Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Design Argument

Today, I attended a lecture sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture by Stephen M. Barr, entitled The Argument from Design for the Existence of God and the Laws of Physics. He also wrote the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and writes occasionally for the Journal First Things. I was turned on to his writing by my Pastor (who also attended the lecture) and have started reading his book.

He started his talk by contrasting his views with the intelligent design view. He had recently wrote an article on the First Things internet site critiquing the Intelligent Design position. The idea is that intelligent design and atheism both see God and science an in competition. Intelligent Design relies on arguments from biology, whereas the Bible and early Christian writers (of which he quoted maybe 6) focused on astronomy and natural order, rather than on biological arguments. The idea is that order in the universe implies a lawgiver. Also, he pointed out that monotheism really ends in an expectation of a natural order, and that Judeo-Christian views have been positive to a scientific explanation of the world.

He then went on to define the three different types of design argument for the existence of God. The three were Cosmic, Biological, and Providential. The Cosmic argument relies on the beauty, order, and structure of the universe to argue for a creator. The Biological relies on bio-complexity. The providential is a midpoint between them. It sees order in the world as moving toward the "good" of creation. It sees and argues from a purpose in the universe and relies heavily on the anthropic principle. Both the cosmic and the biological can be weakened by arguments from atheists relying on simple Darwinism.

The rest of the talk focused on the "Cosmic" argument for the existence of God. Essentially the cosmic view sees the mathematical beauty of the physical world to point toward a creator. The theist would say that seeing an arrangement implies an arranger, aka God. The Law, that is the physical law, does not explain the necessity of the Law. It just is. Consider walking into a room, and seeing a room with a neat arrangement of chairs. Would you assume the arrangement occurred spontaneously or was deigned by some intelligence? The chairs follow a "law" but that is not a necessary law (they could have followed some other law/had some other arrangement). Some laws, however, are necessary; the fundamental laws of mathematics (1+1=2) and logic (a statement cannot be both true and false) are both examples.

The postulate was put forward that order cannot emerge if order is not already extant. If a bunch of hard spheres (marbles, for instance) are put in a box, they will settle into a hexagonal close packing arrangement. This arrangement has less symmetry than an individual sphere. Thus, order at higher levels, which we observe (think, crystals) emerge from even stronger order at deeper levels. All of this comes down from the symmetries we observe in nature, which drive the development of modern fundamental physical laws.

He concluded by critiquing Richard Dawkins. The argument of Dawkins and his ilk is that order builds up from disorder, a bottom up approach. This, Prof. Barr claims, is an illusion (rather than a delusion) which comes from a superficial understanding of science. A simplistic understanding of Science, as a zoologist might have, might think that this is the way the world works. Physics claims that lower order, which we observe, stems from a higher symmetry principle, which may or may not be part of our direct experience.

I was impressed. I have enjoyed the things I have read by Prof. Barr, and this talk beat expectations. I don't need a Cosmic design argument for the existence of God; I am a believer. Even ontological arguments, like that of Anselm, I don't need, but it is at least an idea which can be used to defend the reasonableness of the Theistic position. I look forward to finishing his book.

The above was taken mostly from my notes, but I have been reflecting on this and have a couple more thoughts to add. Professor Barr is a Physicist, this is important to remember. With this in mind, think about what a tough job he has. As a believer, he might be in the minority in his field. At the very least, the most vocal physicists in the question of Faith are the nonbelievers. Then, when he gives talks like this, as the Q&A session bore out, he will be attacked, or at least challenged/questioned on his philosophical and/or theological grounds. He's not a philosopher, nor is he a theologian, so to respond to those points will often be unfulfilling to those groups. He's not alone, but he is almost alone.


Christina said...

Thanks for this post, James. It sounds like it was an interesting talk, and I hate that I missed it. I don't think it was even on my radar, unfortunately.

I really like the events that the Center for Ethics and Culture puts on. It's always good stuff - thought-provoking and firmly rooted in Catholic thought.

James Garrison said...

It wasn't on mine either until this talk, and the high energy physics seminar he also gave earlier that day, were posted on the bulletin board in the department office Monday morning.