Our universe gives the overwhelming impression of design. We see incredible order in the living world, the subatomic world and in the structure of the cosmos. Now why should the universe display this sort of order? According to the design argument, the best explanation is that the universe is the product of a rational mind. There is a Great Designer or Grand Architect.
Some might respond that science explains the order, but that would be to miss the point of the argument. Science tells us just how orderly the universe is and in many cases expresses the order in terms of scientific laws, but what needs explaining is the scientific laws themselves. Or to put it another way, what needs explaining is why the world is like that in the first place, why it is such that it can be described by scientific laws. The success of science in describing many aspects of the universe from the large scale structure of the cosmos down to the subatomic level is astonishing. When you stop to think about, however, it is far from obvious why any of this has been possible. Why is it that scientists here on Earth are able to unlock the mysteries of the universe? There does not seem to be any good reason to think that the universe had to be like that at all.
One particular aspect of this order is that the laws of physics are written in the language of mathematics as Galileo put it. Many have discussed just how remarkable this is. Theoretical physicist Paul Davies writes, ‘Yet the fact that “mathematics works” when applied to the physical world – and works so astonishingly well – demands explanation, for it is not clear we have any absolute right to expect that the world should be well described by mathematics.’ Nobel prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac said that ‘it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment’. Why should such a strategy of focusing on beauty prove to be so successful? Is there any reason to think that the universe must conform to our notions of beauty? Sir John Polkinghorne, a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and now an Anglican priest, comments on this state of affairs as follows:
There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; why fundamental physics should be possible; why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structures of the universe. It is a contingent fact that this is true of us and our world, but it does not seem sufficient simply to regard it as a happy accident. Surely it is a significant insight into the nature of reality.
So, far from undermining the design argument (at least the version of it being considered here), science provides the starting point for it since it is the order captured by scientific laws that needs explanation.
The order itself seems remarkable, but that isn’t sufficient for the design argument to work. We still need to show why the order provides evidence for God. As discussed in the article The Evidence for God, the idea is that the order provides evidence for God if God’s existence provides a better explanation (or helps us make more sense) of the evidence than would be the case if there is no God. So we need to consider the evidence in light of theism on the one hand and atheism on the other. Let’s start with atheism. From an atheistic perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for the order in the universe; it would just be a brute fact or a ‘happy accident’ as Polkinghorne puts it. But that doesn’t seem good enough. In the absence of an explanation, we would have no reason to expect the high degree of order that we find.
What about theism? Does it fare any better? Yes, it seems very likely that if the universe is the product of an intelligent mind, it would exhibit order. That’s certainly what many of the founders of modern science believed. They expected the universe to be intelligible to humans because they believed in a rational creator. It was because of their belief in God that they engaged in science. The mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler remarked that in doing science he was ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. We know from our own experience that intelligent beings are capable of producing order and so order is often explained in terms of intelligence. Similarly, it would not be at all surprising to find order in a universe created by an intelligent mind. Furthermore, if the universe is created by a good God, we would have some reason to expect it to exhibit beauty and other valuable entities (such as moral beings), both of which would require order. In light of these considerations, Kepler and his fellow scientists were surely right to think that there is much more reason to expect order in the universe if there is a God than if there is not.
Still, we can’t predict exactly what kind of order God would produce nor how he would do it, but that doesn’t undermine the argument. Consider another scenario where it is reasonable to infer design. Suppose in the future astronauts travel to a distant planet and find machines of some kind. It would be entirely reasonable to infer a designing intelligence in such a case even though we could not have predicted that the designer would have made a machine of this kind and we don’t know how the designer actually made it. All that is required is to know that the machine is more to be expected given design than in the absence of design.
In subsequent articles we will develop cases for design based on the existence of complex life and the fine-tuning of physical constants. In these cases, alternative explanations are available from an atheistic perspective and various objections need to be considered. The design argument we have considered in this article is based on the order of the universe as expressed in the laws of science. It does not constitute a logical proof for the existence of God since we cannot rule out logically the possibility that it is just a ‘happy accident’. However, given the extent of order in the universe and the much better explanation provided by theism, we think the evidence clearly points in the direction of God’s existence.
 Theism does not provide us with a scientific explanation of order, but a personal or agent explanation, see God and Agent Explanations: A Guide for the Perplexed. Richard Dawkins has argued that God should not be considered as an explanation because God’s existence is too improbable to begin with. For responses to this, see There’s Probably No God – a response to Richard Dawkins and Refuting Richard: Dawkins Doesn’t “Get” God.