Friday, August 26, 2005

A Designer Parable

You are deep in a cave something like the one Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher explored. You have on sneakers, hiking shorts, and a tee shirt; you have no flashlight; you have no matches or fire or, for that matter, anything to burn. It is pitch black and for all intents and purposes you are blind. The only thing you can do is walk or crawl around on the rocky cave floor and shout, listening to the hollow echo of your voice bouncing back. You notice that when the echo returns very quickly and has a less hollow sound, you're near a wall. You discover this empirically in the next few crawls when your head strikes hard material above and ahead of your hands and your shredded knees and feet. You then feel with your hands a broad wall of rock, trickling with wetness, not one of those stalactics or stalagmites that intruded abruptly on your meanderings a little while ago.

You try to remember how you got there, but there is something wrong with your head. You can't remember much of anything. What do you call yourself, for instance? You cannot remember whether you have a name, much less what it is. You feel your own body and it feels cool, almost cold, and damp, sticky in places, and there is grit on it, dirt from the cave, whatever dirt is? You are very thirsty and hungry, so you lick at the wetness on the wall and it tastes like something, but you don't know what. It helps, but you wonder what that taste might be.

You notice that your ears are becoming more and more sensitive with each passing minute and hour. When you stop your breathing you can hear tiny droplets of fluid dripping from the cave ceiling or from stalactites. You move toward areas where the dripping sounds seem to be more frequent or louder. You crawl most of the time because the ceiling of the cave is low and you cannot pass without getting onto all fours. You crawl until suddenly your right hand fails to find the floor of the cave. It claws momentarily in thin air for something, but there is nothing. Cautiously you put your right hand near your right knee and extend your left hand forward and to the floor. Again, there is no floor. You shout and your voice comes back hollow and very attentuated. You have discovered a drop-off. Good thing you were not walking up-right.

When you shout the sound comes back so quickly that you have only a sense of big volume and small volume and something else, perhaps a turn in the direction of the cave. So, you reach for something to throw, a pebble perhaps, to listen to, to extend your perception. You need to measure the drop off, its width and depth. You drop a pebble over the side and it rattles down the sides of the drop-off and then splashs into fluid. You now know a little more about the drop-off; there is water or something at the bottom, but the pebble made a lot of confusing little noises as it skittered down the side of the drop-off, so you have a lot of data, but not the clean, clear measurement you wanted.

You find another pebble and throw it outward from yourself in the direction of the drop-off. It clicks against the side of the drop-off and rattles downward until it, too, splashes in the liquid below. You surmise that you threw the pebble beyond the near side, so it must have struck the opposing wall of the drop-off and then fallen into the pool. You toss another pebble, not as hard this time, and there is no sound of pebble hitting rock, only the splash at the bottom.

How deep is the drop-off, you wonder? Could you jump it? Could you scramble down and back up? You back up a few feet and try to stand up. Luckily, you can stand upright at this place in the cave. You reach up, but you cannot touch the ceiling. You bend down and pick up another pebble. You raise the pebble over your head as high as you can and drop it. It clicks on the ground in front of you. How long did it take to hit, you ask yourself? You repeat the process counting numbers quickly out loud from the moment of dropping to the moment you hear the noise of the pebble hitting the cave floor. You repeat the process a dozen times. You can count to "four" while the pebble drops. "Four" is how tall your vertical reach is.

You crawl forward to the drop-off place and toss another pebble, then another into the void. You count each time. Toss, count, splash, toss, count, splash, toss, count, rattle, splash. When you have a clean toss, no rattle, you count to "five" or "six," mostly "six." When there is a rattle, when you hit one of the sides by accident, the count is "seven." Once there was a rattle, "five," and no splash, so you infer that the pebble landed on something above the liquid and stuck there.

If the liquid at the bottom of the drop-off is down "six," what does that mean? Your head rebels against you, but you try to think about it. If the pebble takes "four" to drop from your up-raised hand to the floor of the cave, does "six" mean that the liquid is just about half again as tall as your up-lifted hand? Think, damn it! No, the pebble is stationary in your hand and then it moves downward (because things fall), moving faster and faster. It is going pretty fast when it hits the floor and probably faster still when it hits the pool of liquid. So, it starts at zero speed and picks up speed as it falls. Interesting.

You try dropping pebbles from your waist level to the floor. After a couple dozen tries you discover that you can count almost to "three." That's peculiar, you think. "Four" from as high as I can reach, but "three" from half of that. There can only be one conclusion: falling objects starting from zero speed fall at ever increasing speed, definitely not some constant speed.

With this in mind you decide to calculate a guess of the depth of the liquid at the bottom of the drop-off. If "three" is half of "four," then what distance is "six?" We know that "four" is the distance from up-stretched hand to floor; we know that "three" is (the first) half that distance, therefore, you infer, "two" is half that first distance, and "one" is half that distance. Just add them up (to six) and you get "eight" times the distance from waist to cave floor.

Just as you decide this is nearly correct and the drop-off way too deep, you see a bright light, the cave becomes visible, the drop-off appears to your squinting eyes as a gaping ten-foot diameter hole in the cavern floor, and within minutes you are saved by search and rescue spelunkers!

As they later explain to you on the surface that you fell through one of Florida's ever-popular sinkholes into a dry part of the cavernous Florida aquifer, you try to tell them about your calculations.

As they listen one of them notices that your measurements were based on two things: your body dimensions up-reaching arm height or your waist height and, second, your pace of counting. He, being an educated person, marvels that once again "man is the measure of all things." He understands better than ever the concept of "anthropic principles" in science; they are just reflections of the conceiving mind.

Another person notices that your powers of reasoning, even though you landed on your head and gave yourself a big concussion, were intact, and he marvels how you designed a way to improve your chances to understand your life and environment. He notes that just because things which evolved over 2,000,000,000 years are more complicated than humans have been able to understand in their 50,000 or so years (particularly the last 50 years), does not mean that a super intelligent designer or craftsman is at work.

A third person turns to the first two and says, "I noticed that he was deprived of all senses but taste, hearing and touch and that, nevertheless, he was still able to develop evidence, and that evidence was determined by the nature of his functioning sensory apparatus with all its limitations. Very good observations, the others all chimed in. They marveled at the ability of human beings to extend their grasp of things by using simple tools and reasoning with evidence.

Then a fourth person interrupted, "But this 'science' you call it is all provisional and full of errors," he said. "Obviously pebbles and caves and numbers and human bodies and brains are all the work of God, and that's the unifying principle. God is the reason he got it all together. Our friend here merely got a glimpse of the great intelligence behind it all! And, by the way, he said with a look of reverence on his slightly chubby face, it is one of God's blessed miracles that they ever found him!"

A while later, while searching for the site of this miracle so he could offer up a prayer of thanks, the fourth man lost his balance and stumbled into the very same sink hole. Unfortunately, the spelunking search and rescue team had gone home, so it was an hour before they were able to go after the fourth man. It was not soon enough, because underground in the cave when he crawled to his encounter with the drop-off, he trusted to God instead of his own wits to save him. Straining his blinded eyes for a sign from above, he soon imagined a light at the end of the cavern and tried to crawl toward it; instead he fell into the hole and broke his fool neck!

Afterword

You should read at least the first two paragraphs of this article by William Safire. The key is in the last sentence of paragraph two.

"It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design."
If the supposition were science, then it would be refutable and we could rule it out! Since it is not, the supposition and "intelligent design" are metaphysics at best and our characteristic human hubris surely.

For your entertainment today, you might also read this from The Onion. It is a clever and apt parody which points to the fact demonstrated in my Parable, above, that human beings are limited creatures who learn by observation not only directly, but by indirection through tools and other processes and events they learn to manipulate. Some are prone to jumping to conclusions, particularly when they have already committed themselves to belief systems on faith.

James Richard Brett

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