Not Without Design


(system) #1

Not only does God repeatedly claim responsibility for the created order but in a number of passages the Bible invites us to learn about and worship him through his creation. One thinks of texts such as: Job 38-41, Ps 19:1-3, Matt 6:26-30 and Rom 1:20. Picking up on this theme Christians have produced a substantial literature arguing for the existence and attributes of God, particularly his power and orderliness, on the basis of creation and the apparent design behind it. Perhaps the high point of this genre was William Paley’s famous Natural Theology, written in 1802. However, it was widely conceded that philosophical and scientific assaults by Hume, Darwin and others had left the argument from design bleeding. Many thought the wounds were fatal.

But, surprisingly, design has seen significant revival over the last few decades, particularly due to discoveries in molecular cell biology and cosmology. Today the design literature is again burgeoning. Even non-Christians, such as Paul Davies, write books like The Goldilocks Enigma.1 However, the evidence for design has not always been easy for Christians to interpret.

Linnaeus, sometimes called the second Adam, since he devised the nomenclature by which all life forms are named, was a devout Christian and the title page of the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae bears the dedication,

“‘O Jehovah how ample are Thy works! How wisely Thou hast fashioned them! How full the earth is of Thy possessions!’”2

However, as related by Blackmore and Page, his classification of plants caused consternation. He demonstrated that most plants reproduced through the agency of male stamens and female pistils. Linnaeus described the double stamen class, the Diandria, as “‘two husbands in the same marriage’" and the multistamen or Polyandria class as “‘twenty males or more in bed with the same female!’” This was difficult for some Christians to accept. “‘God never would’, wrote Johann Siegesbeck, professor of St Petersberg, ‘have allowed such odious vice as that several males should possess one wife in common, or that a true husband should, in certain composite flowers, besides its legitimate partner, have near it illegitimate mistresses’. Linnaeus retaliated to this supposed ‘loathsome harlotry’ by giving the name Siegesbeckia to a particularly stinking weed!’”3 Today, however, we are not much troubled by the deviant sexuality of our garden plants. Should we be? Was it ever intended that we should derive moral guidance from creation? If so, how?

A similar problem exists in the sky. The last few decades have questioned the tidy notion of a perfectly ordered heavens, with God managing the Pleiades and guiding Arcturus and his sons (Job 38:31,32). Astrophysics and astronomy speak of stars exploding with unimaginable violence, also of epic collisions, some very close to home. In 1994 comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 struck Jupiter. In 1908 the Tunguska meteoroid devastated 2000 square km of Russia. How do we read Ps 19 and Job today, given all that science has revealed? While not questioning the premise that the heavens still declare God’s glory, can we identify any changes in the message conveyed?

Further, while it is easy to point out design in wonders like the human brain one cannot ignore other appearances of design. The skeletal structure, musculature and dentition of a leopard appear to be perfectly designed for their function – to catch and kill. One could speak similarly of sharks and wasps. Do we attribute these to a beneficent designer? If not, what options do we, as Bible-believing Christians, find most congenial? Do any of these alternatives solve all the difficulties?

Currently the most visible version of the design argument is "Intelligent Design" (ID), which argues that some entities, like the bacterial flagellum, could not have come about by natural processes, due to their irreducible and specified complexity. ID exponents urge that such structures unambiguously infer a designer who acts contingently in nature as well as through natural law. In this sense it appears that ID primarily identifies God’s footprints where a scientific explanation is lacking, as in Michael Behe’s so-called “black boxes”.4

As might be expected, the secular lobby has responded very negatively to ID. More surprising may be the fact that many highly qualified Christian scientific apologists also disagree with this viewpoint. They strongly support the idea of God as Designer but, in contrast to ID, see evidence for design primarily in what canbe understood rather than in what cannot, and principally in the incredibly nuanced balance of natural law, that is, in the anthropic nature of our universe.

Physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne FRS, introduced a recent address with the words:

I want to propose a worldview that takes absolutely seriously all that science can tell us about the universe in which we live, and then deepens that understanding by viewing it in the wider and more profound setting of theistic belief. Of course, I am not supposing that the world is full of objects stamped 'made by God’ (italics supplied).5

This was a shot across the bow of ID in mannerly British understatement.

Richard Colling, author of Random Designer, writes:

If the goal of religious conservatives is to preserve an element of faith, intelligent design ideas provide but a temporary solution by positing an intelligent designer to explain perceived gaps in current scientific understanding. This approach is fraught with liability, and actually counterproductive to the stated purpose. If history teaches any lesson, it is this: as understanding in science and biology inexorably march on the perceived mysteries of today will inevitably give way to well-understood processes, and science will systematically erase the prospects of a designer - one data point at a time.6

While not denying that God can intervene miraculously, such scholars clearly view ID as straying perilously close to the old "God of the Gaps", where advances in science inevitably reduce the need for a God until, like Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, only His benign smile remains!

These responses also resonate with sentiments expressed by C.A. Coulson FRS some 65 years ago, decades before the appearance of ID. He cited the example of Newton, who concluded that since the rotations of the planets about their axes could not be derived from his law of gravity, a Divine arm must be impressing it on them. Coulson took the view that this was not Newton’s finest moment, stressing that when we encounter the edge of our knowledge we should not invoke the inscrutable finger of God but be led to “think a little more deeply about our science. . .”., in other words, about the working of the divine finger.7 How do we, as believers in a miracle-working God, resolve these different Christian viewpoints concerning design?

One last conundrum. Adventist pioneers, such as Ellen White and J N Andrews, almost certainly believed in a single, recent creation of cosmic proportions. In contrast, some influential Adventists today understand Genesis 1 to be describing two creation events: the first billions of years ago and involving the larger cosmos, the second very recently, in which our Earth’s habitats were structured and for the first time populated with life. Indeed, this perspective appears as a possible option for Adventists in this quarter’s pamphlet.8 This view appears quite relaxed with the idea of God using the “Big Bang” to initiate his universe. However, cosmologists understand that the Big Bang singularity was just the beginning of a long process, which by all appearances was hugely violent, random and wasteful, but through which God has obviously produced a highly specific outcome - our anthropic universe. How do we feel about God implementing his grand design in such a protracted manner? Further, if as creationists we accept this view, do we in any way weaken the basis on which we might counter others who suspect that God may have used similar processes to develop life?

Kepler famously stated that science enabled him to think God’s thoughts after Him. I like that. I believe that the universe is God’s handiwork and that we still profit by its contemplation. However, as we have seen, intriguing questions arise and remain. Perhaps ultimately we must simply stand with Job, saying, “I know that you can do all things”.

References

1. Davies, P. (2006). The Goldilocks Enigma. Alan Lane, London.

2. Blackmore, V. & Page, A. (1989). Evolution the Great Debate. Lion, Oxford, p19.

3. Ibid, p19.

4. Behe, M. (1996). Darwin’s Black Box. Touchstone, NY.

5. Polkinghorne, J. (2003). “Cosmic Richness”. Paper presented at the Third International Philosophy, Science and Theology Festival. Grafton, NSW, Australia.

6. Colling, R. G. (2004). “Intelligent design has no place in science classes”. http://www.iscast.org.au/pdf/IntelligentDesignCritique.pdf. (Accessed Aug 20, 2007).

7. Coulson, C. A. (1955). Science and Christian Belief. Fontana, London, pp32-38.

8. Gibson, J. (2013). Adult Teachers Sabbath School Bible Study Guide January-March. Signs publishing, Warburton,


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4994