Not long after Stephen Meyer’s New York Times bestselling book Darwin’s Doubt came out in 2013, something peculiar happened at the Times. Carl Zimmer, a well-known apologist for evolution in the mainstream science media, published a piece that promoted the conclusions of a commentary in Science that had accompanied the review of Darwin’s Doubt in the same journal. All of them (Zimmer’s piece, the Science review, and the Science article) purported to explain the Cambrian explosion. I covered this “teamwork” between the New York Times and Science at the time, noting that they were seemingly working together to respond to Meyer’s book, even as they failed to refute his arguments. The funny thing was, they were trying to do all this while pretending that Meyer and his book didn’t exist:
There’s something odd about Zimmer’s article. Despite the vigorous media dialogue over Darwin’s Doubt, reflected in print, online, and over 300 Amazon reviews, Zimmer declines to mention the book or its author. But then the article in Science that claims to reveal the causes of the Cambrian explosion never acknowledges the controversy either. ENV noted a similar reticence in last week’s Current Biology paper, which makes reference to “opponents of evolution,” and critiques a very Meyer-esque argument, but likewise refuses to cite Meyer or Darwin’s Doubt by name.
Now in 2021 Meyer has published his next major tome, Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe, and the Times continues to comment on the topic. Some things never change, but other things do.
Stasis and Change
What’s the same is that in 2021 the New York Times is covering scientific arguments that pertain to the existence of God — the very topic of the current book by Meyer — and yet it’s still refusing to mention him or his book by name.
What’s different is that this time around, the discussion is far more favorable towards Meyer’s position. Here’s what columnist Ross Douthat says in an op-ed at the Times. From, “In the modern era, there are reasons to find the idea of God more plausible than ever”:
In fact, the very notion of scientific progress — our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. As much as religious believers (and nonbelievers) worry about the confidence with which our modern technologists play God, the fact that humans can play God at all is pretty strange — and a better reason to think of ourselves as made in a divine image than the medievals ever knew.
I think there is some confusion on this last point among scientists. Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.
But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.” [Emphasis added.]
Note Douthat’s repeated reference to the “God hypothesis” — and favorable references at that! Sheer coincidence? Indeed, Meyer argues in Return of the God Hypothesis that the “comprehensibility of the universe” provides a major reason to believe in a “mind” behind the universe. Meyer writes:
[S]ince nature had been designed by the same rational mind who had designed the human mind, the early modern scientists (or, again, “natural philosophers”) who began to investigate nature also assumed that nature was intelligible. It could be understood by the human intellect. The founders of modern science assumed that if they studied nature carefully, it would reveal its secrets. Their confidence in this assumption was grounded in both the Greek and the Judeo-Christian idea that the universe is an orderly system — a cosmos, not a chaos. As the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “There can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things. And, in particular, of an Order of Nature.” Whitehead particularly attributed this conviction among the founders of modern science to the “medieval insistence upon the rationality of God.”
Other scholars have amplified this observation. They insist that modern science was specifically inspired by the conviction that the universe is the product of a rational mind who designed the universe to be understood and who also designed the human mind to understand it. As historian and philosopher of science Steve Fuller notes, Western science is grounded in the “belief that the natural order is the product of a single intelligence from which our own intelligence descends.” Philosopher Holmes Rolston III puts the point this way: “It was monotheism that launched the coming of physical science, for it premised an intelligible world, sacred but disenchanted, a world with a blueprint, which was therefore open to the searches of the scientists. The great pioneers in physics — Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus — devoutly believed themselves called to find evidences of God in the physical world.” The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), for example, exclaimed that “God wanted us to recognize” natural laws and that God made this possible “by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.”
Thus, the assumption that a rational mind with a will had created the universe gave rise to two ideas — contingency and intelligibility — which, in turn, provided a powerful impetus to study nature with confidence that such study would yield understanding.Return of the God Hypothesis, pp. 24-25
A Design Inference?
Meyer further argues that this idea that nature is intelligible gives theists a worldview that allows them to live comfortably in the real world:
This type of argument — known as a presuppositional argument for the existence of God — did not prove the existence of God. But it did suggest that positing God’s existence allowed one to live consistently— such that one’s stated philosophy would match one’s implicit beliefs as expressed in action. Since we all live as though we believe that nature will exhibit the same basic laws and regularities in the future as it has in the past, and since only belief in a benevolent God provides an adequate explanation for the reliability of that and other such necessary assumptions, only theists have a belief system that matches the way they act.p. 442
Is it really just a coincidence that a leading advocate of scientific evidence supporting God’s existence just published a book titled Return of the God Hypothesis arguing that science’s assumptions about the intelligibility of nature derive from a theistic worldview…and then this phrase appears in a New York Times op-ed which argues that “the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe”? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s worthy of a design inference.