Thursday, September 24, 2009

Emergent or Intelligent?

Skeptics propose unusual explanations for the origin of apparent design and complex function in physical and biological systems. One of the most incredible of these is a hypothetical proposal called “emergent properties.” In a 2006 article, Chicago Tribune science writer Ron Kotulak stated, “But to emergent properties scientists, it is clear that all things from the very beginning—atoms, molecules, and so on, up to living organisms—do their own ‘thinking’ without any outside help. They communicate, process information and form new unions, acquiring capacities that are unpredictable and greater than the sum of their parts.”

Emergent properties scientists do not hold the upper hand, even in the community of naturalistic scientists. Most biological scientists prefer a more reductionistic approach. That is to say, biological processes can be explained by more predictable chemical and physical laws. To the more mainstream scientist, saying that something mysterious or mystic is going on in life processes would smack of the discredited idea known as vitalism. For example, vitalism would posit that the behavior of living things is explained in terms of a vital force or essence unrelated to simple behavior of molecules, or the predictable effects of known forces.

Nevertheless, a few prominent scientists like Carl Woese of the University of Illinois have fueled emergent properties fires by assigning communication abilities to atoms, molecules, and living cells. Woese claims life originated in this way possibly millions of times in the past. He states, “Organization is something that evolves from within. It is the nature of the universe to organize with the passage of time.” In some specific respects this statement possesses some truth: sequential events in cosmic history do indeed follow a progression and are impelled by nature’s laws--dust clouds cool, condense, and eventually solidify. The real questions, however, run along these lines: did lifeless atoms really think, communicate, process information, and form new unions all by themselves? Is intelligence an innate property of inanimate matter? And is there, then, no warrant for belief in a supernatural organizing agent and supernatural intelligence apart from matter itself?

Woese and his colleagues were beneficiaries of a $5 million National Science Foundation grant in 2005 to finance study of emergent properties as the model for cosmic change. In my opinion, this is a model of imagination and speculation with little if any supporting evidence. Believing in emergent properties is tantamount to endorsing a mystical religion, and yet it pretends to explain order, design, communication, consciousness, and life itself. The NSF study is funded by your tax dollars and mine. Promotion of even-handed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of naturalistic evolution theory as well as design theory is deemed to be motivated by religion and denied. I encourage all Christians and Christian educators to become aware and informed of the various strategies of naturalists and to study how they may coherently defend transcendent biblical creationism