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July 13th, 2006

  George Gilder, Metaphysician


I seem to have got myself elected to the post of NR's designated point man against Creationists.*  Indignant anti-Creationist readers have urged me to make a response to George Gilder's long essay "Evolution and Me" in the current (7/17/06) National Review.

Well, I'll give it a shot. I had better say up front that I am only familiar with George's work — he has written several books, none of which I have read, I am ashamed to say, since I know he has read one of mine — in a sketchy and second-hand way, so what follows is only a response to the aforementioned article "Evolution and Me." It is possible that George has already dealt with my points in some other of his writings. If so, I hope readers will direct me to the right place.

I'll also say that I write the following with some reluctance. It's a wearying business, arguing with Creationists. Basically, it is a game of Whack-a-Mole. They make an argument: you whack it down. They make a second: you whack it down. They make a third: you whack it down. So they make the first argument again. This is why most biologists just can't be bothered with Creationism at all, even for the fun of it. It isn't actually any fun. Creationists just chase you round in circles. It's boring.

It would be less boring if they'd come up with a new argument once in a while, but they never do. I've been engaging with Creationists for a couple of years now, and I have yet to hear an argument younger than I am. (I am not young.) All Creationist arguments have been whacked down a thousand times, but they keep popping up again. Nowadays I just refer argumentative emailers to the TalkOrigins website, where any argument you are ever going to hear from a Creationist is whacked down several times over. Don't think it'll stop 'em, though.**


Jonah Goldberg and I have occasionally, though only very briefly, batted around the idea that the modern age is in want of a metaphysic. I can't speak for Jonah, but the thought that is in my own mind when I say this is that both naked materialism and the metaphysics appended to the traditional religions are unappealing to great numbers of moderns. Materialism fails to convince because it implies that mind is an illusion. To this, an ordinary person will reply: "To what is this illusion presenting itself?" Materialism has no answer. Nor does it have anything to tell us about free will, morality, or any of the other conundrums discussed at the end of Pinker's How the Mind Works. To adhere to religious metaphysics, on the other hand, you actually have to belong to one of the established religions, all of which require belief in things (resurrection, transubstantiation, reincarnation, Chosen People) that seem, to many minds accustomed to the evidentiary standards demanded by modern science and law, incredible.

There are of course lots of people who are perfectly satisfied by materialist atheism, and many more who find they can leap the credulity hurdles required by traditional religions. To many hundreds of millions of moderns, though (I am not speaking of only the U.S.A.: the rest of the world does, after all, exist), there is no satisfactory conceptual grounding for their beliefs, desires, and intentions. We really ought to be able to come up with something.

Well, here is George Gilder, taking up the challenge. He offers us a complete metaphysic. He then makes the very large claim that science cannot (or will soon be unable to — I am not clear on this point) progress any further unless it abandons its present materialist assumptions and takes up this new metaphysic of his. What can we make of this?


First let's take a look at George's metaphysic. It is pluralistic, which is to say, it argues that the basic substance of the universe is of several different kinds. In George's schema there are three kinds of stuff: intelligence, information, and matter.

(That is how I read George's essay. Since he didn't have space for a really full exposition, my reading may be incorrect. His metaphysic may be of the dualistic mind-matter type, with information merely an aspect of intelligence. Or it may even be monistic, with everything just a manifestation of intelligence. This isn't clear to me.)

Information, says George, is by definition intelligently organized. If it were not, it would not be information, only random static. Further, information needs some material substrate on which to be inscribed, so that matter (understood in the modern sense of matter-energy) is the carrier of information.

Information is thus at the center of his schema, standing between matter, the substrate on which it is inscribed, and intelligence, which organizes it.

One's first thought here is that this looks promising right away. We are living in the Information Age. What more suitable for us than a metaphysic in which information plays a starring role? One's second thought unfortunately cancels out the first one: isn't this all a bit present-centric? What if, fifty years from now, we are in some other age? Is George's schema going to lose its appeal? One wants one's metaphysic to have some staying power. A third thought is that not only is this a bit present-centric, it's even a bit George-centric. George has, after all, been immersed in the information sciences for decades — has in fact been a mover and an achiever of some note in those sciences, and a prolific and successful expositor of them.

Leaving all that aside, let's continue examining the schema. There is a hierarchy of being, with insensate matter at the bottom, carrying very little information, up through living creatures, which carry immensely more, having far more complex material substrates, to a supreme intelligence which (I think) has the entire universe as its substrate.

Information, designed by intelligence, makes everything happen. The information in a computer program makes your phone bill happen (and the programmer's intelligence makes the program happen); the information in DNA makes proteins happen. This is a one-way process: your phone bill can't make the computer program happen (nor can the program make your intelligence happen), a protein can't make a gene happen, etc. Nothing at the lower-information level — a phone bill, a protein — can make anything at the higher-information level — program, gene — happen. This refutes materialism's assertion that higher information-bearing structures can arise from lower ones. It also refutes evolution, which has high-information-bearing substrates arising out of low-information-bearing ones.

I hope I have got all that right, at least in outline. As metaphysics go, it's a pretty good schema. Possibly a reader better versed in philosophy than I am might tell you it is not original, that Spinoza or Leibniz or someone came up with something of the kind. I don't know (though I'd be mildly interested to hear). At any rate, I declare here and now that I am not going to argue with George's metaphysic, or pick holes in it, though I think I see a couple to be picked.***  Let's take it as given that this is a good metaphysic for our age.

We then proceed to George's main point, which is, that science cannot (or will soon be unable to) progress any further unless it abandons its present materialist assumptions and takes up this new metaphysic. What can be said about that?

I think the main thing to be said about it is, that George's metaphysics is going to be a tough sell to scientists. This is important, because science is a very important part of our culture — "the court from which there is no appeal" (Tom Wolfe). If you can't sell your metaphysic to scientists, George, then it is just an intellectual curiosity, headed nowhere.

There are two reasons why George's ideas, as presented in this essay, are a tough sell. First, he loses biologists right away with his Creationist patter. Second, George's Discovery Institute and his Center for Science and Culture don't discover things and don't do any science.

First, the Creationist stuff.


Creationists seem not to be aware of how central evolution is to modern biology. Without it, nothing makes sense. I recently, here on NRO, reviewed Nicholas Wade's book about human origins. We have known a good deal about human origins for a long time, from researches in archeology and zoology. Darwin himself wrote a book on the topic back in 1871. Now, with the tools of modern genomics at our disposal, we are finding out much, much more. None of this would be possible, none of it would make any sense, if speciation by evolution were not the case. A research program in paleoanthropology premised on the idea that speciation by evolution is not the case, would have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to tell us. It is hard to see how any such program would be possible; though if George will tell me, I'll be glad to broadcast his idea.

It's not just paleoanthropology. Speciation via evolution underpins all of modern biology, both pure and applied. Note that in the latter category fall such things as new cures for diseases and genetic defects, new crops, new understandings of the brain, with consequences for pedagogy and psychology, and so on. To say to biologists: "Look, I want you to drop all this nonsense about evolution and listen to me," is like walking into a room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers and telling them that classical aerodynamics is all hogwash.

Biologists are of all scientists least in need of a new metaphysic. Neurophysiology aside, it is in the "hard" sciences that our epistemological underwear is showing. When physicists have to resort to explanations involving teeny strings vibrating in scrunched-up eleven-dimensional spaces a trillion trillion trillion trillionth of an inch across, or cosmologists try to tell us that entire universes are proliferating every nanosecond like bacteria in a Petri dish, there is a case to be made for a metaphysical overhaul. Not that work in these fields has come to a baffled dead stop, as George seems to imply. Far from it; the problem in fundamental physics and cosmology is not so much that we have run out of theories, as that we have too many theories. Ill grant that there are epistemological issues, though.

Biology, by contrast, really has no outstanding epistemological problems. With the tools of modern genomics at its disposal, it is in fact going through a phase of great energy and excitement, so that biologists are much too busy to be bothered with epistemological issues. To modify the simile I offered above: Creationists are walking into that room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers right at the peak of the Golden Age of flight, around 1930. "Hey, those machines of yours don't really fly, you know …"

Another turn-off is the blithe way George makes pronouncements about the limits of our understanding. Doesn't he know the track record here? I think the star of this particular show is Auguste Comte, who declared in 1835 that we could never possibly know the composition of the stars. The spectroscope was invented in 1859.

Not deterred by Comte's example, George writes that: "This process of protein synthesis and 'plectics' cannot even in principle be modeled on a computer." You sure about that, George? "Even in principle"? How do you know that? Computer modelers are awfully ingenious and creative people. Are you quite sure that you are ahead of all of them? Even that team of 19-year-old, 190-IQ whiz kids in that Microsoft-funded lab in Shanghai, whose heads are full of amazing new ideas? Oh, you've never met them? Perhaps you should. And that other team over here, and that one there, and the folk in Bangalore, and the guys in Stuttgart, and that great new institute in Budapest … Never met them either? Oh.

If, five years from now, one of these innumerable teams of researchers develops a really good computer simulation of protein synthesis, will George discard that metaphysic of his, that told him it couldn't be done? I hope he will.

George's attitude here is anyway at odds with his "social" arguments. He cannot imagine that anyone could come up with a computer model of protein synthesis because … well, no-one ever has. Similarly, Michael Behe of Darwin's Black Box fame, back in the 1990s, could not imagine that anyone could come up with an evolutionary pathway for the bacterial flagellum, because … no-one ever had. They since have. So George's assertion that "Behe's claim of 'irreducible complexity' is manifestly true" is manifestly false. Yet these are the people who lecture us on Establishment Science's reluctance to countenance new ideas!


That brings us to the second problem that scientists have with George's system: after being around for many years, it has not produced any science. George's own Discovery Institute was established in 1990; the offshoot Center for Science and Culture (at first called the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) in 1992. That is an aggregate thirty years. Where is the science? In all those years, not a single paper of scientific standing has come out of (nor even, to the best of my knowledge, been submitted by) the DI or the CSC. I am certainly willing to be corrected here. If the DI or CSC have any papers of scientific standing — published or not — I shall post links to them to NRO for qualified readers to scrutinize.

Scientists discover things. That's what they do. In fast-growing fields like genomics, they discover new things almost daily — look into any issue of Science or Nature. What has the Discovery Institute discovered this past 16 years? To stretch my simile further: Creationists are walking into that room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers right at the peak of the Golden Age of flight, never having flown or designed any planes themselves. Are they really surprised that they get a brusque reception?

(I should say here that the handful of Creationists who are themselves professional working scientists produce papers that are, I am told, scientifically valuable. None of those papers are premised on Creationist principles, however, and none have appeared under the aegis of the DI or CSC. The Creationism of Creationist scientists like Michael Behe is extramural — a sort of spare-time hobby. The same can be said of the militant atheism of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, incidentally.)

Creationists respond to this by telling us that they can't get a hearing in the defensive, closed-minded, "invested" world of professional science. Creationist ideas are too revolutionary, they say. The impenetrably reactionary nature of established science is a staple of Creationist talk. They seem not to have noticed that twentieth-century science is a veritable catalog of revolutionary ideas that got accepted, from quantum theory to plate tectonics, from relativity to dark matter, from cosmic expansion to the pathogen theory of ulcers. Creationism has been around far, far longer than the "not yet accepted" phase of any of those theories. Why is the proportion of scientists willing to accept it still stuck below (well below, as best I can estimate) one percent? The only answer you can get from a Creationist involves a conspiracy theory that makes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look positively rational.

Three or four paragraphs into George's piece, seeing where we were headed, and having accumulated considerable experience with this kind of stuff, I did a "find" on the phrase "scientific establishment." Sure enough, there it was: those obscurantist, defensive old stuffed shirts of "consensus science" — the Panel of Peers, George calls them — keeping original thought at bay.

In George's example the original thinker was Max Planck, whose first publication on his revolutionary quantum theory of radiation was in 1900. Poor Max Planck was so thoroughly shunned and ostracized by that glowering, starched-collar Panel of Peers for daring to present ideas that violated their settled convictions, that five years later they made him president of the German Physical Society, and in 1918 gave him the Nobel Prize for Physics! Those mean, blinkered scientific establishmentarians!

Creationism has been around in one form or another for well over a century, which is to say, more than twenty times longer than the interval between Max Planck's first broadcasting of his quantum theory and his election as president of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. The fact that Creationism still has no scientific acceptance whatsoever — no presidencies of learned societies, no Nobel Prizes, not a bean, not a dust mote — does not show that the science establishment is hostile to new ideas, it only shows that scientists cannot see that Creationism has anything to offer them.

What gets the attention of scientists is science. Scientists do not shun Creationism because it is revolutionary; they shun it because Creationists don't do any science. They started out by promising to. The original plan for the CSC (then CRSC) back in 1992 had phase I listed as: "Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity." The CSC has certainly been energetic in writing and publicity, but if they have done any scientific research, I missed it.


Look at the last paragraph of George's piece. It is a call to science to: "grasp the hierarchical reality [that the summit of the hierarchy, a.k.a. God] signifies," to transcend "its [i.e. science's] materialist trap," to "look up from the ever dimmer reaches of its Darwinian pit and cast its imagination toward the word and its sources: idea and meaning, mind and mystery, the will and the way." Science, says George, must — must! — "eschew reductionism — except as a methodological tool — and adopt an aspirational imagination." (Isn't that one humongous big "except" in that last sentence there, George?)

A scientist, reading those words, might reasonably ask: "Why? Why must I do those things you urge me to do? I'm getting along just fine as I am, discovering new things about the world, pushing the wheel of knowledge forward a few inches every year. Did you see that ground-breaking paper of mine in Developmental Biology last month? No? Well, everyone in the field is talking about it. So why should I buy into this metaphysics you're selling? What's in it for me? What's in it for science at large?"

Replies George, from that same closing paragraph: because "this is the only way that science can ever hope to solve the grand challenge problems before it, such as gravity, entanglement, quantum computing, time, space, mass, and mind."

The scientist will then say:

The only way, you say? But look, I'm not doing too badly generating scientific results — uncovering new facts about the world — by following my current way, from down here in my "Darwinian pit." So right off, I can't agree with you that this new way of yours is the only way. I have no feeling whatsoever that I am stuck, and looking for a way. I have a way — orthodox scientific method. It works. It generates reproducible results, and suggests testable theories. Possibly this essay of yours offers a better way, but yours sure isn't the only way.

And why should I think your way is even a better way to tackle the problems you listed? After all, you, with your "only way," and your institutes with high-sounding names and lavish funding, and all your decades of being in operation, have not generated any scientific results at all. If someone like you, with a radical new outlook, grounded in a radically new metaphysics, starts providing solutions to difficult problems like those in your list, of course I will be impressed. Of course I will take you seriously; I will adopt your methods; I will transcend materialism and eschew reductionism and all that good stuff you exhort me to do. Of course I will! I will come to you humbly to learn how to do the prescribed transcending and eschewing. I'll be among the first to come knocking on the Discovery Institute's door, I guarantee. I want to advance knowledge, along whichever path looks most promising. That's why I'm a scientist.

As it is, though, you have nothing to show me. Has your Institute, or your Center, actually come up with a new, testable theory of, say, gravity? Where can I read about it? Oh, you haven't? Has your Discovery Institute, since its founding in 1990, actually, er, discovered anything?

No? Well, look, no offense, George, but I'll tell you what. Go back to your Institute, hire some bright new researchers, teach them your metaphysics and your new methodology, buy them some computers and lab equipment, and let them loose to do some science. When they've got testable theories and reproducible results, I'll pay attention. Until then, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my own lab.

What would you say to this guy, George?

* Amongst whom I include Intelligent Design proponents. The Kitzmiller case demonstrated, to courtroom standards of evidence, that I.D. is a species of Creationism. That's good enough for me.

** The actual Creationist argument Gilder puts forth, the tautology argument, is about 120 years old. Defining "fit" to mean "apt to survive," "survival of the fittest" is indeed a tautology. This does not disprove Darwin's theory of speciation by evolution, though. It only proves that "survival of the fittest" is a lousy way to describe the theory. Darwin did not coin the phrase, and did not like it. Very few scientific theories lend themselves to brisk three- or four-word descriptions. This is not even the worst case. Try tangling with a person who takes Einstein's theories to mean that "everything is relative," a thing that Einstein rather emphatically did not believe!

*** For example: making generalizations, or even just a plural, out of "designing intelligence" suffers from the grievous problem that only one instance of designing intelligence is known to us, viz., our own. You can't generalize much from a single data point.