Friedrich Nietzsche was among the first philosophers to wrestle seriously with the implications of Charles Darwin’s theories. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche considered the metaphysical consequences of Darwinian evolution:
Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at its portal stands the ape, together with other dreadful beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction! One therefore now tries the opposite direction: the way mankind is going shall serve as proof of his grandeur and kinship with God. But this too is in vain!
Unlike modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Nietzsche did not believe science could ever provide salvation or meaning. On the contrary, he prophesied in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) that scientists would eventually collide with undecidable questions, raising perplexities that the scientific method itself was unequipped to address.
Nietzsche’s prophesy is now coming true. The Atlantic published an article last year titled “Life as We Know It Hinges on One Very Small Decimal.” The article concerned a number called the fine-structure constant, which quantifies the strength of electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles. The constant’s value is close to 1/137. If it were slightly different—closer to, say, 1/138—elemental carbon could not form in our universe. Life as we know it could not exist. But no theory predicts the value of the fine-structure constant. It doesn’t have to be what it is: it just happens to be precisely situated in the narrow sliver of values amenable to life. And the fine-structure constant is only one of many constants which appear minutely tuned to support life. A more accurate title for the article in the Atlantic might have been, “Life Hinges on Twelve Different Constants, All of Which Appear Precisely Calibrated to Allow Life as We Know It.” But such a title would have invited the question: why? The likelihood of so many different constants being delicately balanced to allow our form of life—by random chance alone—is infinitesimal. How can we explain the fine tuning?
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These questions are raised by philosopher of science Stephen Meyer in Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe. The director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, Meyer argues that the science itself now compels us to consider the God hypothesis, which, as its name suggests, is the hypothesis that an agent characterized by “transcendence, omnipotence, creative power, free will, and intelligence” established the laws of physics, created the universe, and assembled the elements of life. The materialist’s usual explanation for our universe’s 12 perfectly tuned constants is that there exists an infinite or nearly-infinite number of universes, each one exhibiting a different combination of values for these constants. We happen to find ourselves in a universe where the constants just happen to allow the existence of our sort of life—not because of any Grand Designer, but merely because life as we know it could evolve only in a universe where the values of the constants just happen to be so aligned. We cannot observe other universes. So no experiment—even in principle—can provide evidence to refute or confirm the multiple-universe hypothesis.
Meyer finds such appeals to imagined and unobservable worlds unscientific. Early on, he cites the 13th-century theologian William of Ockham, known for his oft-cited but poorly understood “Razor.” Ockham’s Razor is the rule that if multiple phenomena can be explained either by a single hypothesis or by multiple independent hypotheses, then the single hypothesis should be preferred. The single hypothesis of an intelligent God can accommodate the creation of the universe from nothing, the fine-tuning of the elemental constants, and the origin of life. Explanation without recourse to God requires multiple hypotheses, some of which are untestable—such as the hypothesis that there is an infinite number of unobservable universes—to explain the same phenomena.
The multiple-universe theory is not the only domain in which Nietzsche’s prophecy has been realized. I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology at MIT and both my doctorates at the University of Pennsylvania. As a student, more than 40 years ago, I read the theories that were being proposed to explain the origin of life on earth. I found them unsatisfactory and unpersuasive. When I returned to this topic recently, I was surprised to find that no progress has been made since I read the literature as a student. Or, more precisely: the progress made has been largely negative. Greater understanding of the complexities involved in even the simplest form of life have led leading researchers to question how the first life could ever have emerged from non-living matter. Nobel laureate in chemistry Ilya Prigogine concluded that the odds of information-rich biomolecules developing by random chance are “vanishingly small,” even over billions of years. According to information theorist Hubert Yockey, the widespread conviction among scientists that life could arise spontaneously from non-living matter “is simply a matter of faith in strict reductionism and is based entirely on ideology” rather than evidence. Francis Crick, the Nobelist who famously helped discover the helical structure of DNA alongside James Watson, likewise saw no possibility that life on earth could have arisen spontaneously from the primordial slime. In his book Life Itself (1981), Crick argued that life on earth must have been seeded by aliens from another solar system.
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Forty years have passed since Crick published Life Itself, and the prospects for solving the mystery of life’s origin seem bleaker than ever. Today it is clear that the genetic code is a code: a sophisticated marvel of information-processing nanotechnology whereby three-letter nucleotide codons are translated into amino acids which are assembled into proteins. Even if scientists could succeed in showing how the prebiotic soup could generate a rich mixture of nucleotides (the building blocks of RNA and DNA), such a mixture would be roughly equivalent to a bucket full of English letters. The unanswered question is how a random scoop into the bucket could ever generate the equivalent of Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn. Even the simplest living cell contains more than 400 genes, each composed of dozens or hundreds of codons and every one of them essential to life—that is, if any one of those genes is deleted experimentally, the cell will die. No theory currently on offer satisfactorily explains the origin of this genetic information. Researchers have responded with vague ideas such as “self-organization” and “prebiotic natural selection.” But as Nobel laureate in physiology Christian de Duve noted, such theories “presuppose what is to be explained in the first place,” namely: where did the information come from?
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Meyer approaches such questions from the beginning, with an account of the origin of the universe. Most cosmologists agree that our universe had a beginning, a “Big Bang,” about 13.7 billion years ago. What was there before the Big Bang? Nothing. Before the Big Bang, there was neither time, nor space, nor matter, nor energy. A leading cosmologist, Alexander Vilenkin, has proposed that a process called “quantum tunneling” from superspace into a real universe can produce space and time, matter and energy. But such tunneling must be governed by laws that are in existence “even prior to the universe itself,” Vilenkin has written. He continues: “The laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations. If the medium of mathematics is the mind, does this mean that mind should predate the universe?” Vilenkin never answers his own question. As his silence implies, scientists are hesitant to embrace, or even to mention, what Meyer considers the best explanation for our current observations: the God hypothesis.
The reader may protest: doesn’t science mean explaining phenomena without reference to God? Doesn’t “the God hypothesis” inevitably undermine scientific enterprise? Doesn’t invoking God to explain gaps in our current knowledge merely obstruct the path to real understanding? Meyer raises and answers each of these objections. He agrees that “God-of-the-gaps” theorizing is unhelpful. But he makes a compelling case that the God hypothesis is not a God-of-the-gaps maneuver. If one finds a bucket full of plastic letters, and next to the bucket a sentence neatly spelled out in those letters which reads “This sentence was formed by random chance,” then the hypothesis that some intelligent agent wrote that sentence is immensely more plausible than the hypothesis that the letters spontaneously spilled out of the bucket in just the right way to form that particular sentence. Nor is there an appeal to authority anywhere in the book. Meyer never cites any passage from the Bible or indeed any religious text. You will find no mention here of Jesus Christ or the Tao. Return of the God Hypothesis contains ample citations and bibliography, plus an additional 41 pages of notes in an online supplement. Meyer’s approach is rigorous and scholarly throughout, as befits a philosopher of science who earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge. He simply asserts, on the basis of careful study, that the God hypothesis provides a better fit to the evidence than atheism does.
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In the grand scheme of things, this is far from a fringe view. As Meyer explains, the materialist assumption—the convention that scientific explanation means explanation without recourse to God—has not always been part of the scientific method. It gained primacy after Darwin in order to facilitate scientific discovery. Today, the hegemony of the materialist assumption is complete. The textbooks presuppose it. The mainstream takes it for granted. But what if it is not true? Meyer argues that the materialist assumption now poses an obstruction to understanding, compelling scientists to embrace implausible and untestable hypotheses as a defense against the God hypothesis.
Meyer is not the first writer to recognize that science has bitten its own tail (to quote Nietzsche’s apt phrase in The Birth of Tragedy): that science has created dilemmas which cannot be answered by science. Nine years ago, New York University professor of philosophy Thomas Nagel published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Nagel, an atheist, noted that most materialists simply assume the universe consists of nothing more than matter, energy, space, and time. But this claim is an assumption, not a fact. Citing earlier work by Dr. Meyer among other sources, Nagel argued that the available evidence strongly suggests there must be a fifth element in the universe which Nagel called Mind, whether immanent or transcendent. Reviewing Meyer’s previous book, Darwin’s Doubt (2013), in these pages, Yale professor of computer science David Gelernter agreed that the current materialist assumptions regarding neo-Darwinian evolution simply can no longer stand in light of the overwhelming evidence (“Giving Up Darwin,” Spring 2019). Gelernter was pilloried in the popular media for praising Meyer’s book, even though Gelernter specifically disavowed intelligent design. But Gelernter and Nagel make a good case that religious zealotry, and a refusal to debate the facts honestly, now characterize Meyer’s opponents more than they do Meyer and his supporters.
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Meyer is careful to avoid any claim of proof. The God hypothesis is a hypothesis, not a proof. It should be considered as a possible explanation for our universe, alongside others such as multiple-universe theory. But if it’s just a hypothesis, then what does any of it matter? To answer this question, Meyer draws on his experience counseling troubled undergraduates as they face life’s biggest questions. If you believe the current default hypothesis that life is just a random accident signifying nothing, then that belief has existential consequences. Meyer describes undergraduates who see no point in anything because they have come to accept that existence is nothing but atoms and the void. As Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882): to deprive the world of its ambiguous (vieldeutigen) character, to deny even the possibility of supernatural meaning, is “to have existence debased to a mere couch-potato exercise for mathematicians.” If, on the other hand, you affirm the God hypothesis, then the universe reflects not mere random chance but the work and intention of a Creator. That belief, too, will have consequences for your own life—consequences which are more likely to inspire you to joy, or to wonder, where materialism tempts you to despair. If you take a middle road between those two positions, and acknowledge that the data can support the God hypothesis at least as well as the current materialist default, then that belief likewise will have consequences. The ambiguity of the evidence leaves you free to choose.
I commend Meyer’s book to those who believe science and religion are in conflict, and indeed to anyone seeking answers to the ultimate questions. Werner Heisenberg—discoverer of the “Uncertainty Principle” that bears his name—said that “the first drink from the cup of science makes you an atheist, but at the bottom of the cup, God awaits.” Meyer’s book takes you almost to the bottom of the cup.