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Beyond Order: Optimality and Sub-Optimality in the Universe
May 1, 2008

This article deals with the feature of the universe known as “optimality.” It particularly deals with optimality in relation to “intelligent design” arguments and addresses certain critiques of evolutionists regarding the existence of sporadic apparent “sub-optimality” in the universe. It argues that most arguments about apparent sub-optimality essentially make assumptions, are reductionist in nature, and result from a rush to judgment by evolutionist scientists.

Optimality is defined as the “most favorable condition or greatest degree or amount possible under given circumstances.”1 It denotes a general equilibrium in which no improvement in one part of a system is possible without a larger sacrifice in another part. Thus, optimality is not mere order; rather, it is the highest state of it. Every optimal state is also orderly, but every orderly situation does not have to be optimal. The houses that we live in are examples of this. It is quite clear that our houses are not the optimal design for a house, but they are still orderly, hence the result of intention and intelligence.

A common trend among today’s evolutionists is to consider apparent sub-optimality (or “poor design” as some put it) sufficient proof for the nonexistence of a designer (hence, God). Biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, contends that “evidence of telling imperfections” in design is important evidence that “no designer exists.”2 However, there are serious problems with this argument. First, judgments about optimality require knowledge of the entire set of objectives and available means, whereas we have no complete knowledge of divine objectives as to the creation of anything. The Bible refers to this point in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Similarly, the Qur’an states, “I did not make them witnesses of the creation of the heavens and the earth, nor of the creation of their own selfs” (Kahf 18:51). As we were not witnesses to the creation of the universe and human beings, we can never confidently say that something is “sub-optimal.” As one political scientist, George Tsebelis, has noted, cases of apparent sub-optimality are in fact cases of disagreement between “the actor” and “the observer”: “while the observer focuses attention on only one game, the actor is involved in a whole network of games”-what he calls nested games.3 What appears sub-optimal from the perspective of only one game is in fact optimal when the whole network of games is considered. Consequently, all conclusions about sub-optimality in the universe are unwarranted because as observers we have no comprehensive vision and understanding regarding God’s plans and objectives, which relate to multiple issues and platforms. Indeed, most sub-optimality arguments regarding creation are based on the assumed objectives of scientists, which do not necessarily correspond with the more complex and comprehensive objectives of God.

The sub-optimality arguments of evolutionists come in two forms: biological and theological. A famous example of the former is the “poor design” argument regarding the “inverted” arrangement of the vertebrate retina.4 Several neo-Darwinians have taken issue with the way retina is typically situated in vertebrates. The vertebrate retina is inverted in the sense that the photoreceptors sit at the back of the retina, so that light has to pass through a layer of neurons before it reaches them. Evolutionists have argued that this invertedness results in inefficiency in vertebrate vision, which is sufficient for them to conclude for the nonexistence of an all-knowing and all-powerful God. Yet, later research proved that in return for the above-mentioned negligible loss in vision, the current structure of the vertebrate retina is found to make possible better absorption of excess light5 and superior supply of blood to photoreceptors,6 both of which are essential for healthy vision. They are so essential that “[i]f the human retina were ‘wired’ the other way around,” concludes Peter Gurney, “the photoreceptors would be left in darkness.”7 This brings us to a verse in the Qur’an: “Were the truth to follow their lusts and fancies, the heavens and the earth and all those who live in them would certainly have gone to ruin” (Muminun 23:71).

A prominent example of the theological sub-optimality arguments of the evolutionists is the so-called “problem of evil,” which goes back to Darwin himself in the evolutionist tradition; Darwin had troubles with the apparently cruel acts in the animal world. Some of Darwin’s famous contemporary followers also take “the existence of human evil as well as of natural catastrophes and diseases” to mean that a benevolent God does not exist.8 For these evolutionists, the coexistence of evil and good is a sub-optimal situation and this is sufficient proof to reject the idea of a benevolent God. This argument suffers two ailments, though. The first and most ironic one is that the argument itself is more theology than science. From a scientific point of view, the question for which an answer is sought is whether the universe and everything inside it could have come into being by chance or not. The nature of God and how He ought to act are not questions that science seeks answers for. Second, these arguments stem from evolutionists’ own expectations regarding how the things should be, which are bounded by their strictly earthly considerations. When transcendental and other-worldly considerations are also taken into account, the problem almost evaporates into thin air. Throughout history the “problem of evil” (or theodicy) has been debated by hundreds of scholars in almost all religions. The reconciliation of worldly pains and sorrows with the mercy of a benevolent God has been one of the most challenging topics in the history of religion. Scholars of many religions have offered diverging explanations with varying degrees of consistency and persuasiveness. Some Christian explanations for human evil, for example, have rested on God’s wish to love and be loved out of free will. From this point of view, a genuine love requires a genuine free will, which results in evil actions as well good ones.9 Muslim scholars have also developed explanations that would account for all types of “evils.” First, similar to the previous Christian argument, human evil is argued to have been allowed for the realization of a genuine relationship between God and human beings. As for other “evils” such as natural catastrophes or diseases, most Muslim scholars do not view them as evils to start with. In the Muslim faith, everything that takes place happens out of a divine wisdom, which ultimately aims at the well-being of a believer in the afterlife. In this line of thinking, an adversity such as a disease can play three main possible divine roles. It is either a punishment for a believer’s sins or misbehavior in this world, which would replace a harsher punishment in the hereafter; or a test to be passed for spiritual development; or a tool to make a believer approach God by increasing his or her supplications meanwhile.10In each of these cases, the disease is given to the believer with a benevolent wisdom on the part of God. Moreover, some Muslim scholars have pointed out that sick people also remind other healthy people to give many thanks to God for their health, thereby channeling the whole community to the path of God. As such, what evolutionists claim as sub-optimalities are indeed essential parts of the divine plan, and they collectively function for the realization of the ultimate goal of creation. Thus, for Muslims, a disease is a gift of God with an evil face. As the Qur’an states, “it may well be that you dislike something while God has set in it much good” (Nisa 4:19). Again, a holistic view renders sub-optimality arguments unwarranted.

What these examples suggest is that most sub-optimality arguments are premature and assumptive. Proving a “poor design” argument requires more work than many evolutionists believe. Given our lack of comprehensive knowledge regarding the universe, it is safe to believe that we can never be sure whether something is ultimately sub-optimal. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily doom the study of optimality to a state of impasse. Although it is almost impossible to prove the theoretical optimality of things, we can assume tentative practical optimality in cases where we cannot suggest some practical means to improve on existing things. Thus, a practical test of optimality can be replacement of any purportedly sub-optimal thing in the universe with its artificial counterpart that is produced by human beings. If we can manage to replace any sub-optimal part with a better alternative without introducing new sub-optimalities elsewhere, then we might have a right to a tentative claim for sub-optimality. What is interesting is that all human attempts to improve on natural goods have failed so far. A prominent example to these failures is sugar substitutes. After the scientific discovery of the relationship between sugar consumption and certain health problems such as obesity and tooth decay, several scientists have advised that certain, if not all, people should refrain from or minimize sugar consumption. This resulted in a scientific interest in as well as a popular demand for sugar substitutes (or artificial sweeteners) that would give us the same sweet taste without sugar’s adverse effects. Surprisingly though, recent studies have demonstrated that sugar substitutes create more problems than they solve. Sugar-free sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin come with dozens of side effects, some of which are lethal.11 Consequently, an increasing number of dietary experts advise us today to refrain from “diet” products, most of which include artificial sweeteners.12 Thus, here we might be justified in claiming that natural sugar has practical optimality because it is proven to be superior to all other alternative sweeteners so far. Another prominent example is baby formulas. Despite all improvements in biochemistry, all baby formulas continue to come second after breast milk. Until human beings succeed in producing an infant formula that is overall more nutritious than breast milk and that is inexpensive enough to be produced in mass quantities, we are safe in saying that breast milk has practical optimality.

Finally, I should note that even if any sub-optimality does exist in the universe, it does not by itself provide any evidence for the absence of an all-powerful Creator. True, most believers believe in a God who is perfect in its self or essence and in its creation. Yet, this does not come to mean that any sub-optimality in the universe would necessarily negate the idea of God. From an Islamic point of view, for example, as everything in this life is part of a test, negligible sub-optimality might have also been purposefully included in God’s “design” as a test for human beings. If everything in the observed world was as perfect as each and every one of us would like it to be, there would be little room for disbelieving in God. However, the Qur’an states that this is not something God wished for human beings. Faith requires a struggle; and minimal sub-optimalities (if there are any) might be part of that struggle as well. If one in a thousand parts comes in seemingly sub-optimal character, it is not rational to conclude for the absence of intelligence or design.

Kaan Kerem has a PhD in Political science. He is freelance writer on philosophy and scientific thought.

1. Wordnet Online dictionary:

2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986), p. 91.

3. George Tsebelis, Nested Games: Rational Choice in Comparative Politics (University of California Press, 1991), pp: 6-7.

4. Dawkins, pp. 93-4.

5. Juan Ramon Martinez-Morales, Isabel Rodrigo, and Paola Bovolenta, “Eye Development: A View from the Retina Pigmented Epithelium.” BioEssays. 26:766-777, 2003.

6. Helga Kolb, “How the Retina Works,” American Scientist, 91:28–35, 2003. 7. Peter W.V. Gurney, Technical Journal, 13(1):37–44, 1999.

8. Massimo Pigliucci, “Design Yes, Intelligent No.” Skeptical Inquirer, September 2001.

9. Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford University Press, 1996). Also see, Casey Luskin, Good Theology and Bad Design or Bad Theology and Good Design?

10. Said Nursi, The Flashes, trans. S. Vahide (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1996), pp: 26, 28, 334–336.

11. Janet Starr Hull, Sweet Poison (New Horizon Press, 1998). Visit author’s website for detailed information.

12. Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet Oz, You: The Owner’s Manual (Collins, 2005).