Return of the God Hypothesis

Stephen C. Meyer. 2021. New York: HarperOne. ISBN-13: ‎978-0062071507

Return of the God Hypothesis provides a scientifically detailed and logically rigorous argument for intelligent design, emphasizing evidence from the structure and properties of the universe, with reference to previous work on the origin of life and the origin of biodiversity. The argument is framed around the problem of the origin of information such as seen in the fine-tuning of the universe and the information present in DNA sequences of living organisms. Taken together, the evidence presented points not only to intelligent design, but to a personal Creator.

The author, Stephen C. Meyer, is Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. He was awarded a PhD in the philosophy of science by Cambridge University, where he studied the problem of the origin of the information in DNA. His book, Signature in the Cell (HarperOne, 2009) describes the evidence for design in the living cell. He also wrote Darwin’s Doubt (HarperOne, 2013), in which he argues that the abrupt appearance of diverse life in the fossil record (e.g., the “Cambrian Explosion”) is best explained in the context of intelligent design. Both books were highly acclaimed. Return of the God Hypothesis adds to the argument for intelligent design by exploring theories of the origin and finely tuned structure of the universe. 

In Return of the God Hypothesis, Meyer carefully considers the various theories proposed for the origin of the universe and points out their philosophical and evidentiary failings. He argues that theism, the theory that an actively creative God is responsible for the origin of the universe and of life, provides the best explanation for the origin of the universe, the origin of the information present in the fine-tuning of the universe, and the information present in the DNA of living organisms.

The book has 21 chapters, organized in five parts. The first three chapters discuss the origin of modern science, and describe “The Rise and Fall of Theistic Science.” The next seven chapters describe the “Return of the God Hypothesis” by reviewing the evidence for design in the universe and the problem of the origin of information in nature. Chapters 11-14 evaluate the evidence for design and the principle of “inference to the best metaphysical explanation.” Part IV, with five chapters, addresses objections to his argument, with the title “Conjectures and Refutations.” The final two chapters summarize the “Conclusions.” A brief synopsis of each chapter is included at the end of this review.

The book is written to be accessible to those without an extensive scientific and philosophical background, but readers will benefit from some familiarity with the history of the arguments. Although the existence of an intelligent creator is intuitively evident for the majority of people, Meyer’s analysis provides a logically rigorous confirmation of that intuition that will be appreciated and persuasive for anyone open to the possibility of God’s activity in nature. Even those who have different convictions will find the book intellectually stimulating.

Reviewed by Jim Gibson, PhD

Chapter by chapter synopsis

Part 1

The main idea of chapter one is that Christianity was a major influence in the development of science. The pioneers of science were, almost without exception, Christians who believed that God was active in nature. In the late 19th century, two authors, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White turned this history on its head, and fabricated the idea that science and Christianity had always been at war. This idea persists in the popular culture, but scholars have abandoned it decades ago, noting that science arose in a Christian culture that provided the philosophical presuppositions necessary for it to exist. Thus Christianity and science can be, and should be, allies rather than enemies.

In chapter 2, Meyer discusses three metaphors that have been used to describe nature: a book; a machine; and a system governed by laws. Each of these metaphors carries the inference of a mind as their basis. Books, machines, and laws are always the products of intelligence. These metaphors reflected the common belief at the time of the scientific revolution that nature is the product of a master intelligence.

Chapter 3 traces the transition from theistic science to scientific materialism. First, skeptical philosophers argued that human reason is superior to divine revelation for obtaining knowledge of the physical world. Second, increasing skepticism, along with the continuous conflict among religious groups, led to doubts as to whether God is active in nature, or even whether He exists. Third, the success of scientists in describing the world in materialistic terms led to rejection of the theistic presupposition that God’s activity in nature was clearly evident. The outcome was a purely materialistic worldview, and “the God hypothesis” was widely abandoned.

Part 2

The “God hypothesis” seemed unnecessary as long as the universe was considered to be of infinite age. Advances in astronomy in the first half of the 20th century led to the astonishing conclusion that the universe was not infinitely old, but had a beginning. For example, the reason the night sky is dark is that the universe is not old enough for all the starlight to reach every point in the universe. Even more importantly, the conclusion that the universe had a beginning raised the question of a cause for the universe.

In chapter 5, Meyer traces developments in astronomy that led to confirmation of the expanding universe model, and the philosophical discomfort this brought to many materialists. Attempts to avoid the implications of an origin included the “steady-state universe” and the “oscillating universe”, but these models failed. About the same time, several problems with the “big bang” model were being resolved. The “big bang” model is now almost universally accepted, despite a few holdouts who are unwilling to accept the implications of a creation.

If the expanding universe is traced backward in time, one comes to a point where all the density of the universe approaches infinity and the laws of physics no longer apply – a singularity. Some cosmologists tried to circumvent the idea of a singularity by proposing inflationary expansion or quantum cosmology, but work by Borde, Guth and Vilenkin showed that our universe must have had a beginning, whether or not Einstein’s theory of gravity is correct, or what the composition of the universe was. Accordingly, the idea that the universe had a beginning seems unavoidable.

Chapter 7 describes how the structure of the universe is finely-tuned in such an extremely precise way that life is possible. The existence and properties of the universe strongly depend on the precise values of the fundamental forces and physical constants. There is no law restricting the possible values for these constants and laws – they could have any value. The fact that they are so well balanced that they make life possible seems extremely improbable by chance. The fine-tuning of the laws of the universe is a strong indicator of design in the formation of the universe.

Various explanations have been offered for the fine-tuning of the universe. The “weak anthropic principle” fails to explain anything. The “strong anthropic principle” fails because the universe originated before there were any humans to observe it. Chance fails as an explanation because the calculated probabilities are so low that very few people are willing to accept them as plausible. William Dembski showed that intelligent design can safely be inferred from a highly improbable arrangement of matter combined with recognition of a pattern, called a specification. Intelligent design persists as the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe.

The problem of the origin of life is reviewed in chapter 9, which is based on Meyer’s previous book, Signature in the Cell. Life is based on chemical reactions that involve molecules having high information content in the form of precise arrangement of atoms. Most scientists have concluded that chance is not an adequate explanation for the origin of even a single protein, much less the complexity of a living cell. Historical science attempts to explain an observation from causes known to be adequate to produce the result. Specified information is known to be caused by intelligent agents, and no other causes are known. Thus, intelligent design is the most probable cause of the origin of biological information.

Chapter 10 provides a summary of the argument from Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt. The abrupt appearance in the fossil record of many diverse forms of life points to the need for a source of information after the origin of the universe. Production of form is based on information, and a new form requires new information. Chance is a totally inadequate explanation. Our uniform experience is that intelligent agents are able to select information for a future goal, something natural selection is unable to do. Thus intelligent design is the best explanation for the morphological gaps among organisms.

Part 3

In chapter 11, Meyer discusses the process of inferring a past event from presently observed evidence. This process uses “abductive reasoning,” by which is meant proposing a causal hypothesis, then predicting what result one would expect to find based on that hypothesis. Since there may be more than one possible cause for presently observed evidence, abductive reasoning cannot provide deductive proof. However, by comparing multiple causal hypotheses, one may be able to conclude which hypothesis is most likely true. This is sometimes called “inference to the best explanation.” This method is used in the following chapters to show that the “God hypothesis” has the greatest explanatory power.

Arguments attempting to use deductive logic to prove the existence of God have not been successful. Yet this does not show that evidence from science has no application to the question of God’s existence. Abductive reasoning can be applied to the observation that the universe appears to have had a beginning. This observation is exactly what one would expect if the universe were created by a pre-existing God, and it is not what one would expect if the universe were eternal, as materialism posits. Thus, theism, which posits a personal agent, provides a better explanation for the origin of the universe than does materialism, which does not have access to that mode of causation.

Chapter 13 explores potential causes for the fine-tuning of the universe. Intelligent agents are known to be causally adequate to produce finely tuned machines or procedures. Given the design hypothesis, we are justified in expecting to find evidence of design in the structure of the universe. Fine-tuning is present from the origin of the universe, which means it was produced by an agent that pre-existed the universe. Naturalism relies on the laws of physics to explain the structure of the universe, but the laws themselves are part of the fine-tuning and hence part of what needs to be explained.

It is universally agreed that life originated after the universe was already in existence. This suggests that the information necessary for life was added to the universe after its origin, contrary to those who claim that God did not and does not act in nature after the origin of the universe. The view that all the necessary information was embedded in the laws of nature at the origin fails because natural laws describe phenomena that occur regularly and predictably, and such processes do not generate new information. Further, information degrades over time, and would not survive long after the origin of the universe. Intelligent agents are the only known cause able to produce information such as found in DNA.

Part 4

Chapters 15-19 respond to criticisms of Meyer’s claims about intelligent design. Experiments on the “RNA world” only showed the power of intelligent design in conducting the experiments. Changes of developmental genetic regulatory networks (dGRNs) are either compensated for by redundancy in the network structure or produce catastrophic failures in viability. Functional proteins are too rare in sequence space for chance to produce them. Natural selection acts only after a mutation has occurred. Since suitable mutations appear to be extremely rare, natural selection is extremely unlikely to find a suitable mutation to select. The only known adequate cause of new information is intelligent agency.

In chapter 16, Meyer considers proposals based on “exotic naturalism” – theories that appeal to hypothetical phenomena that have never been observed in our universe. Some theories propose the existence of an immeasurably large number of universes, each with different physical constants. Given enough unique universes, one of them (ours) might have suitable conditions for life. In addition to the appeal to unknown and hypothetical factors, these theories require greater fine-tuning than what the theory is attempting to explain away. The God hypothesis is much simpler – it simply proposes an intelligent mind capable of creating the universe and endowing it with the desired properties.

Chapter 17 responds to some criticisms of Meyer’s arguments on the origin of the universe. Hawking and Hartle were able to solve the Wheeler-Dewitt wave equation for the universe by substituting imaginary time into the formula, with the result that a universe like ours could be produced. Nevertheless, their calculations presupposed a beginning singularity, and their solution required intelligently selecting the conditions compatible with their goal of mathematically modeling a universe like ours. Thus they reveal nothing about how the universe could originate from nothing.

Quantum cosmology is modeled as an analogy of quantum particle physics, in which a particle exists in an indeterminate state until its wave function “collapses.” One proposal from quantum physics is that an observer is necessary to cause the wave function to collapse. For quantum cosmology, this would imply a transcendent observer, and this points to God. Further, mathematical equations are not material objects, but exist in minds, and this again points toward an intelligent mind that preceded the universe. Science would be impossible in a universe without reliable laws and predictable properties.

Accusations that intelligent design invokes the so-called “God-of-the-gaps” (GOTC) approach are refuted in chapter 20. Theists are accused of invoking God in cases of ignorance, but this is not true of the argument for intelligent design, which is based on knowledge that intelligent agents are the only known cause of phenomena such as that to be explained. All materialistic theories of the origin of the universe depend on the existence of something prior to the existence of the universe, a logical contradiction. Accusations of GOTG arguments are based on the assumption that materialistic causes are sufficient to explain all of nature. But if this belief is wrong, the gap is in the assumption, not in the explanation.

In chapter 21, Meyer discusses the meaning of life. Materialism has produced a loss of meaning in contemporary society. The most frequent explanation for loss of faith among those rejecting religious belief is the influence of materialistic theories of chemical and biological evolution. If materialism is true, one is left to trust the reliability of a brain formed without purpose. Theism postulates that a personal God created us in His own image, and thus our minds can provide accurate information about our environment. Discovering the reality of God’s existence not only solves many philosophical problems, it explains why science is possible and provides a solid basis for finding meaning in our existence.