McCarthy on Intelligent Design

I recently came across an article by a famous computer scientist John McCarthy titled, “Scientific Forms of the Religious Hypothesis”. It is an informal discussion of the possibility that the world we live in is programmed by an intelligent being.

It’s nice to see that even mathematicians – the most likely people to become atheists – are beginning to openly accept the possibility that this world is created by a higher being.

As an aside, McCarthy refutes arguments usually given in favour of the existence of God. I was surprised to see that his comments in this regard were far from extraordinary, considering that they were coming from a mathematician.

McCarthy is a prominent scholar of Computer Science, Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence. In writing this article, I have no intention of implying that he is anything but intelligent. This article attempts to show that when it comes to the question of God, the modern scientist’s mind has many prejudices. These cause a lack of perspective and some of the most obvious logical arguments vanish in the midst of the researcher’s attempt to logically analyze the question.

I’ll take the arguments of the article and point out these missing aspects. I post McCarthy’s article in italic (including the parts I do not wish to comment upon) to keep the whole discussion in context of the original article.

Please keep these points in mind when reading my comments:

  • I do not endorse all the comments that McCarthy quotes as being the theologists’. Some are accurate and some are not. I don’t necessarily agree with everything someone says simply because he or she believes in God.
  • I am a Muslim and being so, believe strongly in a single God – Allah. I will not, however, quote anything from religious scripture because Islam is not a point of discussion here.
  • Portions of McCarthy’s article are given in italic followed by my comments on them. Also, McCarthy’s article is an informal discussion and thus contains some spelling mistakes. I’ve opted to quote them without correction.

Now, let’s take a look at McCarthy’s article.

When Laplace showed Napoleon his treatise on celestial mechanics, Napoleon asked him what place God had in his theory. Laplace replied that he had no need for that hypothesis. We also have no need for it, because science has been successful, and science is the best approach to solving the mysteries that remain. Let’s consider religion anyway. (1)

Solving mysteries isn’t the only problem in the world. It may be very rewarding for a researcher’s intellectual desires but can hardly be considered the only purpose of human existence even from an atheistic viewpoint.

The religious hypothesis in its narrowest form is that the universe was designed and created by an intelligence. Another form is that some superhuman power frequently intervenes in life on earth. These hypotheses are distinct; one could be true without the other, both could be true or neither. One reason for considering these hypotheses is that when people understand computer programming well enough, people will be inclined to program evolutionary processes in a computer that might develop intelligence and might be inclined to intervene in the ``worlds’’ they have created.

We can therefore consider the hypothesis that our world is a computer program or some other designed system. There are two interesting questions:

1. What would constitute evidence for creation or intervention?

2. Is there any such evidence? I don’t see any.

3. Is it worthwhile to look harder for such evidence? My answer is that it is moderately worthwhile, although I’m not sure I would favorably review a proposal for research aimed at it if the National Science Foundation asked me to review one. There would have to be a good idea about where to look. Probably it’s best to regard thinking about it as a leisure time activity for people with inclinations to speculation. (2)

Argument for the atheist: Assume that there is a God. If there is one and wants us to worship Him, certainly we would not be fulfilling the purpose of our creation if we don’t. (See the end of this article for more detailed discussion of this point). So, it’s certainly worth investigating whether there is a God or not and if there is, what does He want from us.

Again, increase in knowledge is not the only purpose of human existence.

Note that this form of the religious hypothesis may not satisfy anyone’s ``spiritual needs’’ nor is it necessarily compatible with existing religions. It also won’t console people for the death of their children or offer compensation in an afterlife for suffering and injustice in this life. It may be that the decline of religion in prosperous countries in this century is partly a consequence of prosperity and democracy having reduced the need for consolation as well as having popularized scientific views.

Indeed my speculations about religious hypotheses will not attribute to the hypothesized intelligence'' any special interest in human affairs, any sympathy with humanity, or any desire to be known or worshipped, or any tendency to hear prayers. If I were to write, run and observe a program that might evolve intelligence, I don't think I would be inclined to want it to print outJohn McCarthy is great’’. (3)

Why should the assumption be made that the intelligent being which creates a program in which we live is exactly like ourselves or has the same motivations and desires?

Since the advent of science, many religions have become ``purified’’ and lost their previous scientific goals and pretensions. Indeed there is a tendency to deny that they ever had such pretensions. Nevertheless, before science existed, there were religious hypotheses about questions now treated by science. Here are some examples:

1. Thunder and lightning are caused by Thor throwing his hammer.

2. God gave Noah that rainbow sign; That it won’t be water but fire next time.

This explains rainbows by ascribing a purpose to them. (4)

Why does a single instance of the occurrence of a rainbow shown as a sign to a prophet (AS) have to mean all rainbows are made without purpose? Or that they are made for this same purpose alone? (I’m not commenting on the authenticity of this event. I’m just arguing about McCarthy’s logical reasoning.)

3. The reason there are ants is to persuade people not to be lazy. (5)

One of the reasons there are ants might be to persuade people not to be lazy. Certainly, it does not deny the possibility of existence of other reasons – filling a place in the food-chain, for example.

4. Churches are often damaged by lightning, because the evil spirits of the air hate the houses of God. The alternate explanation is that churches are often struck by lightning by God in order to show the congregations that God disapproves of certain recent sinful behavior. (See A. D. White’s ``The warfare of science and theology in Christendom’’). Persistence of these explanations delayed by 100 years the adoption by some churches of Benjamin Franklin’s 1757 invention of the lightning rod.

This kind of explanation of natural phenomena has been superseded by scientific explanation. The latter makes more satisfactory theories, and also leads to technology that works, while the technologies based on religious hypotheses, such as prayer, sacrifices, astrology and sorcery, don’t work. (6)

First, the last two words in the above paragraph are said without a proof or even a logical reasoning. I see no reason to accept them. (I’m not saying I accept the existence of effects of all these ‘hypotheses’. I simply see no reason in McCarthy’s argument not to.)

This discussion is about people who could not give logical arguments in favour of the existence of God. Why does this have to mean that God does not exist. Absence of proof is never a proof of absence.

People try to justify the commonly occurring natural phenomenon in light of their knowledge and intelligence. As knowledge increases, the phenomenon can be better explained. This speculation and reasoning is the driving engine of science itself. Describing a specific event as the result of anger or pleasure of God is another matter altogether and has nothing to do with the mechanisms of occurrence in daily life of these phenomenon.

Pre-modern religion had both scientiic and technological aspects. Specific events, like sinkings of ships or victory in war were ascribed to the actions of one or more gods. That’s the science. The technology consisted of actions aimed at obtaining the favor of God or gods. These included sacrifices and prayer. When a bad outcome occurred anyway, there were always excuses - not enough prayer or the actions of unbelievers.

It is interesting that the Greeks and Jews both mentioned human sacrifice in their past, but by the time they were literate, neither people did it. The Greeks and Romans both accused the Carthaginians of sacrificing babies. One can imagine the Carthaginian priests saying, as the Romans besieged Carthage, that the reason for the defeat was that not enough babies had been sacrificed. (7)

Throughout the article, McCarthy gives examples from famous world religions and refutes them. It may be argued here that the religions McCarthy is refuting really do not make logical sense. It does not however allow one to deny the existence of another religion which does not have these flaws. Again, the fact that incorrect interpretations of God have been made is not a proof of His absence.

While the above theological explanations of natural phenomena are inferior to non-theological explanations, this can be ascribed to the naivete of pre-scientific cultures and to their self-absorption. (8)

Which is exactly my argument regarding portion (6) of McCarthy’s article. McCarthy statement in the following paragraph agrees with my argument .

We could try for theological explanations that are less parochial. For example, we could try to explain some aspect of the theory of relativity as fulfilling some purpose of the God that designed the world in this way. Indeed Einstein and some other scientists look for beautiful theories, but none of them ascribe any but aesthetic motivations to God. Also it’s hard to tell whether their references to God are just metaphorical.

As another example, note that the religious often cite the complexity of life as an argument for the implausibility that present day life is purely the result of random variation and natural selection. [The best explanation I have seen of how complex features arise by natural selection is given in Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins.] (9)

I’m always surprised to see how many non-biologists simply assume that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the only explanation of the diversity of organisms. It is certainly not as generally accepted as many people think. (The examples quoted in favour of evolution are always of micro_evolution, not _macro_evolution.) The theory has many flaws which can be argued against. That is not the point of my discussion here but I’d still like to point out one flaw: Darwinian evolution cannot explain the emergence of reproduction (a complex trait of living beings) without prior existence of reproduction – a contradiction. This has led scientists to propose other theories like _Panspermia – which, admittedly, are not much more satisfactory than evolution itself.

The alternative religious hypothesis, supposing that the geological evidence for the succession of species isn’t a fake on God’s part, must ascribe a purpose to the particular observed succession of species. The British biologist J. B. S. Haldane is supposed to have been asked by a bishop what his biological studies told him about God’s purposes. Haldane is said to have replied that God seemed to have ``an inordinate fondness for beetles’’. Indeed a theological explanation of the succession or distribution of species would have to account for the 300,000 species of beetles. [2003 note: Lacking a theological explanation, biologists have been looking for a biological explanation of why there are so many species of beetle].

The clockmaker religious hypothesis doesn’t have such obvious disadvantages. God created te world in the first place and set it running. A religious explanation would involve saying why this kind of world was chosen and not some other. When we know more physics, someone may explore such hypotheses. (10)

That is not a religious explanation of the world. That is the explanation of the mind of God – which no one claims to have. Science itself has not had much success at explaining the question of “why”. Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, at the end of the discussion regarding a theory of everything, writes: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence?” In other words, a mathematical equation, no matter how elegant and complete is simply an explanation, not a force. (I use the word force in a very loose sense here.)

More on this in the following portion.

Now let’s explore the religious hypothesis from the other end. Suppose we were to program a world and set it running and it evolved intelligence. Could these intelligences determine or even plausibly conjecture that they were part of a computer program, and could they infer anything about us, the programmers?

Maybe! It depends on what kind of program we wrote.

March 1989

Suppose the prgram were very large and involved many detailed decisions. Suppose we made these decisions on the basis of some ideas about what kinds of events we preferred to happen in our simulated world. Imagine that the program had thousands of such decisions made by hundreds of programmers over tens of years. It might then turn out that the scientists within the simulated world could account for their world’s features most economically by figuring out our purposes. They might even be able to identify the styles of the different programmers of the different aspects of the world and their characteristic mistakes. This would depend on the how the detailed decisions related to features observable by them.

Correspondingly, a present day intelligent design advocate might try for a theory of the Designer’s decisions. Could he make a theory of the Designer’s purposes that accounted for the number of species of different forms of life more economically than anything the biologists could devise? Alas, they aren’t even trying to enumerate, let alone account for, the Designer’s decisions. I think the “intelligent design” people are just kidding us. (11)

Again, this is a discussion regarding the mind of God. The single basic problem with this argument is the primary assumption – that the creator of the program is a human (and thus the implicit assumption that the creator has the same motivations and desires as a human). Why God chooses to create the world as it is, is totally irrelevant to our discussion. We may argue about the existence of God and we may try to explain how things work. The question of “Why”, according to Stephen Hawking, is the business of philosophers (who are not doing a very good job either in this regard).

As an aside, think of this: If you create a program of intelligence equal to that of a human but one which lives only on the Internet. Its only purpose is to search the net for occurrences of your name. If that program tries to figure out why you want to search for you name, it would be impossible for it. Simply because its intelligence has a limited domain. It cannot “imagine” a world without hyperlinks and forms and text!

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem raised the question of the human programmer’s moral obligations to his simulated creations. Might it be wrong to program a world of suffering or to terminate a world that had a civilization in it? I have to confess I have few moral intuitions about that, one way or the other. I suspect that concepts of morality get rather tenuous when taken much beyond human affairs.

By the way, I count myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic. My criterion for being an atheist is believing that the evidence on the god question is in a similar state to the evidence on the werewolf question. (12)

As for the existence of werewolves, there is a proof of absence. Tissue tearing up, gaining mass (without introduction of extra energy), and going back to original mass without a substantial loss of energy is impossible according to Einstein’s famous equation. Plus the difference in DNA required to go from a human to a werewolf would be too much even for a mutation – which is not reversible anyway. Thus, McCarthy’s criterion for being an atheist isn’t very sound.

An End Note

Why is it that most scientists don’t believe in God? I have an idea. It may be woefully wrong but is an idea nonetheless. Scientists believe that if they accept the existence of a God, then research would become stagnant and they would not be able to answer questions such as how the world was created and how it works. Everything will have to be attributed to God. It has been shown that the natural working of the world can be explained by theories. Existence of a God and explanations for natural phenomenon are not mutually exclusive!

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