I will be opening the 2009 series of lectures on ‘Darwin Reconsidered’ at the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture on Tuesday, 20th January, at 5 pm. My topic is ‘Darwin’s Original Sin: The Rejection of Theology’s Claims to Knowledge’. You can find out more about the series here. The talk will deal with the issues of theodicy that I have been raising in this blog.
In this instalment, I try to make the connection between theodicy and ID tighter, not only to provide some deeper intellectual grounding but also to make quite plain why even religious people have not been rushing to support ID.
Here is a dialogue between a theodicist and a sceptic, 18th century style. We might today replace T with ‘ID theorist’ and S with ‘Darwinist’, at least if they’re speaking frankly.
T: I see design in nature
S: Oh yeah? How do you know that it’s not an illusion?
T: Well, because I’ve been designed to detect design and, more importantly, to design things myself. And nature looks like the sort of thing I could have designed if I were super-smart. Indeed, if I thought nature had no design, or was designed by an intelligence radically different in kind from my own, I wouldn’t bother to do science at all.
S: But unfortunately, things aren’t so well-designed, if you look closely. (And presumably that’s one of the things you’re doing, when you do science.) They could have been better designed, so maybe you’re just imagining the design after all – making the best of a bad situation through some psychological tricks you’re playing on yourself. This in turn would suggest that you’re not so well-designed either.
T: Hey, but who says that a well-designed world has to be well-designed in all its parts? It may be that the best possible world would be full of suboptimal parts that nevertheless, when put together, function better than any other possible combination would.
S: Oh, and I suppose you believe that this is such a world?
T: I do – though this is not to say that we have quite figured out how all of nature fits together to constitute an intelligible whole. But then who says science has completed its inquiries? And even if you’re right that the world’s design could be better realized, could we not be the beings exactly created to get the job done?
In this dialogue, I am drawing attention to two crucial features of theodicy that are relevant to ID:
(1) Evidence for the intelligence behind nature’s intelligent design can be inferred from the nature of our own creative intelligence, which means examining how our own minds work.
(2) There is no reason to think that if nature is intelligently designed, the design has been already fully realized – it may still be for us to discover and/or complete nature’s intelligent design.
Now, these two ideas take on increasingly radical – and secular – implications as the 18th century progresses, basically morphing into the doctrines we associate with the Enlightenment, which assert a strong sense of humanity’s entitlement to bring reason to nature. And while there is no doubt that the Enlightenment was no friend of the clergy, its attitude towards God and the Bible was much more nuanced.
A good way to see this point is to look at how Newton ‘inspired’ the Industrial Revolution. Newton was preoccupied with theology throughout his career but minimized its presence in his scientific writings, largely for the same reasons ID advocates do today (i.e. fear of religious persecution). However, people managed to read between the lines and acted accordingly.
And what did they do? They did not simply bask in Newton’s afterglow, worshipping the intelligent design of nature. (Isn’t this what anti-ID people worry about, if ID were taught in science classes: People would put down their test tubes and spend all their time in church?) No, they realized that Newton had shown that indeed the Bible was right — that we are created in the image and likeness of God and thus we are entitled to proceed with the completion of the divine plan through a radical transformation of nature.
How did Newton do this? By proposing specific laws of nature that actually explained and predicted most of the physical world that interested people at that time. The very power of that formulation demonstrated – at least to the people behind the Industrial Revolution – that the divine mind exceeds the human mind only by degree, not kind. In other words, we may not be able to create an entire universe, but we may be able to create a ‘Heaven on Earth’, if we try hard enough. Both are done in largely the same way, which is why it’s possible to ‘apply’ science to ameliorate the human condition. It is easy to overlook the significance of this last idea, since we take it so much for granted today.
Let me end this instalment with a brief list of sources, in case some of you find what I’m saying completely bizarre.
* I recommend Dissent over Descent, about 40% of which is focused on these matters (though you would never guess from the reviews!).
* Michael Behe and Ken Miller have been repeating many of the original 17th century moves of the theodicy debate here. (scroll down to October 2007).
* Nicole Malebranche, Descartes’ ablest 17th century follower, anticipates Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity in a discussion of the constitution of the heart. It is part of one of the original statements of what biologists call ‘preformationism’, i.e. the idea that at least certain units of life are created ready-made. Here is the passage, taken from a recent (and excellent) book on Malebranche’s subtle but relevant arguments.
* Malebranche is also of relevance for his concept of ‘vision in God’, which imply that divine and human minds do indeed overlap. And by the way ‘overlap’ is not a clever word for ‘analogy’ but intended in its usual meaning: i.e. ‘partial identity’. (A nod to the (closet?) theistic evolutionist shadowing me.)