Does Life Reveal an Intelligent Design?
I sometimes listen to Chuck Colson on weekday mornings when Christian Family Radio plays his 'Breakpoint' speech. One recent topic that particularly irked me was the belief that life shows an intelligent design and therefore that is a proof that there is a God.
I find the fossil record to be very interesting, almost as interesting as the investigation of the complexity of the current life forms that Chuck might be referring to.
The oldest life forms that have been found as fossils are very simple. The fossils are found in very old rocks but obviously there is no written record of their environment that some radio listeners might claim as proof they cannot be proven to exist. However, from the analysis that can be done, it seems that their environment was much simpler than now, probably so harsh that no more complex creatures could have survived.
The fossils for later life forms reflect more complex organisms. Similarly, their environment had become more complex, capable of supporting the higher life forms.
The fossil record indicates there are transitions that occur from time to time. Many life forms will die, often in a very short period of time, while new life forms arise. For example, about the time that the dinosaurs became extinct, the mammals began to thrive. Similar transitions have been documented in the fossil record. The theory of catastrophic evolution addresses this fossil record: that major environmental events will cause major changes in the mix of life forms on the earth.
The early years of our planet would have been very harsh, probably very hot, little or no water, perhaps little or no oxygen. As the planet cooled and the initially simple life forms evolved, that interaction of those life forms with the earth's atmosphere was able to chemically change the earth's environment, though very slowly. The later evolution of plants enabled the carbon dioxide to be replaced by oxygen. These environmental changes enabled the more complex life forms.
I suggest that it is the complexity of the environment that results in the complexity of its life forms.
The fossil record indicates that variations of life forms often start a pattern that is abruptly halted. Other variations might have very little connection to their ancestors. Now consider this observation in light of the biblical perspective on this matter of design, or what one might call 'the Master Plan.'
I am an engineer that has worked with manufacturing processes and computer software programs. If this fossil record is the result of a master plan then it is the result of very poor design practices. In my view of this 'intelligent design', I see that products (i.e., the life forms on the earth) are begun and then scrapped while others are started fresh rather than just a minor adjustment to previous products. The designer seems to never complete his designs before beginning the production of the end product. Only after the item is in production are changes made, and then sometimes the product is scrapped rather than just improved. If all of the earth's life forms were added to the planet at the same time (in the year 4004 BC?), then 'the Master Plan' reflects a single design cycle. However, the fossil record indicates that the mix of life forms changes over the eons. In either scenario, very poor design practices are used throughout.
Perhaps 'the Master Plan' is really God's 'Hobby.' The earth is just the playground for a hobbyist (God) where life forms are left to thrive or perish over some period of time (until boredom sets in?) and then God adds a new set of life forms to the mix. This new set can be similar or different than previous sets, perhaps these decisions are based on just the whims of the hobbyist. (I think there are computer games with this concept of 'playing God' by experimenting with life forms to see how well they survive.) I do not believe that the universe is really subjected to the depressing scenario being contemplated here, by me or the listeners of Chuck Colson.
This 'Master Plan' idea arises from the confusion between complexity and design. I wholly acknowledge that a person is a complex organism. The human body with its nervous system to inform the brain (a wonder in itself), its digestive system to provide energy for the organism, its circulatory system to sustain it, the muscular system to move it, and the skeletal system to hold it all together is incredible but it exists. Every system just mentioned also exists in other life forms on this planet but often in a different or less complex organism. Just because the human body is complex does not mean that it took a God to create it. Also, just because it is complex does not mean that its evolution was an extreme statistical improbability (or impossibility), which is a similar argument to the 'Master Plan.'
In any case, it has been shown that many of these other life forms preceded the human existence. Also, many other life forms share biological attributes with humans; for example the mouse has similar metabolism so it is used for testing health-related products for human use. Any human body part (e.g., an eye, an ear, a nose, an elbow, a toe, a stomach, a liver, an intestine, a brain, a male or female genital, etc.) will have a counterpart to be found in other animals. Does this mean that, in the 'Master Plan,' all the other life forms (now or in the past) were just God's test bed for the human body?
A side comment: I find it interesting that there is such a variety of characteristics for people, including thin or fat, tall or short, smart or not, athletic or not, etc. With an intelligent design, I would think the goal should have been some type of optimum person. Also, many people have handicaps that place restrictions on their activities; examples are birth defects, eyesight problems, digestive disorders, problems that worsen with age (like arthritis). There seem to be many inconsistencies (or flaws?) in this intelligent design.
The book of Genesis in the Bible states the world was created in just six days. If that is truly the case, then why are all those fossils in the ground?
I see one of two answers to the question: What are these fossils?
1) They really are the remains of the previous life forms on this planet.
The fossil record provides clues as to the evolution of life on earth.
The story in the book of Genesis is just a myth. After comparing similar myths among other ancient cultures, it has been proposed that the mythical story is about the dissolution of the ancient planetary arrangement when Saturn, the king of the Gods, left his home at the center of the sky and ascended into heaven. The story of the six days involves the changes in the earth during this transition from when all was dark, then there was light, and slowly all life recovered from the global disaster.
2) God has played a cruel prank on us and the fossils are not remains of life forms.
These fossils are just bogus artifacts that God inserted into the ground and the measurement of the age of a rock (or its contents) is always wrong. God is trying to humiliate those that seek the reasons behind life. Since God is trying to confuse those that seek to investigate our history, God must want people to be remain ignorant of how/why life exists on earth.
If this is the case, then I suggest the Christian Family Radio listeners who agree with this conclusion must certainly have an odd perspective on modern life, certainly not of the 21st century (the 1st century perhaps?). Man should have remained just a hunter/gatherer and lived a simple life with no ambition. It appears that God's 'Design' must have gone astray many years ago since mankind along the way has developed an intelligence that questions such basic matters as the origin of life.
I have heard (on Chuck Colson's Breakpoint) that the believers in the literal Creation need to have their views included in the classroom. That might be rather uncomfortable for the teacher trying to impress upon his/her students that science involves the investigation of facts, or at least theories that have backing of known physical evidence. The creationist views interfere with that development of scientific discipline. When weather is discussed, the teacher can describe the views of a meteorologist - that the collision of cold air with unstable warm humid air can result in thunderstorms along the frontal boundary. Those views would be countered with the creationist view - aren't the works of God wonderful? When biology discusses the investigation of heredity, the teacher can reveal how a child's eye color can be traced to the parents. Those views would be countered with the creationist view - aren't the gifts of life from God wonderful? When psychology describes the importance of early childhood education, the teacher can reveal how the quality of time spent in those years can have a significant impact on adult intelligence. Those views would be countered with the creationist view - aren't the gifts of life from God wonderful? When biology reveals that whales still have the remnants of hind legs in their anatomy, the teacher can discuss how this reveals part of their ancestry found in the fossil record. Those evolutionist views would be countered with the creationist view - aren't the animal creatures created by God wonderful?
I once read (and I cannot recall the source) that an alternate interpretation of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden is that it was written by members of the hunter/gatherer culture. The changes in society that resulted in farming, including the cultivation of crops and the management of domesticated animals, were taking on an aspect of God: the management of life. When the life in paradise was lost or, in less mythical terms, when the plentiful uncultivated food became scarce and the pleasant climate changed, the hunter/gatherer group felt that the loss of paradise was due to the God's punishment for the attempt at farming - trying to be like 'God.' Their simple way of life had been irretrievably lost and they chose to assign blame to a group within their society rather than to assume the environmental changes had nothing to do with cultural changes.
I am not sure whether that is a valid interpretation of Genesis but I find it applicable here. The ancient myths certainly influence our understanding of ancient events. This second answer to the fossil question implies a belief that mankind should not sample from the biblical tree of knowledge, that tree whose fruit Adam and Eve sampled and then were banished from Eden.
This second answer is so depressing a conclusion that I cannot fathom how a person of any level of education could accept it. I believe that no one ever takes the fossil debate to this conclusion but this is where it should end for the believers in the 'Master Plan.' In the days of widespread illiteracy (just a few hundred years ago), most churchgoers could be expected to believe whatever was taught by the more educated. In the current times, when most complete high school and many complete college, most will question what is taught, to make sure that the teaching make sense. College graduates tend to be more agnostic than those that do not graduate, because they can see the inconsistencies of the teachings that have persisted for so many years.
For some reason, even though high school biology (which should be standard in most schools) teaches the concept of an ecosystem, it seems that the concept is not understood by many. The ecosystem includes many different life forms and they interact to maintain the system. If one life form grows too many in numbers, there is often another that reacts to that growth, keeping the system in balance. According to the fossil record, the ecosystem on Earth started with very simple life forms. As the life forms became more diverse, and as the environment became more hospitable, the ecosystem became more complex. As plants developed, they also affected the environment (such as adding more oxygen to the air) and contributed to the subsequent diversity. There are now theories that the Earth might have been struck by large asteroids, having a devastating effect on the global climate resulting in the decimation of many species. As the ecosystem recovered from the catastrophe, many changes in the life forms resulted, including an observation that many species became extinct while new ones became dominant. This development of an ecosystem does not indicate the 'hand' of an unseen God. The ecosystem is a 'system' that adapts to its environment as well as changes within its constituency.
This world of ours has a very complex environment that has spawned very complex organisms, including the human being. With our capacity of high intelligence, we are capable of much good or much bad. I am hoping that we can work together to make our future even better than we can imagine.
Christian fundamentalists that are also creationists seem to want to have their contradictory beliefs presented as believable. On one hand God created our world (in six days). We live according to God's plan. Everything that happens is according to God's will. God knows everything and He is all-powerful. On the other hand, whether someone will go to Heaven or Hell upon one's death depends on the acts of one's life. The contradiction in the two views seems to missed by the believers. If everything happens according to God's will, then our destiny is already determined upon birth. In this scenario, everyone is really just an actor in a play, with the script written by God. When someone does good deeds, they are performed because God wanted them done. When someone commits acts of violence, they are performed because God wanted them done. There is no human accountability or responsibility in this scenario. This renders our human existence meaningless.
Complexity does not have to imply design. Snowflakes can possess an intriguing amount of complexity and symmetry. Yet crystals, like snowflakes, can also form in different conditions in a laboratory environment. Do all crystals require the hand of God to form or do they form naturally? Diamonds are an impressive natural creation . Do they require the hand of God or just nature? I can remember growing up and seeing the fascinating shapes created by 'Jack Frost' on a cold window in winter. Is God the Jack Frost or are these wonders from a natural process. Clouds have many different forms, based on the altitude they form. Cirrus clouds, among the highest, often have very interesting wispy patterns. A thunderstorm cell is a complex natural feature, with winds that build its shape as well as developing the charge differential that results in lightning. A category 5 hurricane is another impressive natural feature, a devastating whirlwind.
Two footnotes to consider:
First, human beings are usually considered to be the highest life form on this planet. I believe (and the reader can contemplate the ramifications, here and on other planets): if the complexity of life is always a reflection of its environment then life more complex than a human being should be expected in a more complex environment (where the level of complexity is the number of unique life forms).
Second, I have read several authors that theorize that man was seeded on earth by an alien civilization. That theory seems to conflict with the relationships present on this earth. Man's skeleton is rather similar to that of apes. Man's metabolism is somewhat similar to that of the common mouse - making that animal useful for testing various products prior to human exposure. I believe I read that man's skin is more similar to that of a porpoise than an ape. There are probably many other similarities between man's physiology and other animals. Given those relationships, I find it difficult to believe that they are all just coincidences if man were introduced onto this planet. (Perhaps all these similarities is why the 'intelligent design' concept comes up but I addressed that above.)
created - April 2001
last change - 12/11/2004
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