A Higher Intelligence

Is the universe smarter than we are? Albert Einstein certainly thought so, and he was arguably one of the smartest people ever to hang his hat in our small corner of the cosmos. He wrote that the universe “reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection." Einstein claimed to be speaking for the scientific community. However, many of his colleagues believe the universe slavishly obeys certain mechanical laws without giving any thought to it whatsoever. They regard it as a matter of blind happenstance that a dumb universe like ours has produced smart creatures like Einstein who are capable of expressing “rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law.”

Believing in a higher intelligence in not necessarily the same thing as believing in God – or at least not in the biblical deity who created mankind in his own image. Einstein, for one, did not. The question is whether the signs of intelligence boil down to mere patterns and complexity or whether there is any purposiveness behind it. The scientific community is perfectly willing to acknowledge that the universe is an amazingly complex place. The physicist Paul Dirac, for example, conceded that the God he did not believe in “used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.” Nevertheless, the dominant view is that the random action of physical processes alone has somehow produced startlingly nonrandom effects. Teleology – the idea that nature operates intentionally or by design – is still regarded as anathema in scientific circles.

In the early days of the scientific revolution, when the concept of a clockwork universe still held sway, the assumption was that you needed a divine clockmaker to keep things running smoothly. A similar notion carried over into the biological sphere with William Paley’s famous watchmaker argument. Paley, a naturalist and Anglican cleric, reasoned that if a watch requires a watchmaker, then an object even more complex than a watch, such as the human eye, also requires a maker. So-called arguments from design were hardly new, even when Paley first formulated his watchmaker analogy more than two centuries ago. The Roman orator Cicero made a similar observation using sundials and water clocks. He wrote, “How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including those artifacts themselves and their artificers?”  Even now, creationists insist that the “irreducible complexity” of certain biological processes require an intelligent designer.

The fundamental issue, so far as I can determine, is whether an unintelligent universe is capable of producing intelligent components, such as ourselves. The problem is that we are not necessarily in the best position to judge, since the human brain is hard-wired for pattern recognition and counterintuitive thinking (a fancy term for imagination). As Kant pointed out long ago, the mind can’t help projecting purpose onto nature, even though he presumably never would have conceived of the mind being wired for anything in the late 18th century. The mind catches sight of itself in nature’s reflecting pool and takes it as evidence of a higher intelligence at work -- in effect, making a god in its own image. Perhaps nothing but narcissism explains C.S. Lewis’ comment that "what is behind the universe is more like a mind than anything else we know."

Yet how do we account for the fact that this purportedly dumb universe is capable of using very advanced mathematics in constructing itself? Whether we are made in God’s image or the other way around, the human brain is not the only thing that is hard-wired for certain actions. The entire universe appears to be wired, operating according to precise algorithms that can be expressed mathematically. So then the question becomes, if the construction of the universe shows evidence of a very advanced mathematics, does that require what Dirac once metaphorically described as a “mathematician of a very high order”? The old watchmaker argument returns with a vengeance.

And how exactly do these math-based physical laws act upon the universe? Are they properties of the universe itself, or do they operate outside of time and space, as many scientists believe, thus placing them beyond the purview of empirical investigation? As the physicist Paul Davies has pointed out, the tendency is to treat them as a given, without attempting to understand how they work their will upon the universe. Although most scientists would shy away from metaphysical arguments, they are closer than they may realize to the spirit of Pythagoras, who founded a sacred brotherhood in ancient Greece based on the belief that numbers were divine and that they were "the principle, the source and the root of all things.” Make no mistake: Once you start talking about absolute, universal entities that exist outside of time and space, you are in the realm of the gods.

Albert Einstein, The World as I See It
Paul Davies, “Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times (November 24, 2007)

© Copyright 2004-2020 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved