Previous: 7.  The Nature of the Self Up: Consciousness and the Physical World Next: 9.  A Summing Up

8.  The Self Writ Large

Several writers have suggested that conscious minds may play a truly grand role in the universe, perhaps even being responsible for the creation and design of living beings and the creation and design of the very physical universe itself. Strangely enough, the evidence is most compelling for the most grandiose of these claims, namely that the universe may have been designed by a conscious agent or agents. Let us begin, however, by examining the less cosmological assertion that minds may have played a role in the emergence of life and in directing the course of evolution.

The Creation of Life

According to currently accepted scientific wisdom, life emerged from random chemical reactions in the early stages of the Earth’s development. Several prominent scientists have, however, expressed skepticism that the random mixing of chemicals could produce the complex, self-replicating entities we call living beings.  Among these scientists are two British knights, Sir Francis Crick, a co-winner of the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA molecules, and Sir Fred Hoyle, a noted astronomer.  Both Crick (1981) and Hoyle (Hoyle, 1983; Hoyle & Wickramasinghe, 1981, 1988) have proposed that life evolved in outer space and then migrated to Earth.  Outer space is considerably more spacious than the Earth and consequently affords life more opportunity to evolve randomly. Given the vast reaches of space and innumerable planetary systems, even the most improbable events, such as the creation of living beings from the random mixing of chemicals, are bound to occur. 

Hoyle (1983) has even suggested that certain disease epidemics are caused by viruses descending to Earth from outer space. In some cases, Hoyle contends, these viruses may insert their genes into the genomes of terrestrial animals, altering the course of biological evolution.

Both Michael Hart (1990) and Richard Dawkins (1986) have also argued that it is extremely improbable that life will evolve in any given planetary system. However, because of the large number of planetary systems in the universe, they argue, life is bound to emerge in some of them. In fact, Hart argues that the existing evidence indicates that our universe is spatially infinite, so that all possible forms of life will emerge.  Dawkins and Hart agree that because of the extremely low probability that life will emerge randomly in any given planetary system, life would be expected to be extremely sparsely distributed in the universe. Perhaps this is why we see so little evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations in our local area of the universe (discounting the reports in such second-tier scientific journals as the supermarket tabloid the Weekly World News).

John Casti (1989) has observed that life depends crucially on the accurate self-replication of molecular systems. He further observes that one cannot have reliable replication without large RNA molecules and that one cannot get large RNA molecules without a reliable replication system, thus producing a “Catch- 22” situation, rendering it implausible that life could evolve randomly.  Sidney Fox (1988), on the other hand, has proposed that the first life forms consisted of microspheres composed of spontaneously forming thermal proteins.  In Fox’s view, DNA and RNA molecules emerged later in the course of evolution.  However, Julius Rebek and his coworkers at M.I.T. succeeded in synthesizing very simple self-replicating molecules, showing that self-replication need not involve RNA or DNA and may be achieved by quite simple molecules that are likely to arise randomly in a “prebiotic soup” on the early Earth (see Pool, 1990; Amato, 1994; and Feng, Park & Rebek,1992).

Thus, it seems by no means impossible that life could have emerged from random chemical reactions either on Earth or in outer space, and so we are not compelled to assume that conscious minds must have played a role in the creation of the first self-replicating life forms.  Later in this chapter, however, we will see that the physical universe itself seems to be delicately designed to allow the possibility of life’s emerging in it.  Perhaps a conscious agent or agents had a hand in designing the very laws of nature and in setting the initial conditions of our universe.

Directed Evolution

As was discussed in Chapter 1, until fairly recent times, even orthodox biologists assumed that some sort of psychical energy or vital force animated living creatures.  We have already traced the retreat of this doctrine of vitalism in the face of scientific advances such as the synthesis of the biological molecules urea and glucose in the laboratory.  Still, the philosophy of vitalism is not dead and retains some adherents today. For instance, in the early 1960s, the philosopher C. J. Ducasse of Brown University proposed a solution to the mind-body problem that he called “hypophenomenalism,” in which the mind is viewed as animating the body (Ducasse, 1961). Under this doctrine, the mind is responsible for maintaining the life of the body.

The Australian biologist Charles Birch (1988) has contended that the mind cannot be reduced to brain activity and that mental events such as ideas and emotions may influence physical events in the body, such as the behavior of molecules. He further proposes that minds may be able to influence the outcome of seemingly “random events” in the process of biological evolution.  

As we have already seen, Carroll Nash (1984b) reported evidence that human subjects could use their psychokinetic powers to influence the rate at which bacterial genes mutate.

Sir John Eccles (1989) went so far as to maintain that there exists a divine guidance over the course of evolution.  The physicist O. Costa de Beauregard (1979) has postulated that biological evolution is directed from the future through the emission of advanced waves that travel backward in time.  Another modern vitalist is consciousness researcher Willis Harman, who contends that there exists a “self-organizing” force governing living beings that cannot be explained on the basis of the principles of physics (Harman, 1993).

One of the most enthusiastic proponents of the doctrine that purposive influences guide the course of biological evolution in recent years was the popular science writer Arthur Koestler (1967, 1972, 1978).  Koestler provided several examples of evolutionary development that he felt could not be accounted for by the neo–Darwinian theory that evolution proceeds through random mutations in genes.  One of these examples was that of the sixth finger of the giant panda.  Koestler argued that the finger would have been useless unless it was equipped with its own nerves, blood supply and system of muscles. Koestler felt that this confluence of events was unlikely to occur by chance. Koestler’s view appears to be based on the assumption that a separate mutation would be required for each system. When one considers how frequently domestic cats are born with extra toes, Koestler’s argument seems to fall apart. Evidently, viable supernumerary digits can arise without the divine coordination of a host of separate mutations.

Similarly, Koestler argued that the evolution of birds required the “simultaneous transformation of scales into feathers, solid bones into hollow tubes, the outgrowth of air sacs into various parts of the body, the development of shoulder muscles and bones to athletic proportions, and so forth” (Koestler 1978, p. 175). Once again it is only Koestler’s assumption that these transformations had to be simultaneous and discrete rather than nonsimultaneous and gradual. That Koestler’s assumption is in fact false is readily apparent upon an examination of the Jurassic bird Archeopteryx, which represents a transitional form between the reptiles and birds in the course of evolution.  Archeopteryx had small wings (which were used mainly for gliding), clawed fingers (which were presumably used for climbing), teeth and feathers, but no hollow bones.

Koestler asserted that mutations are almost always trivial or harmful and thus could not serve to further the course of evolution. He cited the example of mutations that change the color of a plant, contending that such mutations were so trivial that they could not have any evolutionary significance. However, such a mutation could increase a plant’s fertility by making it more attractive to bees or could increase the plant’s longevity if the color change resulted in the plant’s resembling a poisonous species. Similar mutations affecting the color of an animal might confer camouflage benefits or increased attractiveness to the opposite sex.

As further evidence that evolution is guided by some sort of purposeful force rather than being the result of random mutations, Koestler cited the example of mutant eyeless flies, which, when inbred, gave rise to several flies with normal eyes after a few generations. An advocate of neo–Darwinism can readily cope with this finding, however.  The neo–Darwinist can simply assert that the mutation responsible for the eyeless condition was unstable and that the gene backmutated to its normal form.  Also, as William Day (1984) points out, the emergence of a gene having a new function in the course of evolution is usually preceded by the duplication of the old gene, so that copies of the old gene are preserved in the animal’s DNA should something go awry with the new gene.

Another piece of evidence for a purposive influence guiding the course of evolution educed by Koestler was the fact that the isolated marsupial animals of Australia evolved into similar types of animals as did the placental animals elsewhere on the Earth. The neo–Darwinist can, however, readily retort that similar environmental “niches” will tend to favor the evolution of similar types of animals.

Koestler argued for a modified form of Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. As evidence in favor of his theory, he cited the fact that the skin on the soles of the feet of the human embryo is thickened, which he thought reflected the acquisition of calluses by prior generations of walking humans.  On the other hand, it would be quite easy for the neo–Darwinist to cope with this observation by pointing out that mutations favoring thick skins on the soles of the feet will be favored by natural selection, as thin-soled children may not be able to flee from predators over long distances.  In summary, Koestler did not provide much in the way of compelling evidence to challenge the neo–Darwinian position.

Ken Wilber (1996) also argues that a purposive force guides the course of evolution, in a manner similar to Koestler.  He assert that hundreds of mutations would be need to occur simultaneously to produce, say, a wing in a wingless creature.  He asserts that “half a wing” will confer no biological advantage to an organism.  However, contra Wilber, half a wing might indeed confer superior gliding ability on an arboreal creature jumping from tree limb to tree limb.  Also single mutations, especially those producing dominant alleles of gene, can produce striking changes in an animal’s phenotype (e.g., body design); such changes do not require hundreds of simultaneous mutations as Wilber asserts. 

There is a smattering of evidence supporting the view that some forms of directed mutation exist.  The team of Cairns, Overbaugh and Miller found that a mutant form of the E. coli bacterium that is unable to metabolize lactose mutated back to the normal form when placed on a medium containing high concentrations of lactose, suggesting that the mutations tended to occur in a direction favorable to the organism. Similarly, B. G. Hall found that bacteria that are unable to synthesize the amino acids tryptophan and cysteine mutate in such a way as to be able to synthesize these amino acids when they are unavailable in the environment.  Recent findings suggest that starvation does indeed affect the types of mutation that occur, although it has yet to be determined that the mutations occur in a purposeful rather than random manner.  See Stahl (1990), Thaler (1994), and Culotta (1994) for a more detailed discussion of this line of research.

 Morphic Resonance

Another recent writer to challenge the neo–Darwinian theory is biochemist Rupert Sheldrake (1981, 1983a 1983b, 1988a, 1988b, 1990), who proposes that embryological development is guided through a process he terms “morphic resonance.”  Sheldrake’s ideas and the evidence supporting them have already been discussed in Chapter 5.  As noted there, Sheldrake proposes that, for instance, a flamingo embryo will be guided in its development through “resonating” with the “morphic fields” of all the flamingos that have preceded it into the world.  Susan Blackmore (1985b) has pointed out that Sheldrake’s theory is circular insofar as Sheldrake explains the similarity of two creatures in terms of resonance and the resonance between two creatures on the basis of their similarity.  Similarly, it is difficult to see how morphic resonance could account for the process of evolution and the emergence of novel forms of life, as morphic resonance would confine creatures to repeating previous patterns of biological development.  Also, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 5, most if not all of Shledrake’s experimental evidence for the existence of morphic resonanace is based on studies with numerous design flaws, allowing for the possibility of experimental artifacts. 

Biologists have been quick to condemn Sheldrake’s theory as being baseless and have pointed out that orthodox biological and physical processes can account for most of the biological effects Sheldrake ascribes to morphic resonance.  

Intelligent Design

Recently, there has been a movement to promote the idea that life shows evidence of intelligent design in American public schools.  To the dismay of many scientists, belief in Biblical creationism (i.e., the literal the truth of the account of creation in chapter of Genesis in the bible) is widespread at the present time in America (although much less so in Europe and elsewhere).  A recent CBS poll indicates that a slight majority of Americans believe that humans and other animals were created in their present forms and did not evolve from earlier life forms ( , accessed December 12, 2005). 

There have been attempts in several American states to mandate the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in the public schools, with the theories being presented as equally plausible alternatives.  Creationism in the form of a literal interpretation of the Biblical book of Genesis, with its implied recent creation of the Earth, the coexistence of human and dinosaurs, etc., is contradicted by a such a wide body of scientific evidence that space considerations prohibit a detailed overview in this book.  However, a newer and more sophisticated version of a teleological alternative to Darwinism (at least to theory of Darwinian evolution based on the notion that genetic mutations occur randomly) has been proposed and goes by the moniker of “intelligent design.”  In most states, the battle for the public school curriculum in America is between those who wish the theory of intelligent design taught alongside with traditional Darwinism and those who with to exclude it as unscientific (and possibly because they regard it as a front for those wishing to promote a literal Biblical creationism).  Intelligent design presents a more sophisticated adversary for the latter, as it does not rely on the hypotheses of a recent creation of the Earth along with the present lifeforms presently inhabiting it   (i.e. creation within the past few millennia).  It is also more consistent with the formidable body of scientific evidence indicating that the Earth is several billion years old and the fossil record indicating the gradual development of life into the species existing at the present time.

One of the most prominent exponents of the intelligent design theory in recent years has William A Dembski, an associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University.   Dembski (2001) proposes that biological life shows evidence of having been designed by an intelligent agent or agents, rather than evolving solely through Darwinian processes involving purely “natural” causes.  He considers the issue of whether intelligent agents themselves constitute natural causes.  He concludes that they are not to be considered natural causes if they themselves are designed by an intelligent agency that is irreducible to natural causes.  In such a case, he argues, the intelligent agents “cannot be reduced to natural causes without remainder” (Dembski, 2001, p. xiv).  Dembski notes that the designers he is proposing are not equivalent to the Designer proposed by William Paley in his “natural theology,” which was a thinly disguised version of the Christian god.

Dembski asserts that intelligent agents leave behind traces of “specified complexity” or “complex specified information” (which he abbreviates as CSI).  According to his definition, a phenomenon must satisfy three conditions to be considered an instance of CSI.  First, it must be contingent (i.e., not an inevitable result of deterministic natural laws).  Second, it must be complex (i.e., improbable).  Third, it must contain evidence of specification (i.e., must manifest some type of “meaningfulness”).  As an example of CSI, he cites the message received by radio astronomers in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact.  This message consisted of an encoded sequential list of the prime numbers.  He argues that such a message would be unlikely to have arisen by chance as the result of purely natural phenomena and manifests a high degree of meaningfulness.

Dembksi next considers the issue of how improbable an event must be in order to rule out the hypothesis that the event occurred merely by chance as a result of natural laws.  Computing the number of possible transitions of each of the 1080 elementary particles in the observable universe during the entire history of the universe, he arrives at 10150 as an upper bound on the number of elementary events that could have occurred in the history of the (known) universe.  Strangely, he uses 10-45 seconds as his estimate of the Planck time (the shortest possible meaningful temporal internal) rather than the more commonly accepted value of 10-43 seconds.  However, this “error” only makes his treatment more conservative and only strengthens his argument (not to mention providing him with a very aesthetically pleasing value for the highest number of elementary events that could have occurred during the history of the observable universe).  However, one way in which his treatment is not conservative is that he does not take into account the number of states each elementary particle could adopt in each transition.  This would seem to require another multiplier in his expression for the possible number of states that could have occurred in the history of the universe.

Dembski argues that in computing the probability of an event occurring by chance, calculations must be restricted to states of the known universe.  It is, he claims, an illegitimate tactic to assume a universe much larger than the observable universe or to assume that multiple universes exist, as in Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, as this inappropriately inflates probabilistic resources.  However, it would seem to be a quite reasonable explanation of our improbable existence to assume that we naturally (i.e., by definition) inhabit a region of a greater universe (or one of many universes in a “multiverse”) that is characterized by conditions that support human life.  One argument Dembski offers in opposition to the multiple universe view is that there is no independent evidence for the existence of such multiple universes.  He notes that if one were to see Arthur Rubenstein playing a piece by Liszt flawlessly, we would assume that his playing was due to skill, rather than that he is playing random notes and we just happen to inhabit a region of spacetime in which the random notes happen to replicate a piece by Liszt. In other worlds, one does not normally postulate unlimited probabilistic resources in explaining observed instances of CSI.

Dembski notes that deterministic natural laws merely take a given state of a physical system into one and only one subsequent state of the system, and thus cannot give rise to CSI unless CSI was already encoded in the initial state of the system. Similarly, he notes that deterministic natural laws combined with random processes such as those postulated in the theory of quantum mechanics cannot generate CSI in a system lacking CSI, due to the extreme improbability of any event yielding CSI from a system lacking CSI.  (He assumes 10-150 as the upper bound on the probability of any system exhibiting CSI; thus, he argues that CSI subsumes events that are so improbable that they would never have arisen by chance during the history of the known universe.)  He proposes a Fourth Law of Thermodynamics, which he terms the Law of Conservation of Information.  Under this law, the amount of CSI can never increase (by chance) in a closed system.

Following this discussion, Dembski turns to the “evolutionary algorithms” proposed by Darwinists.  He contends that the Darwinian mechanism of random variation followed by natural selection is inadequate to account for either the origin of life or the course of evolution (i.e., the emergence of complex species from the first rudimentary forms of life).  

He debunks a particular instance of the evolution of CSI through random variation followed by natural selection offered by Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker (Dawkins, 1986).  Dawkins considers a process whereby a random sequence of 28 characters evolves into the sentence “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.”  The process involves randomly varying each letter and then retaining each letter that matches the desired sequence on each iteration.  Dawkins notes that the correct sequence was usually obtained after approximately forty iterations of this process of random variation followed by “natural selection.”  However, Dembski points out that this is not an instance of the generation of CSI, as under the rules of the game the probability that the correct sequence would emerge after a small number of iterations is approximately 1.   He notes that in this game the design in fact came from the mind of Dawkins, who “frontloaded” the rules of selection to produce the desired result.  Thus, the obtained sequence is in fact the result of intelligent design rather than being selected through true Darwinian mechanisms.  He notes that when evolution proceeds by feedback, the rules governing the feedback themselves may manifest evidence of being intelligently designed, as many feedback algorithms are possible. 

In particular, Dembski notes that the “fitness function,” the function that determines the probability of survival and replication, may itself be intelligently designed (as in Dawkins’ example).  He argues that, when averaged across all possible fitness functions, evolutionary algorithms cannot outperform a blind search, which is extremely unlikely to result in an instance of specified complexity.   

Dembski also considers the example of a computerized neural net model that learned how to play an expert game of checkers. He notes that this does not constitute an instance of spontaneously emerging CSI, as the neural net model was itself intelligently designed by its programmers to produce the desired result.  (One feature of the program design was the inclusion of a “preprocessing layer” specifically designed to represent a two-dimensional checkerboard.  Intelligent design was also involved in the comparison of win-loss records between programs, which determined which neural net would survive.)

Dembski briefly considers the wider topic of the anthropic principle, the notion that the fundamental constants of the universe seem specifically designed to support the existence of life and hence intelligent observers (to be discussed in more detail in the second half of this chapter).  In particular, he argues that specifically Earth-like conditions had to exist in order for life to emerge.  However, it is quite possible that radically different forms of life may emerge under different circumstances, and it may be “chauvinistic” to assume that all intelligent observers must be oxygen-breathing carbon-based life forms such as ourselves.  Given such uncertainties, Dembski’s definitive statements as to the probability of life emerging are unwarranted.  Dembksi argues also that, even after the initial forms of life have emerged, Darwinian processes (increased replication driven by differential survival and reproduction) will favor simplicity over complexity (although one wonders how Dembksi knows this with such certitude).  The emergence of complex forms, he asserts, is dependent on additional information in the fitness function, which itself may be intelligently designed.

Dembski asserts that the assumption that life emerged from purely physical causes imposes an arbitrary and unnecessary restriction on scientific inquiry and the types of scientific hypotheses that are deemed “politically correct.”  He notes that the origin of life is just one example of what he terms “emergence without causal specificity.”  He cites the emergence of consciousness from neurophysiological processes as another example of such emergence.

Dembski states that he specifically wishes to focus on the emergence of complex life and the diversity of life from simple life forms.  He sees Darwinian mechanisms as being unable to account for such emergence, and he readily admits that Darwinian mechanisms may account for smaller changes, such as the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.  Incidentally, he asserts that the process of lateral gene transfer in bacteria (the mechanism through which many bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance) is “thoroughly non-Darwinian” (Dembski, 2001, p. 287). Thoroughly non-Darwinian it may be, but it is nonetheless compatible with reductionism. 

Dembski then introduces the notion of “irreducible complexity.”  A system is irreducibly complex if it is composed of many components, the removal of any one of which will prevent the system from functioning.  As his central example of irreducible complexity, he cites the case of the bacterial flagellum, a whip-like tail that propels the organism. The flagellum is composed of many interlocking and interdependent parts, the loss of any one of which would prevent the flagellum from performing its function of propulsion.  However, even in this case, one could imagine a more motionless flagellum serving the organism as a rudder or appendage. Parts of the system could have initially evolved for other purposes. Interestingly enough, Dembski only briefly mentions the eye, long the poster organ for irreducible complexity among design theorists, and that mention comes only at the end of the book.  This omission is undoubtedly due to the fact that the eye has long since been demolished as an example of irreducible complexity by opponents of design theory.  Rather compelling arguments have been made that this organ has emerged gradually and several times independently over the course of evolution.

Strangely, Dembski argues that whole organisms may not be irreducibly complex, citing the fact that the human body may continue to function even if its appendix is removed.  (However, this observation considerably weakens Dembski’s argument.)

Bower (2005) has noted that irreducible complexity, in which the removal of a single part destroys a system’s function is evidence of poor design, not intelligent design.  Perakh (2005) concurs with Bower that irreducible complexity in which the whole system fails if a single part fails is a sign of bad or even “stupid” design.  In Perakh’s view, an intelligent designer would include safeguards and redundancy into the system.  Perakh notes that a pile of stones is less random than a brick (in Kolmogrov’s sense of the shortest computer program needed to produce or describe the object or system).  However, a brick is more likely to be intelligently designed than the rock.  

Dembski notes that the theory of intelligent design may need to propose a positive research program in order to overthrow Darwinism as the primary research paradigm. He notes that design theory does indeed led to a new set of research questions, including:


 How did the designer(s) construct living organisms?

 How is the design process perturbed under changing circumstances?

 What are the intentions/goals of the designer(s)?

 Who were the designers?


He states that the last two questions are not proper questions for science.  Here, he may be giving away his deistic leanings, as the last two questions are indeed considered questions for science these days when, say, the designers were prehistoric human beings. It is not clear why this situation would necessarily change if the designers were alien (or even immaterial) beings.

Other questions include the issue of how abiotically-generated information is transferred into organisms.  Dembski notes that design could be achieved without violating any natural laws, but he implies that natural laws provide an incomplete description of the universe.  (He notes that natural laws as presently understood provide an incomplete description of the universe, as they are, for instance, unable to account for the emergence of the conscious mind from the physical brain.)

Dembski next considers the question of how the theory of intelligent design should be integrated into the biology curriculum, a thorny issue indeed in these days of rancorous debate over creationism.  He asserts that one need not discard the notion of evolution in biology curricula, but should rather abandon the position that Darwinian selection combined with random variation is the sole driving force in generating the diversity of life forms.

He does assert that the sudden explosion of life into a multitude of bodily designs in the Cambrian Era is difficult to square with the notion of common descent. 

Dembski next turns to a discussion of the implications of the theory of quantum mechanics for design theory.  He notes that quantum indeterminism provides the designer or designers with some “elbow room” to get their work done.  (In a deterministic Newtonian framework, each subsequent state of the universe is uniquely determined by the initial state, eliminating any opportunity for a designer to intervene in the state of affairs.  Of course, a physically-embodied designer would be able to act in such a universe, but Dembski is of the view that the designers are most likely not physically embodied.)

Dembski asserts that the prevailing view in modern quantum mechanics is the “Many Worlds” interpretation, in which the universe is seen as splitting into a myriad of alternative universes at each quantum decision point, with each universe corresponding to a particular outcome of the quantum process, noting that this view is advocated by such prominent theorists as Stephen Hawking and Murray Gell-Mann.  However, it is my sense that most physicists see the Many Worlds theory as pathologically unparsimonious and still prefer the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics over the Many Worlds interpretation.   Dembski, of course objects to the Many Worlds interpretation because the plethora of universes it prescribes affords more probabilistic resources and hence makes it more likely that CSI could emerge by chance.  Dembski raises the question of why, if there are so many worlds, is the world we happen to inhabit characterized by CSI.  The answer of course is the same as that given by opponents of the anthropic principle: “Because we are here!”  By definition we must exist in one of the universes characterized by a high degree of CSI.  Dembski also argues that the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics was put forth prior to the Many Worlds interpretation, and that indeed the latter is parasitic on the former.

Dembski objects to the “frontloaded” design hypothesis, in which it is postulated that CSI was infused in the initial state of the universe and that the designer or designers do not intervene in the world after its creation.  He sees this as a form of kowtowing to the mechanistic model of the universe advocated by modern science and objects to the “hands-off” version of design theory on this basis.  He asserts that there are no good reasons for preferring this view over a more interactionist model.  In support of the idea of continued intervention, he cites the case of the sudden explosion of life into a diversity of life forms in the Cambrian Era.  

He next considers Richard Dawkins’ objection that if one postulates a Designer, then one must in turn explain the origin of (i.e., design of) the Designer.  Thus, design arguments involve an infinite regress in Dawkins’ view.  Dembski, however, states that he “declines” the regress.  He asserts that the principal question is whether design theory is useful as a scientific hypothesis in generating and answering questions.  He asserts that the designer or designers are not part of nature as presently understood by the scientific community.  Thus, he claims, there is no “marker” attached to the designer to indicate that the designer itself must be designed.  However, this argument may fail in a causal sense, as one may ask what caused the designer (even granting that the designer has no known features that would suggest deliberate design).  Dembksi, on the other hand, argues that the design hypothesis is intended to provide “local” or “proximate” explanations rather than ultimate explanations. 

Dembski next considers the objection put forward by Eugenie Scott (2001), a prominent critic of intelligent design theory (IDT) and creationism, that IDT is unfalsifiable.  Dembski counters that it is in fact Darwinism that is unfalsifiable (a charge not uncommonly directed at Darwinism), whereas IDT is not.  (Actually, although IDT predicts the existence of CSI, this is an existential claim, which may be verified but not falsified.  In fact, Dembski argues that the existence of CSI falsifies Darwinism, showing that Darwinism is indeed falsifiable after all.)

Dembski notes that IDT does not repudiate Darwinism entirely, but incorporates Darwinian selection as one of the principles driving biological evolution.  He observes that the objections to IDT seem to have their root in a fear of the reemergence of occult and religious entities in scientific explanations, which may lead to the destruction of modern science, at least in the eyes of orthodox scientists.

He notes that the British natural philosophers embraced a world governed by mechanistic laws with all design being of the “frontloaded” variety.  This stance did much to undermine the design theory, in Dembski’s view.  He argues, however, that the nonmechanistic aspects of modern quantum theory imply that design need not only be of the frontloaded variety and that interactionistic versions of IDT no longer violate the established principles of science (which of course continue to change and evolve with new discoveries).

In the final analysis, Dembski’s case rests on his probabilistic arguments for the presence of CSI.  Given the present state of our knowledge, it is unlikely that these probabilities can be computed with any degree of certainty (e.g., the probability of bacterial flagellum proteins emerging by chance from some prior adaptation).  For this reason, it cannot be said that Dembski has definitively established a case for intelligent design. 

There is thus no compelling evidence for an influence of mind on the creation of life or the direction of biological evolution. A God or Designer who pushes macromolecules about with Her Divine Finger seems no more credible than Newton’s God, whom Newton called upon to continually reestablish the harmony of the planetary movements.  

There is a bit more of a suggestion of a role for the mind in the creation of the universe itself, however, as we shall now see.   

Mind as Deity

The universe we inhabit seems very delicately designed to support the existence of living creatures and hence of conscious minds. This suggests that the universe may have been created by a conscious Being or beings to serve as some sort of cosmic amusement park. The fact that the universe seems designed to support the existence of intelligent beings has been commented on by many physicists, who have coined the term “anthropic principle” to denote this element of apparent design in the universe.

As the physicist Paul Davies (1983) points out, if the rate of expansion of the universe immediately after its creation in the Big Bang had differed even slightly from its actual value, life as we know it could not exist.  Had the rate of expansion been infinitesimally slower, all matter would have collapsed into black holes shortly after the creation of the universe.  Had the rate been slightly faster, the matter density would have been too small to allow galaxies to form.  Davies also points out that matter seems to be very uniformly distributed throughout the galaxy. If the mass distribution had been less homogeneous, the gaseous clouds needed to form stars, planetary systems and living beings would not have existed, and most of the mass in the universe would have been consumed in black holes.

Roger Penrose (1986) has pointed out that the universe was created in a very highly ordered state that would not be expected to occur by chance.

The laws of physics themselves seem to be delicately contrived to allow for the emergence of life. In their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, John Barrow and Frank Tipler (1986) note that even minuscule variations from the existing ratios of the strength of the nuclear force to the electromagnetic force, of the total number of photons to the total number of protons in the universe, and of the mass of the electron to the mass of the proton would have rendered the universe incapable of supporting life.  They further contend that the existing abundances and properties of the chemical elements seem to be designed to facilitate the emergence of life, noting in particular that the most abundant chemicals, such as water and carbon dioxide, appear to be optimally suited to supporting life.  John Gribbin and Martin Rees (1989) point out that the so-called “weak force” that governs radioactive decay must be extremely fine-tuned in order for stars to shed matter in great quantities during supernova explosions. (Our bodies are composed of elements that were forged in the interior of stars and then released in supernova explosions. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, we are all “starfolk.”)  George Greenstein (1988) has observed that even a difference of one part in 100 billion in the electrical charges of the electron and the proton would cause physical objects to fly apart due to electrical repulsion among their parts. Greenstein further notes that if the ratio of the masses of the proton and the neutron were reversed, protons would decay into neutrons and even simple elements such as hydrogen would not exist (and hence neither would life).

In a recent review of the evidence for the anthropic principle, Mario Livio and Martin Rees (2005) consider all possible universes with the same natural laws and the same value of all physical constants as our own but one, the cosmological constant Λ, which describes the “pressure “ of the physical vacuum.  They assert that the value Λ we observe in our universe seems fine-tuned to support life.  If Λ were higher by an order of magnitude, the universe would have expanded so quickly that no galaxies could have formed, and thus life (or more precisely the carbon-based life forms with which we are familiar) would not have arisen.  Livio and Rees cite three other cosmic “coincidences” that seem necessary:


 The presence of baryons (particles such as protons and neutrons).

 The fact that the universe is not infinitely smooth, allowing for the possibility of structure.

 The fact that the force of gravitation is weaker than the forces that act within atoms and molecules by a factor of 1040.


Even the number of dimensions of space seems uniquely suited to supporting the existence of life.  Planetary orbits would be unstable if space had more than three dimensions (see Barrow & Tipler, 1986; Gribbin & Rees, 1989; and Greenstein, 1988), and Greenstein (1988) has pointed out that a universe of at least three dimensions may be required in order that brains with highly complex connections among their neurons can exist (which may be necessary for consciousness).

On the contrary side, physicist Steven Weinberg (2001) has argued that the fine-tuning of the universe may not be that fine after all. He notes that the ratio of the energy of a beryllium 8 nucleus to that of a hydrogen nucleus is 20% higher than the optimum ratio for carbon production.  He suggests that there may be room for substantial “errors” in such ratios.

Bernard Carr (2004) notes that the universe needs to be about 1010  years old in order to support life, but that after this epoch all matter will be in stellar remnants.  This may be part of the reason why the moment in time that has been somehow selected as the “now” is within the range of ages of the universe that will support life.  As biologically based conscious observers, we could exist at no other time.  A discussed in Chapter 2, many physicists (e.g., Walker, 2000) have proposed that quantum processes do not give rise to a definite outcome unless such outcomes are witnessed by a conscious observer.  Indeed, some physicists (e.g., Wheeler, 1983) have suggested that the universe itself, conceived as a quantum process, could not have come into existence without some conscious observer to collapse state vectors and thus to give rise to a definite history of the universe.  Wheeler terms this view the “participatory universe.”  Wheeler notes that this view may explain the “anthropic principle,” the fact that the initial state and physical laws of the universe seem finely tuned to support the existence of conscious observers.  Potential universes that do not support the presence of conscious observers could not become actualized in Wheeler’s view, as there would be no conscious observers to collapse their state vectors in the proper “direction” to create such a history.

The physicist Edward Tryon (1973) has proposed that the creation of the universe may actually have been a quantum fluctuation. He further observes that the total energy of the universe may be equal to zero, as negative gravitational potential energies may balance out the positive energies of physical particles. If the total energy of the universe is zero, then there is no limit on how long the universe might exist under the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics.  Thus, the universe may be the ultimate “free lunch.” 

If the universe is a quantum fluctuation that can only become real through being observed, as Wheeler thinks, then the creation of the universe might have been the ultimate act of retroactive PK! (Wheeler himself would abhor this particular interpretation of his theory, as he is an ardent opponent of parapsychology.)

Hill (2005) notes that the vast emptiness of space is totally hostile to the existence of humanity.  Thus, he suggests that the if the universe is designed to support the presence of conscious observers, the evidence would suggest that the universe was “designed” for beings that exist in the vacuum of space, not beings that are confined to rarely occurring spongelike brains found on one tiny speck of matter in one remote corner of a cold and desolate universe (or more likely a number of such tiny specks sparsely populating a virtually empty spacetime continuum).  Indeed recent scientific photography has uncovered the startling beauty of the inanimate physical world, from the microscopic domains such as electromagnetic fields to the haunting beauty of the cloudlike nurseries of infant stars.  The mini-Shins discussed in Chapter 7 might in fact correspond to the empty-space-dwelling beings postulated by Hill.  Such beings may be lost in an artwork universe of their own creation.  Alternatively, if the Eastern tradition’s view that all consciousness is One is correct, the One may be wandering through Its creation one lifetime at a time, contemplating it from all angles, lost in its beauty and drama.  The noted physicist Richard Feyman observed that a positron (the antimatter analogue of the electron) may regarded as an electron traveling backwards in time.  He once joked that the reasons all electrons look identical to one another is that they are in fact the same particle zig-zagging its way backward and forward in time.  Perhaps, the conscious self is much like Feynman’s electron/positron.

The Universe

As noted in Chapter 0, the physicist James Jeans (1937) once remarked that the universe resembled a “a great thought” more than it did a “great machine” and another great physicist, Arthur Eddington (1920/1959), called the fabric of the cosmos “mind-stuff.” More recently, another prominent physicist, Henry Stapp (2005a), has observed that under the Weltanschauung of quantum mechanics, the world has “an essentially ‘idea-like’ structure.”  In a recent essay in Nature, the flagship journal of materialist science, Richard Conn Henry proclaimed that:

One benefit of switching humanity to a correct perception of the world is the resulting joy of discovering the mental nature of the Universe.  We have no idea what this mental nature implies, but - the great thing is - it is true.  Beyond the acquisition of this perception, physics can no longer help.  You may descend into solipsism, expand to deism, or something else if you can justify it - just don’t ask physics for help…

The Universe is immaterial - mental and spiritual.  Live and enjoy.  (Henry, 2005, p.25.)

Indeed, the base reality of the world appears to be one of quantum probability waves inhabiting an abstract, multidimensional mathematical space rather than the solid, marble-like electron and protons zipping around in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum that we imagine to be the firm underpinnings of our material existence.  The mathematical complexity and beauty of the laws of the quantum mechanics are remarkable.  It does indeed seem as though the Creator is, as both Jeans and Einstein thought, a great mathematician.  

Of course it could well be that the creation of the universe was a group effort, a kind of Manhattan Project involving trillions of mini-Shins embedded in an unimaginably complex “computer” made out of whatever passes for matter (if anything) in the “preuniverse.”  Given that we are embedded in organisms only a few genes removed from a chimpanzee (and possessing fewer genes than many seemingly simple plants such as rice), it may be no wonder that our brains are unable to unravel the real mysteries of the cosmos, including the origin and role of consciousness.  Perhaps Colin McGinn (1999) is correct in his view that our present brains, with their mere 100 billion cells apiece, will never be able to penetrate these mysteries.  There may, however, be nothing preventing us from one day in the distant future building a device that is capable of hosting a staggeringly large number of mini-Shins (in view of the fact that the American national debt now exceeds $8 trillion, we no longer stagger at the thought of our brain’s mere 100 billion nerve cells).  Such a device/superorganism might not only be capable of grasping such mysteries, but may have the intellectual wherewithal to create new Big Bangs, giving rise to new universes (perhaps even with “improved” or at least more entertaining laws of physics).  Such a device/superorganism might be considered God under the definition of the deity as the creating force/intelligence.  However, whatever “gods” may have lurked in the preuniverse were perhaps just as puzzled by the mystery of their own existence as we by ours.  This is why recourse to any explanation of Creation in terms of a Creating Intelligence (CI) leads to an infinite regress, as one then is confronted with the task of explaining the CI’s existence.

But if the universe is a thought as James, Eddington and Stapp contend, whose thought is it anyway?  Was the universe created as a vast cosmic amusement park or “art gallery” for the entertainment of mini-Shins (perhaps even those embedded in the CI)?  Why go to trouble of designing such an elaborate version of “Disney World for Mini-Shins”) unless One intended to enjoy it Oneself, if only vicariously?  Are our individual consciousnesses just aspects (or perhaps former components) of the CI, embedded in the myriad creatures the CI has managed to generate from Its mathematical inventions, much as a future teenage spree killer may become absorbed in the adventures of  a homodical misogynic hero in his favorite virtual reality video game?

Of course, the anthropic principle is based on the observation that the laws and initial conditions of the universe must be extremely fine-tuned to support life as we know it (i.e. carbon-based life forms).  However, perhaps there are other forms of life (e.g., nucleon-based) that might arise under different initial conditions or laws.  

There are ways of accounting for the evidence for the anthropic principle without assuming that the universe was designed by a creative intelligence. Barrow and Tipler (1986) note that if one accepts Tryon’s view that the creation of the universe was a quantum fluctuation, then Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics would imply that all possible universes must be created.  

Both Guth and Kaiser (2005) and Livio and Rees (2005), for instance, note that cosmic inflation (the currently favored model of cosmogenesis) may produce “pocket universes” in each of which the fundamental laws of physics might be different.  Each universe might have its own set of initial conditions, and the laws of physics might crystallize out into different forms in each universe. As conscious observers, we must of course be living in one of the universes that is capable of hosting conscious beings. But this does not mean that a conscious agent designed the universe, as all possible universes must occur.

M. A. Markov (1985) has hypothesized that universes may spawn “daughter universes” which become separate from the “mother universe.”  Indeed, there has been speculation that it might be possible for a mad scientist to create such a universe in his own basement. This would lead to another version of the many universes theory. 

Another possibility, which has been extensively discussed by George Gale (1990), is that of an oscillating universe. If the amount of matter of our universe is sufficiently large, then we are living in what is known as a “closed universe,” that is a universe that is destined to recollapse in a “Big Crunch.”  The Big Crunch is a time-reversed version of the Big Bang, in which all the matter of the universe becomes compressed in a spacetime singularity, or black hole.  Because the known laws of physics break down in a singularity, several physicists have proposed that the universe will be reborn after the Big Crunch in a process known as the “Big Bounce.”  The new version of the universe will have different initial conditions and possibly even different laws of physics from the previous universe. During many of these cycles, the universe may be incapable of supporting life as we know it, but we by definition inhabit a cycle that is conducive to our existence.  Thus, it seems to us that the universe has been especially designed to support life, whereas in fact it has not.  In passing, we should note that this model of an oscillating universe bears a certain resemblance to the cyclic views of time held by the ancient Greeks, such as Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras, as well as to the great cosmological cycles called kalpas in Hindu philosophy.

A spatial rather than temporal version of the many worlds hypothesis is offered by A. D. Linde (1985).  He suggests that the laws of physics may have assumed different forms in different regions of our own universe.  We of course live in a region where the laws of physics are conducive to our existence.

Again, we of necessity inhabit a pocket universe that is capable of support the existence of conscious observers.

Also, as remarked above, given that the vast realms of empty space are hostile to life as we know it, the primary observers may well be drifting “naked” mini-Shins that just happen to become stuck in physical bodies from time to time.  And still one is confronted with the task of explaining the laws and initial conditions that gave rise to cosmic inflation in the first place, which may again produce an infinite regress of questions and explanations.  

Mind, viewed as the creator of the physical world, is literally deified. If the intelligence that created the physical world is somehow to be identified with the souls (read “mini-Shins’) that now inhabit it, then that intelligence is unlike the post–Newtonian Christian God who stands remote from his creation once it is complete.  It resembles much more the Vedic view of the Universal Self that divides into the minds of the myriad creatures of the world, which derives from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. The philosopher Alan Watts was fond of comparing this Indian view of creation to God playing hide-and-seek with himself in the physical world.

Consciousness and Cosmos

One’s true self in the Eastern view is the pure consciousness that in Hindu philosophy is taken to be identical with all consciousness, including that of the World Soul or Brahman. Under the Vedantic worldview, there is only one pure consciousness, and we are all the Universe looking at itself from different perspectives.  Thus, when persons temporarily abandon their individual identities and perceive themselves as merging with the Cosmos or as being in perfect union with God, as in the mystical experiences described by James (1902), they are seeing directly into their true selves, according to this view.  All consciousness is the one Consciousness that underlies this and all other worlds. In this view, we are fragments of the World Soul, our selves at once separate from, and yet identical to, one another.  Sufism, a branch of Islam, proclaims the doctrine of marifa, that there is no me, there is no you, but all is God (Frager, 2002).  

W. T. Stace (1960) has argued that the pure ego of each individual being (atman) must be identical to the universal ego (Brahman), as both are simply fields of pure consciousness. He suggests that this identity is intuitively recognized in mystical experiences in which a person feels herself to be at one with the World and with God.  He notes that scientific and mathematical concepts are based on dissection of the world into atomistic concepts, and he proposes that the reason why mystical experiences are “ineffable,” or impossible to describe in words, lies in the inability of scientific language to describe a nonatomistic or holistic reality.

Astrophysicist David Darling (1995) contends that our individual, encapsulated egos are illusions and that, when a person dies, this illusory self is dissolved and the person’s consciousness merges with the world consciousness.  

Larry Dossey (1996), a well-known writer on spiritual healing, also argues that the mind is nonlocal in nature.  He cites the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s remark that “the overall number of minds is just one” and proposes that the resistance to the view of the mind as unbounded and infinite derives from a deep-seated fear of this view of the world.  In Dossey’s opinion, people feel safer in a closed-in and finite identity.

Walker (2000) too proposes that all observers are in fact one and that this single observer is responsible for the collapse of all quantum mechanical state vectors, although the activity of this single observer may be manifested as multiple “proto-consciousnesses” acting to collapse quantum mechanical state vectors into definite outcomes. 

The philosopher Colin McGinn (1995) has observed that the mind is frequently conceived as being nonspatial in nature and that some type of nonspatial order must have preceded the creation of space in the Big Bang.  He suggests that this nonspatial order may still persist and may form the basis of consciousness.

Of course, a creative intelligence need not be benign. The early Christian Gnostics viewed the creator of the world as a malevolent demiurge who wished to trap spirits in matter and to prevent their return to a state of disembodied divine being.  Also, as Joseph Campbell (1964) pointed out, the second century Christian philosopher Marcion viewed the God of the Old Testament as an evil being responsible for imprisoning spirits in matter.

The anthropic principle seems to strike a note of euphoria in many people. Certainly, if the universe has been designed to support conscious observers (or if those observers created the universe themselves), a certain elation may be experienced at the idea that one’s existence is not as precarious and fragile as one might have thought and that one may be a great deal more powerful than appearances would indicate. However, if the universe is designed to house conscious beings, one could easily argue that, from the existing evidence, the universe appears more likely to be designed as a torture chamber than as a playground for the gods. (Perhaps if this universe was indeed a construction project carried out by quadrillions of Shins united in some sort of colossal quantum computer or superorganism, we should make a note to use more mini-Shins in order to get it right next time.  Even superorganisms/computers may make stupid blunders from time to time and might note be able to anticipate all possible design errors in their cosmogenic projects). 

The moral implications of the above views are less clear than many would suppose. The conception that we are all parts of one Universal Self could just as easily lead us to mistreat others (“I’m only hurting myself—a victimless crime”) or to commit murder (“he’ll just get reincarnated anyway”) or to treat all humans as siblings (an attempted nonsexist translation of “all men are brothers”). Also, as noted above, if conscious observers created the universe, the question then arises as to who or what created them as well as any “preuniverse” they may have inhabited. One thus arrives at the usual intractable infinite regress that accompanies explanations of the Creation in terms of a Creator. Certainly at this stage of our inquiry, a more manageable question, and one perhaps more amenable to scientific investigation, is that of the relationship of the conscious mind to the physical brain. Given the current state of our knowledge, this is as (or more) profound and exciting a question as that of the role of conscious agents in creating the universe itself.

Previous: 7.  The Nature of the Self Up: Consciousness and the Physical World Next: 9.  A Summing Up