Design in nature



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By Fr John Flader

28 July, 2013

I have recently become interested in the question of intelligent design in nature. That is, whether the universe just happened by chance to be the way it is or whether it had to have been designed by a supreme intelligence. Can you shed light on this question?

As you imply in your question, there are only two possible answers to the question. Either the universe just happened by chance, or it was given its form by a creator of supreme intelligence, who can only be God. Atheists, of course, subscribe to the view that everything came about by chance.

But if it did come about by chance we would expect to find only chaos, with random motion of bodies and a random purposeless structure of bodies that could not be comprehended and reduced to simple formulas by the human mind. In short, there would be no universal laws of nature that would give rise to sciences like physics and chemistry.

But in fact we find a structured universe with laws, like the law of gravity, that can be formulated mathematically and which are universally valid. This moved Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest scientist and one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, to observe: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He went on to say that he considered this comprehensibility “a miracle” or “an eternal mystery” and it moved him to believe in God: “My religion consists in a humble admiration of the superior unlimited spirit which is revealed in the minimal details which we are able to perceive with our fragile and weak minds. This conviction, deeply emotional, of the presence of a rational superior power which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God” (Letters to Solovine, New York 1987, p. 131).

One of St Thomas Aquinas’ five arguments for the existence of God is based precisely on order or purpose in nature. We see this purpose everywhere, especially in living things. The reproductive, digestive and immune systems of animals, es­pecially man, are a classic example. Here everything works together according to an admirable plan.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan, in his popular Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, explains this argument of St Thomas using the analogy of a camera, which has various parts all working together to produce a photograph. No one would say that the camera put itself together by chance. Yet the human eye is far more complex than a camera. It too must have been put together by an intelligent designer, who can only be God (Baronius Press 2009, pp. 31-33).

Sir Isaac Newton reflects this thinking in his Opticks, written in 1721: “How are the bodies of animals to be contrived with so much art, and for what ends were their natural parts? Was the eye contrived without skill in optics, and the ear without knowledge of sounds? … Does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent…?”

Another aspect of nature where we see incredible design is the living cell. Microbiologist Michael Denton, in his book Evolution, a Theory in Crisis, describes the complexity of even the tiniest of bacterial cells, weighing less than a trillionth of a gram, as “a veritable microminiaturised factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of 100 thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world” (Adler and Adler 1986, pp. 249-250).

Denton goes on to ask: “Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest elem­ent of which – a functional protein or gene – is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man?” (ibid.)

The very origin of life, its first appearance in the universe billions of years ago, is another clear argument for design. In the early 1980s, two non-believers, Sir Frederick Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, set out to calculate the probability of the first living organism putting itself together by chance in the earth’s atmosphere, starting from amino acids. They came up with the infinitessimal probability of one in 1040,000, and concluded that life could not possibly have arisen by chance. Hoyle famously compared the odds against the spontaneous formation of life with the odds of a tornado blowing through a junkyard producing a 747 jet (The Intelligent Universe, London 1983, p. 19). That led him to admit that life indeed needed a creator, whom he called a “super-intellect” in outer space.

So yes, there is evidence for design everywhere in nature. It was God who put it there.

Send your questions to Fr John Flader
c/- The Catholic Weekly
Level 8, Polding Centre,
133 Liverpool St, Sydney 2000

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