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Can Materialistic Models Accommodate the Scientific Data?

Photo: Garden fairies, by helena.40proof, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by geologist Casey Luskin on “The Positive Case for Intelligent Design.” This is the 11th entry in the series, a modified excerpt from the new book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the CosmosFind the full series so far here.

Yet another potential objection to the positive case for intelligent design, outlined in this series, is that even if materialistic models did not initially predict the data, materialists can still find ways to accommodate it. Even if this is true, a positive argument for design stands because it does not require refuting Darwinian evolution. Nonetheless, many materialistic explanations for the data that is predicted by design are unconvincing. 

For example, in paleontology, evolutionary biologists expected to find gradual transitions rather than abrupt explosions of new life forms. As Stephen Jay Gould put it: “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology.”1 Because of this difficulty, in the 1970s, Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge developed punctuated equilibrium as a model where evolution takes place in small populations over relatively short geological time periods that are too rapid for transitional forms to become fossilized.2 But this model has many problems.3

Fairies and Leprechauns 

Punctuated equilibrium compresses the vast majority of evolutionary change into small populations that lived during shorter segments of time, allowing too few opportunities for novel, beneficial traits to arise. Punctuated equilibrium is also unconvincing in that it predicts that with respect to the fossil record, evidence confirming Darwinian theory will not be found. Would you believe someone who claimed that fairies and leprechauns exist and were caught on video, but when asked to produce the film, declares, “Well, they are on camera, but they are too small or too fast to be seen”? That doesn’t make for a compelling theory.

Analogous problems plague attempts to account for the life-friendly fine-tuning of physical laws by appealing to a multiverse. Materialists hope that if there are a near-infinite number of universes, then perhaps the extreme unlikelihood of obtaining the precise parameters required for life is less difficult to overcome. Aside from the fact that the multiverse is not observable,4 the mechanisms proposed to generate a multiverse themselves require fine-tuning, thus exacerbating rather than addressing the challenge of fine-tuning.5 Even worse, appealing to a multiverse destroys our ability to do science. 

An Unlucky Town

Imagine that 100 percent of the people in a town of 10,000 get cancer in a year, and that the odds of this occurring by chance are 1 in 1010,000. Normally, scientists would reason that such great unlikelihood would rule out chance and suggest some physical agent is causing the cancer cluster. Under multiverse thinking, however, one might as well say, “Well, imagine there are 1010,000 universes, and our universe just happened to be the one where this unlikely cancer cluster arose — purely by chance!” Should scientists seek a scientific explanation for the cancer cluster, or should they just invent 1010,000 universes where this kind of event becomes probable? 

The multiverse advocate might reply, “Well, you can’t say there aren’t 1010,000universes out there, right?” That’s the point: There’s no way to test multiverse claims, and science should not seriously consider untestable theories. Multiverse thinking makes it impossible to rule out chance, which essentially negates our basis for drawing scientific conclusions. If this is the answer to cosmic fine-tuning, then intelligent design has not been given an adequate rebuttal. 

The point is this: Simply because materialists make outlandish proposals to explain away data that was positively predicted by intelligent design does not mean that those materialistic ideas actually work. What matters is that intelligent design is making useful predictions, allowing it to become a fruitful paradigm for guiding scientific research, as we’ll see in my next post.

Next, a final post in the series, “Intelligent Design as a Paradigm for Fruitfully Guiding Science.”


  1. Stephen Jay Gould, “Evolution’s erratic pace,” Natural History 86 (May 1977), 12-16.
  2. See Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” Models in Paleobiology, ed. Thomas J.M. Schopf (San Francisco, CA: Freeman, Cooper & Company, 1972), 82-115.
  3. For further elaborations of problems with punctuated equilibrium, see Casey Luskin, “Punctuated Equilibrium and Patterns from the Fossil Record,” IDEA Center (September 18, 2004), http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1232 (accessed October 27, 2020); Casey Luskin, “Finding Intelligent Design in Nature,” Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain the Key Issues, ed. H. Wayne House (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 67-112; Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt; Casey Luskin, “Pseudogenes,” Dictionary of Christianity and Science, eds. Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, and Michael G. Strauss (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 549-550.
  4. George F.R. Ellis, “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?,” Scientific American (August 2011).
  5. Bruce Gordon, “Balloons on a String: A Critique of Multiverse Cosmology,” The Nature of Nature, eds. Bruce Gordon and William A. Dembski (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2011), 558-585.