May 01, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-3: The last four skyhooks

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Some people simply cannot get over their childhood infatuation with magical thinking. They want and need to believe in skyhooks. They do not want science to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. They want there to be some gap that they can only plug god into. Or as the TV character House says, "You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!"

In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett adds,

For over a century, skeptics have been trying to find a proof that Darwin's ideas just can't work, at least not all the way. They have been hoping for, praying for skyhooks, as exceptions to what they see as the bleak vision of Darwin's algorithmic churning away. And time and again, they have come up with truly interesting challenges – leaps and gaps and other marvels that do seem, at first, to need skyhooks. But then along have come the cranes, discovered in many cases by the very skeptics who were hoping to find skyhooks. (Dennett, p. 75)

But what initially seemed to be promising candidates for creation by skyhooks (the eye and the wing for example) all turned out to be the products of cranes. With all the old macroscopic standbys falling by the wayside, the intelligent design people started pinning their hopes on microscopic things like the bacterial flagellum as needing a skyhook, but even those are increasingly seen to be the work of cranes.

There now remain only four candidates for the need for skyhooks: the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the human mind or consciousness, and the sense of morality.

There has been a lot of scientific progress on understanding the origin of life. While we do not yet know the exact sequence that led to the emergence of life, the problem has clearly shifted from the category of a 'mystery' (i.e. something about which we don't even know how to frame the research question) to that of a 'puzzle', where clear lines of research inquiry have been developed and progress is slowly being made. The book Genesis: The scientific quest for life's origins by Robert M. Hazen (2005) discusses the progress that has been made. Although important unanswered questions remain, there can be no doubt that this puzzle will be solved. It is only a matter of time.

It is significant that even Francis Collins, the biologist who recently retired as head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and is an evangelical Christian, in his book The Language of God argues against trying to use the origin of life as evidence of the need for a skyhook in the form of god.

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction. . . [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

So people who pin their hopes on the origin of life as a candidate for a skyhook are likely betting on a losing proposition.

The origin of the universe is a more difficult problem. Part of the difficulty is that the tools we have for scientific discovery are the laws of science that we have obtained by studying the world that is immediately available to us. We have no choice but to assume that these laws are universal and timeless or change in some regular manner but when it comes to studying the very origins of the universe, the density of matter is so large that the very nature of space and time become vastly different from what we have now. Hence the laws of science we are familiar with may not apply and extrapolating them into that region may not make sense. This makes research more difficult, though not impossible, and we have plausible explanations of how the universe evolved starting after the first few milliseconds of its creation. For a very readable account of what we know about how the universe began, it is still hard to beat The First Three Minutes (1988) by Steven Weinberg.

So any skyhook that is invoked for the origin of the universe has a very small window of time in which to act before it becomes unnecessary. This allows the option of deist beliefs in a god who set the universe in motion but did nothing thereafter. This might turn out to be the most durable of religious beliefs but is hardly satisfying to those who yearn for a god who still does things.

Next: Does the human mind need a skyhook?

POST SCRIPT: How the eye evolved

One of the earliest candidates for skyhooks, but no longer viable, as demonstrated by a younger Richard Dawkins. These kinds of examples formed the basis for his book Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), where he systematically demolished the need for skyhooks for a whole lot of candidates.


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