For countless generations humankind has pondered our place in the universe. Inevitably that pondering came from a personal perspective, and saw humankind as the centre of things. In the early 17th century the great thinker Galileo was put under perpetual house arrest for challenging this with the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. His crime was to state that the earth went around the sun, as opposed to the alternative popular belief.
Central to humankinds endeavours is the question how did we get here and where are we going? As soon as you ask this question you find yourself in a junction on the road of thinking. One path is the one based on religion. We are here because a God, or Gods deemed it appropriate and usually that God or those Gods are all seeing and all powerful.
Another path was opened up by Charles Darwin, when in 1859 he published the Origin of Species. That seminal work is the basis for today’s conventional thinking that our presence here is the result of random events with specific outcomes known as natural selection.
The third path is that of intelligent design. The father of intelligent design is William Paley, when in 1802 he asked the question: “If a man is walking on a heath and he comes across a stone it is logical for him to consider the stone has been there for ever. However if he comes across a watch he is entitled to think there must have been a watch maker.” In philosophical debate this is referred to as the Watchmaker Analogy. The analogy is that the stone is earth, made from rock and the watch is nature, the mechanisms of nature and a watch being the two most complicated systems in Paley’s life. It needs to be noted that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is still 57 years from being published.
While I have described this as a junction with three paths they are not mutually exclusive. In fact Darwin subscribed to all three, perhaps to avoid Galileo’s fate. He put it that the path to our current situation was in fact by natural selection, however the master plan or ground rules were already in place, a clear case of intelligent design, and that design was Gods. So Darwin believed in God as the watchmaker who designed and built the watch, then stood back to allow it to run its own course.
How does all this play out today? Intelligent design has to some extent being high-jacked by Fundamentalist Christians as a way of giving some sort of scientific validity to their Christian beliefs.
Let me take us back to philosophical considerations, there is a concept known as contestability. This states that for a theory or concept to be considered to have merit it has to be contestable. If it cannot be contested or questioned it should be rejected. So how do our three paths stack up when given this test? Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been tested countless times and has stood up to those tests. Judea Christianity has also been the subject extensive theological study. However that study looks at religious texts and while confirming those texts and dissects the content of them it never tests the core beliefs of the existence of God. For instance the Bible is a form of redaction that Christopher Hitchens emulated when he wrote ‘The Good Book’. Like the Bible a text giving advice on how best to lead ones life, but unlike the Bible refutes the existence of deities. Lastly Intelligent Design is not contestable, so fails as a valid theory. It fails because as Elliot Sober say’s, all it does is add the term “this is the result of intelligent design” to anything that is not understood, a process that is far from contestable.
So where does this leave us, for me there is the challenge of gaining knowledge, what a mundane world it would be if mankind had all the answers. On the eve of 2013 I hope the new-year sees us focus on using our intellect to gain knowledge, while appreciating the beauty that surrounds us in both nature and the arts. And may your New Years Resolution become a reality.