The self-organizing cosmos.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

The beauty, complexity and order of nature are not the work of a designer deity. Self-organization is a capacity inherent in matter: things design themselves, in the context of the community of Being.

Rayleigh-Benard convection cells in a heated liquid. Image: Joseph Werne.

The design argument for God.

Most people recognize the breathtaking beauty, order and complexity of nature and the cosmos. Philosophers of all ages imagined that these three factors could not have come about by chance: the universe must have a designer.

Ever since Plato and Aristotle, this has been one of the most common arguments for the existence of a God or gods. The argument was classically put by William Paley, archdeacon of Carlisle (1743-1805), in his book Natural Theology, published in 1802.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer that … it had lain there forever; nor would it, perhaps, be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer.

But suppose he found a watch upon the ground and wondered how it came there? The first answer was no longer admissible:

When we come to inspect the watch, we perceive … that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it …

This mechanism being observed, the inference … is inevitable that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

What the design argument cannot prove.

If valid, the design argument would prove only that the cosmos had a designer.

But it says nothing about who the designer was. The designer may have been good or evil. It may continue to exist now, or it may have ceased to exist when its work was done. It may be a thinking agent, or a computer working to an algorithm. The argument does not link the designer to the God of any particular religion - indeed a mind that could design such logic and common sense defying laws as those of quantum physics or relativity would bear little or no resemblance to a human mind.

The design argument says nothing about what the Designer's purpose was. The purpose or function of an eye is apparent, but the purpose of life on earth or of the cosmos is not. The Grand Designer may have created the universe as a game, or as an experiment. It may have created the universe as a stage for human life - or for some superior alien life-form, and we are an unwanted by-product.

Even if we humans are the very centre of creation, the Grand Designer may have intended it as our pleasure garden or as our torture chamber; for our salvation or our destruction.

Arguments against design.

Ever since the design argument was first advanced, sceptics have attacked it. Many have pointed to human evil and pain as proof that the design was botched.

These arguments certainly undermine the idea that God was at the same time good, omniscient and omnipotent. If he was good (in the human sense of the word good) then why create undeserved suffering? If this was an unexpected side-effect, then he is not omniscient. If, seeing what has gone wrong, he does not correct it, he is not omnipotent.

However, most of these arguments undermine the design argument only if the purpose of creation was the welfare of living creatures. They do not apply if, for example, the purpose was to entertain the Grand Designer.

Modern science creates other problems with the design argument. Most Christian and Jewish theists assume that God's purpose in creating and designing the universe was as a stage for human life and history. But if this was the case, then:

  • The universe should be constructed so that intelligent life should emerge as quickly as possible. The six days of Genesis would be fine. But it took 10- 15 billion years.

  • There should be no massive redundancy. A single solar system was thought quite sufficient for the salvation history of the Christian faith. But there is massive redundancy. Would a good desinger construct 30 billion galaxies with 100 billion stars in each one in order for life to emerge on one planet.

  • The emergence of humanity should not be left to the vagaries of evolution. This could throw up any kind of intelligent species - or none at all for billions of years. But human emergence was left to chance. A theist might argue that God intervened to ensure that we emerged. But there is no evidence that he did so. What is seen to have happened in the fossil record is indistinguishable from what would have happened had God not interfered.

  • The universe should be favourable not just to the emergence, but the persistence of intelligent species. They should not be exposed to accidental destruction - eg, by meteors, massive volcanic eruptions, ice ages, supernovae etc. But we are exposed.

Alternative explanations for design.

The design argument assumes that there are no other mechanisms by which order could not arise spontaneously from apparent disorder. But naturalistic thinkers have proposed many such mechanisms over the centuries.

Greek and Roman atomists from Democritus to Epicurus argued that order arose from chance collisions of particles.

The strongest philosophical criticisms were mustered, once again, by David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, published three years after Hume's death in 1776.

Hume showed how apparent design can arise purely by chance in a universe of particles in motion. Given an infinite time, a finite number of particles must hit on every possible order or combination.

The next steps in Hume's argument were prophetic of the later sciences of biology and of self-organization. Some forms of order, once hit upon, would support themselves for a very long time. Such forms would present all the appearance of design, yet:

Its origin ought rather to be ascribed to generation or vegetation than to reason or design… . A tree bestows order and organization on that tree, which springs from it, without knowing the order: an animal, in the same manner, on its offspring: a bird on its nest. [Dialogues on Natural Religion, Part VII.]

Hume also anticipated Darwin. Animals which were not well ordered perish:

It is in vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals or vegetables, and their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know how an animal could subsist unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases? [Dialogues on Natural Religion, Part VIII.]

Scientific evidence of self-design.

Science has taken up the torch. In one field after another - from heavenly bodies to chemical and biological systems - it has identified mechanisms by which things with apparent design emerge from things without.

Gravity is the most potent creator of order. Gravity built on small fluctuations in the original smooth universe, and clumped matter into discrete blocks, from solar systems to galaxies and superclusters.

Once gathered into sizeable stars, hydrogen began to burn, producing energy and building the heavier elements including carbon, oxygen and nitrogen.

When the elements are present for a long enough time in a suitable environment, life, a self-replicating system of order, emerges.

Through evolution, life generates creatures that seem remarkably well fitted to their environment. Yet evolution is not planned. Variation is created by random mutations. Most of these are harmful, so their carriers die out. A few are beneficial, and enable their carriers to thrive and breed better in their environment

The direction of evolution is determined by natural selection and the pre- existing environment.

Thus, by automatic processes, organisms develop which look like equipment designed for their environments. Equally, environments are collections of organisms adapted to live together, in complex webs of feeding, pollination and seed dispersal, parasitism and symbiosis.

These look for all the world as if some benign hand has designed them as a harmonious whole. But in reality they designed themselves and each other.

Matter possesses the capacity for self-organization.

Many non-living physical and chemical systems have the capacity to generate order from chaos. This capacity is known as self-organization.

Self-organization has long been familiar in the transitions between states of matter - especially from liquid to solid. Water or water vapour are usually in a disordered homogeneous state because differences in temperature or density are evened out by continual motion and collision. Lower the temperature to freezing point, and crystals of incredible beauty and complexity begin to form: stars, hexagons, ferns. A similar miracle occurs when minerals crystallize.

Fluids can make a "phase transition" into more ordered states even while they are still fluid. The following experiment was first conducted in 1900 by Benard, with a tank which is taller than it wide, and with metal plates at top and bottom. Normally, liquid in the tank exists in a homogeneous state in which warmth is evenly distributed. If the tank is warmed gently through the bottom plate, then the heat spreads gradually, and forms a gradient, with the warmer liquid below and cooler liquid towards the top. These situations are states of stable equilibrium, or symmetry - that is, they are homogeneous in space and in time. There is no way of telling the difference between one place and another or one time and another.

However, if the bottom plate is heated to a certain threshold temperature, then the liquid re-organizes itself into a honeycomb of hexagonal convection cells known as Benard cells (see illustration). In these cells liquid is rising on one side, and descending on the other.(1) Convection cells are common in the earth's molten interior, in the atmosphere, and in the sun.

Phenomena of self-organization have been discovered in chemistry. Normally, different chemical reagents put together react until they reach an homogeneous equilibrium state called "detailed balance."

However, if chemicals are continually added to keep the reagents at the same concentration, then the system may catalyze itself. In the Belousov- Zhabotinski reaction a cerium salt is mixed with malonic acid and potassium bromate. If the mixture is stirred, at certain rates of adding chemicals the system begins to turn blue, then after a few minutes red, then blue again, and so on, oscillating between red and blue.

This oscillation always settles into the same period and amplitude, whatever strength of shots of reagents are used. If the mixture is not stirred a different form of self-organization emerges: bullseye targets, rotating spiral waves, multi-armed spirals.

The universe designs itself.

In all these cases patterned order and beauty emerge spontaneously from blank homogeneity, without any conscious designer being involved.

That does not mean that no designing has occurred, if we define design as shaping form to suit its surroundings.

In reality, things design each other. Every particle, every molecule, every organism, every heavenly body, in the cosmos, exists and develops in the context of every other.

Pebbles on a beach show evidence of design, and indeed they are "designed," by their own internal structure, and by the waves and winds and rocks and sands and other pebbles that shape them.

Evolution is a process of research and development by which new designs are tested in the laboratory of reality. Those that fail the test die out. Those that pass thrive and multiply.

Organisms in an environment design each other, and design the environment. Design is a function of communities of beings. Each community exists in the context of higher-level communities: a tree in a forest, a forest on earth, earth in the solar system, the solar system in the galaxy, the galaxy in the cluster, the cluster in the universe.

What has done the designing? The constant flux of matter, and the constant interaction of each thing with everything else in its surroundings. In other words, design is the joint outcome of the fundamental properties of matter, and the community of past and existing beings.

Many people feel uncomfortable with this idea, and feel that even if there is no external creator God, the universe itself must have some conscious purpose, some goal towards which it is working.

But this discomfort is misguided. It derives from our education that matter is base and only spirit is noble. But matter is not base: it is radiant, beautiful, mysterious. When we admire design, we are admiring one of the many unexpected properties of matter - a property that links us closely with nature and the rest of the universe, as members and as observers.

The universe designs itself.

1. The physical mechanism is simple enough - the warmer liquid is less dense than the cooler liquid above it, and as it rises it is pushed further upwards by Archimedes pressure (just as balsa wood floats to the top of water). Vice-versa, cooler liquid is denser and is accelerated in its downward sinking by Archimedes pressure. Back.

Background image: Rayleigh-Benard convection cells in a heated liquid. Image: Joseph Werne, Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, University of Colorado.


is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

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Scientific pantheism: index.
History of pantheism.
Basic principles of scientific pantheism.
Join the World Pantheist Movement

Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: pan(at)(this domain)

© Paul Harrison 1996.