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Other Considerations

There are a number of other considerations that can be held to be relevant to the discussion of whether the universe is designed. One concerns what seems to me to be the most astonishing (and most significant) event known to us that has happened since the big bang. I refer, of course, to the dawning of self-consciousness here on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere). In us, the universe has become aware of itself. You remember that Blaise Pascal said that human beings are thinking reeds, so insubstantial on the grand scale of the cosmos, but we are thinking reeds, and so greater than all the stars, for we know them and ourselves and they know nothing. With, for example, Paul Davies in his book The Mind of God, I cannot regard this dawning of consciousness as being just a fortunate accident in the course of an essentially meaningless cosmic history. We know from the Anthropic Principle that the potentiality for this happening was present in the ground rules of the universe from the beginning. I see this striking emergence as a signal of meaningfulness, amounting to an intimation of intrinsic design. Something is going on in what is happening in cosmic process. Of course, I am talking in terms of a propensity to great fruitfulness. There is much that is contingent in the way that this has been realized. I am not claiming that it was laid down from all eternity that Homo sapiens should have five fingers! I will return later to the matter of contingency.

Meanwhile, let us recognize that our human self-consciousness enables us to look through many different windows onto reality. We are not confined to the impersonal scientific perspective of Galilieo`s primary quantities, but we have access to those personal qualities that Galileo set aside. I take with the greatest seriousness our human encounters with beauty and with moral imperative. I see them as affording us windows onto the reality within which we live and not, as I think Steven Weinberg does, as being internally constructed human attitudes through which we defy an intrinsically meaningless and hostile universe.

I have already drawn attention to science’s inadequacy in relation to music. Its reductionist strategy can never do justice to a work of art, for a Leonardo painting is much more than a collection of specks of paint of known chemical composition. It would be a disastrous mistake to throw away the insights of aesthetics, for they must find their proper place in a true Theory of Everything.

I believe that the same is true of our ethical intuitions. I know something about what the anthropologists tell us about the cultural tricks of perspective that different societies impose upon their discernment of moral issues. Of course, we must pay attention to these matters but, when all is said and done, I personally cannot believe that my conviction that torturing children is wrong is just a convention of my society. It is a fact about reality, the way things are. We have access to moral knowledge, which is knowledge of a totally different kind from scientific knowledge, for ethical insights are more than disguised genetic survival strategies. If that were not so, what would be the grounds on which Richard Dawkins could, on the last page of The Selfish Gene, urge us to rebel against their influence?

A true cosmology - an adequate account of reality - will have to take these issues into account. The physical world that science describes, is the carrier of beauty and the arena of moral decision, value-laden aspects of reality that science does not describe. One of the attractions of theism is that it offers a way of tying these different levels of experience together, which otherwise might seem so unconnected with each other. Just as we can understand the rational order of the world that science discovers, as being a reflection of the mind of its creator, so we can understand our aesthetic experience as being a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation, and our moral intuitions as being intimations of God’s good and perfect will. And, I would want to add that dimension of human experience that testifies to a meeting with the sacred as being an encounter with the divine presence.

Contributed by: Sir John Polkinghorne

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Understanding the Universe

Other Considerations

Science's Modest Ambition
Why is Science Possible?
Why is the Universe so Special?
The Problem of Evil
Purpose and the Cosmic Conclusion


 John Polkinghorne

Related Media:

Polkinghorne and Weinberg: An Exchange
The Anthropic Principle
The Faith of Scientists
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are we Alone?
Interview Index
Hubble Deep Field Animation
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Big Bang Cosmology and Theology
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