Designed for Living

Does God exist? You can answer that question in at least two ways, including, notably, “yes.” But how do you argue for that particular answer?

A new cottage industry among the religiously minded is the re-articulation of the so-called “cosmological argument” for the existence of God. Its proofs work backward. They start with visible creation and reason that it can only be the work of an uncreated First Cause. Such proofs were once compelling to educated people. Now the average college graduate can do without them. He doesn’t know exactly why this is so; he simply believes that Darwin and Stephen Hawking have somehow managed to explain creation without reference to a Creator.

Darwin and Hawking, of course, have done no such thing. Science can never answer the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? The universe is a massive fact that does not account for its existence and—some would say, following Goedel’s incompleteness theorems—cannot do so. This does not stop certain astrophysicists from trying to generate whole universes from mathematical equations. But a mathematical model does not tell us why there is a universe to describe in the first place.

If we cannot so easily dismiss the brute fact of the universe, neither can we ignore its appearance of having been designed. As one staunchly atheistic 20th-century astronomer put it: “A common sense interpretation of the data suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology.” How do you get around such a “common sense” interpretation? Darwin supplied the answer: Any “design” in nature is only apparent, the work of blind mechanisms. All you need to produce the bombardier beetle, for example, is random variations directed by natural selection—and a lot of time.

The Darwinian explanation is simple, elegant and popular. But organisms are so complex and purposeful that even the most implacable Darwinist, one suspects, must keep reminding himself that what he sees is not designed. Human DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the full text of the Encyclopedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard this as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. But when seen in nature, it is explained as the workings of random forces. At a recent conference in New York put on by the Wethersfield Institute, “Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe,” a number of philosophers and scientists argued that it is time to restate the case for intelligent design. The more science unpacks of material reality, the panelists contended, the harder it is to claim that mechanisms like natural selection can achieve the “irreducible complexity” of, say, the human eye. Much of the afternoon was spent bringing William Paley’s classic, 18th-century argument from design into the late 20th century.

William Dembski, a mathematician, began by admitting that “chance and necessity” are clearly at work in nature. If you see a cloud shape itself into the image of a horse, you do not need any more explanation than wind currents. If, however, you see written in the sky, “Yankees Win World Series,” you would reasonably infer that some intelligent agent had been at work. The trick is to identify the threshold between chance and necessity, on the one hand, and intelligent design, on the other.

The thrust of the conference was that much in nature points to skywriting rather than coincidence. Michael Behe, a biochemist and the author of “Darwin’s Black Box,” took a hard look at Darwin’s famous assertion that the human eye had evolved at random from a “light sensitive spot.” A “light sensitive spot” seemed a simple thing to Darwin; but modern biology shows that the chemical process needed simply to register a photon is extremely complex. Remove one step and it breaks down. In short, whatever biochemical gizmo preceded the “light sensitive spot” would have registered no light at all and so presumably would be rejected by Darwinian selection. So how did nature “build” the eye?

When faced with such examples, Darwinists argue that science will someday have an answer and that in the meantime it is inadmissible to talk about intelligent design. Here they may have a point—but only up to a point. “Design” is indeed a philosophical concept, and, yes, it is not the business of scientists to do philosophy. But the admission by scientists like Stuart Kauffman that there are mysteries that elude a Darwinian explanation would seem to leave open the door to intelligent design for anyone interested in such an idea.

One scientist who is decidedly not interested is Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for physics. In the current New York Review of Books, he dismisses talk of a “fine-tuned” universe as a dangerous regression to Greek myths. He also attacks religion, especially Christianity.

To keep his view coherent, Mr. Weinberg—and physicists like him—must somehow explain the breathtaking specificity of what followed the Big Bang. Picture a wall with hundreds of dials; each must be at exactly the right setting for carbon-based life to emerge eventually in a suburb of the Milky Way. If the cosmic expansion had been a fraction less intense, the universe would have imploded billions of years ago; a fraction more intense, and the galaxies would not have formed. How to explain this remarkable exactitude? Mr. Weinberg favors the multi-universe theory, in which the Big Bang is just one of innumerable other big bangs. The idea is that if there are billions of universes, then the odds are pretty good that one would finally get it right so that man could dwell in it. This would be “cosmic natural selection” and so there is no need to worry about the appearance of design.

The only problem with the notion of a plurality of big bangs is that there is not a shred of evidence to support it. The multi-universe theory also violates elementary logic. All these universes either interact or they don’t. If they do, they constitute one universe. If they don’t, they are mutually unknowable. Mr. Weinberg, in fact, is guilty of what he accuses religious people of doing: taking refuge in the unobservable.

As for the defects of religion, the other side of Mr. Weinberg’s brief, it can be argued that the mindset of medieval Christianity made modern science possible. The physicist Stanley Jaki has pointed out that science was “still-born” in every culture—Greek, Hindu, Chinese—except the Christian West. It was the insistence of thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas on the rationality of God and his creation that paved the way for Newton and Einstein.

It is unlikely, of course, that the Wethersfield conference would have won over Mr. Weinberg had he been there. Scientists usually don’t see the evidence differently until they change their interpretive framework. And the current framework, for most scientists, is anti-theistic. But for the rest, this new school of intelligent design is appealing and a far cry from the crude polemics of the creationists.