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by Doug Ward

Posted on my office door is a quote from Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), one of the greatest mathematicians of all time:

``Since the fabric of the universe is most perfect and the work of a most wise creator, nothing at all takes place in the universe in which some rule of maximum or minimum does not occur.''

Here Euler states that principles of optimization (i.e, maximization or minimization) are everywhere to be found in the universe. For example, light travels in such a way as to cover the distance from point A to point B in the least possible time. Scientists and mathematicians have spent many happy hours finding, formulating and solving the maximization and minimization problems that occur all around us.

Euler also makes an assertion about the reason that the universe behaves in such an efficient and elegant manner. He was convinced that the universe was designed by ``a most wise creator.'' Many mathematicians and scientists through the centuries have held similar convictions about the existence of a super-intelligent Designer. Their search for laws and patterns in nature has been guided by the conviction that such patterns must exist because the Creator has surely put them there.

Today, however, belief in a Creator is not fashionable in many scientific circles. Biologists, for example, often frown upon suggestions that the development of life on earth has been guided by anything other than random events. As a result, scientists who do believe in design tend to hold their views privately but are more hesitant to mention them in professional settings.

This state of affairs was the topic of a recent lecture at Miami University delivered by Owen Gingerich, a distinguished astronomer and hisorian of science. Speaking before a large audience of students and faculty members on November 11, 2003, he addressed the question, ``Dare a Scientist Believe in Design?''1

Professor Gingerich, who is a member of the editorial board of the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, noted an irony in the current situation: Although belief in design is less popular among scientists than it once was, there is more and more evidence that supports such a belief. In particular, the universe seems in many ways to be ``fine-tuned'' to promote the existence of human life.

One example described by Gingerich involves carbon, the fourth most common element in the galaxy. Life as we know it depends on an abundance of carbon. He explained that carbon atoms form when three helium nuclei collide; or more often, when two helium nuclei merge to form unstable beryllium, then are joined by a third helium nucleus before the beryllium nucleus comes apart. This sort of combination happens frequently because the internal energy levels of a carbon nucleus seem to be precisely ``calibrated'' to promote its occurrence. In the written version of his lecture, Gingerich described the situation as follows:

``In the carbon atom, the resonance just happens to match the combined energy of the beryllium atom and a colliding helium nucleus. Without it, there would be relatively few carbon atoms. Similarly, the internal details of the oxygen nucleus play a critical role. Oxygen can be formed by combining helium and carbon nuclei, but the corresponding resonance level in the oxygen nucleus is half a percent too low for the combination to stay together easily. Had the resonance level in the carbon been 4 percent lower, there would be essentially no carbon. Had that level in the oxygen been only half a percent higher, virtually all of the carbon would have been converted to oxygen. Without that carbon abundance, neither you nor I would be here now.''2

Examples like this-and there are many others that could be mentioned-do not constitute absolute proof of the existence of a Designer. As science fiction movies remind us, ``carbon-based life forms'' may not be the only forms of life possible. Still, such examples are very compelling, and the hypothesis of design is a reasonable way of explaining them. Gingerich emphasized that very little in science is amenable to absolute proof. Scientific models come to be accepted on the basis of their internal coherency, their explanatory and predictive power, not because they can be mathematically demonstrated beyond all doubt. Consequently, he asserted, the idea of design should not be excluded from science just because it cannot be proven.

Gingerich cautioned that scientists should not confuse a working hypothesis or research strategy with a truth about the universe. For example, biologists have made great progress by searching for random mechanisms that can help explain the diversity of life on earth. That does not mean, however, that life is merely the result of random events.

Some scientists have criticized the design hypothesis on practical grounds, charging that a belief in design would tend to cause an investigator to ``give up too easily.'' Facing some difficult-to-explain phenomenon, might there not be a tendency to simply chalk it up to divine design and look no further for an explanation? In discussing this criticism, Gingerich agreed that scientists should accept no excuses to quit looking for answers. But he also pointed out that a belief in design has often served to motivate rather than inhibit investigation, citing the example of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a devout Christian who discovered three central laws of planetary motion. Kepler's research was driven by a desire to expose the beauty of God's handiwork in creation.

A number of other examples could serve to illustrate this point, including Leonhard Euler, an amazingly prolific mathematician whose Christian faith helped him to persevere despite a visual handicap that led eventually to total blindness. According to one estimate, Euler was personally responsible for about a third of the mathematical knowledge discovered during his lifetime!  I concur with Prof. Gingerich that science surely would benefit from the presence of more Keplers and Eulers, investigators inspired by faith in a Designer.


1The text of Prof. Gingerich's lecture appears in Evidence of Purpose: Scientists Discover the Creator, John Marks Templeton, Editor, Continuum, New York, 1994, pp. 21-32.

2Ibid., p. 24.



File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 25 Dec 2003, 18:02.