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Intelligent Design from the Mind of a Self-Proclaimed Agnostic?

August 24, 2011

The late Carl Sagan was a famous astronomer, author, and advocate for science.  He was also a famous skeptic of religion and particularly Christianity.  He dubbed himself an agnostic.  In a March 1996 profile by Jim Dawson in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Sagan talked about his then-new book The Demon Haunted World and was asked about his personal spiritual views:

“My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it . . . An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.”

Despite being a rational, intelligent, inquisitive man Carl was not able to look at the universe and see the evidence for an intelligent design.  He is famous for responding to questions about why he didn’t know there was a god by saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  Apparently, this evidence was not obvious to him in the world and universe that surrounded him.

To my mind, this begs the question what WOULD be extraordinary evidence?  What evidence would be extraordinary enough that a skeptical mind, like Carl Sagan’s, would be forced to concede there is intelligence in creation?  Another way to put this is how can we know if something posses design?  How can we tell by looking at something if that something was created as a result of the actions of an intelligent designer or as a result of random natural processes?  This question is at the center of the theory of Intelligent Design.

What I find fascinating is that Carl Sagan actually  answered this question for us.  He did so in a novel he wrote about man’s encounter with aliens, called Contact.  This book as also made into a popular 1997 movie starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Skerritt.  In Carl’s book the main protagonist (played by Jodie Foster in the movie) is an astronomer who is part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.  This is a a group of scientists who monitor radio waves coming from the stars in hopes of detecting a signal from another world that they can prove is the result of intelligence.  In the book, they receive such a signal coming from the Vega system. Watch the clip from the movie below to see the scene where they determine the signal is the result of alien INTELLIGENCE.

Did you catch that?  How do the scientists know the signal isn’t noise?  They are able to determine it is from an intelligent source because the signal is a string of prime numbers (a number divisible by only itself and 1).  Did you hear her conclusion . . .

“Those are primes:  2, 3, 5, 7.  Those are all prime numbers.  There’s no way that’s a natural phenomenon!”

The amazing thing here is that Carl’s SETI scientists have just done the very thing that is at the heart of Intelligent Design.  They have inferred intelligence based on a clear, detectable pattern.  Here’s the rationale for this inference: Nothing in the laws of physics requires radio signals to take one form or another. The prime sequence is therefore contingent rather than necessary. Also, the prime sequence is long (every prime number from 2 to 101) and hence complex. Note that if the sequence were extremely short and therefore lacked complexity, it could easily have happened by chance. Finally, the sequence was not merely complex but also exhibited an independently given pattern or specification (it was not just any old sequence of numbers but a mathematically significant one—the prime numbers).

Intelligence leaves behind a characteristic trademark or signature—what within the intelligent design community is now called specified complexity. An event exhibits specified complexity if it is contingent and therefore not necessary; if it is complex and therefore not readily repeatable by chance; and if it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern.

So, if we take Carl Sagan’s method for determining and concluding intelligence and apply that to the world around us, what do we see?  Let’s look at the amazingly contingent, complex, and specified example of the genetic code.  The very fact that it is referred to as a “code” should tell us a lot right upfront.  It is just like the “code” of prime numbers detected in Carl’s alien signal, except much more complex.  DNA is encoded information that is more advanced than any computer ever created (quote from Bill Gates).  Within DNA there is MRNA, which has coded information in a different language than the protein molecules.  There is an adapter molecule, called TRNA, that translates the coded information in the MRNA into the protein language.  The TRNA is then changed when it gets attached to the correct amino acid.  This is cyclical and can’t function if any piece is not in place.  Take a look inside the cell and see the specified complexity . . .

This puts a sequence of prime numbers to shame.  We have coded information, deciphering actions, mechanical devices, all producing a repeatable pattern.  As Jodie Foster said in Contact, “There’s no way that’s a natural phenomenon!”

Thank you, Carl Sagan.  Not an obvious ally and undoubtedly a reluctant one.  However, your dedication to reason and science has put you in quite a quandary.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 11:22 am

    I have to thank you for this post. It really sums up what I’ve been trying to convey to some of my non-believing friends for a while.

  2. Mick permalink
    May 28, 2015 7:13 am

    I hardly believe anyone is in the place to question a man the caliber of Carl Sagan’s over something as trivial and unimportant as religion, much less over a feeble attempt to deny his acclaim and ability simply because he merely lacks blind faith in something that has shown him no kindness.

    • philippians1v21 permalink*
      May 28, 2015 1:09 pm

      It is apparent, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that you missed the entire point of this post. I am not questioning Carl Sagan. In fact, I am affirming and agreeing with his straight forward and rational criteria for assessing if something is the product of intelligence or merely random. This is no “feeble attempt to deny his acclaim and ability”. Far from it. I think he was on to something profound here. His criteria is valid. It does accurately test whether observed phenomenon is the work of an intelligent agent or not.

      All I am doing is taking the same criteria and applying it in the same manor to other observed phenomena. That is completely fair. If his criteria is really a valid means of assessing if something is the result of merely random chance or not, this criteria can be used in other contexts. That is called science. It’s called testing a hypothesis. That’s what scientists do. They take theories and see if they accurately predict outcomes in different scenarios. It just so happens that Carl Sagan’s method does accurately reveal when intelligent agents are involved in producing something. It is also true that his method indicates the probability that intelligence is the agent behind life.

      If you object to the results here, at least be honest enough to produce a real and valid objection to the methodology. Simply saying I am wrong because Carl Sagan is a really smart and respected man, doesn’t cut it. That’s a logical fallacy called “Appeal to Authority“. Additionally, it’s even further ineffective and ironic because I am using Carl’s very own work here. Your claim commits suicide. It attacks itself.

      I am simply looking at facts and following the natural conclusions that the data leads to. This has nothing to do with “blind faith”. I don’t have such a thing, and I would never urge anyone to accept anything blindly. What I would encourage you and anyone to do is to take your emotions out of it and evaluate the evidence objectively. Regardless of whether you think religion is “trivial and unimportant” or if it has “shown him no kindness”, these are considerations that have no bearing on the facts at hand. They are emotionally based, subjective judgements. What does the available data point to? If we objectively and fairly apply Carl Sagan’s method for assessing intelligent causes to DNA and life what is the most probable agent behind it: chance or intelligence? Objectively, which one is more likely true than not? If you are unwilling or unable remove your emotional judgements from the question and objectively follow the data where it leads, this raises the question whose faith is really blind?

      You may find it interesting to know that a team of scientists recently came to the same conclusion. They applied the criteria used by SETI to determine if radio signals are from intelligent sources to the code in DNA. Their conclusion . . . obvious and apparent design. Their peer reviewed research was published in the very respected Planetary Science Journal “Icarus”. If you are curious here is where you can purchase their paper:
      A good summary of their findings can be found in the following article:

      I welcome an honest and respectful dialog on this issue. If you would like to continue discussion and can abide by this, please feel free to reply back.


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