Some bad scientists, bad theologians, bad philosophers – 2

In yesterday’s post I recounted some of the panoply of thinkers who have propounded the argument from design down the centuries. At the beginning I asked at what point this respectable enterprise had become “bad science and bad theology”. The usual answer would seem to be that Darwin confronted William Paley and overcame.

William Paley has become the whipping boy for all design arguments before ID, and has nearly always been lazily misinterpreted (ie unread). Later and scientifically more sophisticated writings came from some of the best natural philsophers of the early nineteenth century in the Bridgewater Treatises.

I don’t propose to present here an exhaustive account of the case against design arguments – some of the objections are mentioned on the former post, and mostly amount to the charge that you can’t prove the God of the Bible from them, or that some other explanation than design might be found for any particular case. Once one realises that design arguments are intended, at root, to make the case for teleology against chance, then the proper reply to these criticisms is “so what”?

If someone is persuaded by them that chance is an unlikely creator, then the ground is cleared to choose between the best teleological alternatives. Atheistic teleology is intrinsically implausible, despite Thomas Nagel, polytheism is no longer either philosophically or scientifically persuasive, and likewise space aliens or Platonic demiurges are unlikely to gain many real votes now, especially when considering the final origins of the cosmos. The Sovereign God stares you in the face wherever you turn. Is that not a respectable outcome for any argument?

As for “other explanations”, in the context of design arguments the only conceivable alternative is chance, and the only ateleogical mechanism so far suggested is Darwinian evolution (with even more Epicurean mechanisms like neutral evolution creeping in under its skirts to disguise their lack of explanatory power). Darwinism, upon its appearance, worked against design only by proposing a mechanism, based on chance, that provided a plausible, ateleological, mimic of design. Jim Stump writes on BioLogos to the effect that all scientists believe in design nowadays, the mechanisms alone being in question, and that therefore design arguments are redundant. That, with respect, seems a very imprecise use of language for a philosopher. Design is teleology, definitionally and etymologically, and Darwinism is about an ateological appearance of design, a design substitute.

Therefore the Neodarwinian Evolutionary Creationist needs first, somehow, to discount teleology in nature as a mere appearance, then to accept ateleological Darwinian mechanisms, and only thirdly, at some point, to reinstitute the ultimate teleological purposes of God behind the blind evolution. In the process, if he is to build any kind of coherent position, he will have to explain the metaphysical locus of God’s interaction with nature (answering Hume et al.) and its extent: does evolution obey God, or not? Is he the sole biblical Creator of all things, or did viruses and tapeworms create themselves beneath his providential radar? Or is the whole process of creation through evolution, thoroughly based (as it is claimed) on death and suffering, an unfortunate but inevitable result of nature’s God-given autonomy for which God has, in some way, to atone? The last strays woefully far from Christian doctrine, but has been surprisingly popular in circles like the ASA in America and CIS in Britain.

One last objection against design arguments comes from some recent theologians (I believe John Haught is one, and he is influential in the theistic evolution literature), who say that if design arguments actually worked, then by proving God they would destroy faith by forcing people to believe against their free will. Here we encounter truly bad theology, that ignores the limitations of design arguments acknowledged by everyone from Paul to Paley, that misunderstands free-will in a libertarian and Promethean way alien to Scripture and the richest theological tradition, and that misconstrues faith to mean something like Richard Dawkins’ sense of “believing against evidence”. It is blind to the truth that, even in science, it is faith in a paradigm that alone gives facts their value as evidence.

Think about it – most people in the world see the wonders of nature and attribute them to God, or gods, because (as even Dawkins concedes) they look designed. For them, an instinctive design argument has worked, but these new theologians say that, together with Paul in Romans 1, they have actually weakened their faith thereby! They should have studied modern evolutionary theory enough to come to the conclusion that the world doesn’t really look designed, and then believed it to be so anyway by an act of meritorious credulity. That’s almost as kooky as the “teleological – no, ateleological – no, teleological” mental acrobatics apparently necessary to many TEs’ intellectual integrity. It also rather reminds me of the logic of this theological argument:

But a little thought will also show you that if God wanted to be Deus absconditus to the extent of hiding any trace of his handiwork in nature (in the face of the Scriptural witness to his self-revelation in it), he would be pretty much as likely to have created the world in 4004BC with all the appearances of age. Not deceit, you understand – just the God who hides himself. And so rejecting design arguments can lead you quite as logically from ID to Young Earth Creationism as to Theistic Evolution.

One final, and important, point: it is the argument from design, in all its forms, that is actually the basis of the Christian’s praise and thanksgiving for everything we experience in creation. Just as in Romans 1 sin begins by doubting God’s hand in creation, so thanksgiving for creation is foundational to true religion.

To deny the ability to see God’s handiwork in the details of his world is to render us spiritual cripples. It makes “evolutionary creation” the equivalent of God’s setting up a standing order for an annual bank transfer instead of choosing birthday presents for his children – yes it’s from him, but not in any meaningful sense. To give thanks to God for all things he has made is not only a repeated Scriptural injunction – it is the basis of the very best theology, which is the theology of spiritual worship. And as Robert Boyle understood, the better we are informed about creation, the greater our worship will be – for it will be informed by the very best science.

Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o’erflow,
Flow’rs with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His, and He is mine.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Some bad scientists, bad theologians, bad philosophers – 2

  1. Bilbo says:

    Two comments: First, regarding BioLogos, there seem to be two contrary official positions there: (A) God did not interfere in natural history, but allowed it complete freedom. (B) God may have guided natural history, but if so, his guidance has so far been empirically undetectable. (A) seemed to be the earlier position. (B) seems to be the current position, with occasional retreat back to (A).

    Second, since animal pain and suffering appear to be evil to me, I favor C.S. Lewis’s suggestion of demonic influence on natural history. I think this position has been strengthened by the realization that New Testament owes much to the Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology in which it grew. And that view was that even though God was the ultimate king, this world was currently subject to demonic influence. I strongly suspect that if you had convinced the Jewish apocalypticists that the world was billions of years old, they would have merely presumed that demonic influence extended back in time to whenever evil – pain and suffering – first appeared in the world.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Bilbo

      On the first, your impression seems exactly the same as mine over the last years – a silent major change of theology, without actually renouncing the old. I’d just add that, apart from apparent retreats to (A), (B) has never been developed in any kind of detail, either in saying which bits of natural history have been guided and how much, or in giving any kind of philosophical or metaphysical backbone to it. It’s almost as if the overall position is trying to have ones fudge and eat it too.

      On the second point, I have to say I haven’t seen your demonic influence over natural history in the apocalyptic I’ve read, and certainly not in the New Testament’s main canonical apocalypse, ie the Apocalypse of John. However I can see why you might have.

      I’d agree wholeheartedly that the New Testament carries over a strong dose of apocalyptic’s “powers and principalities”, but I only see there their influence on human affairs (and probably because they were originally created as powers for man’s use, which he misused or left uncontrolled). In any case they are ultimately subject to God – and especially so since the cross of Christ is said to have robbed them of their power , which appears to be the hold they have over man through sin: and that mainly by their power to accuse.

      In Revelation, though the natural disasters may be more symbolic than predictive and literal, they are mostly sent by God and sdescribed either as “necessary parts of the unfolding plan” (the seals), as warnings (eg the trumpets), or as judgements (the bowls of wrath).

      However, I’m open to seeing any citations that suggest a significant intertestamental doctrine of natural evil.

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