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Still Taking Aim at Eric Metaxas, the Media Underestimate the Degree to which Physicists See Evidence for Intelligent Design


Eric_Metaxas_February_2012.jpgThough it appeared on Christmas Day, Eric Metaxas's article in the Wall Street Journal continues to attract denunciations. What's the big deal? Metaxas proposed that "Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God." While people hold many different views on this topic, that's not an idea that ought to be highly controversial since there are highly credible scientists and scholars on both sides of the debate. However, the mainstream media typically erects a firewall to prevent views at odds with materialism from getting a fair hearing. Somehow Metaxas's op-ed slipped through the defenses, sparking outrage in some quarters.

One of his critics is Tobin Grant, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. Professor Grant is upset that Eric Metaxas received print space to explain the cosmological argument for intelligent design. Writing for Religion News Service, Grant harshly rebukes Metaxas for quoting respected scientists like Paul Davies and Fred Hoyle. This, in Grant's view, constitutes "piss-poor scholarship":

The headline said it all: Science increasingly making [sic] the case for God.

But is it? The answer is of course, "no." And you don't need a PhD in physics to argue against him. Take the article on face value. Fact-check the names. Metaxas does not present the work of scientists, and their arguments are not recent. Not even close.

No, what Metaxas does is cherry-pick a handful of people that he can treat as experts who are just recently questioning the plausibility of a creator.

This is [an] acceptable strategy if you're a lawyer or an apologetic [sic], but its piss-poor scholarship. He presents his evidence as if these scientists both represent the larger scientific community. They are not. It turns out that only a couple of the "scientists" Metaxas quotes are actually in science, and even then they are on the fringe of science.

The outburst is surprising, given that a source like Religion News Service is presumably at least neutral on religion, rather than scornfully hostile. But leave that aside. This is the typical rhetorical strategy from the media: claim that there is no credible scientific support for intelligent design, and bitterly attack those who deviate from the party line. The aim is to intimidate those who might speak out in support of ID in the future.

Grant wants you to believe that physicists who acknowledge the evidence for ID are few and far between, and are to be found only at "the fringe of science." Yet that's far from true. Consider what physicist Charles Townes said in 2005:

Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it's remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren't just the way they are, we couldn't be here at all. The sun couldn't be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.

("'Explore as much as we can': Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes on evolution, intelligent design, and the meaning of life," UC Berkeley News (June 17, 2005).)

And just who is Charles Townes? Someone from "the fringe of science"? Actually, he served as a professor at Columbia University, the University of California, and MIT (where he also served as Provost). He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Oh, and one more thing: He won the Nobel Prize in physics.

Grant takes aim at Metaxas's sources. His rebuttals, however, are dreadfully sloppy. As Grant himself acknowledges, one of the scientists Metaxas quotes is Paul Davies, the respected Arizona State University physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist. Metaxas had quoted Davies arguing that in the cosmos, "the appearance of design is overwhelming." Grant responds that "Davies also knows that his fellow scientists (meaning nearly all of them) disagree with his conclusions." Again, Grant is simply wrong. In fact Davies has directly contradicted Grant's claim:

The temptation to believe that the Universe is the product of some sort of design, a manifestation of subtle aesthetic and mathematical judgment, is overwhelming. The belief that there is 'something behind it all' is one that I personally share with, I suspect, a majority of physicists.

(Paul Davies, reviewing The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist, by John Polkinghorne, New Scientist, Vol. 98: 638-639 (June 2, 1983) (emphasis added).)

Another scientist Metaxas quotes is the late Cambridge University cosmologist Fred Hoyle, who said that "a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology." Grant's response is that Hoyle's views are old and outdated: "Hoyle didn't come to his conclusions about 'superintellects' or the big bang because of recent evidence. He was writing about them more than forty years ago."

Actually it's closer to thirty years ago, as the quote from Hoyle is from 1982. But why is the age of the quote so important? The Big Bang is about as mainstream as science gets. The evidence for it remains strong, and has only gotten stronger since Hoyle's day.

Indeed, in the 1990s, about a decade after Hoyle said what he did, precise measurements from NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite indicated that the universe is filled with radiation having the exact properties predicted by the Big Bang model. The COBE measurements confirmed that all matter in the early universe exploded from a densely compacted state. Physicist George Smoot, who won a Nobel Prize for this work, elaborated on the implications of the data when it was first reported in 1992. The New York Times reported:

"What we have found is evidence for the birth of the universe and its evolution," Dr. Smoot said in a news conference on the results in 1992. About a map showing the splotchy seeds of galaxy formation, he famously said, "If you are religious, it is like looking at God."
Surely that kind of commentary doesn't hurt Metaxas's thesis. Scientists now had conclusive evidence that the universe had a beginning. As astrophysicist Neil F. Comins explained in a prominent astronomy textbook in 2009:
Detection of the cosmic microwave background is a principal reason why the Big Bang is accepted by astronomers as the correct cosmological theory.

(Neil F. Comins, Discovering the Essential Universe, 4th ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman, 2009), p. 406.)

The Big Bang remains extremely solid science, hardly a matter of "piss-poor scholarship."

What really irked Grant, however, is Metaxas's observation that the earth is a privileged planet. Metaxas wrote:

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn't be here.
Grant again insists that Metaxas's arguments are outdated:
I like my numbers to fit basic mathematical definitions. If I say something is "relatively recent" compared to 1966, then I would cite people who came to their conclusions closer to today than 1966. And, if I was going to say that "science" was doing something, then I would reference experts in the field, not academics who dabble in science on the side.
Yet today the design hypothesis remains a position that credible scientists take seriously. In 2004, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards wrote The Privileged Planet which argues that the universe was designed not just for life but for scientific discovery. Their book received positive reviews and endorsement from leading scientists including Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, and David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Sheffield and former Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Just last year, University of London astrobiologist David Waltham published a book titled Lucky Planet arguing that Earth is an exceedingly rare planet, and that the properties allowing for life are extremely rare in our universe:

Earth is a precious jewel possessing a rare combination of qualities that happen to make it almost perfect for sustaining life. Lucky Planet investigates the idea that good fortune, infrequently repeated elsewhere in the Universe, played a significant role in allowing the long-term life-friendliness of our home and that it is unlikely we will succeed in finding similarly complex life elsewhere in the Universe.

(David Waltham, Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional -- and What That Means for Life in the Universe (Basic Books, 2014), p. 1.)

Waltham further states that Earth "may just be the luckiest planet in the visible Universe." (p. ix) And this isn't some outdated idea, as Grant would suggest. Waltham argues that his conclusion is based on "new" evidence from fields like geology, and astronomy, such as the study of newly discovered extrasolar planets:
The proposition that Earth may be an oddball, a planet quite unlike any other we will ever find, has been discussed for centuries. Until recently such debates were built on mere speculation, but times are changing. We now sit at one of those scientific crossroads where a field of study moves from being a disreputable, if interesting, subject for discussion to a real science with defendable conclusions based on substantial evidence. Such transitions occur when technological advances make previously impossible observations routine and, as a result, new data becomes available.

In the case of oddball Earth, the new data comes from advances in how we look at the rocks beneath our feet and at the stars above our heads. The rocks tell a tale of our planet's constantly changing environment along with the history of life-forms and their struggles to survive. The stars speak of many possible worlds, all unique in their own way. These parallel stories suggest that incredible good fortune was needed to allow human existence. ...

Personally, I no longer have doubts. The evidence points toward Earth being a very peculiar place; perhaps the only highly habitable planet we will ever find. This view has led some astrobiologists to describe me as "gloomy," but I don't see things that way. For me, these ideas merely emphasize how wonderful our home is and how lucky we are to exist at all. (pp. 1-2)

Waltham doesn't endorse intelligent design as the explanation (see here for a discussion). However, if you're looking for credible scientists making recent statements based upon new evidence, supporting rather than contradicting Eric Metaxas's view, they aren't hard to find. Unless, that is, the mainstream media's firewall won't let you find them.

Photo: By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (P020212PS-0270) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.