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Skyhooks and Cranes: Deepak Chopra, George W. Bush, and Intelligent Design

I begin by addressing Deepak Chopra's commentary on Intelligent Design here and on Larry King.
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I begin by addressing Deepak Chopra's commentary on Intelligent Design here and on Larry King.

First, Deepak, are you aware that you appeared on the cover of Skeptic magazine several years ago, in which we did an extensive analysis of the science behind your quantum theories of consciousness? Just wondering (I'm the publisher).

Second, I always appreciate your candor and empathize with your frustration when faced with evangelical Christians who cannot seem to see beyond the narrow confines of their belief system; but at least you believe in god, of sorts--imagine how we atheists feel when appearing in public with evangelicals blustering on in their Jesus-o-centric view of the cosmos!

Third, as for your comments on ID and questions for evolutionary biologists, I offer this one general response: in his 1996 book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett presents a clever metaphor of skyhooks and cranes. Skyhooks are top-down devices to build complex machines when you can't think of how they could be built by ordinary bottom-up cranes. Skyhooks are always snuck in when one cannot figure out what crane did the job and how. IDers, like their creationist brethren before them (and the natural theologians before them all the way back to William Paley and his watchmaker argument), turn to the skyhook because they cannot think of how the crane of evolution did the job.

Well, I think in your own way you too are trying to sneak in a skyhook when you turn to "consciousness" as an explanation for anything, in this case elements of complex life. Some of the questions you pose have been answered, some have not, and some are in various stages of completion. But just because we cannot at the moment explain some particular complex phenomena such as bacterial flagella, Cambrian body plans, or even consciousness, does not mean that we must abandon the crane of naturalism and turn to the skyhook of supernaturalism.

As for our President’s alleged endorsement of Intelligent Design, he didn’t. The media hyped it and everyone heard what they wanted to hear. There was considerable media hype over the story, and I did a number of interviews, including a live debate on CNN with lead Intelligent Design theorist William Dembski. Here’s what actually happened. On Monday, August 1, Bush gave an interview at the White House to a group of Texas newspaper reporters in which he said that when he was governor of Texas “I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.” When a reporter asked for his position today on whether ID is a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution, Bush wisely equivocated: “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.” Well of course, but that’s a different question.

Our President was simply being politic in his choice of words. In fact, Bush’s science adviser, John H. Marburger 3rd, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times that “evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology” and “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.” He added that the president’s comments should be interpreted to mean that ID be discussed not as science but as part of the “social context” in science classes, and that it would be “over-interpreting” Bush’s remarks to conclude that the president believes that ID and the theory of evolution should be given equal treatment in public school science courses.

When a reporter from Time magazine asked for my opinion about whether one can believe in God and the theory of evolution, I replied that, empirically speaking, yes you can, the proof being that 40 percent of American scientists profess belief in God and also accept the theory of evolution, not to mention the fact that most of the world’s one billion Catholics believe in God and accept the theory of evolution. But then this reporter wanted to know is if it is logically consistent to believe in God and the theory of evolution. That is, does the theory of evolution—if carried out to its logical conclusion—preclude belief in God? This is a different question. My answer appeared in truncated form in an Opinion Editorial that ran in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, August 7, under the title “Why God’s in a Class by Himself.” Here is my longer answer.

You can believe in God and evolution as long as you keep the two in separate logic-tight compartments. Belief in God depends on religious faith. Belief in evolution depends on empirical evidence. This is the fundamental difference between religion and science. If you attempt to reconcile religion and science on questions about nature and the universe, and if you push the science to its logical conclusion, you will end up naturalizing the deity, because for any question about nature—the origins of the universe, life, humans, whatever—if your answer is “God did it,” a scientist will ask, “How did God do it?, What forces did God use? What forms of matter and energy were employed in the creation process?” and so forth. The end result of this inquiry can only be natural explanations for all natural phenomena. What place, then, for God?

One could argue that God is the laws and forces of nature, which is logically acceptable, but this is pantheism and not the type of personal God to which most people profess belief. One could also argue that God created the universe and life using the laws and forces of nature as his creation tools, which is also logically fine, but it leaves us with additional scientific questions: which laws and forces were used to create specific natural phenomena, and in what matter were they used? how did God create the laws and forces of nature? A scientist would be curious to know God’s recipe for, say, gravity, or for a universe or a cell. For that matter, it is a legitimate scientific question to ask: what made God, and how was God created? How do you make an omniscient and omnipotent being? Finally, one could argue that God is outside of nature—super nature, or supernatural—and therefore needs no explanation. This is also logically consistent, but by definition it means that the God question is outside of science and therefore religion and science are separate and incompatible.

One more analogy may help make the point. In my January, 2002, Scientific American column, entitled “Shermer’s Last Law,” I modified Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “Third Law” (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) thusly: Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God. God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we fall far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who, relative to us, has them in copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. And if God is only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition God would be an ETI!

Therefore, when Intelligent Design Theorists use science to go in search of their God, what they will find (if they find anything) is an alien being capable of engineering DNA, cells, complex organisms, planets, stars, galaxies, and even universes. If we can engineer genes, clone mammals, and manipulate stem cells with science and technologies developed in only the last half century, think of what an ETI could do with, say, 10,000 years of such science and technology. For an ETI a million years more advanced than us, engineering the creation of planets and stars will be doable. And if universes are created out of collapsing black holes, which some cosmologists think is highly likely, it is not inconceivable that a sufficiently advanced ETI could create universes at will.

Since IDers say they make no claim on who or what the intelligent designer might be, I contend that if they continue to try to reconcile their religion with science the end result can only be the discovery of an extra-terrestrial intelligence and the naturalization of their deity.

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine (, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of How We Believe, The Science of Good and Evil, and Science Friction (Henry Holt/Times Books).

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