Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Teaching Intelligent Design in the Schools

From a letter by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823:

On the contrary I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it's [sic] parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to percieve and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it's composition.

The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with it's distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.

We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it's course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.

So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro' all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.

Surely this unanimous sentiment renders this more probable than that of the few in the other hypothesis.

Well, such sentiments certainly have no place in science classes in our public schools! Perhaps they could be slid into philosophy classes, but there really aren't any.

How about American History, then? Just a thought...


Kristo Miettinen said...

Actually, one piece of this definitely belongs in science class, namely "were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos". I have previously, elsewhere, commented on Hume's similar intuition about the consequence of deterministic laws, what we today call "heat death". This was not scientifically known at the time, which makes the observation so interesting: another example, as with Democritus and atoms, of reason reaching "scientific" conclusions before scientific method reaches them.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Y'know, Kristo, I liked that one too, and can't recall hearing the the argument framed like that anywhere else.

Entropy, the universal law and fact that all things break down, from stars to human beings, is defied by the life principle, the self-organization of matter.

Our own star and planet is made of second-generation matter that introduces heavier elements like carbon and oxygen and uranium (!). First-generation stars are hydrogen and helium and not much else. Only when they go nova are the heavier elements produced. The heavier elements are necessary for life as we know it. Hydrogen and helium are kinda blah.

Or as Joni Mitchell put it, we are stardust, we are golden...

[Gold is one of those heavier elements, too. For better or worse.]

I also liked Jefferson's argument that theists historically have outnumbered atheists a million-to-one. This proves nothing, but must make one wonder if, as St. Augustine put it, whether when it comes to God, our hearts are made for Thee.

Seems human beings are wired that way, although The God Delusion might be the greatest viral meme of all time, as some argue. Still, we must counterquestion why we are all so susceptible to such a virus, which brings us back to Augustine once again.

Phil Johnson said...

That might work in a class on the study of the history of scientific thinking. Jefferson certainly had such a bend.
Jefferson's thinking in this letter represents a stage where the best minds were at in the eighteenth century. Way too much has gone over the damn and under too many bridges for us to discuss it as such today. Intelligent design is based on those mind sets of history. But, the idea that we should take that thinking as science itself just doesn't cut it today.

Anonymous said...


Thomas Jefferson was very smart; he could easily have seen through the political concoctions of our day and returned us to the real issues as those of faith and choice.

Intelligent design/creationism is not only cherry-picked science, it is faulty theology as well. Startling as it may seem, by continually protesting that “blind” chance could only lead to “accidental evolution”, all denialist forms of creationism contradict the Bible's clear teachings that chance occurrence in the universe (randomness), is always under God's direct control!...Oops! Try this:

It's called: "Intelligent Design Rules Out God's Sovereignty Over Chance"

Tom Van Dyke said...

The story of Fred Hoyle and carbon atom is so much more full of wonder, awe, and mystery...

Open minds reap rewards

Fifty years ago, an American nuclear physicist was accosted by an English astronomer with a preposterous prediction. Marcus Chown reports on the results---

The man was talking garbage. Willy Fowler knew this because he was an experimental nuclear physicist and nobody could do what the man, Fred Hoyle, was claiming: predict the energy of a complex atomic nucleus. An atomic nucleus was a "many-body system", with protons and neutrons buzzing about inside. Physicists could not calculate the precise properties of anything bigger than a "two-body system" such as the moon going round the Earth.

Yet here, sitting in Fowler's office at Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Lab, was a Limey astronomer claiming he could do what no nuclear physicist could do. And what was more outrageous was that the prediction was based not on considerations of nuclear physics but on an argument the likes of which Fowler had never heard.

"I exist," he was sure Hoyle said, "therefore the carbon-12 nucleus must possess an energy level at 7.65 megaelectronvolts (MeV)." Hoyle was convinced that the nuclei of the atoms in our bodies - the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen that fills our lungs each time we take a breath - were assembled from the simplest nucleus - hydrogen - in the furnaces of stars.

In the first step, four hydrogen nuclei would collide and stick together to make a nucleus of helium, the second-lightest atom. In the second step, two helium nuclei would stick to make a nucleus of beryllium-8. Only there was a problem: beryllium-8 was unstable, splitting apart one billion billionth of a second after forming. The route to building the heavier atomic nuclei essential for life was blocked.

The year before, in 1952, Ed Salpeter, a researcher in New York, had pointed out that the beryllium barrier might be leapfrogged if, in the heart of "red giant stars", three helium nuclei collided almost simultaneously, gluing together to make carbon-12. It was the nuclear physics equivalent of three shopping trolleys colliding simultaneously in a car park. Unfortunately, this process was fantastically unlikely.

Enter Hoyle. His argument, as as far as Fowler could make out, was that the process would be speeded up if, by a bizarre coincidence, carbon-12 had an energy state exactly equal to the energy of three colliding helium nuclei at the 100 million-degree temperature inside a red giant. That energy was 7.65 MeV. The state had to exist, reasoned Hoyle, because life existed and life was based on carbon.

Although Fowler would later tell people that his first impression of Hoyle was of someone who had gone off his mental compass bearings, he heard him out. Working in Pasadena, in the shadow of the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope, with which Edwin Hubble had discovered the expanding universe, had made Fowler tolerant of ideas astronomical.

Not showing Hoyle the door that day half a century ago would prove to be the smartest move Fowler ever made. It was highly probable that Hoyle was wrong. On the other hand, Fowler adhered to the experimenter's maxim: never close your mind to the unexpected. He rounded up his small research group and Hoyle repeated his argument. Was there any possibility, Hoyle asked, that experiments could have missed the 7.65 MeV state of carbon-12? Much of the technical discussion went over Hoyle's head.

Eventually, however, Fowler's colleagues concluded that, if the state of carbon-12 had some special properties, yes, it could have been missed. Hoyle had piqued the interest of Kellogg's nuclear physicists, who undertook an experiment. For 10 days, Hoyle was on tenterhooks. Each afternoon, he crept into the bowels of the Kellogg Lab, where Fowler's colleague Ward Whaling and his team beavered away amid a jungle of power cables, transformers and diving bell-like chambers in which atomic nuclei were fired at each other.

On the 10th day, Hoyle was met by Whaling. He pumped Hoyle's hand and gushed his congratulations. Hoyle's pre diction had been borne out. Unbelievably, there was an energy state of carbon-12 within a whisker of 7.65 MeV. It was the most amazing result Fowler had witnessed.

Hoyle's outrageous prediction had been proved right - quite spectacularly. Hoyle had peered into the heart of nature and spied something that mere mortals - or, at least, mere nuclear physicists - had been unable to see.

But what compounded Fowler's amazement was the manner of Hoyle's prediction. He had predicted the 7.65 MeV energy state of carbon-12 using an anthropic argument: it had to exist because, if it didn't, neither could human beings.

To Fowler, such flaky logic smacked of religion rather than science. To this day, Hoyle is the only person to have made a successful prediction from an anthropic argument in advance of an experiment.

The discovery of the 7.65 MeV state of carbon-12 was just the start. Hoyle, together with Fowler and Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, went on to figure out the origin of all the elements in our bodies.

Fowler won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics. Hoyle did not share that prize, although, as Fowler later remarked, he would probably have remained a run-of-the mill nuclear physicist had it not been for the visit of Fred Hoyle that fateful day in the spring of 1953.

bpabbott said...

The actual method used to determine the excited state of carbon-12 is less mystical than the report by Marcus Chown suggests.

"The Hoyle State is an excited state of carbon-12 with precisely the properties necessary to allow just the right amount of carbon to be created in a stellar environment. The existence of the Hoyle state is essential for the nucleosynthesis of carbon in helium-burning red giant stars. The resonant state was predicted by Fred Hoyle in the 1950s based on the observed abundances of heavy elements in the universe. The resonant state allows carbon to be produced via the triple-alpha process. The existence of the Hoyle state has been confirmed but its precise properties are still being investigated."

The triple alpha process is highly dependent on carbon-12 having a resonance with the same energy as helium-4 and beryllium-8, and before 1952 no such energy level was known. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle used the fact that carbon-12 is abundant in the universe as evidence for the existence of the carbon-12 resonance, in what is arguably the only case of success of the application of the Anthropic Principle: we are here, and we are made of carbon, so carbon must have originated somehow and the only physically conceivable way is through triple alpha processes that requires the existence of a resonance in a given very specific location in the spectra of carbon-12 nuclei. Hoyle suggested the idea to nuclear physicist William (Willy) A. Fowler, who conceded that it was possible that this energy level had been missed in previous work. After a brief undertaking by his research group at the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, they discovered a carbon-12 resonance near 7.65 Mev.

This approach is quite consistent with science. Hoyle combined the observations with the mathematics describing nuclear fusion and solved for an unknown. There is nothing mystical about it.

If ID is ever able to do the same, then it can qualify as science.

Until then, Tom is correct "such sentiments certainly have no place in science classes" ... *and* be eagerly embraced by scientists.

However, I do agree that the effort by Hoyle is full of wonder for me. I The man's insight into this problem makes it appear that he as familiar with it. However, neither he nor another was familiar with the answer. His solution is inspiring. When I encounter such solutions to perplexing problems, I'm always inspired.