Resolving the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution Conflict
Resolving the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution Conflict

Recent understanding of consciousness suggests a possible resolution to the nagging conflict over scientific evolution versus intelligent design. Both views may be basically correct.
If scientists and creationists would stop shouting at each other, we might see that a more powerful and richer view of life is possible. The issue of what constitutes “consciousness” has recently burst into attention, and there is a strong possibility that a better understanding of this intriguing aspect of nature could show that both evolution and intelligent design are basically correct. Science has done a great job of explaining the physical process of evolution, but consciousness seems to represent a “higher” form of intelligence beyond the physical that energizes and guides this process.

Consciousness is such a commonplace part of life – like breathing air – that it is usually taken for granted. But with the advance of information technology, the study of consciousness has exploded in recent years into one of the central debates of our time. The consensus is that computer power should match the human brain about 2020, setting the stage for a grand test of a paramount scientific question: Is there is a fundamental difference between human intelligence and machine intelligence?

Many scientists claim thought is basically a complex information process emerging within the chemistry of the brain. Here’s what Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, had to say: “You, your joys, and your sorrows, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

But other scientists contend the very nature of consciousness goes beyond information altogether to form a fundamentally different dimension of life. David Chalmers at the University of Arizona thinks, “We are likely to discover that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like space, time, and gravity.”

Some Evidence

The science supporting evolution is vast and beyond dispute. But consider some tentative evidence on consciousness.

• Hundreds of medical studies demonstrate the powerful influence of thought, emotion, and other subjective states of mind. The data show that people with religious practices, close friends, and a buoyant disposition tend to be healthier and live longer.

• Dozens of scientific studies suggest the broader social impact of consciousness. The number of people praying and meditating in a city, for example, seems inversely related to crime, violence, and other disorders and directly related to positive behavior.

• Rupert Sheldrake, a physical scientist, has conducted studies that suggest some universal energy field influences behavior in subtle ways. Experiments show that people learn a new task more easily once others have mastered it, they sense being stared at, and dogs know when their masters are arriving unexpectedly.

• Untold numbers of people who have been clinically dead and returned to life all report the same experience of being welcomed by their deceased loved ones and religious figures. Later they have no fear of death.

• The fact is that societies throughout history have been organized around various religions and ideologies because belief serves the most basic function of life. Some type of belief system – even belief in atheism – is essential to organize the overwhelming maze of information flooding the brain into a coherent framework that enables action, like the operating system in a computer. Surveys consistently show that around 90% of Americans believe in a God with whom they talk and pray.

This doesn’t prove much, of course, but it suggests that a different dimension of reality may lie waiting to be explored. After all, it was not too long ago that we learned about radio waves. What would somebody living 200 years ago think about “a box displaying moving images of real people far way”? Even a brilliant inventor like Ben Franklin would have struggled to grasp the mystery of television.

I suspect that consciousness may never be shown to consist solely of physical processes in the brain. Yes, the brain is the foundation of life because it manages a complex array of information we depend on. But beyond the domain of information, there appears to exist a vast world of higher thought that transcends sheer knowledge: love, humor, vision, meaning, purpose, free will, and all the other subjective realities that make us human. I speak to hundreds of people on this topic, and 90 percent or more think there is something about the human mind that will always make us distinctively different from the most intelligent computer. The Dalai Lama is working with neuroscientists to integrate science with Zen philosophy, based on his view that the mind is a “higher” power coexisting with information in complex ways.

This view could prove to be wrong, of course, just as it was commonly believed the world is flat. And we may not understand what this difference actually consists of. But most people find it self-evident that their daily experiences are guided by something ineffable but very tangible that transcends sheer logic, and the evidence noted above suggests they may be right. Consciousness is a vivid phenomenon with real consequences. The “religious right” in America, for instance, may be dead wrong about many things, but it is an observable fact that religion plays a vital role in shaping their lives. Daniel Batson, a University of Kansas psychologist, put it best: “To say that the brain produces religion [consciousness] is like saying a piano produces music.”

The Rise of Consciousness

It is also instructive to note that powerful trends seem to be carrying modern societies like ours toward higher levels of consciousness.

Automation has replaced most physical labor with machines, and services are being automated (ATMs, airline kiosks, etc.). Americans have begun to fear that even knowledge – once thought immune to export – is moving off shore to lower paid professionals in developing nations. And science is learning to understand the workings of the brain, which promises to replace human intelligence with artificial intelligence.

A striking example of what is to come can be seen in the rapid development of androids. Honda has just released the second generation of its android robot, “Asimo,” who can run, dance, climb stairs, recognize people, carry on simple conversations, escort visitors, and serve coffee. The Japanese expect to be selling androids to families in 5 years or so as servants and caregivers, and it is forecast that androids will be commonly used in homes by about 2015 – in a decade or so. (see http://www.TechCast.org)

This could mean humans will be replaced by machines, as some fear, but my bet is that the automation of intelligence will simply highlight those innate qualities that make us superior to computers. Even now, a higher form of consciousness is rising simply out of the need to withstand a more difficult world. Globalization is dramatically increasing the load on the environment as poor nations industrialize, posing an unprecedented challenge of creating an ecologically safe global order. Relentless technological advances pose the dilemma of guiding wisely the God-like power of biogenetics that will soon determine who dies and who lives. And terrorism reminds us of the brutal need to form a workable global order out of hundreds of diverse cultures that often clash with one another, like Islam and the West.

The meaning of these developments is made clear by noting how technological progress has steadily shifted work from farm labor, to manufacturing, and now to services and knowledge. As computer intelligence increasingly replaces routine human intelligence, this historic trend is moving our attention toward still higher challenges focusing on nothing less than consciousness itself.

Accommodations on Both Sides of the Debate

If consciousness does transcend the physical world, it then becomes fairly straightforward to see that evolution may be guided by some form of higher intelligence. Although we may not be able to grasp the mystery of consciousness, a reasonable synthesis of scientific evolution and intelligence seems possible strictly on the basis of compelling evidence and logic: Science may explain the mechanisms by which life evolves, but consciousness seems to explain why it evolves at all.

Evolution seems to be energized and guided by all those creative ideas we pluck out of thin air, our values and beliefs, the tough choices we struggle over that shape our future, and possibly everything we have ever experienced. Endless little sparks of consciousness like these constitute the energizing force that seems to guide life to take myriad small steps that collectively determine the course of evolution, within physical constraints of course. This inner world of consciousness probably has its own logic and laws, and we simply don’t understand them very well.

Although this seems to be a plausible explanation that reconciles the scientific and transcendent views, it also presses for accommodations on both sides.

A higher form of intelligence may guide evolution, but it appears to consist of the intelligence arising out of life itself rather than the biblical act of creation fundamentalists insist on. To ignore the overwhelming mass of hard evidence supporting scientific evolution is not faith but willful ignorance.

Likewise, science has mastered physical evolution, but many scientists now acknowledge the possibility that a domain of consciousness may transcend the physical world. Discoveries about the mysterious nature of quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, dark energy, and other inexplicable phenomena should cause us to question the physical assumptions underlying science. Shakespeare saw this long ago: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

This is not simply an intellectual issue because the collective intelligence of a high-tech, rapidly globalizing world is growing today at lightning speed. Regardless of whether we think of this in biological, digital, or spiritual terms, it would be a good idea to understand the nature of this accelerating phenomenon.

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William E. Halal is professor of science, technology, and innovation at George Washington University, Washington, DC. He is co-director of the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation, President of TechCast LLC, and author of several books, such as The Infini te Resource (Jossey Bass, 1998).

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