Steve – I appreciate your work in thinking these issues through, and want to encourage you in your research into intelligent design. As your post was seemingly addressed to me I thought it best to reply with a new thread. Firstly, my concern is to address the possible pitfalls for the design argument that might occur by extending it too far, although I think it possible that some progress can be made in this direction with care. There are historical examples, and the danger is that we might only repeat the errors of previous times if we are not careful. I too have an interest in theodicy and I have discussed theodicy and ethical issues in my book Restoring the Ethics of Creation (my PhD supervisor wrote The Groaning of Creation).
Many natural theologians from the early modern period extended the design argument to suggest that the goodness of God, including the tiger’s claws and malaria that is carried by mosquitoes, could be known from nature, later argued for in the Bridgewater Treatises. With deistic influences there was also the attempt to know the mind of God and develop Christian theology from nature without reference to Scripture, indeed a determined effort was made by some to undermine Scripture.
Newton, with his Hermitic form of Platonism saw the natural world as the best possible. (Edit – Ref: Hughes, M. Newton, Hermes and Berkeley, Brit J.Phil.Sci. 43 (1992) pp. 1-19). There was also the Platonic concept of ‘Plenitude,’ seeing God’s goodness in all the shapes of nature. I believe therefore that the design argument of many natural theologians was over extended. Therefore I do have some sympathy for Darwin’s argument about suffering in nature. John Henry Newman also rejected Paley and the design argument with the claim that a perfectly mechanised natural world would lead to deism or atheism and the removal of God altogether. (A good design argument should develop the science of chaos and randomness. There is a dialogue between Mackie and Swinburne, where Swinburne comments that any design argument must make a strong prior assumption of randomness in the absence of design. Design then may be seen to exist in a sea of chaos and front loaded theistic evolutionary ideas regarding fine-tuning laws of nature are surely a non-starter).
SF “Christianity, in particular, has a much stronger hand to play with regard to the support of science.” I agree, but that is a different question to the question of how far the design argument can be extended in support of Christian theology. Discussed more fully below.
SF “Maybe these reservations concern the idea that the Bible might be understood literally yet fallibly, as the theodicists seemed to do.” Interestingly, biblical prophecy can be treated scientifically because it is falsifiable. Prophecy makes predictions about future events, just as scientists make predictions about the outcome of experiments. In relation to prophecy, the Apostle Paul stated that it was necessary to ‘prove all things, hold fast to that which is good’ (1Thess 5:21). Interestingly, Newton also believed that biblical prophecy could be treated scientifically – I have some notes from Stephen Snobelen on this – there is a link www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk.
SF “It demands that we distinguish the divine inspiration from the inevitable noise introduced by the people originally entrusted with capturing that inspiration.” Most theologians follow this path to a greater or lesser extent. Indeed God’s word is revealed through different individuals with their own personality imprinted on the message, and the message may have been very slightly corrupted through transcription errors in subsequent centuries, but if taken too far you end up in the Germanic type of Biblical Higher Criticism that reduces the Bible to nothing and opens the door to the atheists.
SF “Nature’s design is not a sign that God wants to communicate with us. It is a message that has been already sent to us, and our job is to decode it and offer a fitting response.” This sounds a bit like a left over from the pre modern artistic version of natural theology that was seeking to decode the signs that theologians thought God had placed in nature.
SF “ -which is to say, to make the world a better place, in keeping with the divine plan.” But is this a message from nature or Scripture? Most Christian ethicists generally see an unconstrained belief in scientific progress as a bad thing because it pushes beyond boundaries that have been set by God. History is full of example of scientific mistakes because scientists abused the natural order. BSE is one example where cows were fed remains of other cows. Humans in their arrogance meddle with things when they don’t have the full picture of the design plan, such as is arguably the case with genetic engineering. A Christian’s duty is to bring God’s order to the world, through science, philosophy and theology and the exercise of judgment, not to push back the boundaries of science regardless of the ethical consequences. I know you have commented in your books on Bacon and the early Royal Society who wanted to recover the pre-Fall Edenic knowledge that Adam and Eve had, but I am suspicious that there is also a desire in this where human beings seek to access forbidden knowledge of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; that is to use science to partake in a sort of Faustian Pact. Alister McGarth writes about that in his book ‘The Re-enchantment of Nature.’ See also Lynn White’s thesis ‘The Roots of our Ecological Crisis’ where he criticises Christianity for giving science the moral authority to abuse nature. Christians must instead use and harness science as a means of managing the world in balance between human needs and the natural order – caring for creation.
SF “First of all, it helps to explain how Christianity managed to surpass Islam as a scientific culture” An interesting point – Peter Harrison’s arguments are compelling that the Protestant commitment to the literalness of Scripture enabled a literal interpretation of nature. There is also an argument about the democratisation of knowledge, a key feature of Protestant thought, especially the non-conformists who were encouraged to study the Bible for themselves. Islam was influenced by Greek thought which tended to control access to knowledge to a favoured few.
SF “Second, and perhaps more provocatively, I believe that the style of ‘scientific theology’ exemplified by theodicy helps to serve Christianity’s proselytising mission” I will refer back to the two problems identified about environmental ethics and the question of suffering and evil in nature, and I am not sure they can be adequately handled outside or apart from Scripture. These questions need to be addressed for an effective evangelism. Christianity also seeks to evangelise against a backdrop of post modernism as well as modernism. Yes – it is possible to make a case for a general value from design – an artist presumably cares about his work, and desires that others will care equally. Therefore re-establishing design will lead to general value – the deontological (rights/duties) ethics as understood by Aquinas and Aristotle, but I question have many specifics we can gain from the study of nature alone.
It seems to me that a fruitful extended theodicy might want to make a scientific case for special revelation from general revelation along the lines of Francis Schaeffer’s argument for the Bible, and also from seeing biblical prophecy as scientifically testable. It was this falsifiability that got passages into the Bible – consider Jeremiah – it wasn’t his nice words that got him included, but his accurate prophecies! The given ability for rational thought and desire for communication with the transcendent, that human beings seem to possess, rationally suggests that a designer, who had gone to so much care and thought, would then seek rational communication with his creation. If God just wanted a pet he could have stopped at a cat or dog. If man is created in the image of God then that seems an important rational point to make. Why would a designer go to so much care and thought in creating rational human beings and not seek such rational communication? In Romans 1 Paul has a framework of revelation including the design point of Romans 1:20 that the poetry of creation tells us something of the power of God, and his divine nature. But Paul also appeals to the revelation of the prophets in the same passage and the revelation of Christ and his resurrection in a general system of revelation.
Areas of science that support design include medical science that is carried out within a design paradigm. The desire to heal people suggests we view sickness as brokenness from a more perfect order, not a throw back to our ape ancestors. Also a consistent Darwinist ought not to seek treatment for cancer or genetic illnesses, but simply die for the sake of natural selection.
One of my favourite scientists was Nicolai Steno – using his skills as an anatomist and geologist, disecting a shark’s head, together with the Biblical account of the Flood, he showed that fossils were of organic origin, thus rejecting the Platonic plastic theory of fossil formation of Athanasius Kircher and many Royal Society members. The organic origin of fossils was a major success for the design argument, but in unity with Flood geology and Scripture. However, many natural theologians couldn’t handle this fact because their own design paradigm which focussed on God’s goodness apart from Scripture, couldn’t accept the possibility of extinctions.