A Tour De Force in Natural Theology: a book review of Return of the God Hypothesis Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe by Stephen C. Meyer (HarperOne, 2021)

Author:

Douglas Groothuis

Article ID:

JAR2444

Updated: 

Jan 30, 2024

Published:

Feb 1, 2024

A book review of
Return of the God Hypothesis
Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe
by Stephen C. Meyer
(HarperOne, 2021)


This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 4 (2021).

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The modern myth of science as the slayer of religion goes like this: Prescientific people resorted to God, or the gods, to explain nature, but then a rational approach to nature developed after “the dark ages,” as people discovered the workings of nature. It was not a magic theater but a cosmic mechanism. Life was not designed by a benevolent Mind but was the result of unguided and impersonal factors. Darwinism, with its mechanism of natural selection working on genetic variations, banished God from nature and demoted humans to evolved animals. But sadly, religion was opposed to these findings, and it remains a force to be refuted if we are to preserve and further the cause of scientific discovery. Thus, science popularizers and pulpiteers, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye (“the science guy”), warn us that religion in general and Christianity in particular contribute nothing to our knowledge of the cosmos. More learned critics, such as Richard Dawkins and Sean Carroll, say the same.

This commonly-heard myth is completely wrong, as Stephen C. Meyer demonstrates in his superbly-written, brilliantly-argued, and deeply-researched book, Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe  (HarperOne, 2021). Meyer is a leading philosopher of science today and is the author of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009), which was named one of the top books of 2009 by The Times Literary Supplement of London and positively reviewed by the noteworthy philosopher, Thomas Nagel. Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2012) was a New York Times bestseller and widely lauded. He is broadly published in both academic and more popular venues and has appeared on numerous podcasts, television, and radio programs.

Detectable Design in Nature

Meyer is a leading thinker in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID offers scientific evidence for design in nature that cannot be accounted for by merely natural substances and processes. It challenges scientific materialism — the atheistic claim that nothing exists outside of nature. The ID challenge does not issue from religious texts — although its findings are supportive of theism — but from nature itself, particularly in light of recent scientific discoveries.1 The Bible itself claims that God’s existence is evident from nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2; see also Rom. 1:18–21).2

Like his previous books, Meyer takes the reader on a journey of discovery by aptly mixing personal experience, the history of science, and careful philosophical reasoning. It is rare that a writer can lead the reader into a deep subject without becoming overly academic or, on the other hand, insulting the reader’s intelligence. Meyer does neither, but rather makes a detailed and elaborate case that a Creator and Designer God is the best hypothesis to explain diverse phenomena in nature and the universe.

It may strike some as odd to refer to God as a “hypothesis.” While God is an object of religious devotion, the theistic worldview provides an explanation for nature that differs radically from that of scientific materialism. Meyer’s main foil is scientific materialism (although he tests his evidence against pantheism and deism, as well). On this view, the universe must explain itself apart from any transcendent intelligence. Scientific materialism also deems science as either the only or the best way to attain knowledge. This epistemic aspect is known as scientism.3

THE CASE FOR THE GOD HYPOTHESIS

In Part I: The Rise and Fall of Theistic Science, Meyer documents how the Judeo-Christian worldview led to the origin of modern science in the West, given its assumption that nature is knowable and rational and worth studying. This claim about the origin of modern science has been made well before, but Meyer’s account is clear and convincing. It speaks of three controlling metaphors taken from the Bible that

inform scientific development. First, nature is a book to be read through scientific investigation. Second, nature is a clockwork mechanism that works in an orderly way. Third, nature is controlled by objective laws, which explain its orderly operation. It is not chaos but reflects the Mind of God.

Part II: Return of the God Hypothesis marshals the constructive case for “the God hypothesis” in seven chapters. Meyer’s thesis is that evidence for God is found at the beginning of the universe and since the beginning of the universe. Chapters four through six advance the scientific case for the absolute beginning of the universe. Meyer explains the stages in the development of what has come to be called the big bang theory. This starts with Albert Einstein’s mathematical equations in the general theory of relativity (1915), which predicted an expanding universe. This prediction was verified through scientific discoveries and further developed to point toward a beginning for the universe, a conclusion that shocked and dismayed many of the physicists of the time, since it implied a state before the existence of the universe and the possibility of a Creator. Meyer shows that the case for the big bang has not weakened over time and remains compelling in the face of several challenges, such as the steady state and the oscillating universe theories.

Fine Tuning for Life

Chapters seven and eight delve further into cosmology to defend the fine-tuning of the universe. Meyer calls this “the Goldilocks universe,” which is constituted as “just right” for life (p. 131). He says, “the most fundamental type of fine tuning pertains to the laws of physics and chemistry” (139). There are dozens of variables in the universe that are required for life. Each variable has multiple possible values, and each of them must be tuned on a razor’s edge to make life an option for a universe. These contingent features are called “anthropic coincidences” and have become known in only the last fifty years or so. The odds are astronomically against these variables having life-permitting values by mere chance since a dead universe is (statistically speaking) far, far more likely. A Mind behind the world is the far better explanation.

Information in DNA

In chapters nine and ten, Meyer revisits and adds to what he has written previously about the origin of life on Earth (Signature in the Cell) and the Cambrian Explosion (Darwin’s Doubt). The information in DNA cannot be accounted for by merely natural processes and all naturalistic attempts have failed. Any time we find specified or functional information in the world — whether in a book or in skywriting or anywhere else — we infer an intelligent author or designer. Thus, based on what Meyer calls our “uniform and repeated experience,” when we find a specified function for communication, we justifiably infer design (186). On this basis, Meyer finds compelling evidence for an intelligent designer behind the highly complex system of DNA.

Moreover, the kind of functional information found in DNA could not have been front-loaded into the big bang. New information had to be added to the preexisting mix at the Cambrian Explosion.

In chapter ten, Meyer explains what has been called “biology’s big bang” or the Cambrian Explosion. During a period about 530 million years ago, “the first winged insects, birds, flowering plants, mammals, and many other groups…appear abruptly in the fossil record, with no apparent connection to putative ancestors” (189). While Darwinian evolution predicts the slow and gradual development of species, this biological big bang speaks of a rapid development in terms of biological time. Darwin knew this was an anomaly of his theory but thought his view would be vindicated by evidence later. It has not. In fact, the more is known about the Cambrian Explosion, the worse it looks for Darwinism. Again, a purely naturalistic account doesn’t pay the bills — but still asks for extended credit.

In these two chapters, Meyer claims that not only did a personal being create the universe, but that this being also intervened twice since in natural history — in the creation of life and during the Cambrian Explosion. He is not limiting God’s intervention to these three events but rather cites strong scientific evidence for them. He thus challenges theistic evolution, which claims that God front-loaded the universe with all it needed to evolve into the present form.

And This Everyone Calls God

In Part III: Inference to the Best Metaphysical Explanation, Meyer carefully and convincingly lays out the kind of argument that infers an intelligent designer from the information provided in Part II. Chapter eleven gives a general account of how to assess an argument for a designer, which is an argument to the best explanation (or abduction). The argument is straightforward. Given a certain set of facts, what best accounts for these facts? Given a torn up and empty bag of dog treats on the floor with a dog in the house, what best explains these facts? (1) Someone broke in and played a prank or (2) my dog is the culprit? Meyer meticulously argues that the God hypothesis is the best explanation for the facts he presented about the origin and fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of life, and the Cambrian Explosion.

Part IV: Conjectures and Refutations offers an extended analysis of various objections that have been raised against the God hypothesis by a host of secular thinkers, such as physicist Stephen Hawking. Meyer patiently exposes the fallacies behind these attacks. It is particularly noteworthy that when critics try to explain away the design of the universe or of life, they often presuppose some element of design. Meyer notes that attempts to fumigate the world of design posit “prior unexplained sources of information or” they rig their experimental protocols to bring design into what they claim is undesigned. He also writes of “attempts by physicists to explain the origin of the fine tuning by positing universe-generating mechanisms [for a multiverse] that required prior unexplained fine tuning” (385).

Part V: Conclusion has two chapters. The first refutes the common objection that a God hypothesis is illegitimate because it commits the “God-of-the-gaps” fallacy. Critics claim that invoking a transcendent cause to explain anything in the physical world — such as the information in DNA or the Cambrian Explosion — departs from legitimate explanation and sells science short. Eventually a materialistic explanation will be found, as it has before. The gaps will be closed, and God will be pushed out again. Meyer argues that a design inference is legitimate. A design explanation for the first life is as follows:

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no materialistic causes have been discovered with the power to produce large amounts of specified information necessary to produce the first cell.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate explanation for the origin of the specified information in the cell. (415)

This reasoning is impeccable and does nothing to jeopardize science. It does, however, challenge materialism as a worldview.

I was surprised and delighted to learn from Meyer that the common claim that Isaac Newton appealed to a miraculous intervention to prop up his theory of planetary movement — a classic God-of-the-gaps gaff — is not true. Meyer’s exploration of the primary source (Principia) revealed that what has been taken as a paradigmatically erroneous invocation of God to explain something in nature never really occurred (426–29).

Meyer’s last chapter, “The Big Questions and Why they Matter,” puts his defense of the God hypothesis into a broader philosophical and personal context. The book’s argument bears not just on the proper interpretation of scientific evidence but on the meaning and purpose of life. Drawing on the work of Alvin Plantinga and Robert Koons, he charts how Christianity gives an intellectual grounding for our knowledge, since our cognitive and perceptual faculties were designed by God (439–45).4 Meyer speaks of his own quest for meaning and his discovery of Christian faith. This chapter does not present the gospel, but it does encourage the reader to find meaning in the existence of a personal and transcendent designer, who has not left Himself without evidence in the natural world.

My only minor complaint about this stellar book is that Meyer does not mention Blaise Pascal’s contribution to modern science’s concept of nature as knowable, lawlike, and needing empirical investigation.5

Return of the God Hypothesis is nothing less than a tour de force in the philosophy of science as that discipline pertains to God as the author of nature. Its implications for apologetics are profound. The atheist needs to put this book in his pipe and smoke it. A few puffs can open the senses to the reality of God as found in God’s world.

Douglas Groothuis, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary.

 

NOTES

  1.  When applied to apologetics, this is known as natural theology — what can be known about God from nature and apart from Scripture. See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), chapters 9–17.
  2. Scripture quotations taken from NIV.
  3. For a treatment of scientism, see J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018). Meyer does not address scientism by name but does critique an aspect of it, which is methodological naturalism (60–62).
  4. I address this in Christian Apologetics, 409–17.
  5. See Douglas Groothuis, “Pascal’s View of Science,” On Pascal (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).
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