Intelligent Design and Natural Bridges: A Argument in One Act

Metanexus VIEWS 2001.08.15 3354 words

Arches National Park <> nearMoab, Utah, is the setting for today's somewhat Platonic dialogue about thevagaries of Intelligent Design. Our two interlocutors, Sid and Nat, findthemselves at odds over the design or non-design of the natural arch. Does anatural bridge (have to) have a meta-natural origin? Or is such an archmerely the result of weather and erosion on inconsistently tough sandstone?And is it then merely a "designoid"?

As our semi-platonic interlocutors observe:

"Nat: One last issue: how similar is this arch to human-designed bridges,anyhow. I mean, I grant a superficial similarity, but isn't it a bitpremature to invoke alien or divine involvement...

"Sid: Nope. The analogy to human design has more weight and certainty andtrumps than any other factors you bring up.

"Nat: ...I mean, when humans design bridges, they normally have a purpose,don't they? Like, getting people from A to B. But these arches don't reallygo anywhere, except from this bit of desert to that. So there's an importantdifference...

"Sid: They are quite literally bridges. The designer must have designed themwith the purpose of having persistent bridges.

"Nat: Persisting? But that's not much of a purpose. I mean, things thatdon't persist won't be around long, will they? Persisting is really only a"goal" that helps a designer achieve another goal -- like getting from A toB. In fact, I bet that essentially all human-designed objects will have suchan ulterior goal, while geological objects will have no other goal exceptmaybe persistence (if you can call that a's really more of atruism for anything that has been around a long time). It seems silly toattribute such a vague and pointless goal to an "intelligent" designer."

This dialogue comes to us from "Niiicholas Tamzek" through therecommendation of Daniel Falush. To follow the discussion in its entirety,please go to the Access Research Network at.

Bask in the glow of fun summer reading!

--Stacey E. Ake


From: "Niiicholas Tamzek"Subject: Intelligent Design and Natural Bridges: A argument in one actEmail:<>


Nat: Look at this beautiful arch! I've been studying them and how they &
related structures formed for the last 30 years, and I never get tired oflooking at them. Good thing they made this place a National Park! Isn't itwonderful that natural processes can come up with something that intuitionwould attribute to design? Perhaps we could use the term "designoid" todescribe things like natural bridges that have certain similarities toobjects that humans design...

Sid (an engineer on vacation from Seattle): Looks designed to me.

Nat: Eh? Who do you think designed them? The Native Americans have some oldstories they like to tell about it...

Sid: Oh, I make no claims regarding the identity, motives, methods, limits,location, or timespan of the designer. But it was clearly designed.

Nat: Well, I have to disagree, I've been studying these things for 30 yearsand...

Sid: That's just philosophy from an entrenched scientific communitycommitted to philosophical naturalism.

Nat: Actually, I'm not a philosophical naturalist, and most scientistsaren't; but one very good rule of thumb has proven to be methodologicalnaturalism -- it keeps out all kinds of possible but untestable hypotheses,like the Young-Earth Creationism, the idea the earth was created 10,000years ago with appearance of age...I mean, with the same evidence we couldclaim that the earth was created 10 minutes ago, with all our memoriescreated to give appearance of age...

Sid: You're not associating me with YECs, are you? That's just theanti-teleologists' tactic of guilt by association! I hate it when they dothat! My ideas are independent of YEC!

Nat: Hmm, that's interesting...I just realized where I saw you before --
this guy Gish was ranting and raving about the Flood over at Grand CanyonNat'l I recall, you didn't walk up and pester him with questions,even though you appear to disagree with him much more than you disagree withme...

Sid: Irrelevant. My theory, called ID, is independent of YEC.

Nat: So do you agree or disagree with YEC?

Sid: Hey, look at that snake!Reminds me that the realopponent is naturalism (MN or PN, they amount to the same thing), and otherthings can be discussed afterwards (1).

Nat: Anyway, why do you think this arch is designed?

Sid: In human experience, the only thing that builds bridges is intelligentdesign.

Nat: Well, strictly speaking that may be true, but we've got this prettygood scenario we've worked out...

Sid: That's just a anti-teleological just-so story.

Nat: Oh, come on, have you actually studied this at all?

Sid: Yeah, sure. In 1995 I did some computer searches and only found a fewarticles on the topic. You know what they say in science, publish orperish...

Nat: Well, has your idea gotten anything published in a peer-reviewedjournal?

Sid: Well, no, but that's just the dogmatic naturalism of theanti-teleologists.

Nat: And anyhow, computer searches weren't that great in 1995, and in anycase, a computer search is the beginning of a lit search, not the end of it.For example, I wrote my PhD thesis on the evolution of natural bridges, andhave published numerous articles making & testing predictions of thehypothesis.

Sid: Oh, actually, I did read one of your articles, but I wasn't veryimpressed. Here it is::


Arches [National Park] is a park of contradictions. Like pieces of finepottery, the arches stand in fragile impermanence amid this ruggedlandscape. Bearing the creative imprint of time and the elements, they will,however, eventually surrender to the persuasive forces of gravity, ice, andrunning water. Born of seeping salt, the formation of the arches began 300million years ago in the Pennsylvanian Period, when salt water from a nearbyocean flooded the area. The water then evaporated, leaving a deposit ofsalt. Repeated floodings and evaporations left deposits of salt that, overmany millions of years, became thousands of feet thick. This layer of saltwas then covered with debris that washed down to it from nearby higherelevations. Over time, the debris was compressed into rock, in some placesmore than a mile thick. The enormous weight of this rock caused the salt,which is somewhat elastic, to be pushed away. In the process, domes,cavities, faults, and anticlines (upfolds of the earth with cores of salt)were created. By the late Jurassic Period, about 135 million years ago, mostof the movement of the salt had ceased. Eons came and went, and sedimentarydepos-its from nearby highlands continued to accumulate, forming thousandsof additional feet of rock on top of the salt. Some time from 60 to 10million years ago, the deposit of rock slowed, and erosion began in earnest.It is estimated that, during the last 10 million years, erosion has strippedaway more than 5,000 vertical feet of rock. This process of erosion hasexposed the Entrada Sandstone, the material of the arches. The Entrada is ablend of numerous textures and densities, fused together with varyingamounts of natural calcium carbonate cement. The varying cement content isresponsible for differential erosion - some areas resist erosion, whileothers do not - and the resulting fins, arches, and sculpted rock. Archesare often created from narrow sandstone walls called "fins," which have beenisolated as a result of cracks in the earth and subsequent erosion. Waterseeps into cracks in these fins, then freezes and expands, thus causingchunks of rock to fall off. The fin wall is narrower in some places than inothers. Gravity and erosion help complete the formation of an arch.

...see, sitting right here I can think up all kinds of problems with thisscenario. In the first place, it doesn't describe every single step, andlacks quantitative assessment of the likelihood of the steps. Someproblems: fins would collapse before they ever formed arches. And yourscenario depends upon the unlikely situation of harder layers over softerones.

Nat: Well, come on, you can't just assert those things without somedocumentation...

Sid: Yes I can. Here's another problem: you say, "Gravity and erosion helpcomplete the formation of an arch," -- I mean, isn't that vague andsuspiciously convenient? You can't just wave your hands like that...

Nat: Oh, come now. That's just an abbreviated way of talking aboutwell-known processes that are currently observable and can easily beimagined to get us from one step to the next...

Sid: Oh, now we're imagining things, are we? I'm not buying it until youreplicate it in a lab. I build bridge models in my lab all the time.

Nat: Come on! Not all science is, or can be, done in labs. Besides, thearticle you quote is a review I wrote for an inexpert audience. Why don'tyou address my real, experimental research articles written in thepeer-reviewed journals?

Sid: Well, um...

Nat: And is your "theory" (that's a whole 'nuther discussion) quantitativeand detailed? From whence this double-standard?

Sid: ID doesn't have to be quantitative. It's holistic.

Nat: Well, anyhow, you're not going to convince any scientists with the "itlooks designed" argument. I mean, people in the past have proposedintelligent causation for weather systems, the motion of the planets,occurrence of diseases...

Sid: The arch is ID'ed because it's Irreducibly Complex (IC) [cites thestandard definition]. It veritably screams design at scientists.

Nat: How is this arch designed? It looks pretty simple to me.

Sid: It has two crucial parts, the base and the strut. Remove either one andyou haven't got a bridge. On your theory, natural forces are undirected andthus couldn't produce a structure like a bridge, as that requires foresight.I mean, at some stage, you'd have unsupported, leaning base pieces whichcan't stand up without the "keystone" of the strut!

Nat: Did you even read my theory? It doesn't actually propose such astage...

Sid: It's IC, so it couldn't have evolved gradually, in a direct step-by-step fashion. Therefore [it is also an example of] ID.

Nat: But I proposed this pretty likely-looking indirect route. I mean, thisarch didn't start out looking like a half-built bridge...

Sid: Why don't scientists greedily embrace design? It's the greatest thingsince Newton!

Nat: Here's another question: my sister is a microbiologist, and she's toldme about all these diseases that have these complicated,multiple-interacting parts that cause virulence...Yersinia pestis (plague)is a good example. Why wasn't this designed?

Sid: The evidence doesn't convince me...

Nat: But, using your standards, you've concluded design in this case...whynot in IC disease.

Sid: I have an ID-detecting spidey-sense.(2)

Nat: Oh, I guess that would explain it.

Sid: You're misrepresenting me, you non-joyful dogmatic anti-teleologist.And all your arguments are dismissible because they're just your opinionanyway.

Nat: But, your arguments are your opinion, so what's the point of mentioningthis?

Sid: It's easier to do than addressing arguments and evidence.

Nat: Oh. Well I guess you're right there. Maybe I'll try it too. I fear forconstructive debate, though. Seems like we'd be reduced to postmodernistpower games to me... Anyhow, let's get back to the actual scenario. Ipropose that this area was first built up via sedimentation processes (moreor less a random piling up of material for nonrandom processes to workwith), and then parts were lost or modified via erosion (a nonrandomprocess). In some cases, this produced arches, in other cases not.

Sid: Well, if you want to attribute the whole thing to coincidence andchance due to your naturalistic bias, that's your prerogative, but...

Nat: C'mon! That, as you say, is misrepresentation. Deposition builds thingsup -- it's "random" in that it's not trying to build a bridge, but it doesproduce just the kind of material that erosion can work on later on.

Sid: I'll buy this for all these other geological features (pointing to thevarious other odd lumps and hills in the park). But not bridges. Experiencedictates that bridges are only designed by intelligence.

Nat: But look. All these other features are clearly related to this archfeature. The same processes you accept as explaining them can explain archesif extended just a bit.

Sid: Common descent is not evidence for the mechanism-

Nat: It is if similar processes can be identified (or are accepted, by e.g.,you) in related structures.

Sid: -and as I was saying, it's pure philosophy to extend these processesback into the past. What makes you think the designer didn't use processesthat leave effects resembling natural processes?

Nat: I thought we couldn't say anything about the IDer's motives ormethods...

Sid: We can't. Haven't you been paying attention?

Nat: ...but...

Sid: Anyway, look at that bridge! It supercedes any mere human design! Suchan integrated structure!

Nat: Of course it's's the product of the long action of afew simple natural processes; it started out as less integrated, just beinga fin wall. One "part" develops into two similar yet IC parts withdifferentiation via natural erosion...

Sid: I'm not believing it until it's been done experimentally in the lab.

Nat: Actually, there are these recent articles where researchers set up somesandstone and directed water and wind at it and produced a number ofstructures including arches...

Sid: Doesn't count. The experiment was guided by intelligence.

Nat: Well, very well, you can even take a sandbox and run a hose through it,and occasionally the water will erode away some sand and make a's actually a well-known and repeatable phenomenon...

Sid: Doesn't count. That's just an example of microerosion. No wildextrapolations to macroerosion...

Nat: It's not really that wild, if you'd just read my papers where I showthat numerous steps of microerosion can add up to macroerosion...

Sid: Right, your papers and so-called predictions. ID makes predictions,too. For example: an bridge like the one we're looking at will never bedeveloped in a lab that is replicating natural conditions...

Nat: Come now, that's not much of a prediction. Under the theory at hand, itwould take thousands of years to...

Sid: Ad hoc speculation!

Nat: No, it makes quite good sense under the theory because...

Sid: (Plugging ears) LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!! LA LA LA....

Nat: One last issue: how similar is this arch to human-designed bridges,anyhow. I mean, I grant a superficial similarity, but isn't it a bitpremature to invoke alien or divine involvement...

Sid: Nope. The analogy to human design has more weight and certainty andtrumps than any other factors you bring up.

Nat: ...I mean, when humans design bridges, they normally have a purpose,don't they? Like, getting people from A to B. But these arches don't reallygo anywhere, except from this bit of desert to that. So there's an importantdifference...

Sid: They are quite literally bridges. The designer must have designed themwith the purpose of having persistent bridges.

Nat: Persisting? But that's not much of a purpose. I mean, things that don'tpersist won't be around long, will they? Persisting is really only a "goal"that helps a designer achieve another goal -- like getting from A to B. Infact, I bet that essentially all human-designed objects will have such anulterior goal, while geological objects will have no other goal except maybepersistence (if you can call that a's really more of a truism foranything that has been around a long time). It seems silly to attributesuch a vague and pointless goal to an "intelligent" designer.

Sid: We can't say anything about the designer, remember?

Nat: were just talking about the designer's good design inbuilding this persistence into his/hers/its "bridges". Well, anyhow. Let'st lk about my research into this topic...

[The hours pass...]

Sid: That's all very interesting. I'm starting to think the structure wasfront-loaded for erosion to increase the probability of the emergence ofbridges.

Nat: Hmmm. How would you ever demonstrate this?

Sid: Isn't it convenient that that hard rock formed above that soft rock? Ithink front-loading is a valid option.

Nat: But, you're ignoring the fact that areas X, Y, and Z possessed no suchhard layer, for geological reasons, while this area did, for geologicalreasons. We don't have to propose ID to explain the origin of the "front-loaded" hard rock layer.

Sid: But look at how that hard rock made possible the development of allthese arches!

Nat: Well, yes, but you're ignoring all of the cases where it didn't do muchat all -- for every successful arch, there are many, many failed ones. Youhave to look at failures as well as successes before you can judge ifsomething was "suspiciously convenient" for arch-development. Yourhypothesis looks quite extraneous to me.

Sid: My theory is under development. Expecting answers to all your questionsis premature. Stop bugging me.

Nat: Well, we're in a public area, aren't we? If the "theory" is really indevelopment, shouldn't you be more tentative in your claims? (and not justin the occasional "I might be wrong" lip-service, but with actual continualpublic weighing of your idea against the best representations ofalternatives?) People with traditional scientific views might think you'renot such a nut, then.

Sid: Oh, now you're calling me a nut, are you? This just shows thebarrenness of the anti-teleologist worldview...

Nat: But, I didn't mean that... Look, let's just stick to the evidence,shall we? Even if we don't reach the same conclusion, we'll all know a fairbit more about the base-level facts, which are numerous and quitecomplicated in geology. Like I always say, the most important thing is toget a broad grasp of the geological world, and leave the rest for later--

[Suddenly, the clouds open up, and a huge sandstone arch plummets from thesky and plops itself in the middle of the park. The event is witnessed, andvideotaped, by several dozen independent and unconnected tourist witnesses,as well as a CNN crew visiting to do a story on Congress again cuttingfunding for National Parks. Inspection of the arch reveals an inscription(which would be eroded away in a matter of a few thousand years) reading:

"Arch #1934323, made by Slartibartfast.(3) I got tired of Fjords and havehad a good long run with arches, but I'm getting a bit put out with them,too. Perhaps I'll move on to molecular machines next."

The event is widely considered to have demonstrated the validity of arch ID,and serves to turn it from a vague notion into an actual explanatory theory.Textual scholars investigate the issue and discover an overwhelmingcorrespondence between the world and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide tothe Galaxy". The sudden reappearance of Douglas Adams (who materializes asif he'd just walked through the arch) reincarnated as a dolphin andcommunicating via a Babel Fish, clinches the case for design in the Universein a verifiable and scientific manner. MN is readily scrapped as a generalprinciple, without a whimper from even the "dogmatic materialists"("FINALLY, the evidence we've been asking for!!" they say) and the resultsare published in Science and Nature. Unfortunately, Nat and Sid weresquished when the arch landed. Fortunately, Adams reincarnates them asdolphins, and they realize that playing in the oceans is more fun thanbickering about geology. Though not that much more fun.]


(1) MN = material naturalism; PN = philosophical naturalism.(2) "spidey-sense" = the special sense of a superhero, in this case PeterParker or Spiderman.(3) Slartibartfast = a world-creating character found in Douglas Adams' four(or five) part trilogy about touring the universe with the help of "TheHitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". Mr. Adams departed our world on Friday,May 11th, 2001.

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