Intelligence Without Design: A Third Way?

by John C. Snider © 2009

We’re all familiar with the debate: either the universe was created by an intelligent creator, or it’s the result of natural forces and random happenstance, with no purpose or direction except that which we give ourselves.  In other words, Intelligent Design vs. Scientific Naturalism.

But maybe there’s a third way.  Maybe it’s all the result, not of Intelligent Design, but of Intelligence without Design.  That’s the central thesis of an essay by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, published last month in Guernica Magazine.  Joel Kramer is the author of the 1974 self-help book The Passionate Mind, and describes himself as “an early innovator in the modern American physical and mental yoga.”   Kramer’s life partner Diana Alstad is a feminist and teacher of women’s studies.  The essay “Intelligence Without Design” is part of their new book The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness, an update of Kramer’s book.

Kramer & Alstad (I’ll call them “K&A” for short) rightly point out that “most people have a hard time believing that existence appeared out of nowhere.”  They’re also right that, frustrated by the absence of a quick, easy, comforting answer from science, people turn toward religion.   This isn’t exactly a rousing endorsement of religion, since it implies that people turn to it out of fear and confusion.  It has nothing to do with truth.

K&A accuse science of rejecting purpose in explanations of the universe; of course, this isn’t strictly true.  Science merely dismisses as irrelevant those explanations of purpose that are unsupportable by evidence.  K&A correctly summarize of the scientific view that, given the inherent structure and laws of the cosmos, life, and then consciousness are statistically probable in the right local circumstances.  K&A dismiss scientific complexity theory as “purely statistical, and also purely retrospective in its assumptions.”  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  Finally, K&A conflate science with scientism, “the unscientific hope that one day science will answer all the important questions.”  Now, I don’t subscribe to scientism, but I can’t help pointing out that, in the four or five centuries since the emergence of the scientific method, mankind has expanded its knowledge exponentially, whereas religion (and the kind of New Age spiritualism K&A embrace), in that same period of time, has more or less been spinning its wheels.  So which would you pin your hopes on?

K&A also attack traditional Creationist/Intelligent Design explanations, arguing that any explanation involving God “merely moves the mystery of existence back a step.”  Even worse, it’s a trap of infinite regression that makes things worse because it “makes the mystery much bigger because it is totally invisible and unreachable.”  “The arguments from design are deeply flawed, say K&A, “…yet many people deeply, and we believe rightly, intuit that life and consciousness must stem from something more than arbitrary chance, randomness, and mechanical causality.”  In other words, wishful thinking is somehow an explanation of purpose in the cosmos?

Instead of science with its “strict methodology” and “circular definitions,” or Intelligent Design and its death-spiral of infinite regression, K&A propose “a super-conscious intelligence that emanates from the whole of existence and is immanent within it…an intelligence that is within the construction of existence.”  You read right.  After torturing the definition of intelligence (to exclude “conscious intent”) and conflating design (an action implying intent, or an object exhibiting tell-tales of having arisen from intent) with structure (which can arise without intent), they conclude that evolution is “‘spirit’ embedded in matter, moving it toward form, emergent complexity, life and eventually self-reflecting experiencing.”  Wha-huh?  Five pages of sophistry about immanent super-conscious intelligence, and the best they can come up with is “spirit”?  K&A also try to redefine spirit, saying “Although we take exception to the traditional meanings of spirit, we do call this underlying urge or vector ‘spirit’ because it cannot be explained or described by the laws applying to matter.”  Well, if it can’t be explained or described by the laws applying to matter, it’s utter BS.

Finally, K&A coin a new term for their “theory”–possibilism.  It sounds like something out of a bad episode of South Park, but they define it as a sort of special case of optimism, a belief that “humanity has real possibilities and extraordinary untapped social potential.”

Frankly, I think Kramer and Alstad are barking up a very wrong tree, but if you have time, go read their essay and judge for yourself.

“Intelligence Without Design” makes for an entertaining read, but it’s ultimately a useless and unhelpful distraction from the battle royale that is already raging between those with a scientific bent and those who can’t stand the thought that it’s all for nothing and when we die, we die.  Positing an unprovable, untestable, unfalsifiable “unconscious intelligence within the universe” might make for good space opera, but it makes for an poor explanation that’s no more plausible–and even less attractive–than the theistic alternative.

This entry was posted in astronomy & space, books, evolution, new age, science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *