Our Lives’ Design

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

You may be sensing a tension in this worship service between the explicit theology of the hymns—“O God of Stars and Sunlight”[i] and “Dear Weaver of Our Lives’ Design”[ii]—and the implicit theology—some might call it a rejection of theology—of the three physicists—Susskind, Hawking and Mlodinow—whose words I’ve been reading. That tension is very real, not just in this morning’s liturgy but in the larger world. We typically encounter it in the ongoing debate between proponents of the evolutionary theory and proponents of Biblical Creationism or “Intelligent Design.” It has become my practice to offer a sermon on or related to evolution at this time of year in honor of Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, 1809. I do this as part of the Clergy Letter Project, a collective of more than 12,000 clergy across the globe who’ve signed onto various letters rejecting Creationism and Intelligent Design and asserting the compatibility of evolutionary theory with a life of faith. This sermon introduces the anthropic cosmological principle which, according to some participants in the debate, offers a scientific argument for intelligent design.

Fred Sawyer purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. For those of you keeping track of sermons Fred has bought, this is his seventh in seven years. There is something different about this one in that Fred typically suggests topics with which he has some familiarity. With the anthropic cosmological principle, I have the impression—I could be wrong—that Fred doesn’t quite get it. He’s done some reading—some of the math makes sense to him—but he’s still scratching his head saying, “what?”  Is this a helpful way of understanding the universe? Does it have any value? These are Fred’s questions.

To begin, I find it ironic that Charles Darwin, the “father” of evolutionary theory, was, like Sir Isaac Newton, a Creationist. Darwin concluded The Origin of Species saying, “there is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.”[iii] I understand why Creationists today don’t take much comfort from Darwin’s acceptance of a Creator deity. Evolutionary theory still contradicts strict Biblical Creationism. Where the book of Genesis proclaims that God created the earth and all its creatures in precisely six days, evolutionary theory demonstrates that creativity is continuous; that evolution has led, over an enormous span of time, to the emergence of all sorts of creatures, including human beings, none of whom were present “in the beginning.” Furthermore, while Biblical Creationism claims that God is responsible for the design of everything, evolutionary theory demonstrates that the actual design process is far less intelligent than the Biblical story suggests; that it has to do with competition and cooperation, adaptation and mutation, the relative abundance or scarcity of resources; and that no divine hand is necessary for this process to work. Nevertheless, Darwin himself apparently saw no contradiction between his belief in an original, creative divine breath and his theory of evolution.

While we Unitarian Universalists for decades have tended to discount Creationism and put our faith in the overwhelming evidence for evolution, I think it’s worth noting that from Darwin to the present day there have been many clergy and theologians from across the religious spectrum who have sought a middle ground in this debate. They resolve the tension between Creationism and evolution by taking Darwin’s stance. They recognize that the theory of evolution is not a theory of the origins of the earth or the universe. They recognize that the theory of evolution does not preclude a divinely organized beginning. They resolve the tension by identifying God as the Creator and evolution as the plan God has set in motion for the continual emergence of new species. This is one way of embracing current scientific knowledge without completely jettisoning one’s traditional religious views. From what I understand, this is akin to the official positions of both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

However, through the course of the 20th century and now into the 21st century, discoveries in physics have made this resolution far more difficult to sustain. Physics has allowed us to peer back virtually to the beginning of the universe or, as we are beginning to detect in the mathematics, the universes—the terms multiverse and megaverse are in vogue these days. In the universe in which we live, we can still hear the echoes of that primordial explosion, that big bang, and physics now offers insights into what actual Creation must’ve been like. There is no way to merge it with the Biblical creation story. If we accept the mathematics, Creation just didn’t happen the way the Biblical writers imagined. It seems to me that Charles Darwin and today’s evolutionary biologists are the least of the hard-line Creationists’ worries. It’s physicists they need to contend with. Physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow put it bluntly in their recent book. The Grand Design: “creation [did] not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.”[iv]

Or do they? I ask because I’m pretty sure there isn’t a physicist alive who looks at life on this earth, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this universe—who looks at the entire cosmos and the mathematics that begins to describe its origins—and says, “Oh, of course, I get it. Those natural laws? They’re all perfectly clear.” Nobody says that. What they often say, is that the conditions necessary for life to have come into existence on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this universe are so utterly and infinitesimally improbable that even the most atheistic of scientists, at a gut level, must acknowledge that our universe appears not to have arisen naturally from physical laws but has somehow been fine-tuned. An oft-cited example is the cosmological constant, the repulsive force that must exist if we are to explain how the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. In order for our universe to exist as we know it, the cosmological constant must have a relatively small value. Yet, all attempts to calculate that value with the available tools yield a number that is so large that it should have torn the universe apart from the largest galaxies to the tiniest subatomic particles before life ever had a chance to emerge. Hawking and Mlodinow suggest that, unless the calculations are wrong, “some other effect exists that miraculously cancels all but an unimaginably tiny fraction of the number calculated.”[v] Susskind asks: “But what natural mechanism could ever account for such an unlikely state of affairs?”[vi] Nobody knows. It looks fined-tuned, as if some power acting outside the laws of physics is making it so. By the way, I asked our resident physicist, Doug Pease, to evaluate this paragraph. He said this way of describing the cosmological constant was new to him and he felt compelled to go off an do his own research. He said there are much more exciting examples of apparent fine-tuning and he rattled off three or four over the phone.

Either way, in response to a plethora of examples of apparent fine-tunings, Susskind says “it seems as though the laws of physics were chosen, at least in part, to permit our existence.”[vii] He says, “the appearance of intelligent design is undeniable.” In the very least, “extraordinary coincidences are required for life to be possible.”[viii] This is one way of stating the anthropic cosmological principle. Susskind says most physicists don’t like this. It feels like giving up on the quest to fully explain the laws of physics, but it begs the question: does our universe—or do these multiple universes—really arise naturally from physical law? Perhaps it is not entirely beyond reason to argue for—or at least wonder about—some kind of Creator.

The anthropic cosmological principle is a mixture of physics, philosophy and, all too often, theology. Anthropic means “having to do with humanity.” So, the anthropic cosmological principle suggests that the cosmos has something to do with humanity. “It is not only that [humanity] is adapted to the universe,” wrote physicist John Wheeler in 1988. “The universe is adapted to [humanity]. Imagine a universe in which one or another of the fundamental dimensionless constants of physics is altered by a few percent one way or the other? Humanity could never have come into being in such a universe. That is the central point of the anthropic principle. According to this principle, a life-giving factor lies at the centre of the whole machinery and design of the world.”[ix] This sounds like he’s making a theological claim. It sounds like an argument for God based on the appearance of a finely-tuned universe. I don’t know enough about Wheeler to know whether he’s really making an argument for God here, or if he’s speaking more metaphorically. Some physicists do make such an argument.[x] Most don’t. What typically happens is that people who believe in Creationism encounter physicists conversing about the appearance of fine-tuning, and they take that conversation as an affirmation or proof of actual fine-tuning—as proof of Intelligent Design.

I object to this. The physicists are talking about appearances, not actualities. And appearances can be deceiving. The fact that we encounter phenomena in the universe for which we have no explanation and which therefore makes the universe appear fine-tuned does not prove that the universe is fine-tuned. All it proves is that we don’t know everything. “Because I can’t explain it any other way” is not a valid scientific conclusion, let alone a proof of intelligent design. If you tell me you gaze out into the night sky and feel God, intuit God, sense God, dream God, apprehend God, perceive God, discern God, I’m with you. Let’s talk. But to say that our lack of knowledge about these extraordinary coincidences is proof of intelligent design is both bad science and bad theology. To teach it to school children is to teach nothing more than well-disguised superstition.

Once we dispense with this backward theological reasoning, we find that the anthropic cosmological principle is still heavily debated among physicists and philosophers on its scientific merits. On one side, there has long been an assumption among physicists that it is possible to discover a “theory of everything,” or a “final theory,” a theory so elegant, so beautiful, so simple, so powerful that it can explain all phenomena in the universe and thereby resolve all the extraordinary coincidences that, for now, appear to be the result of fine-tuning. Such a theory would make the anthropic principle obsolete.

But such a theory remains elusive. And, if I understand this debate correctly, it remains elusive because, on the other side, current advances in fields such as string theory begin to approach explanations for some of the fine-tuning, but only if we accept the notion that there are multiple universes—each with their own, distinct physical laws. Susskind describes this in his book The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design.[xi] String theory (at least at the time Susskind was writing in 2006) suggests that our universe is just one out of a possible 10 to the 500 universes that reside in a vast cosmic landscape—that’s a one followed by 500 zeros—a megaverse truly beyond our comprehension. He writes: “There are many creatures/planets/pocket universes and many possible designs. The numbers are so big that, statistically, some of them will be intelligent or conducive to intelligent life. Most creatures/universes/astro-bodies are dead ends from this point of view. We are just the lucky few. That is the meaning of the Anthropic Principle. There is no magic, no supernatural designer: just the laws of very large numbers.”[xii] Although this idea that our universe rests in some valley in a vast cosmic landscape where as many as 10 to the 500 other universes reside is mind-blowing. But as an answer to fine-tuning that makes life possible, it’s a bit anti-climactic: no God, no theory of everything, just a whole lot of possible universes.

And wouldn’t you know it? As I was writing that paragraph, Doug Pease called back to report on his research. He said the criticisms of string theory are pretty extensive and there still isn’t any experimental evidence to support the idea of a multiverse—it’s all theory. The appearance of fine-tuning remains pervasive. That was Doug’s bottom line. There is still so much we don’t know.

But we do know this: that we live in a universe that supports life; that we humans have evolved to the point where we are able to gaze out at the heavens and observe our universe; and that through that observation we recognize even the slightest differences in certain constants would make our existence impossible. It seems to me that this knowledge speaks to a spiritual yearning in us and even calls forth—dare I say demands?—a certain spiritual identity in us. Not the spiritual identity that closes down all further inquiry by making the premature leap to intelligent design. But rather, a spiritual identity marked by ongoing curiosity, wonder, openness, awe, a desire for knowledge, a passion for truth, and gratitude—deep and profound gratitude that the universe is the way it is, and we are here to bear witness to it. I can’t help feeling that this spiritual identity—this curiosity, this wonder, this gratitude—is in fact the essence of our lives’ design.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[i] Holmes, John, “O God of Stars and Sunlight,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #11.

[ii] Dorian, Nancy, “Dear Weaver of Our Lives’ Design, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #22.

[iii] Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, in Appleman, Philip, ed., Darwin (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1979) p. 131.

[iv] Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) p. 8.

[v] Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) p. 162. I am also drawing on Susskind’s discussion of the cosmological constant which he calls “the mother of all physics problems.”

[vi] Susskind, Leonard, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2006), p. 88.

[vii] Susskind, Leonard, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2006), p. 21.

[viii] Susskind, Leonard, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2006), p. 8.

[ix] Wheeler, John A., in Barrow, John D. & Tipler, Frank J., The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) vii.

[x] See Davies, Paul, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984).

[xi] Brian Greene’s new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (New York, Knopf, 2011) offers the most recent research into this notion.

[xii] Susskind, Leonard, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2006), p. 346.