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Is the universe designed? If it is, we shall not learn about it by looking for items trademarked “The Heavenly Construction Company”, any more than, if it is not designed, we shall learn that by finding objects stamped “Blind Chance Rules”. Science by itself will not tell us the answer to this question, either in the positive or in the negative. The reason for this is simple. The question of design is a metaphysical question, a question that goes ‘beyond’ (meta) physics, and metaphysical questions must receive metaphysical answers, given for metaphysical reasons. Physics - or science generally - constrains metaphysics but it does not determine it, just as the foundations of a house constrain what can be built on them, but they do not determine the actual form of the edifice. You can get the idea by thinking about another metaphysical issue: the nature of causality. Take non-relativistic quantum mechanics. Is it an indeterministic theory or not? Niels Bohr says Yes; David Bohm says No. Their interpretations are completely contrasting, but their radically different theories both lead to the same physical consequences. There is no empirical scientific test that can settle the matter between them. Whether they are aware of it or not, the 99.9% of physicists (among whom I number myself) who take the conventional view of an indeterministic quantum mechanics, do so for metascientific reasons. Chief among these is the belief that Bohm’s very clever ideas are, in fact, too clever by half, for they have a metaphysically unattractive air of contrivance about them.

That judgement illustrates the sort of considerations that are relevant to assessing metaphysical proposals. The criteria include a variety of desirable properties, many of which we also associate with a successful fundamental physical theory: economy, elegance, naturalness, and adequacy to experience. As we know in the case of science itself, these characteristics are not always easy to define in a watertight way, but it is often not difficult to find agreement in a truth-seeking community about when they have been fulfilled. There is greater possibility for disagreement in metaphysics than in science, and one reason for that is that a very significant metaphysical criterion is that of scope. How wide-embracing should be the understanding that the theory will afford us? What range of experience should it take into account? I shall be arguing today for a generously conceived metaphysic that takes personal experience as seriously as impersonal, and I shall be rejecting what I see as a narrow scientism. Some of the disagreements among us will certainly stem from this question of the breadth of phenomena we are trying to take understand.

Contributed by: Sir John Polkinghorne

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Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Understanding the Universe


Science's Modest Ambition
Why is Science Possible?
Why is the Universe so Special?
Other Considerations
The Problem of Evil
Purpose and the Cosmic Conclusion


 John Polkinghorne

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