Stephen C. Meyer Interview: The Argument for a Mind Behind the Universe
Image attributed to Stephen C. Meyer
Stephen C. Meyer is the current director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. A former geophysicist and college professor, he is an advocate of intelligent design, a pseudoscientific creationist argument for the existence of God. Meyer has authored the New York Times bestseller Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, as well as Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, which was named a Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement (of London) in 2009.
Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe, is Meyer’s latest offering, released March 30, 2021. In the book, he builds on the case for the intelligent design of life that he developed in Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, demonstrates how discoveries in cosmology and physics coupled with those in biology help to establish the identity of the designing intelligence behind life and the universe and argues that theism best explains the evidence we have concerning biological and cosmological origins.
"In every case where we have a finely tuned system, whether it’s a French recipe or a mechanical internal combustion engine, we have traced back to its source, and we always come to a mind."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Steve, please tell us a little about your educational and professional background.
Stephen C. Meyer: Sure. Absolutely. I grew up in the Seattle area. I went to a liberal arts college in Washington called Whitworth College, now Whitworth University. I double majored in physics and geology and took a minor in philosophy. I was a bit of a late bloomer in high school. I was not as focused on study but was kind of ignited in college. It was a good experience.
Then after I graduated, I worked for four years as a geophysicist for an oil company which was then called digital signal processing. It was kind of a seismology digital processing that was being used at the time. During my last year in Dallas, I received a Rotary international fellowship to study in Cambridge. I went over to do a one-year masters in history and philosophy of science and ended up staying on for three more years beyond that to do a PhD in philosophy of science. I worked specifically on the question of the origin of life.
When I finished in 1990, I returned to my alma mater, Whitworth University, and taught philosophy of science there for 12 years until becoming fulltime at the Discovery Institute to head up the program that we had started in 1996. By 2002, it had grown to the point it needed a fulltime director, and I came over in 2002 to head that up in Seattle. That brought me back to the city where I grew up. So I made a big circle from Seattle to Dallas to Cambridge to Spokane and back home.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you raised in a religious home?
Stephen C. Meyer: I was raised in a nominally religious family but didn’t really find faith in a personal way until my college years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: On its Wiki page, the Discovery Institute is described as a politically conservative non-profit think tank. Is that accurate?
Stephen C. Meyer: The Wiki description is not quite accurate for Discovery. We are center right, but we’re bipartisan. We have both Democrat and Republican policy strategists working on various issues. We have multiple programs, so we have a technology program that’s pioneering driverless vehicles, which is neither a conservative nor a liberal idea. It’s just a tech idea.
So we’re really more of a science and technology think tank. We’re generally center right, but we have people across the spectrum politically, and there are programs really apolitical, and we have both Jews and Christians and non-religious scientists and philosophers who are theistic leaning or at least open to theism, or more probably, they’re skeptical of scientific materialism. So the Wiki definition is a bit of a pejorative, I think, to kind of stigmatize us a little bit or marginalize us. I think we’re a lot broader than we’re characterized there. There are conservative people who are also Christians in the Institute, but there are also Jewish and non-religious people who are not necessarily conservatives or Republicans.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, I’m glad I brought that up so that you could expound on that. Not the first time we've found inaccuracies on Wiki pages over the years.
Stephen C. Meyer: (laughs) Try correcting them. For years, they had me listed as an American theologian. I don’t have any degrees in theology (laughs). It was complimentary, but it was not true.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your new book is called The Return of the God Hypothesis. What do you mean by the return of the God hypothesis?
Stephen C. Meyer: That’s a great first question because I chose the title intentionally because the book tells the story. The story first is the rise of modern science during the period historians call the Scientific Revolution, variously dated from between 1300 and 1750, or maybe some historians would say between 1500 and 1750. But it’s a period of time in western Europe where a systematic method or methods for studying nature were developed that were heavily dependent on empirical observation and experiment. During that period of time, religion, in particular Christianity drawing on the Hebrew Bible, played a huge role in inspiring the rise of modern science. There were a number of key ideas that came out of that religious milieu that were crucial to giving scientists confidence that they could study nature and learn its secrets.
One of those ideas was the simple idea of intelligibility, the idea that nature is intelligible, it could be understood by the human mind and to be understood, it has order and design and patterns that can be understood by the human mind because nature was designed by a rational intellect, namely the Judeo-Christian God. It is the idea that that same God made human beings in its image so we can understand nature because we’ve been endowed by a rationality, the same rationality that designed the universe, so there’s a principle of correspondence. That was a really powerful idea.
Then there were a number of metaphors that the early scientists used to describe nature that reflected its religious background. They talked about the laws of nature and understood that the laws were a product of a divine law giver, that there was an order in nature that was sustained by the constant action. There was also the idea that nature was like a clock or some great mechanism that had a hidden design to it that was responsible for that order. Then the third and maybe the most powerful metaphor of all is the idea of the book of nature, the gist of it being that if God had revealed himself through the holy scriptures, God also revealed himself through nature, that something about God’s character could be understood from his works as well as his word.
When I was in my first couple of years in grad school, I kept reading that primary sources from these early scientists like Galileo and Newton, these same metaphors would occur. They were obviously theological metaphors that were meant to convey something of the theological presuppositions that had given rise to science. This is widely recognized among professional historians and scientists that the religious basis of modern science is the Judeo-Christian basis of modern science.
But during the late 19th century, that philosophy of science, if you will, was largely lost as there were new theories developed about the origin of the solar system, about the origin of new forms of life, of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, theories in geology about the major features of planet earth, the canyons, mountain ranges and so forth were providing explanations for how things got here that were purely naturalistic that made no reference to a designing intelligence or to a creator of any kind. So we had this much more materialistic or naturalistic philosophy of science that had come to dominate. Scholars now call that philosophy of scientific materialism.
So the early theistic framework for science was replaced by a more naturalistic or materialistic framework, philosophically speaking. But then, and this is the main argument of the book, during the last 100 years starting at about the 1920s in developments in cosmology, there have been three great discoveries that have now pointed in a very different anti-materialistic or non-materialistic direction, and indeed I argue that they provide the empirical basis, the evidential basis for an inference to the reality of a transcendent designing mind often known as God.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you detail each of these discoveries in the book?
Stephen C. Meyer: I describe each of those discoveries. The first is that the universe had a beginning. The second is that the universe has been fine tuned from the beginning for a possibility of life. The third is that there have been big bursts of information in a digital form into our biosphere that have made both the origin of life and new forms of life possible suggesting, as I’ve argued, a kind of master programmer for life acting through the origin and history of life. So that’s the kind of the broad sketch of both the story and the argument.
Christianity gave way to modern science or Judeo-Christianity, the religious framework of western Europe. That framework was lost in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s returning because of discoveries in science.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you inferring or saying that these three discoveries actually prove that the “master programmer for life” is the God of the Bible?
Stephen C. Meyer: Well, in science, you don’t really prove things. You have evidence, and then you attempt to explain. We typically infer as the thing most likely to be true, the explanation that is the most compelling. So scientists use a reasoning called inference to the best explanation. In a court of law, it would be very similar. It would give you a kind of confidence but not the kind of truth you’d get from mathematical axioms or something like that.
Scientists always infer the best explanation and remain open to further evidence as it may come along. You can make a hypothesis that provides a better explanation than competing hypotheses. So that’s the kind of argument I’m making. We’re not trying to prove God. What I do is make an argument that God has certain characteristics that are consistent with the God of the Bible, but other traditional theists might also have a similar conception of God who is intelligent and active in the creation but also transcends the creation who stands in some way outside matter, space, time and energy.
One of the most striking discoveries of the 20th century is that, in modern cosmology and astrophysics, we have evidence that the physical or material universe came into existence a discreet time ago, and so we can’t really invoke a prior materialistic explanation because it was matter itself that came into existence at that time. So that event suggests the need for a cause beyond matter and energy and beyond space and time. That’s one of the attributes that other Christians have ascribed to God.
So I’m making not a proof for the God of the Bible, but I’m formulating an argument for theism as the best explanation of the ensemble of evidences that we have about biological and cosmological origins where the kind of theistic God I’m referring to is certainly consistent with what Judeo-Christians believe about God. But there are other theists that might affirm a God of similar attributes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How does evolution fit into your theory of the origin of life?
Stephen C. Meyer: Well, there are two different branches of evolutionary theory. One is the main branch that we all know, the theory of biological evolution formulated by Darwin in 1859. It explains how new forms arrive from simpler preexisting forms. Then there’s another branch of evolutionary theory that attempts to explain the origin of the first life from simple preexisting chemicals.
I argue that we have evidence of design at the point of the origin at the very first life because at the foundation of life in the DNA molecule and other large information carrying molecules, we’ve discovered literally digital information and that what we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which is the basis for all scientific reasoning about the past, is that information, especially in a digital or alphabet form, always arises from an intelligent source. Whether we’re talking about a hieroglyphic inscription or a paragraph in a book or a section of software or even information embedded in a radio signal, if you find information and you trace it back to it’s source, you always come to a mind not a material process.
So the great discovery of late 20th century biology, starting with a period known as the molecular biological resolution, is that information in a digital form is running the show at the foundation of life and the branch of evolutionary theory that is meant to explain the origin of life. Therefore, the origin of the information necessary to produce it has reached a state of complete impasse. The origin of life problem, beginning from the simple chemicals in the prebiotic soup to the first living cell, has proven intractable from an evolutionary standpoint. I detail this both in the new book Return of the God Hypothesis but also in my first book, Signature of the Cell, in much more detail.
But in any case, materialistic evolutionary theories have failed to account for the origin of the information needed to build the first life, and yet we do know of a cause that is capable of generating information. That cause is intelligence or mind. So I have argued that what we’re looking at is the foundation of life in the large information bearing, bio-macro molecules is evidence of the activity of designing intelligence in the origin of life and the history of life.
I, and my colleagues who are favoring the idea of intelligent design, accept that natural selection is a real process and that there are evolutionary mechanisms that produce limited amounts of change. But in this book and in previous books, I dispute number one, that the evolutionary mechanisms have explained the origin of the first life, and secondly that they’ve been sufficient to account for the origin of major innovations in the history of life, for example, the origin of the first animals in an event known as the Cambrian explosion and other similar events like that in the fossil record where you see major innovations. So we accept evolution as a real process that produces minor variations but not major innovations.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Does the Big Bang have theistic implications?
Stephen C. Meyer: That’s a big part of my story, or really the story of science in the 20th century. It’s not my story. It’s the story of modern cosmology and astrophysics. I tell that in chapters four, five and six of the book. It’s just an absolutely fascinating set of discoveries because we go back to the ancient Greeks. There have been debates from antiquity on whether the universe was infinite or eternal or whether it was finite and whether it had a beginning.
The consensus from the Greek philosophers and then many of the even early modern and later scientists into the 19th century and early 20th century was that the universe must be eternal and therefore self-existent and that it did not need a creator because it was, in essence, the thing from which everything else came. The shocking discovery of the early 20th century in the 1920s and 30s and then right up to the 60s and into the 90s was a series of astronomical observations: that we have striking evidence that the universe is currently expanding outward from a point of beginning, and as it expands, if we back extrapolate, we come to a point where all of the matter and energy of the universe would’ve congealed to a single point marking the beginning of that current expansion we see now, arguably marking the beginning of the universe itself.
The discovery of the expanding universe by Edwin Hubble and other astronomers in 1920 has provided that’s the first and most important line of evidence for that beginning point. The theoretical work that was done by some of the physicists at the time like Georges Lemaitre resulted in a kind of synthesis between observational astronomies adjusting an expanding universe based on evidence known as the redshift evidence, a light coming from distant galaxies looks redder that it otherwise looks suggesting they were moving away from us and that wavelengths were getting stretched out.
So we had observational evidence of an expanding universe implying it had expanded from a beginning and then developments in theoretical physics that reinforced they were based on Einstein’s new theory of relativity. Einstein himself initially didn’t like the implications of his own theory and attempted to fine tune his equations called the cosmological constant to get around the idea that the universe was dynamic and expanding, but later withdrew that as he was shown the evidence from observational astronomy showing that the universe was expanding. Also other physicists pointed out to him that his own equations describing how gravity works imply that the universe is dynamic and must be expanding.
So by the 1930s, there was a kind of synthesis of observational astronomy and theoretical physics suggesting that the universe had a beginning. Opponents of that idea, one in particular, Fred Doyle, dubbed the new theory the Big Bang. He meant that to be a pejorative term to kind of stigmatize it, but it stuck, and it’s the name of the theory we hold today. There are different Big Bang models, but the basic idea that the universe had a beginning is now well accepted by astronomers and physicists.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You know, the age-old question is, if there is a creator, who created the creator?
Stephen C. Meyer: Exactly. It’s not only a question, but it imposes an objection to the idea of intelligent design. Richard Dawkins asks, “Then who designed the designer?” It’s a clever retort, no question. But it does raise a deep philosophical issue that every system of thought has to address and that is what every world view has to answer which is, what is the thing or the entity of the process from which everything else came?
In western philosophy and science, there have been usually two different diametrically opposed answers given to that. One is mind, a preexisting mind or intelligence, and the other is matter. Those are the two systems of materialism and theism that have been in philosophical competition for a very long time. The evidence from the new cosmology tells us that matter is an inadequate thing from which to explain everything else. If matter itself came into existence to a finite thing in the past, then materialism does not provide the best explanation.
I used to tell my students that the Big Bang and the singularity theorems of contemporary physics suggest that matter is a crummy candidate to be the primality, the thing from which everything else came because matter itself begins to exist at a finite time in the past as does energy, space and time. So the new cosmology, I think, is more consistent with a theistic world view which posits its transcendent God with a mind as the primality rather than materialism and other developments that I discuss in the book.
The constants of physics and the fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe also suggest the need for a mind to fine tune those perimeters of physics that make life possible. Since much of that fine tuning is coming from the very beginning of the universe, that also points to a transcendent mind as the thing from which the universe came. I think the new discoveries in physics and cosmology suggest that matter and energy are not a good candidate to be that thing or entity but rather theism provides a better explanation of these big origin events, and the positing of preexisting eternal mind or creator provides a more coherent explanation of the evidence we have.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you believe that the Judeo-Christian God created the world under 10,000 years ago?
Stephen C. Meyer: I do not. No. That’s not a view I hold. I accept the standard cosmological and geological dates. The standard cosmological dating for the origin of the universe is 3.8 billion years, and the earth is thought to be 4.5 billion. In some of the debates, especially in the Christian world about the age of the earth, I tend to take an old earth, old universe view.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you ever visited the Creation Museum, founded by Ken Ham, that is located in Kentucky?
Stephen C. Meyer: I have not. But I did contribute an essay to a book recently called Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, and I did have a bit of a back and forth exchange with Ken Ham, who I think has had a role in that book. Many of the young earth creationists like the arguments we’re making for intelligent design, so you can be a young earth creationist and affirm intelligent design. But if you’re a proponent of intelligent design or the argument I’m making more broadly for a God hypothesis, that doesn’t mean you’re in favor of young earth creationism. So there’s an asymmetry there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I enjoyed the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye.
Stephen C. Meyer: Yeah. That was very lively on both sides. We actually got a lot of email saying, “Hey, there was a third position not represented. We wish you guys had been a part of it.” Still, it was very lively.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Many Christians believe that science and God are incompatible. How do you address that?
Stephen C. Meyer: I think it’s a great time to be a Christian or a serious Jewish believer in God and being a scientist. As I said, science arose in a Judeo-Christian Western European milieu for specifically religious reasons, and science, as an institution, has assumptions that make sense within a Judeo-Christian world view. So now on top of that, we’re finding tremendous evidence for the design of life, the design of the universe and even the creation of the universe. So I think science is actually a friend to theists. In fact, that’s the argument of the new book. So if there are religious people who are science deniers, I view that as unfortunate.
Many people need to deny science to protect their religious beliefs. I think actually the materialists are now in a position of needing to deny science to protect their religious beliefs. One of the things I do in the book is show how incredibly fanciful and convoluted many of the new theories in theoretical physics have become to try to avoid the conclusion that the universe was finely tuned or to explain it away by referencing things like multiple universes and that there’s a tendency now increasing in modern physics to invent mathematical castles in the air to explain things that are readily explained by reference to a belief in God. So if anything, I think the shoe is suddenly shifting and moving to the other foot.
You’re absolutely right. There are many religious believers who have viewed science as a kind of enemy. But actually, I think science is a friend to their beliefs, and I think the materialists are now finding that many of the new scientific discoveries are profoundly challenging to the materialistic world view. There was the famous opener to the Cosmos series by Carl Sagan where he said that the universe is all there is and all there was and all there ever will be. Neil deGrasse Tyson has reprised that opener in his reboot of the Cosmos series. But one of the striking discoveries of the 20th century is that the universe has not always been here as scientific materialists would expect. So I think that many of the discoveries of modern science are unexpected from the standpoint of a purely naturalistic, that is to say, a non-theistic viewpoint.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Should public schools teach students both creationism and evolution?
Stephen C. Meyer: I think students should study science. If they are religious students that believe in God, I think they have even more reason to study science. On the question of public school curriculum, our position has been that students should learn the arguments and evidence for contemporary Darwinian theory, and they should also learn the counter arguments and evidence as those are being reported in the peer-reviewed scientific articles. We haven’t been advocating for teaching students about the religious doctrine of creation in a science class nor do we advocate for even our own theory of intelligent design because at this point, we’ve been more concerned to encourage scientists to develop testable research programs based on the concept of intelligent design.
In other words, we want to win the argument about intelligent design at a scientific level and not create a political football around public school curriculum. But at the present time, if students are learning evolution, they learn the scientific evidence that challenges the theories as well. There’s a wealth of peer-reviewed literature in different scientific disciplines raising problems with the contemporary Darwin theory.
In fact, in 2016, I attended a Royal Society conference in London about examining the need for a new theory of evolution because so many evolutionary biologists themselves are disenchanted with the contemporary Darwinian theory known as Neo-Darwinism. In particular, they are skeptical that the mechanism of random mutation in natural selection is genuinely creative, thus our view is the mutation selection mechanism can generate minor variations. That’s actually a common view among many evolutionary biologists themselves, so we picked it just as a matter of scientific literacy. Students get to know about those dissenting opinions within the field of evolution biology when they’re learning about evolutionary theory in school.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Steve, what are some of the primary takeaways from Return of the God Hypothesis?
Stephen C. Meyer: One of the things I’m most excited about in the new book is the way I’ve been able to engage some of the counter arguments to my own position. The first part of the book lays out a little about the history of science. The second part discusses the discoveries that have been made that point in the theistic direction.
Then I have a lengthy final section of the book in which I am addressing the most contemporary counter arguments to the argument that I’m making for fine tuning of the universe. A different view says that fine tuning doesn’t point to an intelligent designer, rather it can be explained arguably well or better by pointing to billions and billions of other universes that exist separate from our own such as the incredible improbability associated with getting all the specific perimeters right to make life possible can be explained as a kind of consequence of a giant lottery where there’s some universe-generating mechanism that has produced all these new universes. That’s a very common view among physicists.
So I’m engaging the people with a different view at the highest level. For me to just argue that fine tuning points to a fine tuner or to an intelligent designer without engaging that counter argument would leave my argument in a weak position. But I engaged the multiverse argument and then I show that this is kind of a twist when you get to the end of the book because if the best arguments on the other side end up suddenly presupposing it without recognizing it in the case of the multiverse, all multiverse hypotheses posit a universe-generating mechanism of some kind, and they do that so they can portray all these different universes as a kind of consequence of a giant lottery where our universe just happens to be the lucky one. Like, we just happened to get the right fine tuning perimeters set just right so we have the Goldilocks universe the physicists talk about. But the unexpected discoveries, as you get deeper into the physics, is that the universe generating mechanisms proposed by the multiverse advocates themselves require prior unexplained fine tuning.
In every case where we have a finely tuned system, whether it’s a French recipe or a mechanical internal combustion engine, we have traced back to its source, and we always come to a mind. It turns out that the multiverse argument does not provide any alternative explanations to fine tuning. It simply proposes prior unexplained fine running. So I argue that the multiverse doesn’t solve the problem. It just leaves us where we were in the beginning knowing that fine turning is inevitably the product of an intelligence.
So I think an interesting feature of the book is that I took great pains to engage the most current and most common objections to the argument that I’m making, and then in some cases made novel counterarguments to show that the case I’m making is very strong indeed even taking on the strongest opposition.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did God finely tune the universe in six days?
Stephen C. Meyer: (laughs) Well, a lot of the fine tuning was set very early from the beginning, but it certainly didn’t happen in six 24-hour periods, in my opinion. You can ask others about that. But I don’t accept the particular interpretation of Genesis that gives rise to that idea that God created the universe in six 24-hour days.
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