AT THE TIME OF THE SCOPES TRIAL, and for the remainder of the 20th century, science was wedded to a materialistic conception of nature. The architects of modern science, from Rene Descartes to Isaac Newton, had proposed a world of unthinking material objects ruled by natural laws. Because these scientists were theists, the rule of natural law was for them not inviolable-God could, and from time to time did, invade the natural order, rearrange material objects, and even produce miracles of religious significance. But such divine acts were gratuitous insertions into a material world that was capable of carrying on quite nicely by itself.
In the end, the world bequeathed to us by modern science became a world of unthinking material objects ruled by unbroken natural laws. With such a world, God did not, and indeed could not, interact coherently, much less intervene. Darwinian evolution, with its rejection of design and its unwavering commitment to purely material forces (such as natural selection), came to epitomize this materialist conception of science. If God played any role in the natural world, human inquiry could reveal nothing about it.
This materialist conception of the world came under pressure in the 1990s. Scientists started asking whether information might not be the fundamental entity underlying physical reality. For instance, mathematician Keith Devlin mused whether information could perhaps be regarded as "a basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy (and being ultimately interconvertible with them)." Origin-of-life researchers like Manfred Eigen increasingly saw the problem of the origin of life as the problem of generating biologically significant information. And physicist Paul Davies speculated about information replacing matter as the "primary stuff," therewith envisioning the resolution of age-old problems, such as the mind-body problem. Thus he remarked, "If matter turns out to be a form of organized information, then consciousness may not be so mysterious after all."
Such speculations became serious scientific proposals in the first decade of this century as proponents of intelligent design increasingly clashed with Darwinian evolutionists. The irony here is that the very sorts of arguments that Darwinists had been using to try to discredit intelligent design and relegate it to the sphere of religion rather than science ended up discrediting Darwinian evolution itself and exposing its unscientific presuppositions.
To see how this happened, recall how exchanges between Darwinists and the early design theorists used to go. The design theorists would go to great lengths to analyze a given biological structure, show why it constituted an obstacle to Darwinian and other materialistic forms of evolution, and lay out how the structure in question exhibited clear marks of intelligence. To such carefully drawn lines of scientific argument and evidence, the Darwinist invariably offered stock responses, such as, "There you go with your religion again" "You're just substituting supernatural causes for natural causes" "You just haven't figured out how evolution did it" "You're arguing from ignorance"; "You're lazy; get back in the lab and figure out how evolution did it."
These responses were effective at cowing critics of Darwinism so long as the scientific community agreed with the Darwinists that science was about understanding the natural world solely in terms of unguided material processes or mechanisms. But in the first decade of this century it became clear that this definition of science no longer worked. Science is, to be sure, about understanding the natural world. But science is not about understanding the natural world solely in terms of material processes.
The problem is that material processes, as understood by the Darwinists and most of the scientific community at the time, could not adequately explain the origin of biologically significant information. Darwinist Michael Ruse saw the problem clearly, though without appreciating its significance. Describing the state of origin-of-life research at the turn of the century, he remarked: "At the moment, the hand of human design and intention hangs heavily over everything, but work is going forward rapidly to create conditions in which molecules can make the right and needed steps without constant outside help. When that happens, ... the dreaming stops and the fun begins."
Sadly for the Darwinists, the dreaming never stopped and the fun never began. Instead, the work of theoretical and applied intelligent-design theorists went forward and showed why scientific explanations of biologically significant information could never remove the hand of design and intentionality. The watchword for science became information requires intelligence. This came to be known as the No Free Lunch Principle, which states that apart from intelligent guidance, material processes cannot bring about the information required for biological complexity.
The No Free Lunch Principle led to a massive change in scientific perspective. One notable consequence for biology was a thoroughgoing reevaluation of experimental work on prebiotic and biotic evolution. Invariably, where evolutionary biologists reported interesting experimental results, it was because "intelligent investigators" had "intervened" and performed "experimental manipulations" that nature, left to its own devices, was utterly incapable of reproducing.
This led to an interesting twist. Whereas Darwinists had been relentless in disparaging intelligent design as a pseudoscience, Darwinism itself now came to be viewed as a pseudoscience. Intelligent design had been viewed as a pseudoscience because it refused to limit nature to the operation of blind material processes. Once it became clear, however, that material processes were inherently inadequate for producing biologically significant information, the Darwinian reliance, and indeed insistence, on such processes came to be viewed as itself pseudoscientific.
What would you think of a chemist who thought that all explosives were like TNT in that their explosive properties had to be explained in terms of electrostatic chemical reactions? How would such a chemist explain the explosion of a nuclear bomb? Would this chemist be acting as a scientist in requiring that nuclear explosions be explained in terms of electrostatic chemical reactions rather than in terms of fission and fusion of atomic nuclei? Obviously not.
Scientific explanations need to invoke causal powers that are adequate to account for the effects in question. By refusing to employ intelligence in understanding biologically significant information, the Darwinian biologists were essentially like this chemist, limiting themselves to causal powers that were inherently inadequate for explaining the things they were trying to explain. No wonder Darwinism is nowadays considered a pseudoscience. It does not possess, and indeed self-consciously rejects, the conceptual resources needed to explain the origin of biological information. Some historians of science are now even going so far as to call Darwinism the greatest swindle in the history of ideas. But this is perhaps too extreme.
The information-theoretic perspective did not just come to govern biology but took hold throughout the natural sciences. Physics from the time of Newton had sought to understand the physical world by positing certain fundamental entities (particles, fields, strings), specifying the general form of the equations to characterize those entities, prescribing initial and boundary conditions for those equations, and then solving them. Often, these were equations of motion that, on the basis of past states, predicted future states. Within this classical conception of physics, the holy grail was to formulate a "theory of everything"-a set of equations that could characterize the constitution and dynamics of the universe at all levels of analysis.
But with information as the fundamental entity of science, this conception of physics gave way. No longer was the physical world to be understood by identifying an underlying structure that has to obey certain equations no matter what. Instead, the world came to be seen as a nested hierarchy of systems that convey information, and the job of physical theory was to extract as much information from these systems as possible. Thus, rather than see the scientist as Procrustes, forcing nature to conform to preconceived theories, this informational approach turned the scientist into an inquirer who asks nature questions, obtains answers, but must always remain open to the possibility that nature has deeper levels of information to divulge.
Nothing of substance from the previous "mechanistic science" was lost with this informational approach. As Roy Frieden had shown, the full range of physics could be recovered within this informational approach (Physics from Fisher Information: A Unification, Cambridge University Press, 1998). The one thing that did give way, however, was the idea that physics is a bottom-up affair in which knowledge of a system's parts determines knowledge of the system as a whole. Within the informational approach, the whole was always truly greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole could communicate information that none of the parts could individually.
The primacy of information throughout the sciences has had profound consequences for religion and faith. A world in which information is not primary is a world seriously limited in what it can reveal about God. This became evident with the rise of modern science-the world it gave us revealed nothing about God except that God, if God exists at all, is a lawgiver. But with information as the primary stuff, there are no limits on what the world can in principle reveal about God. Theists of all stripes have therefore found this newfound focus of science on information refreshing.