Phil-osophically Speaking – April 15, 2011

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The Language of God

It was one of those roundabout conversations where people were just sitting around sipping cocktails and talking about such novelties as, well, the weather for instance, when an evangelical acquaintance of mine abruptly asked if I believed in “Intelligent Design.” Well, I said, ‘if you’re talking about the U.S. Congress, the answer is no.’ This invited a few chuckles but, of course, I realized this question had nothing to do with Washington politics; nor was it intended to ascertain if I believed that an elegant, sentient mechanism is at work in creating life on Earth but was, in fact, nothing less than an inquiry into whether I believed in God. 

While belief in God and Intelligent Design can be unrelated, the proponents of ID believe that it is “The Language of God,” and that it should be taught in our classrooms. When I speak of the language of God, I am not referring to the stories in the Bible, but rather the sophisticated biochemistry by which life first arose and evolved. It is the belief of Intelligent Design advocates that the wondrous complexity of life, its knotty ensemble of kaleidoscopic multifariousness, is a window into the mind of God, an insight that leads inexorably to a divine creator.

In 1802, William Paley, in his work Natural Theology, introduces a marvelous and deservingly famous metaphor that expressed itself with an exquisite, Euclidian exactitude. In short, Paley argues that a watch infers the existence of a watchmaker who comprehended its construction and designed its use. Since living organisms are more complicated than watches, in a degree that exceeds all computation, then the author of such things, concluded Paley, must be divine. In essence, Paley’s syllogism constitutes what would become Intelligent Design igniting a debate about evolution and religious faith not seen since the Scopes Trial of 1925.

I became aware of Intelligent Design some 20 years ago, after reading Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial.  Basically, ID maintains that if there is no physical hypothesis to explain what seem to be the miraculous properties of a biological entity, meaning not a direct cause of material evolution, then its life source must emanate from an omniscient designer. This sharply clashes with the central tenet of Darwin’s theory that natural selection, or survival of the fittest, is nature’s mechanism by which those organisms best suited to their environment will be the ones most likely to reproduce, disseminating their adaptive traits and eliminating less adaptive competition. From these simple beginnings, argued Darwin, the extraordinary complexity and diversity of life on this planet arose.

Unlike Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, another intellectual revolution about man’s place in the Cosmos, Darwin’s theory has not only been transformative, but it has stood the test of time. One reason for its longevity is that it fulfilled the philosopher Karl Popper’s litmus test: “The proposition that no discipline deserved to call itself scientific if it could not provide the means of its own refutation.” Freud was so certain of the superiority of his ideas, believed his theory of the human mind so airtight, that those who questioned it, including his own disciples, Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, was proof that they themselves were in need of treatment and psychological intervention. Darwin, on the other hand, approached his ideas, among the most insightful in the history of science, with far more humility. He not only believed that natural selection should be subject to peer review but he pointed out the hidden fault-lines below the bedrock of its elaborate intellectual architecture: If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely breakdown.

Some 140 years later, biochemist Michael Behre picks up Darwin’s gauntlet and seeks to refute it not through William Paley’s timepiece, but by the making of his own mental metaphor, a simple mousetrap. A mousetrap, Behre explains, consists of several interacting pieces — the base, the catch, the spring, the hammer — all of which must be in place for the mousetrap to work. Removal of any one of the pieces destroys the function of the mechanism. From this, Behre asserts that natural selection could not create irreducible complex systems because certain biological functions are too complex to have evolved from simpler or less complete predecessors, since an irreducibly complex system missing a part is non-functional. Behre then argues, quite elegantly, that natural processes such as blood clotting, the immune system and the camera-like operation of our eyes are so intricately complex that they could not have arisen because of natural selection, but were the result of “God in the gaps,” meaning that ends are teleological or predestined in nature right from the beginning, regardless of environmental considerations, and therefore were not the result of incremental steps but incorporated wholly by a supreme designer.

The flaw in this argument, however, is that it assumes that the necessary parts of a system have always been necessary and therefore could not have been added sequentially — since evolution often proceeds by altering pre-existing parts by removing them from the system rather than adding them. In other words, the “God in the gaps” is being filled by modern biology by proving that irreducible complexity is, in fact, reducible by proving these incremental stages exist. In essence, well-meaning theists, once again, have failed to understand that the unknown and the unknowable are two different things. This is what occurred in the 16th century when clerics, wounded by the trauma of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, no longer accepted with equanimity that Earth was not the center of the universe, since they now equated its geographical location with the very existence of God.    

Today we have its opposite: The Gospel of Richard Dawkins, the biologist who believes that the universe, at bottom, has no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. Tough stuff — but are the faithful to despair and lament with the poet Keats, Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy. No, because the conflation of science and religion has always been, when they become too intimate, an unhappy union. There is a place for both to live, even under the same roof, but in different rooms.  

I’m a Catholic Christian; I believe in God, but I also embrace the Enlightenment and the scientific communities who have been at the center of it; whose laborious investigations into the wonders and mysteries of life have helped, to paraphrase Francis Bacon, “relieve the estate of mankind.” I celebrate its great advances in medicine and engineering, the cures it has produced, and its ability to elevate the quality of life, and in this, both religion and science must strive for consensus, not conflict.

In terms, however, of describing the processes of the natural world, religion and science, like fire and water, are immiscible. When religion unduly interjects itself to make some higher theological point regarding the natural world, the “community of faith” is subjected to being chastised by science and its beliefs characterized as peculiarly medieval. It is why H.L. Menken, who covered the Scopes (Monkey) Trial, had nothing but contempt for evangelical pieties: Far from going to the stake for a great truth, Menken sniffed; I wouldn’t miss a meal for it.

In leveling this criticism, I am by no means ignorant about scientific smugness and I completely reject the notion that only science can speak the truth about man and the world he lives in. It is why Malcolm Muggeridge said that The Bible as fiction tells us far more about humanity than evolution does as fact. The Bible is not a scientific textbook. When the Book of Genesis speaks how God created the sun and the stars, the waters and the dry earth, the animals and all manner of life, it was not providing a blueprint or a history of creation, but a poetic argument for monotheism in a pagan, polytheistic world. Since these things, including light and darkness were created, they could not be gods and worshipped as such. Genesis triumphantly proclaimed not so much that the world was created in so many days, but that there was but one God.  

Faith, by nature, is a sixth sense; it is not something we directly perceive but somehow know. Faith, after all, could not exist in the face of absolute proof. There resides, in the human heart, the need to know, to understand, to feel certain.  We want to know God not only from the intangible inside, but from the visible and tangible outside where we could perceive natural phenomena as something theologically suggestive. I’m sympathetic to these yearnings, having felt them myself. For most of us, living in such a troubled world, there will always be a sliver of uncertainty about God’s existence, but we must not be troubled by our doubts. As the theologian Paul Tillich said, doubt is not something apart from faith, it’s an element of it.

But the more I live, the more I know that while the physical world is the handiwork of God, it is not the language of God. The language of God is in the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, in doing unto others as you would have done unto yourself, in ministering to the least of your brothers, being last instead of first, loving your neighbor as yourself, it is present in those who have not seen but believe, in the deeds of the Good Samaritan and the blood of the martyrs, it is found in forgiving those who trespassed against us and in the father welcoming home the prodigal son.

 

 

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