DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Intelligent Design

A struggle is presently being waged amongst Christians in many lands about how to understand the origin of the universe. Those who wish to retain a traditional theological system of thought are promoting the idea that the natural order we humans experience exists because God designed it that way. Others are less sure.

The idea that our world was created by a divine power is as old as humanity itself. It has been refuted by many and affirmed by many over the ages. Affirming creation became more fashionable in the late 20th century. More and more people now suppose that we can be sure that God created our world and the universe.

It is widely supposed today that the universe had a definite beginning - the so-called "Big Bang" which took place (according to recent measurements) about 13.7 billion years ago. Eventually, about 5 billion years ago, our planetary system evolved. Very soon after our planet was formed the first primitive life evolved. Evolutionary change took place until the life-forms we know today eventually came about.

The Big Bang theory was first proposed in 1948 by the Russian-American physicist George Gamow. He posited that the universe was created in a gigantic explosion and that the various physical elements observed today were produced within the first few minutes after the Big Bang. The theory provided a basis for understanding the earliest stages of the universe and its subsequent evolution.

Available evidence seems to have confirmed the Big Bang theory:

  1. A change in the light reaching us from far-distant stars indicates that they are moving rapidly away from Earth. Their light reaches us at the speed of light reduced by the speed at which the stars are moving away from us (known as Hubble's Law). 

    The red parts of the spectrum consist of light moving more slowly than the blue parts. So we see far distant stars moving away from us as red. This is called the "red shift". 

    We are able to calculate by the degree of red shift just how far away from earth these stars now are. And by calculating backwards in time, we can tell roughly when the explosion which got them moving away from us happened. The current consensus is that the Big Bang took place about 13.7 billion (13 700 000 000) years ago.

  2. The matter existing in the earliest moments of the universe would have expanded rapidly after the initial Big Bang. Scientists are able to calculate that the first elements which would have come into existence as the universe expanded would have been hydrogen and then helium (the two lightest elements). 

    As the new universe expanded, the hydrogen and helium would have eventually cooled and condensed into stars and galaxies by a complex process we are only now beginning to understand. 

    Residual radiation from the Big Bang would have continued to cool, until now it should be at a temperature of about 3 degrees Kelvin (about -270� Centigrade). This background radiation was detected by radio astronomers in 1965, and has been confirmed many times since then. It provides what most astronomers consider to be a cast-iron confirmation of the Big Bang theory.

  3. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that everything has a property called "entropy". That is, everything in the universe is changing from hot to cold, from positive energy to zero-energy, from motion to immobility. 

    This seems to confirm that the universe had a beginning of some sort. If it didn't, we'd have no reason to suppose it would ever "end" by reaching maximum entropy - that is when all matter has ceased moving and everything is absolutely stable and unchanging. Thus the universe is in a state of constant change which will lead to its inevitable death. For something to have an end, it has to have had a beginning.

This is of course a grossly over-simplified account of the Big Bang theory [1]. But it has to be mentioned because some have concluded from it that the universe is the outcome of intelligent design. Something which makes so much sense to us must, they say, have been created by an intelligent being.

If the universe was designed by an intelligence, it is argued, then it is a valid step to suppose that the way the world works is also the result of intelligent design. That being the case, the designing intelligence (God) must have intended evolution and its mechanisms. All the species throughout history have appeared and disappeared according to God's plan. That is, there is nothing random either about evolution or about the appearance of humanity.

Note that this is not quite the same as a more crude variation also often called "intelligent design" and now being enthusiastically promoted by some Christians, mainly in the United States. This variation asserts that God created the earth as we now know it in finished form only a few thousand years ago. It is thought by most scientists to be based on specious reasoning. As Peter Atkins remarks, it

... is not science: it is an untestable assertion pursuing and impelled by an anti-science, religiously motivated agenda ... [it is] a literary device for showing that a scientific explanation, in this case evolutionism, provides superior explanations [3].

One of the leading advocates of the latter version of intelligent design, William Dembski, says that

... there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence. [2]

In other words, some creatures could not have evolved from simple beginnings because they are "irreducibly complex". They would die if only one of their features was taken away. That is, they have a nature which, if reduced by one factor, would cease to work. An eagle without eyes could not survive for long. It is impossible, says Dembski, that such life forms could have evolved from the extremely simple beginnings which evolutionary theory proposes as the starting points of life today. They must therefore have been designed by God. The eagle was made with eyes from the start, though from there it may adapt to changes in its environment.

One illustration of irreducible complexity seems simple enough. Take a mousetrap: it consists of the base, a catch, a spring and a hammer. All these parts must there if the mousetrap is to work. Remove just one piece and it will cease to be a mousetrap. This is sometimes called the "scaffolding objection". Just as a scaffold supports a building until it is complete enough to stand on its own, so must certain features first be present if an organism is to develop.

But the argument is weak. It is possible that a part of any system may initially be to that system's advantage, though not essential to the operation of the whole. What is at first only an advantage may later become essential as that particular living system changes. Thus dinosaurs may have developed something like feathers as a device to make them look bigger and therefore more dangerous to their natural predators. This would be an advantage. Some of these dinosaurs may later have adapted to survival threats by developing these feathers to assist flight and so escape predation more effectively. What started as an advantageous later become essential to long-term survival.

In relation to the argument that the nature of the universe justifies the idea of intelligent design there are some important observations:

  1. In order to have resulted in our universe as it is, the Big Bang must have occurred within very tight parameters. It was not a random, chaotic event. If it had been, the elements which in fact constitute the universe could not have evolved.

    The balance of the Big Bang had to be precise down to the last atom in order for the elements which make up the universe to have come into existence. This could not, it is argued, have come about by chance. As William Craig puts it:

    ... various discoveries have repeatedly disclosed that the existence of intelligent carbon-based life on earth at this time depends upon a delicate balance of physical quantities, which is such that were any one of these quantities to be slightly altered, the balance would be destroyed and life would not exist. A life-inhibiting universe is inconceivably more probable than a life-permitting universe like ours [4].

  2. In relation to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), the universe must have started with a high level of order (negative entropy). What became the universe was originally packed into an infinitely small, near-perfectly ordered ball of matter (which Stephen Hawking calls a "singularity" because it can't be observed or described).

    If the universe had been disordered from the beginning, the level of entropy would have been at its maximum from the start. Nothing could therefore have evolved, since everything moves naturally from negative to positive entropy (from order to disorder). For example, the probability of any disordered state (positive entropy) organising itself into order (negative entropy) - such as all gas in a container suddenly rushing into one corner of the container - is extremely tiny (about1 in 10 followed by at least 18 zeroes). This means that the singularity before the Big Bang must have been at maximum negative entropy (order) [5].

    Despite its highly-ordered initial state before the Big Bang, it turns out that today's universe could only have resulted from what appear to be improbable anomalies. That is, a totally uniform universe at the moment of the Big Bang would simply have remained the same for ever. There would have been no variations and therefore no change. 

    As P Davies notes, the universe was in fact nearly uniform but "... not so exactly co-ordinated as to preclude the small scale, slight irregularities that eventually formed the galaxies, and us" [6].

    What we know at present indicates strongly that if these irregularities had been only slightly greater or smaller, the Big Bang only slightly slower or faster, the elements of the universe could not have evolved.

  3. If the tiny variations of the Big Bang itself indicate "design", so do the four fundamental forces governing everything physical - gravity, electromagnetism and what are called the "strong" and "weak" nuclear interactions. These must all have been intrinsic to the singularity before the Big Bang.

    Gravity  Everything which has mass also has the force we call gravity. The greater the mass, the stronger the gravity. 

    Electromagnetism  Physical bodies also display a "charge" which attracts or repels other bodies depending on the nature of their charges. This force is many trillions of times stronger than gravity. But we usually don't notice it because the positive and negative charges tend to cancel each other out.

    Strong nuclear interaction  Forces also operate within the nucleus of an atom. They can be extremely powerful (about 130 times greater than electromagnetism) - but because the power falls off so rapidly with distance, they are not felt outside the nucleus itself.

    Weak nuclear interaction  Other parts of the atom (leptons) also display a force. But it is only about one one-hundred- billionth as strong as electromagnetism (but still much stronger than gravity).

This summary helps illustrate the extraordinary fact that if the strong nuclear interaction had differed by only as much as one or two percent, the known chemical elements of our universe could not have formed. And if the strong nuclear reaction had been different, so would the other fundamental forces - if they could have been there at all. If the near-perfect regularity in the initial singularity had not been the case, our universe could not have formed as it has.

The technical name given to this variation of "intelligent design" is the Anthropic Principle, first proposed by Brandon Carter in 1974. William Paley (1743-1805) proposed an analogy which might help us appreciate the force of the Anthropic Principle. 

Suppose you were walking along a sandy beach and came across a stone. You would be justified in asserting that it had been there as long as the beach itself had. It would be extremely difficult to disprove your assertion.

But suppose you stubbed your toe on a fully-functioning watch lying on the beach. The same argument (that it had always been there) would not be at all convincing. But why not?

The answer lies in the very high probability that the watch was designed and made, if only because it is a complex mechanism comprising delicate, intricate parts, but also because nothing is known to reach that kind of physical arrangement by natural processes. The nature of the watch is such that it must have been designed and made, whereas rocks are clearly "natural".

Some think that the same analogy can be applied to the origins of the universe. They suppose that if the universe shows clear signs of "design" in the way that the watch on the beach does, it follows that the argument for a "designer" becomes strong, if not irrefutable. 

How persuasive is the anthropic principle in terms of a "designer" universe?

[A]  We normally think about our lives in terms of cause and effect. I drove too fast (cause) and was given a speeding ticket (effect). I failed to watch the steps (cause) and took a bad fall (effect). The Treaty of Versailles after the First World War put too much strain on the German economy (cause) which led to the Second World War (effect).

It's therefore natural that we should think of the Big Bang as an effect of some cause (God). But this may merely be our need to impose some sense (in human terms) on the universe as a whole, to see in it the same process by which we make sense of our world. 

However, it is just as valid to propose that the universe is not an effect and has no cause - that it just is. This may not strike us as intuitively convincing - but it is a valid conclusion.

[B]  Our tendency to assume that the universe is intrinsically ordered may be the outcome of the way we reason about things in our daily lives.

All reason rests upon the Principle of Contradiction. This states that we cannot validly say that "x" is true and simultaneously that "x" is untrue (not-x). For example, anyone who claims that he is Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington is not only insane but also illogical, since nobody can ever be a particular person (x) and also another person (not-x).

Without the principle of contradiction (also known in formal logic as the Law of the Excluded Middle) no language, including mathematics, can work. And without language we can't reason.

If the Principle underpins all reason, then it is hardly surprising that the universe is to us an orderly place. It may be that we perceive the universe as orderly and therefore open to reason simply because reason is the way we make sense of our surroundings. We need order and therefore we impose it on our environment so that we can comprehend it.

In other words, this argument turns out to be a difficult-to-spot tautology. What we're actually saying is that life exists on our planet because both it and the universe are able to support life. Or, to put it another way, everything is ordered because we perceive it as ordered. The universe is the outcome of intelligence because we create order using our intelligence.

[C]  How strong is our scientific evidence for the nature of the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of the universe? At the moment it appears powerful. But then so did the evidence for a "clockwork" universe in the decades after Isaac Newton. It then seemed as though certain physical laws worked without exception and without variation. To Newtonians it was as though the universe ran like a clock, God having wound it up at the start.

For more than one hundred years it appeared that humanity would one day discover all the fundamental laws governing the cosmos. Many supposed that we would eventually be able to order things as we wished by manipulating these laws. This has proved a pipe-dream. The world is much less predictable and far more complex than the Newtonians thought.

So who is to say that the paradigms we now use to make sense of the universe - including the Big Bang paradigm itself - will serve for ever? Just as we have ditched the idea of a clockwork universe, so one day we may also have to ditch the Big Bang theory.

An example of possible new ways of perceiving the universe is the uncomfortable new discovery that the observable physical universe provides only some 5-10 percent of the universe's total necessary mass. It is now increasingly certain that the missing 90 percent consists of "dark matter" (dark energy) - called "dark" because nobody knows what that actually is. 

If we can one day know something about dark matter, how will that change the way we construe the universe? We have no way of knowing at present.

[D] An important objection to the Anthropic Principle concerns the necessity of our universe. Let's accept that our universe evolved from a Big Bang and that its form, given the nature of that Big Bang, could be no other. Why should this be the only universe which has developed from a Big Bang?

In other words. it's just as possible that many other universes arose from the Big Bang or from other Big Bangs, in parallel with our own. The only reason we don't know about them is that their fundamental laws (or lack of laws) are by definition different from ours and therefore can't be known by us. We have developed according to the laws of our universe and can therefore not perceive any other.

Some people suggest that the number of other universes is infinite - but that's just a guess. It's just as possible that there are two universes or sixteen or (as some think) nineteen or twenty-three (depending on the mathematics used). However, no matter how good the mathematics of alternative universes may appear (and it seems that it is in fact rather shaky), the argument is of singularly little use to us.

To sum up, it's not surprising that no other forms of life exist as far as we know - because we are unable to perceive any life form other than those which conform to the laws of the universe we inhabit. Ask yourself: Does a chimpanzee think you're human? [7]

In summary, the Anthropic Principle does nicely for those who need God. But for those who don't, it 's an interesting but unnecessary theory.

Those who propose that "intelligent design" demonstrates the existence of God have simplified and distorted the evidence beyond what it will bear. The Big Bang may prove to be an abiding fact. But the existence or otherwise of a Prime Mover will always be a matter of supposition.
___________________________________________________
[1] The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Green, Penguin, 2004 gives the details
[2] The Design Revolution, 2004
[3] Galileo's Finger, OUP, 2003
[4] Theism and Physical Cosmology in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 2000
[5] Living beings are examples of positive entropy being temporarily organised into states of negative entropy. But we achieve this only at the cost of increasing entropy (disorder) in the environment around us to the same degree as we achieve negative entropy (order). That is, to stay alive we pass on disorder to the universe, thus increasing very marginally the rate at which the latter is decaying into disorder. The universe dies in order that we may live.
[6] The Accidental Universe, 1982 in God, Humanity and the Cosmos
C Southgate et al, 1999
[7] For a much longer discussion of intelligent design which deals (less than impartially) with the controversy over it in the United States, see the Wikipedia article.

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