Evidence for God: Design (Part 3 –Life on Earth)

David Glass and Graham Veale
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In Part 1, we considered the order of the cosmos as expressed in the laws of physics as evidence for God, while in Part 2 we looked at fine-tuning. Here we focus on the existence of intelligent life. As in the previous cases, the contention is that theism provides the best explanation for the life we observe on Earth, including the existence of intelligent life.

At the outset, it is worth pointing out that we are not proposing God as a scientific explanation of intelligent life, but rather as a personal explanation. That is, we are not attempting to identify the mechanisms God used to bring about intelligent observers. Instead, we are arguing that intelligent life is much less surprising in a universe created by God than in an atheistic universe. The question is whether the existence of intelligent life provides additional evidence for God over and above that provided by the order in the universe and fine-tuning. In other words, after these other factors are taken into account, is the existence of intelligent life better explained by theism than by atheism?

Just as there is order expressed in the laws of physics, there is a great deal of order in the biological domain. In fact, this is a gross understatement. The more scientists have learned about living organisms, the more they have come to realize just how incredible the order and complexity is. Whatever view one takes on design, there can be no denying the fact that there is a breath-taking degree of order and complexity in the biological world. From a single cell, where the digital information for life is encoded in the DNA and where a whole array of sophisticated molecular machines carry out the processing required for the cell to function properly, to the human brain which is frequently described as the ‘most complex object in the universe’, order and complexity are ubiquitous.  To emphasize the point, here is how Richard Dawkins describes mitochondria:

Mitochondria are found not just in photocells, but in most other cells. Each one can be thought of as a chemical factory which, in the course of delivering its primary product of usable energy processes more than 700 different chemical substances, in long, interweaving assembly-lines strung out along the surface of its intricately folded internal membranes … Each nucleus … contains a digitally coded database larger, in information content, than all 30 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica put together.[1]

Even though Dawkins is highly critical of design arguments, when commenting on William Paley, a leading defender of design in the eighteenth century, he comments, ‘when it comes to complexity and beauty of the design, Paley hardly even began to state the case’.[2] So there’s no doubt about the evidence, but what about the explanation for it? Many think that there is a perfectly good explanation which removes the need for God: the theory of evolution.

Our view is that debates about evolution can be a distraction from the central issue which is whether intelligent life was designed by God. Once that question is answered, it is less important to what process [3] was involved in the production of intelligent life. Suppose humans discover some kind of complex machine on another planet. It would be entirely reasonable to infer the existence of an intelligent agent who designed the machine even if we had no idea about the process that had been used. No doubt it would be interesting to know the process too, but that’s a distinct question; there could be a wide variety of processes the intelligent agent might have used. Similarly, in the case of intelligent life, the issue of design is distinct from the issue of process and so the existence of a process doesn’t settle the issue one way or the other.

In order to assess the case for design in this case, we have to ask how likely it is that the types of life that we observe on Earth would come into existence given only unguided physical processes. This should be compared to the likelihood of such creatures given theism. There are a number of reasons to think that unguided, physical processes cannot account for many features of the living world.  A common view among scientists is that the existence of intelligent life is highly dependent on a lot of fortuitous events.

Stephen Jay Gould used the metaphor of “replaying the tape” of life’s history. If we could begin the history of life on Earth again, we would have very different outcomes. According to this view, had any one of a number of things worked out differently, we wouldn’t be here and so our existence is a lucky, and extremely improbable, accident. Richard Dawkins, for example, writes that ‘it may be that the origin of life is not the only major gap in the evolutionary story that is bridged by sheer luck, anthropically justified’[4]

He mentions other steps that are ‘statistically improbable’ and require ‘major infusions of luck’ such as the origin of the eukaryotic cell and the origin of consciousness. It’s worth noting that the reason for thinking that the origin of life is improbable is not just that the transition from non-living material to a basic life form is very improbable based on current science;  a variety of circumstances need to be just right in the first place for a planet to provide a suitable environment for life.[5] It’s important to emphasize that just as Dawkins is not arguing against evolution or suggesting that scientists should stop working on the origin of life, neither are we. Our purpose is simply to argue that there are reasons to think that it is very unlikely that intelligent life would have come into existence given only unguided natural processes.

As Robert Hambourger has argued:

seemingly chance occurrences … did not play a role only in the final stages of the evolution of human beings. It is likely that, at nearly every step in the evolutionary chain that led from the most primitive of creatures to people, similar sorts of occurrences played a role. In fact, without specific evidence one cannot assume even that it was inevitable that mammals, vertebrates, or even multi-celled creatures would evolve. But then, one might ask… whether it could have been simply by chance that so many seemingly unconnected occurrences came together in just the way that would lead to the evolution of creatures capable of reason, and I think that one might well conclude that it could not have been.[6]


Various objections can be raised. In fact, to some extent the objections parallel those on fine-tuning. One objection is that future science, or perhaps even current science, will undermine this argument by showing that various transitions to more complex forms of life are not so improbable after all. Based on evolutionary convergence, the palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris argues that the existence of intelligent life was almost inevitable once life got started, although he also believes that the origin of life in the first place was very unlikely.[7] He argues that evolutionary processes are much more constrained than many scientists have thought. However, Conway Morris does not believe that this would undermine theism. Indeed, it could simply indicate that the creator had fine-tuned the universe for intelligent life.

Another objection is that even if there are improbable steps in the development of life by only unguided natural processes, perhaps the universe is so large that each step will occur somewhere. Take the origin of life. One any one particular planet, it might be extremely improbable that life would arise from non-living material. However, given the vastness of the universe it is not improbable that it would happen somewhere. Of course, we find ourselves in a place where it has happened. This is what Dawkins seems to mean by ‘anthropically justified’: he assumes that the universe must contain “billions and billions” of Earth-like planets, because this is the only way to account for the existence of beings like humans. It is important to realise that Dawkins does not offer any evidence for the existence of these worlds.

It’s not clear how helpful this strategy is. How big does the universe need to be for this to take place? Is the universe actually that big? Does it contain the right number of planets to make the existence of life probable? What evidence is there for these planets? Put that to one side; let’s suppose that in a few places in the universe life did develop. But then it seems that multicellular life would only develop in a very small fraction of these cases. And the same would be true for each improbable step. It might be that using this strategy, even if life had developed, it would never have got beyond the level of bacteria. Arguably this approach raises more questions than it answers.[8]

Finally, but critically, there are some features of life that a purely physical theory cannot account for. One of the most remarkable features of the living world is the existence of conscious organisms. However, we have very little reason to expect the existence of such organisms if the only forces at work have been physical and unguided.  The problem is (as we have argued in more detail elsewhere) [9] that mental properties (like “pain”, “red” or “melancholy”) are radically different from, and irreducible to, quantifiable physical properties (like “mass” or “charge”). More simply put, there are facts about animals that are not physical facts – facts about “what it is like” to have a particular experience or perspective on the world.

If we describe every physical fact about an organism, we still leave out its conscious state (“what it is like” to be that organism: what it experiences). An “explanatory gap” emerges: physical theories only allow us to predict physical phenomena. Nothing about charge or mass, or any other physical property explains the emergence of mental properties. There is absolutely nothing about a collection of physical parts that explains the emergence of thought; thoughts and atoms are just too dissimilar. This leaves atheistic accounts of life on Earth with a problem: they are not being asked to explain the emergence of complex, non-conscious automata. Rather, they must account for the existence of feeling, thinking creatures. Indeed, consciousness is their most valuable feature; a point that many of Thomas Nagel’s critics overlooked:

What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view— a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone. If evolutionary theory is a purely physical theory, then it might in principle provide the framework for a physical explanation of the appearance of behaviorally complex animal organisms with central nervous systems. But subjective consciousness, if it is not reducible to something physical, would not be part of this story; it would be left completely unexplained by physical evolution— even if the physical evolution of such organisms is in fact a causally necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness.

… since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness. That cannot be a separate question. An account of their biological evolution must explain the appearance of conscious organisms as such. Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this, the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth. Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious; therefore no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character. In other words, materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants.[10]

Any account on Earth which only appeals to undirected, physical processes leaves the existence of conscious animals unexplained and inexplicable. Yet, on a religious worldview consciousness isn’t mysterious at all.  The theist believes that there is more to reality than the physical; ultimately a person is at the root of everything else that exists. That person would have good reason to bring about conscious beings; especially a community of intelligent, conscious observers, who could enjoy creation.

In parts 1 and 2 we’ve argued that it would not be at all surprising to find order in a universe created by an intelligent mind since we know from our own experience that intelligent beings are capable of producing order and, as we’ve seen, intelligent life involves very high degrees of order. And we also argued that if the universe is created by God, we would have some reason to expect it to exhibit beauty and other valuable entities which would include intelligent, moral beings. So there are clear reasons for thinking that intelligent life is much more likely in a universe created by God than in a universe involving only unguided natural processes. If that is right, then the existence of intelligent life provides additional evidence for God.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 17-18.

[2] Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 21.

[3] When it comes to the interpretation of Genesis One, we’re a broad church at Saints and Sceptics. We are not interested in critiquing Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design or Creationism. Rather, we are much more interested in pointing out that even if “evolution is true”, a powerful design argument still stands.¹

[4] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 140.

[5] This is the ‘Rare Earth Hypothesis’. See Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (Copernicus, 2009).

[6] “The Argument for Design”(1979)  Robert Hambourger (reprinted in “Philosophy of Religion: a guide and anthology”  Brian Davies ed).

[7] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[8] Perhaps the universe is infinitely large. Well, perhaps, but it’s far from clear that it is. And even if it is it would need to have the right distribution of matter to guarantee that each of the improbable steps would occur. Also, even though an infinitely large universe would account for some order in the universe, in any particular region of the universe there would be more reason to expect a greater degree of order given theism than unguided natural processes, so it wouldn’t undermine the design argument in general and would have no bearing on fine-tuning.

[9] http://www.saintsandsceptics.org/the-evidence-for-god-consciousness/ http://www.saintsandsceptics.org/swinburne-on-mind-morality-and-meaning/

[10] Nagel, Thomas Mind and Cosmos:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (p.44- 45). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

¹To avoid needless fretting about  Adam and the Fall keep this in mind: Adam fell; because Adam was a fallen creature, all my other ancestors were fallen creatures; because all my ancestors were and are fallen creatures, I am a fallen creature. That preserves the biblical doctrine of original sin, and is compatible with many scientific scenarios.