Evidence for Design

The Complexity and Fine-Tuning of the Universe

(Isaiah 40:12-15, 21-23, 25-26)


It is widely assumed that the origin of the universe and life can be explained by random natural processes. But randomness can only account for loss of order and information, not for the existence of order and information in the first place. In this address, eighth in a series on ‘Beginnings’, given at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 7 May 2000, Rob Yule argues that the high information content and fine-tunedness of the universe are inexplicable without a supremely intelligent Creator as their cause.


A majestic passage in the prophecy of Isaiah has the Creator of the universe challenging his creatures, questioning them about his superior wisdom and power:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? . . .
Who has understood the mind of the Lord,
or instructed him as his counsellor? . . .
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
or showed him the path of understanding?

(Isaiah 40:12-14)

We could paraphrase, ‘Who set the universe’s parameters? Who instructed God, taught him knowledge, gave him information?’ God is not simply challenging us about his power, his superior ability. He is drawing attention to his wisdom, his superior intelligence. How vastly superior to ours is only today being fully appreciated, as modern scientific discoveries reveal the astonishing complexity of the universe and of living organisms.

This complexity can be best brought out by asking further questions. What is intelligent design? How would we recognise if it was present in the universe? These are fundamental philosophical questions, widely ignored till recently, but now emerging as a leading area of contemporary inquiry, and promising a new partnership between science and theology.


How do we Detect Intelligent Design?

The issue of what constitutes intelligent design was first raised by the SETI programme, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Scanning the heavens with the 305 meter-wide radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico, NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey can survey more than eight million radio channels for possible intelligible signals from space. In 1992, the United States Congress assigned US$100 million for this project - money Senator William Proxmire suggested would be better spent searching for intelligent life in Washington!

SETI’s radio receivers and computers are programmed to intercept messages if they contain prime numbers. The assumption is that reception of prime numbers would constitute evidence of intelligent communication - as opposed to random or naturally-occurring noise, such as the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation or radio emissions from pulsars. So far, no such messages have been found. ‘It would be nice if they sent something obvious, like the digits of pi’, a woman scientist on the programme remarked wistfully to the National Geographic, in an issue which showed a photo of a bored technician yawning in front of a computer screen (January 1994, p. 39).

There is a paradox in this. If such a simple deviation from randomness as the occurrence of prime numbers would satisfy SETI scientists that extraterrestrial life exists in the universe, why should not far greater evidence of complexity and intelligent design be allowed to constitute evidence for the existence of a Creator of the universe?


What Does Chance Explain?

Contrary to the common assumption of naturalistic evolution, chance cannot explain order. Chance can account for randomness and disorder. But order always points to the involvement of a purposeful and intelligent mind or personal agent who arranged the order in the first place.

The great philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, describes seeing a railway station pebble garden on the English-Welsh border reading ‘WELCOME TO WALES BY BRITISH RAILWAYS’. Such a sign indicates the initiative of a thoughtful and friendly border station master. Chance or randomness could only explain the disarrangement and loss of order if the pebble garden ceased to be cared for. ‘Randomness alone cannot produce a significant pattern’, says Polanyi. It cannot explain how that order got there in the first place. (Personal Knowledge [London, Routledge, 1962], pp. 33-40).

A little reflection will show that this disqualifies naturalistic evolution as an explanation of the origin of an ordered system. Undirected, purposeless, random processes cannot account for the high information content and evidence of order we find in our universe as a whole and in even the simplest living organisms. Empirical confirmation of this comes from the observation that naturally occurring mutations in living organisms are only regressive not progressive, leading to loss of form or function, not to the initial achievement of form or function. Chance can explain loss of order or information, but only intelligent design can explain how that order or information came to be there in the first place.


What Counts as Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design (ID) is a significant new educational and cultural movement, based on modern information theory, that is seeking to reinstate the category of intelligent design in science and philosophy. Its leader is William Dembski, who defines intelligent design as ‘specified complexity.’

Briefly, intelligent design infers that an intelligent cause is responsible for an effect if the effect is both complex and specified. A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex. A long sentence of random letters is complex without being specified. A Shakespearian sonnet is both complex and specified. We infer design by identifying specified complexity. (Intelligent Design: the Bridge between Science and Theology [Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1999], p. 47).

Something specified without being complex, like the letter Y, might occur randomly in nature (a forked twig, for example), or be an accident of nature (three twigs fallen in a pattern). Something complex but unspecified (like the following string of random letters) could be the doodling of an infant on a computer keyboard (TYBRLOEURE). But those same ten letters ordered by intelligent design reflect both specificity and complexity:


Specified complexity - or as Dembski calls it, complex specified information (CSI) - is how we detect design in everyday life. The sixteen digit number on our VISA cards is an example of CSI. The complexity of this number ensures that a would-be thief cannot randomly pick a number and access your VISA account. Our telephone number, Inland Revenue number, car registration number, driver’s licence number, all represent CSI. As Dembski says, ‘CSI makes the world go round.’ (Intelligent Design, pp. 159-60).

Specified complexity offers a new approach for scientists to distinguish design and intentionality from chance and randomness in the universe and living organisms. It enables the setting of a probability threshold beyond which chance is not acceptable as an explanation. The French mathematician Emile Borel proposed 10-50 as a universal probability bound below which chance could definitely be precluded. (Probabilities and Life [New York, Dover, 1962], p. 28). That represents 166 bits of computer information. Dembski himself prefers a more stringent universal probability bound of 10-150, based on the number of elementary particles in the universe, the duration of the universe until its heat death, and Planck time (Intelligent Design, p. 166). This translates to 500 bits of information. Anything beyond that threshold cannot reasonably be attributed to chance.


How Do Complex Systems Evolve?

A major difficulty for evolutionary theory is that it requires the slow, piece by piece, acquiring of morphological changes for systems that cannot work unless all of the component parts are assembled together as a whole. These are what biochemist Michael Behe calls ‘irreducibly complex systems’, systems displaying irreducible complexity. Behe illustrates this with reference to a simple domestic mousetrap, comprising five fundamental parts - the platform or base, the spring, the hammer, the catch or bait holder, and the holding bar. Each of these parts must have what he calls ‘minimal function’, the physical strength or characteristics to accomplish the task. And every one of these five parts must be present for the mousetrap to work. It cannot be assembled as a functional piece of equipment just one part at a time. (Darwin’s Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution [New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996], pp. 39-46).

Examples of irreducible complexity in living organisms are the major functional organs of birds or animals, such as wings or eyes, which have been widely discussed in evolutionary literature. An even more astounding example of irreducible complexity is the DNA in the cell nucleus. Many functions must happen simultaneously and harmoniously, not piecemeal bit by bit, if cell function is to occur normally. A dozen sophisticated proteins are needed to prise apart the two strands of DNA, to align the copying machinery at the right place, to stitch the nucleotides together into a string, to insert the copy back into the DNA, and much much more.

One of the most surprising examples of irreducible complexity discovered in recent years by microbiologists is the propulsion system of some bacteria. We are inclined to think of bacteria as simple organisms. In 1973 it was discovered that some bacteria swim by rotating their flagellum - a long, hair-like filament embedded in the cell membrane, which spins like the propeller of a reversible inboard motor. Studies using electron microscopes have discovered that the motor has similar elements to man-made electric motors: a rotor (a rotating part) and a stator (the stationary component). Michael Behe says the flagellum motor was a ‘startling, unexpected discovery’. A good example of an irreducibly complex system, it has been the subject of thousands of papers since its discovery, but not a single scientist has ever published an explanation of how such an elaborate molecular machine might have evolved (Darwin’s Black Box, pp. 70-73).

To explain the origin of this organism by Darwinian evolution, from a bacterium without a flagellum, beggars the mind. The flagellum requires more than forty proteins, each necessary for it to function. How can chance modifications generate all forty proteins, and selection preserve them, in the space of just one generation? Moreover, as Dembski points out (Intelligent Design, p. 178), the complex specified information of a flagellum far exceeds 500 bits, well beyond what might be explained by reference to chance and random processes. In Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species, discussing ‘Organs of Extreme Perfection’, Darwin wrote: ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.’ The humble bacterium flagellum would appear to be just such an instance.


Could Life Exist Elsewhere in the Universe?

Much evidence for the design of the universe has been gathered in the last thirty five years. In the mid nineteen sixties I remember disagreeing with my theology professor, who questioned the value of the argument from design, represented by William Paley’s early nineteenth century classic, Natural Theology (1802). In dissenting from his view I pointed to the ‘freeze-fry factor’ - that a small change in Earth’s distance from the sun would destroy all life on Earth, freezing if it was further away or evaporating if it was nearer all liquid water without which life cannot exist.

In 1967 when I made that remark, astrobiology did not exist, and very little had been done by scientists to examine the physical parameters within which life can exist. Since then it has become a burgeoning area of scientific research, led paradoxically, by the quest of secular scientists like Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, John Barrow and Frank Tipler to find suitable habitats in the universe where life might have arisen by natural means. Since then more than fifty five parameters have been identified, showing the narrow limits within which life can exist, and providing astonishing evidence of the fine-tunedness of the universe to support life on Earth.

The first parameter to be measured was the universe’s expansion rate. If the universe had expanded too rapidly, matter would have dispersed too much to form galaxies. Our Milky Way, solar system, and home planet Earth would not have formed. But if the universe had expanded too slowly, matter would have clumped and entered gravitational collapse before any burning stars could form. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross points out that the universe’s expansion rate is so delicately balanced for life to exist that it cannot differ more than one part in 1055 from the actual rate (The Creator and the Cosmos, 2nd ed. [Colorado Springs, Colorado, NavPress, 1995], p. 116). That is so precise that it has been compared to throwing a dart across the entire universe and hitting the bullseye on a dartboard!


What Are the Odds for Life on Earth?

In their book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (New York, Copernicus, 2000), astrobiologists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee argue that the Moon, the planet Jupiter, the Solar System’s position in the Milky Way, and a host of other special conditions make Earth probably the only environment in the universe suitable for human life. ‘Almost all the environments in the universe are terrible for life,’ Brownlee told the New York Times. ‘It’s only Garden of Eden places like the Earth where it can exist.’

Brownlee and Ward point, for example, to the planet Jupiter (pp. 235-42). Jupiter’s orbit is remarkably stable, and nearly circular. Otherwise, our Solar System would be torn apart by Jupiter’s massive gravitational forces. Other recently discovered Jupiter-like gas giants elsewhere in the universe have surprised astronomers by exhibiting wildly eccentric or highly elliptical paths. Such orbits would be destructive to any small Earth-sized planets in their path. On the other hand, it is now being realised that Jupiter’s immense size protects the Earth. With its great mass, 318 times greater than the Earth’s, and resultant massive gravity, Jupiter intercepts comets, meteorites and other inter-stellar material that might otherwise - as in the movie Armageddon - collide destructively with our home planet. It seems that Greek mythology was wrong. Jove does not hurl thunderbolts at us; it protects us from them!

Rare Earth has stirred controversy in the scientific community because it challenges the conventional wisdom that the universe is just a product of random natural processes, and that there are plenty of other habitats for life out there. If dozens of conditions - such as the shape of Jupiter’s orbit or its mass - need to be precisely specified for human life to exist, might that not be evidence for divine design? Brownlee and Ward are agnostics, but some reviewers are complaining that their view that our planet is unique lends support to theism.

The individual parameters for life are impressive enough, for without any one of them life on Earth would be impossible. Taken cumulatively, they provide overwhelming evidence for divine design, more than satisfying the most rigorous probability bounds. ‘The more accurately and extensively astronomers measure the universe,’ says Hugh Ross, ‘the more finely tuned they discover it to be. . . . the degree of fine-tuning is utterly amazing - far beyond what human endeavours can accomplish.’ (The Creator and the Cosmos, p. 118).

Ross has calculated the probability of all 55 parameters now known to be necessary for life support occurring simultaneously to be less than one in 1069 - ‘much less than one chance in one hundred billion trillion trillion trillion’ that even one such planet would occur anywhere in the universe (‘Big Bang Model Refined by Fire’, in William Dembski, ed., Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design [Downers Grove, Illinios, InterVarsity Press, 1998], pp. 371-82). Contemporary science thus provides overwhelming evidence that our Earth and universe are the result of supremely intelligent design - far beyond what humans are capable of, just as the prophet Isaiah said.


© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church