Meyer: Return of the God Hypothesis

Stephen Meyer’s ”The Return of the God Hypothesis” consists of two interwoven narratives. One, occupying the great bulk of the book, is an exhaustive compilation of aspects of the physical world that today’s science can’t account for. Let’s refer to that as the text. The other consists of brief comments interspersed within the text suggesting that each of these unknowns can be accounted for better in terms of “intelligent design.” Let’s call that the “commentary.” Apply to that the critical reading needed to appreciate the text, and the commentary fall apart. Meyer lays bare for us the barrenness of creationism’s claims.

First, let’s do justice to the text. It carries considerable authority and is clearly written. It is, however, exhaustive to the point of tedium. I doubt that anyone interested in Meyer’s hypothesis will plough through his text. I was tempted to say “OK, I give in, I’ll take the rest on faith.” I confess I wondered if that was the point. I began to skim and sample.

Text and commentary are written in contrasting styles. Where the text is disciplined scientific discourse the commentary more resembles angels-on-heads-of-pins scholasticism. Words like “transcendent” sometimes mean merely beyond the reach of today’s science, at other times--well, you know, spiritual, supernatural! As accounts besides materialism of what’s beyond the reach of today’s science he recognizes pantheism, deism, and theism, yet in place of them as a group he’ll often say just “God,” capitalized, implying the Christian god.

The properties of the universe and of life—specifically as they pertain to understanding their origins—are just “what we should expect” if a transcendent and purposive intelligence has acted in the history of life and the cosmos. Such an intelligence coincides with what human beings have called God, and so I call this story of reversal the return of the God hypothesis.

As a target to apply critical analysis to I found this kind of writing impossibly slippery.

Here’s how I wish his argument had gone.

First, let’s compile a list of things in the physical world that today’s science cannot account for. Then, let’s allocate them to made-up causes. I suggest we give those causes names like Stoic element 1, Stoic element 2 and so on, along the lines of the Stoic element 5, the quint-essence, that the Stoics supposed was responsible for all the beauty and order in nature. Then we assign each item on our list to one of those causes, involving as few causes as we can. I might assign all unknowns to do with living creatures, all evo devo for example, to Stoic element 1. This cause, however, is unlikely to account for the origin of the universe, so I’d assign that to element 2. Fine tuning of the physical constants I might also assign to element 2, or I might assign it to a new element, 3. And so on.

Once we have all our unknowns assigned to a small number of Stoic elements as causes, we might look for sensible ways to differentiate them. Element 1, cause of all unknowns to do with living creatures, I might liken to pantheism. Elements 2 and 3 I might liken to deism.

Now, would it any longer make sense for someone to liken all these separate causes to theism? I don’t see any logic to that. Then, what does theism correspond to? I think, conscious experiences of a personal god, without question a reality and one that science can’t account for. Assign it to another element.

Such an analysis would give us a ground for assessing the claims of creationism. I think, by contrast, Stephen Meyer, in grouping all my Stoic elements under the header “intelligent design” and identifying them with the Christian God, reveals that all his claims are no more than a pious wish. I’m quite prepared to accept that a Christian consciousness is superior to today’s shallow atheism. But I’d prefer that claim to be based on other grounds that creationism. Sadly missing from Meyer’s book is any passionate testimony to the joys of believing in a personal god. Short of that, what does theism amount to?

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