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Evidence of Purpose
Scientists Discover the Creator
By John Marks Templeton
ContinuumCopyright © 1994 Templeton Foundation, Inc. (NJ) and Robert L. Herrmann
All rights reserved.
Dare a Scientist Believe in Design?
Conus cedonulli is, literally, the "I yield to none" cone. In the eighteenth century this handsomely patterned shell became the most celebrated and sought-after molluscan rarity. Two specimens were known in Europe in the early 1700s, one of which became the prize of the king of Portugal's collection. In 1796 the other was auctioned for 243 guilders at a sale in which Vermeer's masterpiece, "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," fetched a mere 43 guilders!
Cone shells, cedonulli among them, are considered among the most "advanced" mollusks because their anatomy includes a toxic harpoon that can spring out of the apex end of the shell. In some species the sting can be deadly even to humans.
Our first reaction upon hearing about the cone shells may well be: what wonderful design! And we may be even more impressed and probably puzzled to learn that the exquisite pattern on the shell is, during the animal's lifetime, covered by an opaque periostracum, rendering the pattern virtually invisible and therefore perplexingly useless either for survival or sexual attraction. To think in terms of deliberate design is an almost intuitive response, yet such thoughts have become strangely taboo in contemporary scientific circles. Conus cedonulli thus becomes a jumping-off place for consideration of the question, "Dare a scientist believe in design?"
Consider what happened when a report on studies of the mollusk toxins recently appeared in Science magazine (along with an illustration of both Conus cedonulli and the Vermeer painting). A supplementary news article, entitled "Science Digests the Secrets of Voracious Killer Snails" remarked that "the great diversity and specificity of toxins in the venoms of the cone snails are due to the intense evolutionary pressure on the snails to stop their prey quickly, since they can't chase it down."
Very promptly a letter to the editor objected that this language implied that some real pressure was driving the snails to develop the toxins. "The reality is that those snails that produced toxins that immobilized their prey quickly tended to obtain food more often than those possessing slower-acting or no toxins, and thus over time the population of cone shells became dominated by those possessing the fast-acting agents. There was no pressure! In the vernacular, 'If it works, it works; if it don't, it don't.'"
The response shows clearly the current philosophical orthodoxy about the nondirected nature of evolution. It also typifies the enormous change of view that has occurred over the past century with respect to the wonders of the biological world.
What is now seen as the zigzag, largely accidental path to amazing organisms with astonishing adaptations was in earlier times routinely interpreted as the design of an intelligent Creator. The long neck of the giraffe, which so well adapts the creature to an environment where food is available high off the ground, would have been seen, in William Paley's words, as a "mark of contrivance, in proof of design, and of a designing Creator." "Who gave white bears and white wolves to the snowy regions of the North, and as food for the bears the whale, and for the wolves, birds' eggs?" asked Johannes Kepler two centuries earlier. "Great is our Lord and great his virtue and of his wisdom there is no number!" he exclaims in answer. "Use every sense for perceiving your Creator."
Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not best known as a theist, declared, "It is impossible for me to conceive that a system of beings can be so wisely regulated without the existence of some intelligent cause which affects such regulation.... I believe, therefore, that the world is governed by a wise and powerful Will."
The notion of design suggests, of course, the existence of a goal-directed or end-directed process, what can aptly be termed teleology. Ernst Mayr, a leading evolutionist who has written very clearly on the modern philosophy of evolution, wisely remarks that it is futile to attempt to clarify the concept of teleology without discriminating between different types of end-directed processes. There are some kinds of inanimate natural processes that do have an end point, for example, and there are also goal-directed processes in genetically controlled organisms. "The third category, organic adaptness, is not directed toward an end but rather an adaptation to the environment in the widest sense of the word, acquired during evolution, largely guided by natural selection. The fourth teleology, the cosmic one, is not supported by scientific evidence." So much then, for a role for the Creator in modern biology.
"Man was not the goal of evolution, which evidently had no goal," wrote G. G. Simpson in a more visceral fashion. "He was not planned, in an operation wholly planless."
Yet, despite the articulate denials of cosmic teleology by the leading evolutionists of our age, there still remain enough astonishing details of the natural order to evoke a feeling of awe—so much so that cosmologists have even given it a name: the anthropic principle. The discussion arose originally when some physicists noticed that even small variations in some of the constants of nature would have led to a universe in which life could not exist. For example, had the original energy of the Big Bang explosion been less, the universe would have fallen back onto itself long before there had been time to build the elements required for life and to produce from them intelligent, sentient beings. Had the energy been more, it is quite possible that the density would have dropped too swiftly for stars and galaxies to form. These and many other details were so extraordinarily right that it seemed the universe had been expressly designed for humankind. Such was the original context that led to the anthropic principle.
One of the first scientists to consider how the environment itself made life possible was the Harvard chemist L.J. Henderson. Early in this century, after Darwin's emphasis on the fitness of organisms for their various environments, Henderson wrote a fascinating book entitled The Fitness of the Environment, which pointed out that the organisms themselves would not exist except for certain properties of matter. He argued for the uniqueness of carbon as the chemical basis of life, and everything we have learned since then, from the nature of the hydrogen bond to the structure of DNA, reinforces his argument. But today it is possible to go still further and to probe the origin of carbon itself, through its synthesis deep inside evolving stars.
Carbon is the fourth most common atom in our galaxy, after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. A carbon nucleus can be made by merging three helium nuclei, but a triple collision is tolerably rare. It would be easier if two helium nuclei would stick together to form beryllium, but beryllium is not very stable. Nevertheless, sometimes before the two helium nuclei can come unstuck, a third helium nucleus strikes home, and a carbon nucleus results. And here the details of the internal energy levels of the carbon nucleus become interesting: it turns out that there is precisely the right resonance within the carbon that helps this process along.
Let me digress a bit to remind you about resonance. You've no doubt heard that opera singers such as Enrico Caruso could shatter a wine glass by singing just the right note with enough volume. I don't doubt the story, because in the lectures at our Science Center at Harvard, about half a dozen wine glasses are shattered each year using sound waves. It's necessary to tune the audio generator through the frequency spectrum to just the right note where the glass begins to vibrate—the specific resonance for that particular goblet—and then to turn up the volume so that the glass vibrates more and more violently until it flies apart.
The specific resonances within atomic nuclei are something like that, except in this case the particular energy enables the parts to stick together rather than to fly apart. In the carbon atom, the resonance just happens to match the combined energy of the beryllium atom and a colliding helium nucleus. Without it, there would be relatively few carbon atoms. Similarly, the internal details of the oxygen nucleus play a critical role. Oxygen can be formed by combining helium and carbon nuclei, but the corresponding resonance level in the oxygen nucleus is half a percent too low for the combination to stay together easily. Had the resonance level in the carbon been 4 percent lower, there would be essentially no carbon. Had that level in the oxygen been only half a percent higher, virtually all of the carbon would have been converted to oxygen. Without that carbon abundance, neither you nor I would be here now.
I am told that Fred Hoyle, who together with Willy Fowler found this remarkable nuclear arrangement, has said that nothing has shaken his atheism as much as this discovery. Occasionally Fred Hoyle and I have sat down to discuss one or another astronomical or historical point, but I never had enough nerve to ask him if his atheism had really been shaken by finding the nuclear resonance structure of carbon and oxygen. However, the answer came rather clearly in the November 1981 issue of the Cal Tech alumni magazine, where he wrote:
Would you not say to yourself, "Some supercalculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule." Of course you would.... A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
Not so long ago I used the carbon and oxygen resonance in a lecture at a university in the Midwest, and in the question period I was interrogated by a philosopher who wanted to know if I could quantify the argument by Bayesian probabilities. Now I'll confess that, at the time, I hadn't a clue that Bayesian statistics meant evaluating a proposition on the basis of an original probability and new relevant evidence. But even knowing how to handle that would hardly have enabled me to perform a convincing calculation, that is, a probability so overwhelming as to be tantamount to a proof that superintelligent design was involved in the placement of the resonance levels.
Clearly my petitioner was dating me to convince him, despite the fact that I had already proclaimed that arguments from design are in the eyes of the beholder, and simply cannot be construed as proofs to convince skeptics. Furthermore, in posing his question he had already pointed out the quicksands of using numerology to prove the existence of divine order in the cosmos. So now I hasten to dampen any notion that I intended the resonance levels in carbon and oxygen nuclei to demonstrate the efficacy of design or to prove the existence of God.
Even William Paley, with his famous watch and his conclusion that it pointed to the existence of a watchmaker, said that "My opinion of Astronomy has always been, that it is not the best medium through which to prove the agency of an intelligent creator; but that, this being proved, it shows, beyond all other sciences, the magnificence of his operations."
For me, it is not a matter of proofs and demonstrations, but of making sense of the astonishing cosmic order that the sciences repeatedly reveal. Fred Hoyle and I differ on lots of questions, but on this we agree: a common sense and satisfying interpretation of our world suggests the designing hand of a superintelligence. Impressive as the evidences of design in the astrophysical world may be, however, I personally find even more remarkable those from the biological realm. As Walt Whitman proclaimed, "A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars." I would go still further and assert that stellar evolution is child's play compared to the complexity of DNA in grass or mice. Whitman goes on, musing that,
The tree toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Even Hoyle, by his allusion to the biology, seems to agree that the formation of, say, DNA, is so improbable as to require a superintelligence. Such biochemical arguments were popularized about forty years ago by Lecomte du Noüy in his book Human Destiny. Du Noüy estimated the probability of forming a two-thousand atom protein as something like one part in 10. He wrote, "Events which, even when we admit very numerous experiments, reactions, or shakings per second, need an infinitely longer time than the estimated duration of the earth in order to have one chance, on the average, to manifest themselves can, it would seem, be considered as impossible in the human sense."
Du Noüy went on to say, "To study the most interesting phenomena, namely Life and eventually Man, we are therefore, forced to call on anti-chance, as Eddington called it; a cheater who systematically violates the laws of large numbers, the statistical laws which deny any individuality to the particles considered."
The game plan for evolutionary theory, however, is to find the accidental, contingent ways in which these unlikely and seemingly impossible events could have taken place. The evolutionists do not seek an automatic scheme—mechanistic in the sense that Newtonian mechanics is determined—but some random pathways whose existence could be at least partially retraced by induction from the fragmentary historical record. But when the working procedure becomes raised to a philosophy of nature, the practitioners begin to place their faith in the roulette of chance and they find du Noüy and Hoyle an aggravation to their assumptions about the meaninglessness of the universe.
Despite the reluctance of many evolutionary theorists, such as Ernst Mayr who states, "Cosmic teleology must be rejected by science.... I do not think there is a modern scientist left who still believes in it," there does seem to be enough evidence of design in the universe to give some pause. Even G. G. Simpson wrote, "Man did originate after a tremendously long sequence of events in which both chance and orientation played a part.... The result is the most highly endowed organization of matter that has yet appeared on earth—and we certainly have no good reason to believe there is any higher in the universe. To think that this result is insignificant would be unworthy of that high endowment." In fact, scientists who wish to deny the role of design seem to have taken over the anthropic principle. Briefly stated, they have turned the original argument on its head. Rather than accepting that we are here because of a deliberate supernatural design, they claim that the universe simply must be this way because we are here; had the universe been otherwise, we would not be here to observe ourselves, and that is that. Such is almost precisely the view enunciated by Stephen Hawking in his inaugural lecture as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University—an illustrious chair once held by Isaac Newton—and a view of nature repeated by Hawking in his best-selling A Brief History of Time. As I said, I am doubtful that you can convert a skeptic by the argument of design, and the discussions of the anthropic principle seem to prove the point.
But once again I return to my central question, "Dare a scientist believe in design?" and I pause to remark on the somewhat curious status of "belief" within science. A year ago I conducted a workshop for a rather diverse group of Christians, and I asked, "Can a theist believe in evolution?" I got a variety of responses, but it didn't occur to any of them to challenge what it might mean to "believe" in evolution. Does that mean to have faith in evolution in a religious sense? I have heard one leading paleontologist announce himself as a "devout evolutionist" when asked his faith, and I guess that is a possibility. But when pressed, most scientists would, I think, claim only that they accept evolution as a working hypothesis. In everyday, non-philosophical usage, most people, scientists included, would say that they believe in the results of science and that they believe the results of science to be true. Yet, and this is the anomalous part, most scientists would be mildly offended at the thought that their beliefs constituted an act of faith in a largely improved but intricate system of coherencies.
Actually, surprisingly little in science itself is accepted by "proof." Let's take Newtonian mechanics as an example. Newton had no proof that the earth moved, or that the sun was the center of the planetary system. Yet, without that assumption, his system did not make much sense. What he had was an elaborate and highly successful scheme of both explanation and prediction, and most people had no trouble believing it, but what they were accepting as truth was a grand scheme whose validity rested on its coherency, not on any proof. Thus, when a convincing stellar parallax was measured in 1838, or when Foucault swung his famous pendulum at 2 A.M. on Wednesday morning, January 8, 1851, these supposed proofs of the revolution and of the rotation of the earth did not produce a sudden, newfound acceptance of the heliocentric cosmology. The battle had long since been won by a persuasiveness that rested not on proof but on coherency.
Excerpted from Evidence of Purpose by John Marks Templeton. Copyright © 1994 Templeton Foundation, Inc. (NJ) and Robert L. Herrmann. Excerpted by permission of Continuum.
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Table of Contents
1 Dare a Scientist Believe in Design? Owen Gingerich,
2 God's Purpose in and Beyond Time Russell Stannard,
3 The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Science Paul Davies,
4 Evidence of Purpose in the Universe Walter R. Hearn,
5 Cosmology: Evidence for God or Partner for Theology? Robert John Russell,
6 Science and God the Creator Arthur Peacocke,
7 A Potent Universe John Polkinghorne,
8 The Evolution of Purpose John C. Eccles,
9 A Physiologist Looks at Purpose and Meaning in Life Daniel H. Osmond,
10 How Blind the Watchmaker? David Wilcox,