Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Argument from Design for the Existence of God and the Laws of Physics

On February 22, the Arthur J. Schmitt Lecture was delivered by Professor Stephen Barr, a particle physicist from the University of Delaware. The topic of the lecture was “The Argument from Design for the Existence of God and the Laws of Physics,” and Barr, author of a work called Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, did not disappoint. His argument was that, contrary to popular belief, the discoveries of modern science (physics in particular) have not discounted the notion of a designer of the universe; but rather, the more we discover, the more the argument for a designer is strengthened. He began by listing three types of arguments for intelligent design: biological, providential, and cosmological. Biological design arguments usually point to the complexity of structure in living organisms as proof of a designer. Providential ones argue that the many created things in the world were made by God to provide for human beings and nothing more. Both of these types of argument, Barr explained, are severely weakened by Darwinian evolutionary theory. Cosmological design arguments are the only ones left untouched, and so he concentrated on these.

Barr began by reading several ancient Jewish and Christian texts that include ancient arguments from design. None of these texts use the complexity of organisms as evidence. Rather, nearly all of them employ cosmological arguments, pointing not towards phenomena outside of nature, but to the incredible orderliness and lawfulness of nature itself. To illustrate this point, Barr used the examples of the mathematical structure that exists in crystals, rainbows, and the movement of heavenly bodies. These patterns have natural explanations that depend on mathematical and scientific constants and laws and not on the interaction of some intelligent being. But these laws are the point of fundamental disagreement between modern atheists and Jewish and Christian thinkers—the latter saw the laws of nature as proof of a divine lawgiver, whereas the former see the same laws as “in themselves and by themselves a sufficient explanation of the order in nature.” Are the laws of nature evidence of God’s existence or an alternative to Him?

“What lies behind this disagreement are two very different ways of looking at the order found in nature,” Barr explained. Old cosmic design arguments are based on the “common sense idea that if something is arranged, then somebody arranged it.” To illustrate this, Barr used the example of folding chairs that are neatly set up in a rectangular pattern in an assembly hall. It would seem obvious that if one saw this, one would conclude that someone had arranged the chairs in that way. But another person might absurdly suggest that the chairs are obeying a “law of chairs” that exists in that hall and that no “arranger of chairs” needs to be invoked. This suggestion is absurd, but not because there is no law of chairs. “The chairs in the hall are obeying a law, in the sense that the positions of the chairs follow a precise mathematical rule.” To say that it obeys a law is to say no more than that it exhibits a pattern. The law does not explain the existence of the pattern, but rather it precisely states the pattern. Furthermore, Barr distinguished between necessary and contingent laws, pointing out that the chairs in the hall could have been arranged in a completely different way. From this he drew a distinction between the laws of nature and the laws of logic. The latter are necessarily true, whereas the former are merely patterns that are determined empirically and could have been otherwise. From this, believers conclude that there is a divine lawgiver, just as one would conclude that there exists an arranger of chairs in the example.

From this example, the atheist position seems silly, so Barr also considered another example—one of marbles in a shoe box. When the box is tilted toward one corner, all of the marbles will arrange themselves in that corner in the exact same pattern, every single time. The atheist, Barr said, will point to this as an example of order spontaneously coming forth out of the chaos of nature. From this analysis, Barr drew his strongest criticism of what he calls “the atheists’ superficial view of science.” He said that “when examined carefully, scientific accounts of natural processes are never really about order emerging from mere chaos, or form emerging from formlessness. On the contrary, they are always about the unfolding of an order that was already implicit in the nature of things, although often in a secret or hidden way.” Barr rebutted the atheist claim of order spontaneously appearing in the case of the marbles by pointing out that the pattern or symmetry that springs up is the result of an even deeper, more intrinsic symmetry which the marbles possess in their nature. So the symmetrical order of the marbles in the corner of the box is the result of the symmetry that already exists in each marble.

Barr concluded by pointing to a trend in modern physics which greatly supports cosmological arguments for design: “As we have looked more deeply into nature, nature appears more symmetrical and orderly, not less.” This order exists within the marbles in the example, the atoms of which they are comprised, the sub-atomic particles within those, and still deeper in what is called quantum field theory. What Barr was emphasizing is that the laws of nature themselves have intrinsic symmetries and order to them which science cannot explain, and that it would be na├»ve to suggest that this incredibly sophisticated mathematical order simply sprang up by chance.

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