Does Intelligent Design subvert faith?


Spengler (David Goldman) posted an article in the Asia TImes Online, titled Why 'Intelligent Design' subverts faith. What follows is my reply. Quotes from Goldman's article are in italics, for the most part. Spengler quotes from an article by David Bentley Hart, hence the reference.

The workings of nature are so complex and perfect...that they bespeak a design, and a design must have a designer. The trouble is that the same clock seems to set off a bomb at random intervals. 

There is a false premise in Voltaire's argument, namely that humankind is always and inevitably subject to the ravages of cruel and capricious nature. We now build cities able to withstand earthquakes; the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 killed 16,000 people in much more densely populated regions, a terrible toll, to be sure, but a fraction of the Lisbon dead. No human being need die from hunger, or cold, or bacterial disease; if some die, it is the fault of human action, not an Act of God.

Human understanding of the mechanism of earthquakes depends upon the complex perfection – the rational predicability – of nature. Voltaire's argument stands up well. It's not that everyone "is always and inevitably subject…" because there have always been many who lived peaceful and uneventful lives, culminating in a quiet death. David Hart's meditation was occasioned, if I recall correctly, by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost over a vast area, on the day after Christmas. The scale of the destruction, and, I believe, its timing, gave rise to much anguished reflection.

What, however, distinguishes such a catastrophe from the mundane reality of our mortality, from the sum of the small tragedies that occur all around us every day: the toddler crushed under the wheels of his mother's SUV; the father of a young family crushed in an industrial accident; the chance encounter with meningococcus or SARS; the semi-trailer jack-knifing into the path of the family's sedan? It is the concentration and sheer mind-boggling scale that overwhelms our blasé defences. And it is something else. It is the shock of confronting our hubris; naked, terrified and inadequate where a moment before it had been cocky and overblown.

Build as we might, Nature will always have in reserve a better disaster. All of those areas swamped in Japan had sea-walls. Tsunamis are not unexpected in Japan. But the scale of this one was. Now a new standard will be set for the sea-walls, and smaller waves will be contained. The meteorite that struck Siberia in 1908 might just as well have struck a populated area. Where will the next comparable strike occur? Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection. In a north Queensland hospital, in an isolation room, is a young girl from Papua New Guinea who has a multi-resistant strain of TB.  Only one drug remains in the armoury against it. This story is being repeated across the globe. The ancient scourge is back, and gathering in force. How will we defend against it?

Such questions must be considered in the light of another: when the economy tanks, who will pay for the protection against the tsunami, or earthquake, or cyclone, or tornado, or storm surge, or TB? Who pays for it now in most of the populated world?

So, I disagree with the Panglossian optimism of your response to Voltaire. But, even if I did agree, the notion of human beings as co-workers with God in the improving of Creation, does not answer the Voltairian criticism. For it places the responsibility of the broken and tragic state of Creation firmly at the feet of God. Then, with Augustine, we can ask, "If God is all-good, He wants His creatures to be happy, and if He is all-powerful, He can do whatever He wants. But His creatures are not happy. Therefore He lacks either goodness or power or both."

If the resolution of this question is to be found in the millennial striving of the community of co-creators, we are back, are we not, at a requirement "..to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of - but entirely by way of - every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known…"?

Against this stands, not the surrender of (what we now know to be) the vastness of the natural order to hostile forces, but the exodus from the Garden.  Nature is as nature always was. It continues to exhibit the predicability of its design, and it continues on the path determined by its design – complete with tectonics, cyclones, earthquakes and disease. In Aquinas' analogy, the insensate arrow follows the trajectory determined by the purposeful archer.  But we are not as we were when God offered us His protection. This is not a Christian story: we Christians inherited it, as we live in the consequences of that first exodus.

Any role for the Creator in the construction of nature implies design. So,  if I am correct in my understanding of your comments concerning Soloveitchik,

…the final perfection of nature is a messianic vision… But there is a great deal to do in the meantime. Man is not the passive victim of earthquake, flood, famine or disease. We can build defenses against natural disasters, cure disease, and eliminate hunger. Whatever harm befalls us today, we can change our destiny in the future. … We are not the passive victims of nature. We strive to establish human dignity by mastering nature...

then Soloveitchik has not addressed the questions of theodicy at all. God has chosen to make the world we inhabit with its complement of tragic potentials, and it sounds from the above as though He has done so "for our own good," in order that we may struggle to overcome the deliberate failings of His deliberately inadequate design. It's not a good look.

As regards design, it seems to me that there are two possibilities. The universe created itself spontaneously, so it has no Designer at all, and all of the predictable order that we detect is but the playing out of incalculable improbabilities resulting –  presto –  in the spurious appearance of design. Alternatively, God created the Creation – time, space and the whole shebang – in which case it was, by definition, designed by Intelligence. In either case, Nature displays design: if it did not, if it was chaotic and unstable, how could comprehending intelligences ever come to exist within it?

Soloveitchik may be arguing that evidence of a Designer, coming from the studies of Intelligent Design, would degrade the quality of faith in believers. Aside from the difficulties of demonstrating ID with a level of certainty that would persuade most workers in the biological sciences, such an argument would be opposed by another revered Jew, St Paul of Tarsus. Following Paul, the Catholics have always held that the world displays such evidence as is necessary for the seeker of truth to determine that God, indeed, exists. They insist on the unity of Faith and Reason, and reject Fideism.

The particulars of your objections to ID I take to be these. What stake does man have in a nature designed by God such that it both nurtures and destroys him? Assuming the Creator's design, how can we presume to know "the grand design of physical creation?"

Yes, the first takes us immediately to questions of theodicy, but what else is new? No matter how you dice and slice the concept of the Creator God, Judeo-Christian faith must deal with such questions. If God is indifferent to human suffering, no question arises. But revelation tells us otherwise, and we must give an answer. What stake? Only that this world, this Nature, is the only temporal home we have. It is the stage on which the eveternal drama of our lives must be played out. We act to ease the suffering of our neighbour because we have been told that it is incumbent upon us, even as we feel the call to such action in the depths of our souls. We inflict suffering on our neighbour because of the insufferable dilemma of human existence, on the horns of which we are in this life impaled. What stake do you need?

The atheist Stephen Hawking may, at the instigation of his publisher, presume to claim that knowing the mind of God is within our grasp, but, theoretical physicists aside, most scientists have no such grand illusions. Most are working in a tiny corner of the universe of phenomena, in the expectation of rational behaviour by the universe and all of its constituent parts. For the most part, they are not disappointed. Harking back to St Paul, this realised expectation is not destructive, but supportive, of faith. A Fideism that cleaves to the "accident" of a particular religious faith, in the face of contradictory explanations derived from observations and theories about nature, will always be brittle. A faith which can – in good faith – subsume the discoveries of the scientific method, will be much more robust. I note, however, that my proviso is not, for the most part, observed.

ID is not essentially different from the broader project of science, despite the furious attacks on it from within established science. Its hypothesis is that nature is, to an important extent, designed, rather than being the result of various random processes. In order to test this hypothesis, they seek evidence of design in some of the minutiae of nature. It is not a grand scheme, and, as an hypothesis, it makes no assumptions about the source of the design. Obviously, there are plenty of people who are prepared to make conjectures about the Source, but that is irrelevant. The real threat of ID is that its acceptance would shatter the nexus, generally unconscious but no less fanatically held for that, between scientific methodology and the philosophy of scientific materialism.

I don't know whether ID will succeed with such a demonstration: I will them well. Should they succeed, there will not be a stampede to the the churches and synagogues, but the hand of the faithful will have been strengthened in the current fight to the death of the culture wars. Should they fail, those who maintain the argument against scientific materialism will be no worse off.

Speaking from my invincible mathematical ignorance, I concur with your comments on the importance of Gödel. However, his was only one contribution to the dismantling of grandiose modern expectations of science and mathematics. In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tried to chart a way forward for science when the god of scientific certainty had been shown to have failed. Like Gödel, he had confidence in the ability of science to grope towards truth, and he understood the critical role of what you have called "inspiration." But in all of this is the discovery of the design of things, and in none of this is there any necessary threat to faith.

Updated 25 Feb 1013