One on One: Faith in Hierarchy

An Interview with George Gilder
Ruthie Blum
The Jerusalem Post
June 20, 2007
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George Gilder. 'The key thing that makes us human and makes science possible and makes the theoretician viable, he denies.' Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski

George Gilder has been famous in the United States for more than three decades. Well, infamous would be a more accurate adjective — considering the political-cultural climate in which he emerged and to which he has devoted his life’s research and writings.

In America in the 1970s, one couldn’t publish anti-feminist books such as Sexual Suicide, Naked Nomads, and Men and Marriage and come away unscathed, after all. Nor could one turn against welfare and Keynesian economics without arousing the wrath of liberals none too fond of the philosophies of individual responsibility and creativity — though Gilder’s best-selling Wealth and Poverty (1981) did just that.

Dozens of books, hundreds of articles, an influential newsletter and a think-tank later (the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which he cofounded with Bruce Chapman, who accompanied him on a trip to Israel earlier this month), the 68-year-old current expert in microchips is raising more eyebrows than ever. Being a techno-scientist who opposes Darwin’s theory of evolution will do that.

Gilder, whose lengthy and diverse resume includes his having been a fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard (from where he graduated), serving as a speechwriter for Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon and receiving the White House Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence from president Ronald Reagan, says that everything he has examined points to the same “top-down” model.

“The universe is hierarchical,” says Gilder, with the intensity of someone racing to keep up with a mind constantly in overdrive. “And hierarchy points to a summit. The summit remains enclosed in fog, but this doesn’t exclude the possibility that behind the fog is a divinity that we, through our faith, might worship.”

It is this view that led the churchgoing, married, father of four from Massachusetts — a contributing editor of Forbes and frequent writer for The Economist, The American Spectator, The Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal — to espouse the “intelligent design” movement.

In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post, Gilder clarifies how his scientific reasoning, political positions and religious faith are not only consistent with one another, but converge in a way that makes sense out of life — and makes life make sense.

You’re a scientist who questions evolution. Can you explain that?
The Darwinians essentially uphold that the human brain is all the intelligence in the universe. I say that this is an improbable proposition. Evolution happens in various limited ways, and explains very little about the world and the universe in which we live.

I arrived at this from economics. Even the most aggressive free-market theorists, such as Paul Romer — who is on track for a Nobel Prize — identify the entrepreneur as someone who reassembles chemical elements. His great breakthrough was to show that the entrepreneur has a tremendous amount of freedom, because there are so many chemical elements and so many ways they can be combined. In other words, the fundamental thing is matter, and the entrepreneur can rearrange the matter in different ways. But no novelty or innovation or idea-based invention is really acknowledged, even by Romer, who goes beyond the Austrian economists, who are supposed to be real specialists in human action. They see the entrepreneur as an opportunity scout. He looks out there at the material world and sees ways to reconcile price differentials by arbitrage. This is really a residue of Marxism and dialectical materialism. It seems that Darwinian materialism is the kind of hard science that all the social theorists use to justify their blindness to creativity or ideas or mind. It’s a blindness that covers the whole intellectual world in the aftermath of Marx and the other materialist theories that have afflicted this century.

You point to the “blindness” of the materialists. What would constitute “sight”? The acknowledgement of the existence of intelligence that is independent of matter? God, for instance?
God requires faith; it is not a matter of science. The science of intelligent design accommodates the possibility of God — even points in some crude way to God, if you want to look at the vector of its thought. But it does not define or specify or prove God. Darwinians think they can prove the absence of God. And what they do know — as leading physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg says — is that the earth and life are astronomically improbable. The way he explains it, then, is through infinite, multiple, parallel universes. This must be one of the silliest scientific stratagems in the history of the world [he laughs]. No kind of thought is ever so utterly obtuse as to imagine that every electron generates a new universe as it makes its path — which is the way they explain how this incredibly improbable world could exist.

How do you explain how this “incredibly improbable world could exist”?
Creation. I see creation in economics; I see creation in computer science. You can know everything there is to know about the physics and chemistry of a microchip, without having the slightest inkling of what function it’s performing, let alone what content it is processing. The same goes for network theory. You can know every electron or atom across a fiber-optic network, without having any idea of what contents are being transmitted.

In network theory, you have seven layers of abstraction. Those same seven layers also apply, in slightly different form, to a computer system. Both are exhaustively and intelligently designed, with elaborate and extraordinarily complex equipment, which itself is exhaustively designed, and not intelligible unless you know the “source code.” The theory that governs design in the microchip — invented 28-9 years ago by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway — is called “hierarchical design.” It is a top-down design, the crux of which is that it is independent of its material embodiment.

Is that what you’re saying about human biology, as well?
In biology, you find exactly the same model. The content of the DNA program is completely independent of the DNA chemistry: the sugar-phosphate frames that hold the nucleotides do not in any way affect the content of the program that the genes bear. And this is not a casual part of DNA discovery. In fact, it has been pronounced by Francis Crick as nothing less than the central dogma of biology — that the DNA program can affect, and even determine, proteins through the amino acids that they specify; but the proteins in amino acids cannot affect the DNA. In other words, the word affects the flesh; the flesh does not dictate the word.

The same pattern that’s in computer science and economics and networks reappears in almost the same way in biology.

So, you can dissect the human brain and find out all there is to know about its make-up, but this will tell you nothing about the personality or ideas generated by the person whose organ it is.
That’s right. Even after an autopsy, you learn nothing about him.

What does any of this have to do with Darwinism — which most of us think of as “the survival of the fittest”?
Darwinism is a materialist theory, according to which ideas are mere epiphenomena of material forces. Indeed, Darwin did not understand genetics. He actually imagined that inheritance was conveyed by chemical reactions — that the chemicals blended between the two parents in some way. In information theory, which is really the basis of most of my own analyses, chemical blending can’t carry information. The key rule in information theory is that it takes a low entropy — a predictable carrier — to bear a high-entropy message. Now, even DNA can’t explain the larger question [of the meaning of life on earth]. Because, for example, we share a very high percentage of our DNA with the tulip and the garden slug.

As for “survival of the fittest” — random mutations and natural selection — it, too, explains very little. What random mutations and natural selection can explain is the way bacteria adjust or respond to antibiotics. This is a demonstrable case which can actually be studied. What it shows is that bacteria change, but do not improve. And if a bacterium happens to change, it does so in a way that nullifies the effect of a certain antibiotic. Then it multiplies, according to the rules of natural selection, and you get a bacterium with that change. But that bacterium doesn’t evolve into some more complex, multicellular creature. Because the limited nature of this phenomenon is becoming increasingly understood, all sorts of speculative theories arise that try to retrieve some of the total lack of intelligence in the process. Again, it’s just materialism, and it’s very boring. All of science is based on the assumption that the mind is independent of the data. But, if the mind is a mingle of matter that essentially flows into the phenomenon being appraised, then all of science becomes incoherent; it collapses. I like to quote the great physicist-turned-biologist Max Delbruck, who said: “The attempt of neuroscientists to create a purely material brain reminds me of nothing so much as Baron Munchausen’s effort to extract himself from a swamp by pulling ever harder on his own hair.”

You said that God requires faith — that it is not science. If so, what is your gripe with scientists who view the human organism as an entity separate from the soul?
In my next book, which is called Analogy, I argue that what happened with Albert Einstein was that scientists stopped being engineers and began being theologians. They stopped being masters of the crucial equipment with which they conducted their experiments, tested their hypotheses and restricted their propositions to demonstrable phenomena, and they began reifying math. “Multiple parallel universes,” for example, is just a reification of a model of electron paths — invented by Richard Feinman — which proved to be a very successful tool for mapping the path of a single electron. The assumption that all the electron paths actually existed and each one generated a universe of its own and transcended to infinite numbers of universes is just delusional materialism. It is a desperate tactic to avoid facing the implications of the incredible complexity and particularity of the world in which we live and of our own minds. The effort to reduce consciousness to pure material phenomena is a total failure, but still, it doesn’t stop. In other words, the key thing that makes us human and makes science possible and makes the theoretician viable, he denies.

You say that “scientists became theologians.” But it sounds as though what you’re really saying is that they became idolaters.
Well, that’s another way of putting it. They made idols of math.

You also say that scientists stopped being masters of the equipment with which they tested hypotheses. Are you implying that science is actually regressing rather than progressing?
In engineering science, there are tremendous advancements and achievements. But theoretical scientists profiteer on the prestige that is earned by the engineers. Carver Mead, the greatest engineer in Silicon Valley by many estimates, believes that we’ve had a Dark Age in theoretical science since early this century.

You mentioned computer source codes. What are they, actually?
The source code tells, in intelligible language, what functions all the unintelligible array of binary symbols means.

If you take Genesis as an allegory, is the Tree of Knowledge the source code?
Yes, it sounds like the Tree of Knowledge might be a particularly exalted source code — the divine source code that is beyond our reach. The God whose very name can’t be voiced. It’s the assertion that total knowledge means usurpation of the Godhead. And that human beings are not capable of such knowledge.

Or maybe that the minute they aim for it, their punishment is mortality. If your computer succeeded in having a personality, it would no longer be a computer, after all.
Yes, and of course, there’s endless science fiction that envisions such computers. Many people project the development of such computers as an extension of Moore’s Law, ordaining that every 18 months, the capacity of computers essentially doubles. Ray Kurzweil’ book, The Singularity Is Near, follows this logic that the human mind is nothing but a particularly complex circuitry which, through some set of feedback loops, generated consciousness. My belief is that no matter how many transistors they put in the computer, it won’t have consciousness. It will still be a machine that can be manipulated by a programmer or owner.

Is consciousness the difference between humanity and other life forms? Dogs have consciousness, don’t they?
We have a much richer consciousness that far exceeds that of dogs; it’s qualitatively distinct. There’s a tendency today to blur the distinction between dogs and human beings, or dolphins and human beings, or chimpanzees and human beings. But there really isn’t such a close tie, unless you assume that human beings are essentially animals, and that consciousness, intelligence, abstraction, will, aspirations, sentiment and intentionality are all mere epiphenomena.

In other words, the difference between human beings and animals doesn’t lie in degree, but rather in essence.
Yes. The dolphin and the chimpanzee are assumed to have all our capabilities, in slightly or substantially less developed form.

Throughout this discussion, you haven’t really said that intelligent design means God.
I said that intelligent design allows the possibility of God. It doesn’t specify God, or dictate God, define or put God in a box, but it does show that the universe is hierarchical. And hierarchy points to a summit. The summit remains enclosed in fog, but this doesn’t exclude the possibility that behind the fog is a divinity that we, through our faith, might worship. The hierarchy itself orients us to aspire and to aim for higher levels of being, consciousness, complexity and intelligence, rather than seek to follow our animal natures down into a pit of futility and degradation.

You don’t exclude the possibility of God, because you see the hierarchical structure of our being. Yet you also don’t assert that it is God at the summit which remains enclosed in fog either.
I can talk about that; I’m just not going to say that it’s science. It has to do with faith and imagination and aspiration and a sense of the good. A belief in God is essentially a belief that good will prevail, rather than entropy and futility and evil, which is the message of much of 20th-century literature and art.

Isn’t it more complicated than that? Contemporary writers and artists would argue that they are aspiring to the greater good of mankind.
The greater good they proclaim is pleasure — that the pursuit of pleasure yields pleasure and therefore is good. I believe that pleasure is an epiphenomenon of the pursuit of good, rather than being something that can be directly pursued by the indulgence of your appetites.

But indulgence of appetites does lead to pleasure. Our brains — whether their material manifestation or their hierarchical — tell us we’re hungry or sexually aroused. And we are compelled to sate those appetites.
We eat to be healthy and nourish ourselves, and in that pursuit we experience pleasure. But gorging and gormandizing are likely to make us sick — the opposite of pleasure. As for sex: It should have a higher purpose — love, aspiration, procreation and other crucial dimensions.

A huge population in the world today worships a higher power, has great aspirations and commits mass murder in their pursuit.
What they’re worshiping is the devil. People who go around killing and beheading other people in the name of God are pursuing Satan.

Your life’s work has been eclectic, to put it mildly. What do the relations between men and women, supply-side economics, microchips and intelligent design have in common?
I believe that the universe is hierarchical, with creation at the top — the idea that there’s a creator and that we, at our best, act in his image. This top-down model is what all of my work has in common. I sensed that the basic flaw and failure of feminism was its gradient toward pure animal passion with no procreative purpose. In economics, I believed that it was the supply that created the demand. In my examination of computers and telecom, and subsequently biology, I saw the same thing. That’s really how I came into the intelligent design movement — through the recognition of this same structure that I’d previously examined in sexuality and economics, information theory, computer science and network theory.

I’m a religious person. So are the Darwinians religious people: They believe in an anti-religion of materialism that liberates them to pursue pleasure any way they wish. It’s the highest purpose of their existence. They thus believe in a random, futilitarian universe where — if they’re existentialists — they might imagine that occasionally a heroic human being could assert some purpose above the froth of randomness, but in general, we’re all doomed to decay and destruction. That’s pretty much the philosophy, and it’s debauched a whole century of intellect. I think we’re going to transcend it in the 21st century.

Life is very meaningful, and its meaning comes not from its physiology, but from its imagination and aspiration and worship. The fact that I believe these things is crucial to my ability to understand biology.

If life on earth is indeed governed by a divine hierarchy, what difference does it make whether scientists espouse a materialist view? And isn’t intelligent design stronger than the “futilitarian” forces you describe?
Human beings have free will. Paradoxically, this means that we aren’t at liberty simply to withdraw from the fray and expect good to triumph. We have the burden of climbing that mountain. This combination of destiny and free will is the crowning paradox and glory of the human condition. The good does not necessarily triumph in one lifetime. What gives good its effect is that it transcends a particular lifetime. By committing to it, you partake of a higher order that surpasses your own life and its limits.