Guillermo Gonzalez, Nobel Laureates and Founders of Modern Science See Purpose as Best Explanation for Fine-Tuned Cosmic Habitat

Jonathan Witt

In a weekend essay in the Des Moines Register, Iowa State Physics Professor John Hauptman explains that ISU astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure because Gonzalez argued that a purposive cause is the best explanation for certain features of our cosmic habitat. By this standard, Hauptman will also need to fire many of the most esteemed physicists and astronomers of our day, as well as the founders of modern science. Hauptman and his fellow thought police at Iowa State have their summer work cut out for them.

Hauptman equates Gonzalez’s design inference with the ancient pagan habit of attributing every mysterious natural phenomenon to the direct activity of some god, concluding that Gonzalez was denied tenure because the astronomer failed to understand that scientists aren’t allowed to draw such conclusions. Thus, Hauptman and his colleagues essentially fired Gonzalez for articulating an impermissible thought. And never mind that ISU tacitly endorsed Gonzalez’s work on The Privileged Planet by administering his Templeton grant for the book project while he was writing it. And never mind that the Templeton proposal was persuasive enough to convince prominent researchers to select it for funding, including Max Tegmark, John Barrow, and atheists Peter Atkins and Michael Ruse. And never mind that several other prominent scientists endorsed or favorably reviewed the book, including Cambridge’s Simon Conway Morris, Harvard’s Owen Gingerich, and a vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society, David Hughes.
Hauptman’s op-ed invokes Galileo against Gonzalez, but Galileo stands with Gonzalez. The great 17th century astronomer insisted that “the great book … the universe … is written in the mathematical language,” and that the author of that book was God. Another founder of modern science, Johannes Kepler, said that in discovering his three mathematically elegant laws of planetary motion, he was simply “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”
If Hauptman had read Gonzalez’s book, The Privileged Planet, or even watched the one hour documentary based on the book, he would have some idea that the founders of modern science believed nature was discernible to rational inquiry precisely because they were convinced it was the work of a rational mind. As Privileged Planet co-author Jay W. Richards comments in the film,

The founders of modern science like Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo and Newton himself believed that the universe was the product of a mind–that it was intelligible to beings like ourselves because the universe itself was the product of an intelligent being.

Renowned theoretical physicist Paul Davies, who is neither a Christian nor a traditional theist, offers a similar assessment in the documentary:

They were driven by this notion that this was, essentially, a theological quest. They were uncovering God’s handiwork in the way the world works. I mean, what a thought–we can glimpse the mind of God. We can figure out how God put the universe together. So there is a hidden subtext in nature which can be exposed through this procedure we call, “science.”

Nor did this approach fade after the founders of modern science. Many world renowned contemporary scientists from various points on the spectrum of belief, including George Ellis, Owen Gingerich, John Polkinghorne, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, Allen Sandage, Paul Davies, and Nobel Laureates George Smoot and Arno Penzias have pointed to a creative intelligence as the most reasonable explanation for things like the Big Bang and the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics.
I list a few of the many quotations to this effect here. And here is another by Berkeley physicist and recent Nobel Laureate Charles Townes:

Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it’s remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren’t just the way they are, we couldn’t be here at all. The sun couldn’t be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.
Some scientists argue that “well, there’s an enormous number of universes and each one is a little different. This one just happened to turn out right.” Well, that’s a postulate, and it’s a pretty fantastic postulate — it assumes there really are an enormous number of universes and that the laws could be different for each of them. The other possibility is that ours was planned, and that’s why it has come out so specially.

As Hauptman makes clear, and as two other ISU professors confirmed in comments to World magazine, Gonzalez was denied tenure because he made a case for the second option. Even Hauptman’s insinuation that Gonzalez misunderstood the importance of testability fails since Gonzalez and Richards went to considerable lengths to show how the Privileged Planet argument could be empirically tested and falsified. And in the same essay where Hauptman explains why Gonzalez was denied tenure, Hauptman concedes that Gonzalez is “very creative, intelligent and knowledgeable, highly productive scientifically and an excellent teacher.” Indeed, Gonzalez exceeded the university’s peer-reviewed publication standards by 350% and led his entire department in a key indicator of professional scientific success, his normalized citation count. Gonzalez’s citation count during his time at ISU is the highest in his department during this period.
The question now becomes, how many people, scientists and non-scientists alike, will sit idly by while Gonzalez’s academic and intellectual freedom is denied by a taxpayer funded public university. Hauptman offers lip service to the value of academic and intellectual freedom but then justifies the tenure denial by concluding that “a physics department is not obligated to support notions that do not even begin to meet scientific standards.” Whose standards? Certainly not the standards of the founders of modern science.
Is Hauptman’s complaint that Gonzalez neglected experimental science that focuses on material causes? No. Both Hauptman’s praise and Gonzalez’s record demonstrate that Gonzalez led his department in this kind of work. Indeed, Gonzalez never even introduced his Privileged Planet hypothesis into the classroom. Is it that no reputable scientists in physics and astronomy see a purposive cause as a reasonable and even compelling explanation for things like the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics? No. As we saw, the list of scientists who see evidence for purpose at the cosmic level reads like a who’s who of theoretical physics and astronomy.
What is at stake is intellectual and academic freedom, twin values at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Townes makes this point emphatically: “We should explore as much as we can. We should think about everything, try to explore everything, and question things. That’s part of our human characteristic in nature that has made us so great and able to achieve so much.”