Is There Merit for ID in Cosmology, Physics, and Astronomy?

Jay W. Richards
Opposing Views
October 13, 2008
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Although much of the public controversy over intelligent design has centered on biology and Darwinian evolution, the evidence for intelligent design goes far beyond biology. There’s especially intriguing evidence of design in cosmology, physics, and astronomy.

To say that ID has merit in cosmology and physics, I mean that there is positive evidence for ID in those parts of nature studied by cosmologists and physicists. That is, there is evidence that is much better explained in terms of intelligent design than explained away as an illusion, misunderstanding, or philosophical bias.

This contradicts the intellectual orthodoxy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was the much easier for scientists to be materialists. They could assume that the physical universe had always existed, so we need not address where it came from.

Evidence for Intelligent Design in Cosmology

That assumption was badly shaken in the 20th century. In the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered to his surprise that the light from distant galaxies was “red-shifted.” It had stretched during the course of its travels (to speak loosely). This suggested that the universe is expanding in every direction. Reversing the process in their minds, scientists were suddenly confronted with the prospect of a universe that had come into existence in the finite past. The idea took a few decades to fully catch on. But Hubble’s discovery was reinforced by an unwelcome prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which suggested that the universe should either be expanding or contracting.

Many scientists such as Fred Hoyle held out hope for some kind of Steady State theory that would allow them to retain the assumption of an eternal universe. But by the 1960s, the Big Bang view was being confirmed by additional evidence such as the cosmic microwave background radiation. Taken together, the evidence strongly suggested that the universe has not always existed. We now talk about the age of the universe without realizing that such an idea flatly contradicts the earlier picture of an eternal and self-existing cosmos.

The universe itself had re-introduced the question of its origin to a scientific community that, at least officially, was avoiding the question altogether. Suddenly a traditional cosmological argument, known mainly to philosophers and theologians, had empirical evidence in its favor. Here’s how the argument goes:

  • Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause (outside itself) for its existence.
  • Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

The argument always had intuitive plausibility. But we had little direct evidence for the second premise until the twentieth century. The argument has many twists and turns that I can’t describe here,  but it is widely recognized that a universe with a finite past strongly suggests a transcendent cause for its existence (even the materialist attempts to explain the implications away are evidence of this recognition). Of course, this evidence alone doesn’t prove the existence of God or even intelligent design, but when coupled with other evidence, it certainly points in the direction of a universe designed for complex life.

Evidence for Intelligent Design in Physics

This was just the beginning. In the 1960s and ’70s, physicists began to notice that the universal constants of physics, such as the forces of gravity and electromagnetism, seemed to be “finely-tuned” for the existence of complex life. The same was true of the initial conditions that would have to obtain in the early universe. If the values of these constants and initial conditions were much different, or if we were to try to pick their values at random, we would almost always get a universe hostile to life. To astrophysicist and atheist Fred Hoyle, this suggested the activity of a “superintellect.”

When physicists say, for example, that gravity is “fine-tuned” for life, what they usually mean is that, if the gravitational force had even a slightly different value, life would not have been possible.  If gravity were slightly weaker, the expansion after the Big Bang would have dispersed matter too rapidly, preventing the formation of galaxies, planets, and astronomers. If it were slightly stronger, the universe would have collapsed in on itself, retreating into oblivion like the groundhog returning to his hole on a wintry day. In either case, the universe would not be compatible with the sort of stable, ordered complexity required by living organisms.

Specifically, physicists normally refer to the value of, say, gravity relative to other forces, like electromagnetism or the strong nuclear force. In this case, the ratio of gravity to electromagnetism must be just so if complex life as we know it is to exist. If we were to just pick these values at random, we would almost never find a combination compatible with life or anything like it.

Given the prevailing assumptions of nineteenth and twentieth century science, discovering that the universe is fine-tuned was a surprise. Underlying such astonishment is the realization that the range of uninhabitable (theoretical) universes vastly exceeds the range of universes, like our own, that are hospitable to life. Thrown to the winds of chance, an uninhabitable universe is an astronomically more likely state of affairs. Again, the devil in the details, and there are materialist responses to this evidence, such as the postulation of multiple universes to explain away the fine tuning of our universe. But the responses themselves indicate that the evidence of fine tuning is a problem for those unwilling to entertain the possibility of a designed universe.

Evidence for Intelligent Design in Astronomy

Still more recently, growing evidence in astronomy has revealed that even in a finely tuned universe, many local things have to go just right to build a single habitable planet. You need just the right kind of rocky planet with the right atmosphere. You need lots of liquid water, and for that, you need to be at the right distance around the right kind of star, with the right moon to stabilize the tilt of its axis. You need the right planetary neighbors. You need to be in the right galaxy, and in the right neighborhood in that galaxy. And so on.

This growing list of requirements is only half the story. By itself, the skeptic might say we’re just the lucky recipients of a big cosmic lottery: givens trillions of planetary systems, one could happen to be habitable just by chance. But astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and I argue in The Privileged Planet that those conditions for habitability also provide the best overall conditions for doing science. In other words, the places where complex observers like us can exist are the very same places that provide the best overall conditions for observing.

For instance, the most life-friendly region of the galaxy is also the best place to be an astronomer and cosmologist. A solar system like ours is much more helpful for doing science than many of the uninhabitable extrasolar systems we’re now discovering. And the atmosphere that complex, chemically-based living observers need also allows those observers (us) to study the distant universe. You might expect these kinds of “coincidences” if the universe were designed for discovery, but not if you were a card-carrying materialist limited to the resources of mere chance and physical necessity.

Intelligent design theorists are often accused of being anti-science. But all the evidence discussed above is drawn for the natural world that natural scientists study. Moreover, the last line of evidence suggests the universe is designed (at least in part) to allow to make scientific discoveries. It’s hard to imagine a stronger mandate for the scientific enterprise.

Probably none of these pieces of evidence in isolation can force the committed skeptic to admit design; but, taken together, I think they are strong evidence of intelligent design for anyone open to the possibility.


For More Detailed Discussion

See Chapter nine of The Privileged Planet: How our place in the cosmos is designed for discovery, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards (Washington DC: Regnery, 2004).

Fine-Tuned

There is some ambiguity as to what exactly “fine-tuned” means for observations of one universe. Moreover, although the word “fine tuned” seems to imply a fine tuner, that is, an intelligent agent to do the fine-tuning, many physicists use the word without that intended connotation.