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Neil A.Manson (editor)


The teleological argument and modern science

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Argument from Design has a long history in Western thought and has often been one of the main reasons advanced to justify a belief in God. It has, however, been frequently criticised, notably by David Hume. So far as biology is concerned, most people today think design has been decisively discredited by Darwinism. Contrary to what was so often alleged, the appearance of design in the natural world is just that - appearance but nothing more.

If design is pretty well dead so far as biology is concerned, however, the same is not true of cosmology. Since the middle of the twentieth century it has been increasingly recognized, first, that the Universe began in the Big Bang, and second, that it has laws and properties that make it suitable for life but which apparently could easily have been quite different; even small changes in some of these values would have made it impossible for life to occur.

Although most scientists are reluctant to conclude from this that the Universe has been designed, it seems difficult to deny that it appears to have been designed, and theists have naturally taken up this idea and run with it. In the absence of any very obvious reason why the Universe should have the features that it does, such arguments can be hard to counter.

The editor of this book, Neil A.Manson, took the rather unusual step of including sections on the biological as well as the cosmological arguments, since he does not see why they should be treated differently. However, I don't think that the resultant discussion justifies this even-handedness.

The principal scientific spokesman on behalf of design in biology today is Michael Behe, and he duly figures here, with his well-known claim for what he calls irreducible complexity in nature which is inexplicable by Darwinism. However, this seems to me to amount to little more than what Richard Dawkins has memorably called the Argument from Personal Incredulity. In any case, Behe's position is thoroughly demolished in chapters by Kenneth R.Miller and Michael Ruse (who, it is interesting to note, does believe in God but for aesthetic rather than scientific reasons).

Another chapter in the biology section is by Simon Conway Morris, a Darwinian who believes in God. He puts forward his reasons for thinking that beings pretty much like humans would evolve anywhere in the universe where there is life, although he thinks the existence of life outside the Earth is very unlikely and we may even be alone. Unlike Behe, who carefully avoids explicitly stating that the Designer is God, Morris concludes with a frank plea for Christianity.

There are two sections on cosmology. In the first, Paul Davies puts forward his view that the Universe is really adapted for the production of life, including intelligent life, and that this tells us something important about the way it has evolved. He does not, however, conclude that there is evidence for a Creator. The second section looks at the idea that there are very many universes (multiverse), which has been espoused by, among others, Martin Rees, who contributes a chapter.

If there are innumerable universes, the argument goes, there will be some which, by chance, happen to have the right conditions for life, and of course ours has to be one of those, otherwise we would not be here. It's difficult not to feel that there is something of desperation in this recourse to multiplicity; and other contributors criticize the logic on which the multiverse solution to the problem is based.

The main trouble I find with this book as a whole is that its tone is extremely uneven. Davies, Rees, and one or two other contributors write for non-specialist readers, but the majority are professional philosophers and they seem be writing for fellow-academics. Much of this material is frankly pretty obscure to non-professionals (this non-professional, anyway); the language is often technical and is scarcely enlivened by the quite frequent use of formal symbolic notation. In other words, I don't think the editor has made a clear decision about whom the book is aimed at.

I didn't find that any great illuminations arose in my mind as a result of reading the book. It reinforced, if that were necessary, my conviction that Darwinism has decisively disproved the appearance of design in biology. As for cosmology, I already was aware that leading physicists today mostly concede that there is a case to be answered; we do not know why the universe has the properties it does or why these are so surprisingly favourable to life. But an explanation has already been found in the case of biology and it seems perfectly possible that it will eventually be found for cosmology as well.

14 December 2006

%T God Design
%S The teleological argument and modern science
%E Manson, Neil A.
%I Routledge
%C London and New York
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-415-26343-3
%P xvi + 376 pp
%K philosophy, science

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