Douglas Jacoby on Answering Skeptics: Design Featured

Thursday, 20 August 2015 11:25

Douglas JacobyDesign, intelligent or otherwise

God's world everywhere shows unmistakable evidence of design: 

  • The cosmos appears to be "fine-tuned": dozens of parameters seem to have been taken into account and most of the variables adjusted with nearly infinitesimal accuracy to produce a life-sustaining universe that could give rise to science itself. For example, if someone tweaked the gravitational constant, or the ratio of the mass of a proton to that of a neutron, or the ratio of matter to antimatter, by even 1%, there would be no life in the universe. Planets would fail to form, or stellar nuclei would never produce the heavier elements needed for life in a stable environment. 

  • Further, we may observe the principle of mathematical elegance: natural laws and processes expressed in concise mathematical formulae. The laws of nature allow us to predict, to extrapolate. Without them, there would be no real science. This makes sense when we consider that the founders of modern science were nearly all believers in a deity. They expected the world to be rational, since it was created by a God of reason.

  • The argument from design (teleology, if you prefer the term philosophers and theologians use) is simple. The cosmos is either purposive or not. (If you want the platinum term, a world without purpose and God isdysteleological). Since the universe appears designed to lead to human life (what is called the anthropic principle) in turn able to observe and utilize the laws of nature -- the assumption that there is a God is at least as rational as the assumption that there isn't.

A skeptic might counter, "Yes, I concede, the world of quarks and atoms, quasars and nebulae, intelligence and personality, does look as though it's been designed by a divinity. But since the universe has been here forever, it was only a matter of time before such a cosmos appeared. And even if it didn't, there may be infinite universes, so sooner or later a world like our own was bound to come along. We don't need to bring in God to explain the world." Several thoughts strike me immediately.

  • Since the world hasn't been here forever (infinite time), but only billions of years, the confidence that such a world would occur are still remote. Some mathematicians calculate the odds of such a world without God are poorer than 1 in 10 to the 80th (the total number of subatomic particles estimated to exist in the universe)!

  • Since matter itself came into being, removing God gives no advantage to the skeptic, since he still has to account for why there's anything in the first place.

  • It seems more reasonable that a universe displaying signs of intelligence (design) and personality (consider human life) has its origin in a power that is both intelligent and personal.

  • There is no empirical proof of a multiverse. The theory is speculative. And even if there were a parallel universe (or something like that), unless it somehow intersected our own (the kind of thing parallel lines are indisposed to do) we would still be in the dark. Proposing a multiverse isn't the same as proving it. But even if there were a multiverse, the same questions about origins beg explanation. If we believe one universe requires an explanation like God, how about a million worlds, or an infinite number? The need for God would be all the greater!

  • While design is highly suggestive of intelligence and purpose, it doesn't prove (scientifically) that there is a God. Nevertheless, it makes the theist's position plausible -- in fact more plausible than the atheist's.

"Intelligent Design"?

Does the abundant evidence of intelligence in the design of the world, require us to believe in so-called "Intelligent Design" (ID)? This view, popular since the 1990s, is ambivalent towards modern biology, for it rules out the most impressive (complex) processes, unwilling to attribute them to natural causes. ID claims a miracle whenever science hasn't quite caught up with observation. In my view, it fails to honor the principle of the Two Books, and promotes skepticism when it should be saying less: that the marks of design suggest a creator.

Yet ID accepts the scientific evidence for the enormous antiquity of the world (billions of years). It allows microevolution. But when there's a gap in scientific knowledge, watch out: a miracle is inserted to bridge the distance. The problem is that, as the gaps are filled -- science explaining more and more -- the frontier retreats, and the proper sense of mystery is (unnecessarily) lost.

ID affirms God as Creator, but it underestimates the creative power of the natural processes God has facilitated in his world. The two books are in a state of conflict. The "God of the Gaps" is rightly rejected by atheists. Agreeing (as I do) that the universe displays both intelligence and design is not the same as accepting ID. 

Three possibilities

Given the stunningly complex nature of the physical world, not to mention the many intangible realities we all experience (love, beauty, truth, and so on), is there a satisfactory theory to account for what we observe? There are only three possibilities.

  • The universe didn't come into being; it just always was. So believe many unbelievers. Yet science has shown that the universe has come into being. Moreover, scientific laws require that whatever comes into being must have a cause. That means there remain only two options.

  • The universe is self-caused. This isn't much better than the first idea. How did nothing become something (at the Big Bang)?If there was nothing there, how did the universe "bang" itself into existence? As self-causation fails to persuade, we are left with only one conclusion.

  • The universe was caused by something external to itself. This can't be something physical, since that would in turn require its own cause, ad infinitum. The ultimate cause must lie outside the universe. What could be capable of creating the vast cosmos we observe, with its overwhelming complexity, order, beauty, and design, including human life? Surely God is the best explanation.

Proof, or suggestion?

This isn't a design argument (teleological), but a cosmological one. Yet it too can be used to point to the Creator, reduce doubt, or plant a seed in a thinking person that one day might germinate into faith. Our conclusion is not that the impression of design proves there's a designer; it is more modest. We argue only that designsuggests a designer. The gentler phrasing of our reasoning may, in the long term, convince more people than will be won by grandiose claims.  From Physics to Biology....

Next week we'll consider an aspect of the natural world in which the degree of design is nothing short of stunning. It is the origin and diversification of life. Just as those who feared Big Bang would overturn their faith were wrong -- since Big Bang theory strongly supports faith -- so it is with biology. We have nothing to fear from her, and especially from evolutionary ideas. Here again we will find strong support for theism.

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Read 2590 times Last modified on Thursday, 20 August 2015 11:50