Sunday, September 11, 2005

And Now for Something Completely Different
I haven't figured out how to secede yet, but I still want to. I am planning to spend the day in a football coma, and there will likely be no posts here until late tomorrow night or Tuesday due to travel. But here's something that's been sitting in the can for a while to tide you over in the interim.

I heard somewhere the other day that the edge of the observable universe is something like 14 billion light years away. That doesn't mean the universe is 14 billion light years across or anything--it's just the limit of our sight in any direction. What it actually means is that the universe is about 14 billion years old.

Down here on the ground, nobody knows how many different species live on Earth. Something like 2.1 million species have been classified, but there could be many millions more, and that's only counting this moment in time. There have been five different mass extinctions in the last 450 million years, which wiped out anything up to 95 percent of the species extant at the time. Some scientists think that 99 percent of all the species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.

Figures like these are often trotted out to explain why the universe just simply had to be designed by somebody who set out to do that very thing. Something so complex couldn't have come about through wholly natural processes--as William Paley famously put it 200 years ago, if we find a watch on the ground, we naturally assume that it was made by a watchmaker, and so we should also assume that our complex universe was made by an intelligent designer.

There's nothing in intelligent design theory that explains the nature of the "watchmaker" who put the universe together--although the majority of people pushing to have it taught in American public-school science classes are Christians, and many of those posit a very specific sort of God, who hates sin, rock music, and Democrats. A lot of those believers think that the Earth was whipped up in a bit less than a week some 6,000 years ago, and that fossil evidence which would contradict that figure was placed there by the devil. Some Christians, notably, the Catholic Church, accept the concept of "theistic evolution," in which evolution is the process by which the world has reached its current state. Such denominational differences demonstrate why intelligent design, if it ever gains wide acceptance, is destined to be torn apart by the same schisms that have wracked Christianity for 1500 years to little good purpose. (For purposes of this argument, I'm not much interested in the creation myths of other religions--it's the Christian view of the question that has the most impact on people in this country, whether they're believers or not.)

Having forgotten most of what I learned in Sunday school, I consulted a few Christian websites to find out precisely why God is supposed to have created this unimaginably complex universe in the first place. The answer seems to be that God created it for his own glory, mostly, all the better to create a feeling of awe amongst human beings when we contemplate it. And so lots of Christians look at the astounding size of the universe and think, "Wow, that's so glorious that God really must be great, all right." But if the universe as it is was created in part to create a feeling of awe amongst human beings, does it really need to be as big and complex as it is?

There really is a point in all this ramble: Unlike proponents of intelligent design, I think the unimaginable age and complexity of the universe is a fine argument for the lack of a designer. Why would the designer need to make galaxies no one could see until a few decades ago in order to impress the desert-dwellers of the 9th century B.C.? Why would he need to make microscopic life forms that went extinct before the invention of the microscope? If the universe really was designed by some intelligence, his project management skills leave a little bit to be desired. A designer who would whip up a creation whose size and age are measured in un-graspably vast numbers, and then populate one insignificant corner of it with people who average less than six feet tall and live only 70 years, seems to be going to a lot of unnecessary trouble. Intelligent design only makes sense if the universe really is 6,000 years old--and then you've still got the complexity issue. Why do we need so many species, some microscopic in size, some that live in areas humans can barely reach? On the scale of cosmic time, the average human being views the universe as if he were passing by a keyhole at high speed for only a second or two. It seems to me that we could be rendered awe-stricken by a lot less.

(Anyone reading this far who thinks the argument can be resolved by saying "God has his purposes and we are not intended to know them" is reading the wrong damn blog. Consider yourself whacked over the head with a large scientific tome, and then go away.)

Far from representing an awful bowing--and I mean "awful" in the old sense, "full of awe"--before the wisdom and glory of a creator, believing in the intelligent design of the universe seems to glorify humanity more than it glorifies God. It permits people first of all to take credit for figuring out the purposes of God--which in the next breath they're fond of saying we're not meant to know. And it also raises us above the level of other species, not only on this planet but in the universe. Quite an egotistical act, really.

The idea that the universe as it is was created through natural processes over billions of years is, to me, awesome enough without worrying myself over the existence of some entity who made it happen. It has the added benefit of taking the human ego out of the picture--and human ego has gotten us in plenty of trouble since our forebears grew legs and crawled out of the seas. So I'm inclined to trust natural explanations for why we're here--if only because they lack the prejudice that can come from overrating your own importance.

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