Providence or design

Two centuries ago, William Paley introduced the famous metaphor of the watch and the watchmaker - adducing the eye, the opposable thumb and so forth as evidence of a benign Creator. These ideas fell from favour, even among most theologians, in the post-Darwinian era. However, the apparent fine-tuning in physics cannot be so readily dismissed as Paley's biological 'evidences': we now view any biological contrivance as the outcome of prolonged evolutionary selection and symbiosis with its surroundings; but so far as the biosphere is concerned, the physical laws are given and nothing can react back on them.

Paley's view of astronomy was that it was not the most fruitful science for yielding evidence of design, but 'that being proved, it shows, above all others, the scale of [the Creator's] operations'. Paley might have reacted differently if he had known about the providential-seeming physics that led to galaxies, stars, planets and the ninety-two natural elements of the periodic table. Our universe evolved from a simple beginning - a big bang - specified by quite a short recipe, but this recipe seems rather special. Different 'choices' for some basic numbers would have a drastic effect, precluding the hospitable cosmic habitat in which we emerged. A modern counterpart of Paley, the clergyman and ex-mathematical physicist John Polkinghorne, interprets our fine-tuned habitat as 'the creation of a Creator who wills that it should be so'.

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