Sunday, June 10, 2012

Arguments from Design Don’t Prove; They Show

June 10, 2012

One can hardly get through an issue of a popular science magazine these days without having one or another of two gospels preached at you. The first is global climate change: it’s real, it’s our fault, and not enough is being done about it. The second is Darwinism: it’s real, it’s your fault if you don’t believe it, and not enough is being done about annihilating creationism.

On the principle of “one blog entry should dispose of only one massive social and intellectual challenge at a time,” let’s deal with the latter of these gospels today.

National Geographic, to pick a recent example, tells us that the architecture (whoops: sorry about that metaphor, if it is a metaphor) of the hand is so impressive that “the great Scottish surgeon Sir Charles Bell wrote an entire book in 1833 praising it, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design.” Silly old Sir Charles, however, should have waited for a much greater Charles, Mr. Darwin, to set him straight. After all,

There’s just one problem with Bell’s argument: It didn’t explain why other species have hands too. No one would doubt that the five fingers at the end of an orangutan’s arm are anything else. In other cases we have to look closer. A bat’s wings may look like sheets of skin. But underneath, a bat has the same five fingers as an orangutan or a human, as well as a wrist connected to the same cluster of wrist bones connected to the same long bones of the arm.

When Charles Darwin wrote Origin of Species, he singled out this odd coincidence. “What can be more curious,” he asked, “than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern?”

The late neo-Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould offered a similar argument in his best-selling book, The Panda’s Thumb. Silly old creationists might argue that the panda’s hand was designed by God, but how could such a “makeshift” design be worthy of an Omnipotent, Omniscient Deity? It couldn’t be; there isn’t such a creator; the panda’s thumb is a tribute to the inventiveness (metaphorically speaking) of evolution.

What strikes me as strange about these arguments is how terrible they are as arguments. From Sir Charles’s paean to divine creativity through Darwin’s hesitation over patterns in nature that seemed too “odd” to be divine to Professor Gould’s confident pronouncements upon pandas’ thumbs, each argument is an appeal to the intuition of the reader, not to any serious marshaling of facts and hypotheses to be tested with objectivity and rigour.

Nonscientist as I am, it seems to me that the putative success of arguments from design require the reader to be quite confident that she knows how to create things, whether ex nihilo or via processes of evolution, and knows how a Supreme Being would think about the act of creation. Such arguments also require the reader to understand the emergence of life on earth so well as to be able confidently to judge whether the mechanisms of evolution (take your pick among those suggested in the varieties of contemporary evolutionary theory) can suffice to explain all there is to explain–which is pretty much all there is, biologically speaking.

But who is in a position to make such a call? “Hmm. It seems to me that the presence of all of these various hands in nature would point to a single Intelligence who enjoyed rhapsodizing on the same structural theme.”

“Come, come, dear fellow. It’s just obvious that these hands point to a common ancestor, and that the dolphin’s fin and the orangutan’s forepaw are simply the results of long passages of selective adaptation.”
The Bible tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” But it’s the Bible that tells us that–a book presupposing the existence of God, and not just God-in-general, but the God richly delineated and depicted in its pages. Once one agrees with the psalmist that there is such a God–say, on the basis of a common ethnic heritage deeply shaped by the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the Conquest, and the Kingdom of David; or on the basis of all that plus the career of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic preaching, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–then one can gaze upon the stars and hear what they say about the marvelous work of God.

Merely contemplating the vastness of the cosmos, however, and then considering its intricacies from the galactic level to the subatomic, might well lead one to conclude that no Intelligence and Personal Power could conceivably have brought all this into existence and arranged it all so finely. Only an unimaginably long series of trials-and-errors could have produced what we now happen to experience and enjoy.

What one sees, then, when one looks at nature depends very much–I am inclined to say, “completely”–on what one brings to the seeing in the way of presuppositions formed on quite different grounds. And the Christian faith in particular bases its assertions not on arguments from natural design, but from historical experience: “I am Yhwh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” + “God has raised this Jesus to life, and … has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

It would be well, then, if popular science magazines would knock off the crappy philosophizing. But it would be well, also, if Christians would knock off the inadequate apologetics. The cosmos is so vast, so weird, so detailed, that it defies human imagination to conceive of a Single Imagination conceiving of it all. So let’s not bother pressing our neighbours in such a fruitless direction.

Once, however, you have become convinced on other grounds that there is a God, that this God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that God did, indeed, create all that is–then it’s time to stare at the stars, or at any issue of National Geographic, and breathe yet another prayer, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

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