Sunday, September 16, 2007

First Things is still shackled to the Intelligent Design scow

It is curious to note the old sea-margins of human thought. Each subsiding century reveals some new mystery; we build where monsters used to hide.
-- Longfellow

This article, God and Evolution, on faith and reason by Avery Cardinal Dulles sadly includes this howler:

An important school of scientists supports a theory known as Intelligent Design. Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University, contends that certain organs of living beings are “irreducibly complex.” Their formation could not take place by small random mutations, because something that had only some but not all the features of the new organ would have no reason for existence and no advantage for survival. It would make no sense, for example, for the pupil of the eye to evolve if there were no retina to accompany it, and it would be nonsensical for there to be a retina with no pupil. As a showcase example of a complex organ all of whose parts are interdependent, Behe proposes the bacterial flagellum, a marvelous swimming device used by some bacteria.

The august Cardinal surely knows better. Intelligent design has been disproven in every jot and tittle, a hundred-fold over. Even the editors of First Things were chastened, for awhile last year, to back down and pronounce it more metaphysical than scientific.

The Cardinal has simply been outpaced by developments. As the genes of living creatures unspool under the gaze of geneticists and their ever-advancing techniques of understanding, many mysterious things are no longer quite so mysterious. Very simple mutations can give rise to quite striking morphological differences. As for the irreducible complexity of the eye, he should be embarrassed to bring out such a weary old fallacy. Suffice it here to say that the eye is found in all levels of sophistication and precision throughout nature, and that human eyes are not even the best there are. And once again Intelligent Design is presented as a real opposing theory in the arena of ideas, rather than the rabble of flat-earthers it is, trying to shout down real scientists trying to do their work.

Then there's this:

Much of the scientific community seems to be fiercely opposed to any theory that would bring God actively into the process of evolution,[...] Several centuries ago, a group of philosophers known as Deists held the theory that God had created the universe and ceased at that point to have any further influence. Most Christians firmly disagreed, holding that God continues to act in history. In the course of centuries, he gave revelations to his prophets; he worked miracles; he sent his own Son to become a man; he raised Jesus from the dead. If God is so active in the supernatural order, producing effects that are publicly observable, it is difficult to rule out on principle all interventions in the process of evolution. Why should God be capable of creating the world from nothing but incapable of acting within the world he has made? The tendency today is to say that creation was not complete at the origins of the universe but continues as the universe develops in complexity.

Funny, I don't feel Deist...Seriously, anyone can see the problem with this. If we admit the supernatural as an agent in the natural world, then out the window goes science itself. Because of course God could intervene however He wished, and He would not be constrained by any natural laws, and thus could not be predicted by any scientific experiment or theory. That way lies intellectual stagnation and fatalism. For example:

...our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively;’ this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God.

That's the medieval Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali, credited with killing off whatever scientific spirit the Islamic world ever may have had. With no reason to investigate, since everything is determined by the Creator, there is nothing to do except switch off your mind, marvel at the panoply of nature, and prostrate yourself before The Infinite.

We certainly need to have a robust element of reason in our daily faith. I only wish I were more familiar with the riches of the Thomist heritage. Maybe I'll dig into it when I retire. And we must of course be wary of another onslaught of atheistic scientism, as happened in the first third of the previous century. But atheistic scientism is not science, and it is hardly a Christian attitude to misrepresent it as such.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comment.

    In my reading, Cardinal Dulles wasn't endorsing intelligent design, but rather describing it charitably. He used the tired old "eye example" because that's a simple description of the ID position. And Dulles follows his summary of the Design argument with a rather polite explanation of its biggest weakness: namely, that things we don't understand now (like Behe's bacterial flagellum) may well have a perfectly sensible scientific explanation just around the corner.

    I myself don't buy intelligent design theory, and I tend to think of it as a bit pseudo-scientific. I do tend to describe myself as a "theistic evolutionist" from time to time, so please don't think I'm a design advocate or anything like that. But Cardinal Dulles, I think, was trying to draw our attention to the third position, which is one I'm not sure I fully understand, although I like the part of it that I can grasp.

    Again, thanks for dropping by my page.


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