuning Argument, and also Klinghoffer: Fine Tuning Proves Design, and most recently The Discoveroids’ Proof of Fine Tuning.

And as everyone knows, a fine-tuning argument was used in the Discoveroids’ big breakthrough, when they got their “theory” into a respected newspaper. That was the recent column by a Discoveroid fellow-traveler, Eric Metaxas, about which we wrote More Creationism in the Wall Street Journal. But what’s the fine tuning argument all about? We’ve discussed it several times, so we’ll have some repetition here. We’ve said:

It shouldn’t surprise us that everything we discover about the universe is consistent with our existence — were it otherwise we wouldn’t exist. But it doesn’t follow that the universe exists for the purpose of our existence.

What makes you think that without supernatural tinkering, the universe would have been different? How does one compute the odds against this specific universe? From where we sit, the odds favoring the universe seem to be 100%. Where is the evidence suggesting that this particular universe shouldn’t exist, or that its attributes should have been different from what they are?

Nevertheless, the Discoveroids claim that fine-tuning is virtually proof that their magical designer set things up for us — although as we’ve remarked about all their other “evidence,” it can be used just as effectively to argue that Zeus was responsible. In other words, it’s evidence of nothing.

It’s true that we evolved to live here, but that in no way demonstrates that the universe was designed so that we could live here. Yet the Discoveroids claim that the universe was “fine-tuned for life.” Is it? We’ve pointed out before that there’s not a lot of life around, compared to black holes, cosmic rays, and loads of other stuff that doesn’t do us much good. Why don’t the Discoveroids conclude that the universe was fine-tuned for those things? The more we learn about the universe, the more hostile it appears. But creationists insist it was all perfectly tweaked — just for us.

They also toss around numbers allegedly demonstrating the huge “odds” against all the constants of the universe being what they are. But they had to be something. And no matter what the fundamental constants are, the imaginary “odds” against all of those constants having a different set of values would be equally enormous. So what? Nevertheless, the Discoveroids continue to flog the fine-tuning argument. Well, why shouldn’t they? It’s useless, but it’s their only claim to having any evidence for their “theory.”

They have another post about it at their creationist blog: The Fundamental Equation of Chemistry Is Itself Fine-Tuned. The author is Granville Sewell, about whom we once wrote Granville Sewell — the Best Discoveroid Thinker. He uses the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an argument for creationism.

His article seems to be scientific, but only because it mentions a lot of facts. However, as an argument for their designer it’s as useless as all the others. Here are a few excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

It is well known that all of the fundamental constants of physics are finely tuned to make life possible in our universe … .

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! A more accurate (and unloaded) statement would be what everyone already knows: Life is possible in our universe. Granville continues:

What is not so widely noticed is that not only are the values of the constants of chemistry (the masses and charges of electrons, protons and neutrons, the strengths of the nuclear and electromagnetic forces, etc.) critical for life to exist in our universe, but the fundamental equation of chemistry, the Schroedinger equation, is itself critical for life.

Ooooooooooooh — the Schroedinger equation! That’s science! Then he talks about Planck’s constant. Even more science! He goes on and on like that, and concludes the essay with this:

Any of the changes listed — and others not listed — would fundamentally alter the nature of the solutions, and chemistry as we know it would not exist. The fundamental equation of chemistry appears to itself be fine-tuned.

What did he say that has anything to do with a supernatural intelligent designer? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Granville’s argument is no different than that of a little old lady whose proof of God is to point out the window at the trees, the grass, and the sky. “There’s your proof,” she says. Granville is doing the same thing, but he’s using a chemistry book instead of the view from a window.

The more we think about it, it seems to us that this fine-tuning argument has two very different aspects to it. First, they babble about the fundamental constants of the universe. Okay, but so what? Electrons are electrons, and they have a specific mass ratio compared to protons. And gravity has a specific value compared to the nuclear strong force. That’s all very nice, but there’s no way to demonstrate that anyone, or any thing, intentionally set things up this way.

But then their argument careens off in another direction when they talk about how wonderful our little planet is. It’s The Privileged Planet argument. Here, their argument is about how unique our world is. That’s very different from how the fundamental constants require uniformity regarding electrons and protons. How can our world’s uniqueness be part of the same argument?

And what’s so surprising about our world’s uniqueness? Every astronomical body in the universe is unique. Even the asteroids, which seem to be debris sloppily left drifting around after the designer’s work, are individually unique in their mass, composition, and shape. So what? And while we’re talking about uniqueness, what about our fingerprints? Everyone has different fingerprints. Does that suggest the intelligent designer is toiling away, like an engraver of plates for printing currency, fashioning each finger to be different from all others? The same is true of our genome — no two are identical.

Where does that leave us? All electrons are the same, therefore design. All fingerprints are unique and so is the Earth, therefore … what? Oh, therefore design. What kind of a theory is that? The Discoveroids say it explains everything, but as anyone can see, it explains nothing.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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38 responses to “The “Science” of Intelligent Design

  1. Good piece, but:

    “a respected newspaper”


  2. When creationists spout off about how the creator (blessed be he/she/it) “fine tuned” the universe or this planet for us, I’m tempted to paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane and point out that it’s far more likely that he/she/it did it for bacteria since we’re so well designed to host them. I can never figure out whether they are just wildly uninformed about reality or lying to collect cash from their followers.

  3. realthog says: “Really?”

    Yes. I always liked it.

  4. When you consider that Sewell is the best the Disco Tute has to offer, you realize how far the Disco Tute has sunk.

    Porky Pig would be a Nobel candidate compared to these guys.

    Buh-de, buh-de, buh-de that’s all folks!

  5. Pokes at ‘little old ladies’ are uncalled for. Some of my friends are little old ladies. ☺️

  6. CB,
    I agree; little old ladies are the only ones who will go out with me. The aging process has fine-tuned me for it.

  7. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
    Please note that according to this ID says that there is an explanation. It does not say what that explanation is.
    Saying that “Intelligent Designer(s)” are responsible for something does not constitute an explanation. Even if there were a good description of the designer(s).
    Saying that there is a fatal flaw in “an undirected process such as natural selection” is not a theory if there were such a fatal flaw.

  8. Right. The Tute’s official definition is an unsubstantiated assertion followed by a negative argument against evolution. They claim otherwise, but their definition is what it is!

    True IDiots all the way down.

  9. michaelfugate

    And natural selection is not undirected. Mutations most likely are, but selection is definitely directed – just not by an intelligence.

  10. The fundamental equation of chemistry appears to itself be fine-tuned.

    I wasn’t aware that the Schroedinger equation was the fundamental equation of chemistry. Did I miss something when I studied that?

    Then I tried to access his formula page for his own mathematical references for PDE2D his method and calculations, but the page came up blank. The evidence disappeared, the great designer is hiding it?

    None-the-less, for Granville Sewell’s monumental mathmatical efforts and astounding results, shouldn’t he be awarded the Nobel prize? Perhaps if the Nobel committee had access to the dishonesty institute’s site they’d realize the jewel they been missing and could accord this fellow their top prize in physics as well as recognizing his “evidence” that the universe was designed just for us (and no one else, well, but our animals are okay, too).

  11. Stephen Kennedy

    The values of the fundamental constants do not determine the nature of the Physics of the Universe, the Physics of the nature of the Universe determine what numbers the fundamental constants will take. The DI has the tail wagging the dog.

  12. A Man Said to the Universe
    By Stephen Crane

    A man said to the universe:
    “Sir, I exist!”
    “However,” replied the universe,
    “The fact has not created in me
    A sense of obligation.”

  13. I very much like Victor Stenger’s curt rejoinder: “The Universe is not fine-tuned to life; life is fine-tuned to the Universe.” IOW, the Discorrhoids are simply ignoring, among many other things, Orgel’s Second Rule.

    [Curmy, ninth paragraph, not counting quoted material: “His article seems to be scientific, but only because because it mentions a lot of facts.”]

  14. Mike Elzinga

    Granville Sewell’s life’s work on thermodynamics in a nutshell:

    “If you open the door to a room full of junk, a computer won’t self-assemble; therefore life was intelligently designed.”

    And with over 11 years of trying, the poor guy couldn’t even get the units right when plugging “X-entropies” into a diffusion equation. How can he possibly get Schrödinger’s equation right?

  15. William Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy actually contains a god of the gaps – “if we can’t point at a material designer using material means following material procedures then it must have been an immaterial/ supernatural/ transcendental one.”

    The nice thing about fine-tuning is that it is so close to the Anthropic Principles (there are several) that it sounds sciencey. See? IDiocy is science.

    “Why don’t the Discoveroids conclude that the universe was fine-tuned for those things?”
    Because teleology – which is the big difference between fine-tuning and all Anthropic Principles.

    “the fundamental equation of chemistry, the Schroedinger equation, is itself critical for life.”
    This equation expresses probability, so I suppose Sewell worships a god playing dice (thanks, Einstein).

    @DavidK: “I wasn’t aware that the Schroedinger equation was the fundamental equation of chemistry.”
    Perhaps not THE, but sure A fundamental equation.

  16. Con-Tester says: “but only because because it mentions”

    Thanks thanks.

  17. Oxymoron Alert: respected newspaper and Fox News. Doesn’t work especially when in court Fox News insisted on being defined as an entertainment division. My point being this article was basically low hanging fruit for the Discoveroids sort of like placing an article the local Church Gazette. It’s all part of a conservative bubble, not that liberals don’t have their own but Fox is just that more aggressive about promulgating their particularity jaundiced world viewpoint with the Discoveroids being the blunt point of the spear.

    Yeah, WSJ is that bad now.

  18. Great story, Megalonyx. Undeniable evidence of intelligent design.

  19. Funny that Schroedinger’s equation comes up here. That’s the one involving the uncertainty principle.

    As it happens, physicists have recently done some work on what the universe actually might be like with different fundamental constants, and guess what? It turns out that life might be possible with different values for those constants after all. And the concept of the “multiverse” (which is gaining support since it seems to be necessary o account for, among other things, the fact that “quantum computers” can be built) suggests that ours is only one of a huge number of universes with different physical constants and laws. (That’s where the uncertainty principle comes in.) If most of them are lifeless, so what? So are most planets in this universe.

  20. “Any of the changes listed — and others not listed — would fundamentally alter the nature of the solutions, and chemistry as we know it would not exist.” No, but chemistry as we do not know it would; and who knows what might happen? (Disclosure: I’m a chemist)

  21. It seems at least that the paradigmatic debate is moving from an argument about just explanations and mechanisms (eg natural selection versus 6-day creation) to one of fundamental hermeneutics (why there is anything at all in the first place). It might sound paradoxical, but I think it’s a kind of progress, awkward as it is. Creationism is on the back foot. The “fine-tuning” model invokes the anthropic principle. It’s about how the ontic interacts with the ontological which is the ultimate goal I think the scientific method aims at in the first place, without presumption though. The fact the creationists are resorting to “fine-tuning” to prove their Creator indicates they are at some level again aware of the ontological dilemma that the facticity of the existence of self-reflexive consciousness in a cosmos posits. Which is probably why religion was invented in the first place. And so, aware of the limits of invoking “god” qua explanatory principle. By returning themselves to square one – when the hermeneutic question that invokers of a creator becomes becomes obvious, we might end up moving on, just a little.

  22. Let us assume that there were a agent which up to the task of determining things like the number of dimensions of space and time. Would it be so much beyond that agent to make life in a universe which is not “fine tuned”?
    If the universe had life despite not being “fine tuned”, wouldn’t that suggest an agent not restrained by the laws of nature?
    For that matter, what if there were “fine tuning” but no life? What would that mean for the supernatural? Or the supernatural but no life, what would that mean for “fine tuning”?

  23. Given that ID is real then the evidence they look at should scream the conclusion that their ID is an Incompetent dumb assed maroon who should be fired from the job and black listed!!!
    I’ve made designs better then the ID idiot came up with!!! And I’m not even close to competent!!

  24. The idea of the “watchmaker” analogy for “design” sounds to me something which would fit the world view of an upper-class European before the Industrial Revolution.
    Upper class people get their goods from artisans. The artisans do all the work, designing, procuring the raw materials, making their own tools, producing the product and selling it to the customer. The upper-class owner of the object has no idea of what does on to provide him/her with it.
    Which is just as he/she wants it to be – that sort of knowledge is what there are tradesmen and artisans for.

  25. If the universe is fine-tuned, and if this is evidence of a transcendent designer (obviously transcendent because no designer could have emerged within a non-designed universe), then what would the parameters of the universe have been if a designer had not intervened? It seems to me that it is incumbent upon the IDiots to demonstrate this mathematically before they are justified in claiming design.

  26. @TomS has a good point: “an upper-class European before the Industrial Revolution.”
    William Paley did not belong to the upper-class (his father was headmaster) and lived during the Industrial Revolution (which started in England around 1750). The mindset required for the analogy betrays roots older than the IR though.

    @Roy restricts himself unnecessarily: “it is incumbent upon the IDiots”
    Not only IDiots – quite a few apologists – ie scholars – are fond of fine-tuning as well.

    In the Plantinga interview you have to scroll a bit. I could also provide a few Dutch sources, but I suppose you don’t read that language.
    Thing is, if you study both IDiocy (or rather let our dear SC do that job) and read apologetics you might very well conclude that the border between the two is so vague it’s close to non-existent. The big difference is that apologists claim not to reject evolution.

  27. Diogenes Lamp

    Sewell again demonstrates he cannot understand even the most basic physics. As Mike reminded us above, Sewell’s idiotic concept of “X-entropy” (basically Sewell multiples the Second Law of Thermodynamics into an infinite number of brand new “laws” allegedly governing the diffusion of each and every individual type of material) was based on Sewell moronically replacing the heat density in a 2LOT diffusion equation with densities of ANYTHING, which introduced a basic error of units: one side of the equation was “per calorie” and the other side was “pet kilogram” so the units don’t match. A basic, moronic error he has not corrected in 12 years. The first thing physicists learn about equations is “Check the units on both sides of the equals sign. They must be the same,” but Sewell thinks a second is a kilogram is a Fahrenheit degree. As the founder of real thermodynamics, Josiah Gibbs, said, “A mathematician can believe anything he likes, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.”

    And here again, Sewell demonstrates he doesn’t care about units not matching up:

    No doubt there were some universes which couldn’t produce life because their fundamental equation of chemistry looked just like the Schroedinger equation, but with first derivatives in space where there should be second derivatives, or a second derivative in time where there should be a first derivative, or the complex number i was missing, or the linear Vu term was replaced by a nonlinear term Vu2.

    Note that all the variant equations he imagines (except for the missing i) put different kinds of units on either side of the equals sign. Again, to Sewell, a second is a kilogram is a kilowatt is a pound per square inch.

    Any of the changes listed — and others not listed — would fundamentally alter the nature of the solutions, and chemistry as we know it would not exist. The fundamental equation of chemistry appears to itself be fine-tuned.

    No, there would BE no solutions, idiot. Math requires that the same units appear on both sides of an equals sign. There is no conceivable universe in which a second is a kilowatt per square inch, like in Sewell’s la-la land.

  28. Charles Deetz ;)

    Interesting that ID works equally well with different aspects of ‘the debate’: big-bang, abiogenesis, and evolution.

    I’m wondering myself why the fine-tuning and privileged planet still puts our planet in potential destruction due to meteors. Life was already nearly destroyed once.

    Likewise why the fine-tuning of life still has a lot of unintended carnage of disease, mutations, and immorality.

  29. This point about units had occurred to me too, but could be looked after by the dimensions pf whatever replaces Planck’s Constant.

    However, Sewell is even more seriously incorrect than this when he says that we could have had single derivatives instead of double derivatives, and that the Schroedinger Equation is in any sense fundamental. It can be derived from the classical energy equation (itself a consequence of time-invariance) by replacing quantities with operators, and the operators are derived from the kind of physics that is just beyond me but I’m sure many here are familiar with; involving “conjugate quantities”, like why the momentum operator is the partial derivative wrt position.

  30. Diogenes Lamp

    By my count the “Fine Tuning for Life proves Intelligent Design” argument has at least a half dozen fatal errors, each of which is individually enough to kill it, including God of the Gaps, False Dichotomy, Displacement Problem (“Who fine tuned the fine tuner?”), Bridge Hand Fallacy, Mud Puddle Fallacy (see Douglas Adams’ retort), and assumption of independent probabilities (the “AND” problem.)

    There is no fine tuning for life problem to begin with– before we even start looking for Goddidit explanations– because life adapted to the laws of physics, but the IDiots make up probability densities for the laws of physics being adapted to life.

    Moreover, scientifically it’s non-falsifiable. The amount of entropy in the early universe, and the amount of dark matter, are NOT fine tuned for life, but they didn’t falsify the hypothesis, did they? Because it’s non-falsifiable.

    And this is not even to mention the outright falsification of facts by ID proponents. E.g. When Casey Luskin talks about fine tuning, the first thing he always mentions is the very low value of entropy in the early universe — all that 10^130 stuff– but that’s not fine tuned FOR LIFE. It’s fine tuned, in the sense that it seems to have an unnaturally low value, but it’s not fine tuned FOR LIFE, because if it were many orders of magnitude larger or smaller, life would still be possible. Sean Carroll brought this up in his debate with WL Craig. Similarly for dark matter. No response from the IDiots.

    Curm, please pay attention whenever Luskin goes on about the low entropy of the early universe being fine tuned for life. He’s lying. Nail him.

    Now the IDiots are saying not merely that the laws of physics are fine tuned for LIFE, but that they are fine tuned for HUMAN life. Curm, you have written about this; do you know the first point in time when the DI slipped in the “HUMAN life” argument? That’s very sneaky.

    Soon they will claim that all laws of physics were fine tuned by God to make possible white male heterosexual Protestant Republican life with an income > $90,000 per year.

    Here is a succinct counter-argument. If the laws of physics were slightly different, it would be impossible to synthesize Zyklon B, and there would be no poison gas to be used in Hitler’s gas chambers. The Holocaust would never have happened. Clearly, IDiot logic proves that the Intelligent Designer fine tuned the laws of physics to make the Holocaust possible.

  31. Diogenes Lamp says: “Curm, please pay attention whenever Luskin goes on about the low entropy of the early universe being fine tuned for life. He’s lying. Nail him.”

    Why bother? It’s way too much trouble. I almost always ignore the details. Virtually everything they say is wrong, so it’s sufficient to focus on their bigger blunders. Besides, if the universe were truly fine-tuned for life, the stars would be alive. The galaxies would be organisms. The nebulae would be frolicking with each other. Instead, life is extremely rare, and as far as we can determine, it scratches out a living only in those freakishly few places where conditions allow it to evolve. We’re more like a contaminant than the grand purpose of it all.

  32. There is fine tuning for the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.

  33. Retired Prof

    Charles Deetz 😉 says, “Life was already nearly destroyed once.”

    Five times, actually, apparently caused by various mechanisms. The biggest one, the Permian Extinction 252 billion years ago, killed off 96% of genera. It seems to have been set up by material belching out of the bowels of the earth itself, although some do speculate that an asteroid impact precipitated the crisis. None of the encyclopedic sources I consulted mentioned a global flood as one of the culprits.

    In any case, it’s fair to say that the earth is at best intermittently fine-tuned for life.

    All part of the Designer’s fine-tuning, of course. Without the Permian extinction the particular array of Triassic life forms would have been impossible. Then the Triassic biota had to be pruned at the Jurassic boundary to make way for the kinds of dinosaurs that would rule the Cretaceous. These were in turn culled by the Chicxulub impact to only the bird lineage. The same operation also made way for us mammals to irrupt into a vast array of newly opened niches.

    Let us offer a prayer of gratitude to to our (old-earth) Designer and Fine Tuner. Without birds and mammals living at the same time, Thanksgiving as we know it would be impossible.

    In any case, we can take heart in the thought that our species is part of the Grand Design. We seem to be the ones the Designer is using to precipitate the sixth Great Extinction. Who knows what grand new array we are setting the stage for?

  34. The whole truth

    Here are some other things to consider: This planet (Earth) didn’t exist until about 4.5 billions years ago. Life on this planet is about 3.8 billion years old. This universe it at least 13.8 billion years old. That’s at least 10 billion years between the Big Bang and the first life on Earth. Humans have been around for the blink of an eye, and considering the ways in which humans treat each other and this planet, humans won’t be around for long.

    Of course there are many other things about this universe and this planet to consider and when all things are considered I think it’s safe to say that believing and claiming that this universe and this planet were/are intelligently/intentionally fine tuned by ‘God’ for the existence and benefit of life, and especially human life, is wishful thinking (to put it mildly) on the part of creationists.

  35. The fine tuning argument seems to me to be a subset of the argument from incredulity. Almost every proponent eventually comes down to some variant of “wow, imagine the odds against all this being exactly the way it is! It just can’t be accidental, it’s too amazing! Therefore, God!”

    A god that chunks asteroids at us occasionally just to keep things rolling along.

    Also, the god of the gaps argument figures into fine tuning in that we do not yet know what, exactly, triggered the big bang. For all we know, that triggering event may only produce universes like ours. Until we eventually work out the physics of that triggering event, apologists like the Discoveroids will fill the gap in our knowledge with their god.

  36. @Ed
    I don’t understand how so many people can fall for the argument which goes: X cannot be responsible for A therefore Y is. As you point out, They are saying that they don’t see how X cannot be responsible for A; and conclude that therefore it can’t. But even if they had irrefutable mathematical proof that X cannot be responsible for A, that doesn’t mean that X is responsible for A. Why not Z?
    (Maybe dark energy acting on dark matter can bypass the “2nd law of thermodynamics”? Can anybody disprove that?)
    And if that weren’t bad enough, nobody has the slightest clue about how how Y might be responsible for A.
    (What is the mechanism by which the supernatural crosses the gap between nature and supernature? Isn’t there some law against that? After all, If I don’t know how X/Y can be responsible for A, then it can’t, right? I know that humans are intelligent designers which cannot violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics, so how can any other intelligent designers do it?)
    Why does Y not lead to B? (What stops supernature from making something other than life as we know it?)
    Isn’t there some violation of poetic license in exceeding the density of fallacies?

  37. Obviously, I meant “don’t see how X can be responsible”. Too many double negatives. And “doesn’t mean that Y is responsible”.
    I hate to think of how many other typos.