In his debate (a.k.a. dialogue of the deaf) with Cardinal Pell on Australian TV two years ago, Richard Dawkins countered the inevitable teleological argument for the existence of God, the “Intelligent Designer”, by asking the question in the title above. He limpidly explained that it is just as meaningless to ask why there is life. Mountains and life, including our own, have no purpose. He added, trying to educate poor Pell, that both questions are understood by some as meaning HOW did they happen. They exist, scientists say, because of tectonic shifts and because of the interaction of certain elements in certain conditions. Pell predictably trotted out the old saw about Science being able to explain the “how” but never the “why”. He refuses to see not only that science cannot determine the purpose of creation, which is, he claims, where religion kicks in, but that religion in fact has no acceptable answer either. The question of a purpose in nature is meaningless.
We all want to find finality in birds’ wings. Pangloss, Voltaire’s character in his caustic “Candide”, saw finality in noses : “Noses were made to support spectacles.” (Blogger’s Note : I have myself written that God got it right when He put ears on the sides of our head for the same reason.) Pangloss goes on : “Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches” (319). But this is Chestertonian sneering, not arguing. So let’s argue a little : However beautiful the feathers may be, those wings are obviously meant for flying, (as “these boots were made for walkin’ “) not just as decoration to attract a sexual partner. Of course they have a purpose. But God did not design them, did not even get them to evolve with the size and shape and structure and aerodynamic capacity necessary to make flight possible. The fossil record reveals hit-and-miss adaptation, with dead-ends and failures and extinctions along the way, but also an evolution that results finally in avian Lift-Off ! If God is responsible for some creatures being able to fly – and even some birds, like Aussie emus, never could – it seems fair to wonder why He would have taken so long to do it. Why bother with experiments, why take eons to arrive at wings and the first phenomenon of flight ? Why not equip the birds with the finished product instead of a DIY kit ? Believers call this sneering. I call such questions serious challenges to anyone who believes “God” had a purpose in creation when in fact the only purpose of evolution is survival of species.
Divine design and finality are a construct, imposed on natural phenomena that have neither. We have a purpose in many of the things we do : we make watches, cars, computers, smartphones for a purpose. It seems logical that God, presumed to exist, would have done the same. But if mountains have no purpose except perhaps to promote the ski-industry and the Swiss franc, even His Eminence must agree that exploding stars which become supernovae clearly never had one. “Why” is a perfectly good question. Why, indeed, can Pell not get the point ?