Intelligent Design: Not So Unscientific

by Denise

Teleology Revisited: A Scientific Take of the Question of Design

“From the point of view of a physicist,” writer James Trefil notes, “whenever anything happens in the world, it happens because of the action of some combination of four fundamental forces.”[i]  All of the interactions between matter are governed by these four.  Generally, everyone is familiar with the gravitational and electromagnetic forces.  The other two are the strong force, which holds nuclei together, and the weak force, which governs radioactive decay.  Each of these forces is characterized by its range, and its strength in relation to each type of particle.  These are known as the coupling constants.[ii]  In order to make a point about a concept known as the anthropic principle, scientists often like to perform thought experiments by changing the values of the constants which govern the four fundamental forces.  Trefil comments that “One way of getting to the principle is to play ‘What If’ games with the forces of nature.”[iii]  “For example,” he writes, “if the force of gravity were about 100,000 time [sic] weaker than it is, a good pitcher with a 100 mile-per-hour fastball could propel a baseball fast enough to allow it to escape Earth’s pull and move into space.”[iv]  He continues the thought by saying that by diminishing the gravitational force a bit more, “you could join the baseball just by jumping.”[v]  As interesting as one might find such facts to think about, they are trivial unless viewed in light of their implications on reality.  The fact of the matter is that the constants of nature are incredibly fine-tuned to the existence of the structures and organisms found within our universe.  Lee Smolin comments that “We must understand how it came to be that the parameters that govern the elementary particles and their interactions are tuned and balanced in such a way that a universe of such variety and complexity arises.”[vi]  The fact of our existence is so significant because the chance of the constants of the four fundamental forces having such values as they do, and the probability that we would exist, is one in 10229.   

This terrific number expresses the core issue of the anthropic principle, which is that “the cosmos—against all odds—[is] perfectly tuned for life.”[vii]  It would be one thing if there were a law that required the forces to be as they are.  However, scientists have yet to discover such a Theory of Everything that holds the entire universe in one equation, and thus are left wondering how we just so happened to come into existence.[viii]  What exactly to do with this information and its subsequent questions is precisely what the two basic versions of the anthropic principle attempt to answer.  As quoted by William Lane Craig, John Barrow and Frank Tipler define the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) as the knowledge that “The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable, but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.”[ix]  Basically, this principle says that if we are observers in the universe (although the observers needn’t be human), then of necessity, we are observing a universe which has characteristics that are conducive to our type of life.  There is a degree of self-selection, as Brandon Carter put it, whenever we look out into the cosmos.[x]  It would be foolish, then, to be particularly surprised by the fact that we observe that our universe is conducive to life—for we are the life-forms within it already. 

The WAP is relatively tame, then, in that it does not offer any explanation, but is “‘just a restatement…of one of the most important and well-established principles of science:  that it is essential to take into account the limitations of one’s measuring apparatus when interpreting one’s observations.’”[xi]  As Barrow explains, “If you are unaware that being an observer in the Universe already limits the type of universe you could expect to observe then you are liable to introduce unnecessary grand principles or unneeded changes to the laws of physics to explain unusual aspects of the Universe.”[xii]  Craig is careful to warn that it would be a mistake to assume from the WAP that no further explanation for the universe need be given, as Barrow and Tipler seem to do.  They emphasize that “the enormous improbability of the evolution of intelligent life in general and Homo sapiens in particular does not mean we should be amazed we exist at all.”[xiii]  They compare it to the absurdity of “Elizabeth II being amazed she is Queen of England.  Even though the probability of a given Briton being monarch is about 10-8 , someone must be.”[xiv]  The error here is one of philosophy rather than of science proper.  For while it follows from the WAP that “We should not be surprised that we do not observe features of the universe which are incompatible with our own existence,” it does not follow that “We should not be surprised that we do observe features of the universe which are compatible with [our] existence.”[xv]  Believing the latter would assign more significance to the WAP than it rightly has, and unnecessarily bars any further search for an explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe, contending “that no explanation is needed.”[xvi]  Thus, any attempts at providing one, such as God, would be viewed as gratuitous.[xvii]

There is, however, a version of the anthropic principle which does seek an explanation.  As defined by astrophysicist Brandon Carter, the Strong Anthropic Principle is the assumption ‘that the universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.’”[xviii]  This step, as attested by Barrow and many others, is much more speculative than the WAP.  Thus, the theories are varied and can be creative to the point of seemingly belonging in science fiction rather than textbooks.  And the ideas range from the purely naturalistic to the religious.  In the former camp, there remain scientists who reject the significance of the anthropic principle and who look to the discovery of a law which “dictates the values of those key cosmic numbers,” and will thus perfectly predict the state of the universe, eliminating the need for the anthropic principle.[1]  One scientist says that the anthropic principle is merely “the duct tape of cosmology.  It’s not beautiful or elegant, and it sure…is not going to be permanent.”[2]  Others, however, have embraced the Strong Anthropic Principle as a means to further the debate on intelligent design.  As Kevin Sharpe and Jonathan Walgate write, “Religiously minded persons use the strong anthropic principle to argue that the universe is specifically designed for us to live within.  The remarkable life-supporting properties of the universe could not be coincidences, they say, but are evidence of a divine intention at work:  a divine whose intent was our creation.  For them the universe didn’t just happen, it was built.”[3]   

 It seems somewhat ironic that, in the end, while the religious have been dismissed as intellectually closed and overly mystical in their argument for intelligent design, the issue returns to the question of design anyway.  Of course, there are scientists, such as David Berlinski, who reject the scientifically groundless speculation of their peers.  But everyone has come to recognize that the structure of the cosmos demands an explanation.  It is simply that the question is no longer whether there is a God, but what “God” is responsible.  For Gods can be made of anything and need not refer to the God of Christianity.  Philosopher John Leslie exemplifies this when he admonishes the reader “not to forget that the Many Worlds hypothesis may face serious competition from the God hypothesis,” saying that “God (not necessarily the God of Christianity or of any other religion) is best described as a creative ethical requirement that the universe exist or (which is just to phrase things differently) that God is the world’s Power of Being, i.e., its creative ethical requiredness.”[xix]  When God is removed from a religious context,  Stephen Hawking attempts to avoid the question of a creator, by arguing that “‘Instead of talking about the universe being created, and maybe coming to an end…one should just say:  the universe is.’”[xx]   Berlinski comments that “this is a conclusion to which mystics have always given their assent; but having concluded that the universe just ‘is,’ cosmologists, one might think, would wish to know why it is.  The question that Hawking wishes to evade disappears as a question in physics only to reappear as a question in philosophy; we find ourselves traveling in all the old familiar circles.”[xxi]

[1] Lemonick and Nash 2

[2] Ibid.

[3]            Sharpe, Kevin and Jonathan Walgate. “The Anthropic Principle: Life in the Universe.” Zygon, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Dec. 2002):  927.

[i]            Trefil, James. “Was the Universe destined for life?  Coming to terms with the anthropic principle.” Astronomy. June 1997. 54.

[ii]            Smolin, Lee. “Cosmological Natural Selection.” The Book of the Cosmos. [Cambridge: Perseus, 2000]. 467.

[iii]           Trefil 54

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Smolin 473

[vii]           Lemonick, Michael D. and J. Madeline Nash. “Cosmic Conundrum: The universe seems uncannily well suited to the existence of life.  Could that really be an accident?.” Time. 29 November 2004: 58.

[viii] Ibid.    

[ix] Craig, William Lane. “Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design.”  The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1988):  389-395.

[x] Barrow 162

[xi] Craig 390

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Craig 391

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Craig 392

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Craig 391

[xviii] Barrow 164

[xix]           Leslie, John. “Observership in Cosmology:  The Anthropic Principle.” Mind. New Series, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Oct., 1983): 578.

[xx]            Berlinski, David. “Was There a Big Bang?” The Book of the Cosmos. David Danielson, ed. [Cambridge: Perseus, 2000]. 496.

[xxi] Ibid.