Is the universe imbued with any objective meaning, goal, or purpose? Is God behind the curtain, or is the Temple of the Cosmos empty? In the 1970s physicist Steven Weinberg reflected that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Yet, a decade later another physicist, Paul Davies, concluded that “the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly” that “the universe must have a purpose” and “the purpose includes us.”
Going back as early as Socrates, the question of cosmic purpose, or teleology, has persisted as one of the most intuitive philosophical pathways to arrive at knowledge of God.
Instances of purpose point to agency and intelligence. If there is a Mind behind the design of the cosmos, then this raises the prospect of a transcendent creator.
Cosmic design and Hume’s skepticism
Considering the ancient Stoic argument from design, Cicero asks: “How can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including artifacts [such as sundials and water-clocks] and their artificers?” Over 1700 years later, Isaac Newton concurred: “This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”
The exemplary skeptic David Hume, however, was not convinced. Voicing his philosophical objections in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume’s case against the teleological argument takes aim at Cicero, Aquinas, and Newton’s analogy between the whole world and individual “productions of human contrivance.” Critiquing the conclusion that the universe and human machines are alike in having an intelligent designer, Hume finds the analogy too weak to support the inference. The world is just as likely due to chance or “due to generation or vegetation,” says Hume, “than reason or design.” Beyond this, Hume submits that the whole analogical enterprise fails, due to the fact that there is only one universe. Since we have no knowledge or experience of other universes, or how the universe is formed, we cannot compare the construction of universes with that of human artifacts.
Even if the resemblance between the universe and human artifacts would justify one in thinking that they have similar causes, Hume argues that it would still not justify the belief that there exists an almighty, perfect, and good God who created the world. “This world, for all we know,” says Hume “is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it.” There is thus nothing in the teleological argument that would warrant the inference that the Creator of the universe is perfectly intelligent or good. Indeed, asks Hume, why would we be justified in thinking even that there is just one deity: “what shadow of an argument… can you produce from your hypothesis to prove the unity of the Deity?”
Paley’s cosmic temple
The Locus classicus of the teleological approach to God is William Paley’s Natural Theology—which was written a generation after Hume’s criticisms of the design argument were posthumously published. Paley constructed his case in such a way as to elude Hume’s principal criticisms and to explicitly respond to them. Paley’s argument for design involved drawing a parallel between a watch (an object that is obviously ordered for a particular function or purpose) and particular items in the world (such as the eye of an animal). Paley’s version of the teleological argument intentionally did not involve the world considered as a whole. Instead, Paley contended that biological life—and the intricately complex structures that such life is composed of—exhibit design. Because such instances of design surround us at every glance, the cosmos is akin to a great temple, reflecting the Creator’s beauty, power, and glory.
Darwin’s Newtonian designer
It is well known that Darwin’s magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, was a direct response to Paley’s Natural Theology. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection offered a way in which nature could form purpose-directed organisms through a gradual process that had no ultimate purpose in mind, apart from mating and survival.
In Darwin’s view, the path from simple life forms to more complex ones is a gradual and non-purposive, non-goal-oriented process of trial and error.
For Darwin, all specific instances of seeming design “follow from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle, variations, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species…will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring.”
Darwin maintained that history and chance played a major role in the generation of biological variation. Yet, at the same time, he questioned whether such variation was really based on a type of chance that was opposed to a deeper type of design. Ultimately Darwin argued that such “chance” was simply human ignorance of the deeper Newtonian-type laws, and he believed that behind natural selection existed a kind of predictive determinism where “the variations of each creature are determined by fixed and immutable laws.”
As Darwin explains in the first edition of On the Origin of Species: “I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations—so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature—had been due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.”
Maxwell’s atomic designer
By the time James Clerk Maxwell arrived at Cambridge University, Paley’s natural theology had essentially become synonymous with the teleological argument. Maxwell, however, had a quite different approach to design. For the great unifier of the physics of electricity, magnetism, and light, “the uniformity of nature itself was evidence for a divine creator.”
A universe in which natural laws were uniform and regular, affirmed Maxwell, was one that was clearly designed to be that way. As Maxwell explains:
“Uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan are as important attributes as the contrivance of the special utility of each individual thing.”
Maxwell affirmed that cosmic “uniformity is intended and accomplished by the same Wisdom and Power,” and he believed that the divine image in humanity enabled humans to comprehend that unity and lawful nature of the world. Seeing “every atom of creation as unfathomable in its perfection,” Maxwell held that the “ordered uniformity of nature” is a sign of the Creator. Because, for Maxwell, “uniformity implies manufacture,” the uniformity of atoms thus implies that they were designed. Maxwell stressed that the path to this conclusion was “strictly scientific” but it ultimately led to “the point at which Science must stop” because “science is incompetent to reason upon the creation of matter itself out of nothing.”
A fine-tuned cosmic temple or meaningless multiverse?
While Hume believed that we could never have knowledge about the formation of universes, 21st century physicists would beg to differ. Beginning in the late twentieth century, cosmologists were increasingly struck by the fact that the initial conditions of the big bang, the laws of physics, and fundamental physical constants (such as the values for the speed of light and the strength of gravity) seem to be “fine-tuned” in such a way as to encourage the existence and development of complex intelligent life. To explain the present state of the universe, current scientific theories require that the physical constants of nature and the beginning state of the universe needed to have extremely precise values. Many physicists have pondered the intentional design hypothesis as an explanation for cosmic fine-tuning.
Rejecting Hume’s assumption that there is only one universe, many who are anxious to undermine the potential theological significance of fine-tuning in the universe have adopted the multiverse hypothesis. Appearing to avoid any need for design by some sort of super-cosmic being, the multiverse hypothesis posits that a possible explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos is that our own universe is a lucky result from among a countless number of universes generated within an infinite multiverse.
As Stephen Hawking explained: “A bottom-up approach to cosmology either requires one to postulate an initial state of the Universe that is carefully ﬁne-tuned—as if prescribed by an outside agency—or it requires one to invoke the mighty speculative notion of the generation of many different Universes.”
Both explanations, says cosmologist George Ellis, require a leap of faith, and the “degree of faith required to believe in a multiverse” is no more or less “than that required to believe in a creator God.” Because there is a “lack of conclusive evidence in both cases, the degree of faith required to believe in either is the same ….Both can be argued on the basis of reasonable extrapolation from known data. Neither is in fact provable.”
Chaos or cosmos?
Is the universe characterized by blind, pitiless indifference, or is it a cosmos teeming with unity, beauty, and purpose? Perhaps telos, like beauty, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. “The argument from design,” explain Johan De Smedt and Helen de Cruz, “stands as one of the most intuitively compelling arguments for the existence of a divine creator,” but some will always “find the design argument more compelling than others” because there are “differences in the prior probability people place on the existence of a divine designer.”
Those who begin with a belief in a designer may always find countless instances of evidence to support their case, while those who take a leap of faith in the opposite direction may remain unconvinced till they reach the furthest boundary of the infinite multiverse.