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Intelligent Design in a Modern Vedic Context

By: for ISKCON News on Feb. 6, 2019
Opinion
Photo Credits: New Statesman

 

Presented at The Consciousness in Science Conference, Gainesville, Florida, January 20, 2019. (To learn more about the conference visit: https://www.consci19.org)

Consciousness is our most immediate experience. Yet, when it comes to studying consciousness beyond one’s own conscious experience, we can only study circumstantial evidence. One such category is studies of the symptoms of conscious action on events or physical objects. This is known as the argument from design.

An argument from design refers to the inference that a feature cannot be explained as solely the result of physical processes or attributed to chance, but is due to conscious activity. Such inferences are commonplace. For instance, archeologists study flints to see if everything can be explained as the result of natural geological processes, or if certain features, such as a series of parallel strikes, must be the result of conscious activity. If archeologists conclude the latter, they can be said to have infered ”design” or ”intelligent design”.

Design arguments applied to nature and the universe are old stuff within philosophy, theology and science, tracing back into the pre-Christian Western world, as well as being found in other contexts, such as India’s tradition of Vedic philosophy. Appeals to design have generally been used to substantiate the existence of a Deity, adding a controversial feature to design arguments.

Cicero (106–43 BC) wrote:

“When you look at a picture or a statue, you recognize that it is a work of art. When you follow from afar the course of a ship, upon the sea, you do not question that its movement is guided by a skilled intelligence. When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artefacts themselves and their artificers?” (1) 

Similar arguments were made by Socrates and Plato and other Greeks, by Augustine, Aquinas and other Christian scholastics, and by founders of modern science such as Bacon, Kepler and Newton. Newton: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the councel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” (2) 

The term ’intelligent design’ has also been known in the West for centuries. Even Darwin used it: “One cannot look at this Universe with all living productions and man without believing that all has been intelligently designed; yet when I look to each individual organism, I can see no evidence of this.” (3) 

From Scientific American in 1847: “Where must we look for this fountain but to the great store-house of nature — the innumerable and diversified objects there were presented to our view give evidence of infinite skill and intelligent design in their adaptation to each other and to the nature of man.” (4) 

Oxford scholar F.C.S. Schiller wrote in 1897: “It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of Evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.” (5) 

Even Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-developer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution, came to believe that “a Higher Intelligence” (6) guided the process. 

Design Arguments in India 

Another ancient and rich philosophical tradition is the Vedic tradition of India, which arguably is even older than the Western, and design arguments are commonplace. Sankaracarya (app. 800) wrote:

“In the case of such things as a lump of earth or a stone, no power of contrivance is seen, but the design of special forms out of such things as clay is seen when they are superintended by potters and the like. In the same way, Material Nature transforms itself only when connected with a superintending, external intelligence.” (7) 

According to Udayana (app. 900): “Whatever possesses a cause, like a chariot, is dependent upon a prior intelligent causal agent. Similar in character is this world; therefore it is dependent upon a prior intelligent causal agent.” (8) 

Ramanuja (1017-1137) criticized design arguments for their limitations. Some have even drawn a parallel to Hume’s later criticism of design arguments. Ramanuja stated that one cannot conclude the designer is God, who is omnipotent, benevolent, etc. There may be many designers, or maybe they are limited, imperfect or not even transcendental. But Ramanuja still did see that design arguments have their place to counter materialistic ideas. Thus he argued against the atheistic Sankhya philosophers:

“The Pradhana [nature] you Sankhyas affirm is not competent to produce the arrangement of this variegated world, for it is non-intelligent and not superintended by an agent understanding its essential nature. So it is in similar situations, just as wood and other materials by themselves are incompetent to construct a chariot or palace. From observation we know that unconscious materials like wood not superintended by an agent who knows their nature fail to bring about effects, and also from observation we know that materials produce effects when supervised by a knowledgeable agent. Thus the Pradhāna unsupervised by a knowledgeable agent cannot be the cause [of the world].” (9) 

In the 18th century Baladeva Vidyabhusana wrote:

“Material nature is inert; as such it cannot be the cause of matter, neither as the material nor as the efficient cause. Seeing the wonderful arrangement and management of the cosmic manifestation generally suggests that a living brain is behind this arrangement, for without a living brain such an arrangement could not exist ... In our practical experience we never see that inert bricks can themselves construct a big building.”10 

In the 19th century Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) embraced traditional Vedic design arguments to show that Hinduism is in essence also monotheistic:

“We see the multifarious, wonderful universe, as well as the birth, existence, and annihilation of its different parts; hence, we naturally infer the existence of a Being who regulates the whole, and call him Supreme: in the same manner as from the sight of a pot we conclude the existence of its artificer.” (11) 

More examples could be given. Suffice it to say that design arguments have always been a stable amongst Vedic philosophers.

The Modern Intelligent Design Movement

Today design arguments are back with renewed force by the emergence of an intelligent design movement (ID) that 

over the past generation has captured attention. Some detractors are denouncing it as a veiled Christian movement of Biblical literalism but not everyone agrees with this pronouncement. As seen from the above, design arguments have never been the monopoly of any one particular religion or worldview. Quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Dr. Brian Josephson stated recently:

“I believe that intelligence may play a role in how evolution has occurred. One of the big mistakes of those who attack intelligent design is to regard evolution and God as mutually exclusive, so they say that someone who believes in intelligent design doesn’t believe in evolution, but that’s not the case. The statement “creationism disguised as science” is a totally false view of what has happened ... Let’s see what science can tell us; that’s what intelligent design is.” (12) 

Also, if ID had religious premises, how could the famous English until then atheist Anthony Flew have changed his mind and become convinced by ID that “the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design ... Nothing critics can say — whether appealing to politically motivated condemnations of ID issued by pro-Darwin scientific authorities, or harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents — will change the fact that intelligent design is not a ‘faith-based’ argument.” (13) 

The chemist Dr. Charles Thaxton who became an early advocate of intelligent design, stated: “The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now include many modern scientists who describe themselves as religiously agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source.”14 

The term “intelligent design” was coined in its present usage by the British cosmologist Dr. Sir Fred Hoyle. In 1982 he stated, “If one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.” (15) 

In By Design,16 journalist Larry Witham traces the roots of the intelligent design movement in biology back to the 1950s and ’60s, and the movement itself to the 1970s. Biochemists were unraveling the secret of DNA and discovering an elaborate information processing system that included nanotechnology of unparalleled sophistication. One of the first to describe the significance of these discoveries was chemist and philosopher Dr. Michael Polanyi, who in 1967 argued that “machines are irreducible to physics and chemistry” and that “mechanistic structures of living beings appear to be likewise irreducible.” Polanyi also wrote: 

“Information in the DNA can no more be reduced to chemistry than the ideas in a book can be reduced to ink and paper; something beyond physics and chemistry is encoded in DNA.” (17) 

Biochemist Michael Behe would later develop Polanyi’s insights with his irreducible complexity. And mathematician William Dembski would find Polanyi’s work so influential that he set out to develop a mathematical criterion to be able to infer intelligent design with certainty which ended with his “specified complexity”.

Thus today the design argument is back with renewed force, partly due to the scientific evidence of molecular biology, partly due to theoretical advances by design theorists. Dembski thus argues that his statistical criteria of ”specified complexity” or ”specified small probability” is a sure indicator of intelligent design. He argues that if an event exhibits both a very small probability and at the same time corresponds to an independently given pattern (a ”specification”), one can with certainty infer design.

Previously design arguments were analogies where one feature known to be designed and another feature of unknown origin were compared and similarities were used to argue for the design of the latter. This argument was mainly intuitive for the question is, ”What does actually constitute sufficient similarity?” Two objects may have similarities but also show some differences (otherwise they would be identical objects) so how does one decide whether the similarities justifies a design inference or the differences speaks against it? This was Hume’s critique of the argument from analogy.

Dembski claims that Hume’s critique has been rendered void by the criterion of specified complexity. Whereever this trait of ”specified complexity” is found one can, according to Dembski, be mathematically sure that its origin is an intelligent cause. This criterion can be applied to detect design in any field. Proponents of intelligent design are quick to point out that life as well as the universe itself are rife with examples of specified complexity. Thus the argument for design has found a new strength and relevance.

Design in a Modern Vedic Context 

Parallel with the emergence of the ID movement other groups of scientists with roots in Vedic philosophy have developed similar design arguments. One such group of scientists are centered around A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1896-1977) who himself was a strong critic of materialistic views including Darwinism. In 1973 he founded his Bhaktivedanta Institute (BI) which attracted scientists such as chemist Dr. Thoudam Singh and mathematician Dr. Richard L. Thompson. Already in 1976, Thompson stated, refering to the newly discovered bacterial flagellum:

”We’d like to argue that the chance and molecular forces theory won’t explain things like this, but to say that there is an intelligent designer would be a sensible explanation.” (18) 

Subsequently a number of publications have come out from the BI arguing for design as a better explanation for the origin and history of life. These include Mechanistic and non-Mechanistic Science by Richard Thompson, Darwin’s Secret Identity by David Webb, Origin by Richard Thompson and Michael Cremo, Forbidden Archeology also by Thompson and Cremo, Human Devolution by Cremo, Nature’s IQ by Istvan Tazi and Rethinking Darwin by myself.

Although the modern “Vedic” design arguments arose somewhat independently of what later became the ID movement, they have naturally included many of the well-developed arguments and exampes from the ID scientists. At the same time BI has also developed unique arguments inspired by Vedic philosophy, such as arguments about paranormal research, near-death experiences, reincarnation memories, the phenomenon of inspiration, and instincts and behaviours in animals defying simple natural explanations. Thus the modern Vedic inspired design arguments carry in some ways a unique approach while at the same time drawing fully on the insights of the broader ID movement.

 

* * *

1 Cicero, "The Nature of the Gods," [1972], McGregor, H.C.P., transl., Penguin: Harmondsworth UK, 1986, reprint, pp.158-159

2 Sir Isac Newton, Principia, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1966, p. 544.

3 Letter from Charles Darwin May 23, 1861 to J.F.W. Herschel. 

4 Scientific American, Volume 2, Issue 48, p. 381, (August 21, 1847).

5 F. C. S. Schiller, Darwinism and Design Argument, in Humanism: Philosophical Essays, 141 (F. C. S. Schiller, New York, The Macmillan Co. 1903). This particular essay was first published in the Contemporary Review in June, 1897.

6 Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates the Origin of Species, An Anthology of His Shorter Writings 33-34 (Charles H. Smith ed., Oxford University Press 1991).

7 Quoted from C. Mackenzie Brown, The Design Argument in Classical Hindu Thought, International Journal of Hindu Studies 12(2):103-151, January 2008.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Quoted by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami in his translation and commentation of Caitanya-caritamrta, Adi 6.14-15p.

11 Ibid. as 7.

12 See https://evolutionnews.org/2017/12/10-of-our-top-stories-of-2017-nobel-laureate-is-80-percent-confident-in- intelligent-design/

13 From https://evolutionnews.org/2015/12/ten-dover-myths-7/

14 P. William Davis, Dean H. Kenyon and Charles B. Thaxton, Haughton Publishing Company 1993, p. 161.

15 Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space (The Omni Lecture) (Enslow Publishers 1982), p. 28.

16 Larry Witham, By Design: science and the search for God, Encounter Books, April 2003.

17 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

18 Richard L. Thompson, lecture in Washington DC, July 3, 1976. 

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