What should Christians think of Intelligent Design?

From The Presbyterian Banner, October 2005

Following on positive comments by President Bush, The Melbourne Age reported on 11th August:

“The controversial theory of ‘intelligent design’ has won the qualified backing of Education Minister Brendan Nelson, who says it should be taught in schools alongside evolution if that is the wish of parents. Intelligent design, which is damned by critics as a front for biblical Creationism, argues that life on Earth is too complex to have evolved purely through Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

ID proponents argue that biochemistry, physics and other scientific disciplines reveal such an intricacy and complexity of design that we must infer a designer, although the Designer is not identified as such since, say they, that would be to go beyond science to religion. If you are a Christian (like Phillip Johnston author of Darwin on Trial etc.) you think of the Designer as the Christian God, or if an adherent of the Unification Church of Dr Moon (like Jonathan Wells) or a Muslim (like Mustafa Akyol) then you think of God as understood by those faiths.

There has been some debate in the media on the subject and there is a current legal case in Dover County, Pennsylvania that is being described as like the Scopes’ trial in Tennessee in 1925. Even the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, who is close to the Pope, has questioned recently whether random variations and natural selection are compatible with Roman Catholic belief. [Rome teaches, as do most Reformed writers, that the individual soul is directly created by God and that all humans are descended from Adam and inherit original sin through him. However, in 1950 Pius XII stated:

“The Church does not forbid that…research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.”

The biological evolution of the human body is widely held in RC circles.]

The argument from design

ID is really a modern application of the argument for a Designer from the complexity of life. William Paley, following a long line of similar apologists, famously argued in 1802 in his Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, that a watch infers a watchmaker.

“. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker — that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.”

Living organisms, Paley argued, are even more complicated than watches, “in a degree which exceeds all computation.” Only an intelligent Designer could have created them, just as only an intelligent watchmaker can make a watch.

Charles Darwin found Paley’s argument very compelling but later abandoned it because he could not reconcile it with a beneficent Creator:

“There seems to me too much misery in the world, I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larvae] feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” (Letter to Rev Asa Gray, May 22, 1860)

So Darwin considered life was an undirected process. Natural selection was the key mechanism, and produced the vast number of species. If he still paid lip-service to God it was to a God who was not Creator in any real sense. Writing to Asa Gray in July 1860 Darwin said:

“. . . do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed.”

Criticism of Darwin

First, Darwin assumes what God is like, the kind of world that God should create and how God relates to it, and these religious beliefs affect his science. In early Victorian years, with the legacy of Deism, God was still thought of as a pleasant Deity somewhat distanced from the world and its evils, with natural law rather than God receiving prominence in understanding providence. Darwin gave no weight to God’s sovereignty nor his holiness and justice. He took no account of sin. Instead, he emphasised the sufficiency of natural law/survival of the fittest to explain the seemingly wasteful and cruel aspects of life, and dispensed with God altogether in the light of his difficulty in reconciling the struggle for survival evident in the world with belief in a beneficent God.

Darwin reminds me of two Jewish businessmen for whom I worked some good few years ago. They had both been through the Nazi concentration camps. One emerged unbelieving because he could not reconcile belief in God with the suffering he saw. Not so with the other. After all, science does not answer such questions; they are value matters that depend on faith. We remember the saying: ‘Two men looked out of the prison bars; one saw the mud the other the stars.’ Or as Pascal said, ‘The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.’

Second, Darwin’s methodology of naturalism, that is, seeking explanation in terms of observable phenomena is one thing; his philosophical naturalism is another. The former is the general principle of scientific investigation since it is only the observable and testable that we can investigate; the latter goes beyond the limits of science to a religious commitment. Darwin’s rejection of design is not scientific per se, and only sounds so if one shares his philosophical or religious commitment. Hence many Reformed thinkers, including Charles and A.A. Hodge and B.B.Warfield have been prepared to consider some form of evolution as a possible method of the Divine procedure, but (note well) they insist on God as the Designer and Director of the process at every point.

Caution on ID

ID advocates score some sound points in exposing the philosophical naturalism of some scientists. However, can a Christian really be satisfied to speak of science as demonstrating a Designer? Scripture states that the heavens declare the glory of God, not that the complexities of biochemistry and the fine-tuned universe suggested by physics now show us that there is a Designer. There is a difference. Everyone (not just the physicists, bio-chemists, and molecular biologists) has adequate evidence of God’s eternal power and divine nature, but this knowledge is not used aright because of our unbelief. Further, if we focus simply on apparently irreducible complexity as proof of God, is it not true that one day’s irreducible complexity is the next’s well understood phenomena? Are we not in danger of a God-of-the-gaps mentality, invoking God when we can’t explain something and then, when we can explain it, finding no need of God at that point?

ID sounds a bit like dressed-up Deism in its approach, or like Free Masonry with its Great Architect of the Universe. ID can be helpful. Lifelong atheist philosopher and advocate of atheism Anthony Flew was impressed by ID as providing a new and more powerful case for design and in 2004 announced he was now a theist (though not a Christian). But is it scientific to infer a Designer, or is it not rather that the Designer should be presupposed as the source of wisdom, order, law, complexity, purpose? If we don’t presuppose him we are worshipping an idol.

The living God is – and he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He doesn’t need to be proved, and Scripture never seeks to do that. The traditional proofs of God, including the proof from design, have a certain value as illustrative of the reasonableness of our position, but have their limits, as the case of Flew reminds us. We do not find God at the end of a logical argument, through the impact of seemingly irreducibly complex systems, or even by observing a miracle (as many did in NT times but did not believe), but through faith in Jesus Christ, the express image of the invisible God. ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God.’ (Hebrews 11:3) This faith is God’s gift. Why can’t we be upfront about it?

Science teaching in schools

Humans can only conduct scientific endeavours using a methodology of observing natural things. We cannot have recourse to supernatural explanations for things we don’t understand, and still be within the limits of science. (Indeed, the keen insight of man cannot penetrate to God; only the Spirit of God can illumine our minds.) Of course science in the sense stated is not the only truth, or the total truth, and the misconception that it is needs to be forcefully challenged. A Christian will want to do his science recognising that the tools he uses cannot discover everything relevant, and also that all science is in a sense provisional and not ultimate. The Christian scientist will see what he discovers as further illustration of the greatness of God who upholds and directs all things, whether the seemingly simple or the startlingly complex. Johann Kepler put it this way:

“I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have given me this joy in your creation, and I rejoice in the works of your hands. See I have now completed the work to which I was called. In it I have used the talents you have lent to my spirit. I have revealed the majesty of your works to those who will read my words, insofar as my narrow understanding can comprehend their infinite richness.”

Of course the materialistic scientist will regard the material as the only reality, and he will claim chance and necessity are sufficient to explain everything, but when he does so he is not speaking scientifically but religiously.

So should ID be taught in our government schools? Well, given the excesses of evolution proponents one might say it will be a useful corrective if it is. Still, it might be better if the general conclusions thus far come to by the scientific community are taught carefully and moderately, and with due tentativeness where appropriate. As Calvin put it:

“But if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.” (Institutes 2.2.16)

Such teaching must be shorn of philosophical naturalism and explicitly acknowledge that inferences as to the existence or non-existence of a Designer are religious positions. They are to be dealt with on their own merits but not treated as issues in the legitimate sphere of scientific investigation. And it needs to be stressed that the scientific method, while appropriate in its own sphere, is not the only valid route to truth. A comprehensive approach requires other matters to be considered.

A fully examinable high school subject covering the use and impact of the Bible in human civilisation and of the nature of different worldviews could be valuable in our schools. It would complement scientific studies and further a more informed and balanced approach to the issues of science and religion than generally exists at present.

Ordained in 1976, Dr Ward has ministered in the PCEA Melbourne since 1981.