Leap Before You Look: Reflections on the Mission and “Evolution” of Discovery Institute

Editor’s note: Last November, we were in the nation’s capital to mark the anniversary of the founding of Discovery Institute. Co-founder George Gilder delivered these remarks at the Ritz-Carlton, McLean, VA.

I helped Bruce Chapman form Discovery Institute some 25 years ago and over that period, if I may use the term, it has evolved.

Bruce and I believe that this evolution expresses an intelligent design, a unified vision that transcends the various programs at Discovery Institute. We do not only believe in intelligent design in the universe; we believe such a design manifests itself across the sciences and pervades economics and culture. Not only is God the creator; but human beings are creative in his image, in the image of the creator. This is a scientific proposition, following the insights of a great new science called information theory. Information theory upholds the idea of a hierarchical universe and underlies all the programs at Discovery.

In his essay “Transposition,” C.S. Lewis explained a crucial principle of information theory. Imagine, he said, you are a figure in a great landscape painting, living in a flat world. You occupy just two dimensions. You have worked out all the distances and colors and shadings, shadows and light patterns, textures and angles. You have analyzed all the oils and pigments. You have collected all the data in your flat world and you believe you have a satisfactory 2D explanation of reality.

If an outsider comes to you and tells you that this picture is only a attenuated reflection or pale imitation of a vast three- or even four-dimensional cosmos beyond it, you might answer: “Three dimensions? I have no need for that hypothesis.”

But as C.S. Lewis put it: “What is happening in a lower medium can only be understood if you know the higher medium.”

In his essay, I believe, Lewis refuted what I call the flat universe theory. This is the assumption that mind, creativity, consciousness, and creation are all merely chance or emergent results of material forces: physics and chemistry.

Physics applies ever larger energies to matter in order to find ever smaller particles, until at last they isolate the least of all, the Higgs boson, and call it God: the God particle.

Biologists reduce the human body to merely a mix of physical and chemical elements. Thus they stultify pharmacology with a random model of discovery by trial and error among astronomical numbers of molecules that they then inject first into rats and then into humans. Discovery focuses on the creative possibilities of the trillions of ribosomes in every human body that can assemble any needed molecule.

Economists not only deny creativity to the divine; they also deny it to human beings. Their economic models reduce the human agent to a function of outside forces, essentially a Skinner box of stimuli and responses. Focusing on incentives rather than creativity, many economists are left with a model of capitalism that is driven by greed rather than by aspiration.

Across the sciences, however, the recent triumphs of information theory uphold a hierarchical universe. In the greatest mathematical discovery of the 20th century, Kurt Gödel in 1931 proved it in his famous incompleteness theorem. Every logical scheme, even mathematics itself, is necessarily dependent on axioms outside the scheme that cannot be proved within it. John von Neumann extended this view to the proposition that all computing machines must have outside programmers. No matter how much you know about the material substance of a computer, you cannot grasp what a computer is doing without finding the source code.

The computer offers an insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism. In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer’s materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations. In the usual hierarchy of causation, they reflect the software used to program the device; and, like the design of the computer itself, the software is contrived by human intelligence.

Yet Darwinians were upholding a purely material explanation of the complexity of life that could not even explain the complexity of computation. As I pondered this materialist superstition, it became increasingly clear to me that in all the sciences I studied, information comes first, and regulates the flesh and the world, not the other way around. In the beginning was the Word, as St. John wrote, is a central dogma of modern science.

Salient in virtually every technical field — from quantum theory and molecular biology to computer science and economics — is an increasing concern with the word. It passes by many names: logos, logic, bits, bytes, mathematics, software, knowledge, syntax, semantics, code, plan, program, design, algorithm, as well as the ubiquitous “information.” In every case, the information is independent of its physical embodiment or carrier.

This reality expresses a key insight of Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate and co-author of the discovery of DNA. Crick’s “Central Dogma” of molecular biology shows that influence can flow from the DNA word to the protein flesh, but not from proteins to DNA. By asserting that the DNA message precedes and regulates the form of the proteins, and that proteins cannot specify a DNA program, Crick’s Central Dogma unintentionally recapitulates St. John’s assertion of the primacy of the word over the flesh.

Similarly, you cannot understand mind by pondering physics and chemistry; you need the source codes of DNA and the cosmos. You cannot understand economics without explaining entrepreneurial creativity.

To grasp reality you have to look up rather than down. You have to aspire rather than despair or deny. You have to seek singularities rather than average them to banalities.

You cannot find anything new from an old place. You cannot have an assured path to the future by surveying the landscape in front of you. You cannot find safety in numbers or even in big data. You have to “leap before you look.” Faith precedes knowledge.

This attitude of aspiration and creative discovery — vertical ambition for creative meaning rather than horizontal submission to random reductionism — is the heart of the program at Discovery Institute: finding the image of the creator in nature and in us.