Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

“Spooky numbers” refers to Steven Landsburg’s position — expressed here in commenting on a post by Bob Murphy about intelligent design — that natural numbers just are. This encapsulates Landsburg’s thesis:

The natural numbers are irreducibly complex, moreso (by any reasonable definition) than anything in biology. But the natural numbers were not designed and did not evolve….

I previously addressed Landsburg’s claim about natural numbers, here; for example:

Why have humans, widely separated in time and space, agreed about numbers and the manipulation of numbers (mathematics)? Specifically, with respect to the natural numbers, why is there agreement that something called “one” or “un” or “ein” (and so on) is followed by something called “two” or “deux” or “zwei,” and so on? And why is there agreement that those numbers, when added, equal something called “three” or “trois” or “drei,” and so on? Is that evidence for the transcendent timelessness of numbers and mathematics, or is it nothing more than descriptive necessity?By descriptive necessity, I mean that numbering things is just another way of describing them. If there are some oranges on a table, I can say many things about them; for example, they are spheroids, they are orange-colored, they contain juice and (usually) seeds, and their skins are bitter-tasting.

Another thing that I can say about the oranges is that there are a certain number of them — let us say three, in this case. But I can say that only because, by convention, I can count them: one, two, three. And if someone adds an orange to the aggregation, I can count again: one, two, three, four. And, by convention, I can avoid counting a second time by simply adding one (the additional orange) to three (the number originally on the table). Arithmetic is simply a kind of counting, and other mathematical manipulations are, in one way or another, extensions of arithmetic. And they all have their roots in numbering and the manipulation of numbers, which are descriptive processes.

But my ability to count oranges and perform mathematical operations based on counting does not mean that numbers and mathematics are timeless and transcendent. It simply means that I have used some conventions — devised and perfected by other humans over the eons — which enable me to describe certain facets of physical reality.

Mathematics is merely a tool that can be useful in describing some aspects of the real world. Evolution and intelligent design, on the other hand, are theories about the real world. Though evolution and intelligent design are not complete theories of the real world, they are far more than mere mathematical descriptions of it.

To understand the distinction that I’m making, consider this: Some of the differences between apples and oranges can be described by resorting to the mathematics of color, taste, shape, and so on. But an apple or an orange — as an entity — is more than the sum of its various, partial descriptors. So, too, is the real world more than the sum of any number of mathematics or descriptors (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) that have mathematical components. The real world encompasses love, hate, social customs, and religion — among many things that defy complete (or even partial) mathematical description.

Now, what about evolution and intelligent design? Are they reconcilable theories? Murphy implies that they are. He says that

Michael Behe–[a leading proponent of intelligent design] who (in)famously said that the bacterial flagellum exhibited too much design to have arisen through unguided evolution in the modern neo-Darwinian sense–does not have a problem with the idea that all of today’s cells share a common ancestor….

So yes, Behe is fine with the proposition that if we had a camera and a time machine, we could go observe the first cell on earth as it reproduced and yielded offspring. There would be nothing magical in these operations; they would obey the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. The cells would further divide and so on, and then over billions of years there would be mutations and the environment would favor some of the mutants over their kin, such that natural selection over time would yield the bacterial flagellum and the human nervous system.

Yet Behe’s point is that when you look at what this process spits out at the end, you can’t deny that a guiding intelligence must be involved somehow.

The question-begging of that last sentence is what frustrates scientists. It says, in effect, that there must be a guiding intelligence, and the complexity of the products of evolution proves it.

No, it doesn’t prove it. God — as an entity apart from the material universe — cannot be shown to exist by pointing to particular aspects of the material universe, be they evolution or the Big Bang (to offer but two examples). God is a logical necessity, beyond empirical proof or disproof.

I greatly respect the sincerity of theists and the credence they give to sacred texts and accounts of visions and miracles. Their credence may be well-placed. But I am just too much of a doubting Thomas to rely on unfalsifiable, second-hand evidence about the nature of God and His role in the workings of the universe.

I will say this: Given the logical necessity of God, it follows that the universe operates in accordance with the “laws” that are inherent in His creation. Intelligent design, as an explanation for the forms taken by living creatures, is therefore something of a truism. But intelligent design cannot be proved by reference to products of evolution.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
A Theory of Everything, Occam’s Razor, and Baseball
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
What Is Time?
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Tenth Dimension
The Big Bang and Atheism
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Are the Natural Numbers Supernatural?
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II) (first item)
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology