What’s Wrong and What’s Right With Intelligent Design (Re-posted)

Yesterday Tom Woodward sent me an encouraging email about this article, which I originally posted just over three years ago, and I’ve decided to re-post it today. What follows is the same material, with half a sentence added on Stephen Meyer’s recent Intelligent Design work and some dead links removed.

Update 6:50 pm: when I first posted this earlier today, comments were turned off. That was an error that I have just now seen and have corrected.

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I had a powerful “aha moment” one night last week, in which I believe I actually felt the revulsion many ID opponents have toward Intelligent Design. I was reading Thomas Woodward’s Darwin Strikes Back. He’s certainly not to blame for any bad feelings I felt; I think it was instead a kind of gifting moment, through which I was able to take on the other side’s perspective and gain new insight.

I was reading this passage on the Cambrian Explosion, which was a period during which (according to the fossil record) many thousands of new species suddenly appeared in a short period of geological time, about 530 million years ago. Woodward writes,

The name ‘explosion’ is used widely in the literature of professional paleontology in describing this dramatic fossil debut…. where we find not just gaps between slightly different forms but fossil chasms between different phyla that abruptly appear in the rocks…. The Cambrian gaps are persisting [in spite of new fossil finds]; with a defiance and stubbornness that is now legendary. What’s worse, those chasms are not just enduring; they are steadily increasing in number through discoveries of new bizarre creatures… in recent decades.

ID theorists point to the Cambrian explosion as evidence that gradualistic evolution does not explain the fossil record. Now, this was not new information to me, but it somehow struck me this time just how this must appear to some people. Here we have something like 200,000 species among the fossils, most of which arrived suddenly 530 million years ago and are now gone. ID (usually) says that each one of them, or at least each group or “kind,” required a special intervention to appear as a new species. What kind of an intelligence would do that? Why would this intelligence build up to these new species with a series of simpler forms, most of which are also gone now? Why would this intelligence create a dinosaur world that’s now been wiped away?

I believe I have a sense now (though I still don’t agree, as I’ll explain later) of what some people say when they consider this intelligence as some kind of fictional bumbler mucking about in the world, creating in fits and starts, not getting it right for the longest time. It’s so much more pleasing–especially to our Western consciousness–to think of things coming and going through time in a natural way.

So then, what kind of intelligence would do that? It’s a good question. Intelligent Design theorists say they are making an inference to the best explanation: that we can draw a valid analogy from our everyday experience, which shows us that information and design always originate from intelligence, to some kind of intelligence behind the natural order. But why stop there? I wonder if it’s really possible to do as ID theorists do, which is to start from the natural evidence, and reason from there to bare intelligence. I don’t think it’s entirely wrong–in fact, it’s correct in a very powerful way. I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, though, I’m suggesting that we shouldn’t stop there. Why just just reason to intelligence? Ought we not at least also reason to mystery? For if there is something analogous to human intelligence there, there is also something about it that is very hard to understand. It’s a theory of Mysterious Intelligence.

Then, as we continue to puzzle over why this intelligence would develop all those thousands of creatures, there seems to be another important analogy we could safely draw. When we see new people building things being built for no apparent purpose, it’s usually the result of some creative impulse. Art doesn’t have to have a purpose, other than to delight the beholder. In the case of natural history, if the creative impulse is part of the explanation, it seems playful and wasteful at the same time, or profligate. This mysterious, creative intelligence has resources to spare, and no compunction about using them. This seems to be leading us to a richer theory than simple ID; it’s a theory of Mysterious, Profligately Creative Intelligence.

But not just that. This intelligence seems likely not to be part of the natural world, yet it intervenes here. The world of the Cambrian explosion was stepped into frequently from outside. It’s haunted by this other-worldly intelligence. Otherwise, how would these 200,000 or so new species have arisen? So we seem to be moving toward a theory of Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligence.

Finally, we might as well recognize that just about every ID theorist speaks of purpose, and great power is assumed; so we’re talking about a Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligence

This is anathema to modern man. A Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Intelligent Outsider does not belong in our mindset. No wonder ID draws so much fire! We’re all naturalists to some extent. Even we who believe in God are so highly influenced by the scientific mindset, it’s hard to shake free of it for even a moment. African or Pacific Island tribes they may see spirits in every tree and rock–we see atoms and molecules and energy, and we know how they interact. We know what’s really going on, and it’s not spooks.

This is the problem with Intelligent Design. ID’s opponents keep pushing ID’s proponents to name the intelligence we’re talking about. We’re shy to do that from the scientific perspective, but this Mysterious Creative Outsider haunts every mention of ID. Now here’s the interesting thing: if you’ve been watching carefully, you’ve noticed that if there’s an objection to this kind of Intelligence, it’s mostly emotional or aesthetic: we dare not countenance such a possibility, because it just doesn’t fit the way we have thought the world is and we don’t like it. There are rational arguments along those lines too, but they’re nothing new, nothing that ID hasn’t already dealt with from the philosophical side of its efforts. But this feeling of strangeness exposes more clearly what ID is about. It’s not about bare intelligence: it’s aboutPurposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligence. From my perspective as a Christian, it’s about God.

At this point I must step aside from the subject slightly for a moment to speak of something that makes matters better in some ways and worse in others. Phillip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and History at Penn State. He says that the most under-reported, and possibly the most significant social movement in the entire world in the 20th Century, was the global rise of Christianity—especially south of the Equator, in Asia, and in Muslim countries. J.P. Moreland quotes credible research (mp3) showing that in the last 30 years of the century, serious Christians increased worldwide by a factor of 10, and the number of Muslims coming to faith in Christ in the last few decades is greater than in all previous history combined. Much of this explosion is fueled by miracles: dreams, vision, healings and the like. These things are credibly reported in sources like the Washington Post and the Orange County Register [the links have expired since this was first posted].

It seems that the world is not so immune to intervention by an intelligent outsider as we have thought. Maybe we Westerners are wrong about some things. (And maybe, as Moreland says at the end of that talk, it’s happening more in our part of the world than we’ve recognized.)

But the scientist says, “If God is doing this all the time, how can there be any such thing as science? If God is always intervening–interfering–how can we count on any regularity anywhere? Yet, clearly we can! So this does not add up.” That question is actually not so hard. Part of God’s intention in doing these things is to communicate himself to people. If he were always interfering, such that there was no such thing as a reliable natural order, there could be no communication in it. It’s a signal-to-noise ratio thing. God’s communication has to be different from the regularities of the world if it’s to be actual communication; thus there must be regularities. Those regularities define the way we usually experience the world, and God’s interventions to change that order are rare exceptions.

Aspects of God’s character enter in here that I don’t know how to derive as an inference from nature. Biblical believers know him as good, trustworthy, and faithful. To the extent that ID is intimating a Powerful Outsider whose goodness and faithfulness unknown, I can see how that would be just opening a conceptual door to chaos.

That, as I said, was somewhat of an aside, for I started out talking about ID from an empirical perspective, and then I looked at divine intervention from a theological perspective. The two views unite in this: the whole idea is an affront to the mindset of a universally predictable, controllable, regular, universal, natural reality. It’s a terrible assault on philosophical naturalism (PN, the idea that there is no reality except matter and energy and law and chance). That’s the emotional impact. The emotional effect of this does not mean it’s not true.

Lurking behind ID is what I would call PPMPCHIOID: Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Outsider Intelligent Design. Opponents accuse ID of being disingenuous when it says it makes no claims, other than intelligence, regarding the identity of the designer it seeks. But don’t we all have PPMPCHIOID–or God–in mind? Isn’t ID being dishonest when it denies this?

I don’t think so. In fact, this apparent weakness of ID is also its strength. It offers so little about the Designer it seeks; but it does not try to offer more than its tools allow. To look for Design, signifying purposeful intelligence, is something we can do from within the empirical sciences. To look for the rest of it is beyond the reach of science.

You see, we have conceptual tools for identifying purposeful design in nature. Yes, I know this is the very point that’s most in controversy. There seems to be at least one such tool that is to be universally accepted, though: Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity (IC). Many scientists have taken Behe to task over this, but in very specific ways. They have said that his examples of IC are not really irreducible, or they have doubted that instances of IC in nature can really be proven. They have not (to my knowledge) ever credibly denied that IC–if reliably identified–signals the action of intelligence. So we have at least that one conceptual tool, going back all the way to Darwin himself. I believe William Dembski’s complex specified information (CSI) is also a strong indicator of intelligence, as is the origin of biological information, as discussed by Stephen Meyer in Signature in the Cell.

We don’t have empirically-based tools in biology* for identifying and discriminating other features of the designer, like Profligate Creativity, or even being Outside the natural order. At least, we can’t identify those things directly. If intelligence is identified, the philosophers can go to work and discuss whether what I have written here is true, that other characteristics inexorably accompany a finding of intelligence. So when an empirical research program says it’s only trying to identify intelligence, it is being both careful and honest. (It is not thereby trying to sneak God into the public schools.) It is trying to do just what it can conceivably do through its tools.

What’s both wrong and right about ID, then, is its bare minimalist claim of looking for purposeful intelligence in a designer of life. It is right in looking only for what it has the conceptual tools to potentially find. That there may be a PPMPCHIOID–an active creator God–lurking there raises all kinds of emotional reactions, which I think I understand better now. It’s hard to like ID if you don’t like the idea of a God being involved in the natural order.

And it’s really hard to like ID if you see it as a way to sneak God back into American public education. That’s the other rampant conspiracy theory surrounding ID. Plain statements of facts from ID leaders don’t seem to have lessened fears of this. To repeat those plain statements: as a scientific research program, ID is a minimalist theory, seeking only to identify instances of purposeful design in nature. Its educational agenda is even more minimalist: ID leaders aren’t trying to get ID taught in the public schools. (It’s been said a thousand times.) We’re only asking for a more complete accounting of evolution to be presented, including empirical challenges facing it. That’s all. How evil is that?

Well, for those who are guided by an emotional response guiding them. It’s also convenient: opponents routinely distort ID into something other than what it is; saying it’s a religious and political campaign. It’s a rhetorical hurdle that ID has to repeatedly clear on its path to doing actual science. But rather than focusing there, I want to give proper credence to the emotional and aesthetic challenge ID presents to people of a naturalistic mindset. As I said, I’ve had a taste of that feeling, and it’s powerful. It doesn’t determine the truth of ID, but we have to recognize it as a significant and real part of this controversy’s landscape, and treat it with respect.

*William Lane Craig and others argue to other personal characteristics of the Creator in their versions of the cosmological argument for God. I think they are right to do so. That situation is entirely different, however, from the biological one, and the same arguments do not necessarily transfer over into biology.

Comments

  1. toryninja

    This article just blew me away. Absolutely amazing. Especially the parts about God being an artist and God intervening in the world. Thank you.

  2. Donald Wilson

    Let me start out by saying that you are a fine writer and communicator, and more importantly, a thinking Christian brother. We need that so much today.
    There’s much I’d like to say about this article, but I’ve found that shorter blogs are much more useful to those who follow them, so let me address just the following excerpt from your article:
    “The two views [the empirical aspects of ID and its theological implications]unite in this: the whole idea is an affront to the mindset of a universally predictable, controllable, regular, universal, natural reality. It’s a terrible assault on philosophical naturalism.”
    As a Christian who believes in a trustworthy, consistent, intelligent-and-powerful-beyond-description Creator and Law Giver, I am not at all surprised by the uniformity and consistency that we find in nature and its laws. Such reliability is consistent with a world view like mine, but is completely inconsistent with a world view that affirms a universe originating in utter chaos.
    Nor is it inconsistent with my world view to observe the occasional intervention in this uniformity by the One who established it. It is not at all surprising that the One who Created it all in a flash of brilliance beyond our ability to imagine for His own pleasure would feel free to intervene in it at His discretion.

    Donald Wilson
    Author of the upcoming book, “Because I Think, I Believe”

  3. Scott

    Tom,

    First, in an attempt to add context to my comments here, my current position is that of a strong agnostic. In other words, if some sort of first mover does exist, I think it’s highly unlikely any of the religious definitions we humans have created are accurate conception.

    Second, my objection to PPMPCHIOID really isn’t an objection but an observation of the apparent contradiction it brings.

    For example, you seem to suggest any intelligence behind biological ID would be completely foreign to human beings. However, despite this observation, you continue to base biological ID on an inference of design based on the act of intentional creation by human beings. Why should we question one human assumption yet not another?

    Nor is it clear how you discern between such a otherly being and a natural force that has mysteriously created everything? One could just as easily appeal to this same mystery in regards to the event of creation.

    Third, what you seem to be presenting is a theory that those who reject ID do so because they have the wrong expectations for an intelligent creator. That is, we shouldn’t see the empirical disappearance of the 200,000 species that suddenly appeared in the Cambrian explosion as evidence against a creator because such a creator is foreign to modern human beings. You wrote:

    The emotional effect of this does not mean it’s not true.

    However, I’d also note that it could also be the case that ID supporters assume these 200,000 species were created by an intelligent creator because a creation event without a intelligent creator is something completely foreign to most human beings.

    Empirical observations support both of these theories. This is why I suggested that empirical observations are insufficient in my comments on your other post.

    You wrote:

    If you’ve been watching carefully, of course, you’ve noticed that if there’s an objection to this kind of Intelligence, it’s mostly emotional or aesthetic: we dare not countenance such a possibility because it just doesn’t fit the way we have thought the world is and we don’t like it.

    And we clearly observe a strong emotional reaction to creation events without an intelligent creator as it too doesn’t fit the way we create in meaningful ways.

    Furthermore, you seem to have omitted the observed instances in biology that suggest if there was a creator, he wasn’t very intelligent. Not only are there flaws in the “design” but we can trace many of these flaws back to the particular way in which these features evolved naturally.

    So, it would seem we actually have two theories.

    A. There is something fundamentally wrong with our exceptions of intelligent creators.

    B. There is something fundamentally wrong with our exceptions of the act of creation.

    You seem to be arguing for the latter in your post. But we could just as well make the same observations regarding the former. A natural force that creates without intention is foreign to us because we are intentional creators.

  4. woodchuck64

    Tom:

    This is anathema to modern man. A Purposeful, Powerful, Mysterious, Profligately Creative, Highly Involved Intelligent Outsider does not belong in our mindset.

    But humanity is also a purposeful, powerful, mysterious (why was Stonehenge built?), creative, highly-involved intelligence, so this concept is very much a part of our mindset. If a PPMPCHII designer created and tinkered with life, it must have used millions of acres of machines, miles of laboratories, and disposed of countless failed experiments and equipment over the eons. If we make a 1000 errors in a year on a critical project, a PPMPCHII would be expected to make a billion slipups in a million years, inadvertently revealing artificiality in countless ways and countless places, not just in the end product.

    What isn’t a part of our “modern” mindset, though, is a Supernatural PPMPCHII, one who has magical abilities to conceal his work and never makes mistakes. As a modern man, I’m fine with PPMPCHIIO, but not (S)PPMPCHIIO. Not finding independent evidence of a PPMPCHIIO, and not happy with supernatural explanations, I prefer the hypothesis that natural law is enough for life’s formation and evolution.

  5. Nick (Matzke)

    Tom wrote,

    “ID theorists point to the Cambrian explosion as evidence that gradualistic evolution does not explain the fossil record. Now, this was not new information to me, but it somehow struck me this time just how this must appear to some people. Here we have something like 200,000 species among the fossils, most of which arrived suddenly 530 million years ago and are now gone. ID (usually) says that each one of them, or at least each group or “kind,” required a special intervention to appear as a new species.”

    The idea that the 200,000 described fossil species originated in the Cambrian is a misconception that arises in uncritical consumers of creationist/ID literature, particularly literature that is YEC or plays down/minimizes Earth’s geological history and overemphasizes the Cambrian radiation. In reality only a few hundreds or thousands of fossil species originate in the Cambrian (and even they don’t appear all at once, they are spread out over 50+ million years, 543 mya to 490 mya), almost all the rest come afterwards. Each individual species typically lives only a few million years, then winks out. Few species living now go back more than a few million years in the fossil record.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this kind of thing is one of those colossal errors that, to a scientist, indicates that e.g. the author, endorsers like Thomas Woodward, commentators who don’t notice the problem, etc., just don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to evolution.

  6. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Some good questions raised here.

    Scott asked,

    you seem to suggest any intelligence behind biological ID would be completely foreign to human beings. However, despite this observation, you continue to base biological ID on an inference of design based on the act of intentional creation by human beings. Why should we question one human assumption yet not another?

    I could come at this from a perspective of biblical revelation, but since that’s not the tack I took in the article I will not. The answer to your question is that we know of nothing that can create information, or that can craft complexity such as we see in nature, other than a purposeful intelligence. (Some readers will assail that statement, but for purposes of my answer to Scott it is sufficient; objections are moot for this question, because his question addresses whether it is right to draw the inferences that ID does from that position.)

    Given the perspective you’ve raised in your question we then have two choices: either we infer a purposeful intelligence, or we give up and say there’s nothing knowable about where biological information and complexity came from. It’s a complete black box, an absolute mystery. This is a position of despair, and I see no need to go there, especially since by coming at it from the other direction we can meet in the same place, the place of biblical theism.

    Nor is it clear how you discern between such a otherly being and a natural force that has mysteriously created everything? One could just as easily appeal to this same mystery in regards to the event of creation.

    If we knew of natural forces that could “just as easily” create the first life, that would be true. We don’t.

    However, I’d also note that it could also be the case that ID supporters assume these 200,000 species were created by an intelligent creator because a creation event without a intelligent creator is something completely foreign to most human beings.

    Certainly there are emotional commitments on both sides of the issue. “The emotional effect of this does not mean it’s not true,” I wrote; it’s not in the emotion but in the evidences and reasoning that we move toward reliable answers. You say, “Empirical observations support both of these theories,” but I would say, they don’t support naturalism well at all. There is no empirical observation supporting a naturalistic origin of life nor of naturalistic explanations for our fine-tuned universe. I use that two-letter word “no” advisedly. There is not empirical observation supporting either.

    Furthermore, you seem to have omitted the observed instances in biology that suggest if there was a creator, he wasn’t very intelligent. Not only are there flaws in the “design” but we can trace many of these flaws back to the particular way in which these features evolved naturally.

    If there was a creator, he was intelligent. Look around you. Was the creator of all this at least as intelligent as, say, the faculty at NYU? ID is an argument for design; it is not an argument for perfect design. (Christian theology has adequate answers for the imperfection argument anyway.)

  7. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    woodchuck64, you drew an analogy to a PPMPCHII, and noted that the problem you have with my proposition here is the idea of a supernatural PPMPCHII with “magical” abilities. You say you are “not happy” with supernatural explanations and that you “prefer” natural law. Thank you for illustrating one of my major points.

    olegt asked,

    In what way does the ID argument differ from that offered by scientific creationism?

    That was a very long discussion—more than 500 comments were written on that series—that I don’t intend to repeat here.

  8. Richard Ball

    “[IDers] seeking only to identify instances of purposeful design in nature”.

    I think the argument from sufficient reason comes into play here. Many thinking persons without formal training in either sciences or philosophy reject darwinism because it is patently and obviously insufficient to account for the results obtained.

    Perhaps ID, as an intellectual strategy, should be a two-step process: start with seeking to demonstrate the insufficiency of natural evolution (prior to life) and darwinism (once life begins) to explain the apparent, overwhelming appearance of purposeful design, the “arrow” of evolution, the Cambrian explosion, consciousness, rationality (both inside humans and “out there” in the domains of scientific discovery), moral sense, etc., and then, postulate intelligent design as a solution. The next step would then be to seek evidences for the hypothesis of intelligent design — which brings us to irreducible complexity, specified complexity, and information.

    The current strategy argues from irreducible complexity, specified complexity, and information to intelligent design. This strategy would reverse this.

    A further idea would be to expand the hypothesis as follows. Biological forms, if designed, may well contain purposeful, useful designs that can be reverse-engineered and re-used by designing humans for design purposes. This, of course, is already being done — having been co-opted by darwinists.

    The weakness of my proposal is that the first step of argument is probably more philosophical than scientific — I’m not sure it could be sustained at the level of “doing science”.

  9. Scott

    Tom,

    Your OP seems to suggest two points.

    First, you appear to present a theory of why biological ID is rejected on non-theological grounds. We can summarize this theory as a fundamental misunderstanding regarding our expectations of creators. However, as other comments have suggested, human beings are intelligent, creative, highly evolved, purposeful, mysterious, beings who create things. In fact, this is the very inference you’re relying on regarding design. And, if you look around, it’s clear that we have significant creative power, which has grown dramatically in the just the last 100 years.

    So, it would appear that your theory is that the creator of everything is really like a human being, but infinitely intelligent and powerful. And if we expand our expectations of a creator to include this definition, then objections will become irrelevant.

    However, as I noted, we could present a similar theory that we have a fundamental misunderstanding regarding creation events. That is, as human beings who’s every action and action is based on intent and purpose, we find the idea of creation without these properties completely foreign to us. However, if we expand our expectations of creation event to include natural forces, the naturalist could appeal to the same mystery in regards to how the universes was created naturally, just as you appeal to mystery you appeal to in explaining why over 95% of all species that were supposedly intentionally created are now extinct.

    Second, you seem to suggest that, in addition to a theological perspective, ID is supported by empirical evidence. However, as I indicated comments on an earlier post, any theory can make any prediction. In fact, your first point illustrates this clearly as you suggest that, should we posit a theory of a creator who supposedly creatively and mysteriously creates hundred of thousands of species only to have them go extinct not long after, this theory would fit our observations.

    Tom wrote:

    The answer to your question is that we know of nothing that can create information, or that can craft complexity such as we see in nature, other than a purposeful intelligence.

    This isn’t nearly as cut and dry as you suggest. We have good explanations for complexity and we’ve seen how it evolves in ways that are complex yet inefficient for their purpose. This also requires using one of many definitions of information, which is itself based on human perspective. That is, information is only information when created by intelligent sources.

    Also, I’d note Orgle’s second rule.

    Evolution is cleverer than you are.

    Trial and error strategies can be better than intentionally directed results in domains where we have little experience or solutions are counter unintuitive. In these cases, intelligence can actually hinder designs by comparison.

    Nor do we know of any universes that have been created by an intelligent creator that we can compare ours to.

    They have said that his examples of IC are not really irreducible, or they have doubted that instances of IC in nature can really be proven. They have not (to my knowledge) ever credibly denied that IC–if reliably identified–signals the action of intelligence.

    But we could create a theory of a PPMPCHIOID creator that perfectly and intentionally created absolutely everything we observe, including terminal diseases in children, death, etc. Even what appears to be chaos to us could be the perfect manifestation of a creative, infinitely intelligent and powerful creator.

    So, absolutely anything could be interpreted as an act of intelligence. You just need to posit that your intelligent creator intentionally created what you observe.

    Given the perspective you’ve raised in your question we then have two choices: either we infer a purposeful intelligence, or we give up and say there’s nothing knowable about where biological information and complexity came from. It’s a complete black box, an absolute mystery.

    This is only if you’re only willing to ignore the second of the two alternatives I suggested.

    A. There is something fundamentally wrong with our [expectations] of intelligent creators.

    B. There is something fundamentally wrong with our [expectations] of the act of creation.

    Both of these alternatives suggest that our expectations are based on ignorance. It does not suggest that we cannot bring our expectations closer to reality.

    When I said empirical observations are insufficient, I’m referring to the fact that empirical observations alone are insufficient. However, when combined with explanation and argument, empirical observations are part of a process that can and does result in the increase of knowledge. This is the scientific method.

    Furthermore, any such PPMPCHII is a black box in that it offers no explanation as to the process by which anything is created or how it interacts with it’s creation. You seem to be exchanging one mystery for another.

    This is a position of despair, and I see no need to go there, especially since by coming at it from the other direction we can meet in the same place, the place of biblical theism.

    It’s unclear what do you mean by we do not need to go there. What I prefer and what I think is true are two different things. However, even if I prefer a purposeful universe, the lack of such purpose does not cause me despair any more than the lack of having a billion dollars or some other specific state of affairs.

    On the other hand, it would seem your reaction to a world that was created without intent or purpose is despair. But this seems to confirm the idea that such a world would be foreign to beings who’s every action is permeated by intent and meaning. After all, our lack of understanding regarding exactly how gravity works does not cause despair.

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