Design in Nature, Part 2
This is part two in a four-part series adapted from a 2006 Science & Christian Belief article by Oliver Barclay. Part one can be found here. Having described the biblical claim that God is both creator and sustainer of creation, Barclay now turns to compare this view with what he calls the “semi-deism” of the Intelligent Design movement. Please see the full paper for references and complete text.
Scientific evidences of design?
Discussions about design by God in the natural world have in recent years tended to be dominated, as they were in parts of the nineteenth century, by those features of the world that are currently thought to be scientifically inexplicable. For example, Michael Behe has suggested that there are biological entities, such as complex biochemical pathways, that display ‘irreducible complexity’ in the sense that, in his view, they could not have come into being by gradual Darwinian processes and therefore display the properties of ‘design’. A considerable body of literature has been generated by the ‘intelligent design’ controversy. The main advocates of this school see the evidence for design especially in those scientifically describable features of the world that at present have no convincing scientific explanation.
Taken overall, the major stages in design arguments may be summarized as follows.
- There are many features in nature that powerfully suggest that they were designed by an intelligence. Even so skeptical a writer as Richard Dawkins agrees, although of course he speaks of ‘apparent design’.
- Many people go on from there to believe that the universe is indeed designed by God. Christians have no difficulty in taking that step, as noted above, viewing the whole panoply of the universe, with all its processes, whether scientifically understood or not understood, as reflecting the intentions and purposes of God. In this more traditional understanding of design it makes no difference whether something is currently understood or not at the scientific level.
- Enthusiasts for intelligent design, however, are making a very different kind of argument, suggesting that ‘design’ can be detected by mathematical and other arguments, claiming that there are scientific features of the world that are such that we cannot conceive how they could have come into being by material processes alone. Therefore it is logical to accept the activity of a designing intelligence as responsible. Their main target is usually large-scale evolution and its perceived weaknesses, and other areas where scientific explanations are currently incomplete, such as the origin of life, the information encoded in DNA, and so forth.
It is not the purpose of this article to provide an extensive critique of ID, which has in any case been thoroughly done by others, but rather to achieve the less ambitious goal of examining the differences between concepts intrinsic to ID and the main themes of the biblical literature. These differences may be summarized as follows.
- ID arguments have a tendency to separate the created order into the ‘natural’ and the ‘designed’. Indeed, implicit in Dembski’s suggestion that ‘design’ can be detected by strictly mathematical arguments is the assumption that there must be a backcloth of ‘nondesign’, otherwise the argument makes no sense. This is very different from the biblical insistence that the created order in its entirety reflects the creative and providential actions of the living God.
- This lack of a strong view of providence in the ID position can easily merge into semi-deism. Indeed, even if ID design arguments were accepted, they could by themselves lead no further than a deistic or semi-deistic position. Their aim is to encourage belief in a divine power or intelligence that has influenced the world directly only from time to time, and then only in highly limited and particular aspects, such as the origin of the genetic code or the Cambrian explosion in evolution. Thus Bradley and Thaxton argue that since all the attempts to find a way in which life could have arisen by natural processes are inadequate, and life is incredibly complex, ‘the most reasonable speculation is that there was some form of intelligence around at the time’. And as Dembski writes: ‘The question, then, that requires investigation is not simply what are the limits of evolutionary change but what are the limits of evolutionary change when that change is limited to material mechanisms...The best evidence to date is that these factors are inadequate to drive full scale macroevolution. Something else is required – intelligence.’
But Dembski would have done well to say that he means all the material mechanisms that we at present know about, as his point sounds remarkably similar to the disastrous ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument. The phrase ‘we cannot conceive how...’ recurs repeatedly in the ID literature, and cannot escape the criticism that it depends on what we do not currently know or cannot understand or conceive in the present state of knowledge. That point is frequently implicit, when it is not explicit as in the above quotations, and can easily give the impression that belief in God is somehow dependent on scientific evidence. This is very different from the biblical approach, which depends basically on what we do know and can see all around us, however it may have been made by God.
There is a danger in thinking that the present state of science is almost final. But one hundred years ago, who would have conceived of sequencing multiple genomes, including our own? Even a few years ago we had no idea that genomes could be modified by imprinting in an inheritable manner, nor that micro-RNA is encoded in the genome, with its power to modulate protein synthesis by regulating mRNA. In science it is wise to ‘never say never’ when it comes to guessing what might be understood or possible in the future.
- There are real theological dangers in the concept of the ‘Great Designer’, and they can only be avoided with considerable care. If God is perceived as essentially the Great Designer, that is greatly to diminish our idea of him, because it concerns only one limited aspect of his character. It is also a comparative term, so that he is seen as doing things only rather better than we can, as when Freemasons call him ‘The Great Architect’. Indeed it has the danger of defining a ‘god’ who is made in our own image. That is perhaps why ID arguments are acceptable to many non-Christians. But in reality the biblical God is infinitely other than that, the living and active Creator. God is no doubt the great designer, architect, mathematician, physiologist, environmentalist, etc., etc., but he is so much more than all of these put together. The Bible portrays God as the personal, triune, Creator and Providential Ruler of all things, the God who is living and active today.
Design arguments can detract from, or sideline, that biblical perspective. One is reminded of the way in which that great mathematician and scientist of the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal, came to a revolutionary change in his outlook on God when he wrote of the ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars’. The God of the Bible is not to be thought of as merely a great designer and it is an empty victory to have persuaded people to believe merely that. The history of Deism warns us that making such a view prominent can be a barrier, and not a help, to faith in the living God.
Dr. Oliver Barclay is a retired zoologist, who was the founding secretary of Christians in Science and the first editor of Science & Christian Belief.