Intelligent Design

In the list of precise and fortuitous factors that enabled life on planet earth—the Goldilocks placement, the liquid water, the magnetic field, the tilt of our axis, our large moon, our location within a minor spiral arm of the galaxy, and so forth—one of my favorites is the presence of the gas giants beyond our orbit in the solar system that deflect cosmic missiles. Particularly Jupiter, which can also sling them toward us, but we won’t dwell on that. I’m more interested in the idea of being eaten.

But before getting to that, I must pause to consider my spiritual-minded friend, who sailed right past the word “fortuitous.”

A word which, because its sense is evolving, has two meanings. When it comes to how we got here, happenstance does not make my pious companion’s list, so for her, via an association with “fortunate,” the word means felicitous. For me the word retains its original sense: happening by chance rather than by design.

Chance and design: for me a difficult, no, impossible, distinction to make because I simply can’t force myself to trust assertions made without knowledge. “Intelligent design”?—how unsatisfyingly anthropomorphic. God created man in his image? The opposite is so obviously true I suspect a misperception of ancient inflections. Intelligent design is a natural enough idea to contemplate, but beyond the reach of the human mind. And anyone with eyes can see that if there is any such thing, it operates by randomness and chance. Like contemplating what was “before” the universe. Sterile ideas, unable to add anything to our understanding, and when we mistake them as endpoints in thinking, they have the potential to obstruct real inquiry.

So I’m picturing this asteroid, cruising along in what seems like endless space, until it wanders into a bad neighborhood: and there, like Cerberus at the gates of Hades, waits Jupiter. Oh shit, the asteroid thinks. And rightly so—because it’s nothing but a long fall from there.

It must be terrifying, getting closer, accelerating, the giant gaseous blob filling more and more of the field of vision until the massive wall of stormy clouds is all there is. You are already a part of it, before it eats and digests you, just as you are already a part of the tiger before it absorbs you into itself—making you part tiger and the tiger part you.

And think of brave little Cassini! Intelligently designed to be ultimately a part of Saturn, and carrying it through.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of, being eaten, because it’s the theme of everything. But the eater is changed too. I wonder if the consciousness of the eaten persists somehow, as a part now of the entity it feared, or loved, or tried to outrun—or rather like a drop of water being eaten by the ocean—no longer a drop, but still water.

Do the molecules that comprised us when we died retain some memory of the consciousness they once hosted as they melt back into the ground and wait for their next assignment?

If, as my spiritual friend would say, we reunite with God at the end, then what is there of us left? And why would we want anything to be?

Intelligent design is just the teleological perspective in new clothes, an attempt to mitigate Darwinian brutality. “Creative evolution,” “élan vital,” “life force”—they all reflect the intuitive need to supply what empiricism can’t, but since there is nothing to point to, or measure, or comprehend, as always the attempt to meet science halfway has no chance of succeeding.

I’ll grant you, the idea of inert elements becoming complex sentient life forms by sheer chance, over I don’t care how many billions of years, is a stretch, but so is the idea of some celestial being at a drafting table. Personally I give the former a 49% chance, the latter 51%.

That’s as far as I can go with intelligent design.

April 9, 2019

Return to Index