139 “No Free Lunch”


One of the most self-evident propositions is this:  from nothing comes nothing.  Similarly self-evident is the observation of Thomas Reid, the great 18th century Scottish common sense philosopher:  “From marks of intelligence and wisdom in effects, a wise and intelligent cause may be inferred.”  To establish such eminently reasonable propositions, a number of erudite thinkers have launched the “intelligent design” movement, intent on refuting naturalistic theories of origins with the increasing evidence provides us by contemporary science.  One of the most articulate and aggressive proponents of this view, William Dembski, recently sets forth his position in No Free Lunch:  Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (New York:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., c. 2002). 

The book’s initial paragraph replicates Aristotle and sets the agenda:  “How a designer gets from thought to thing is, at least in broad strokes, straightforward:  (1) A designer conceives a purpose.  (2) To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan.  (3) To execute the plan, the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions.  (4) Finally, the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials.  What emerges is a designed object, and the designer is successful to the degree that the object fulfills the designer’s purpose” (p. xi).   Few question the clear evidence of design in houses and cars, hybrid corn and computers.  But the big question Dembski wants to answer is this:  does creation–both the cosmos and the living world we inhabit–indicate a similarly clear, rational design.

He argues that of the three proposed cosmological explanations–necessity, chance, design–the latter makes most sense as “a legitimate and fundamental mode of scientific explanation” (p. 3).  This becomes evident as he sets forth “specified complexity” as a “third mode of explanation” when dealing with empirical data.  A ball rolling off a roof, for example, necessarily falls to earth as a result of gravity’s tug.  A ball breaking a window, as a result of an errant and unexpectedly long hit in a sandlot baseball game, is largely due to chance.  A series of balls (curves, sliders, fast balls) thrown by a pitcher, consistently hitting the strike zone, leading to a no-hitter, nicely reveals design.  Intelligent, well-executed effects illustrate “specified complexity,” the trademark of design.

To defend his position, he explains and rejects alternative explanations.  This involves intricate mathematical formulae and discussions of probability far beyond my ability to fathom.  What is clear is Dembski’s conclusion that “the universe is too small a place” for random events, following the law of probability, to produce the world we confront.  Citing one scientist’s work with proteins, for example, he shows that for accidental collisions of particles to produce “proteins of length 200” (p. 84), the universe would have to be almost infinitely old instead of current estimates of 10-15 billion years.  When one fully understands the incredibly complex information we find in tiny cells, to say nothing of truly complex organisms like ourselves, it takes an almost irrational faith in “chance and necessity” to insist that everything that exists is a result of purely natural, irrational causes. 

But that, of course, is the strongly entrenched scientific mindset, evident in an assertion by Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin in The New York Review of Books:  “‘We take the science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism [i.e., naturalism].  It is not that methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated'” (pp. 370-71). 

Such counterintuitive commitments, Dembski argues, explain the “‘free lunch'” form of magic in which it is possible to get something for nothing” (p. 367).  Almost precisely like Medieval alchemists, convinced they could transform lead into gold, today’s scientists propound even more fanciful notions.   Learned cosmologists “claim that this marvelous universe could originate from quite unmarvelous beginnings,” and biologists reduce the mystery of life to simple mechanical processes (p. 368).  Neurologists claim that the human brain is nothing but the accidental result of a “cobbled together” process that “gave rise to human consciousness, which in turn produces artifacts like supercomputers, which in turn are not cobbled together at all but instead are carefully designed.  Out pop purpose, intelligence, and design from a process that started with no purpose, intelligence, or design.  This is magic” (p. 369). 

Rather than resort to magical explanations, Dembski urges us to weigh the evidence, the evidence for a world packed with information, that prods us to grant that such a world not only appears to be but actually is intelligently designed. 

Dean L. Overman, an attorney who served as Special Assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and wrote several law books, is one of the nation’s best thinkers in finance and banking, employs some highly mathematical arguments in A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization (New York:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., c. 1997).  Alister McGrath, an eminent English theologian, says:  “This is a well-argued and immensely readable engagement with some profound questions centering on the origins of our universe and ourselves.  Overman’s clear and informed arguments cast serious doubt on the plausibility of the naturalist approach, and reopen the case for divine design.”  One of his German counterparts, Wolfhart Pannenberg, agrees, writing in his Foreword:  “This book argues persuasively against the assumption that the origin of life and the origin of the universe can be accounted for as random events.  According to Overman, it is mathematically not possible to derive the origin of the high level of information necessary for organic life in terms of random fluctuations in pre-organic processes” (p. xiii).   

In his Preface, Overman notes that he “never intended to write this book” (p. xvii).  As a lawyer he had little interest in cosmological and theological debates.  However, he had devoted his life, as a lawyer, to ascertaining the “logic and the validity of premises, inferences and conclusions as they relate to an examination of evidence” (p. xvii).  By chance, however, he read an article describing the Miller and Urey experiment that led him to write a letter objecting to some of its assertions.  That letter led to more study and more writing, and ultimately to this book.  As he studied, he soon realized that “Many otherwise rational persons make unwarranted conclusions which are not based on evidence, but are made in the absence of evidence and contrary to mathematical probabilities because of their faith in the ideology of materialism” (p. 1). 

To free one from irrational ideologies, Overman prescribes logic!  This lead him to explain, in a very understandable chapter, the value of “verbal and mathematical logic.”  A valid syllogism–ab universali ad particulare valet–provides as much certainty as is available to us.  Conversely, invalid syllogisms–a particulari ad universale no valet consequential–lead one astray.  Mix in various fallacies–exptrapolating from limited data to unwarranted inferences, equivocations in the use of words, hidden assumptions (often buried in mathematical formulae), circular reasoning, post hoc, ergo propter hoc–and you have the tools with which to detect erroneous reason.

Logical errors abound, Overman shows, whenever molecular biologists declaim theories explaining how living beings emerged from lifeless matter, because “proponents of the origin of life by accident or chance processes rarely make the mathematical calculations of the probabilities which lie at the foundation of their hypothesis” when in fact “the odds are so overwhelmingly against” it (p. 31).  After showing that “life” is best defined in terms of non-material information, he demonstrates how “chance” or “random abiogenesis,” so routinely cited in biology textbooks, simply cannot account for it.  “The information filled molecules of life are much more complex and structured than previously thought, and calculations of the mathematical probabilities of unguided, chance processes forming life call the theory of accidental abiogenesis into question” (p. 40). 

The Miller-Urey experiments, often cited to explain life’s origin, ignored the fact that oxidizing conditions in the early earth’s atmosphere would have prevented it.  The “prebiotic soup” often credited with incubating life, surely would have left some deposit in ancient sedimentary rocks, but no trace of abiotic compounds appears.  As Herbert Yockey explained it:  “‘the absence of evidence'” is the “‘evidence of absence'” for the prebiotic soup” (p. 47).   Miller and Urey simply manipulated elements known to constitute life in a test tube, ignoring the extraordinary mathematical improbability that such an event could have accidentally happened.  “To paraphrase Louis Pasteur, in experience only life produces life” (p. 49).  

The best current estimates, dealing with the age of the earth and the emergence of life, indicate that “only a maximum of 130 million years were available for random processes to produce life.  Calculations of mathematical probabilities unequivocally demonstrate that it is mathematically impossible for unguided, random events to produce life in this short period of time” (p. 51).  To illustrate this, Overman takes a passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth containing 379 letters.  The mathematical probability of these 12 lines being accidentally typed is 26379  or 10536, an incredibly improbable number, given that “there are only 1080 atoms in the known universe” (p. 55).    Twelve lines from Shakespeare are relatively simple, however, compared to a simple cell.  Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramsinghe calculated the odds involved in accidentally producing a simple bacterium at 1040,000–an utterly impossible event.  As Wickramsinghe noted:  “‘The chances that life just occurred are about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and constructing a Boeing 747′” (p. 60).  

Then, even if you grant that life could have appeared by chance, the odds against it developing in such profusion during the short time allowed on earth defies all logical canons.  The various complexities of the living world, especially evident in our growing grasp of DNA and RNA, reinforce the words of Michael Polanyi:  “‘all objects conveying information are irreducible to the terms of physics and chemistry'” (p. 88).  The non-material information that’s important in such molecules is markedly different from their  material sugars and phosphates. 

Moving from the microscopic realm of molecules to the macroscopic world of he universe, the same truth stands clear:  the world is intricately designed.  Though controversial when first set forth, few physicists today question the “Big Bang” beginning of the cosmos.  An incredibly dense point, of quarks and leptons, exploded and hurled into space all the matter that makes the universe.  Studying the intricate balance of strong and weak forces, gravity and thermodynamics, grasping mind-bending theories such as the superstring theory, with its ten dimensions, makes one cognizant of the intricacies of our world.  Astronomers and physicists, calculating how it could all happen within 10-15 billion years, increasingly rule out purely material chance and necessity. 

In fact, when all the factors are figured, the probability of the universe simply taking its present form is calculated as “on part in 1010(123)–”an extraordinary figure” (p. 140) impossible to even fully write down.  It even looks as if the whole universe was designed for us!  Freeman Dyson, one of the finest physicists of the 20th century, noted the “fine tuning of the universe” by saying:  “‘The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming'” (p. 159).  More theologically, Dyson said:  “‘God is the Creator with a plan and an intention for the existence of the entire universe.  The very structures of the universe itself, the rules of its operation, its continued maintenance, these are the more important aspects of creation'” (p. 167). 

This is a well-argued, persuasive treatise.  Even though Overman, on a very high level, deals with mathematical and scientific matters, he almost always explains things in ordinary language and easily guides the reader through some tangled thickets.  Unlike scientists and theologians, who often make assumptions simply as a result of residing within a certain intellectual arena, lawyers like Overman bring to the discussion a fresh spirit of inquiry, an ability to get at the essence of the question, and a lack of concern for how their presentations will be received by the academic guilds that tend to stifle unorthodox views. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For readers not quite ready to plow through the heavy mathematical and scientific material in the two books reviewed above, William Dembski and James M. Kushiner have edited a collection of essays, Signs of Intelligence:  Understanding Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, c. 2001).  These essays originally appeared in a special issue of Touchstone (a monthly “journal of mere Christianity” that I highly recommend for its staunchly orthodox stance, committed to the tradition extending from Athanasius to C.S. Lewis).  The essays in this book are short, to the point, and written for the general reader.  Contributors include some of the guiding lights of the Intelligent Design movement, such as Dembski, Michael Behe, and Jonathan Wells, as well as gifted analysts like John Mark Reynolds and Patrick Henry Reardon. 

In chapter one, Phillip E. Johnson, for years a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the Intelligent Design movement’s challenge to naturalistic evolution.  Something of the progenitor of the movement, announced in Darwin on Trial more than a decade ago, Johnson’s forte is clear explanation of terms and carefully reasoned argument.  He never pretends to be a scientist, but he insists that scientific claims be made rationally, with demonstrable evidence and coherent logic.  Indeed, he believes that “Once it becomes clear that the Darwinian theory rests upon a dogmatic philosophy rather than the weight of the evidence, the way will be open for dissenting opinions to get a fair hearing” (p. 26). 

The dogmatism of Darwinism stands clearly illustrated in a statement by   Francisco Avala, former president of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, who put it this way:   “‘The functional design of organisms and their features would therefore seem to argue for the existence of a designer. It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent. . . .  Darwin’s theory encountered opposition in religious circles, not so much because he proposed the evolutionary origin of living things (which had been proposed many times before, even by Christian theologians), but because his mechanism, natural selection excluded God as the explanation accounting for the obvious design of organisms'” (p. 146). 

Avala’s assertion, Robert Dehaan and John Wiester insist, is “monumental.”   He, and folks like him, present evolution not as a process explaining observable changes, such as the variations in finch beaks Darwin observed.  Ayala is making vast metaphysical claims, crediting “natural selection” for the existence of all that is.  He also dismisses any notion of “intelligence” in the cosmos.  There’s no order or logic to creation, since all comes about through chance.  “In the pre-Darwinian view, life was planned and purposeful. In the Darwinian view, life arose and evolved solely by what Ayala calls ‘the creative duet of chance and necessity,’ without purpose or a “preconceived design” (p. 146). 

Statements such as Avala’s enable Philip Johnson to point out the difference between “materialistic science,” the philosophically entrenched worldview (“naturalism”) that prevails in the modern academy, and “empirical science,” the openness to data that leads to hypotheses equally open to experimentation and testing.  The dogma of materialistic science, as Nancy Pearcey shows in her essay, is fully evident in the opening sentence of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:  “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”  Nothing else matters because matter is all there is.  And yet, when read carefully, Johnson shows, materialists like Sagan routinely invoke invisible (and thus possibly non-material) factors such as agency and reason to explain things.