Purposeful Design or Mindless Process?
In 1802, English clergyman and theologian William Paley expounded his reasons for belief in a Creator. He stated that if while crossing a heath, he were to find a stone lying on the ground, he might reasonably conclude that natural processes had put it there. But if instead he were to find a watch, he would scarcely come to the same conclusion. Why? For the simple reason that a watch has all the hallmarks of design and purpose.
PALEY’S ideas had a profound influence on the English naturalist Charles Darwin. Yet, contrary to Paley’s logic, Darwin later proposed that the apparent design in living organisms could be explained by a process that he termed “natural selection.” Darwinian evolution was seen by many as the definitive answer to arguments for design.
A great deal has been written on the subject since the days of Paley and Darwin. The arguments in favor of design on the one hand and of natural selection on the other have frequently been refined, elaborated on, and updated. And both sides of the subject have greatly influenced what people believe about purpose—or lack of purpose—in the universe. What you believe might well influence how purposeful you feel your life is. How so?
The Logical Consequences of Darwinism
Belief in Darwin’s theory has led many sincere people to conclude that their existence is devoid of real purpose. If the cosmos and everything in it are the product of spontaneous combinations of elements after the primordial big bang, then there can be no real purpose to life. The late Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jacques Monod stated: “Man knows at last that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe from which he emerged by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.”
A similar thought is expressed by Oxford professor of chemistry Peter William Atkins, who declares: “I regard the existence of this extraordinary universe as having a wonderful, awesome grandeur. It hangs there in all its glory, wholly and completely useless.”
By no means do all scientists agree with that outlook. And for very good reasons.
Fine-Tuning—Evidence of Purposeful Design?
When they examine the laws of nature, many investigators balk at the notion of a cosmos without purpose. They are impressed, for example, by the fundamental forces that regulate the universe. The laws underlying these forces appear to have been fine-tuned in such a way as to produce a universe capable of supporting life. “Changing the existing laws by even a scintilla could have lethal consequences,” says cosmologist Paul Davies. For example, if protons were slightly heavier than neutrons, rather than slightly lighter as they are, all protons would have turned into neutrons. Would that have been so bad? “Without protons and their crucial electric charge,” explains Davies, “atoms could not exist.”
The electromagnetic force attracts electrons to protons, allowing molecules to form. If this force were significantly weaker, electrons would not be held in orbit around the nucleus of an atom, and no molecules could form. If, on the other hand, this force were much stronger, electrons would be stuck to the nucleus of an atom. In that case, chemical reactions and life would simply be impossible.
A slight difference in the electromagnetic force would affect the sun and the solar energy that reaches our earth. Such a difference could easily make photosynthesis in plants difficult or impossible. So the precise strength of the electromagnetic force determines whether life on earth is possible or not.*
The book Science & Christianity—Four Views has an interesting way of illustrating the delicacy of the balance of forces and elements in the cosmos. The writer asked his readers to visualize an explorer’s visit to an imaginary “control room for the whole universe.” There, the explorer observes rows and rows of dials that can be set to any value, and he learns that each has to be calibrated to a precise setting in order for life to be possible. One dial sets the strength of the force of gravity, one the strength of electromagnetic attraction, another the ratio between the mass of the neutron and the proton, and so on. As the explorer examines these numerous dials, he sees that they could have been set to different values. It also becomes clear to him, after meticulous calculation, that even a small change in any one of the dial settings would modify the architecture of the cosmos in such a way that life in it would cease to exist. Yet, each dial is set to precisely the right value needed to keep the universe running and habitable. What should the visitor deduce about how the dials came to be set the way they are?
Astronomer George Greenstein states: “As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency—or, rather, Agency—must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being?”
What do you think? Which explanation best fits the fine-tuning observable in the cosmos? Purposeful design or mindless process?
‘We’re Just Here—That’s All There Is to It’
Atheists, of course, have their counterarguments. Some shrug off the apparent fine-tuning in nature, saying: ‘Of course the observable universe is capable of supporting human life. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. So there’s really nothing to explain. We’re just here, and that’s all there is to it.’ But do you find that a satisfying explanation for our existence?
Another argument is that it will someday be proved that only one possible set of numbers can work in the equations that express the fundamental laws of nature. That is, the dials mentioned above had to be turned to the right settings for the universe to exist at all. Some say, ‘It’s that way because it had to be that way!’ Even if this circular reasoning were true, it would still not provide an ultimate explanation for our existence. In short, is it just a coincidence that the universe exists and that it is life-supporting?
In efforts to explain by natural processes alone the design and fine-tuning evident in the cosmos, still others turn to what has been called the multiverse, or many-universe, theory. According to this hypothesis, perhaps we live in just one of countless universes—all of which have different conditions, but none of which have any purpose or design. Now according to that line of reasoning and the laws of probability, if you have enough universes, eventually one of them should have the right conditions to support life. However, there actually is no scientific evidence to support the multiverse theory. It is pure speculation.
After stating that he did not subscribe to that hypothesis, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Christian de Duve said: “In my opinion, life and mind are such extraordinary manifestations of matter that they remain meaningful, however many universes unable to give rise to them exist or are possible. Diluting our universe with trillions of others in no way diminishes the significance of its unique properties, which I see as revealing clues to the ‘Ultimate Reality’ that lies behind them.”
The fact that we form theories for the existence of the cosmos is remarkable. In a universe without purpose, such an ability would have to be nothing but the result of a mindless process. Does that seem reasonable to you?
The human brain has been described as “the most marvelous and mysterious object in the whole universe.” No amount of knowledge in the fields of physics and chemistry can in itself produce adequate explanations for the human capacity for abstract thought and our widespread search for purpose in life.
Either the human mind, with its quest for understanding, was put in place by a superior intelligence, or it arose randomly. Which of these two possibilities seems more reasonable to you?
Science, indeed, has told us much about how the cosmos, the world, and living organisms work. For some people, the more science tells us, “the more improbable our existence seems.” Improbable, that is, if our being here were merely a product of evolution. However, to use the words of science writer John Horgan, “reality seems awfully designed and, in some ways, too good to be here through pure chance.” Physicist Freeman Dyson similarly commented: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”
In view of the evidence—complexity in nature, fine-tuning, apparent design, and human consciousness—would it not be logical at least to consider the possibility of the existence of a Creator? A very good reason for doing so is that a Creator should be able to tell us how life appeared and whether life has a purpose—questions that science is incapable of answering.
These questions are addressed by the writings called the Bible, or the Holy Scriptures, whose writers claimed to be inspired by the Creator. Why not consider what the Bible says on these matters?
For more information on this topic, please see pages 10-26 of the book Is There a Creator Who Cares About You? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Is the human brain the result of a mindless process?
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What Makes Science Possible?
Scientific research is possible because the physical world is orderly and because energy and matter behave in a predictable, uniform manner in a given set of circumstances. This order can be expressed in the fundamental laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and so on. Without such order, scientific work, technology, and life itself could simply not exist.
So the questions arise: What is the origin of physical laws? And why do they function as they do? Many believe that the most reasonable answer is a Supreme Intellect. What do you believe?
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Did It Spring From Nothing?
The DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecules in each living cell contain elaborate, detailed instructions necessary for the correct development of organisms. Although DNA is much more complex, it could be compared to the digital information embedded on a DVD. When processed, the coded data on a DVD makes it possible for one to watch a video or listen to music. Similarly, DNA molecules, shaped like twisted rope ladders, carry encoded information that underpins all life and that makes living things differ—bananas from beans, zebras from ants, humans from whales.
Hardly would anyone suggest that the digital information on a DVD could possibly be a product of spontaneous events. Is it reasonable to propose that the highly complex information in DNA sprang from nothing?
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Sombrero Galaxy: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)