Human beings are natural explorers. We are also natural engineers. From the time we are first able to comprehend our surroundings, we begin to apprehend the workings of the world, and harness them for our purposes. I will never forget the adorable racket produced by our own children, even before they could walk, as they sat on our kitchen floor wielding a spoon among the overturned pots and pans. The realization that they had discovered the power to voluntarily create loud banging noises brought a look of sheer joy to their tiny faces.
Though it may be particularly pleasing when we are young and everything is new, people of all ages relish participation in acts of discovery and creativity. Our experience resonates with Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” We were made not only to seek and know truth, but also to apply that truth in meaningful ways.
We seldom think about the match between the comprehensibility of the universe and our ability to comprehend it. But this kind of coincidence is a necessary prerequisite for deriving insights from nature. Albert Einstein noted that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible. In a letter to a friend, he referred to this feature of the universe as “a miracle or an eternal mystery…which is being constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.”
Furthermore, nature appears to be written in the language of mathematics, a complex set of abstract ideas that we are able to apprehend and apply with unreasonable effectiveness. Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner writes, “The enormous usefulness of mathematics is something bordering on the mysterious…there is no rational explanation for it…the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”
Even chemical elements such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, which formed in the interior of stars at just the right temperatures and pressures, enable life processes by combining with hydrogen to form molecules with just the right bond strengths. This arrangement allows these molecules to couple and decouple at just the right moments to support the machinery of life. Such complex building blocks of life chemistry are reminiscent of LEGOs, which are masterfully engineered with the perfect interference fit, allowing children to easily assemble and disassemble the blocks to create various configurations. Yet even though LEGOs are a great toy, they cannot come close to the “magic” performed by the DNA molecule found in the nucleus of all living cells. Even our best computer technology is child’s play compared to the information storage capacity and capabilities of these complex systems at the core of life.
At an even more fundamental level, the initial conditions for the cosmos, the constants of physics, the values of the fundamental forces, and the very laws of nature themselves appear to have been engineered to have precisely the correct values and features to allow for the emergence and sustenance of life. This has come to be known as the “fine-tuning problem,” since it is difficult to explain, as Stephen Hawking has written, “except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”
Some people are opposed to thinking of God as an engineer because they envision him with human limitations, perhaps as a clockmaker who winds up the universe and then steps back without any further interaction. But neither of these depictions is necessary, nor are they in accord with Scripture. Several passages in the Bible describe God as if he is a “process engineer” refining his people like a precious metal in the furnace of affliction, or molding them like a potter molds clay on his potter’s wheel. Both of these pictures suggest an engineer who is intimately involved with his creation throughout the entire process. A modern process engineer who works in a refinery, for example, is involved in monitoring the product at various stages, and maintaining the appropriate conditions to achieve the desired outcome. Perhaps this is a more helpful picture of our Maker, who not only created us, but also sustains us and refines us as he holds all things together by his great power. Obviously, this model of our interaction with God falls short, as it fails to account for our role as free-will creatures that cooperate with our Maker in his creative processes. Perhaps the comment by mathematician George E. P. Box is appropriate: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
I believe the model of God as process engineer is “useful” because it communicates his great mastery over the realm of nature, and links this exquisite expertise to the work he has promised to complete in each one of us. The more we are able to comprehend the great works of our Maker, the more our faith in him, and love for him, will grow. Zechariah 12:1 refers to the Lord as the one “who forms the human spirit within a person.” He is forming us for a relationship with himself. To our delight, he has engineered the universe to reveal himself. “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). This provides strong motivation for Christians to pursue education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. As we come to appreciate these studies as acts of devotion and worship, we will better know our Maker, and love him all the more.
- Phenomena like the infant’s cookware symphony are actually a primitive form of reverse engineering, which steadily becomes more refined as we get older. Reverse engineering is simply an investigation into how and why something works the way it does. Formal courses of study in science, mathematics, and engineering often make use of this concept, though it may not be labeled explicitly as “reverse engineering.” Even so, practitioners of systems biology have recently been advocating a reverse-engineering mindset for unraveling the mysteries of living systems. Biologist E.O. Wilson writes, “The surest way to grasp complexity in the brain, as in any other biological system, is to think of it as an engineering problem…researchers in biomechanics have discovered time and again that organic structures evolved by natural selection conform to high levels of efficiency when judged by engineering criteria.” (Wilson, E.O., Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Knopf Publishing Group: Westminster, MD, p. 112, 1999.) [return to body text]
- Einstein, A., Letters to Solovine, translated by Wade Baskin, with an introduction by Maurice Solovine, New York: Philosophical Library, p. 132, 1987. [return to body text]
- Wigner, E., "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, p. 14, February 1960. [return to body text]
- Hawking, S., A Brief History of Time, Bantam, New York, p. 75, 1998. Personally, I don’t like the name “fine-tuning” because it elicits an image of a technician at a control panel with dials and gauges, trying to find just the right settings for the efficient performance of a complex piece of machinery. Or worse yet, it reminds older folks of the two knobs found on early television sets: “fine-tuning” and “vertical hold.” It seems like we were constantly fiddling with those knobs to get a good picture to come in. Either way, the images imply a trial-and-error process instead of the forethought, calculation and planning associated with engineering activities, and strongly suggested by many aspects of nature. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, all of these curiosities dovetail into a profoundly meaningful explanation: Being made in God’s image helps to explain our creative and investigative skills, particularly when we consider that God has specially engineered this universe to reveal himself to human beings. This is evident from Romans 1:20 where Paul writes that God’s existence, and something of his character and nature, are clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. [return to body text]
- Box, G. E. P., and Draper, N. R., Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces, John Wiley & Sons, New York, p. 424, 1987. [return to body text]