My initial posting prompted some excellent and thought-provoking comments and challenges, so I thought I would address some of them here in Q&A form since these topics should be of special interest to readers of this blog.
Comment: “If you could hypothetically adjust one of the cosmological constants to destroy all life then there’s no guarantee that you wouldn’t have a new form of life evolve…”
Response: As it turns out, when these constants are adjusted in either direction by the slightest amount, the process of the universe derails so catastrophically that life of any kind would be impossible. You end up with a universe full of nothing but hydrogen and therefore no chemistry, or no stars and therefore no heavy elements, or stars that burn too hot and too rapidly, or a universe that immediately collapses back upon itself (the list is huge). Cosmological fine-tuning (sometimes referred to as the anthropic coincidences) was first brought to the attention of the public by Brandon Carter in the 1970s. Since then a vast literature has appeared, and the “coincidences” continue to accumulate.
On this subject, Michael Denton has written an extremely interesting and compelling book, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. In this tour de force masterpiece Denton explores how anthropic coincidences are now being discovered in biology (the unusual properties of water, carbon, visible light and much more, which must be precisely as they are for living things to exist and function).
Could all of this just be coincidence? Sure, but as the number of coincidences continues to grow in ever more areas, conspiracy certainly seems to become a more plausible explanation than coincidence. Of course, we wouldn’t be here if the universe were not compatible with life, but this requires hypothesizing about an infinitude of in-principle undetectable alternate universes, and alternate-universe-generating machinery. Design seems to be a more reasonable and rational conclusion to me. Human minds appear to be very well designed to detect design, so why not let this be the default position until compelling evidence tells us otherwise?
Comment: “I don’t believe that anyone knows (scientifically) or proposes to know the origin of the universe, or if ‘material did not exist prior to the origin of the universe? at which time neither matter, energy, space nor time existed.’ If you’re referring to the Big Bang then we still don’t know what came before, but assume (scientifically) that it was natural.”
Response: The origin of space, time, matter and energy at the birth of the universe is well established in theoretical physics, and there is a vast literature on this. (Of course, this could turn out to be wrong, just like blind-watchmaker evolutionary theory is turning out to be wrong, but the evidence seems to be compelling. I won’t invoke scientific consensus because science is not about consensus.) We could arbitrarily define whatever came “before” the physical universe, if anything, as “natural,” but this would completely redefine and render meaningless what is meant by a materialistic or naturalistic cause.
By the way, the reason for the quotation marks around the words “before” and “prior” is that it makes no sense to talk about a time prior to the origin of time. This point will be relevant to another response below.
In order for there to be a materialistic or naturalistic explanation for something, you need material and nature (matter, energy and their interaction). Therefore, there cannot, by definition, be a materialistic or naturalistic explanation for the origin of the physical universe. This leads to an interesting observation. What is a miracle? A dictionary definition is “an event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature” — that is, an event with no naturalistic explanation or cause. Since the laws of nature came into existence along with the universe, the origin of the universe is, again by definition, a miracle, and on the grandest scale imaginable.
Comment: “Abiogenesis wouldn’t be receiving any funding if this [origin-of-life research being in a state of complete paradigm meltdown] were the case.”
Response: The philosophy of scientific naturalism demands that there *must* be a purely materialistic explanation for the origin of life, therefore the funding, no matter how dismal the situation or the prospects of success. By the way, I think this research should be funded. A lot may be learned, and basic research can lead to unanticipated useful results in unexpected areas. However, I’m putting my money on perpetually frustrated efforts to find a purely materialistic explanation for the origin of life, for the simple reason that the explanatory categories in question (matter, energy, chemistry, physics, time, chance, etc.) lack the causative power to do what is being demanded of them. No one will ever invent a perpetual-motion machine, because the law of conservation of energy won’t permit it. If laws governing conservation of information operate as Bill Dembski has made a compelling case that they do, looking for a materialistic explanation for the origin of complex specified information in living systems will also be endlessly frustrated.
SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), has also received a lot of funding, even though there is not a shred of evidence that ETs exist. This research is predicated upon another naturalistic assumption and philosophy, a “Copernican principle” called the principle of mediocrity, which says that our planet, sun and galaxy are nothing special, so the universe must be teeming with life. As it turns out, the principle of mediocrity is rapidly being discredited. (By the way, Don Brownlee, coauthor of the seminal book, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, is also the principal investigator for the recent Stardust spacecraft mission. Our company just successfully performed the Stardust reentry retrieval mission.)
Comment: “Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of people claim that a designer would need to have a designer. I was wondering if you’ve ever considered the question.”
Response: Yes I have. It is perfectly possible to make a valid design inference with no knowledge of the origin or nature of the designer. We can reliably infer that Stonehenge was designed, with no knowledge of where those who designed it came from.
However, the case of the design of the universe (for which I believe there is overwhelming scientific evidence) prompts an interesting observation. Because time itself had a beginning at the birth of the universe, it is meaningless to ask about the origin of the designer, just as it is meaningless to talk about a time prior to the beginning of time.