Posted by: Dan | October 13, 2006

Intelligence and Naturalism

As often happens when I am preoccupied, I haven’t been posting much on the two stated purposes of this blog: cells and birds. Instead, when taking breaks from writing, I’ve been checking in with heated discussions in the blogs that I follow.

One such discussion began on Telic Thoughts with MikeGene quote-mining Dawkins on the origin of life (OOL), and has since devolved into a discussion on naturalism, science and (im)plausible explanations for the OOL. In my opinion, it starts to get interesting here – or at least that’s where I rejoin the conversation after a few days absense. My point:

This is the pattern that we HAVE observed in human and scientific experience regarding the history of the Earth: natural chemical, geological and biological processes have natural origins obeying laws and axioms that we can still observe today.

This is the foundation for the philosophy of naturalism, aka science. An extended exchange with Bradford, who doesn’t have a friggin’ clue, ensues. I “dumb down” his views to a short summary:

So to sum up your point of view, the philosophy that nature and reality has to obey the laws of nature is a religious belief system.

Like I said, not a clue about the philosophy of science, the practice of science, or much of anything that’s reality-based. My impression is that he fervently believes in the logic of the Wedge Strategy, while not understanding its implications fully.

The glimmer of interesting discussion comes from Krauze, who brings up an oft-repeated comment on intelligence. Beginning by asking whether I thought that my intelligence, applied to typing in comments on my laptop’s keyboard, could be considered natural. Of course. This was a lead-in to the following comment:

So, when you talk about our universal experience with natural laws, that doesn’t actually preclude intelligent design at the origin of life, considering that intelligence can be perfectly natural.

Sneaky. And of course he’s right, intelligence can be a naturalistic phenomenon. But intelligence is an attribute known only in sentient, biological forms. How, by the laws of nature (be it chemistry, physics or other), could there have been “intelligence” ~4 billion years ago? What had such forward-thinking awareness? Or even the merest purpose, motivation, or raison d’être?

Sure, there are possibilities: panspermia (the notion that the first life on Earth arrived as extremophiles on comets, asteroids, etc., and isn’t a very intelligent mode for the OOL) and aliens (a science fiction farce if you ask me). That’s about it I think.

The alternative is that a higher power (e.g. God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Gaia, Odin, or whatever diety you might choose) intervened and breathed life into the primordial soup. This is where the synonymous nature of “Design” and “Creation” come into play.

Simply put, Design/Creation may have happened, but it doesn’t even remotely match what science has taught us about natural history. Krauze can focus on Intelligence (what intelligence is this that you speak of?), or he can focus on Designing (how could Design not be equivalent with Creation?), but he’s still solidly in the domain of speculative fancy.

Update: Krauze still doesn’t get my point, so I’ll try to make my point more clear:

The point of all my “sneaky” questioning was simply to get to the point that, for all the time spent discussing it, the philosophy of naturalism actually provides remarkably little resolution to the discussion over intelligent design. Concede, for the sake of argument, that all events in the universe are caused by completely naturalistic processes, and you can’t rule out intelligent design behind the origin of life, just as you can’t rule it out when it comes to the statues of Easter Island, prime numbers transmitted through narrow-band radio transmissions, or texts written on dinky little blogs about intelligent design.

Daniel’s post on “Intelligence and Naturalism” does nothing to displace this conclusion, but instead changes the subject to to talk about designer-centrism, asking the same ole’ questions about who and where the designers are.

Once again, sure, sentient intelligence in the prebiotic world is possible. But then again, biomedical research, computer networking, and rocket science are possible in the prebiotic world too; none of that makes such natural phenomena in the prebiotic world a rational proposition.

And if I’m asking the “same ole’ questions about who and where the designers are,” it’s for a very good reason: the notions of either intelligence or designing/engineering of early life are ad hoc and baseless. Just think for a moment what would be required for this: A biomolecular engineering lab. In the the prebiotic world. Run by whom? Aliens? Time travelers? Silly concepts, right? – which is why I argue that the OOL was manufactured by natural means is possible, sure, but it’s a science fiction farce. Another alternative is that a higher being did it, “breathing life” into the primordial soup – which, I argue, is a reasonable theological argument, but not something that any respectable application of deductive reasoning would call scientific.

Similar permutations are usually the “God of the Machines” view that a higher being manipulated the prebiotic soup, or the Lamarckian view that pre-biotic chemicals “willed” themselves to assemble into biomolecules and cells. There is no natural or empirical basis for any of the above possibilities raised by the “same ole’ questions,” which is why I use terms such as baseless.

Occam’s Razor – that the simplest possible explanation is usually the correct one – applied here, suggests that Descent With Modification is the mechanism by which chemicals gave way to replicating biomolecules and cells.


  1. Smallest genome clocks in at 182 genes

    Time to revise all those IDiot claims about minimal genomes, let alone the conditons for what qualifies, and what environment it must survive in.

    I just saw a very intersting seminar by Kevin Peterson on The Phylogenetic Distribution of Metazoan microRNAs: Insights into Evolutionary Complexity and Constraint

  2. Ibet if you posted something about “Intelligence and Naturism”, you would get more responses.

  3. Could you spell out explicitly why you think extraterrestrial intervention in the early Earth is just a “science fiction farce”? Does this dismissal have a scientific basis, or is it simply based on gut feeling?

  4. What I mean by “science fiction farce” regarding alien intervention in early Earth is that it is ad hoc speculation, which I find no reason to take any more seriously than UFOlogy in modern times. Such a concept has never been disproven per se, and it could be true for all we know, but it seems exceedingly unlikely and rather silly.

    All of these notions of extraterrestrial life among us here on Earth seem like the product of an overactive imagination.

    So, to answer your question, it was a gut instinct comment.

  5. Could you spell out explicitly why you think extraterrestrial intervention in the early Earth is just a “science fiction farce”? Does this dismissal have a scientific basis, or is it simply based on gut feeling?

    There is no evidence for it. Science says: you make the claim, you provide the evidence. Burden of proof. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Occam’s razor. However you want to word it.

    All the evidence we have points to a single origin for all the varieties of life on this planet. The next step would be to specify if one were proposing that the space aliens put that first life here, or whether they intervened from time to time to keep it going. There is no evidence for either. Requirements for what went on in the pre-cellular days are still a big unknown, and after that, there is a workable solution in evolutionary theory.

    This would push back the origin of life in the Universe. Life as we know it on Earth today requires a mix of various elements that may not have existed too early in the Universe, it had to wait for at least the first round of ‘carbon stars’, etc.

    There are a few books on “panspermia”. See for example Life Itself by Francis Crick on directed panspermia, or Lifecloud by Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe on undirected panspermia. The latter explores the formidable logistics that would confront directed panspermia. If you read any of these, please understand that panspermia is not widely accepted in the scientific community, and seek out viewpoints on it from more conventional sources.


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