Stacy A. Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She teaches chemistry and physics for Kolbe Academy online homeschool program. She teaches “Reading Science in the Light of Faith” at Holy Apostles College & Seminary and “Catholic Theology of Science” at Seton Hall University. She is author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Her new book is Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press). Her website can be found here.
Is the universe designed? When it comes to scientific evidence of God to refute atheism, people search for order in nature and for specific cases that demonstrate whether the order was created intentionally and intelligently. Thus, the evidence offered up tends to be truncated, selective based on what qualifies as design to the one posing arguments. My concern is that the bigger picture gets lost.
For example, the language of the genetic code is often called evidence of intelligent design, but I have never heard anyone call a decaying pile of peat moss proof of a designer, even though the genetics of dried Sphagnum direct the properties of peat moss. In the debates, “nature” is spoken of atheistically, by both Catholics and atheists, as if nature were the opposite of creation. The pile of moss would be deemed a random mess sprawled on the ground by blind chance—that is, by nature. But prescribed physical laws not only govern the composition of the biological material, they determine where every last bit of the organic matter falls and changes. The pile looks random to us, but it is not.
“The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world.”
Perhaps I should explain my experience. I was a chemist before I was Catholic, but even then I knew my work relied on order, symmetry, and predictability in the laws of nature. You cannot navigate the scientific method otherwise. If nature at the atomic level were disordered, chaotic, and unpredictable, there would be no way to design experiments, test hypotheses, or form conclusions. Sure, some natural events are unpredictable and indeterminable, such as exactly which direction a leaf will flap next or where a photon will collide, respectively. And during experiments, results do not always fit with the equations, in which case the scientist has to figure out whether a wrong assumption or error was made or whether a misstep was taken in the procedures. A lot of times, a researcher has to admit she is not sure what is going on. None of this, however, leads her to conclude there is no order or unity in the universe. Quite the contrary, actually.
People also talk about how the mechanical view of the world was overturned by quantum mechanics, and how quantum theory shows the universe is indeterminate, but I never thought of it that way, and I still do not. I am Catholic, but I remain a thorough materialist who trusts that laws of nature govern all physical interactions. I have calculated quantum yields of light-induced electron transfer in artificial photosynthesis nanocomposites, and I dealt with wave-particle duality simultaneously. My laser beam was a second harmonic wave, 532 nm light from an Nd:YAG source, and our excited to transferred electron ratio results were reported in terms of particles. All the while, I measured in units of classical mechanics to design the composites (displacement, velocity, density). The whole project was orchestrated, and we used the equations we needed to answer the questions we asked. I also knew that calling a project “artificial” meant I was trying to copy nature, and most of the time, pitifully.
It seemed obvious that nature acts toward some end. Subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, crystals, polymers, proteins, and living things all self-assemble, and thermodynamics and chemical equilibrium are not drives to be ignored (lest you blow stuff up). I never thought it was the particles that have free wills, for that would make nonsense of the mathematics, but like every other scientist, I accepted that there is a ubiquitous, objectively-existing, governed reality that I probed, a reality so fundamental to science that it is taken for granted. I just never stopped to ask who granted the laws.
“We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result.”
For the most part, I did not care that I had no answer for where the order in nature comes from. Maybe that seems mentally lazy, but the attitude is commonplace. People switch on laptops and check email all the time without knowing how integrated circuits or radio transmitters work. Computers govern the motions of vast electrons and radio waves, but anyone can easily ignore the deeper ontological, teleological, and existential questions about who designed the processor and how many employees went to work to manufacture, pack, ship, program, and distribute the laptops to homes, to say nothing of the ones who provide electricity. No one denies that computers are designed; the question demands nothing in return except a credit card number.
Facing up to God’s existence has far greater consequences. It is one thing to study order in the chemistry lab. It is a very different proposition to begin to believe in God, not knowing what the truth will require of you personally and not knowing if you will live up to it. If everything is designed, I remember wondering, then what does that mean for me?
“Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end.”
When I made the choice to take the proverbial leap of faith, it felt more like flinging myself off a cliff. I soon learned about the spiritual gift of grace. Turns out, every day in this journey demands courage to face the truth, but there is joy in that. Granting assent to the articles of faith was the most intellectually satisfying decision I ever made as a scientist. I jumped only to discover I could fly, so to speak. Lifted in the light of faith, I could see the bigger picture, I had an answer, a unifying logic, for where the beauty in nature comes from—the Creator, a personal and faithful Trinitarian and Incarnational God. Nature led me to God; Christianity helped me know and love God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The laws of nature are a preamble to the articles of faith. We see the order, and we inquire about its origin, hence God. But once we have accepted faith, we can then turn around and—through the lens of faith—look out at the laws of nature with awe and wonder. I suspect some intellectuals will find this faith-first perspective a poor way to argue, but I prefer a priori (from causes to effect) reasoning to a posteriori (from effects to causes) now that I have come this far, a more settled, more assured, more mature, more confident stance. Do not we regularly sit down and a priori bless our meals without examining the spaghetti and meatballs for evidence of design?
“Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer.”
How do you prove design? Well, I think a person has to be willing to see what is there. Consider the arrow shot by the archer. Sure, you could go out, snap pictures along the trajectory, and show them to someone as a demonstration of the directionality and purpose in the flying arrow, as evidence that someone shot it. But the perpetual doubter can also refuse to put the pieces together.
Therefore, I contend, we should tell the whole story, and not just offer snapshots of design. Classical mechanics could describe the projectile of the arrow’s motion; chemical equations could describe the ordered arrangement of atoms in the molecules that compose the materials from which it is made; biochemistry could likely reveal the metabolic history of those materials. Theoretical physics could go even deeper to symmetries in leptons and quarks that are the same throughout the universe. Scientists trust there is a unifying logic to it all. Why do you think they seek grand unified theories, theories of everything, and supersymmetry?
Design is an all-or-none proposition though. You either face it—genetics, peat moss, leaves, photons, photosynthesis, lasers, nanocomposites, computers, radio waves, electricity, spaghetti, meatballs, arrows, atoms, wood, metal, particles, forces, and all, and you find the grace to face it each day—or you learn to live with your back to your destiny.
If the committed Catholic believes what he or she prays, then all of it is design, thorough design in all dimensions, anywhere and everywhere, as far as scientists have discovered today and regardless of what scientists will discover tomorrow (which, by the way, is an immensely more reasonable view than saying there are “turtles all the way down”). And we should not set that outlook aside, as if by pretending to be atheists we can somehow convince them to accept faith. Maybe they need to see how we live a life of faith before they are willing to see the hand of God in creation.
“Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.” (ST.I.2.3)