One of my first encounters with this question took place in college physics class.
Portions of this essay are adapted from my contributions to Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, ed. J. B. Stump (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). My lab group was assembling an experiment on circular motion and figuring out what to measure using the messy pile of equipment on the lab bench. We got it set up, made our measurements of radius, velocity, etc., then did some mathematical calculations based on centripetal force.
Here came the moment of truth . . . we compared the theoretical math to the real-world data . . . and it matched! I was hooked and went on to a physics career. I had experienced firsthand the power of abstract mathematics to describe the natural world. As a Christian, it was an easy step for me to see this experience through the eyes of faith, as an encounter with an intelligent Creator who crafted a universe of such order and regularity that it can be described with mathematics and logic. Science showed me the order in the natural world; biblical faith showed me the Person behind it.
Is purposive, intelligent design detectable by scientific investigation? Yes and no. Science, in its process and its findings, is simply not equipped to answer the big question of the purposes of God. Scientific findings about the natural world can, however, inform the way we answer such questions, as it did for me in physics lab.
Faith Sees the Purposes of an Intelligent Creator
My description of perceiving the Creator’s intelligence in mathematical order is what Al Plantinga would call a “design discourse.”Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), chp. 8. A design discourse is not proof of design, nor an exercise in deductive reasoning, but a perception based on evidence in which someone forms a belief in design. As Plantinga describes it, a design discourse is a valid way of forming knowledge, but formed directly from experience rather If we want those in the public square to perceive design in the natural world, it may be more effective to evoke than to argue. If we try to deductively prove design using only scientific data, we can expect rebuttals about our assumptions and calculations.than from premise and logical argument. Many of our beliefs, including those about other persons and God, are formed this way. Thus, if we want those in the public square to perceive design in the natural world, it may be more effective to evoke than to argue. If we try to deductively prove design using only scientific data, we can expect rebuttals about our assumptions and calculations.
The orderliness that amazed me in the physics lab does not point exclusively to the God of the Bible. Another physics student might conclude that the orderliness is due to aliens who created a computer simulation for us all to live in, or simply to the way the universe arose on its own, or to some impersonal natural factor that we haven’t discovered yet. The scientific evidence is not enough to decide between these. However, I found the most compelling explanation for the mathematical order of the universe to be an intelligent personal God. Why? In large part because of how the biblical account makes sense of all of life. For me, Christianity makes sense of not only the physical universe, but also my guilt, spiritual experiences, and the testimony of the Gospels. Having put my trust in the God of the Bible, I found that in the Christian picture, all of life all hangs together in a more powerful, compelling way than atheism. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”See the concluding line of C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001).
Thus, rather than arguing for an unidentified intelligent designer solely based on scientific arguments, the most compelling argument for design is made in the context of the full Christian worldview, using all of the reasons we believe in the triune God. We can put Christ front and center, drawing on Christianity’s rich theological framework for intellectual support and on the power of the gospel to change lives. We can invite atheists and agnostics to try viewing the world through a Christian lens, to see how it brings a greater clarity and unity to our understanding. As Alister McGrath wrote, the Christian worldview gives us a:
. . . mental framework that we bring towards the natural sciences, and especially towards reflecting on the natural world that we see around us . . . Christian faith gives us a lens; a framework, that helps us to make sense of the whole of our life—our own experience, the physical world around us, and human culture.Alister McGrath, “Big Picture or Big Gaps? Why Natural Theology is better than Intelligent Design”, BioLogos.org, 2014. http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/big-picture-or-big-gaps-why-natural-theology-is-better-than-intelligent-design
Note that the design discourse I gave above is a perception of what science can explain (in fact, the very orderliness of those explanations), not of what science cannot explain. This would have been familiar to Robert Boyle (1627-1691), a chemist and a devout Christian. Boyle argued that the right role of the Christian studying the natural world is not to posit God as a step in the chain of cause and effect, but to investigate the natural, repeatable mechanisms which God created.Ted Davis, “The Faith of a Great Scientist: Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” BioLogos.org, 2013-2014. http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/series/the-faith-of-a-great-scientist-robert-boyles-religious-life-attitudes-and-vocation Certainly God is also at work in the areas that science cannot explain, but he is just as present in the natural mechanisms science can explain. A scientific explanation does not replace God; rather, a scientific explanation is a window on the ongoing, regular activity of God in the natural world. Moreover, affirming the effectiveness of science makes a more hospitable context for a conversation with scientists and science-lovers who do not know Christ. It is a non-starter to focus on natural phenomena where scientific explanations are weak, or (worse) asserting that scientific explanations are faulty when they are in fact strong. We should instead counter the scientism in our culture by showing both that science does not require atheism, and that something more than science is needed to understand many things we value, such as beauty, friendship, meaning, and justice. Then we can point to the Creator of it all, and who made each one of us for a purpose.
Science Detects Order and Directionality
The mathematical orderliness of the universe is just one of several pointers to design in the natural world. Another is the fine-tuning of the fundamental parameters of our universe. Scientists of many For those who are open to a biblical worldview, seeing fine-tuning can be a compelling experience leading them to a belief in design.worldviews agree that parameters such as the strength of gravity and the properties of atoms and particles are precisely set in such a way that life could develop. If these parameters were changed even slightly, stars would not be born, carbon would not form, and humans would not be here. The fine-tuning allows structures to develop in a direction toward the complexity we see today in galaxies, stars, planets, and life.Various proposals for a multiverse explain some of the fine-tuning by postulating that each universe in the multiverse has different settings of these parameters. However, current scientific understanding is that even such a multiverse would itself need to be fine-tuned in order to produce universes where life is possible. Again, I don’t see fine-tuning as a deductive proof of God, but a design discourse. It fits well into the biblical picture of the world, in which God planned the universe, the earth, life, and humans from the beginning, with the intent and purpose of loving us and calling us his children. For those who are open to a biblical worldview, seeing fine-tuning can be a compelling experience leading them to a belief in design.
Other pointers to directionality are seen in the development of life by natural mechanisms. Some argue that evolution is inherently purposeless, e.g.: “Darwinism . . . has driven teleology to the explanatory sidelines. In short it has made Darwinians into metaphysical Nihilists denying that there is any meaning or purpose to the universe, its contents and its cosmic history.”Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life.” Biology and Philosophy, 18 (2003), 653-668. Such a claim, however, goes far beyond science itself. Science actually shows a directionality that people of faith might perceive as purposeful. For example, while genetic mutations occur without any preference for what is useful, the selection side of evolution is all about usefulness, since selection favors those organisms better suited to the environment. Directionality is also seen in the increase in cooperation over the history of biological evolution; evolution is not a process of pure selfishness.For a good discussion and further references, see Jeffrey Schloss, “Our Shared Yearnings for a Greater Good”, Minding Nature, 10:2 (May 2017). www.humansandnature.org While self-maintenance is essential to life and competition has a key role, evolutionary biologists Michod and Roze write, “Cooperation is now seen as a primary creative force behind greater levels of complexity and organization in biology.”R. E. Michod and D. Roze, “Cooperation and Conflict in the Evolution of Multicellularity,” Heredity (Edinb), 86.1 (2001), 1-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11298810 Cooperation is the common theme for several major transitions in the history of evolution, increasing in the transition from single-celled to multi-cellular organisms, from asexual to sexual reproduction, from individual behavior to social behavior, and from animal cooperation to the impressive levels of human social cooperation. In fact, some biologists say that cooperation is so important that we should not call evolution “the struggle for existence” but the “snuggle for existence.”Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed (Florence: Free, 2012), xix.
Overall, the history of evolution over a billion years shows that the natural processes favor development toward greater variety, greater complexity, and greater cooperation. Christians can view God as designing the natural process of evolution with the intent of new living things assembling via natural processes, all under his governance. Such a process can be seen as a superior design. As Anglican priest Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) said, “We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than even that, that He can make all things make themselves.”Charles Kingsley, “The Natural Theology of the Future,” read at Sion College, January 10, 1871. http://www.online-literature.com/charles-kingsley/scientific/7/
Underlying the question posed for this series seems to be another question, regarding the scientific quality of particular arguments from the Intelligent Design movement (ID). There is a curious contrast here. ID arguments typically embrace the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, celebrating the sufficiency of natural processes for the development of galaxies, etc. But when it comes to biology, the arguments are typically flipped around, focusing on the insufficiency of natural process to explain the development of lifeforms.In Stephen Meyer’s essay in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, he states that ID is more than an argument from ignorance. I argue, however, that even if ID theory is not a “god of the gaps” argument per se, it shares the risks of “god of the gaps” arguments, since Meyer states that if scientists discover a natural explanation for the phenomenon attributed to design, then the ID argument fails.
Sadly, the particular scientific arguments presented by the ID movement in the area of biology are weak or faulty. Believing scientists have explained these scientific weaknesses in many books and articles, including the BioLogos website. For example, a common ID argument is that evolution is a “theory in crisis” and that scientists are divided on evolution. But there is not a lack of scientific consensus—99% of biologists agree that humans evolved.Pew Research Center “An Elaboration of AAAS Scientists’ Views,” July 23, 2015. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/07/23/an-elaboration-of-aaas-scientists-views/ What is being discussed among scientists are the particulars of evolutionary mechanisms. While all agree that genetic variation and natural selection are central mechanisms, new studies are discovering additional mechanisms unknown several decades ago. We now know that the evolutionary process includes a vibrant interplay between environment and living organisms rather than selection within a static environment. We better understand how genes influence the development of embryos and can produce significant alterations in body plans. The picture of evolution is becoming more rich and interesting. Evolution is not a theory in crisis, but a typical example of how science works in any field: Scientists are engaging in vigorous debate and active research on open questions while holding a strong consensus in areas well supported by data.
From the beginning, God designed the universe so that the particles would assemble through natural processes to form a complex world and a home for life. Like a composer writing a symphony, God began with a rhythm and themes that start simply (the natural laws) but are designed from the beginning to repeat and grow over time to create the beautiful complex conclusion (life today).
Christians may disagree on the methods God used to create life, but we can unite in proclaiming that the universe is not the meaningless product of a blind process. The universe was designed by an intelligent Creator with the purpose and intent of bringing about life and human persons to love him.
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