“Why isn’t God a better engineer?”

December 5, 2012

I’ve noticed that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of pop culture’s go-to guys for science, and it’s easy to see why: He’s charming and friendly, and he obviously knows his stuff, science-wise. I’ve seen him at least a couple times on The Colbert Report, but he’s on TV elsewhere.

The John Templeton Foundation recently asked him (and other notables) to answer this question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” To his credit, he admits up front that answering the question requires “access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” We might imagine, therefore, that any argument from “empirical foundations” alone would leave a lot to be desired, as does his answer.

He argues that no universe that looks like ours could be the product of design. If God exists, wouldn’t he at least be the world’s greatest engineer? No engineer would design this universe. It’s far too inefficient and wasteful.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig has handled this objection in debates before. I like this short answer from his blog, in response to a reader named Mike, a software engineer and agnostic:

So these arguments alone give us good grounds to think that a Creator and Designer of the universe exists. Now against this conclusion you oppose two considerations. First, “The universe is wasteful. It’s HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life.” Ah, but Mike, recall that it’s one of the insights of the fine-tuning argument that the universe must in fact be very large, since the heavy elements like carbon of which our bodies are made are synthesized in the interior of stars and then distributed throughout the cosmos by supernovae explosions. But it takes billions of years for the stars to go through such a process, and all the time the universe is expanding. So the size of the universe is a function of its age, and that is a pre-condition of our very existence. So all that empty space is not at all a waste! Besides, how do you know it is devoid of life? Maybe there are intelligent beings who exist elsewhere in the cosmos who are also God’s creatures. Why be closed to that idea?

Second, you object that “Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct.” But is it true that life was wasteful? The primeval forests were the basis for the oil and coal deposits that make modern civilization possible. (Try to think of human culture ever evolving very far in the absence of fossil fuels!) The extinct creatures that existed during those times were part of the eco-system that made the planet flourish. And don’t you think that God, if He exists, delighted in the dinosaurs and other marvelous creatures now extinct? I think He did!

That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn’t create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn’t engage in such waste.

Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you’ve got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean’s unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn’t He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn’t (just) an engineer?

2 Responses to ““Why isn’t God a better engineer?””

  1. I suppose the ide that God values effeciency could use a little consideration, but one has to wondr if projecting one’s values on to God is really so out of keeping with the concept, ot if such values may not alredy be common to the concept as it is put forward in the traditions he is arguing against.

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