on 8 July 2007
Gingerich, who is an astronomer and a historian of science, believes in intelligent design with a small "I" and a small "d"; but he doesn't think that Intelligent Design should be taught in the science classroom. He "believes" in Darwinian evolution up to a point, but not in the random or "accidental" appearance of life. He writes, "I am personally persuaded that a superintelligent Creator exists beyond and within the cosmos, and that the rich context of congeniality shown by our universe, permitting and encouraging the existence of self-conscious life, is part of the Creator's design and purpose." (p. 39)
What I wonder is what purpose God would have created us for. Most people when asked what is the purpose of their lives, answer to serve others, to help others, maybe even to be good stewards of this planet. But such a purpose comes down to God playing with himself (you should excuse the expression) and is no more meaningful that the Darwinian, "to reproduce." Both, like the "turtles all the way down" of some primitive cosmology, end eventually with no purpose left. Clearly this is why many people who believe in a personal God say that the purpose of their lives is to please God.
But why should God want to be pleased? Why would God need or desire to create beings whose purpose is to please Him? Such a God, upon reflection, becomes an anthropomorphic projection of human beings, endowed with human emotions and human psychology.
In the first chapter, "Is Mediocrity a Good Idea?" Gingerich argues against the Copernican principle of "mediocrity" in astronomy. The principle states that humans do not occupy a special place in the cosmos, that we are not at the center of the universe, and that things are pretty much the same (taken generally and in very large chunks) anywhere in the cosmos. This is de rigeur in physics of course, and seems a good idea in, say, astrobiology. But Gingerich opines that we are special and so is the universe that we occupy. He uses the now familiar argument that because the universe is so precisely balanced as to be favorable for life in a myriad of ways, this is a clear indication that divine guidance has been at work. If any of a number of factors in terms of the nature of the elements or the speed of the expansion of the universe, etc., had been off by just a bit, we would not be here. This couldn't happen by chance is Gingerich's conclusion.
Of course the answer to this is to invoke the anthropic principle and point out that the very fact that we are here necessitates a universe congenial with our being here! Another point to make is that had things been different, who is to say what kind of life might have evolved? When Gingerich speaks of "life" in this context he leaves out the very significant and necessary qualification "life as we know it." The universe could be "designed" in many different ways we know nothing about and still be hospitable to intelligent life. The fact that the universe is the way it is does not imply any tinkering by a supernatural being. Moreover, if there are an infinite number of universes comprising all possible configurations (about which we know nothing), then clearly one having our particular configuration is a cinch to be in existence.
In the second chapter Gingerich ask the provocative question, "Dare a Scientist Believe in Design?" He concludes that "just as I believe that the Book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God, I also believe that the Book of Nature...suggests a God of purpose and a God of design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist." (p. 79)
But the presumption of purpose and design is antithetical to scientific inquiry in the broadest sense. If we already hold it to be an article of faith that there is purpose and design, then we are practicing theology not science. Properly speaking science begins without preconceived ideas about what is true and what isn't and accepts only those findings that can be verified again and again, and at no time holds any discovery to be the final word. All science, as Gingerich agrees, is subject to falsification. His preconceived notion of purpose and design is not.
While Professor Gingerich insists on meaning and purpose in the universe, he doesn't say what that meaning or purpose might be. Several times he intimates that such things are beyond our ken. Appropriately enough the third and final chapter in this short, attractive book is entitled "Questions without Answers." The famous question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is posed but no attempt at an answer is made. It is the kind of question that can lead to enlightenment if meditated upon sufficiently. A possible and somewhat spooky answer is another question, How could "nothing" have meaning without "something"? Some people believe that such concepts are part of the apparent duality of our lives--things like pleasure and pain, good and evil, being and non-being--and may simply be conundrums imposed upon us by our limited logic.
Gingerich writes, "...rather than believe that the universe is simply meaningless, a macabre joke, I would prefer to accept a universe created with intention and purpose by a loving God...." (p. 96) Putting aside the false dilemma, might it be just as agreeable to realize that the universe exists in a way that is beyond our comprehension without implying anything that we should be uneasy with. Our notions of "meaning" and "purpose," like our physical and sensory abilities, are the products of our evolutionary experience and limited by that experience. We cannot see gamma rays or hear certain sounds because we have not had the evolutionary need for such ability. Probably it is the same for our limited understanding of "meaning" and "purpose."