Book ‘Return of the God Hypothesis’ by Stephen C. Meyer

Read excerpt PDF 'Return of the God Hypothesis' Book by Stephen C. Meyer
Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe
The New York Times bestselling author of Darwin’s Doubt presents groundbreaking scientific evidence of the existence of God, based on breakthroughs in physics, cosmology, and biology. Beginning in the late 19th century, many intellectuals began to insist that scientific knowledge conflicts with traditional theistic belief — that science and belief in God are “at war.” Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer challenges this view by examining three scientific discoveries with decidedly theistic implications. Building on the case for the intelligent design of life that he developed in Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer demonstrates how discoveries in cosmology...
Publisher: HarperOne (March 30, 2021)  Language: English  Hardcover: 576 pages  ISBN-10: 0062071505  ISBN-13: 978-0062071507  ASIN: B07G122JJN

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Book excerpt


It was a public speaker’s nightmare unfolding at a most inauspicious time. Eighteen minutes into my opening statement in a debate with physicist Lawrence Krauss, America’s most prominent scientific atheist, I suddenly found I could no longer read my own PowerPoint slides. The brightly colored swirls, or “auras”—for me a telltale sign of the onset of a debilitating migraine—had begun to fill my visual field as I looked out through the blaze of lights behind the video cameras in a packed auditorium at the University of Toronto.

Intense light had often been a common migraine trigger for me, and it certainly was on that night in March 2016. As the auras spread, I began having trouble seeing not only the quotations and scientific diagrams on my slides, but Professor Krauss himself and the audience as well. Other neurological symptoms—numbness in my fingers and tongue, my voice echoing in my own head, and a difficulty finding words (aphasia)—followed predictably in rapid succession.

I was able to make it through the remaining seven minutes of my presentation by speaking more slowly and deliberately than I usually do and in some cases by using less technical words. But as I descended from the podium and was taken to a dark room, I felt both disoriented and disappointed. I realized it would now be difficult for me to say much in the ensuing roundtable (following a third speaker) about the main question of the forum, the one I specifically came to discuss.

I was able to make it through the remaining seven minutes of my presentation by speaking more slowly and deliberately than I usually do and in some cases by using less technical words. But as I descended from the podium and was taken to a dark room, I felt both disoriented and disappointed. I realized it would now be difficult for me to say much in the ensuing roundtable (following a third speaker) about the main question of the forum, the one I specifically came to discuss.

The organizers of the forum had chosen the topic: “What’s Behind It All? God, Science, and the Universe.” Professor Krauss, then of Arizona State University, and I were a logical match to discuss this question from opposing points of view. Indeed, he and I had debated twice before, and I had often debated other scientific atheists during the preceding decade.

Krauss, who spoke first, had a reputation not only as an accomplished physicist, but also as a bold and outspoken controversialist—one with a talent for explaining scientific ideas to popular audiences. He is also well known for his provocative thesis that quantum physics can explain how the universe came into being from nothing. But that evening he didn’t begin with a defense of that position. Instead, he began by declaring the topic of the forum unworthy of reflection and by characterizing me as unworthy of engagement. Indeed, he began the debate indulging in nearly ten minutes of what his boisterous supporters clearly regarded as deliciously personal invective, denouncing both me and, by extension, the organizers of the forum.

“If you appear on stage with someone talking about these ideas, it gives the impression that the ideas are worth debating or that the person is worth debating,” Professor Krauss declared. “In this case, neither is true.”¹

When a rival in debate descends to ad hominem argument, I usually find myself surprised at his willingness to waste allotted time. Audiences typically find insults masquerading as arguments unpersuasive. Moreover, in a debate it usually takes little to defang such tactics beyond pointing them out. That night, however, Krauss’s celebrity status had attracted hundreds of raucous supporters who laughed loudly at his punch lines, leaving me with the impression that an appeal to reason alone might not win the evening. As I began to speak, I pointed out that Krauss had provided little evidence to support his critique of my views, and still less in support of his own. Ordinarily, I might have also made light of his use of the ad hominem tactic, but on that night humor escaped me as my neurological distress grew progressively more acute while standing before a large audience in the auditorium and an estimated sixty thousand people watching online.

I had accepted the challenge of the debate in part to explain my own position about what science can tell us about the existence of God. This is, needless to say, an ultimate question and a subject of urgent concern for many thoughtful people. It is an important topic, as even many atheists would agree, and deserves a serious response. And although I sought to offer one that night, after the migraine set in I knew my ability to do so would be significantly limited—though, as it turned out, the cloud of my diminished condition would come with a silver lining.

For the debate I had planned, first, to explain my core argument for the intelligent design of life and then, in the ensuing discussion, to address a question I am often asked: “Who is the intelligent designer that you think is responsible for life?” I also meant to address a closely related question: “What does scientific evidence imply about the existence of God?”— or as the organizers of the forum put it: “What lies behind it all?”

Krauss answers that question with an emphatic “Nothing”— or at least nothing but the laws of physics. Though he denounces philosophy as a vacuous enterprise, he publicly advocates a philosophy that scholars call scientific materialism—an atheistic worldview affirmed by those who claim that science undermines belief in God.

Like other worldviews, scientific materialism attempts to answer some basic questions about ultimate reality—questions about human nature, morality and ethics, the basis of human knowledge, and even what happens to human beings at death. Most fundamentally, scientific materialism offers an answer to the question, “What is the entity or the process from which everything else came?”

Scientific materialists have traditionally answered that question by affirming that matter, energy, and/or the laws of physics are the entities from which everything else came and that those entities have existed from eternity past as the uncreated foundation of all that exists. Matter, energy, and physical laws are, therefore, viewed by materialists as self-existent.

Similarly, materialists hold that matter and energy organized themselves by various strictly naturalistic processes to produce all the complex forms of life we see today. This means scientific materialists also deny that a creator or designing intelligence played any role in the origin of the universe or life. Because materialists think that matter and energy are the foundational realities from which all else comes,¹ they deny the existence of immaterial entities such as God, free will, the human soul, and even the human mind conceived as an entity in some way distinct from the physiological processes at work in the brain.

Materialism is a venerable worldview with a long history going back to ancient Greece. It has had many prominent intellectual proponents, including Democritus, Thomas Hobbes, Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Bertrand Russell, and Francis Crick.

In recent years, powerful voices have popularized scientific materialism. Beginning about 2006 a group of scientists and philosophers known as the New Atheists ignited a worldwide publishing sensation. A series of bestselling books, led by Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, argued that science properly understood undermines belief in God. Other books—by Victor Stenger, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Hawking, and Krauss himself—followed suit.

In 2014 the Fox and National Geographic television networks aired a revamped version of a famous 1980 series with physicist Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The new series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, began by replaying the audio of Sagan’s memorable materialistic creed from the original series: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”³

The New Atheists and other science popularizers have explained the basis of their skepticism about the existence of God with admirable clarity. According to Dawkins and others, the evidence of design in living organisms long provided the best reason to believe in the existence of God, because it appealed to publicly accessible scientific evidence. But since Darwin, Dawkins insists, scientists have known that there is no evidence of actual design, only the illusion or “appearance” of design in life. According to Dawkins and many other neo-Darwinian biologists, the evolutionary mechanism of mutation and natural selection has the power to mimic a designing intelligence without itself being designed or guided in any way. And since random mutation and natural selection—what Dawkins calls the “blind watchmaker” mechanism—can explain away all “appearances” of design in life, it follows that belief in a designing intelligence at work in the history of life is completely unnecessary.

Although Dawkins allows that it is still possible that a deity might exist, he insists there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a being, rendering belief in God effectively “delusional.” Popular TV figure Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” has echoed this perspective. In his book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, he says, “Perhaps there is intelligence in charge of the universe, but Darwin’s theory shows no sign of it, and has no need of it.”

Consequently, as Dawkins concluded in an earlier work: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” 6 Another New Atheist, philosopher Daniel Dennett, gives an evolutionary account of the origin of religious belief in his book Breaking the Spell, one that ultimately attributes belief in God to a cognitive impulse programmed into us by the evolutionary process rather than a rational or evidentially based system of belief. Thus, for those who know this, Darwinism functions as a “universal acid” eating away at any basis for religious belief and traditional religious-based morality.

Other New Atheists, including Lawrence Krauss (see Fig. 1.1b ), say that physics renders belief in God unnecessary. Krauss contends that the laws of quantum physics explain how the universe came into existence from literally nothing. Consequently, he argues, it is completely unnecessary, even irrational, to invoke a creator to explain the origin of the universe.

Stephen Hawking, formerly of the University of Cambridge and until his death in 2018 the world’s best-known scientist, made a similar argument. In his book The Grand Design, coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow, he argues that “because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” Thus, for Hawking, “it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” The late Victor Stenger made similar arguments in his poignantly titled book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

All this high-profile science-based skepticism about God has percolated into the popular consciousness. Recent polling data indicate that in North America and Europe, the perceived message of science has played an outsized role in the loss of belief in God. In one poll, more than two-thirds of self-described atheists and one-third of self-described agnostics affirm that “the findings of science make the existence of God less probable.” According to the same survey, the two most influential scientific ideas that have affected people’s loss of faith are unguided chemical evolution (of the origin of life) and unguided biological evolution (of the development of life). According to these surveys, these two ideas have led more people to reject faith in God than has suffering from disease or death.

Other polls have shown a dramatic rise in the group pollsters call “the nones”—religiously unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheistic respondents—among college and postcollege young people in the eighteen to thirty-three age range. 11 The rapid growth of this group occurred precisely during the recent decade in which the New Atheists have gained prominence. Indeed, there are many indications—from personal interviews, public opinion polls, and website testimonials—that college students in particular have been deeply influenced by the message of the New Atheists; many of these students now cite arguments similar to those made by Dawkins, Krauss, Dennett, and Hitchens as their main reasons for rejecting faith in God.

These developments have a particular poignancy and interest for me for two reasons—both of which help to explain why I agreed to debate Krauss in 2016 and why I’ve chosen to write this book. First, I have long been interested in the question of biological origins. Over the last decade I have written two books arguing that living systems exhibit evidence of intelligent design. Whereas Richard Dawkins contends that living systems merely “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,” I have argued that certain features of living systems—in particular, the digitally encoded information present in DNA and the complex circuitry and information-processing systems at work in living cells—are best explained by the activity of an actual designing intelligence. Just as the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone point to the activity of an ancient scribe and the software in a computer program points to a programmer, I’ve argued that the digital code discovered within the DNA molecule suggests the activity of a designing mind in the origin of life.

Nevertheless, in making my case for intelligent design, I have been careful not to claim more than the biological evidence alone can justify. In my previous books, I did not attempt to identify the designing intelligence responsible for the origin of the information present in living organisms or to prove the existence of God. After all, though I don’t hold this view, it is at least logically possible that a preexisting intelligent agent somewhere else within the cosmos (i.e., not God) might have designed life and “seeded” it here on earth, as scientists who advocate a view known as “panspermia” have suggested.

Instead, I have simply argued that the information present in DNA suggests the prior creative activity of an intelligent agent of some kind, as opposed to an exclusively blind or undirected natural process such as random mutation and natural selection. Despite this limited claim, my explanation for the appearance of design still places me at odds with the New Atheists. Even so, though they and I have adopted diametrically opposed explanations for the appearance of design, we have focused our explanatory efforts on the exact same phenomenon of interest.

And that leads to the second, and perhaps more important, reason for my interest in what I call the God hypothesis. The New Atheists pose the question of what the evidence from the natural world as a whole shows about the existence (or nonexistence) of God. My readers evidently share an interest in that question. Many, upon encountering my argument for the intelligent design of life, have written asking a series of questions of roughly the following form: “If there is scientific evidence of the activity of a designing intelligence, then what kind of a designing mind are we talking about? An intelligent agent within the cosmos or beyond? An immanent or a transcendent intelligence? A space alien? Or God?”

Since my previous two books led inevitably to such questions, it has increasingly seemed a natural next step for me to explore what science can tell us about them and about the possible existence of God.

Slow to Speak

The debate in Toronto and its aftermath sealed my decision to address this subject in a book-length treatment. In the debate, I was able to explain my basic case for intelligent design in biology. Nevertheless, my migraine-addled state made it difficult for me to say much about the larger question of what science could tell us about God, as I had hoped to do in the ensuing discussion.

Nevertheless, one advantage of not being able to speak well, or only being able to speak slowly and deliberately, is that it forces you to say the most important things and to do so succinctly. I have a friend with Tourette syndrome who stutters and sometimes finds it difficult to work his way into fast-moving conversations. As a result he often blurts out incredibly pithy insights that distill the essence of a topic in a few words, sometimes to the amazement of friends. Something similar happened for me that night.

During the last five or ten minutes of the debate, as my symptoms started to dissipate, but only just, the moderator asked us to summarize our perspective on what science could tell us about “what lies behind it all.” I found myself briefly describing three key scientific discoveries that I thought jointly supported theistic belief—what I call “the return of the God hypothesis”: (1) evidence from cosmology suggesting that the material universe had a beginning; (2) evidence from physics showing that from the beginning the universe has been “finely tuned” to allow for the possibility of life; and (3) evidence from biology establishing that since the beginning large amounts of new functional genetic information have arisen in our biosphere to make new forms of life possible—implying, as I had argued before, the activity of a designing intelligence.

After the debate I received sympathetic mail from many people who felt badly about my having to battle a migraine at such a public event. But many who wrote also told me that the one thing they remembered about the substance of the debate was my closing statement and the succinct description of the three scientific discoveries that together point not just to a designer, but to an intelligence with attributes that religious theists have long ascribed to God. I realized later that I had, perhaps without planning to do so, distilled in a few words a way of structuring a persuasive and accessible science-based argument for the God hypothesis. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to develop this case.

An Unexpected Discovery

Another unexpected benefit of participating in the debate occurred completely out of view of the audience. As I prepared for the night in the two weeks leading up to it, I studied Krauss’s proposed explanation for the origin of the universe. I also pored over a key technical paper and book written by a Russian physicist, Alexander Vilenkin, whose ideas Krauss had popularized in his book A Universe from Nothing. I was stunned by what I found. Krauss used the work of Vilenkin in effect to refute what is called the cosmological, or “first-cause,” argument for the existence of God—an argument that posits God as the cause of the beginning of the material universe. As I reflected on what Vilenkin wrote, however, I concluded that Krauss completely missed the real import of Vilenkin’s work, which arguably implied the need for a preexisting mind (see Chapters 17 – 19 for more detail).

Over the preceding few years I had noticed a similar pattern in the writings of other scientific materialists as they responded to arguments for intelligent design in both physics and biology. As I show in later chapters of this book, the allegedly strongest counterarguments against the theory of intelligent design often inadvertently seemed to strengthen, rather than weaken, the case for design. For example, attempts to explain the origin of what’s called the fine tuning of the universe by invoking a “multiverse” inevitably required invoking prior unexplained fine tuning. Attempts to explain the origin of the information necessary to produce new forms of life invariably either required prior unexplained information or involved simulations that required the intelligent guidance of a programmer, biochemist, or engineer as a condition of their success. Thus, common responses to the argument for intelligent design in physics and biology typically begged the question as to the origin of prior indicators of design and, consequently, strengthened those arguments.

I now discovered that a similar problem attended claims to have explained the origin of the universe “from nothing.” Properly interpreted, the physics used this way only seemed to reinforce the conclusion of the cosmological argument.

So my difficult evening in Toronto had another unexpected benefit. Going into it, I knew the typical and strongest counterarguments to each of the three interrelated arguments that I had long wanted to make in support of the God hypothesis. I already knew that two of those counterarguments inadvertently reinforced my case. Now I came to suspect from my debate preparation and my interaction with Krauss that the main counterargument to the third line of evidence I intended to marshal—evidence from cosmology—did the same thing.

I realized it was time to write this book.