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How Does the Intelligibility of Nature Point to Design?

Photo: Albert Einstein in 1921, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) famously remarked that “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…[t]he fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Similarly, the mathematical physicist Eugene Wigner (1902–1995) opined that “[t]he miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” 

As these remarks highlight, the intelligibility of the universe to the human mind requires explanation in two respects. The first is ontological: Why is nature ordered in such a way that it can be understood? The second is epistemological: Why is the human mind able to gain understanding of the natural order? In the past, these questions did not provoke the puzzlement they do today. Let’s get some historical perspective on the rise of modern science and the current milieu before we examine why a metaphysically naturalistic worldview provides no good answers to these questions, and why theism, which understands the universe as the product of intelligent design, is the only metaphysical context in which the existence and intelligibility of nature has an explanation.

Historical Perspective

For science to be possible, there must be order present in nature, and it has to be discoverable by the human mind. But why should either of these conditions be met? Historically, while there were temporary manifestations of systematic research into nature in ancient Greece and early Islam, and isolated discoveries elsewhere, the seeds of modern science first came to concentrated and sustained fruition in Western culture before its methodologies and achievements were disseminated throughout the world. 

This lasting and world-changing development emerged in the context of the Judeo-Christian worldview that permeated medieval Europe. What drove it was a deeply entrenched society-wide conception of the universe as the free and rational creation of God’s mind so that human beings, as rational creatures made in God’s image, were capable of searching out and understanding a divinely ordered reality. The freedom of God’s creative will meant that this order could not be abstractly deduced ― it had to be discovered through observation and experiment ― but God’s stable and faithful character guaranteed it had a rational structure that diligent study could reveal. This theological foundation gave solid answers to ontological and epistemological questions concerning the intelligibility of the universe, but as the quotes from Einstein and Wigner make clear, this foundation had been lost by the middle of the 20th century. Why?

Efficient and Material Causes

Some see it as the outworking of the 17th-century mechanical philosophy that sought to explain all natural phenomena in terms of material contact mechanisms. On this view, mechanical philosophy conceptually reduced scientific causality to efficient and material causes, purging Aristotelian notions of formal and final causality from science. This is perhaps plausible methodologically, but not metaphysically. The conception of mechanism in the mechanical philosophy retained formal causes in their design and final causes in the purpose they were created to serve. The break with Aristotle arose from the fact that, in the conception of the theistic and deistic mechanical philosophers, design and purpose were transcendently imposed rather than immanently active, so the search for scientific explanations turned to the intelligent implementation of efficient material mechanisms. The purge of any sense of design and purpose from the “scientific” conception of nature is due to the late-19th-century rise of Darwinian philosophy, which sees the mechanisms of nature as brute facts and the course of their development as completely blind and purposeless.

Under the Aegis of Naturalism

It is Darwinism, so conceived, that renders the existence of mathematically describable regularities in nature and their intelligibility to the human mind (itself conceived as the accidental result of blind processes) as such a surprise, for it assumes naturalism ― the self-contained character of nature and the denial of supernaturalism ― as the context for science. Under the aegis of naturalism, there can be no expectation that nature is regular in a way that allows presently operative causes to be projected into the past to explain the current state of the universe or into the future to predict its development. The absence of any sufficient cause to explain why nature exists leaves the philosophical naturalist with no reason to think that what does exist should be ordered, or that any order he finds should be projectable into the past or the future. 

By denying transcendence and defaulting to a conception of the universe as a closed and ultimately arbitrary system of causes and effects, naturalism makes science the uncanny enterprise on which Einstein and Wigner remarked. On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian worldview recognizes that nature exists and is regular not because it is closed to divine activity, but because (and only because) divine causality is operative. It is only because nature is a creation and thus not a closed system of causes and effects that it exists in the first place and exhibits the regular order that makes science possible. God’s existence and action is not an obstacle to science; it’s what makes it possible.