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Intelligent Design: Theistic Implications?

Stephen C. Meyer
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Image source: Discovery Institute.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos. We are presenting Dr. Meyer’s chapter as a series, in which this is the fifth and final post. Find the full series so far here.

So why is a discussion of the theory of intelligent design important in a book about science and faith? After all, proponents of intelligent design have often argued that the method of design detection outlined in this chapter does not necessarily make it possible to determine the identity of the intelligent agent responsible for any particular designed system or artifact — only that such a system or artifact was designed by an intelligent agent of some kind. In addition, proponents of intelligent design, such as myself, insist that the case for intelligent design is based upon scientific evidence and upon established methods of scientific reasoning — not religious belief or authority.

Larger Theistic Implications

All that is true. Nevertheless, as I’ve also argued, although the case for intelligent design depends upon scientific evidence and methods of reasoning, it may well have larger theistic implications. And, as I argue in my book Return of the God Hypothesis, the evidence for intelligent design in life and in the universe — when considered together — does point strongly to a transcendent designing intelligence — i.e., God — rather than to an immanent designing agent within the cosmos itself. 

Of course, some scientists, such as Francis Crick,1 Fred Hoyle,2 and even Richard Dawkins,3 have postulated that an intelligence elsewhere within the cosmos might explain the origin of the first life on Earth. Crick proposed this idea after candidly acknowledging the prohibitively long odds against life arising spontaneously here on Earth.4 He consequently proposed that life first arose by some undirected process of chemical evolution somewhere else in the universe and then continued to evolve, eventually producing an intelligent form of alien life. This immanent intelligence — an extraterrestrial agent rather than a transcendent God — designed and then “seeded” a simpler form of life on Earth. Hence, the term panspermia (from the Greek pan, “all,” and sperma, “seed”).

Satisfied by Panspermia?

Though logically possible, I’ve never found this explanation for the origin of life or the origin of biological information satisfying. For one thing, any theory of the origin of life, whether purporting to explain the origin of the first life here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos, must account for the origin of the specified information necessary to configure matter into a self-replicating system — something that most biologists take as a sine qua non of a genuinely living organism. Yet those who propose panspermia have not explained, or even seriously grappled with, the problem of the origin of specified biological information.5

Simply asserting that life arose somewhere else out in the cosmos does not explain how the information necessary to build the first life, let alone the first intelligent life, could have arisen. It merely pushes the explanatory challenge farther back in time and out into space. Indeed, positing another form of preexisting life only presupposes the existence of the very thing that all theories of the origin of life must explain — the origin of specified biological information.

From the Moment of Creation

Beyond that, the panspermia hypothesis certainly does not explain the origin of the cosmological fine-tuning. Because the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics (and the initial conditions of the universe) date from the very origin of the universe itself, the designing intelligence responsible for the fine-tuning must have had the capability of setting the fine-tuning parameters and initial conditions from the moment of creation. Yet, clearly, no intelligent being within the cosmos that arose after the beginning of the cosmos could be responsible for the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics that made its existence and evolution possible. Such an intelligent agent “inside” the universe might reconfigure or move matter and energy around in accord with the laws of nature. Nevertheless, no such being subject to those laws could possibly change the constants of physics simply by changing the material state of the universe. Similarly, no intelligent being arising after the beginning of the universe could have set the initial conditions of the universe upon which its later evolution and existence would depend. It follows that an immanent intelligence (an extraterrestrial alien, for instance) fails to qualify as an adequate explanation for the origin of the cosmic fine-tuning.6

A Better Explanation

Instead, the fine-tuning of the universe as a whole is better explained by an intelligent agent that transcends the universe, one that has the attributes that religious believers typically associate with God. Indeed, because theism conceives of God as an intelligent agent having an existence independent of the material universe — either in a timeless eternal realm or in another realm of time independent of the time in our universe — theism can account for (1) the origin of the universe in time (i.e., at a beginning), (2) the fine-tuning of the universe from the beginning of time, and (3) the origin of the specified information that arises after the beginning of time that is necessary to produce the first living organism. 

Thus, deeper philosophical deliberation about the evidence of intelligent design in life and the universe may well lead to a theistic conclusion. And that suggests, as many authors of this book do, that science, properly understood, may well have faith-affirming implications. 

Notes

  1. Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster), 88, 95-166. See also F.H.C. Crick and L.E. Orgel, “Directed Panspermia,” Icarus 19 (1973), 341-346.
  2. Sir Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space: A Theory of Cosmic Creationism (New York: Touchstone), 35-50.
  3. See Richard Dawkins quoted in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (Premise Media, 2008).
  4. Crick, Life Itself, 88.
  5. See Elliott Sober, “Intelligent design theory and the supernatural — The ‘god or extraterrestrials’ reply,” Faith and Philosophy 24 (2007), 72-82. Sober, a philosophical naturalist who rejects the case for intelligent design, argues that if one does accept the argument for intelligent design in biology (from irreducible complexity), it makes more sense to affirm a supernatural designer than an extraterrestrial one. He argues that the “minimalist case” for intelligent design, when supplemented with a few additional and plausible premises (such as, for example, “the universe is finite”), leads logically to the conclusion that a transcendent intelligent designer must exist. 
  6. In Return of the God Hypothesis, I also argue that theism provides a better explanation than deism, pantheism, panenthesim, and pansychism for the key facts that we have about biological and cosmological origins.