Is God Necessary for Us to Know Order and Purpose in the World?

by Glenn Smith

Is it reasonable for us to be able to recognize order and purpose in the world if God does not exist?

Thomas Nagel has written a very insightful book titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong (Oxford: New York, 2012). In one part of the book, he explores the relationship of order in the universe and our understanding of it. He writes:

Science is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible. That is, the world in which we find ourselves, and about which experience gives us some information, can be not only described but understood. That assumption is behind every pursuit of knowledge, including pursuits that end in illusion. . . . It seems to me that one cannot really understand the scientific world view unless one assumes that the intelligibility of the world, as described by the laws that science has uncovered, is itself part of the deepest explanation of why things are as they are. So when we prefer one explanation of the same data to another because it is simpler and makes fewer arbitrary assumptions, that is not just and aesthetic preference: it is because we think the explanation that gives greater understanding is more likely to be true, just for that reason. (p. 26-27)

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Here Nagel touches on a major question in philosophical circles, one that is largely ignored by those who do not have their heads in the philosophical clouds. But the question is nevertheless important to science, theology, and apologetics. There are at least two significant issues here: that order exists in the first place, and that we can understand it when we see it.

If God does not exist, then all that exists is ultimately explained by physics and chemistry. But if God does not exist, why would we expect an explanation in the first place? Why would we expect physics and chemistry to work at all? Why not total randomness? Those that deny the existence of God must hold that there is no ultimate meaning in the universe, no “large” meaning. Yet they go about their daily lives never questioning “small” meaning, such as grocery lists, telephone numbers, and measurements of pressure and heat. If there is no large meaning, why would small meaning exist at all? Atheist guru Richard Dawkins has said “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Yet while we are in this blind purposeless world of Dawkins, he expects us to see the purpose of his statements, and he does not presume his books are purposeless and undesigned…

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Is God Necessary for Us to Know Order and Purpose in the World? | Thomistic Bent