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Culture Q&A

Stephen Meyer

Seeing the mind behind the universe

Scientific discoveries point to a strong evidential basis for theistic belief

Seeing the mind behind the universe

Stephen Meyer (Illustration by Daniel Baxter)

Stephen Meyer founded and heads the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England and is the author of three books that are essential reading in the scientific debate about evolution. The first, Signature in the Cell, examines the role of DNA and the cellular-level evidence for intelligent design. The second, Darwin’s Doubt, shows how the explosive origin of animal life makes a case for intelligent design that even Charles Darwin would have trouble opposing. Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe, was due out on March 30.

What is the God hypothesis? It’s the idea that God exists and theism as a worldview explains some of the key evidence concerning biological and cosmological origins. I’m proposing that hypothesis to explain some of the key discoveries of modern science—the origin and fine-­tuning of the universe, the origin of life, and new forms of life on this planet.

Why do you use the word return to describe the God hypothesis? It’s a return because the scientific revolution began roughly in 1300 from a Christian foundation, as more and more scientists thought about nature in Biblical terms. One of the key ideas was that systematic investigation could reveal and help us understand nature. Since we are made in the image of a rational Creator, we could understand the rationality, design, and lawful order God built into nature. Theism provided a framework for doing science, and scientists discovered evidence supporting that framework.

We live in a kind of Goldilocks universe. The laws of physics describe forces that are not too strong, not too weak.

Science moved away from that foundation? During the 19th century that framework dramatically shifted as more and more scientists began to commit themselves to a strictly materialistic approach to science. They became convinced they could explain the origins of the solar system, life, and human beings by reference to purely unguided processes. By the end of the 19th century, the materialistic—or naturalistic—worldview was dominant in Western science. Return of the God Hypothesis is the story of how three great scientific discoveries since the beginning of the 20th century—in physics, biology, and cosmology—have brought back a strong evidential basis for theistic belief.

Let’s start with physics. One of the big discoveries was that the laws of physics, and what are called the “constants” expressed in those fundamental laws, are exquisitely fine-tuned to allow for the possibility of life in the universe. Physicists have discovered matter and energy configured that way from the very beginning of the universe. These parameters could have been very different. They’re not logically necessary. A dozen or more of these fine-tuning parameters have very precise values that allow life to exist. This suggests the need for a fine-tuner. 

What’s one example? We need carbon to make the molecules upon which life is based. Fred Hoyle discovered the many fine-tuned parameters necessary to produce it. Hoyle was stunned by the exquisite precision of the fine-tuning. We have this huge abundance of carbon in the universe—much more abundant than we would have expected—and we live in a kind of Goldilocks universe. The laws of physics describe forces that are not too strong, not too weak. The speed of light is not too fast, not too slow. The expansion rate of the universe is not too fast, not too slow. These are astronomically, incredibly improbable. 

Let’s move on to biology. There are many layers of evidence of design, but the most foundational evidence is at the molecular level—DNA and RNA molecules, the protein molecules that store information. All living systems require proteins to do lots of important jobs. They build the parts for these exquisite forms of nanotechnologies, little miniature machines that we’re finding in cells: rotary engines, turbines, sliding clamps, all in a miniaturized scale. Those miniature machines are built out of proteins, and the proteins process information. To build the proteins, you need information in the DNA molecule. That information is stored in a digital or alphabetic form. 

Francis Crick made an important contribution. In 1957, he put forward the sequence hypothesis: that chemical sub-units along the interior of the DNA molecule are functioning like alphabetic characters in a written language, or like digital characters in a section of software. These discoveries came in a period known as the molecular biological revolution in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. They raised a huge question: Where does the information come from? Chemical evolutionary theories of the origin of life have not been able to answer that question satisfactorily. 

Now to the third area: cosmology. The cosmological evidence reinforces the evidence from physics. It suggests the need for a transcendent cause. We’ve discovered in modern observational astronomy and theoretical physics—two separate branches of science—powerful indicators that the universe itself had a beginning. This began first in observational astronomy as people realized we live in a great big universe with lots of galaxies moving away from us. As you wind the clock backward in your mind’s eye, the universe comes to a beginning of that expansion. It’s like blowing up a balloon, but then letting the air out of the balloon to go backward in time. You get to a place where all that galactic material would have congealed and that would mark the beginning of the expansion of the universe, and arguably the beginning of the universe itself. 

Does that go along with the idea of the Big Bang, which lots of Christians dismiss? A lot of Christians misunderstand the Big Bang theory. I have a lot of conversations with people at conferences and churches and so forth, and many Christians think that the scientists are saying that the Big Bang caused the origin of the universe, as if the Big Bang was the first cause. They think the scientists are positing the Big Bang as an alternative to God as the Creator. In fact, the Big Bang is the first effect, the first event. The picture that we have of the origin of the universe from theoretical physics is one where either there was a beginning to time, or time and space both. Either way, this is exactly what you’d expect on a theistic understanding of the universe, and indeed, on a Biblical understanding. The very first words of Genesis are, after all, “In the beginning.” 

No immanent intelligence, no space alien designer within the cosmos, can account for the laws of physics upon which its very life depends and which preceded its existence.

What did we learn in theoretical physics? Einstein’s great theory of general relativity, his new theory of gravity, and solutions to his field equations implied that the universe had a beginning. There’s been debate about whether or not you can “back extrapolate” all the way to a beginning using Einstein’s theory, but there have been other proofs in theoretical physics of a beginning to the universe. 

Critics of intelligent design (ID) have accused the ID movement of secretly pushing creationism. You and your allies have insisted ID is legitimate scientific inquiry that stops short of trying to identify the designer. Now you’re making the case for His identity. Could this book give fuel to your critics? I’m sure it could, but that’s not an evidential objection. That’s an accusation as to motive. It is irrelevant to the merits of the argument itself. The argument we’ve made is that nature points to a designing agent. In biology, we see evidence of design in the digital code that’s present in the DNA molecule. We know from our uniform and repeated experience that information in a digital or alphabetic form—what we call sequence-specific—invariably arises from an intelligent source. If we’re trying to reconstruct what happened in the past, we want to consider what we know about cause-and-effect patterns in the world around us. The same method of reasoning Darwin used has led us to a non-Darwinian conclusion: If there’s a program, then there’s a programmer. Now, I’m looking at a broader range of evidence to answer: “Who is the designer?”

Does this represent a shift for the ID movement, going from defense to offense? The intelligent design movement has been on offense from the beginning. We think we have the best explanation for the origin of information and the irreducible complexity of living systems—a mind of some kind. What I’m doing as a philosopher of science is looking at this deeper question about the identity of the designing intelligence. 

This is something new in your quest. In making the original case for design in biology, I left unspecified whether the designing intelligence was a transcendent designer or an immanent designer, a designer within the cosmos or a designer that transcended matter, space, time, and energy, what we call the universe. In this new book, what I’m doing is simply looking at a broader range of evidence to answer a question that’s been posed to me, which is, “What can we say from science about the identity of the designer? Is it more likely to be an alien or a god, and immanent or transcendent?” 

And you’re seeing … The designer must have preceded the universe, because the fine-tuning was established at the very beginning of the universe. No immanent intelligence, no space alien designer within the cosmos, can account for the laws of physics upon which its very life depends and which preceded its existence. The fine-tuning problems point to a transcendent design that preexists matter, space, time, and energy.

—J.C. Derrick is the former deputy chief content officer of WORLD

Comments

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  • Johnlaurie
    Posted: Sun, 03/28/2021 03:00 pm

    Please correct Imminent to immanent.  Thank you.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 03/29/2021 05:02 am

    Maybe he meant imminent. It can fit the context depending on his point. Oh the problematic confusion that can occur with homophones.

  • WORLD’s Mickey McLean
    Posted: Mon, 03/29/2021 11:07 am

    Thank you for pointing out the error. We have corrected it.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 03/29/2021 05:05 am

    Great interview and overview. Thanks. I've read the first two books and look forward to this one as well. I've pre-ordered it and anticipate its imminent arrival. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 04/02/2021 11:18 pm

    The fine tuning argument, applied to both the fundamental constants and the laws of physics, is a very strong argument for a transcendent God. There are a vast number of ways the fundamental constants could be chosen such that life cannot exist compared to a very small number where life is possible to exist. The same can be said for the laws of physics.  Where does this back door programming come from? The atheist can only say we amazingly arrived in a lottery winning universe where life can exist. Still the fine tuning and laws suggest a designer and lawgiver where the atheist is hard pressed to answer this.