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A Message in the Stars
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 13, 2013)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his sixth letter:
You never told me before that you were taking a course in physics this spring. Well, you are a brave soul indeed — especially for a World Literature and French major!
When I was a college student, although utterly terrified of mathematics and the sciences, I had to take a few courses in those departments to graduate. So I decided to take one entitled "Physics for Poets." From the title it sounded like it would be "right up my alley." In the end I got a C-minus; in other words, I barely made it out alive!
It's great that your physics professor is not afraid to discuss "big questions" in class such as "Why is there such a high degree of order in the universe rather than sheer chaos?" Of course, that's really a philosophical question rather than one that can be answered by the natural sciences alone. Scientists can only tell us how nature operates — what laws can be formulated to describe how the fundamental particles and forces in the universe behave. They cannot really tell us why nature behaves according to one particular set of laws rather than another set, or indeed, why nature obeys any "laws" at all. Science asks what the order of nature is and how it works; philosophy asks why there is any order in nature in the first place.
That seems to be the question that most intrigues you, Krystal. And it's not a "high-brow" question at all. It's the same question that any little child begins to ask when he looks at the sun rising in the morning or hears the wind rustle the leaves and asks "Why?" The child is not usually asking "How does it work"? He's asking what the purpose is, what it's all for. "The sun rises in the morning, my son, so we can have warmth and light to grow our food, and do our work, and see with our eyes this beautiful world in which we live." That's the kind of answer the child is really searching for. The child wants to know if there is any design or purpose to things — and one day may ask if there is Designer and Giver-of-Purpose to the whole show.
You were entirely right when you reminded me of what I said to you in my first letter: that we can stand on the solid ground of common sense realities ("properly basic beliefs") and on that basis "reach for the heavens." This is a good case in point. There is a high degree of order and regularity in the natural universe — that's obvious to all — and such intricate order and design implies the existence of an Intelligent Designer.
Let's consult the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas again. In his two greatest works, he argued this way: We all observe that in nature material things of very different types seem to cooperate to produce and maintain a relatively stable cosmic order. The behavior of all these material things harmonizes in such a way as to achieve that end or purpose. Most of the things that work together in nature to achieve this goal, however, are non-intelligent material things. In other words, they don't have minds that can consciously envision this purpose and intentionally carry it out. This unconscious cooperation of many different kinds of material things in the production and maintenance of a fairly stable world order simply cries out for an explanation. Saint Thomas argues that the most likely explanation for this feature of the natural universe is that there is a supernatural Power and Intelligence who is the author of this world-order, and who maintains it with that purpose in view.
The best analogy I can think of is a symphony orchestra. Notice that a symphony orchestra is made up of a combination of intelligent and non-intelligent material things: the musicians, of course, but also their instruments, music stands, sheets of music, the chairs they sit on, etc. And yet, all these intelligent and non-intelligent things somehow cooperate to play a recognizably unified and orderly piece of music. Why is that possible? Only because someone intelligent wrote a common score of music for the musicians to play — the performance of that common music was the purpose the composer evidently had in view from the start — and only because all are directed to play that common music by one conductor. On this analogy, the Composer-Conductor, of course, is God.
Our friend Rodney Holder has a good summary of the situation:
If there is no God then we are expected to believe that the orderliness in the universe, manifested in all matter at all times and in all places obeying the same set of laws, is a brute, unexplained fact; and this seems extremely unlikely. Conversely, such order is extremely likely if it derives from a common source, just in the way that all tenpenny pieces are identical because they all come from the same mould. Thus, order is very likely if there is a God. Moreover, if God produces a universe at all he is very likely to produce an orderly one because of his character [as supremely Intelligent and Good]. ... There is much more likely to be order of this kind if there is a God than if there is not.
In other words, a high degree of order and design in the universe is precisely what we should expect if there is a God of Infinite Intelligence and Power behind it all, but not what we would expect if there is not, and if everything is the way it is merely by chance.
I am glad that your physics professor told you about the scientific evidence for cosmic design that scientists have discovered in recent decades: it's further corroboration of the argument for an Intelligent Designer. Philosopher Peter Kreeft sums it up as follows in an article on his website (Kreeft, by the way, is an excellent and easy-to-understand philosopher from Boston College). This quote may help you wrap your head around the subject:
Another especially strong aspect of the design argument is the so-called anthropic principle, according to which the universe seems to have been specially designed from the beginning for human life to evolve. If the temperature of the primal fireball that resulted from the Big Bang some fifteen to twenty billion years ago, which was the beginning of our universe, had been a trillionth of a degree colder or hotter, the carbon molecule that is the foundation of all organic life could never have developed. ... Sounds suspiciously like a plot. If the cosmic rays had bombarded the primordial slime [on planet earth] at a slightly different angle or time or intensity, the hemoglobin molecule, necessary for all warm-blooded animals, could never have evolved. The chance of this molecule evolving is something like one in a trillion trillion.
In short, the natural universe as a whole seems to manifest a high degree of "fine-tuning." In other words, it manifests a purpose behind it to provide the conditions necessary for the existence and survival of creatures just like us. Surely, it is highly unlikely that all this "fine-tuning" is just the result of chance or accident!
Still, a skeptic may ask: "Isn't it at least possible that all this intricate order and design in nature happened by chance, without a Designer?" Maybe so; it's remotely possible. But who would rely on a remotely possible explanation for all this when a simpler and more probable explanation is near at hand: a single Intelligent Designer. Peter Kreeft asks us to imagine finding the huge letters "S.O.S" written in the sand on a beach. Of course, it is remotely possible — perhaps a one-in-a-trillion chance — that those letters were formed by the random blowing of sand in the wind. But a possible explanation is not the same as a probable one. Who would ever cling to that one-in-a-trillion explanation when there is a simpler and more obvious one: An intelligent agent had been there, someone intelligent enough to design and write the message?
Of course, someone in your physics class might object to this by pointing to the findings of quantum physics. Scientists now believe there is, indeed, an element of "randomness" or "unpredictability" throughout the natural universe at the most microscopic level. Electrons, for example, do not always behave according to rigid natural laws; their behavior only "averages out" to produce a general order on a larger scale. Still, the fact that their behavior does average out, in all places and all times, to produce a relatively stable and uniform natural order, is a remarkable thing. It's precisely what we mean by nature as a whole manifesting a high degree of order and design that cries out for an explanation.
Besides, the case for an Intelligent Designer does not depend upon the natural universe being perfectly orderly in every respect, like a perfect machine. Remember our symphony orchestra analogy. Even if some of the instruments miss a note on occasion, or some of the chairs on which the musicians are seated "squeak" a bit, and even though the music won't last forever, it is still the case that the orchestra is playing a recognizably ordered and designed piece of music. It is still very likely that they are able to do so because Someone Intelligent composed that common piece for them to play.
Back in the 18th century the philosopher David Hume came up with another objection to the argument for an Intelligent Designer. It's worth considering here, Krystal, in case someone brings it up in your discussions. Hume said that the only reason we conclude that certain kinds of order and design we find in the world are the products of "intelligent designers" is that we have actually experienced — I mean, seen with our own eyes, or know others we can trust who have seen with their own eyes — intelligent designers making those very kinds of things. So, for example, if we find a watch, we conclude that it was made by an intelligent being, a watchmaker, not only because it has an intricate design, but also because we know from our experience, or from the experience of others, that that particular kind of orderly thing — a watch — is produced by watchmakers. Similarly, we conclude that an "S.O.S." written in letters in the sand was probably produced by an intelligent being, a human being, because we know from our experience that human beings write messages in letters. No one, however, has ever seen or experienced a god making a world, so we do not really know if an intricately ordered universe as a whole is the kind of thing that only a god can produce or is likely to produce, or if there is some other more probable cause for cosmic order.
Hume is right: No one has ever seen an intelligent god making a world. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the world that provide us with a close analogy, a microcosm, a good "snapshot" of the universe as a whole. If intricate order and design in the microcosm comes from an intelligent designer, then it is reasonable to assume that the same applies to the whole cosmos. Again, take my symphony orchestra analogy: It's like a little microcosm, a snapshot of the universe as a whole. And it shows what we all know to be true: that, in reality as we know it, only an intelligent designer could produce such an intricate, stable, and pervasive order.
However, Hume is not beaten yet. He claims that he can give us close analogies for the universe as a whole that do not require an Intelligent Designer behind it all. For example, he says, the universe can be compared to a single living organism, like a plant. Plants have an intricate, stable, and pervasive order, yet they organize their own cells, nourish and reproduce themselves without need for an Intelligent Designer to get involved.
But Hume's analogy will not do. For the order and design of plants certainly does not explain itself. Plants, if you will, play the score of music written for them, but they did not write it!
"Ah yes," you might say, "but it is the impersonal mechanism of evolution — the laws of 'natural selection' — that designed plants and animals, not any supernatural Intelligent Agent."
But this will not do either. First of all, evolution remains an unproven scientific theory, and it actually contradicts much of the fossil record that we have. Second, as the leaders of the new "Intelligent Design" movement in science have demonstrated, there are aspects of living organisms that the mechanisms of gradual, step-by-step evolution could never explain: the "irreducible complexity" of many living organs, for example. Only an Intelligent Agent could create such things. Actually, the whole subject is too "irreducibly complex" for me to explain in this letter — but it is well worth exploring.
Third, even if these difficulties can be overcome, and evolution is in fact a sufficient explanation for the nature and variety of living creatures that we find on this planet, still, the process of evolution itself would be another expression of order and design in the universe. Ask yourself: Why would our world as a whole be equipped with an intricate, stable, and pervasive evolutionary system, rather than some other system of laws of biological development — or none at all? It may have elements of chance involved in it — random genetic mutations, and so on — but even these elements somehow work within the system to help churn out creatures of ever higher levels of complexity and survival capability. An evolutionary system is not sheer chaos: It is part of what we call "the natural order."
Besides, as we have already discussed, Krystal (in our previous correspondence), the natural order of material things (matter and energy, atoms and molecules) cannot account for the mystery of the human spirit, with its capacities for rational thought, free choice, and longing for the Infinite Good. So no analogies for the universe as a whole based on mere plant or animal life can be called "close analogies," or good "snapshots" of our world. In short, Hume's argument just doesn't work.
One more challenge to belief in an Intelligent Designer comes from contemporary physics. Some physicists today will argue that perhaps there is not just one universe (namely, our own), but billions and trillions of universes as yet unknown to us. Perhaps universes, in accord with the fundamental principles of physics that we know about, are giving rise to new universes all the time. Those universes each would have its own unique features and their own degree of order or chaos built in. If so, it is bound to happen, even just by chance, that at least one of those universes would have the high degree of order and design that we see in our universe — and so, in this way the order and design of our universe could be explained without reference to any supernatural Intelligent Designer.
This is a simplified version of what is known as the "Multiverse" hypothesis. The details are incredibly complex. But you don't need to muck around with the scientific details to realize that something is wrong with the philosophical reasoning here. For even if it is possible that universes can give rise to the existence of other universes through the operation of the most fundamental principles of quantum physics, and even if that explains how our own universe came to be one of trillions, that still would not explain why the multiverse obeys this particular set of laws of universe-creation rather than some other set, or none at all. Where did these common, basic laws of universe-creation come from? This degree of intricate, stable, and pervasive order in the multiverse would still cry out for an explanation; and the best explanation for such design is still an Intelligent Designer.
Besides, at the moment we know for sure of the existence of only one universe: our own. To appeal to the merely possible existence of trillions of universes to account for order and design in our own universe, rather than to the existence of one supernatural Intelligent Designer, seems the height of absurdity. It's the kind of mental gymnastics that people get into when they are desperately trying to run away from something — or in this case, from Someone.
Krystal, I know you have a favorite quote from Oscar Wilde, because I have seen it on the whiteboard in your room: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Fantastic: It's so true! But what do we see when we look at the stars? A beauty so deep that sometimes it makes us long for something transcendent, something that nothing on earth can satisfy? You bet — that's what the Romantics would say, and they were right. But the Rationalists see something else too, a message written in the stars that I have been sharing with you in this letter. It's all summed up in the closing lines of Joseph Addison's famous 18th century poem (have you ever read it?), so with this I will close:
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball,
What though no real voice, nor sound,
Amidst their radiant orbs be found;
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
"The hand that made us is divine."
Access the entire series.
Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.
• Letter #5: The Secret of the Human Heart
Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.