By Michael A. Corey
It is reported that several leading figures in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) “went ballistic” when they learned that the association was planning to sponsor a controversial conference in April 1999 titled “Cosmic Questions,” dedicated to the “interface of science and religion.” No doubt, they were even more aghast when the popular press picked up several colorful interchanges that took place there.
How could any reporter resist the story of Nobel-laureate physicist Steven Weinberg facing off in a debate against Anglican priest and former physicist John Polkinghorne? In arguing against design in the universe, Weinberg first entranced the audience with a poignant tale of how he had lost several family members during the Nazi Holocaust, stating forcefully that he could see no purpose in such suffering and evil. Then, with dramatic flair, Weinberg offered a clear and decisive way to resolve the question of design.
“Suddenly in this auditorium,” he said, “a flaming sword may come down and strike me dead, and then we’ll know the answer.”
“That would be a terrible theological problem,” Polkinghorne retorted, because “I do not believe in the kind of God who would do that.”
“It would be not only a theological problem, but also a janitorial problem as well,” Weinberg replied dryly.
The debate highlighted the intense commitments that are held on both sides of the design issue, and, aside from the pyrotechnics, the conference brought out some of the best work being done today on the question of design in the universe. It was organized around three questions: 1) Did the universe have a beginning? 2) Is the universe designed? and 3) Are we alone?
On the first question, the general consensus was a tentative “yes,” though no one claimed much empirical certainty about the issue. Alan Guth, the pioneering theoretical physicist from MIT, discussed various ramifications of his cosmic inflationary theory, while essentially remaining silent on any religious implications. Owen Gingerich, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quoted Pope Pius XII, who declared in 1951 that the Big Bang proves that universe was created, and that, “Therefore, God exists!”
Physicist and theologian Robert John Russell, of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, California, responded to Stephen Jay Gould’s recent admonition that science and religion should remain separate, pointing out that the two disciplines are already deeply intertwined. The conceptual foundation of modern science rests on a host of philosophical assumptions, Russell argued, many of which are ultimately rooted in theology. In support, Russell pointed out that the very idea of a rational (and hence predictable) physical realm, rooted in unwavering natural law, actually presupposes the prior existence of a theological worldview, whether we admit it or not.
Of even greater interest were presentations that addressed the question of design directly. John Leslie, of the University of Guelph, led off by noting that one of the most impressive aspects of the various “cosmic coincidences” is their cooperative interaction with one another in the overall support of life. He also noted that design can be a scientific concept, since it rests on the same foundation of causal principles upon which modern science also depends.
Next came John Barrow of the University of Sussex, who, without explicitly affirming his support for Intelligent Design, nevertheless made that conclusion a virtual necessity. (Barrow explicitly confirmed his belief in design at the Science and the Spiritual Quest conference in Berkeley last summer, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation and CTNS.) He cited numerous lines of evidence for design, including recent astronomical studies showing that both the moon’s size and orbital trajectory are essential prerequisites for the development of earth-based life forms. The same thing can be said for the precise tilt of the earth’s axis, for as Barrow pointed out, if the tilt of the earth’s axis were not precisely 23.5 degrees, life on earth would be impossible.
Barrow also addressed the commonly-held belief that the sheer age and immensity of the universe somehow renders human life insignificant. To the contrary, he explained, the universe’s tremendous age and size are prerequisites for the very existence of carbon-based life forms. Since carbon must be “cooked” in the interior of stars for billions of years before it can be incorporated into living beings, and since during that time the universe will expand billions of light years in spatial extent, it follows that the universe must be at least as big and old as our own before any kind of carbon-based life form is possible.
Barrow also analyzed the two forms of the design argument often used by theologians and philosophers. The first is based on “nice outcomes of the laws of nature” (such as William Paley’s classic argument noting the suitability of biological adaptations), and the second is based on “nice laws.” This latter version of the design argument is much harder to explain without reference to God because the laws of nature clearly did not evolve by a gradual process of cumulative selection over billions of years of time. Instead, they emerged out of the Big Bang perfectly fine-tuned to encourage the rise of carbon-based life forms several billion years later.
A different take on the design argument was offered by David Ray Griffin, a leading proponent of process thought from the School of Theology at Claremont. Provocatively titled, “Is the Universe Designed? Yes and No,” Griffin’s presentation rejected design in the classical sense, because process theology rejects the idea of an omnipotent deity who created the primordial constituents of the universe ex nihilo. It holds instead that God is finite, and that the basic constituents of the universe have necessarily existed from all eternity; hence, they have an inherent power of self-determination that not even God himself can override. According to Griffin, then, we can talk about design only in the sense that the universe was gradually “lured” into taking its current biocentric format by a finite creator, who gradually “persuaded” it into doing his bidding.
Yet if God is able to impose his will on the universe only gradually, by a bilateral process of persuasion, how are we to explain the many seemingly perfect instances of cooperative fine-tuning among so many independent physical parameters originating from the Big Bang itself? Griffin’s response was that the early universe’s power of self-determination was comparatively small and insignificant; therefore, it could conceivably have responded to the creator’s persuasion in a manner mimicking the immediate response to the commands of an omnipotent designer.
The final day of the conference addressed the third question, Are we alone in the universe? Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute explained the nature of her search for extraterrestrial intelligence, along with her reasons for believing that this search will ultimately be successful (such as the enormous size of the universe and the probable number of life-supporting planets within it). Anthropologist Irven DeVore of Harvard University disagreed, pointing out that the odds for the evolution of intelligent life are so vanishingly small that it is almost certain that beings such as ourselves do not exist anywhere else in the entire cosmos.
The tantalizing question that naturally arises (though none of the speakers addressed it) is that if the odds against the naturalistic origin of intelligence are so astronomically high that intelligent beings such as ourselves probably do not exist anywhere else in the entire universe, then how are we to explain the rise of intelligent life on this planet? This is perhaps the most important “cosmic question” of them all, but it is one that has hardly been addressed in recent years. And it is precisely for this reason that we will no doubt continue to have conferences on the question of design, despite the consternation of some of the leading lights in the AAAS.
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