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Asking the Right Questions: My Visit to Brown University and MIT

Brian Miller

MIT campus

This past week I had the privilege of speaking at Brown University and MIT about the evidence for design in nature. I covered the topics of fine-tuning in the laws of physics, the thermodynamics of the origin of life, and biological information. I was deeply impressed by the students at both schools, particularly in their responses to my presentations.

Several of the participants had never heard the evidence for design, so they were visibly struck by its weight and the vastness of its implications. The questions were particularly thoughtful, sincere, and relevant. They were also very common in such discussions, so I thought I would address each of them.

In relation to the fine-tuning of the universe, two issues came up, as they almost always do.

Question: If the laws of physics were different, could not some other type of life have evolved in those alternative conditions?

Response: Many of the laws of physics have to be fantastically fine-tuned for a diversity of atoms to appear in sufficient abundance for any type of life. For instance, if the masses of the protons and neutrons were not just right, we would not have any of the atoms, such as carbon, needed for any type of life. Or, if gravity were not correctly set, planets would never have formed. Without planets, no type of life would have been possible.

Question: Does not the fact that we are here to observe the universe mean that the universe had to have the needed parameters for life to exist? Moreover, if a multiverse exists consisting of an infinite number of universes, we could simply have had the good fortune of ending up in the universe with the required properties.

Response: To better understand the questions, imagine the cousin of a state lottery commissioner winning the lottery twenty years in a row. The police then visit the commissioner and accuse him of wrongdoing, since the odds of a given person winning that many times is so fantastically low. The commissioner responds that we could be living in a multiverse with countless numbers of lotteries happening on planets in different universes at the same time. We just happen to live in the right universe where his cousin won so many times. In addition, if he had not won that often, we would not be having this conversation. Clearly, the police would not be satisfied with that explanation. In the same way, the fact that so many parameters are correct for the specific goal of supporting intelligent life points to design. Moreover, every theory proposed to justify the multiverse has itself to be fine-tuned to generate the correct variety of universes. The fine-tuning cannot be escaped.

In the portion of my presentations dealing with the origin of life, I addressed the fact that nature always tends towards high entropy (disorder) and low energy. However, life is both low entropy (highly ordered) and high energy. No natural process would ever take the basic building blocks of life and form a cell, since nature would have to move in the opposite direction from how it always proceeds. In response, I received another standard question.

Question: Cannot a system move from higher to lower entropy locally, if the surrounding environment increases in entropy to compensate for the local change?

Response: A system can only move to lower entropy if the process is exothermic, which means it gives off heat. In that case, the heat that enters the surrounding environment increases the entropy more than the local entropy decreases. However, the formation of a cell corresponds to a decrease in entropy, and in endothermic processes, heat is absorbed. Therefore, both the local system and the surrounding environment go to lower entropy, which is physically impossible.

In the last part of my talk I discussed how the information in the cell points to intelligent design. I received this common question.

Question: Do people not naturally tend to misidentify design in nature, such as seeing a bunny in a cloud? Might we similarly be mistaken in identifying design in the cell?

Response: People might misidentify design, when the evidence is ambiguous. However, when they see a pattern such as Mount Rushmore, they are always correct in inferring design. The amount of information in the simplest possible cell demonstrates the specificity and the level of intentionality seen in Mount Rushmore, not a cloud bunny. Therefore, the conclusion of design is equally valid.

The students commented that they very much enjoyed the discussion, since they never hear the design perspective. And the vast majority wished to stay connected with the sponsoring groups for future conversations. If only all academics could learn to ask the right questions and demonstrate such open mindedness and such a desire for truth.

Photo: Campus of MIT, by Madcoverboy at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.