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New Engineering Textbook, Hacking the Cosmos, Argues for Intelligent Design


A new textbook by engineering professor Dominic HalsmerHacking the Cosmos: How Reverse Engineering Uncovers Organization, Ingenuity and the Care of a Maker, covers the scientific evidence for intelligent design in biology and cosmology for students taking college-level engineering, physics, or astronomy courses. Halsmer wrote an excellent peer-reviewed article in 2010, “The Coherence of an Engineered World,” arguing that “the universe is so readily and profitably reverse-engineered as to make a compelling argument that it was engineered in the first place, apparently with humanity in mind” (Evolution News reviewed the article here). Now in his textbook, from Kendall Hunt Publishing, he expands his case for design from an engineer’s perspective, focusing on what he calls “affordances.”

Here’s the Funny Thing

According to Halsmer, engineering involves “the creative use of resources and ingenuity to accomplish a purpose or solve a problem.” It does so by creating affordances, which are “what an environment or object provides to an end user” (p. 52-53). The funny thing, Halsmer finds, is that nature is full of affordances, at both the atomic and molecular levels. These include:

  • atoms afford the existence of molecules
  • simple molecules like water and CO2 afford the existence of more complex molecules like lipids and proteins
  • complex molecules like proteins afford the existence of cells

And so on. Halsmer explains that these affordances are organized in a manner to produce an environment friendly to life:

The remarkable truth is that these tiny, nested Lego-like parts afford the complex processes necessary for life. And they do so in an amazing way, with incredible elegance and efficiency, when compared to the kind of affordances that human engineers are able to produce. (p. 72)

But affordances come in all sizes, Halsmer explains, not just microscopic ones. At the macroscopic level of the universe we see equally astonishing affordances. These include:

  • the fundamental forces and laws of nature afford the existence of stars
  • pressures and temperatures in stars afford the production of elements needed for life like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen

A Privileged Planet

Halsmer also reviews many finely tuned elements of our galaxy, solar system, and planet that make life possible. Even the sun affords light so plants can grow, and plants afford photosynthesis which produces oxygen so we can breathe and eat the many “delicious fruits and meats from both the plant and animal kingdom” that grow as a result of aerobic respiration. He cites “privileged planet” arguments, noting that “our cosmos not only affords life, but also affords discovery of how the universe works.” Halsmer explains that these “nested affordances” in nature “are signs of ingenuity and purpose.”

There is far more detail and rigor in the textbook than can be fully conveyed here. Halsmer explains this evidence for design in nature in terms that students of engineering or physics will understand and appreciate at a deep level. He concludes:

A counter-argument might assert that we should not be surprised that we observe all these affordances for life because if they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be around to observe anything different. But it seems that this stance represents the epitome of anti-curiosity (and hence anti-science) as to why these natural nested affordances exist at all; with the effect of affording the strong impression of an ingenious Maker, as clearly stated in Romans 1:20. (p. 73)

Faith and Science

As that last comment makes clear, the book articulates many good arguments for intelligent design but it does not intend to be solely about intelligent design. Much of it is devoted to synthesizing science and religion from a Christian perspective, and part is even framed as a response to theological objections to intelligent design:

With the rise of the controversial Intelligent Design movement, some theologians and scientists have expressed concern that viewing God as an engineer is unhelpful and largely inaccurate; an unproductive throwback to the days of William Paley’s Watchmaker Argument. … In response to these criticisms, it should be made clear that this motif of God as engineer is not an attempt to limit God to the category of human engineering, but rather to relate to God in a category in which he has clearly already revealed himself, both in nature and Scripture. In addition, if humans are made in God’s image (Gen I :26), they presumably would be blessed with some small fraction of his genius and creative problem-solving capabilities. Thus, it seems that God intends for human beings to relate to him in this manner, while simultaneously marveling at his awesome and mysterious transcendence. (p. 38)

As Halsmer explains, engineers frequently reverse-engineer systems to understand how they work and what their purpose is. Scientists do the same thing to nature — and when they do this it reveals a universe full of affordances that reveal the purpose, intention, and design of what Halsmer calls an “ingenious Maker.” 

This textbook will be best appreciated by students of engineering, physics, and similar subjects. Those who teach in these fields in the context of Christian higher education and who wish to cover science, religion, and the scientific evidence for intelligent design would be well advised to consider this textbook for their classes.

Photo credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Walsh.