Part 8 of 8 in Southern Baptist Voices

Southern Baptist Voices: Teleological Arguments, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design

The Southern Baptist Voices series is a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses. The series came out of conversations between Dr. Darrel Falk and Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as a way to address concerns and arguments about BioLogos’ theology.

In this article, Dr. James Dew expresses three main concerns: Is macro evolution actually true? How does theistic evolution portray God’s creative activity? Is it consistent to reject ID but to affirm the anthropic principle? On behalf of BioLogos, Dr. Ard Louis responds to these concerns.

#Teleological Arguments, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Along with my colleagues, I want to thank Darrel Falk and the good people of BioLogos for the gracious invitation to participate in this very important dialogue about the origins of life on earth. Both the Bible and modern science have something to say to this issue and the consistent Christian will want to know how they might be reconciled.

Dr. James Dew

Dr. James Dew

During the early 19th century, William Paley’s Natural Theology was enormously influential in Europe and North America. For many intellectuals, Paley’s argument seemed to establish the existence of God, and also provided a framework in which to do science itself. Moreover, believers generally found Paley’s arguments to be consistent with the biblical portrayal of how the universe began. While there were important challenges to Paley’s arguments, none were more significant than those that came from Charles Darwin’s 1859 work On the Origin of Species. What required a divine maker for explanation prior to Darwin, could now be explained in purely natural terms via natural selection. By most accounts, Darwin’s work signaled the end of teleological arguments.

In the last 20 years or so, however, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has caused some to rethink Darwinism. Men like Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski have raised substantial questions about evolutionary theory. Typically, believers respond to the ID movement in one of two ways:

  1. by embracing ID as a confirmation of Genesis 1-2 and the re-vitalizer of design arguments; or
  2. by rejecting ID as bad science with theological motivations.

Even though Southern Baptists are generally more comfortable with ID than we are with theistic evolution, we deeply respect the scientists/theologians who are trying to reconcile their faith with science in a way that is consistent and meaningful. In the end, we believe that what is actually true of the physical world, will be perfectly consistent with Scripture. As such, we want dialogue and conversation with believers who take a different view of things than we do. Yet, we do not affirm macro evolution and have concerns about theistic evolution as a position. Let me quickly outline a few of these concerns as they relate to ID.

We are not convinced that macro evolution is actually true.

Scientists who affirm biological evolution are often quite dogmatic that evolution is a fact—on the same level with the law of gravity. While we admit that there is some evidence that points in this direction, we are not convinced that evolution is the best explanation of all the evidence that needs to be considered. Most of us are not scientists, yet we are aware that there are many well-credentialed scientists that find significant problems with macro evolution. From our perspective, it does not appear that this evidence is being taken seriously by those who hold to evolution. Additionally, most of us are uncomfortable with the way the Bible is handled on this issue. Many of us, for example, feel that there is some hermeneutical flexibility with the first few chapters of Genesis. But, we do not think that the interpretations offered by theistic evolutionists thus far are plausible or convincing. And so, in light of the counter evidence and the fact that the Bible seems to be saying something much different from theistic evolution, we have reservations about this position.

We are uncomfortable with the way Theistic Evolution portrays God’s creative activity.

As I read certain theistic evolutionists, I often get the feeling that God is being pushed out of the creative process of living creatures. God is allowed, and even needed, to explain the origins of the universe itself. But as Francis Collins explains, “Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.”1 On this account, God directly caused the universe some 13 billion years ago, and may indirectly cause the origination of creatures through the process of evolution. But, they argue that we shouldn’t think of God as being directly involved in the creation and designing of beetles, giraffes, eyes, DNA, and bacteria flagellum once the production of living things began to take place on earth. As they see it, God directly caused the universe to come into existence, but once it was here, natural processes took care of the rest.

I have two concerns with this:

(1) Frankly, this sounds like deism, not theism. I am not suggesting that theistic evolutionists actually are deists. The people of Biologos have made it clear that this is not their position. I am simply suggesting that their insistence that it was natural processes, and not God’s direct involvement, that gave rise to the varieties of life on earth seems inconsistent with their theism. As they have affirmed clearly in their statement of faith, God is active in human history via the incarnation and miraculous events like the resurrection. What seems odd, however, is that they deny any direct involvement from God in the creation of the different life forms on earth. If theism is true and God is directly involved in the creation of the universe, the prayer life of the saints, and miraculous events like the resurrection, why is it problematic to say that He was directly involved in populating the earth with various life forms?

(2) There seems to be an unspoken allegiance to methodological naturalism in this position. Theistic evolutionists obviously prefer a “natural” explanation for the origins of life, as opposed to a supernatural explanation. The problem is that methodological naturalism decides in advance what kinds of theories are acceptable, and which kinds are not. Specifically, it says that no explanation counts as scientific unless it is a purely natural explanation, free of divine involvement. We consider this to be bad science simply because it decides in advance what counts and does not count as a legitimate explanation. We should not adopt an a priori approach to explaining reality which excludes some explanations simply because of the kind of explanation they offer. Rather, we must simply ask if a given theory is the best explanation for a particular phenomenon.

There seems to be an inconsistency in the way theistic evolutionists reject ID, but affirm the anthropic principle.

Several prominent theistic evolutionists are vocal in their rejection of ID. Collins, for example, says ID is on a “path toward doing considerable damage to the faith.”2 Similarly, Alister McGrath also rejects ID, suggesting that it is a bad God-of-the-gaps approach to science.3 First, it is not at all clear that this actually is a god-of-the-gaps approach to science. The ID movement affirms an intelligent cause for the universe because that is where it suggests the evidence points us. It is true that some of our previous theories and explanations “filled in the gaps” of things we once did not know. But, in the case of ID, an intelligent being is not posited simply because of an explanatory gap. Rather, it is affirmed because the evidence suggests it.

Second, this rejection of ID seems ironic given the way theistic evolutionists embrace the anthropic principle. For example, they accept the anthropic principle as a legitimate part of science, and an important piece of evidence for God as the creator of the universe,4 but reject similar evidence offered by the ID movement. Interestingly, McGrath even suggests that there is significant evidence for fine-tuning in “chemistry, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology”, that is consistent with “the view of God encountered and practiced within the Christian faith.”The reasons for rejecting one (ID), and embracing the other (anthropic principle), are not exactly clear. In short, the two groups often point to the same phenomena and at times draw similar conclusions. Thus, there seems to be a vagueness or inconsistency about the theistic evolutionist’s rejection of ID that implies a double standard.

These are just a few of the reasons why we are concerned with the BioLogos position as it relates to the ID movement. Just as Darwinism challenged the dominance of design arguments, many Southern Baptists feel that ID challenges the foundation of evolutionary thought. We find signs of intelligence on a large scale by looking at the universe. We also find signs of intelligence by looking at the smallest parts of nature that suggest evidence of fine-tuning. This not only challenges evolutionary thought, but it also points to an intelligent being behind the history, structure, and beauty of the universe.

#A BioLogos Response to James Dew

I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to James Dew’s essay for several reasons. Firstly, his gracious tone invites real dialogue. Secondly, the three main issues he raises: 1) the status of the science of macroevolution, 2) God’s creative activity and 3) ID and the anthropic principle—reflect the most frequent questions I am asked by Christian friends who have concerns about theistic evolution. And finally, I see that we are both fans of Alister McGrath’s fascinating trilogy A Scientific Theology. I’ve put James’ recent book Science and Theology: An Assessment of Alister McGrath’s Critical Realist Perspective on my summer reading list.

Although James’ paper was relatively brief, replying to each of his main points carefully requires considerable care. So today I’ll cut right to the chase and address his first, comprehensive point (“We [Southern Baptists] are not convinced that macro evolution is actually true.”), and look at his other two points in the second part of my essay. I think we both realize, however, that in this online format, we can just skim the surface of some fascinating questions.

Dr. Ard Louis

Dr. Ard Louis

Is evolution true?

Before turning to that seemingly-simple question, we need to address the fact that the conversation around evolution is bedeviled by the many different ways the word is used. For the purposes of this essay, let me distinguish three clusters of meaning:

E1) Evolution as natural history: The earth is old and the kinds of organisms that populate our world have changed over time.

E2) Evolution as a mechanism: A combination of variation and natural selection helps explain the structure of the observed change over time in natural history.

E3) Evolution as a worldview: Also called “evolutionism”: Evolution as a way of seeing the world and extracting meaning from it.

Unfortunately popularizers of science sometimes conflate these meanings. Christians rightly object, for instance, when George Gaylord Simpson makes statements like the following in his book The Meaning of Evolution:

Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.

Now Gaylord Simpson’s book mainly describes evidence for evolution that falls under definition E1 and E2—in other words, the subjects of normal evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, we see here a common pattern in the popular science literature: Evidence for E1 and E2 are very strong, therefore you should also hold to E3. Ideally, Christians would respond to this conflation by pointing out the underlying philosophical presuppositions that lead a great scientist like Gaylord Simpson to make the statement above, and show why they don’t follow from his science. But unfortunately such distinctions have not always been made, and one can hardly blame the layperson for this.1 A recent report on the surprisingly large resistance to the theory of evolution in Britain commented that:

In much the same way as earlier generations encountered evolution through a particularly ugly form of Social Darwinism, and not surprisingly then rejected it, many today, it seems, associate it with an amoral, materialist, hopeless, selfish outlook on life, which they are extremely reluctant to countersign and which turns them firmly against the theory. —”Rescuing Darwin

As a scientist who spends many of his waking hours doing research on evolutionary biology, I believe that mixing ideology with the popularization of science negatively impacts2 public support for the work my colleagues and I love so much. Once science is dragged into culture wars, everyone loses out.

As a Christian, I wish my fellow believers would spend their energy on combating Evolutionism (i.e. evolution E3—worldview), rather than creating organizations that focus on countering natural history (as young earth creationist (YEC) organizations do) or contesting accounts of evolutionary mechanisms (as ID organizations do). By choosing the wrong battles, they needlessly hand over ammunition to the cultured despisers of Christianity.

In summary then, one important factor motivating negative Christian responses to evolution arises from unfortunate conflations of materialist worldviews (evolution E3) with the popularization of evolutionary science (evolution E1 and E2).

Reconciling Genesis and natural history

Another important source of the tension Christians feel when reconciling Genesis with science arises from evolution E1 (natural history). Disciplines like geology and paleontology tell us that the earth is billions of years old, that bacteria ruled for the first few billion years, that what we might call animals only appeared about 500 million years ago, and that anatomically modern humans only showed up over the last few hundred thousand years. A surface reading of Genesis 1 suggests that God created all this diversity in six twenty-four hour days, not over billions of years.

Given that I completely agree with Dew when he wrote in his essay, “In the end, we believe that what is actually true of the physical world, will be perfectly consistent with Scripture,” how do I reconcile this broad picture of billions of years with Genesis 1? Well, a more careful reading of the early chapters of Genesis itself suggest that it was never meant to be read as a journalistic account with chronological days. For example, the sun and the moon are not created until the fourth day. You don’t need modern science to tell you that having a literal morning and evening without a sun doesn’t make much sense. The key hermeneutical issue here is genre—what kind of writing style is this?

Many of the church fathers, who knew nothing about modern geology or paleontology, but who were attuned to non-journalistic genres, also concluded that these were non-literal days simply by reading the text carefully. Alister McGrath recently summarized the views of Augustine of Hippo at Christianity Today, but many other examples could be cited. I suspect that part of the reason YEC views have grown so rapidly in popularity since the 1950s is that we moderns have a tin ear for non-journalistic narrative genres.3 By contrast, I believe that a non-chronological view of the days of Genesis strengthens the theological meaning of the text. For readers who want to delve further, I recommend starting with Can We Believe Genesis Today by Ernest Lucas.

If, on the other hand, my Christian brothers and sisters maintain that their interpretation of Scripture mandates creation in six literal 24 hours days then they need to contend not only with the text, but also with some pretty comprehensive evidence from geology and paleontology—and for that matter, from astronomy, too. Believing that evolution E2 (mechanism) doesn’t explain natural history doesn’t get you very far towards anything that looks like six literal, 24 hour days. Just as atheist popularizers shouldn’t argue: E1 and E2 are true, therefore so is E3 (evolutionism), so Christians shouldn’t think that if E3 and E2 are wrong, then so automatically is E1 (natural history).

There are other pressure points of course. What do we make of Adam and Eve, or, for that matter, of Abel who kept sheep and Cain who worked the land, if we can find fossils of anatomically modern hominids spread across the globe that predate anything like agriculture by well over one hundred thousand years? I don’t have space to treat these more complex issues here, but David Opderbeck and N.T. Wright are just two of the writers at BioLogos who have treated this subject from several different angles. Suffice it to say that I believe that a careful investigation of the text in its original Near Eastern context gives enough space for evangelicals to reconcile scripture with the conclusions of natural history. A good place for conservative evangelicals to start exploring options for doing so is Denis Alexander’s essay “Models for Relating Adam and Eve with Contemporary Anthropology.”

Assessing the evidence?

Evolution definition E2 encompasses mechanisms like variation and natural selection that scientists think may explain the change over time we observe in natural history. Now Christians should, I think, all agree that God created this mechanism. For example, our immune system can protect us with only a limited number of genes because it uses the mechanisms of mutation and natural selection to generate the rich diversity of antibodies we need to counter millions of different kinds of pathogens. The question on which Christians often disagree is whether these mechanisms are sufficient to explain the diversity of life throughout the history of the earth, in particular the emergence of new species (macroevolution). In answering whether evolution is true in this sense Christians typically disagree for two reasons.

Firstly, some Christians may have theological reasons to believe that God would not use the ordinary ways he sustains the world—the customs of the creator—to make new species. In other words, they may think that God needed to do miracles in natural history. I have written at length about miracles elsewhere on this site. In short, my pushback here would be as follows: if we look at how Old Testament describes miracles, e.g. God appearing to Abraham, or the miracles of the Exodus, or Elijah on mount Carmel, or miracles in prophetic literature, then we see that these are done for clear redemptive purposes in the history of Israel, and that their description is quite different from the way that Genesis depicts the creation accounts.

It seems to me that the Genesis text itself in no way requires us to assume that God could not create the natural world through his ordinary action. God’s ordinary action is just as much a reflection of his sustaining work as miraculous divine action is. I recommend reading Darrel Falk and William Dembski’s discussion of these theological issues in this same series to delve into that point more deeply. Both men agree that “God could have brought about life by means of a large-scale form of evolution that links all organisms to a common ancestor.” But they don’t agree, on other grounds, that this is what God actually did.

The second reason Christians may disagree is on scientific grounds. My reading of the modern ID movement is that their central claims revolve around skepticism that evolution of type E2 (mechanism) can explain evolution of type E1 (natural history). By contrast, my own view, based on years of studying evolutionary biology from the perspective of a physicist, is that the evidence that mechanisms like mutations and selection played an important role in the emergence of biological complexity around us is pretty overwhelming.

But that claim in no way means that I think we have a completely comprehensive theory for macroevolution.4 Although many patterns are observed, and constituents known, many big questions remain wide open for investigation. Think of the role of developmental processes in creating new species. In fact, I hope the research in my group will contribute to new understandings of how evolution works. But whatever the final explanation that emerges, stochastic processes like mutations will almost certainly play an important role. Their imprints are everywhere in our biology, right down to our DNA. BioLogos has devoted a number of posts to explaining this evidence, and I recommend the many excellent essays by Dennis Venema in particular. I have also written elsewhere why I don’t think these mechanisms should be particularly worrying to Christians.

The big question for James Dew and other Southern Baptists who doubt macroevolution, is this: Who should they believe, scientists like myself, or advocates of ID? This problem is not easy to resolve, in part because—as Mark Noll famously pointed out—we evangelicals have not invested nearly enough effort or energy into higher learning. There is no trusted community of scholars to help the church adjudicate on such complex multi-disciplinary questions. We need scholars who have devoted their lives to these topics and who are working at the highest levels in their fields because these issues are difficult to master. I have written elsewhere why I think such collective methods of knowledge generation have deep Christian roots. But currently we evangelicals have much room to grow in our engagement with the world of higher learning. We rely far too much on single individuals. It can’t just be scientists on their own, or theologians on their own, or the church on its own. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is any short-term fix to this problem.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Christian scientists I know who work professionally in fields closely related to evolutionary biology (and I have met quite a few) are pretty convinced that processes like mutations and selection played an important role in the emergence of biological complexity. But without a proper forum or tradition of engagement between the academy and the church, such an argument from authority is, with some justification, probably not enough to dislodge longstanding suspicions that Southern Baptists may have about evolution.

Finally, on this topic of macroevolution, I would like James Dew and other Southern Baptists who doubt evolution to consider the following prediction. Rapid advances in DNA sequencing technologies are allowing my colleagues to find detailed genomic evidence for the role of mutations in the evolution of all kinds of organisms. What is now a growing stream of evidence will soon become a flood. Southern Baptists pastors should be aware of this development because such genetic evidence—e.g., humans have clear remnants of a gene that chickens use to make egg yolks—is much easier for bright teenagers in their congregations to understand than more traditional evidence for evolution based on the fossil record. I predict young believers will start asking more and more questions in the midst of their churches—your churches. My hope is that you, their pastors, will respond to this development by creating space for those who believe, as we do at BioLogos, that mainstream science, properly interpreted, is compatible with evangelical Christian faith. Even if you, or many in your congregations remain skeptical about macroevolution, I believe that allowing a wider range of views on evolution will strengthen the spiritual vitality of your churches, and indeed the Church as a whole.

In this second part of my response, I’d like to speak to his other points:

1) That many Southern Baptists are “uncomfortable with way Theistic Evolution portrays God’s creative activity” – i.e. divine action.

2) That “[t]here seems to be an inconsistency in the way theistic evolutionists reject ID, but affirm the anthropic principle

The question of divine action

On the topic of divine action, two of his two main concerns about BioLogos are

1) Frankly, this sounds like deism, not theism, and

2) There seems to be an unspoken allegiance to methodological naturalism in this position.

First of all, let me say that I have sympathy for these concerns. I sincerely hope that I don’t sound like a deist when I explain the science I love to my fellow believers. However, sometimes the reason descriptions of God working through evolutionary processes sounds like deism is because Christians have too low a view of the way that God normally acts in the world. They feel that God is only really present in miraculous acts.5 But that is an impoverished view of God’s sovereignty.

Elsewhere on this site I have written at some length about science and miracles and used a famous exchange between Newton and Leibniz on the stability of the planets to illustrate how God acts in the world. This traditional Christian viewpoint contrasts with deism. In short, I believe, based in part on Biblical grounds, that God most likely created much of the biological complexity around us using the “ordinary ways” he sustains the world. It is at least as glorious for God to create a process that generates the beautiful complexity we see in nature, as it is for him to create species (or kinds) de novo. That doesn’t mean I can definitively rule out the possibility that God used miracles in natural history; God is sovereign. But in general, we are dependent on direct revelation to determine what mode of action God has used. I am not aware of any theology of “miracle detection in natural history” that we could employ to otherwise adjudicate this question.

I realize that the paragraphs above don’t do justice to the complexities of the issues James Dew raises about God’s action. Thankfully Darrel Falk and William Dembski have discussed this question in some depth in their previous exchange in this series, and I recommend readers with further questions on this subject read those first.

To Dew’s second point, I am also not fond of the term “methodological naturalism,” but I don’t expect miracles in the lab, either. Miracles occur when God sustains the world in a different way than he normally does. The Bible teaches us that God doesn’t do this in order to show off like a magician. Rather, God does miracles to achieve his divine purposes. They are signs that point to him.

Thus, I can happily research the natural world and do normal science because science studies the regular ways that God sustains the universe, the “customs of the creator” to use some old-fashioned language. Besides, science derives its power precisely by limiting itself to studying things that are repeatable, or controllable. And you can’t control God.6

In an age when science and faith seem so often at odds, it is easy for us to be surprised when we learn that early science grew out of theological considerations like: If there is a faithful God behind the universe, then we might expect regular laws that could be discovered (intelligibility), and we might expect these laws to be the same in different parts of the world (uniformity). Many of the founders of modern science were deeply influenced by their Christian faith. History shows us that science has deeply Christian roots.7 And in the same way, I believe that modern science fits naturally within a Christian worldview. Readers who are interested in more detail may enjoy this lecture on “The doctrine of creation and the science of nature.”

The arguments above tell us that—even though they could not be further apart metaphysically—a robust theism and philosophical naturalism would nevertheless both suggest that something like “methodological naturalism” is the best way to study the physical world. The term is awkward,8 and for each worldview the ultimate justifications for this conclusion are completely different. But I believe that theistic presuppositions provide a solid basis for the metaphysical prerequisites like uniformity, regularity and intelligibility upon which modern science is grounded. It is not at all clear how one would derive (rather than assume as a-priori) the underlying metaphysical principles that undergird science from the brute fact of pure naturalism. Given the deep and often unrecognized theological roots of modern science, it may be hard for naturalists not to inadvertently smuggle these concepts into their derivations.

The upshot of this argument is that I wish we could find another name for “methodological naturalism because a) this language masks the deep Christian roots of science, and b) it isn’t clear that naturalism can provide the metaphysical prerequisites of science in the first place. Rather, it is precisely the fact that we can do science that points to something beyond the laws of nature.

Contrasting ID and the anthropic principle

The third major issue raised by James Dew is that “there seems to be an inconsistency in the way theistic evolutionists reject ID, but affirm the anthropic principle.”

Indeed, I think there is an important difference between ID and anthropic principle arguments.9 In the space remaining, I will briefly explain upon why this difference matters apologetically, scientifically, and theologically. To start, a reflection on the apologetic: Both theistic and atheistic scientists agree on much of the physics and cosmology that leads to what might be called the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, which is also known as the anthropic principle. So in his book “Just Six Numbers,” for example, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, an agnostic, writes:

We seem to have three choices’… We can dismiss it as happenstance, we can acclaim it as the workings of providence, or (my preference) we can conjecture that our universe is a specially favoured domain in a still vaster multiverse.’

But while they largely agree on the science, theists and atheists disagree on the interpretation. What does it all mean? Is it providence or happenstance or a multiverse or some combination of the above? The philosophical literature on this topic is vast. For more background, visit this website by Robin Collins. I found this more technical article by Australian astrophysicist Luke Barnes to be very clear. And I can’t resist recommending this lovely little video where physicist turned priest John Polkinghorne tells the story of Fred Hoyle’s discovery of where carbon comes from – and why it shook his atheistic beliefs.

By contrast, the arguments ID advocates make are heavily contested on scientific grounds. One wonders: if many Christian believers (i.e. theistic evolutionists) are not convinced by their science, then on what grounds would atheistic scientists find their arguments compelling? In fact, I fear that when Christian apologists use an ID argument like irreducible complexity as implicit evidence for God, they only reinforce the unfortunate public misperception that Christian faith is in conflict with mainstream science.

On the other hand, precisely because the science is agreed upon, careful use of cosmological fine-tuning arguments can help illuminate philosophical presuppositions and clarify the differences between mainstream science and philosophical atheism.

You may say, “Well, I agree with you that if the ID arguments are not scientifically compelling, then we shouldn’t use them in apologetics. But you still haven’t explained why you don’t find them scientifically convincing.” Part of the difficulty in responding to this legitimate challenge is that the ID movement employs a very heterogeneous set of arguments. Many of these call into question aspects of evolution definition E2 (mechanism). Their merits can only be properly assessed by going with some depth into modern evolutionary biology, which is outside of the scope of this essay, but is the topic of regular essays by Dennis Venema and others on the BioLogos Forum. (Editor’s Note: See also Oliver R. Barclay’s series, Design in Nature.)

So lets turn this question around and ask, instead, “How would one go about making arguments in biology that are analogical to the fine-tuning arguments in cosmology?” In cosmology, fine-tuning arguments arise from exploring counterfactuals. In other words, you can calculate what the universe would be like if a certain physical constant was different, or “counter to the facts” as we actually find them. For example, if the energy of a certain excited nuclear energy level in 12C was just a few percent higher or lower, then we can show by quantum mechanical calculations that stellar nucleosynthesis would not generate enough carbon and oxygen needed for the life we observe on earth.

On the other hand, in biology counterfactuals are much harder to work out, and therein lies the nub of the problem. Cosmology is, in this sense, much simpler than biology.

Consider the following example: Changing water from H2O to deuterated water, D20, (with one extra neutron per hydrogen nucleus), has a relatively mild effect on its physical properties, e.g. the boiling point changes from 100 °C to 101.4 °C. But nevertheless, making this small change is toxic for most organisms. “Aha!” you might say, “Life is fine-tuned to very specific properties of water. If water were just ever so slightly different, we would not be around.” But not so fast. By slowly increasing the proportion of D20 over many generations, bacteria can evolve until they grow just fine in D20 and instead, H2O becomes toxic. Biology can adapt and respond in surprising and unexpected ways. We simply don’t know nearly enough about biology to explore the kinds of counterfactual arguments we routinely use in cosmology. In my opinion, it is this difference10 that makes biologists instinctively wary of the kinds of theoretical arguments the ID literature employs. How can one employ an explanatory filter that can distinguish between “design” and “non-design” when there could be (as has happened many times before) all kinds of surprises just around the corner that could completely change how you view the problem you have just analyzed?

The current state of biological knowledge cuts into this rhetorical space in other ways as well. Many claims like that of Gaylord Simpson, whose Evolutionism tries to extract metaphysical meaning from the science of evolution, are often based on a still-incomplete knowledge of the contours of what is possible in biology, on what its real constraints are. On the one hand, Archdeacon Paley, in a move not unlike modern ID advocates, saw the hand of God in the intricate watch-like “contrivances of nature,” while on the other hand, Richard Dawkins sees a pitiless and indifferent “blind watchmaker” in what he believes are the wasteful and purposeless processes of evolution. Although their conclusions couldn’t be more different, both are engaging in natural theology, that is, extracting theological conclusions from their observation of nature. One side is vulnerable to an accusation of God of the gaps, and the other side is vulnerable to the accusation of atheism of the gaps. It would be better if they both waited for our understanding of biology to become more comprehensive before attempting to extract either theology or a-theology from it.

This brings us to the theological difference between ID and standard accounts of the anthropic principle. Regardless of its scientific merits, however, I was initially puzzled by the popularity of ID in Christian circles. It doesn’t really solve the hermeneutical problems raised by evolution type E1 (natural history), i.e. geology and paleontology. Moreover, it self-consciously styles itself as a not-necessarily Christian movement. So why the attraction for evangelicals who would surely want to start with scripture? I am only guessing here, but as I discuss elsewhere on this site I suspect that a key factor in its popularity arises from the way it connects to popular views about natural theology.

“Given that science now allows us to understand so much more about the natural world, should we not use these advances to gain new knowledge about God?”

It is certainly tempting to think along these lines, especially as science acquires increasing cultural prestige. But evangelical Christians should be aware of the strong critiques coming from great theologians like Barth and Hauwerwas of the type of natural theology to which we tend to gravitate.11 Here I highly recommend Alister McGrath’s wonderful trilogy on natural theology, “The Open Secret,” “The Fine-Tuned Universe” and “Darwinism and the Divine” for some important correctives, as well as a vision for a way to move the conversation forward. McGrath develops an approach to natural theology that “is grounded in and informed by a characteristic Christian theological foundation. A Christian understanding of nature is the intellectual prerequisite for a natural theology which discloses the Christian God.”12 In other words, McGrath’s fundamental critique of the kind natural theology inherent in the ID movement, echoes my main concern: ID simply isn’t Christian enough.

About the Authors

  • Ard Louis

    Ard Louis

    Ard A. Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads an interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for BioLogos and served on the Board of Directors from 2011 to 2020. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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