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The Emperor’s New Designer Clothes

Reality Check

Victor Stenger

Volume 10.4, December 2000

Intelligent Design is the latest buzzword in the so-called dialogue between science and religion. The claim is made that scientific data cannot be understood naturally, that is, without gods or spirits, but require the additional element of divine purpose. In the minds of at least some of the proponents of Intelligent Design, the evidence in support of their position has become so strong that they demand, in the name of fairness, that it should become part of science texts and taught in the K-12 science curriculum. Scientists who raise objections are denigrated as “dogmatic” preachers of the religion of “scientism.”

This is all smoke and mirrors. Intelligent Design arguments amount to just one more set of variations on the argument from design. The Intelligent Design movement, despite protestations to the contrary, is nothing more than stealth creationism, yet another effort to introduce the particular sectarian belief of a personal creator into science education.

The argument for design of the universe is, of course, ancient. What is new here is the wrongful claim that this philosophical and theological argument is now supported by conventional science. This assertion appears on several fronts. In cosmology, for example, the Big Bang is cited as evidence that the universe had a beginning and thus a supernatural cause.

Here I will focus on another aspect of Intelligent Design that has received considerable media attention. It is regarded by theists as a great scientific breakthrough that makes the existence of divine purpose in the universe virtually irrefutable.

In his 1998 book Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999) and other published works, William Dembski asserts that he can mathematically and logically prove, from modern information theory, that life and the universe cannot possibly be the result of natural processes and chance. Thus, the argument from design has donned yet another set of clothes. However, as we will see, these new duds are almost as transparent as the Emperor’s, scarcely hiding the naked creationism that lies below.

Dembski derives what he calls the law of conservation of information. He argues that the information contained in living structures cannot be generated by any combination of chance and natural processes. Neither mechanism, he insists, is capable of increasing information.

Dembski uses as his quantity of information what in information theory is called Shannon uncertainty. This equals the number of bits that are needed to transmit a signal communicating a message, irrespective of the content of the message. A more conventional definition of information, consistent with the vernacular use of the term, is the decrease in Shannon uncertainty under the action of some process. If fewer bits are needed to describe the system after the process, then information about the system has been obtained. In any case, this is just a matter of definition.

More important is Dembski’s law of conservation of information, which states that the number of bits of information cannot change in any natural process such as chance or the operation of some physical law. As he explains it, “chance and laws working in tandem cannot generate information.” Since the universe contains information, that information must have come about by other means that he labels Intelligent Design. While he insists that this argument does not depend on any specific theological assumptions, his book unabashedly promotes his interpretation that the design inferred is the work of the Christian God. Indeed, the whole Intelligent Design movement is being more than a bit disingenuous when it claims that it has no religious agenda. I do not know of a single participant who is not a Christian and one only has to look at their Web pages to learn about their “wedge strategy” to get Christianity into science.

Now, it turns out that the Shannon uncertainty and the physicist’s entropy are identical within a trivial constant, a point that Dembski either does not recognize or chooses to hide. As is well known, entropy is a measure of “disorder.” The Shannon uncertainty is likewise a measure of the disorder in a signal, applied in communication theory.

In physics, the second law of thermodynamics specifies that, on the macroscopic scale of many-body processes, the entropy of a closed system cannot decrease. Thus Dembski’s law of conservation of information is nothing more than “conservation of entropy,” a special case of the second law that applies when no dissipative processes such as friction are present. This is a rare occurrence in everyday phenomena.

In fact, entropy is created naturally a thousand times a day by every person on Earth. Each time any friction is generated, information is lost. When Dembski says that information cannot be generated naturally, he seems to be voicing yet another muddled version of the common creationist assertion that the second law forbids the generation of order by natural processes. Like his predecessors, he ignores the caveat “closed system” in the formal statement of the second law. Open systems can and do become more orderly by their interaction with other systems.

For example, Earth is ordered by the action of energy from the Sun. The Sun provides for the generation of order on Earth, including that contained in living organisms.

Whenever a drop of water freezes into an ice crystal we observe the creation of order by a “mindless” natural process. We don’t need fancy information theory to tell us that. We can see it with our own two eyes. Dembski’s law of conservation of information and the rest of Intelligent Design are not just pseudoscience, they are wrong pseudoscience.

Victor Stenger

Victor J. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. His latest book is The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity. His previous books include Not By Design, Physics and Psychics, The Unconscious Quantum, and Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes.