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)
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.
Further, if we were truly in such a blind purposeless world, we would not even have the concept of order to compare it to so we can discover whether it was purposeless or not. A fish has no concept of non-water, and therefore has no concept of being wet or dry. Without order existing somewhere, we would have no measuring standard to determine whether the world had order or not. If we were truly in a blind purposeless world, we would not expect to even discover that it was like this, for even the concepts of order and purpose would never have arisen at all.
While the first issue is whether or not the world has order, the second is how we know that the order is there. If the world has order, how do we come to realize it? If we are a child of a blind purposeless world, where do we get the realization of how the world is? We go through life simply knowing that the world has basic order and that we can understand that order if we look at it long enough. One school of Christian apologetics describes it this way:
In the first place, the ‘knower’ is no different than anything else in his environment; he is not distinguished by a ‘mind’ that has the self-consciousness and freedom to search for the truth, evaluate options, and make intellectual commitments, for man has nothing more than a physical brain, which – like every other natural object – is determined by chemistry, biology, and physics. The ‘thinking’ of this product of chance cannot warrant the notion of universals, necessity, causal connections, or moral prescriptions. In the second place, the ‘facts’ that man encounters are likewise random and unconnected in any way that would justify categorization, laws, or predictability. The ‘standards’ of logic or reasoning cannot be taken as objective or justified as to their universality – or even applicability to the world of contingent material facts, which is so different from them in character. . . “If you have a bottomless sea of Chance, and if you, as an individual, are but a bit of chance, by chance distinguished from other bits of chance, and if the law of contradiction has by chance grown within you, the imposition of this law on your environment is, granted it could take place, a perfectly futile activity.” (Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, p. 112, quoting Van Til.)
Thus the person who denies the existence of God has to jump at least two very large hurdles: assuming that order exists in the world in the first place, and that we can recognize it when we see it.
Although Nagel is not a Christian, his small book Mind and Cosmos explores this and other related topics very well.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrestled with the problem of knowing meaning from the world and concluded that we cannot truly know the world as it is. Kant claimed that when we perceive sense input from the world, the meaning comes from an existing framework in our minds that imposes order onto the world. Even Kant, then, began with something orderly, the categories in the mind. Kant also concluded that we must ultimately assume God to make sense of the world. While I reject Kant’s view due to its significant problems, he was correct that without God, we cannot recognize order in the world.
I doubt that many of those in the physical sciences know or care about how we make meaning of reality. Most of us go on with our daily lives never giving it much thought. But when we stop and think it through, we recognize that the atheist materialist view of reality has insurmountable hurdles that we must find unreasonable. Dawkins is wrong; we can indeed understand things in the universe, because at bottom order is there in the first place and we have minds capable of recognizing it.
With God, we can not only realize that we live in a world where He has given meaning and purpose, but He can have give meaning and significance in our own lives. You can learn more about God and His love and purposes in the Bible.