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Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life

Today we are seeing forms of the argument from design that seem actually to be generated within the field of science rather than theology. This happens where scientists reflect upon their discoveries and begin to ask the megaquestions - these questions are not the sole province of philosophers and theologians. Two forms of the argument from design are grounded in the intelligibility of the universe and its suitability for the emergence of life. Remarkably there are attributes of the universe that make it amenable to our rational understanding and to life as we know it:

A. Intelligibility"Human beings have always been struck by the complex harmony and intricate organization of the physical world. The movement of the heavenly bodies across the sky, they rhythms of the seasons, the...

Mathematician and physicist Paul Davies has observed, "The success of the scientific method at unlocking the secrets of nature is so dazzling it can blind us to the greatest scientific miracle of all: science works. Scientists themselves normally take it for granted that we live in a rational, ordered cosmos subject to precise laws that can be uncovered by human reasoning. Yet why this is so remains a tantalizing mystery. (Davies, 1992, p. 20)"This cosmic order is underpinned by definite mathematical laws that interweave each other to form a subtle and harmonious unity. These laws are possessed of an elegant simplicity, and have often...

Why is the universe intelligible? Why do mathematical principles apply? Why does our science work? "Einstein said that the only thing that is incomprehensible about the world is that it is comprehensible." (Barbour 1990, p. 141).

Our universe manifests order, unity and coherence such that "laws of physics discovered in the laboratory apply equally well to the atoms of a distant galaxy." (Davies 1944, p. 47) It is not only orderly; it manifests a very particular kind of order; poised as Davies has noted, between the twin extremes of simple regimented orderliness and random complexity. Organized variety is what we see.

B. Suitability for the Emergence of Life

Moreover this organization was not built into the universe at its origin. It has emerged from primeval chaos in a sequence of self-organizing processes that have progressively enriched and complexified the evolving universe in a more or less unidirectional manner" (Davies 1993, p. 45)The evolutionary process seems to reflect at the very least a directionality "A general trend toward greater complexity, responsiveness, and awareness" (Barbour 1990, p. 172). Even Jacques Monod...

Nature seems to operate with a kind of "optimization principle whereby the universe evolves to create maximum richness and diversity. The fact that this rich and complex variety emerges from the featureless inferno of the Big Bang, and does so as a consequence of laws of stunning simplicity and generality, indicates some sort of matching of means to ends that has a distinct teleological flavor to it" (Davies 1994, p. 46).Sir John Eccles has helpfully shown that whatever may be the case about a designer having purposes for world process, it is certainly the case that there is evidence of "purposes" internal to...

Theoretical physicist Stephen Weinberg at the end of his book, The First Three Minutes, makes the statement, "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Analysis of cosmos does not for him yield clear and evident purpose. But advocates of the anthropic principle John Barrow and Frank Tipler (also theoretical physicists) make a rather different interpretation. The very laws that Weinberg takes to be indifferent to human beings seem to them to suggest the presence of an intelligence that "wanted" beings like us to evolve.

Biological systems do have some very particular requirements and these requirements are in fact met by nature. There are cosmic coincidences of striking proportions. The odds against this special set of physical conditions and natural laws that make our lives possible are astronomical.

Stephen Hawking has said, "The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications" (Hawking 1985, p. 121).

Detractors will say that we could only observe a universe that is consistent with our existence - and surely that is a truism. And there is a possibility that there are other universes. Perhaps if there were a near infinite number of universes the probability does increase that somewhere this special set of conditions would obtain. It is also possible that other forms of life vastly different from our own have emerged elsewhere under different initial conditions and physical laws. So far we do not know of any. For now this must remain an open question.Analysis of the laws of nature reveals a finely tuned system conducive to the emergence of life. Even a small change in the physical constants would result in an uninhabitable universe. (For example the...

"If it is the case that the existence of life requires the laws of physics and the initial conditions to be fine-tuned to high precision, and that fine-tuning does in fact obtain, then the suggestion of design seems compelling" (Davies 1994, p. 51). It is at least not a more extravagant metaphysical claim than the claim for infinite random universes. In fact some would argue that the hypothesis that there exists an intelligent designer serves as a simpler and therefore better explanation (applying the Ockham's razor criterion)."In the most general terms, we claim that the relation between fine-tuning and the theory of design is hypothetico-deductive, if there is a designer, this fact explains the fine-tuning and is thereby...

Contributed by: Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Argument from Design: What is at Stake Theologically?

Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life

Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church
The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation
The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms
18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges
20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges
Conclusion: What is at Stake Theologically?


Anna Case-Winters

A revised version of this paper was published in Zygon, March 2000, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 69-81.

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Was the Universe Designed?
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